Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The original fire ants

In my book Alabama Curiosities, I wrote:

Thirteen-year-old Edward O. Wilson of Mobile was one of those kids who happily spends hours watching living things. A childhood accident had cost him his sight in one eye, and he seemed determined to see as much as possible out of the remaining one. He was especially fascinated by ants, in particular the ants in the vacant lot next to his family's house on Charleston Street, near the docks on the western edge of Mobile Bay.

He didn't know it at the time, but young Wilson had made a breakthrough scientific discovery. That ant colony he studied and documented so carefully in 1942 turned out to be the first recorded colony of the red imported fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, in the United States.

I now read, however, in the April 1-7, 2006, issue of New Scientist, an excerpt from Wilson's new book Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006 (Johns Hopkins University Press). Wilson writes:

In 1942, while exploring the ants of my neighbourhood in Mobile, I discovered a nest of the invader near the port docks and subsequently reported. It was one of the first two observations of the species in the US.

What, I wonder, was the other early observation, and where?

Wilson also writes that at age 16, he decided to quit ants and settle on flies as his life's work, only to be frustrated by a World War II shortage of pins. "So I turned back to ants, which can be preserved and studied in local pharmacy prescription bottles filled with rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol."

Today, as New Scientist points out, Wilson "is the world's leading authority on ants."


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