Lord of the Ants
PBS NOVA Original Broadcast Date: May 20, 2008
At age 78, E.O. Wilson is still going through his "little savage" phase of boyhood exploration of the natural world. In "Lord of the Ants," NOVA profiles this soft-spoken Southerner and Harvard professor, who is an acclaimed advocate for ants, biological diversity, and the controversial extension of Darwinian ideas to human society.
Actor and environmentalist Harrison Ford narrates this engaging portrait of a ceaselessly active scientist and eloquent writer, who has accumulated two Pulitzer Prizes among his many other honors. Says fellow naturalist David Attenborough: "He will go down as the man who opened the eyes of millions 'round the world to the glories, the values, the importance of—to use his term—biodiversity."
Wilson is also renowned for two seemingly unrelated roles. First, he is the "ant man," whose infectious enthusiasm for his scientific specialty has encouraged many house dwellers to reach for a magnifying glass instead of ant traps when faced with these tiny invaders. NOVA films Wilson exuberantly plunging his hand into a fire-ant bed and then calmly observing that each of the scores of stings he is receiving feels like "the touch of a hot needle." (Wilson's fearlessness with wild animals goes way back, as our excerpt from his autobiography shows.)
Second, Wilson hit the headlines and became a lightning rod in academic circles for his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which holds that evolutionary principles can explain social behavior throughout the animal kingdom, including in humans. (Sociobiology is just one of several scientific fields he has either invented outright or greatly influenced—see Man of Ideas.)
At the time, critics warned that Wilson was promoting a dangerous idea with roots in biological determinism, which in the past had fueled the eugenics movement. (Wilson was even attacked physically, having a pitcher of ice water poured over his head as he stood up to give a talk.) The controversy has since calmed somewhat, as experimental evidence shows that genes do play a role in aspects of behavior.
In fact, these two elements of Wilson's work—ants and sociobiology—are intimately connected, because ants are among the most social of animals. Characteristically, Wilson's wide-ranging mind could look beyond one domain to another. "He is able to step back not just one pace but three paces and see the entire panorama of not just invertebrates but of the whole magic complex web of organisms—animals and plants," says Attenborough.
Wilson's latest step back has shown him more unequivocally than ever that the complex web of life in which he has delighted since a child is under threat in many of the most biologically diverse regions of the world. Accordingly, he has become a tireless organizer and spokesman for preserving the world's threatened species. (See A Conversation With E.O. Wilson for some of his latest thinking on conservation.)
And he has his own research to back him up. NOVA visits a small island in the Florida Keys where Wilson and biologist Daniel Simberloff started a unique experiment in 1965. They first made an inventory of every living species on the island. Then they hired an exterminator to wipe them all out.
Over the next few years they documented the recolonization and rebirth of life on the island, showing that, in general, the smaller an area of land, the fewer the number of species it can support and the higher the risk of extinction. "This is one of the reasons why conservationists have a sound scientific basis for trying to get larger reserves," says Wilson. "It's good insurance. It means we can save more species over the long term."
And he's not stopping there. Wilson's ultimate dream is to catalog every species of life on the planet, a number that probably vastly exceeds the inventory of life to date. He calls it the Encyclopedia of Life, and he now has the backing of Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, and several other organizations to make it a reality. The young naturalist who never grew up surely has even more up his sleeve.
NARRATOR: Every so often, a giant emerges on the stage of science, someone who transcends the narrow boundaries of a particular line of research and alters our perspective of the world. Ed Wilson is such a man. His early fascination with ants launched a dazzling scientific career that led him to lift his eyes from the ground to explain the grand scheme of life itself.
When he wrote his book Sociobiology, tracing the origins of animal social behavior from ants to humans, he had little idea of the controversy it would trigger. Not since Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species has evolutionary biology caused such heated debate.
Undeterred by the furor, he went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Today, he campaigns for biodiversity and fights to conserve the world's endangered species.
Tonight on NOVA: Lord of the Ants.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch. And...
Discovering new knowledge: HHMI.
Major funding for Lord of the Ants is provided by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Additional funding is provided by Gordon and Betty Moore and by the Invitrogen Educational Foundation. And by the following.
UNC Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Teach Green Charitable Foundation, and The Nurture Nature Foundation
Major Funding for NOVA is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson believes human beings have an instinctive affinity for living things. He even invented a word for it: "biophilia." It's what draws us to places like Central Park.
