Hey Read This… A Study of Ants in the New World

Posted on October 24, 2011

Kingdom of Ants by E. O. Wilson

I promise you, I’m only going to review one ant book a year. But this one is a doozy. Let’s take a trip back into the 1770′s (Darwin was born in 1809), it’s the heat of the Enlightenment and Carl Linneus is sending his ‘apostles’ all over the world to start putting flora and fauna into his newly developed system of taxonomy (still used today). Jose Mutis was one of these apostles, sent to the new kingdom of Grenada. His newly translated notes, presented to us in ‘Kingdom of Ants’ give us the first insight into the study of Natural History in the New World.

Let me give you a little more context. Mutis was a botanist and it turns out there’s not a lot of intellectual stimulation in the jungles of what is now Columbia. He built the first astronomy in the Western Hemisphere, became a polymath and lectured on just about every natural science. But, Carl Linneus wanted an ant taxonomy and Mutis wanted to get into the Academy of Sciences in Uppsala.

So now we find Mutis in a region of the world that contains easily 1/4 of the living species of ants. More importantly, it contains two species of ants that have been studied more than all others except, possibly, fire ants: leafcutter and army ants.

Want to know something cool about ants? The queen ant gives birth to over a million ants over the course of her life. During that time, she can choose whether or not she gives birth to a female or a male. It’s wild and awesome.

Mutis was a man of the new period of science and reason that had blossomed in Europe. He was the first to realize that leafcutter ants cultivated fungus underground. On top of that, he figured out how the movements of army ants were timed with the gestation of pupae.

But he was wrong about a lot of things. He estimated the army ant colonies to be 3 million, several times (it’s actually around 40 thousand). Also he mislabeled the genders of the different ants. Which is understandable. It wasn’t until the 1940′s that we realized that vast majority of an ant colony is female and that the males are all but vessels for spermatazoa.

Mutis was passionate about finding out the truths about nature. He was extremely careful about balancing the local folklore with his own observations. For example, most people told him that army ants moved when they came under attack. But he had never seen army ants under attack. They tended to do the attacking, really.

Unfortunately, Mutis never made any great contributions to the taxonomy of ants. He never took any drawings and he was, really, a botanist. But he had an uncanny knack for being correct about the things that he could observe and asking questions that could only be answered by modern technology.

Kingdom of Ants is an absolute gem. I mean think about what’s going on here. Here’s a man bringing the scientific rigor of Enlightened Europe to the untamed wilds of Columbia and turning that attention to the most complicated and fascinating animals in the world. If you can read this and you don’t stay up until 2 A.M. wondering why you don’t drop everything and study ants, then I can’t take you seriously.

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