E. O. Wilson was wrong!

The downside to a celebrated and prolific scientific career is that you generate enough of a paper trail for something you concluded, somewhere, to be erroneous.

I happened on an amusing example this week while photographing the Caribbean turtle ants I blogged about earlier. Like most of the world's 12,000 or so ant species, not much is known about the biology of Cephalotes varians. However, famed myrmecologist E. O. Wilson maintained a few lab colonies in the 1970's and detailed his hours of meticulous observations in a paper entitled "A Social Ethogram of the Neotropical Arboreal Ant Zacryptocerus varians." It remains the most comprehensive attempt to understand this unusual ant. In the abstract, he summarizes:

The species displays unusual and in one or two cases possibly even unique social behaviours, including the consumption and sharing of infrabuccal pellets, the apparent absence of adult transport, a primarily or exclusively mechanical form of colony defence, and a remarkable form of abdominal trophallaxis.

To that I say, Hey Wilson, chew on this!



Caught on camera, turtle ants lasciviously locked in transport!

Adult transport is among the more striking ant behaviors. A worker curls up into fetal pupal position, allowing a nestmate to pick her up by the mandibles and carry her about. Many species are known to engage in adult transport (see here and here), and as the behavior is frequently observed during nest relocation the reason is thought to be related to communication- it's easier for an ant that knows where a colony needs to move to simply pick up another ant and carry it rather than try to lead it or communicate the directions. A second function may be ergonomic. One ant carrying another expends less energy than two ants walking on their own.

As to why Ed Wilson's colonies never performed the behavior under his watchful gaze, I can't say.

The important thing is that Wilson was wrong, wrong, wrong and clearly can't be trusted, his new novel Anthill will probably also be wrong, and I bet he's been wrong about, um, other things.

We bloggers, of course, are always right.

source: Wilson, E.1976. A social ethogram of the neotropical arboreal ant Zacryptocerus varians (Fr. Smith). Animal Behaviour 24: 354-363.


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Very cool - perhaps Wilson sought to cover up this behavior to fabricate an apomorphic behavior?

By Bob Kallal (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

I just burned my copies of The Ants and The Insect Societies based solely on the information contained in this post.

By Joshua King (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

"Hey Wilson, chew on this!"

I almost fell out of my chair.

Great shots of an interesting behaviour, though!

Ah, the joys of research: someone can spend diligent hours, days, months and years, researching a particular subject. Then some idiot like me phones the expert and says "I have a mockingbird in my backyard, even though the book says it shouldn't be here." Expert says "Nonsense!" but is persuaded to investigate. Mockingbird co-operates by sitting in top of Colorado Blue Spruce by the edge of the yard so that it can burst into glorious song as expert steps out of car.

A lot of research in biology is serendipitous. You just got lucky and E. O. Wilson got an abnormal research population.

Huh. I have long wondered about the adult carrying that I had seen. I used to think carriers were workers disposing of dead nest mates but when I prodded them the carried ant would miraculously come to life and run around as frantically as any other ant.

Foolish upstart. You KNOW E.O. Wilson has only to point his finger and a ravenous column of carpenter ants (probably employing adult carrying) will overrun and eat your house.

Not completely owned. He said "the apparent absence of adult transport", not the lack of adult transport. Wilson is a Fox, conditioning his claims, not a Hedgehog claiming absolutes. He knew he might be wrong.

Dagnabbit, 11 beat me to it, so instead I'll bash Wilson for using weaselly language. He'll probably claim he was misquoted, or that it was taken out of context. I'm notifying my Congressman, I want a stop to this foolish waste of tax dollars. Or something.

What a delightful entry! This really captures the true value of blogging. Conveying new information, passion for the subject, building community, engaging writing style...

You hit it out of the ballpark on this one, Alex!

Ew! Abdominal trophallaxis?! Maybe it's some adaptation related to the laying of trophic eggs?

Wow! I'm amazed, not that Wilson was the Devil disguised as an a X$%#&6&8n SOB liar, but that an ANT scientist is so emotional over an ant doing ant thingy behavior. Way to go, Ant Boy!!

How cool! I had no idea that ants would carry each other around other than for recycling when a worker has been trod on.

JasonC- and that's the polite way to say it. Most myrmecologists call the behavior "anal trophallaxis".

The People in my neighborhood in Philadelphia carry their spouses in a similar manner. In the past it tended toward men carrying their wives (usually after extremely loud Friday or Saturday night drunken parties) but now the pattern seems to have reversed, and I have observed several wives carrying their husbands in a similar fashion. While they are not actually performing trophallaxis, per se, they can be observed - if both are sentient - arguing ferociously with one another, or - if only one is sentient - the carried spouse often is called names that one might associate with trophallaxis. In terms of research, I'm pretty sure that if I were to trap a bunch of them in order to study them, the behavior might cease. This is probably what happened with Wilson's lab colonies.

Haha, I thought that was a great ending to your post ;)

I like how E.O. Wilson said "'apparent' absence", it just shows how smart that guy is.

Still though, I'd watch out for a flurry of fireants ravaging your house on behalf of Mezzers Holdobbler & Wilson.

By https://me.yah… (not verified) on 18 Apr 2010 #permalink

Grow up; This is the very nature of science. No facts (or we'ld still be walking on a flat Earth:)) Science is not sacred, neither is Wilson. I do not recall hearing or reading where he claimed to be so. You did a great job that is worth pursuing; do not spoil that by putting him down!
Excellent photos indeed.

I thought it was funny! Clearly good-natured ribbing, so I wouldn't worry about the humorless sofyan's of the world.

And now I can't even imagine how I got along all these years without knowing about anal trophallaxis ;)

#20 is a demonstration of why, although the concept of an international Web is great, people who are not native speakers* tend to miss 90% of what's going on within a given argot's blogosphere. So much of written communication is lost in translation. . .

*Of course, I'm assuming sofyan is not a native English speaker - if he/she is, then the only possible excuse for missing the humor in this post is that he/she is a Teabagger.

Indeed- the tone of my post was satirical, with no disrespect intended for Ed Wilson. I also assumed that sofyan is not a native English speaker and missed the nuances.

I haven't seen images of Wilson's famed ant farms, but it might be that this species failure to display adult transport behavior was a function of the farm construction.

You aren't motivated to move if you don't have anywhere in particular to go. Funny post!

In academia, the petty victories are always more important than the major accomplishments. Finding errors in other people's research stays with us more than completing degrees. Everyone who's done graduate work knows this to be true.

By Gopherus Agassizii (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink


Finding errors in other people's research stays with us more than completing degrees.

Right, unless the "error" in other people's research just caused you to waste two years failing to replicate someone else's crappy and poorly done experiment.

Thanks for making me laugh this morning!

Take that, Mr. E. O. Smartypants Wilson!!!!

Indeed, I am a non-native English speakers. I appologize for missin the point. I shall never again post anything on the WWW and leave it to English natives.
Sorry again.

Either it was, or there's still a miscommunication going on and sofyan thinks that people were mocking him for being a non-native speaker rather than excusing/explaining his mistake.

Just you wait!

Some creationist anti-evolution site will cite this blog as evidence that the evolution of social behavior championed by Wilson is all a fraud.