He also knows that human activity is a threat to life's incredible diversity. To monitor what's happening, these volunteers are taking part in a 24-hour "bio-blitz," an audit of every living species in the park. Wilson is a pioneer of this activity. He encourages others to do what he's always done, to embrace the natural world.
VOLUNTEER: ...small, gray swirl in here as well.
EDWARD O. WILSON (E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation): Now, I want you to notice what appears to be, to you, just a flat surface, right? But this is not a flat surface to most of life on Earth. This is three-dimensional. We are sort of like the Godzillas of the world. We're gigantic organisms and we walk, crunch across this world like Godzilla over New York. But if you started digging down, you would see that you are passing through numerous layers of different microenvironments.
NARRATOR: Beneath the leaves, he imagines a subterranean labyrinth inhabited by micromonsters. An orabitid mite feeds off a fungal thread. A millipede is a lumbering giant in this world; tiny mites can hitch a ride on its back.
Most of life on Earth is smaller than the eye can see. The soil contains thousands of different bacteria. Many are exotic species still unknown to science.
ED WILSON: And that's how so much of the diversity is created in an actual environment like this. It's at your feet. You never see it, but it's here.
NARRATOR: But the creature that has inspired Ed Wilson throughout his life is one of the most abundant and highly organized insects on the planet: the ant.
ED WILSON: Here is a nest of the infamous fire ant, a mound nest of something... with something like 200,000 vicious stinging little workers in it. And I'm going to demonstrate, now, why it's called the fire ant.
Now, don't do this at home. First, I'll scrape this off and get them coming up. And pretty soon those ants are boiling out of there, fighting mad. They're ready to sting and defeat any enemy that comes in, and I'm going to make myself the enemy just for a few seconds. So here we go.
All right, now, if you look, you'll see a lot of them beginning to pause and sting my hand. Each one of those stings feels like the touch of a hot needle. And now, pardon me. I'm going to get rid of these ants in a hurry.
MAN: Is it a chemical?
ED WILSON: Yeah, it's a small molecule of venom. It is rough; my hand feels like it's on fire! I hope it'll go away, too. And I've done this, but not quite to that extent before. Okay.
SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Ed Wilson is a magic name to many of us working in the natural world, for two reasons. First, he is a towering example of a specialist, a world authority. Nobody in the world has ever known as much as Ed Wilson about ants. But, in addition to that intense knowledge and understanding, he has the widest of pictures. He sees the planet and the natural world that it contains in amazing detail but extraordinary coherence.
NARRATOR: He's a scientist with over 400 published papers, but he writes like a poet. What sets him apart is his unified picture of life. He explores the continuum that extends from subatomic particles and chemical interactions to consciousness and culture.
The wellspring for this unity of knowledge began with his boyhood adventures in Alabama. Nature soon cast an everlasting spell.
ED WILSON: I had the great good fortune of spending a large part of my boyhood wandering through beautiful mixed woods of south Alabama. You can see it's still rich in living creatures that I soon was picking up on, looking at every frog and lizard and kinds of plants and then insects that I could find.
I got a lot of indirect encouragement from my parents, mainly because they gave me freedom. They didn't mind that I was going through what I like to call my "little savage" period.
Well, I'm now grown up. I'm still, basically, a boy. But I'm a grown up naturalist now, and it takes a little effort for me to realize that I, and people like me, see the world in a different way from others. I see it as a universe of immense diversity.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson's imagination thrives on chance discoveries. As a child he was always on the lookout for strange life forms.
ED WILSON: One day I saw a large jellyfish. I tried to figure out where it came from and what it was all about and why it was there.
A little boy, I think, has an automatic interest in monsters. In my little boy's mind, I then saw the sea as something of great mystery—of alien purpose and dark happenings—and wanted to know more.
NARRATOR: But a cruel act of fate would determine his future as a naturalist. Like many boys, he had a passion for fishing.
ED WILSON: One of my favorites was the pinfish, which has these sharp spines in the dorsal fin. Easy to catch, but I was enthusiastically yanking them up out of the water, one after the other, when one accidentally came in...the spine hit me in the eye. I subsequently became blind in that eye; but that, combined with my inability to hear very well in the upper register, so I can't hear bird song, meant that, well, I sure wasn't going to be an expert on birds when I got older. So I turned kind of automatically to looking at little things that I can see holding between my thumb and forefinger—insects and other small creatures. And I became an entomologist, a student of insects.
