The `Ant Man' of Harvard
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — EDWARD O. WILSON shares his office with about 100,000 workers. But he doesn't mind at all - they're ants. ``They're the little things running the world,'' says Dr. Wilson, a world-leading authority on ants. ``They're at our feet; we don't appreciate what they're doing, but we need them.''
Here at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, Wilson talks about his lifetime work over a lemonade on a hot, humid day. Open Tupperware-like containers filled with busy ant colonies - an anteater's smorgasbord - line his office as unobtrusively as the many books stacked along the walls. (The boxes are lined with a substance too slippery for the ants to climb.)
Ants turn more soil than earthworms, Wilson notes. They are critical mixers of organic material into the soil - particularly in warmer climates. Along with termites, ants play a key role in creating soil and keeping it fertile. They are also major scavengers - and a major presence: Ants and termites account for up to a third of the total land animal biomass in most habitats worldwide.
For Wilson, such knowledge is not just for textbooks and scholarly pleasure. The more we know about ants and other small creatures, he says, the better we can understand, protect, and manage the world environment.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist has researched ant society, communication (through chemicals called pheromones), evolution, and ecology. As Harvard's curator of entomology since 1973, he has an extensive knowledge of insect classification and species.
Today Wilson is devoting more and more of his time to the ``biodiversity crisis'' - the rapid extinction of species. It was in the '50s while researching in the South Pacific that he became aware of the effects of habitat destruction on the diversity of ant species as well as other animal and plant species.
``The loss of species that is now occurring is going to be greater than any that has occurred in history for the last 65 million years - since the age of dinosaurs,'' he says. The difference is that this modern episode of destruction is manmade - and man-preventable.
In the 1960s, Wilson and Robert MacArthur of Princeton University developed the theory of ``island biogeography,'' which further melded Wilson's world of ants with the world at large. The theory mathematically illustrates that the destruction of habitat inevitably leads to species extinction. It has become the foundation for much subsequent research.
``When you decrease the area of a habitat 90 percent - that is, you reduce it to one-tenth of its original size,'' Wilson says, ``in general, you reduce the number of species that can live there by a half.'' In Central and South America, for example, when wildlife reserves are 10 square miles or smaller, up to 20 percent of the bird species living there become extinct within 50 years, he says.
In biology lingo, ``hot spots'' are places that have many unique species but are also highly endangered because of habitat destruction, says Wilson, a member of the board of directors for the World Wildlife fund. He cites Madagascar, the Brazilian Atlantic Forest around Rio de Janeiro, New Caledonia, rain forests in Queensland (Australia), and the Great Lakes of Africa.
Wilson earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of Alabama. After starting a PhD in entomology at the University of Tennessee, a friend urged him to transfer to Harvard University, which had - and still has - the largest collection of ants in the world. He did, and was granted years of unrestricted study anywhere in the world.
By age 26 he had earned a PhD and was an assistant professor of biology at Harvard.
When asked what his greatest accomplishments have been, the mild-mannered scientist, a self-proclaimed workaholic, pauses for a moment, then begins to ravel his work into major areas.
His first major breakthrough was the discovery in detail of the means by which ants communicate. What Wilson found was that most of an ant's 10-20 communication signals are chemicals, substances called pheromones that indicate such things as food or danger. There's even a pheromone by which ants identify their own dead.
Next was the theory of island biogeography which - as mentioned before - has been highly valuable in connection with conservation and preservation of species.
Another area Wilson explored was sociobiology - the study of social behavior in terms of biology. From his intense study of social insects such as ants, Wilson expanded his research, contending that some social behavior in animals, including humans, is biologically and genetically defined. The controversial theory has gained widespread recognition. His book ``On Human Nature'' (1978), exploring the influence of genetic patterns on human behavior, won him a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
Wilson, now working on his twelfth book, says ants are his first and ultimate pursuit in life. The myrmecologist's (scientist who specializes in ants) attachment to the natural world is no doubt responsible for his conservation advocacy. ``I care as a specialist - and talking only about ants, I care very much that this 100 million-year-old marvel is saved ... it's vital to the environment,'' he says.
About 8,800 different kinds of ants are recognized worldwide, says Wilson, ``but I would guess that there are at least three times that many in existence.'' Every time he goes to Central America or Brazil he discovers new species.
NOT surprisingly, Wilson's interest in ants started at a young age. ``Most kids have a collecting phase. ... I just never grew out of it,'' he says, ``and to my delight, I discovered that I could make a living at it.''
As the only child in a family that moved around a lot (he attended 16 different schools from first to twelfth grade), he often ventured into nearby fields and woods in the South.
``I also had exposure to natural history of a different kind when I lived in Washington, D.C., as a young boy - 9 and 10 years old - where I almost lived in my spare time in the National Zoo and in the Smithsonian Institution - the National Museum of Natural History,'' Wilson remembers. Thus, it was the combination of the exposure to national institutions and the opportunities to roam around subtropical conditions in Florida and Alabama that opened the world of natural science to him.
``We have only begun to explore the life of this planet,'' says Wilson. ``Worldwide, we have only discovered and put scientific names on a minute fraction of the species that exist.''
More specialists are needed, he continues, adding that there are only about 1,500 people in the world today who are able to classify tropical organisms.
``I would recommend to young people considering a career in science that they look very seriously at ecology and zoology and botany and the possibility of specialization on some group of organisms ... aside from the most intensely studied like mammals and birds,'' he says.
``The world is going to need a great deal more expertise and devoted scientists and advisors in environmental issues. There are a lot of career opportunities and a great need. It's also a field in which you know you can do a great deal of good.''