Abstract

Sandstone pillars in the Lower Jurassic eolian strata of the Clarens Formation are concentrated in clusters, with up to four pillars within 25 m2 in two localities in the Tuli Basin of northern South Africa and southern Zimbabwe. The pillars are generally vertical, have a preserved height of up to 3.3 m, and are elliptical in plan view. Pillars are grouped into two styles of architecture: those with oriented elliptical shapes and side buttresses, and those less well oriented with a smooth outer wall, internal open spaces, and vertical shafts cutting the pillar. The long axes of the elliptical pillars are generally oriented to the north. Northwards-oriented side buttresses also are associated with some of the pillars. The internal architecture of the pillars is characterized by intense bioturbation with two different burrowing styles. Type 1 burrows are composed of a network of randomly oriented, anastomosing sandstone-filled tubes, 0.3 to 0.8 cm in diameter. Type 2 burrows are rare, north-south oriented, and have a smaller diameter. Other associated features are back-filled tubes, open, vertical shafts, and open spaces between the interior and exterior of the pillars.

The pillars are interpreted as fossilized termite nests. Type 1 burrows are interpreted as termite passageways within the nest. Type 2 burrows may be related to invading ants. Back-filled burrows may be a result of either beetle predation on resident termites or backfilling by termites themselves. The strong north-south orientations are comparable with modern-day nest architecture of magnetic termites in northern Australia, where nest-orientation is related to cooling. The orientations and features reported here are interpreted to be modified for the high latitudes proposed for the Lower Jurassic Clarens desert. Complex nest architecture preserved in the Clarens Formation suggests that advanced eusocial behavior and ability to construct large nests had appeared in African termites by the Early Jurassic.

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