UC Davis doctoral alumnus Marek Borowiec, now an assistant professor in the University of Idaho's Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Nematology, is one of many who drew inspiration from Wilson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biologist considered "the" global expert on ants.
As a master's student from Poland on a Ernst Mayr grant, Borowiec worked near his office at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ).
Borowiec posted this 10-itemed thread Jan. 4 on his Twitter account:
- "Ed Wilson's passing marks an end of an era. He inspired generations of myrmecologists. Here's my story. I was a biology college freshman in Poland when I read Naturalist. I had already read several of his books and was mostly interested in what he had to say about human nature."
- "Reading Naturalist, however, it seemed to me that Wilson was more excited about chasing ants around the world than toppling paradigms. I thought, 'huh, if this guy thinks ants are so fascinating, there must be something to it.' "
- "On my next walk in a local park I picked up some ants and stuffed them into the toothpick compartment of my Swiss army knife. I identified them using a microscope my parents got me, using an outdated key to insects of USSR."
- "As boring as Lasius niger is, at the time I thought this was the coolest-looking thing I ever saw. My dad, also an entomologist, saw his son's potential path to the dark side and pointed out that a modern key to the ants of Poland had just come out (Radchenko et al 2004)."
- "A year later I had the thing literally memorized. I could run through most of the Myrmica key in my mind without even opening the book. Soon, I was given an opportunity to work for @mil_janda (Milan Janda) who put me in charge of sorting some mind-blowing material from Papua New Guinea."
- "Initially I thought I wanted to study ant ecology but the diversity of shape and form of tropical ants made me want to study systematics. As a Masters student, still in Poland, I went to MCZ on an Ernst Mayr grant and spent two weeks working opposite to Wilson's Harvard office."
- "Ed wasn't around then but Stefan Cover convinced me I should apply to grad school with Phil Ward (who, I believe, was inspired to study ants after reading Wilson's The Insect Societies). Fast forward a couple of years and I landed in Sacramento as a starry-eyed PhD student."
- "I visited MCZ three more times since then and was finally able to meet Ed in 2019. At 90 his enthusiasm was still infectious, his mind enviably lucid for any age. I am grateful to have met him, however briefly."
- "All this has been an incredible adventure. Many supported me early in my professional journey, including but not limited to my parents Marta and Lech Borowiec, Alfred Buschinger, @mil_janda (Milan Janda),@GaryDAlpert1 (Gary D. Albert), Stefan Cover, Phil Ward, @BBlaimer (Bonnie Blaimer), @bramic21 (Michael Branstetter)...
- "But it all starts with Ed's Naturalist."
Borowiec received his doctorate at UC Davis in 2016, studying with major professor and myrmecologist Phil Ward.
"My focus has been primarily on ant diversity and evolution and in my research I combine field work, morphology, molecular phylogenetics and comparative methods," Borowiec writes on his website. "I am also interested in computing and phylogeny estimation from high-throughput sequencing data. Ants are the world's most successful eusocial organisms. Long history, high species diversity and extreme variety of life histories make them an excellent group in which many evolutionary questions can be addressed."
E. O. Wilson influenced so many scientists.../span>
Then shortly after Wilson's death, entomologist Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware professor, published an article in The Conversation that explored Wilson's lifelong passion for ants.
"Wilson, who died Dec. 26, 2021 at the age of 92, discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate," wrote Tallamy. "He worked out the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape in sustaining animal populations. And he was the first to understand the evolutionary basis of both animal and human societies."
"Each of his seminal contributions fundamentally changed the way scientists approached these disciplines, and explained why E.O.--as he was fondly known--was an academic god for many young scientists like me," Tallamy continued. "This astonishing record of achievement may have been due to his phenomenal ability to piece together new ideas using information garnered from disparate fields of study."
"Though I am an entomologist," Tallamy wrote, "I did not realize that insects were “the little things that run the world” until Wilson explained why this is so in 1987. Like nearly all scientists and nonscientists alike, my understanding of how biodiversity sustains humans was embarrassingly cursory. Fortunately, Wilson opened our eyes."
Last weekend I noticed some "little things that run the world" when I ventured out in the backyard to set out a spoonful of honey (not to "let the medicine go down" but to see ants come up).
