Dylan Thuras and Michelle Enemark - July 1st, 2009
He is a curious case. Blinded in one eye in a childhood fishing accident, the budding young naturalist E. O. Wilson found it difficult to observe wildlife, like mammals and birds, from a distance. His impaired visibility had changed things. Instead of giving up on his passion for the natural world, the young boy instead focused his sights on a more immediate subject … something he could view up close and personal, something not requiring depth perception: insects.
Throwing himself into his studies, by the time he was 18 Wilson had a growing collection of flies. Soon, however, Wilson came to another roadblock. World War II had created a shortage of insect pins, the metal to make them being in short supply, and he could no longer collect, pin and preserve his beloved flies. Always adaptable, Wilson good-naturedly switched to ants, which were kept in vials of alcohol and involved no pins. It was thus that E.O. began his life’s work.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is both natural and national treasure. Harvard itself was founded a mere 16 years after the first colony of pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Originally it was a place where a young natural philosopher could learn astronomy, later physics, then medicine, and in 1848, when the great naturalist Louis Agassiz joined the faculty, it became a place to study nature itself. What had been a disorganized and chaotic cabinet of curiosities in Harvard’s past became a revolutionary museum of comparative anatomy under Agassiz’s direction. Today the great museum still holds countless treasures from more than 150 years of collecting. From a dodo skeleton, to the novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly genitalia collection (the writer of Lolita fame had a passion for butterflies, and worked as a research fellow at the Harvard Museum in the 40’s), to the largest collection of ants in the world, the collection is both unique and invaluable.
By the time E. O. Wilson began attending Harvard University around 1948, the museum already housed an impressive collection of ants. Founded in 1908 by entomologist William Morton Wheeler, known as the leading authority on the social behavior of insects, the ant collection grew one million specimens with Wilson’s steady contributions, representing over 5,000 species of those fascinating little workers.
Wilson followed in Wheeler’s footsteps, studying the social behavior of ants, and has found a great deal to say about the tiny creatures, publishing a number of books on ants and ant behavior. He discovered the then unheard of idea that ants used chemical signals in communication, known today as pheromones, and suggested that genes play a role not only in ants and other animals, but in humans as well. The controversial idea came to a “head” when in 1978, an enraged demonstrator at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science poured a pitcher of ice water over Wilson’s head. Despite the occasional controversy, many of Wilson’s findings have stood the test of time, and have played a significant role in our understanding of human biology and nature.
There is at least one ant in Harvard’s collection that is treasured not for its scientific significance, but its historical significance. The “Stalin Ant” was collected in 1945 by a Harvard professor during a dinner hosted by Josef Stalin for visiting American scientists. The professor saw an ant running across his table, and magically produced a vial from his pocket. Industriously filling it with vodka from his martini glass, he saved the specimen for later inspection. This caused great amusement among Stalin and other nearby scientists, and the (scientifically unremarkable) ant has held a special place in the Harvard Museum storerooms ever since. There is no better place to grasp the scientific, historical, or simply curious riches of the Harvard collection than The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History by Nancy Pick, with a foreword by none other than our favorite ant collector, E. O. Wilson.
We have not found another book that so beautifully captures the strange stories behind historical specimens. It is a good thing that Natural History Museums never throw anything away, otherwise we might not know about the bird wing butterflies, scientifically trivial as a specimen; saved because they are the only specimens left of those collected Carl von Hagen on a trip to Papua New Guinea in 1900. The butterflies survived, von Hagen didn’t. It would seem he was eaten by cannibals.
Thankfully, ants aren’t quite as ferocious, and E. O. Wilson is still among us, currently working on a book about ants belonging to the genus Pheidole. There are about 600 species of Pheidole, more than any other any genus, making it the largest in the world, and more than half of these ants were discovered and named by Wilson himself.