Renowned ant researcher EO Wilson dies at 92

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

EO Wilson was born June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, according to an obituary from the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The fin of a spiny pinfish scratched Wilson’s right eye while fishing at the age of 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 non-native fire ants in the United States, reports Reuters, and he continued to catalog ant species in Alabama throughout high school. Wilson received his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1949 from the University of Alabama and a master’s degree a year later from the same institution, while continuing to pursue his interest in ants. “They are microscopically among the most aesthetic insects of all insects,” Wilson wrote in her memoir, according to The New York Times.

During his doctoral studies at Harvard University, Wilson participated in expeditions to countries such as Cuba, Mexico, Australia, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Mozambique to document the diversity of ants in the world, according to a press release from the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. In 1955 Wilson both obtained his doctorate in entomology and married Irene Kelley. The following year he joined Harvard 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 study 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 fumigating insects from six mangrove islands in Florida and documenting the recolonization and repopulation of the species over two years. The observations, published in Ecology in 1970, provided information on species extinction and conservation science.

Wilson is also credited with developing the field of sociobiology, which addresses the biological foundations of animal behavior, according to the To post. When he extended this thought to humans in his 1975 book Sociobiology: the new synthesis, which argues that people’s behavior is genetically determined, it has sparked a lot of controversy, Reuters reports.

Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

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In the 1980s Wilson shifted his focus to conservation biology, continuing to travel the world and claiming that only by keeping half the Earth in the wild will biodiversity be saved. and mass extinction avoided, according to the Time. He co-founded the Society of Conservation Biology and the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which focuses on realizing Wilson’s vision to conserve half of the world’s environments and supports research documenting the biodiversity of species. Also a science writer, Wilson is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction books, On human nature (1979) and The ants (1991), the journal reports. In 2008, he created the Encyclopedia of Life, a collaborative online database of known species around the world.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a Wilson alumnus and primatologist at the University of California, Davis, tells the Time, “He was a visionary on many fronts.” In a 2008 PBS NOVA episode, British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough called Wilson a “leading example of a specialist” in ants, adding: “He sees the planet and the natural world it contains in amazing detail but extraordinary consistency,” the To post recount.

“With Ed, we have lost one of the intellectual giants of our time,” said Walter Jetz, scientific president of the EO Wilson Foundation for Biodiversity, in an emailed statement to The scientist. “He was a source of deep and influential ideas connecting disparate fields of biology and beyond. His lucid writing has inspired generations around the world to open their eyes and minds to the wonders of nature. More deeply, he showed the powerful role of a daring and rigorous science in appreciating and preserving the species of the world and their many wonders.

Wilson, whose wife Irene died in August of this year, according to the To post, will be sadly missed by his daughter Catherine.

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