Monday, 2 April 2001

The Earth Dwellers

Listening to:

Beethoven, piano concerto no. 1 in C, Op. 15.

Just read:

Erich Hoyt, The Earth dwellers: adventures in the land of ants.

Very interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by ants, and this book is full of all sorts of information, presented in an engaging way. Most attention is focussed on a species of leaf-cutter ants, and I learnt a lot about them. For example, the leaves that these ants cut are not themselves eaten by the ants. Instead, the leaves are used to cultivate a fungus, kept in underground gardens, that is used as a universal food. Further, when virgin queens leave the colony to mate, they take a little sample of the fungus with them so that the new colony they establish will be able to grow the fungus too. (They store their sample in their mouths under their tongues.)

In addition the book spends quite a bit of time on the swarm-raiding army ants, and explains how they breed by having colonies split in two. In this species, only the males fly around looking for mates. There is a very brief discussion of how it is that ants are haplo-diploid, and how this goes some way to explaining the way an ant colony acts as one individual. (The other great social insect species, termites, are not haplo-diploid though, so it’s clearly not a necessary condition for elaborate social structure. Perhaps termites are more like humans and their social structures are less monolithic. I’m clearly going to have to try to read up about termites too!)

The author places his narratives about the ants he describes quite specifically in a Costa Rican rain-forest. He also describes the ant-scientists that work there, particularly the famous Edward O. Wilson. Hoyt is clearly quite impressed by Wilson, and even gives over a whole chapter to talking about the sociobiology controversy of the 1970s. This is sympathetic in terms of Wilson’s personal behaviour, but makes no attempt to explain the issues, and so feels like a bit of a waste of time.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an introduction to a fascinating field of natural history.

Now reading:

Leo Marks, Between silk and cyanide. A great big book that I read a great chunk of yesterday. Very exciting.