Colonial lives

Hoyt, Eric.1996. The Earth Dwellers: Adventures in the Land of the Ants. New York. Simon and Schuster. 319pp.

Excellent book about ants at La Selva, the Organization for Tropical Studies’ field station in Costa Rica, both because it describes several species of very different ants from an ant’s eye view and for the endearing descriptions of two great myrmecologists, Bill Brown and E.O. Wilson, at work together in the field. Wilson is known to almost everyone, but Brown was also one of the greatest entomologists of the last century. Their contrasting personalities make them like characters from a movie about the adventures of two mismatched buddies. I was amused and edified by Hoyt’s description of their field techniques and sometimes reckless determination in the search for the miracle ant, Thaumatomyrmex. Brown’s views on taxonomic and systematic work, described here, are worth considering, and it is also worthwhile to look up his and Wilson’s published papers. Hoyt includes interesting biographical accounts of both men and quite a lot of readable information on the biology and evolution of ants and ants’ social behavior.

Wilson, E.O. and Jose M. Gomez Duran. 2010. Kingdom of Ants. Jose Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 96 pp.

Jose Celestino Mutis spent over forty years as a physician, botanist, linguist and priest in what is now Colombia (when he arrived from Spain in 1761, it was the New Kingdom of Granada). He began studying ants at the suggestion of Linnaeus, whose system he used in his work on plants. His detailed reports on ants are apparently lost, but this little book contains long quotes from his journals, which give accounts of his studies several species, including leaf cutter and army ants. Every aspiring naturalist should study these notes to appreciate Mutis’s clarity, perseverance and, above all, skepticism and honesty. This is best shown in the passages where he explains how he realized that the big-headed “soldier” ants were not the males, but instead, when he finally was able to observe copulation, males turned out to be the small winged individuals, who he originally took for young females, not fully grown. He expresses his gratitude to God for enabling him to correct his error and make such a wonderful discovery. In another entry, he reproaches himself for letting the press of his experiments on smelting metals in the mines cause him to forget to follow up on a potentially valuable observation. Another day, he forgets to record part of what he saw, and so with reservation, he allows himself to write it down the next day. He constantly refers to the need to check his conjectures with more observations and to try to reconfirm what others report to him. He often asks the local farmers for their views, but he never accepts them without the evidence of his own eyes. When he tries to estimate the number of army ants in a colony, he uses several independent methods of arriving at the number. As Wilson and Duran point out, about all you could wish of him is a naturalist is that he had included sketches of his ants to help modern myrmecologists identify them. They wonder why he did not do for ants what he did for plants: fit them into Linneaus’ system and have illustrations prepared. Despite owning a huge library, he was evidently not aware of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work on insects in Surinam or any published works on ants. He was quite on his own, with no prior experience and no expert to guide him when he began his work at age twenty-eight. Linnaeus had named only a handful of ants, all in one genus and with very sketchy descriptions. Although Mutis’s descriptions show him to be clear sighted, he does not attempt any sort of systematic classification of the species he encounters, based for example, on the number of petiole segments or the presence of a sting in the workers. This job was left to later workers. His greatest contributions were to the study of ants’ social behavior. He was without doubt one of the finest scientists of the 18th century. Perhaps only von Humboldt equals him as an observer. On the 200th anniversary of his death, the Colombian myrmecologist, Fernando Fernández and E.O. Wilson, named a new ant species, Pheidole mutisi (Fernández, F.; Wilson, E. O. 2008. José Celestino Mutis, the ants, and Pheidole mutisi sp. nov. Revista Colombiana de Entomología 34:203-208). 

Thanks to Wilson and Duran for making this gem available to naturalists.

Rau, Phil and Nellie Rau. 1918. Wasp Studies Afield. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 372 pp. [Dover Books reprint]

This is a fascinating early twentieth century work on solitary and social wasps. The Raus carried out their studies in the midwestern U.S. Their research covered hunting wasps with a wide range of prey. The wasps included both soil and wood nesting species in diverse habitats; one even dug in the clay infield of a baseball diamond. The Raus made detailed behavioural observations on many species and did experiments on paper wasp homing ability. They mention the drop off in aggression by paper wasps as winter approaches, all the brood matures and the workers die off and are replaced by overwintering queens. That’s just one example of many behaviors that I have noticed but not really thought about until they described it. Another good read for anyone who aspires to study insects in the field.


Looking for the Logos of Life I

Schrodinger, Erwin. 1967. What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell and Mind and Matter. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 178pp.