What arrived: Argentine ants, as identified by Phil Ward.
Argentine ants are pests, says Ward, known globally for his expertise on ant systematics. These invaders from South America "form super colonies, which means different colonies don't fight each other; they're all cooperating," he told the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day/Month viewers. "And the other downside of Argentine ants is that they tend to eliminate native ants. So over the years I've lived in Davis, I have certainly noticed that native ants have declined as the Argentine ants have expanded. And they expand not just in, say, urban areas, but along certain natural habitats and one that they really like is the riparian habitat. So if you look along rivers and streams that are near urban areas, they're getting invaded by Argentine ants. And when they do, most native ants just disappear. This is a very tough aggressive ant and the mellow California ants can't handle an aggressive invader from South America. So they just disappear."
In his hour-long UC Davis presentation, Ward answered scores of questions, drawing viewers from as far away as Virginia. He illustrated his talk with ant images taken his former doctoral student Alex Wild (PhD from UC Davis in 2005), curator of entomology at the University of Texas, Austin, and a noted macro photographer (http://www.alexanderwild.com).
Ants, Ward said, live in long-lived colonies with (1) cooperative brood care (2) overlapping generations and (3) reproductive division of labor, the hall marks of eusocial behavior. He also pointed out:
- A typical ant colony contains a reproductive queen, numerous non-reproductive workers and brood (eggs, larvae, pupae)
- Colonies of ants can be thought of as superorganisms: tightly integrated and cooperative entities with complex systems of communication and division of labor (castes)
Ants originated about 120 million years ago (early Cretaceous), evolving from "wasp-like creatures," Ward said. They are members of the order Hymenoptera, and their closest relatives include honey bees, cockroach wasp and the mud daubers.
California has some 300 species of ants, Ward related, but thousands more are in the tropics, like Costa Rico. Globally, there may be as many as 40,000 to 50,000 species of ants, the professor estimated, but only about 14,000 are described.
"Ants have occupied almost all of the world's land surfaces, from deserts to rain forests," Ward said. "There's a few places they're absent. They're not in Antarctica, no surprise! They haven't colonized the Arctic and a few very high elevation tropical mountains, but apart from that, almost any place you go on land you'll see our friends, the ants. And they have assumed a quite a diverse array of ecological roles. Some of them are predators, others are scavengers, and some are seed collectors, and these habits vary tremendously among different species in different parts of the world."
Ants communicate largely by chemical (pheromones) and tactile means, Ward said, adding that their vision is "not particularly acute." He pointed out that that they lay a trail pheromones from the source of food back to the nest. They have alarm pheromones, causing other workers to act defensively. Chemicals also help ants distinguish their nest mates.
Ward's presentation, "All About Ants II," is posted on YouTube at https://youtu.be/d8eRNsD8dxo. You'll want to see why the UC Davis myrmecologist calls "My friends, the ants."
As for my little venture into "the ant world," I learned they are quite fascinating, but also quite difficult to photograph. They are indeed "the little things that run the world" and the emphasis should be on "run."
Even with a belly full of honey.
Back in May of 2005, entomologist Fran Keller, a professor at Folsom Lake College and a UC Davis doctoral alumnus, interviewed E. O. Wilson for a presentation at the 2005 Entomological Society of America meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
This week remembrances are pouring in for Wilson, the legendary Harvard emeritus professor, biologist, naturalist and author who died Dec. 26 at age 92 in Burlington, Mass. (See UC Davis tributes on the Department of Entomology and Nematology website.)
Recognized as one of the world's most influential scientists, Wilson was known as “The Ant Man,” "The Father of Sociobiology," "The Father of Diversity" and “The Modern-Day Darwin," for his pioneering and trailblazing work that drew global admiration and won scores of scientific awards.
But among his peers, colleagues and mentees, he was known as "Ed."
"Our department of entomology helped fund my trip to Harvard,” Keller recalled, “and he agreed to meet me over the course of two days in May 2005. The ESA symposium took place in mid-December. I recorded our interview on a cassette tape,” she said, adding she hopes to publish it in a journal.