There's the question of, why did I pick ants, you know? Why not butterflies or whatever? And the answer is that they're so abundant, they're easy to find, and they're easy to study, and they're so interesting. They have social habits that differ from one kind of ant to the next. You know, each kind of ant has almost the equivalent of a different human culture. So each species is a wonderful object to study in itself. In fact, I honestly can't...cannot understand why most people don't study ants.
NARRATOR: By choosing an insect with so many different species and such highly organized societies, he had unwittingly set off down a path that would determine his own evolution as a biologist.
At the age of 13, he was the first person to identify a new invasive species in Alabama—the red fire ant from South America. Later, when he was still in college, the state of Alabama asked him to write a report on the fire ant invasion.
In 1951, he came to study at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and he's been there ever since.
The museum houses one of the biggest collections of beetles and ants in the world. For Ed Wilson this was paradise. He was fascinated by the vast diversity of species available to him.
ED WILSON: In 1953, I had the opportunity to begin serious travel anywhere I wanted to go in the world and told to do something outstanding. So what I did was to head out for the tropics—Mexico, Cuba—and then to the great island systems of the South Pacific: to New Caledonia and New Guinea.
NARRATOR: For three years, he traveled around the world, collecting specimens from tropical islands, just as Charles Darwin had done in his early twenties.
Today, Ed Wilson is visiting a cloud forest high in the Dominican Republic.
ED WILSON: Oh, wow, look at that.
MAN: What have you got?
ED WILSON: That's my genus!
ED WILSON: Yeah. I've got to get a lot of these. Hold on.
NARRATOR: For decades, he's been collecting ants from one particular genus, a group of closely-related species called Pheidole.
ED WILSON: Can you...great. Good, good, good. Okay, fine, all right, that's enough. I think we have enough specimens now. Isn't that nice?
MAN: You think it's a new species?
ED WILSON: Oh, yes, and not a little one either. Look at the size of this thing. I don't know how we could have missed this before. It's a big ant. Great!
MAN: That's entomology!
MAN: We should get a DNA bar code for that.
ED WILSON: Why not? Beautiful, just beautiful.
It's amazing that about 20 percent of all of the known ant species from the western hemisphere belong to this genus. It's a genus that's characterized by having little skinny workers. But then, in addition, it has great big soldiers that do the fighting. And I have a soldier here, and that's the one that has the most traits that you look at in order to tell one species from another.
Among the traits are these little striation, or scratches, on the head of the soldier, so this part being completely shiny, and then the smooth outline of this part of the body, and the shape and the length of this little spine that it's got back here.
What's really interesting about this, you know, besides finding something completely new in nature—species that may have been there a million years—is that, gradually, we see patterns of distribution, you know? Certain kinds of species are found in certain habitats and others are found on different islands. And then, from that information, comes more and more certain knowledge about how these species of insects, in this case, ants, got there in the first place.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson has discovered 344 of over 600 identified species in this single genus, Pheidole. It took over two decades to identify and compile all the specimens that make up this tombstone of a book. He drew each of the 5,000 meticulous illustrations himself. This is the culmination of a lifetime's devotion to ants.
When he returned from his island adventures in the mid-'50s, he brought back hundreds of specimens to add to Harvard's collection.
But the intrepid naturalist was about to have a rude awakening. The structure of DNA had just been discovered, and a new era of biology, decoding the chemistry of genes, was about to begin. Many molecular biologists dismissed Ed Wilson's approach as "stamp collecting."
Leading the charge at Harvard was the newly appointed James Watson who, with Francis Crick, had deciphered the structure of DNA.
ED WILSON: Well, Jim Watson was a difficult person. He himself says that. He was rather rude. I described him as a "Caligula of biology" and—in my memoir—and "the most disagreeable person I'd ever met to that time," and so on. And yet I admired enormously his achievement, and I wanted to try or encourage achievements similar to that in evolutionary environmental biology.
NARRATOR: Much later, they became friends, but even while they were enemies, Watson inspired Wilson to use chemistry to unravel complex evolutionary problems, such as how ants coordinate their activities.
