Interview with E.O. Wilson
Edward Osborne Wilson, born in June 1929, is a US-American biologist, theorist, researcher, and distinguished expert on ant research. He popularized the terms “sociobiology,” “evolutionary biology”, and “biodiversity.” He is known for his work on island biogeography and won two Pulitzer Prizes. In this interview, we talk about his early career and research, three exciting moments in his life, and why you should be happy to have ants in your kitchen.
An Interview compiled by Patrick Krapf
MNB: Dear Professor Wilson, thank you so much for giving us an interview.
EOW: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for calling me.
MNB: Could you tell us just a little bit about yourself?
EOW: Sure. I began studying ants when I was 16 years old. I was just going into my last year of high school, which is the year before college, so the final year of public school. At this time, I was so interested in natural history, and I wanted to be an entomologist because I was particularly interested in butterflies and other insects. I decided to work with a group of insects with which I could become familiar, so that when I got to college, I would have a subject especially interesting for me to study. I had very little understanding of how universities in America worked. I knew that there were many courses and you had to take many subjects and so on. Anyway, that was when I decided that I would work on ants. I thought about several other kinds of insects, but during this last summer in the city of Decatur, Alabama, I saw a line of ants running in the backyard, and they were army ants. And even though this is in the Southern United States, we have many army ants, very small ones of the genus Neivamyrmex. I followed the column, which was running in our yard, over our fence, into the neighbouring yard. It continued on, and I kept walking behind it, followed it, and it went to a street, and it crossed the street and went on into some woodland. Later, I understood this was a colony of Neivamyrmex nigrescens. What I was witnessing was a colony migrating. When I came to the end of the migratory route, I saw the last of the ants running, and I saw insects running with the ants. They were at the end of the migration. They included small beetles, silverfish, and several other kinds of insects running with the ants. It was at this moment when I decided that ants were the group of insects I would like to study. I was still very young, though. So I was spending money on papers, and I bought a copy of Wheeler’s “Ants” for 10 dollars, which I almost memorized as it was so interesting. By the time I went to the University of Alabama, one year later, I had memorized most of the book, and I was carefully studying ants. I found colonies of Neivamyrmex, and I collected them. I even had a professor who let me set up artificial nests in the laboratory at the university campus. I was able to watch the army ants march from one part of the laboratory to the other in the glass nests that I had made. At that time, I observed very small beetles (Limulodidae) on the backs of the ants that I had collected near the university. And now I was watching them in the ant nests in the laboratory. I was able to make some of my first scientific observations on these tiny beetles. I observed how they lived, how they jumped from one ant to another – they are much smaller than the ants – and they have little stiff legs, and they run back and forth very fast across the ants. They lick the oily liquid of the body of the ants; that is how they live. So I was able to begin my studies like that. I believe that is a good way to start studying any kind of insect, but I was very fortunate in having had such an opportunity. I don’t believe that you have army ants in Innsbruck, and for that, I am very sorry (laughing). After this, I never went back and just found everything about ants interesting.
MNB: I think so, too; ants are extremely fascinating.
EOW: Yes. May I ask where you come from?
MNB: Sure. I am from Italy, near the border to Austria.
EOW: Oh, very good. There are some wonderful places I know in northern Italy where probably some other kinds of ants are living which have not been found. Maybe some species which are still unknown there. Do you believe that?
MNB: Personally, I believe so, yes.
EOW: Oh yes, at least some social parasites.
MNB: Maybe also some cryptic species.
EOW: Yes, right. You can be grateful for that.
MNB: True. There is much to do.
MNB: And how did you proceed with your work after these first observations?
EOW: Later, I chose a different subject for my studies: Lasius. It was a very difficult genus to work on, Lasius, because I could not get much material from Europe and elsewhere. And there were very few specimens from Asia. I kept working and summed up in my thesis everything known about Lasius. Later of course – speaking of cryptic species – we have been finding quite a few cryptic species with Lasius. There must be a great many more in Asia. One of the specimens I have came from the dining table of Stalin in the Kremlin.
