Friday, October 14, 2011

Riding ants all the way

EO Wilson has had a storied career in evolutionary biology: the originator of island biogeography and sociobiology, one of the world's leading experts on ants, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Recently, he plunged into scientific controversy again with the publication of a paper authored with two Harvard mathematician colleagues, Corina Tarnita and Martin Nowak, claiming that kin selection is unnecessary to explain the origin of eusociality (Nature paper, Biology Refugia blog post).

A new profile of Wilson in the Atlantic magazine tells us what he has been up to lately: participating in a conservation project at Gorongosa Park in Mozambique, traveling, and still reveling in collecting and identifying ants and other insects.

...For minutes at a time, the white-haired scientist resembled nothing so much as a grandmaster smiting a score of enthusiastic challengers at a speed-chess exhibition, as he quickly named each animal brought to him:

“And here we have—very good—a lycaenid butterfly. Probably that’s a new species, but I’m not going to keep it. Who got that butterfly? … What is this? Wait a minute, where is my magnifying glass, I’ll tell you. Oh yeah, that one I know. I know the genus. That one is a Tetragnatha. … Now the ants … This is an important one. Can you be sure to get that one? All right, wait a minute. I want that one. It’s different. That’s a reduviid, an assassin bug … That’s a—wait a minute, it’ll come to me. This is a coccinellid.”

This medley, one of many, concluded with Wilson saying: “Wow, this is the way to make a real collection, if you are an entomologist. Get a bunch of kids around. No, seriously.”

Later, in a quieter moment, I asked Wilson how he managed to name so many of the creatures, particularly ones far outside his specialty, and on a continent he’s never visited before. He told me that he’d prepped intensively for the experience for two months, consulting both reference books and experts, committing the descriptions of thousands of species to memory. Silently, I recalled a critic’s recent characterization of him as senescent.
I can only hope to be half as energetic and productive when I am 82!

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