I wanted to put up this brief post before I launch into some much longer ones on books that purport to extend Schrodinger’s ideas and the tremendous biological discoveries that followed in the ensuing decades. I got started on this when I read another book, Eva Brann’s The Logos of Heraclitus [2011. Paul Dry Books. 160 pp], about which more later.

This is the first of a genre: physicists and chemists look at life. Schrodinger, in these lectures, delivered in Ireland in 1943, introduces the idea that life exists far from the thermodynamic equilibrium that physics sees most systems as tending towards. He is also the source of an idea I first heard when I was a graduate student, that organisms feed on “negative entropy.” The essay is worth reading for the quality of his reasoning and clear exposition, even though his predictions about the nature of the material carrier of heredity turned out not to be quite right.

Just one interesting thought: he points out that whatever molecule the hereditary material consists of carries out its functions in a way different from most of the enzymes in a cell. While most reactions in the cell rely on basically random interactions between molecules, in that you can only predict the general rate of reaction and not whether a specific molecule will react, there’s just one copy of a given gene in each cell. It has to be essentially certain that it will participate when needed in its particular role. Nevertheless, the basic processes of translation and transcription do involve many enzymes, along with the building blocks of nucleic acids and proteins, in what must be the usual sort of collectively predictable, individually unpredictable, dance. DNA is after all, a template, a fixed model against which to construct a product. Keeping that template stable and making sure it is copied correctly is the job of a whole complex set of enzymes in the cell. As Schrodinger points out, a big molecule like DNA can have the stability of a crystal, being held together by essentially the same forces.

V.G. Dethier, entomologist

Dethier, Vincent G.  1992. Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos. Cambridge MA. Harvard Univ. Press. 140 pp.

A wonderful little book, recounting his summer as a field assistant to G.W. Pierce, who studied the acoustics of insect songs. Also gives keys to both the orthopterans discussed and their sounds as well as a bibliography. Lovely pen and ink illustrations by Abigail Rorer .

The chapter entitled The Shield Bearers (p. 100) begins as follows: “The stereotypical entomologist is an odd character, long of nose, short of vision, adorned with Ben Franklin spectacles, and given to dashing madly o’er the lea, with net and beard streaming in tandem in the breeze of his pursuit.” The chapter epigraph is a quote from John Phillips’s “Cyder.”  which advises catching wasps that swarm on ripe apples by hanging up vials of “Moyle,” a kind of cider made from Moyle apples, “Mum,” a type of beer, or “Treacle’s viscous juice,” that is , blackstrap molasses. Just about the formula we still use today for moth bait.

Vince Dethier (1915-1993) is a writer every aspiring entomologist ought to read, especially his To Know A Fly [1962. Holden-Day. 119 pp] or for the serious student, The Hungry Fly [1976. Cambridge MA. Harvard Univ. Press. 512 pp. His writing is humorous, lucid and just fun.

For the Love of Leps

bflyLeach, William. Butterfly People. An American Encounter With the Beauty of the World. Pantheon. New York. 388 pp. 2013.

This book, beautifully illustrated, is a history of the discovery and documentation of the butterfly fauna of the United States and of the entomologists, amateur and professional, who fed the public fascination with butterflies in the 19th century – Samuel Scudder, William Henry Edwards, Herman Strecker, Augustus Grote, W. J. Holland, and many others. The author has many reflections on the importance of both Darwin and Romanticism (especially German) on the interpretation of the biology and meaning of butterflies. There is also a lot on the collectors, scientific and commercial, who travelled throughout North America and the rest of the world to satisfy the demand for specimens, often at considerable risk and always with much hardship. Butterflies and moths were much more than a scientific concern: there was a great deal of commerce in specimens, as many, if not most, young men of middle class aspirations had a Lepidoptera collection, even if few collected themselves. It is strange to think in our day of fancy cars, world travel and electronic devices, how much one’s status might have been tied up in various collections, whether, insects, stamps, shells or books.

Leach mentions George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty several times as a perspective on the 19th-century’s fascination with natural form and color. As well as commercial specimens, large format books with color plates were an important part of the butterfly business. He talks about the illustrators and the changing technology of color reproduction.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was one of the repositories of collections, including the very early and important Titian Peale collection, which was to have formed the basis of a never-completed series of books by that second-generation Philadelphia artist. The American Entomological Society, founded 1859, played a role as well. The society’s book collection, still housed at the Ewell Sale Stewart Library of the Academy, includes many of the most attractive 19th-century publications.

This is a fine account of what natural history meant to Americans in the first century and a half of the nation and of the friendships and rivalries among these early naturalists.

Contact, Conflict and Cooperation

Soderland, Jean R. 2015. Lenape Country. Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. Phila. U. Penn. Press. Early American Studies Series. 249 pp.