MNB: Oh, and how did you get those?
EOW: I had a friend, a professor at Harvard, and he liked to collect ants in the strongest liquid – you know, Scotch, Vodka, and so on – from the countries he was visiting. And he happened to be in a group of visiting Americans right at the end of World War II, and they were the guests of Stalin in the Kremlin. At dinner, he saw several ants crawling on the table, which he collected in Vodka. And when he was back at Harvard, I talked to him and said: “I have no ants at all of Lasius from Russia, may I see your ants?” You see, how bad it was at the time to get some material to do my thesis. But I was able to complete the thesis. By this time, I was working on many aspects of ant biology.
MNB: Oh, wow. Were there any other big obstacles you had to overcome in your research?
EOW: Uhh, that is a very good question. One strategy in research is to find one way to overcome an obstacle to study the organisms you are interested in. So find a way to overcome the obstacle, and then select the obstacle. This is how I began studies on pheromones of ants. I knew where the glands were in the body of the ants. And I knew that I could probably myself dissect out the glands of ants if I worked with very fine instruments. So that was only one obstacle when I came to it. Before I started with my research, it was only possible to study small amounts of organic substances. But then, at the same time, there were major events occurring in chemistry like the combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. Then, due to GC-MS, it was possible to identify microgram amounts of substances, and in some cases, we could only get probably micrograms of material from ants. This started a whole revolution in organic chemistry. I saw this as a great opportunity for ant biology.
MNB: What were there most funny or exciting moments during your research? Could you share one or two stories?
EOW: Yes, I’d be happy to do that, because these are best to remember.
So, let me start with moment number one. When I was taking glands out of fire ants, I was working with very fine forceps, Dumont Nr. 5, fine, fine instruments (laughing). Needle-like and sharpened up with which I could even dissect fire ants and take out their glands. I decided that this is a way to study pheromones. You get the material which you can bioassay, and then you get a chemist who helps you identify the pheromone. And that was what I did. I started with glands from all over the body that I knew about of fire ants. I started working on the fire ant’s trail. What was the trail fire ants were following, I asked, where did it come from, which glands are important? So I was taking glands from the fire ants and tried to make artificial trails for them. Just one gland – one trail. I tried to lead the fire ants out of the nest into the laboratory to the trail. And I failed and failed and failed, but then I came to one tiny organ, the Dufour’s gland. Nobody knew what that was for, but then I worked that gland loose under the microscope and used the Dufour’s gland for my artificial trail, and a large part of the fire ant colony that I had in the laboratory came out. I mean it was as though you had announced the end of World War II or something. They just poured out and milled around in excitement. I realized that there was far more to this gland than just a trail substance. That was the start of work choosing dissected glands and chemically separating them to do bioassays and to start to understand the pheromones as a whole. That was exciting moment number one.
Exciting moment number two: In 1954, I got money from Harvard to travel to Asia and to Australia. I decided to go to Australia at the start to find more out about the ant genus Nothomyrmecia. Nothomyrmecia was known from two specimens collected in the early 1930s from a desert area in Southwest Australia. It is primitively built, with very elementary body parts. It was important to find it and to study its social behavior. So I got several other people to come with me, and we had a little expedition to search for Nothomyrmecia. We went to a very remote uninhabited area where the two specimens had been collected. And we failed. Okay, no great moment there.
