Tributes to Scientists

Today, March 8, 2015, is International Women's Day. March is also Women's History Month. It seemed like a perfect day to pay tribute to Anna Botsford Comstock.


(Photograph from Library of Congress archives)

Anna Botsford Comstock was a literal pioneer, born in a log cabin in western New York State on September 1, 1854. She was also a pioneer in many other ways. She was one of the first female students at Cornell University, starting in November of 1874. She was one of the first four women to be inducted by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society founded in 1886. Later she became the first woman Professor at Cornell University, in Nature Studies.

Anna had many talents. She was an artist. Early in her career she learned wood engraving and she illustrated many of her husband’s entomology textbooks. Her work was exhibited at the 1893 Exposition of U.S. Women Painters and is still cited by scientific illustrators today. She also was interested in literature and poetry, and wrote a novel that sold well. In addition to writing, and scientific illustration, she was an editor, a teacher and as well as arguably, a scientist. Her thesis for her Bachelor of Science degree was on “The Fine Anatomy of the Interior of the Larvae of Corydalus cornutus.” She eventually became part of the Nature Study Movement, and wrote and taught about natural history.

Anna Botsford Comstock’s most monumental book, Handbook of Nature Study, was self-published in 1911 because no publisher was interested in a 938-page book on nature study. Ironically, the book no one would publish is still in press and still popular. It has gone through at least 24 editions and has been translated into 8 languages. Anna’s work led her to be called “the mother of the nature study movement” and to be inducted into the National Wildlife Federations’ Conservation Hall of Fame.

Anna Botsford Comstock  is a perfect fit for this year's theme for International Women's Day:  Make It Happen!


What does Anna Botsford Comstock have to say about ants in Handbook of Nature Study?

 "Very many performances on the part of the ant seem to us without reason; undoubtedly many of out performances seem likewise to her. But the more understandingly we study her and her ways, the more we are inclined to believe that she knows what she is about; I'm sure that none of us can sit down by an ant-nest and watch its citizens come and go, without discovering things to make us marvel. "


Personal Tribute

Why did I choose to honor Anna Botsford Comstock ? Actually it is a personal story. I was introduced to Anna while I was a graduate student at Cornell University. The entomology building that I worked in was named after her and her husband, entomology professor John Henry Comstock. The fact her name was included on the building intrigued me and I wanted to find out more about her. Not many college campus buildings in that area are named after women. I later found out that a dorm at Hobart and William Smith Colleges is also named after her.

As I discovered more and more about Anna Botsford Comstock, I began to realize what a special person she was. She had a positive impact on many of the people who met her, and also on the generations that followed. For example, in her biography of Rachel Carson, author Linda Lear reveals Rachel Carson’s mother read and was inspired by Anna Comstock’s nature writings. In turn, she passed her interest in nature to her daughter Rachel, who went on to write the highly influential book, Silent Spring.


In an interesting set of coincidences, two tributes to Dr. Edward O. Wilson, ant expert extraordinaire, arrived in my mailbox recently.

The first was a press release from the National Geographic Society. Wilson was honored on June 13, 2013 with a Hubbard Medal "for his lifelong commitment to the planet’s rich diversity through his research and writing" at the Society's 125th Anniversary Gala. Filmmaker James Cameron and oceanographer Sylvia Earle also received medals. The medal adds to over 100 awards Dr. Wilson has received in his lifetime. Accompanying the press release, was this photograph:


(Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic)

On his first trip to Gorongosa (and Africa), scientist and author Edward O. Wilson uses an experienced nose to identify a foam grasshopper. It’s named for the smelly, poisonous foam it emits. ... The photograph appears in the June 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Dr. Edward O. Wilson has worn many hats and is known for his studies of island biogeography, sociobiology and biodiversity. Although shown here with a grasshopper, Wilson's first love is ants and he is recognized in the myrmecology world for his Pulitzer prize-winning book with Bert Holldobler, The Ants, his work on the big-headed ants, Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus, as well as numerous scientific publications.