Was an ant colony like a giant super-organism with a collective brain? How did individual ants communicate? Was it learned or was it coded in their genes?
ED WILSON: I started thinking about how I would find the key to turn the lock and open up the code by which ants speak. It couldn't be a sound like a birdsong. It couldn't be vision. It had to be something else. Ants can't see very well. They can't hear very well. Of course it had to be chemical.
NARRATOR: He devised an artificial nest with Plexiglas® chambers and galleries, so he could observe the behavior of ants in a colony. The breakthrough came when he noticed the ants laid an invisible trail as they searched for food. He was about to decipher the chemical language of ants.
ED WILSON: What I'm doing in this experiment, out here in the field with a fire ant colony, is putting baits on a blank piece of paper, one next to the colony itself and then another bait at the end of our little platform of paper, a little distance from the nest so the ants can't find it right away. What I'm doing, here, is holding a fire ant that I've just taken out of the nest, and I'm going to squeeze the rear end of the abdomen—where the sting is—that contains the trail substance that the ants use to lay down on the ground and guide other fire ants to food and new places for nesting. And I'm going to duplicate this by just taking out some of that material from the rear end of the ant, and then I'm going to lay my own trail and talk to the ants to lead them to where I want them to go. And beginning to work, and yes, it's going to work.
And now, just a few minutes later, after I laid my trail, the ants themselves are laying their trail on top of that, and the result is a very strong trail. And quite a few ants now are going back and forth. And they'll do that for hours, until they collect all that food.
Examples besides the trail substance include alarm; they can signal one another that there's danger, and some ants can even signal what the danger is, which kind of an enemy it is. There are signals that tell other ants about a new nest site, you know, "where we don't... this is not such a hot dig, so we'll go somewhere else." And then there are signals that indicate what caste you belong to, you know, like, "Hey, I'm a queen, you know. Take care of me. I lay the eggs around here."
And gradually, with chemists and biologists working together, we've worked out this vocabulary. In the case of fire ants, we found that they talk with between 10 and 20 of these signals. My favorite find was how ants tell us that a fellow ant is dead. It's not enough for the ant to be lying still with his legs sticking up in the air. It has to have a certain decomposition substance that it only gets after a couple of days. That turns out to be oleic acid. Well, you can put oleic acid on a perfectly healthy ant and the other ants will take it out and dump it in the refuse pile. And it stays there until it cleans itself off and then rejoins the living.
This study of ants has shed a lot of light on how animals generally communicate by chemicals. And we now know that most kinds of animals do most of their communication with pheromones, talking with the use of chemicals that they taste and smell.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson realized that the code for the chemicals that determined the ants' behavior must be written in their genes. If this were true for ants, then perhaps the behavior of other animals might also have a genetic basis.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: The remarkable thing about him, about him, it seems to me, is that, not only does he do these acute studies and penetrating studies of a small group of insects, but he is able to step back, not just one pace but three paces, and see the entire panorama of, not just invertebrates but vertebrates, of the whole magic complex web of organisms, animals and plants.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson set himself a daunting task: to investigate the origins of all animal behavior, from ants to monkeys, right through to the most social of all primates, humans. He even invented a name for this new discipline: "sociobiology."
When he set out on this intellectual adventure, he had little idea of the trouble that lay ahead. The seed for this vision had been planted many years before, in 1956, when he visited a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. What he witnessed here would change his view of life forever.
Fifty years later, he is returning to the place the locals call Monkey Island with his former Ph.D. student, Stuart Altmann.
ED WILSON: The first rule that I learned from you was don't look at them. That is, I should say, don't stare at them.
STUART ALTMANN (Princeton University): Don't stare at them. A direct stare to them is a threat.
ED WILSON: Oh yes, I learned that!
STUART ALTMANN: The hard way.
ED WILSON: That's right.
NARRATOR: The island is home to over 900 rhesus macaques. They were introduced here, from India, in the 1930s, to provide a breeding colony for medical research.
For Stuart Altmann, these monkeys offered a unique opportunity to study the social behavior of free living primates. This was a new kind of field research, rarely attempted before, so he had trouble finding someone to supervise his Ph.D. at Harvard, until he was told about a young entomologist.
STUART ALTMANN: "There's this guy, Ed Wilson, who's a junior fellow at Harvard now, but he'll...95 percent sure he'll be a faculty member next year. Go talk to him." And I did. And Ed and I hit it off immediately. And it didn't take us very long to come to the realization that the two of us were respectively studying ants and primates, were studying the two groups of organisms that have the most complex social systems in the animal kingdom. The question was, are there some commonalities that would lead one to say, "Well, possibly, one could have a unified theory of animal social systems?"
She's got a nasty old wound there...
ED WILSON: Yeah, I see that.
STUART ALTMANN: ...on the right flank. Wonder what did that? Looks like she's got a swelling under there. I wonder if it's abscessed.
ED WILSON: It could be. Look at this. Now here's a case where this guy is picking around that wound, see? And it looks like he might be ready to clean that wound. So we're getting a little bit of monkey medicine going on there.
STUART ALTMANN: They do.
ED WILSON: They have a propensity to, you know, to groom and pick out skin and extra tissue. He's been removing some of the source of the infection?
STUART ALTMANN: Presumably so, yeah.
ED WILSON: Yeah, that's right, yeah. That's interesting.
STUART ALTMANN: The males sometimes do what we call pump priming. They'll go over to a female, groom her very vigorously for a few minutes, a few seconds sometimes, and then present for grooming and expect a half hour's worth of reciprocity. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
ED WILSON: Literally.
NARRATOR: Field studies like this revealed the complex behavior of non-human primates. When he was here in the '50s, Ed Wilson began to make comparisons among insect societies. He found the island was home to some large termite colonies.
ED WILSON: That's about as big as they get. Good lord! Now that is a termite metropolis. If I can get in through the wall with this stick here—I don't have the proper equipment—we'll see how it's organized a little bit. If I can't, we'll just get another instrument. You ready?
STUART ALTMANN: Here they come.
ED WILSON: Yeah, okay, here they come, now. The ones that are coming out now are soldiers. I don't see any of the white workers that are inside. What's swarming out here are the soldier caste. And what's really remarkable is you'll notice in this immense thing, there were soldiers massed here. They didn't know I was going to poke in here. They are like that all over.
STUART ALTMANN: So they're in there all the time.
ED WILSON: Yeah, they're there all the time, and they're annoying to me. Now, within a matter of hours, very cautiously, they are going to be coming out, and they're going to be slowly repairing it, and building it out and restoring that wall.
They build the nest out of carton, which is chewed up wood and saliva. Then they forage down along these covered trails. You can see one along the trunk there.
Oh, look at this. This must have been broken a little bit earlier...that opening, which is so precious to the colony because that's the food line where the termites go to collect food off the floor of the woods. And these soldiers...look at this. They are not patrolling now. They have pulled in and circled the wagon. The entire gap is closed with soldiers standing guard.
NARRATOR: It was on this island that Ed Wilson first began to wrestle with the question of why these creatures acted as they did. Why did monkeys look after each other's interests? And why would a termite put itself at risk to protect the nest? This type of altruism did not seem compatible with the theory of natural selection, where only the fittest survived.
After 20 years of observing and recording animal behavior in the wild, Ed Wilson finally published a book, outlining his conclusions, called Sociobiology. But he did not restrict himself to wildlife. In the final chapter he treated humans as animals, suggesting genetic traits play a role in our behavior, too. This provoked a storm of protest.
ED WILSON: I could not publish this book without including human. After all, we are...no matter how highly evolved, we are animals. And we have remarkable similarities, in many ways, to our closest living relatives, the monkeys and the apes. What I didn't realize at the time was this is a no-no because most of the social scientists had already come to an agreement, incorrect as it turns out, that the human brain is a blank slate; that human behavior, including social behavior, is determined by the accidents of cultural evolution and by learning, alone; and that there was no such thing, for the most part, as human nature; that instincts do not exist, except in the most basic, primitive manner; and the human brain is absolutely unique in this respect. That was the dogma.
NARRATOR: Back in the '70s, the received wisdom was that human behavior was a product of how we were reared, a purely environmental phenomenon. To suggest it was in some way genetically programmed was heresy.
Some of the fiercest criticism came from Ed Wilson's own department at Harvard. Richard Lewontin, a leading evolutionary biologist, was one of several influential scientists who wrote a highly critical letter to the New York Review of Books.