An interesting, if somewhat repetitive, account of the period from 1630s to mid-1700’s, when Lenape and Susquehanna Indians, Swedes and Finns, Dutch and English contended for the trade in beaver skins, etc. coming down from Canada. Soderland’s point is that most of this struggle was peaceful or at least not open warfare and the Lenape managed to remain masters of the territory surrounding the Delaware (Lenapewihittuck or South) River, until William Penn’s sons and other land swindlers got the last large tract on the west side from them in the 1700s. For much of that time, Swedes, Finns and Lenapes formed an alliance against the Dutch and English, resisting their attempts to acquire and govern large areas of territory. The Europeans were largely confined to small outposts along both sides of the river up to the time that the Quakers began to acquire large tracts for settlers.

Part of her contention is that Penn’s treaty was not anything really new. The Lenape had been fairly skillful negotiators all along and willing to employ threats and force to keep the other groups from extablishing large settlements and plantations, as Europeans had in Virginia and New England. They also had to deal with threats from Maryland settlers, but here they were aided by the other Europeans. She repeatedly points out that the only sizable massacre in the lower Delaware region was near the site of Lewes, Delaware, in 1631, an early show of willingness by the Lenape to use violence to stop large scale settlement.

The Europeans learned not to assume that their concepts of ownership and transfer of rights were understood by the Lenape, and they preferred to keep negotiating peace for the sake of continued trade rather than revenging past wrongs or trying for outright conquest. This may have simply been due to lack of means. Their “companies,” back in Sweden, the Netherlands and England had limited resources and aims and often could not supply trade goods or support for the settlers. Still, she implies that some of the local directors and governors were simply more inclined to diplomacy than war and that the Lenape were more than willing to go along, despite the mockery of other tribes, especially those to the north, who were often agitating for war. She claims that at one point, around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion and King Phillips’s War in the 1670s, if the Lenape had joined the rest of the native Americans in an all out assault, they might have driven out the Europeans. Seems unlikely, but they certainly could have dealt a massive setback in the whole mid-Atlantic region, with unimaginable future consequences, for example for the French position in North America, etc.

The background to all this, of course, is the gradual decline of the native population due to epidemic disease. Does this stark fact lend credence to Jared Diamond’s guns, germs and steel theory? I’d like to not think so. Part of what’s missing in that view is the central role played by trade in keeping both sides in contact with each other throughout the period. The other point is that both sides suffered a lot from diseases, although Europeans may have been somewhat more resistant. There is no suggestion that the epidemics were an actual weapon. In fact, they instigated revenge killings (she calls it “mourning war”) and so were a source of friction between Europeans and Americans.

The other point is that the Lenape and the Europeans rather quickly began to intermingle in many ways – tools, agriculture, marriage. The Lenape didn’t like the Europeans’ domestic animals, which were often a cause of conflict, and they showed little inclination to become Christians, which led a lot of preachers to accuse them of devil worship. But particularly with the Swedes and Finns, there seems to have been a fair amount of cooperation. There are several cases described in the book of both sides handling criminal complaints about the other side in a way that worked fairly well.

One aspect that surpised me was the very low estimate of the number of European heads of household in West Jersey as late as the count in 1671: seven men and no women. Was some segment of the population simply being missed? Do other records indicate that there were Europeans living in some places where they were missed in the count? One of the recent books she criticizes is Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years. (Knopf 2012), may be worth a look.

Fearful scimitars

Sabertooth by Mauricio Anton (2013) Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 243 pp.

This is the natural history of an ecological niche: an ambush predator that captures prey by a throw and pin, with powerful forelimbs and a long, strong back, followed by a bite to the neck, using greatly elongated canine teeth, made possible by jaw adaptations that permit a huge gape and a long, strong neck. The bite results in bleed out and death of the victim. It is argued that this leads to quicker and safer kills than the suffocation method employed by modern big cats on large prey. The author does a remarkable job of tracing the paleontology of successive groups of species that have occupied this role since the Permian, although there seem to have been no dinosaurs that did so.

The illustrations of fossils, reconstructed animals and landscapes are beautifully done, in loving detail. The painstaking anatomical analyses to show how these killing machines worked are clear and persuasive, at least to a non-expert. There are interesting accounts of the constantly changing nomenclature of the fossils.

It would be useful to see similar accounts of modern large cats, hyaenids and other carnivores to get a sense of how the sabertooths fit into the big picture of carnivore evolution and why it is they went extinct instead of the others.