Then I had one other chance in doing something comparable. There was a genus of ants, Aneuretus, which was extant in the late Mesozoic and early Cenozoic. They lived up to 60 million years ago, going back into the Cretaceous. The aneuretines were very diverse and some of them quite large. It was important to find the last of the survivors. We knew that it had survived in one species, Aneuretus simoni. Two specimens had been found in a garden in Sri Lanka. So off I went to Sri Lanka. I visited the Peradeniya Gardens and the nearby Royal Gardens of Kandy, in the middle of Sri Lanka (called Ceylon then) hoping to find Aneuretus in the woodland there. The first two specimens had just been collected casually. So I searched and searched, and I could not find it, either in the Peradeniya Gardens or anywhere else I went. So I gave up that part of Sri Lanka and decided to go somewhere else. I knew if I went down to Ratnapura to the south, I would be close to the rainforest, and I thought, maybe I could find them in the rainforest. So I got on a bus and went south from Kandy to Ratnapura, which has some rainforest nearby. I got out off the bus and walked into the tourist facility there, a little hotel. The hotel was surrounded by a bunch of trees. So I decided to walk out to those trees and see what there is. I walked up to a bush which had hollow twigs. And you of course know that hollow twigs are one of the best places to find ants. So I reached over to a branch and broke off a dead twig. And out poured Aneuretus! I had struck gold (for a myrmecologist). They were all over my hands and arms, biting me, spraying Aneuretus poison, whatever that was; I couldn’t care less, because I had found Aneuretus! Within a week, I had collected many more colonies, and I did the first study of that living species. I discovered, for example, that Aneuretus has a soldier caste plus minor workers, similar to Pheidole. But I discovered many more things in the following days with a whole colony of Aneuretus running over my hands and arms. That was great moment number two.
Great moment number three: For years and years, myrmecologists had wondered what the earliest ants looked liked. We needed to know the probable ancestors of the ants. Surely they must be from the dawn of the Cenozoic – the Eocene, maybe even early Paleocene. We had lots of ant specimens in amber, but they were quite advanced in their development. But we had not seen many primitive ants. We all wondered how it was back in the Mesozoic – by we, I mean William L. Brown at Harvard and me, mainly. Eventually someday, we were sure that we would find an amber specimen. The years passed. Then one day, in the 1960s, I think, I got word from an older professor who was a specialist of fossil insects. He said: “I just received a letter from two amber collectors in New Jersey, who were out looking through material in amber-bearing strata.” I didn’t know one existed there in New Jersey until then, but it is rich in fossils and goes back about 90 million years. This older couple were retired folks living in New Jersey who made a hobby of collecting amber. He had electrifying news: “They have found a piece of amber with two ants in it. Would you like to see it? It’s 90 million years old – Cretaceous.” I said: “It is like asking, ‘Would I like to go to heaven?’ In other words, Yes, I would like to see them.” They arrived, and there before me was the piece of amber with the specimens. I reached down, pulled out the fossil. I was understandably nervous, and my hands were shaking. I dropped the piece, which fell to the floor, and it broke into two pieces. I was thinking I’ve committed some kind of scientific crime. So I took up the two pieces, shaking, and discovered that fortunately, one ant was in one piece and the second ant in the second piece. We polished them and I was able to study every little detail of those two ants even better than if they were still together. At last, I was able to diagnose something about very early ants. That was exciting moment number three.
MNB: How about recently? Have you been researching ants?
EOW: Very recently, I went to the Gulf Coast in Alabama. I work with partners to set up a National park there. We are making a case to the government to set up a park. I made a trip there, and it was a great pleasure. And I said, while I am there, I want to make something useful. I want to make an important discovery about ants. Because that’s what I do. I make discoveries about ants. Now I’m 89, and still ask what can I do that could make an important discovery? What I decided to do this time was to study arboreal ants. There are lots of arboreal ants in the Gulf Coast floodplain. There is not in fact much else, because the flood always has high water from two big rivers coming down. But there are apparently a lot of ants in the bushes and in the low overhanging branches. This is what I did just a few months ago during a survey, of what will be a future park soon; at least I hope there will be a park. We were several biologists there on that day, breaking open hundreds of twigs hanging low over the water. And we found that the bushes and trees hold many ants. It was very exciting to see this quite large biomass of ants. Many, many individuals and species. Nothing extraordinary, I admit, but it was extraordinary to find such a rich ant fauna confined to the arboreal habitat just waiting to be studied. There were so many other interesting aspects. We were able to push a bit into dense stands of bamboo and grass. You can’t penetrate these thickets except for a few places, where the bush is less thick. I soon discovered that a large fraction of the stems were occupied by ant colonies. Although I did not have the chance to study this remarkable fauna, I could tell that it consisted of at least as many as 10 or 20 species, if you include the rare ones, living in the hollows of bamboo stems. They have to go from one hollow stem to another; they also have to come down to the flowers and bushes to feed and hunt insect prey. So, in these places, arborescent vegetation is the only place where ants can forage productively. Among all insects, the arboreal ants are the dominant insects in this area. All this needs to be studied! Anyway, if you are in the US and you make it to the Gulf Coast, you might want to check it out yourself. Anything else you would like to know?