They feared Wilson's ideas might set the stage for a new kind of eugenics movement. After all, if bad behavior were a result of bad genes, then perhaps people might argue for "cleansing" the gene pool.
RICHARD LEWONTIN (Harvard University): Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology do provide a kind of justification for certain behaviors, including, not genocide, perhaps, but certainly eugenics and so on. And I think it's important to point that out because many people who are eugenicists use genetic determinism as an argument, saying, "We must do this because the genes have made these people the way they are, and there's no way to change it. And if this is bad for society, then we better get rid of this behavior."
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson's closest colleague, fellow ant man Bert Hölldobler, leapt to his defense.
BERT HÖLLDOBLER (Arizona State University): I mean, everyone who reads this last chapter cannot see that Ed pursues a political rightist agenda. This is just ridiculous. Either they belittle the horror what the Nazi did or they make a monster out of their colleague and put them in the same line. And this upsets me, even today.
ED WILSON: I had protestors show up at my lectures in the late '70s. And, in one case, a group of protesters took over the stage, and they held banners up condemning sociobiology and condemning me and so on. And I could have...that would have been okay, I guess, but then one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on my head. And I took immediate pride in that. I said...I went on and gave my talk...while I was getting ready to give my talk, I got it dumped on me. I said to myself, immediately, "This is interesting and, also, it's a bit of history to reflect on later. I believe I'm going to be able to claim that I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea."
BERT HÖLLDOBLER: That they disagree with him, all right. Ed and I, we often disagreed. You know, on human nature, we had our arguments. But that they didn't come up knocking on Ed's door and saying, "Ed, we disagree with you," and then discussed it. No, they launched this unbelievable, horrible, nasty letter.
NARRATOR: Undeterred by these attacks, Ed Wilson continued to develop his ideas on human sociobiology in another provocative book, On Human Nature.
Today, most scientists acknowledge genes play some role in human behavior, but exactly how genes and the environment interact is still unknown.
The sociobiology controversy forced Ed Wilson, reluctantly, into the limelight. He learned to use his celebrity status to alert the world to another passion: his growing concern about the state of the planet.
ANNOUNCER: The TED 2007 Prize winners: James Nachtwey, E.O. Wilson, Bill Clinton. Cheers! Bravo!
ED WILSON: I realized that I had to be more public. I saw, clearly, that the world that I loved, the natural world with countless millions of kinds of plants and animals in it was disappearing, not because people were deliberately out to destroy the natural world, but because in their own self-interest they were taking their own part of it and converting it. So one has, in cases like that, to become an activist and a spokesman.
Sixty-five million years ago, a mass extinction occurred of life around the planet. Biologists agree that today we are beginning a new mass extinction, but this time it's caused by us, by human activity. In order to contribute to the understanding of just what is occurring, I came down here to the Florida Keys, 40 years ago, to set up some very miniature mass extinction of my own.
NARRATOR: Back in 1965, Ed Wilson teamed up with a mathematician-turned-biologist, Daniel Simberloff, to carry out an experiment. They wanted to work out how the number of species an isolated island could support depended on the island's size and distance from the mainland.
Using a mangrove island as a simple model, the plan was to make an inventory of every living species, and then wipe them all out.
ED WILSON: We set out to observe the re-colonization, the rebirth of life, animal life, we didn't want to kill the island; we didn't want to kill the plants; but we wanted to watch to see what happened. And, basically, that's how the whole thing got rolling. And now we had to figure out how to do it.
STEVE TENDRICH (House Fumigator): One day I received a phone call from Dr. Wilson, and he said he was from the university of Harvard, wanting to talk to me about fumigating islands in the Florida Keys. I thought it was a prank call. And I even said, "I don't have time to...for this stuff. I'm busy," you know? But he just kept talking and talking, and finally I said, "Well, maybe this really is Dr. Wilson." So I said, "Well, I'll try it, and we'll see what happens."
So we ended up with a system with a tower in the middle of the island. And, in turn, we would take these large tents and, and, and put it over this tower and take guide wires and put sea anchors into the water, and then put the gas in. And after two hours of fumigation, we'd open up the tents so that the fumigant would leave the island. Anyone in a boat that would go by and see what we were doing would almost have a boating accident.