“We walked around the MCZ (Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology) for a bit together, talking about species discovery, biodiversity and extinction,” she recalled. “We stopped at the display of birds and the ivory-billed woodpecker. We stopped at Darwin's finches on display. We went into the room where the rhinos were displayed and as we stared together at the rhinos, silent, I couldn't help myself and I began to cry. I apologized for my emotional display and said ‘It just makes me horribly sad that I may never get to see this animal in the wild, that it may be lost forever. I'm an entomologist, I don't know why this rhino makes me so sad. I didn't cry in front of the ivory-billed woodpecker.”
“After my interview with Ed, I bought the book in the MCZ, The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasues at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. In that book, it highlights the extinct and rare species held in the MCZ collections. One of those specimens is the last Xerces butterfly, which was caught by Harry Lange (UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology). Harry's quote in that book, ‘I didn't know it was the last one, I thought there would be more' and then my time eating lunch and then wandering the MCZ collection and chatting with Ed inspired me to create the Xerces t-shirt for the Bohart Museum of Entomology.”
One of Keller's mentors, Tom Schoener, studied with Wilson. “I worked on plant ecology and island biogeography for my undergrad research (Sacramento City College)," she said, "and continued that for awhile in grad school (UC Davis). Ed Wilson was one of the founders of island biogeography.” And, as a undergraduate at Sacramento City College, Keller was part of a field trip to hear Wilson speak at his 2002 book tour on The Future of Life.
Wilson's work, On Human Nature, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. He won a second Pulitzer in 1991 with The Ants, co-authored with colleague Bert Hölldobler. In 1990, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Wilson the Crafoord Prize in biosciences, the highest scientific award in the field. In 1996, Time magazine named him one of America's 25 most influential people. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter awarded him the National Medal of Science for his contributions toward the advancement of knowledge in biology.
Wilson, according to reports, always considered himself an Alabaman who went to Harvard, rather than a Harvard professor born in Alabama. Born June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Ed graduated from the University of Alabama in 1949 with two degrees in biology, and received his doctorate in biology from Harvard in 1955. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1956. Although officially retiring in 1996, he remained active as an emeritus professor and honorary curator until his death.
Borowiec, who received his doctorate in entomology in June from the University of California, Davis, studying with major professor Phil Ward, will speak on "Genomic Data and the Tree of Life: Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns of Army Ant Evolution" at his exit seminar.
Set from 4:10 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 26 in 122 Briggs Hall, Kleiber Hall Drive, the seminar will be hosted by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. Plans call for video-recording the seminar for later posting on UCTV.
"I got interested in ants after reading E. O. Wilson's autobiography 'Naturalist' as a freshman in college," Borowiec related. "I'm fascinated by the diversity of form and function in ants, that is, by the various ways they make a living and the incredible variation of their morphologies."
Harvard University professor Wilson, one of the world's most distinguished scientists, is two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. (See his Ted talks.)
"Ants are the world's most successful eusocial organisms," said Borowiec, whose research interests include phylogeny, taxonomy, biogeography, and natural history of ants. "Long history, high species diversity, and extreme variety of life histories make them an excellent group in which many evolutionary questions can be addressed."
"My dissertation research at UC Davis focused on building a taxonomic and phylogenetic framework for the research on army ant evolution," said Borowiec, who received his master's degree in 2009 from the Department of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Taxonomy, University of Wroclaw, Poland. "Although army ants include very charismatic species, they belong to a larger group, the subfamily Dorylinae. In addition to the army ants, dorylines comprise many cryptic ants whose biology and even taxonomy have been neglected. Partly as a result of this, even phylogenetic relationships of the army ants are not well-understood. The first step to advancing evolutionary research in the group was thus to examine the morphological diversity within this lineage. This resulted in a generic revision of the subfamily, published open-access in ZooKeys. Expertise gained during this work allowed me to design robust taxon sampling for a phylogeny of the dorylines based on next-generation sequencing data (ultraconserved elements or UCEs), currently in preparation."
Borowiec is now a postdoc in the lab of evolutionary biologist Christian Rabeling of Rochester, N.Y. who works on ants. In January the lab will be moving to Tempe, Ariz.
Myrmecologist Marek Borowiec would certainly agree with E.O. Wilson's noted quotes about ants:
- "Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans."
- "Ants are the dominant insects of the world, and they've had a great impact on habitats almost all over the land surface of the world for more than 50 million years."
- "When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all."