MNB: Maybe a few more questions if you have time?
EOW: No, that is all right, I enjoy listening and talking. And you are working on ants and are interested yourself, so you know what I am talking about. So go ahead.
MNB: What do you enjoy most about ant research?
EOW: Everything I just said (laughing). I enjoyed very much spending time in the laboratory and doing experiments but most of all finding new kinds of ants. The way I did when I started with that little army ant colony I told you about. I wanted always to repeat that experience with whatever I did in the world. I worked in the Amazonas, in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, in New Jersey, in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, for example. I visited also places which have almost never been searched for ants. Just discovering ants and finding out the first things about them. For me, this is the most exciting part about myrmecology, and it is still so wide open. I always hoped at least, that I could go to very remote places, and I did. Actually, I sent a couple of students to the Juan Fernández Islands, which are similar to the Galapagos. I know, nobody collected ants there; I asked myself: These remote islands, do they have ants? The islands have never been in contact with the mainland, and they are completely oceanic islands. Will there be ants on these islands? On this expedition, I couldn’t go myself. They looked throughout the islands, and I can tell you now there are not many ants. In January of 2019, I am sending an expedition to the Falkland Islands. These islands are in a cool, temperature zone, and to my knowledge, nobody has gone there to see if there are ants. If I could, I would go myself. But you see, as a substitute that is what I enjoy most.
MNB: Was there a special person who inspired you to pursue a career in myrmecology?
EOW: William L. Brown. I don’t know if you know my book on the New World ants of the genus Pheidole, on which I covered all the known species. At the beginning, I never thought that huge genus could be mastered. But I have; at the beginning, it was actually terrifying. Many people thought it was not possible, but William Brown encouraged me. He was one of my mentors, and he was a great person. Bill worked with dacetine ants a lot. He wrote me when I was just a very young fellow at the University of Alabama. He encouraged me to study dacetine ants. He was probably responsible for bringing me to Harvard, where I have stayed ever since. Bill Brown, a fanatic myrmecologist, you can use those words (laughing). He was marvelous and he inspired me to do everything I could and find out everything I know about ants.
MNB: If you had not become a myrmecologist, what else would you have liked to become?
EOW: Oh, I probably would have studied another group of insects. There is a group of flies I became interested in: Dolichopodidae is the family, and the flies are called the long-legged flies, which are beautiful and extremely interesting to watch. The males are territorial and display to each other. I don’t know if you have heard about them. I became fascinated with them before I started working on ants, and I thought that I could actually build a career studying dolichopodid flies. But it was ants.
MNB: What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about ants?
EOW: I think I’ll give you a humorous answer on that.
MNB: I would love that.
EOW: So the question was what I wanted that everyone knew about ants? That they are wonderful to have in your kitchen (laughing). If you have a colony in your kitchen coming in from the outside, put down something for them to eat and watch their social behavior. You will be treated to see something so different from the advanced society of the humans that you believe that they came from another planet.
MNB: I would like to thank you again for this interview, Professor Wilson. It was amazing to talk to you.
EOW: I thank you for reaching out to me, and that we could talk about ants. I wish you all success in your work. You have a tremendous subject to go into where there are all kinds of interesting things for me or for you to do original research. I hope that you stay with it and wish you all the best.
Very nice to hear Dr Wilson´s stories!