NARRATOR: After fumigating the island, they returned every couple of weeks to check which species had come back. Today the old buddies return to the site of their mini-apocalypse.
DANIEL SIMBERLOFF (University of Tennessee): Often, you could not take the boat right up to the island because it was too shallow. So you'd anchor the boat and wade through the water to the island. The problem here is that there are blacktip sharks, lemon sharks and nurse sharks that hang out around these mangrove islands. So we developed a method of hitting them on the head with an oar when they come near you. And that keeps them away, although the blacktip sometimes come back and you have to hit them twice.
ED WILSON: I think this is just about...
DAN SIMBERLOFF: I would say this is a six-ant-species island.
ED WILSON: I hope so. I hope so.
DAN SIMBERLOFF: You get to the island—and some of them are quite dense, especially on the outside, so you have to crawl up into the roots from the little moat of water around it—and you have to look over the entire island to see what insects are on them.
I see my vision isn't what it was 40 years ago.
Aha! Here's the silent bush cricket, Tapaliscalurida Okay, Ed, here's this branch, and you'll see the antennae sticking out. There's the insect right there in front of you.
ED WILSON: No kidding? Good. Bring it over here. I'm going to get it under a magnifying glass.
NARRATOR: After several years of experimenting, they were able to answer some fundamental questions about life on islands.
ED WILSON: If you start out with a certain number of species and then you remove them, all of them, and then you let other species come back in, would they return to an equilibrium—that is, back to the same level, and stay there—that they were at before you removed the old fauna? The answer to that was they do. They come back at that level. The second question we asked was, "Would it be the same species?" For the most part, no, they were different species.
NARRATOR: This work provided important scientific evidence to back Ed Wilson's campaign to preserve habitats for the world's endangered species. It confirmed that the smaller the area of land, the fewer the number of species it could support, and the higher the risk of extinction.
DAN SIMBERLOFF: It's very relevant to conservation. Before this work, I think people had this illusion that if we set aside a little bit of habitat with three pairs of some endangered species everything would be fine. I think it's captured very nicely when Ronald Regan said, famously, "Well, you know, it's a redwood. How many redwoods do you need?"
And after this work was done, we could give some indication of how many individuals we need.
It doesn't matter on any one of these islands because the same species occurs on other islands or on mainland mangrove habitat, and sooner or later will re-colonize that site. But when we're talking about national parks and other reserves, often there is no other site where the population's present, so after that population goes extinct, that's the end of it, the end of the lineage.
ED WILSON: One of what's been called the "iron laws" of ecology is that with every tenfold increase in habitat made available to species, you double the number of species that can live there indefinitely, you know, "sustainability." So this is one of the reasons why conservationists have a sound scientific basis for trying to get larger reserves. It's good insurance. I mean, we can save more species over the long term.
NARRATOR: The world's species are not spread out evenly. Around 50 percent are found on just two or three percent of the Earth's surface. Some places, like the Dominican Republic, are rich in species found nowhere else in the world and have been designated biodiversity hotspots.
A random sweep along a ridge in this tropical cloud forest yields all manner of surprises. It's estimated there are thousands of undiscovered insect species on this island alone.
MAN: Whoa, that is a big roach! You smell that?
NARRATOR: To maintain such biodiversity, Ed Wilson has become an active campaigner to protect what's left of the world's endangered ecosystems.
MAN: It's a cloudy day today, yeah? I hope you like it.
ED WILSON: I'm not sure I like it, but I know a lot of the animals and plants like it.
NARRATOR: The Dominican Republic has been successful in creating reserves. The same is not true of its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola.
Viewed from space, the human footprint is clearly visible. To the east is the Dominican Republic; to the west is a brown wasteland, almost completely devoid of trees. This is Haiti, a country so poor that many people flock across the border in the hope of a better life.
Some refugee families have settled illegally in Dominican nature reserves near the border. Ed Wilson is about to confront the reality of economic versus environmental survival. This family has chopped down trees to grow vegetables. Their plight is desperate.
ED WILSON: Hello. How are you?
HAITIAN REFUGEE: Fine, and you?
ED WILSON: Glad to meet you.
TRANSLATOR: Do you know you are living in a park? A park that is owned by the state?
ED WILSON: I suppose this is really a tragedy, and that they have become what are called ecological refugees, that is, that things are so tough in Haiti that almost any solution that they can find, including coming over here, is going to be good for them. And I think, basically, from what they've told us, they understand that it's wrong to be cutting down the forest. But they say, you know, "It's just a little bit." That's, of course, the problem with the world as a whole: we each want to take just a little bit. And they can't...they're in a poverty trap. They can't solve this problem themselves. They need a little bit of help to get out of that trap. This has to be nipped in the bud, though, because, unopposed, it will just go on and on and on, and there won't be any forest left. And we're too near the end of what's left of the natural world.
NARRATOR: The islands of the Caribbean are among 34 biodiversity hotspots around the world that represent the most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life.
Ed Wilson believes that saving species from extinction in these places is an easily solvable problem. In his view, it just needs rich countries to subsidize these reserves, a relatively small price to pay.
ED WILSON: All of $50 billion spread across the industrialized world—maybe some of the developing countries who would benefit the most adding a little of their own—one payment—and it could be spread out over several years—that's chump change.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: He'll go down as the man who opened the eyes of millions round the world to the glories, the values, the importance of, to use his term, biodiversity.
ED WILSON: I've always been disturbed that we know so little about the diversity of life on the planet. We know about 1.8 million species— given a scientific name like homo sapiens—but we know that the number could easily be 10 million and it could be as high as 100 million. We don't know. Like nematode worms, microorganisms or fungi, the vast majority of species we know, full well, have never been discovered.
It's almost as though you were a doctor and you were trying to make a diagnosis and a prognosis and so on about someone's illness, and you only knew 10 percent of the organs in the body. So there's a compelling need to explore the planet. And there are lots of other reasons, too: all the various new products that we could find, the new principles of biology that would emerge. But how can we do this?
For some 10 years now, I've been preaching—if I might use that good Southern Baptist expression—the need to have a single access system for collecting the information and organizing it. And I finally gave it a name in 2003. It was the Encyclopedia of Life. That would be an electronic encyclopedia, which would consist of one page, indefinitely extensible, for each and every one of the species of organisms on Earth—even if it goes to 100 million—into which everything we know about that species, everything, would be collected. And as new knowledge accumulated, that would be added.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson's dream of listing every living species on the planet is now starting to be realized. The Smithsonian, Harvard University and several other institutions are pooling their resources to create a complete Encyclopedia of Life, with over 1.8 million entries. Naturalists will be able to compare minute differences and to establish the evolutionary pedigrees of any form of life. For Ed Wilson, it is the culmination of a lifetime's fascination with the vast diversity of life, the "macroscope" that he always wanted to go with his microscope.
CHILD: What's that?
ED WILSON: That's a carpenter ant. Ouch! He bit me! How dare him
I feel very fortunate to have reached 78 and to have spent— since I began, really, as a 16 year old, doing serious science. You know, actually collecting, identifying and getting information that was actually usable as science. I've watched it go through the molecular period of a good part of half a century in which biology was revolutionized, but in the course of which higher levels of biology, dealing with organisms and ecosystems and classification and biodiversity, were sidelined.
Now, partly because of the developments in molecular biology, it's bought me around full-circle. So that now, in my superannuated years, I'm witnessing a tremendous surge upward of the fields that I began with.
NARRATOR: Ed Wilson has lived through several revolutions in biology. Now, it seems, the DNA demons that haunted him in the '60s, have been transformed into guardian angels, as genetics helps unravel evolutionary history.
ED WILSON: You know, if I could have my time again, I think I would be a microbial ecologist. I would spend my time studying micro-organisms in their natural environment. I'd cut my way through forests of bacteria on a grain of sand. I would imagine myself in a submarine in a drop of water that seemed as large as a lake, and for one more turn around, I would be an explorer naturalist in a new world.
NARRATOR: On NOVA's Lord of the Ants Web site, hear from E.O. Wilson on how a pivotal childhood experience helped shape his career. Find it on PBS.org.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch. And...
Discovering new knowledge: HHMI.
Major funding for Lord of the Ants is provided by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Additional funding is provided by Gordon and Betty Moore and by the Invitrogen Educational Foundation. And by the following:
UNC Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Teach Green Charitable Foundation and The Nurture Nature Foundation
Major Funding for NOVA is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
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