News and Notes

From Backyard Ant-Watching to World Ecology Award: A Conversation with E.O. Wilson

This article originally appeared on the website for St. Louis Public Radio, April 17, 2018.

Edward O. Wilson’s long career has been marked by enormous contributions to the field of biology, with an impact on global conservation efforts that is difficult to overstate. All of it grew out of his close attention years ago to something relatively small: the behavior of ants.

“In our backyard I saw this stream of ants,” said the now 88-year-old Harvard scholar, who is headed to the St. Louis Zoo this week to receive an award from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It turns out that there were tens of thousands of them in a single colony, marching five to ten across in perfect formation – or near perfect formation for an insect – across the yard, all in one direction.

“I followed them over a back fence into the next yard … the column continued on across that yard and out into a street, across the street,” Wilson went on, “and then into a patch of woodland where they disappeared and I couldn’t follow them. And I soon learned that what I was seeing was the march of the army ants. Army ants just get that far north. You can find big army ants – with millions of workers – in the tropics, and I was later to see those many times.”

Wilson recalled one of his earliest interactions with the insects, a memory from his boyhood in northern Alabama, on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air in conversation with host Don Marsh.

Listen to the conversation: