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From backyard ant-watching to World Ecology Award: A conversation with E.O. Wilson

Beth Maynor Finch

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.

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.

“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.”

With about 15,000 species of ants in existence on the planet, the creatures would soon capture Wilson’s interest for a lifetime. And they make up just a fraction of the roughly 10 million species, as Wilson estimated during the show, that currently call Earth home.

“We’ve just begun to explore life on this planet,” Wilson said, adding that such biodiversity is at great risk now with species going extinct “somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times faster than before the coming and the spread of humanity.”

“Probably closer to 100 times,” he noted, “but at the same time accelerating higher and higher. By the end of the century, it’s easy to predict that unless something is done, half of earth’s living diversity will be gone.”

Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, offers ideas for addressing that looming reality in his book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.” He is also beginning work on another volume to be titled “Tales from the Ant World.”

An only child who grew up in “the wilds of Alabama,” Wilson said, he developed an affection for nature at an early age, collecting butterflies and reading “every issue of National Geographic” that he could get his hands on.

He dreamt of “someday going on great trips into the jungles” and discovering new kinds of animals.

“A boyhood dream, except that I was able to live that dream,” Wilson said. “[By high school] I thought that maybe I could become a ranger in a park, maybe I could become an entomologist studying insects, the kind who advises farmers on how to control pests and so on. And somehow I thought I could make a living, when I grew up, in the outdoors. The big thing was to never, ever have to come in from the outdoors.”

By the time he headed to college at the University of Alabama, he had decided on ants as his research focus.

Wilson first joined Harvard’s faculty in 1956 and introduced the concept of sociobiology, the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior in all kinds of organisms, nearly five decades ago. In 1995 he was named among the 25 most influential Americans by TIME.

The World Ecology Award that the Harris Center will bestow on Wilson this Friday, April 20, recognizes individuals who have raised public awareness of global ecological issues and made significant contributions to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

Previous recipients of the award include marine biologist Sylvia Earle (2016), Albert II, Prince of Monaco (2013), Harrison Ford (2002), Jane Goodall (1999) and John Denver (1990), among others.

Related Event

What: World Ecology Award Gala
When: 6 p.m. Friday, April 20, 2018
Where: St. Louis Zoo (1 Government Dr., St. Louis, MO 63110)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.