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E.O. Wilson, Renowned Ant Researcher, Dies at 92

The naturalist was recognized for his work on social behavior and pheromones in ants and as a champion of wildlife conservation.

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Chloe Tenn

Chloe Tenn is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she studied neurobiology, English, and forensic science. Fascinated by the intersection of science and society, she has written for...

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ABOVE: E.O. Wilson JOEL JOHNSON

Edward Osborne Wilson died at age 92 yesterday (December 26) in Burlington, Massachusetts. Often lauded as Charles Darwin’s natural heir, Wilson was known for his research on ant behavior and biodiversity as well as for multiple books and international conservation efforts.

E.O. Wilson was born on June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, according to an obituary by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The fin of a spiny pinfish scratched Wilson’s right eye when he was fishing at age seven, permanently damaging his vision and depth perception, according to The Washington Post. In his 1994 memoir, Wilson wrote that “The attention of my surviving eye turned to the ground.”

At age 13, Wilson discovered the first colony of nonnative fire ants in the United States, reports Reuters, and he continued to catalog species of ants in Alabama throughout high school. Wilson earned his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1949 from the University of Alabama and a master’s a year later from the same institution, all the while continuing to pursue his interest in ants. “They are under the microscope among the most aesthetically pleasing of all insects,” Wilson wrote in his memoir, according to The New York Times.  

During his doctoral studies at Harvard University, Wilson participated in expeditions to countries including Cuba, Mexico, Australia, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Mozambique to document ant diversity around the globe, according to a statement by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. In 1955, Wilson both earned his PhD in entomology and married Irene Kelley. The following year, he joined Harvard’s faculty as a professor of entomology, where he continued to conduct research and teach until his retirement in 1996. In 1959, he published a study on pheromones, making him one of the first researchers to investigate how ants use these biological chemicals to communicate and behave.

See “How Ants Make Collective Decisions

In other work, Wilson performed a mass extinction study by removing insects from six mangrove islands in Florida via fumigation and documenting species recolonization and repopulation over two years. The observations, published in Ecology in 1970, provided insights into species extinction and conservation science.

Wilson is also credited with developing the field of sociobiology, which addresses the biological underpinnings of animal behavior, according to the Post. When he extended this thinking to humans in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which argues that people’s behavior is genetically determined, he incited much controversy, reports Reuters.

Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
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In the 1980s, Wilson pivoted his efforts to conservation biology, continuing to travel around the world and arguing that only by preserving half the Earth as wild will biodiversity be saved and mass extinction avoided, according to the Times. He cofounded the Society of Conservation Biology and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which focuses on achieving Wilson’s vision of conserving half the world’s environments and supports research documenting species biodiversity. Also a science writer, Wilson authored two Pulitzer Prize–winning nonfiction books, On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991), reports the newspaper. In 2008, he created the Encyclopedia of Life, an online collaborative database of the world’s known species.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a former student of Wilson and primatologist at the University of California, Davis, tells the Times, “He was a visionary on multiple fronts.” In a 2008 PBS NOVA episode, British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough called Wilson a “towering example of a specialist” on ants, adding, “He sees the planet and the natural world that it contains in amazing detail but extraordinary coherence,” the Post recounts.

“With Ed we have lost one of the intellectual giants of our time,” says Walter Jetz, scientific chair of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, in a statement emailed to The Scientist.  “He was a wellspring of deep and influential ideas linking disparate fields of biology and beyond. His lucid writing inspired generations worldwide to open their eyes and minds to the marvels of nature. Most profoundly, he showed the powerful role of bold, rigorous science for appreciating and preserving the world’s species and their many wonders.”

Wilson, whose wife Irene died in August of this year, according to the Post, is survived by his daughter Catherine.

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