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Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist to talk Superorganisms at WSU

PULLMAN, Wash. – Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biologist Bert Hölldobler will present a public lecture on “The Superorganism: Communication and Cooperation in Ant Societies” in the CUB Auditorium on the WSU Pullman campus at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 3. The lecture is intended for the general public, and is free to all. After a brief intermission, Hölldobler’s lecture will be followed by a screening of a 55-minute documentary, “Ants: Nature’s Secret Power.”

Bert Hölldobler
Bert Hölldobler. Click image to download hi-res version.

Hölldobler is a behavioral biologist famous for his research on social insects, especially ants. In 1991, he and E.O. Wilson shared a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction for their book “The Ants.” He further collaborated with Wilson to write “Journey to the Ants” (1994) and, in 2008, he and Wilson co-authored a third book called “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies.” In 1990, he received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the highest honor awarded in German research. Hölldobler is the Foundation Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Ants are the best known example of a “superorganism,” a social organization that exhibits a type of distributed intelligence and in which many individual organisms of limited intelligence and information combine resources to accomplish goals beyond their individual capabilities. Coral reefs, termite mounds and bee hives are examples of social organisms pooling resources to build complex societies.

In his talk at WSU, Hölldobler will discuss recent research that expands our knowledge of superorganisms. Superorganisms are characterized by complex communication and division of labor and represent one of the basic stages of biological organization, midway between the organism and the entire species. The study of the superorganism, as Hölldobler argues, has advanced our understanding of evolution and how life has progressed from simple to complex forms. Hölldobler’s lecture offers a look into a part of the living world hitherto glimpsed by only a very few.

“Ants: Nature’s Secret Power,” the documentary to be screened after Hölldobler’s lecture, focuses on the “real ruler” of the planet and evolution’s greatest success story. Ants, Hölldobler says in the film, are found in a remarkable range of habitats, from far northern Finland to the sweltering tropics. The largest super-colony of ants is in Japan, where 306 million ants, with 1 million queens, thrive in 45,000 colonies spread over 270 hectares. The fiercest warriors on earth are slave maker ants while other ants have barracks and sentry posts to protect themselves against surprise attack.