The extinction happened several times, as the successive groups of sabretooths disappeared, and they were not quickly replaced. Sometimes millions of years seem to have elapsed before a new lineage appeared to fill the niche. Indeed, sometimes there were no large felids of any kind for extended periods, if we can trust the fossil record. At other times, a new group may have out-competed the current occupants of the sabertooth niche. One might say that there is room at the top of the food web, but it is a precarious position that isn’t always filled.

Perhaps the most recent occupants of the niche went extinct with the megafauna of the old and new worlds, but could they have been done in by more efficient pantherids? Was their technique only suitable for very specific types of prey that got replaced by more wary and evasive herbivores or did vegetation change doom their hunting methods? Did their very specialized anatomy and techniques simply run out of room for improvement against ever more challenging prey? Anton thinks that their very specialized niche may have left them relatively more vulnerable to shifts in prey abundance. This would be a major factor in the late Pleistocene, along with competition from lions and humans, among others. As the least flexible group, they may have been the first to go.

Does it mean there’s an unoccupied niche now, or are those habitats and resources simply gone?

What other convergences in form and behavior has natural selection produced across time and biogeographic realms? We all know at least a few ecological equivalents, like pangolins and armadillos, or moles, marsupial moles and mole crickets. There’s an interesting one involving modern beetles’ and early rodents’ mandibles, but it isn’t clear what the functional significance is (John Acorn in American Entomologist, Summer 2014, p 128). Thanks to Mauricio Anton for presenting this story so beautifully.

Ecosystem lost and found?

Looking for Longleaf. The Fall and Rise of an American Forest by Lawrence S. Earley (2004) Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. 322pp.

When I was a teenager, my grandfather recalled for me how the longleaf pine forests in eastern North Carolina looked when he was young, some seventy to eighty years before. It was like being in a cathedral, he said, with the trunks of the trees like columns and the forest floor clear as far as you could see. This book gives an introduction to the character and extent of the longleaf pine ecosystem, once dominant over a vast region of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain, introducing the plant, Pinus palustris, the diversity of associated plants (sometimes hundreds of species in a square kilometer and as many as 40-60 in a square meter) and several of the more distinctive animals, like gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker.

Earley explains the critical role of fire and soil in establishing the diversity of types within the overall longleaf ecosystem.

The middle part of the book is a historical account of the European encounter with the forest, its exploitation by the naval stores industry and its eventual destruction by that industry and the railroad based loggers. Some of these descriptions fit closely with what I heard from my grandfather and from a friend in North Carolina (whom Earley interviewed for the section on turpentining). He talks about rafting logs down the coastal rivers (as my grandfather, born in 1869, did as a boy) and shipping naval stores (my grandfather also described how the cooper made the barrels for turpentine). He explains that what preserved so much of the forest were the limitation of cutting timber to areas close to usable streams, that is until the railroads came. My father (born 1913) recalled how the railroad was brought in to log some of the most remore and inaccessible places when he was growing up. Some time around 1970, before the railroad was finally abandoned, I saw carloads of longleaf pine stumps waiting to be hauled off to extract the valuable resins or to make fatwood kindling, sold by L.L. Bean, among others. Earley also mentions the continued interest in salvaging sunken logs and getting lumber from old buildings.

The final chapters are on the development of forest management ideas, from failed attempts at replanting to replacement by loblolly and slash pine and the gradual development of methods to regenerate longleaf, first as even aged stands but now moving towards uneven age management and overall ecosystem restoration. Red-cockaded woodpecker played a key role in several changes in policy, driven by court decisions under the Endangered Species Act. Many of the agencies involved, like the US forest Service have serious problems dealing with the steady increase in scientific and ecological understanding of the forests. Institutional change is difficult, especially when institutional memory is impaired by frequent reassignment of key people and political pressures. The US Forest Service has had an especially hard time admitting it has been wrong about fire suppression and even-aged management.

He talks about the role of national and state forests and of large and small private landholders (currently there is increasing longleaf acgeage on federal and maybe state land and on large private conservation holdings, but continued losses on timber company lands and small private holdings) and what the trends may mean for the future of the ecosystem and many of its species. New incentives under the Conservation Reserve Program may be changing the minds of some private owners. It is possible to derive a pretty steady income from restored longleaf, partly through sale of raked needles in the 10th to 15th years after replanting. Poles are much in demand, using middle aged trees. The author seems most impressed by adaptive management approaches using small group-selection cuts and frequent growing season fire. Several interesting examples are described in the next to last chapter on restoration. Some of these areas sound like they would be worth seeing, and there are some groups that can help with restoration, a topic that is on my mind lately, as I and my brothers and sisters still hold a small remnant of thousands of acres of longleaf land owned by my great-great grandfather in the early 1800s. We will soon be clearing the stand of loblolly pine, planted decades ago, to make way for longleaf again.