Mutis lives on in memory as a pioneer scientist struggling virtually alone, thrilled by the wonders around him, and never deterred by the handicaps he faced in unraveling them. — from Kingdom of Ants
Born in Spain, Jose Celestino Mutis (1732-1808) was one of the earliest New World naturalists, spending forty-eight years exploring the flora and fauna of modern-day Colombia. Primarily known as a botanist, Mutis always had difficulty in restraining his naturalist’s eye. At the urging of Carl Linnaeus, Mutis began a comprehensive study of ants, eventually building his own classification system for a wide array of army ants, leafcutters, and many others found along the banks of the Magdalena River (pictured below by artist Frederic Edwin Church).
E.O. Wilson and Jose Gomez Duran have performed a wonderful act of historical rescue with their new book Kingdom of Ants: Jose Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World — restoring Mutis to his rightful place in the history of science. As Wilson and Duran observe:
To biology historians, Mutis is known chiefly as a botanist and unacknowledged apostle of Linnaeus. Yet, as we will now show, he was also the first in the New World to study the amazing habits of ants and termites, the dominant insects of tropical America. Among all of the explorer naturalists of the eighteenth century who focused on plants, vertebrate animals, and occasionally butterflies, Mutis alone looked down to the little creatures teeming at his feet.
It’s been a busy year for E.O. Wilson! As we reported earlier, this 81 year old Pulitzer Prize winning author & scientist recently published his first novel, Anthill. Coming in November will be another exciting collaboration with fellow entomologist Bert Holldobler. Here’s just a few of the Land Library’s favorite E.O. Wilson/Bert Holldobler books on ants:
The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct (due out in November), Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, The Ants (winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize).
For more on Ants (& E.O. Wilson) take a look at some of the Land Library’s earlier posts!
plus this fun post on the great French entomologist J. Henri Fabre: