A little something about Ants - Ants through the Ages

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A little something about Ants - Ants through the Ages




by Spencer Lenfield  July-August 2011
An Atta sexdens forager shears off a fragment.Photograph by Bert Hölldobler


TWO AND A HALF CENTURIES AGO, a young Spanish doctor named José Celestino Mutis arrived in present-day Colombia and promptly began writing hundreds of pages of groundbreaking observations about ants. He sent them in book form to the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, but the volume was lost at sea. “This remarkable man, working entirely on his own, was a real pioneering scientist,” says renowned biologist and ant scholar E.O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor emeritus and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “There was nothing for him to read on ants. He learned everything by himself from scratch.” Now Wilson, collaborating with Spanish myrmecologist José Gómez Durán, has reconstructed Mutis’s field work from rediscovered diaries and papers. In their new book, Kingdom of Ants: José Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World (Johns Hopkins), the modern scholars “essentially write Mutis’s book for him”—restoring a long-lost chapter to the annals of the history of science.

The science that, in effect, began with Mutis was unable to benefit from his lost work, and only “began seriously in the mid nineteenth century with an author named Auguste Morel, a scientist from Switzerland,” Wilson explains. “Studies really began their modern phase in the United States under the leadership of William Morton Wheeler, who was a professor at Harvard.” Wheeler’s work strongly influenced the teenage Wilson, who recalls, “When I was 16 and decided I wanted to become a myrmecologist, I memorized his book.”

The two books were conceived independently, but felicitously have ended up bookending a 250-year tradition within myrmecology: Mutis was the first person to record extensive observations of the leafcutter ants. “They excavate the soil, while eating all the green vegetation in the sown lands, and [carrying away the vegetation] with intelligence and speed,” he wrote in his diary sometime within five years of 1770. Wilson and Durán present the material from his notebooks on ants in English for the first time, framing it within modern research on the same organisms and behaviors that Mutis puzzled over in an age when Spain still ruled much of South America. “It’s rather extraordinary,” Wilson points out, “to be able to bracket the beginning of the study of one of the most important insects in the world some 250 years ago and then present the latest that we know about them, which is a great deal.”

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