I remember my graduate advisor, Dr. William (Bill) Brown, Jr. had a lot to do with pushing (read brow beating) Wilson to complete his book on Pheidole. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be very expensive and didn't sort out the confusing taxonomy of the group as much as some would have liked. Still, it was an undertaking only someone with his perseverance could have accomplished.

The second tribute takes a very different form. Thanks to author Sara van Dyck, I also received a copy of the e-book The Boy Who Loved Ants: Edward O.Wilson, a biography of Wilson's life for children.


Rightfully, van Dyck concentrates on Dr. Wilson's childhood and how his interest in the natural world shaped his future status as one of the leaders of the push to preserve the biodiversity of the earth. She also includes suggestions for related activities to do with children, including taking a personal "BioBlitz" walk. See a more complete review of the book at my children's book blog, Wrapped In Foil.

In any case, it has been a busy month for tributes to Dr. E.O. Wilson.

Do you have a favorite publication either written by or about Dr. Wilson? What is it?


Reading level:  Ages 7 and up
File Size: 321 KB
Print Length: 14 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Sara van Dyck (January 27, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.


Just got a note from Nick Bos, a post doc at the University of Helsinki. He's started a new blog called AntyScience.

Some of his papers:

Bos, N., Lefevre, T., Jensen, A. B. and D’ettorre, P. Sick ants become unsociable. Journal of Evolutionary Biology. Volume 25, Issue 2, pages 342–351, February 2012.

Bos, Nick; Grinsted, Lena; Holman, Luke (2011). Wax On, Wax Off: Nest Soil Facilitates Indirect Transfer of Recognition Cues between Ant Nestmates. Plos One. Volume: 6 Issue: 4. Published: April 29, 2011.

Plus, he is featuring photographs by Alex Wild.

I'm sure he would appreciate a quick word of welcome.


(Photograph by Alex Wild)


Did I see Dr. Bert Hölldobler at the Ants: Nature's Secret Power film screening Saturday night? Let me give you a hint:

The event was a golden opportunity to meet Dr. Hölldobler because the crowd was small (Arizona State University was having a lot of competing activities for Night of the Open Door.)

He started the evening with a brief overview of how the movie came about. It all started when director and cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler had the idea for a movie about ants and contacted Dr. Hölldobler. It was about the same time he was retiring from the University of Würzburg, so he wasn't sure about the project. Once he had seen a copy of Thaler's Bees - Tales From the Hive, however, he said he realized the idea had potential. (By the way, Dr. Hölldobler said that Tales from the Hive is the best movie about honey bees he has ever seen).

The final product of their collaboration is the award-winning documentary, Ants: Nature's Secret Power. It is a complex story that offers both glimpses into the "alien" world of ants for the layperson and peeks into the intriguing experimental techniques used in a high-powered ant research facility for the myrmecologist.

The visuals are outstanding for the most part, as you would expect from an experienced director. Dr. Hölldobler said he was particularly impressed that Thaler had the patience to wait for the ants to do what he wanted them to. He didn't rush shots. After the movie was shown, Dr. Hölldobler answered questions. His discussion of the part of the movie about the ants tending mealybugs was particularly intriguing. If you have seen the movie (or watch it below), you might remember the dark-colored Dolichodorus cuspidatus (with the golden hairs on their gaster) that were moving around Malaicoccus mealybugs like humans tend to domesticated cattle. He said Ulrich Maschwitz found that D. cuspidatus not only move around the mealybugs to find the best resources for them, but also cart their own colonies along, too. The ants do not build permanent nests, but are essentially nomadic, following their mealybug herds (See Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Hölldobler, Edward O. Wilson pp. 149-150 for more information).

He also talked about the scene of the excavation of the leafcutter ants' nest, which reveals an extraordinary and massive underground structure. He said some of the trails underground extend 90 m or more from the nest. He also mentioned the conflicts that occur in that part of Argentina because the leafcutter ants and agriculture are at odds.

Listening to the passion in his voice, you can tell that Bert Hölldobler is still as excited about ants as he was when he started studying them as a young boy. It was definitely an informative and enjoyable evening. Have you seen Ants:  Nature's Secret Power? If not, I was able to find it on YouTube. Not the same as the big screen, but it is still pretty awesome, don't you think?



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