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Remembering Edward O. Wilson, a conservation advocate who studied ant colonies

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Edward O. Wilson, a pioneer in the field of evolutionary biology and a staunch conservation advocate, died Sunday in Burlington, Mass., the day after Christmas. He was 92.

Wilson did extensive research on ants. He developed original ideas on the evolution of behavior, exploring how natural selection could influence the development of the complex cooperation he observed in ant colonies. Wilson was a professor at Harvard and a prolific writer. Two of his books won Pulitzer Prizes. Terry spoke to Wilson in 1994 after the publication of his book "Journey To The Ants."

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TERRY GROSS: In your new book "Journey To The Ants," you have these fantastic blown-up photographs of ants. This is how ants look, I guess, under a microscope, you know, if you enlarge them thousands of times. And in these enlarged photographs, the ants look a lot, to me anyways, like dinosaurs. They have dinosaur-type faces, and their little antennae look like horns coming out of the head. They look quite prehistoric to me. And in fact, the ants date back to the dinosaur era. So is that why they look the way they do?

EDWARD O WILSON: Well, not just - it's not their great age, I think it's the fact that they have external skeletons. We are typical mammals in that we have an internal skeleton, and our tissues right out to our thin, soft skin are added like padding onto that internal skeletal structure. But insects, including ants, have it the other way around. They have their skeleton on the outside, and they have all that soft tissue on the inside.

Ants are - belong to an evolutionary line that diverged from our own half a billion years ago, and they achieved the - numerous adaptations to the world, including their social organization, in a way that's radically different from our own. So look at them as inhabitants, if you will, of another planet.

And this difference includes - to come quickly to the point of what I see in them as a scientist who works on them - includes their near-total reliance on chemical communication. And here, they are really radically different from us. We are audio-visual creatures. We should realize that our dependence on sound and sight to get through the world and to communicate with one another is really rather exceptional in the animal world. And the ants are much more typical in being chemical. That is to say, they release substances, chemicals, secretions from all over their bodies. They have special glands to - for this purpose that then they pass back and forth. They taste, they smell, and it's with different chemicals that they actually are able to communicate with one another rapidly and in a sophisticated manner. For example, there are chemicals they release to alarm one another saying there is an enemy near.

GROSS: You did an experiment on the chemical an ant gives off when the ant has died that communicates to the other ants that the ant is dead and needs to be carried out of the ant nest. Tell us about the experiment.

WILSON: When an ant dies, it - just like any other dead thing, it crumples up. It may be lying on its back, but it's not noticed by the other ants rushing by it inside the nest as we would notice it because we're visual. And the ants in the nest wait until the corpse begins to decay. And after two or three days, it's full of substances that are - you find in a corpse, you know, all of these unpleasant things like trimethylamine and skatole and fatty acids and so on. And it occurred to me - this is - we're talking back in the '50s during the early days of working out the chemical language events. It occurred to me that ants probably having small brains not being able to process very much information depended not on all that array of charnel house smells but probably zeroed in on a distinctive smell. And so it proved. I got this in synthetic form many of the chemicals that are found in corpses. My laboratory was unbearable to visitors for weeks during those experiments.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILSON: And I tried them one after the other on ants that I had in the laboratory and finally hit upon the astonishing discovery that, indeed, ants identify a corpse with oleic acid. When you dob oleic acid, pure oleic acid, on a piece of paper or a live ant from that nest, it's treated as a corpse. And I amused myself and students for years afterwards by putting oleic acid on live ants and watching them be picked up by their nest mates and carried out and dumped on the refuse pile where corpses are placed. Then the ants had to, of course, pick themselves up and try to clean themselves off and get back into work inside the nest. But if they didn't get enough of that oleic acid off, then they would be picked up and dumped in the corpse pile again. And this kept on until finally they got clean enough to rejoin the living. That's sort of the night of the living dead.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Were you able to analyze whether the living dead ants could do anything to protest being carried off?

WILSON: Nothing whatsoever because, you see, there's nothing in the natural world that adds something like oleic acid to the body of ants. And ants are magnificently programmed to do certain things with great efficiency and speed. But there are many things they're not programmed to do because there's never been any occasion in their evolution for them to do it.

GROSS: What would happen to the world if all the ants were to magically disappear?

WILSON: Terrible things. Let me preface my response by saying that, of course, we will do everything in our power to save the human species. That is the entire meaning of our own lives. But if the human species were to disappear from the Earth, the Earth would go on unperturbed. In fact, the ecosystems of the world would regain their previous equilibrium. And short of some great meteorite strike, the planet could count on another billion years or so of undisturbed evolution amidst great biological diversity. But if ants, these little despised creatures at our feet, were to disappear, because they are such vital parts of the ecosystem on which the turning of the soil and the removal of dead animals and the predation on other kind of animals and so on is vital, if they were removed, then we would see a partial collapse of the ecosystems on the land. Probably many thousands of other species would become extinct. Soon after, would - many plants would go extinct and so on. There would be a major reorganization and a depauperization of the land ecosystems. The world would suffer if it lost an important group like the ants.

DAVIES: Biologist Edward O. Wilson speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. Wilson died the day after Christmas. He was 92. On tomorrow's show, we talk about one of America's most popular conservative commentators, talk radio host Dan Bongino, and how he's trying to build a right-wing media infrastructure in time for the midterm elections. Our guest will be Evan Osnos, who profiles Bongino in the current issue of The New Yorker. I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "TEU CHAMEGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.