Superorganisms

An Internet guide to the social system of superorganisms

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©iStockphoto.com/Scott Harms

I have a love/hate relationship with the ants, termites, bees, and wasps that organize into miniature societies. Their castes and capacity for intricate group behavior create alien worlds as enthralling as any in science fiction. But social insects may bite, sting, or slowly eating your house. And just the idea of hundreds or thousands of insects acting in sync, with some mysterious group intelligence, is frightening. The well-known scientist and author E. O. Wilson betrays no such ambivalence, however. To learn more about his career, go to the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and click on “about” and then “life and work.”

Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson's new book, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, is reviewed for Natural History by Robert R. Dunn. For an introduction to superorganisms on the Internet, you might want to listen directly to those experts. On National Public Radio, you can hear The Secret Society of Superorganisms, an interview with Wilson. There is also a narrated slideshow on leafcutter ants, which is worth it just to see the excavation scientists have made of a colony of Brazilian leafcutters. (When you see the scale of their underground city, you'll appreciate what it means to be a superorganism!) At the site of WGBH (the public broadcasting channel in Boston) you can find two appearances by Wilson in their listings of online science forums. As of this writing, the one entitled “Superorganism” is labeled “coming soon,” but “NOVA: Lord of the Ants with E.O. Wilson” is accessible. (This is a great place to find other science-related video and audio lectures.) At Arizona State University, you can find two podcasts, one by Wilson entitled “Darwin and the Future of Biology” and the other by Bert Hölldobler, “Exploring the Superorganism.”

If you are more mathematically inclined, H. Kern Reeve and Bert Hölldobler give the theoretical underpinnings for the rise of insect societies in an article “The emergence of a superorganism through intergroup competition,” published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Their model highlights the crucial role of competition between groups in forcing cooperation within the groups. They note that the same theory probably applies to the evolution of human cooperation, and the cooperation among genes within a genome and cells within multicellular organisms.

Brandon Keim at Wired Magazine has written a series of articles on superorganisms and some of their ramifications. You might start with “Superorganism as Window into Complexity and Evolution,” which focuses on honeybees. At "The Superorganism Goes Mainstream" you can find links to Keim's other pieces, including "A Brief History of the Superorganism, parts one and two." While I'm on the subject of honeybees—the superorganism we rely on most—I recently watched a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) lecture by apiarist Dennis vanEngelsdorp called “Where Have the Bees Gone?” It is a thoughtful talk on our interdependence with bees and the crisis that is causing hives to collapse. [Watch this video on the left, or go directly to the TED site.]

The list of eusocial animals (those with a permanently sterile worker castes) includes ants, termites, and some bees, wasps, thrips, and aphids. Outside the insects, there are eusocial crustaceans—shrimps that live in sponges—and even two mammal species, the naked and Damaraland mole rats. But ants get most of the attention in the superorganism world. A British Web site called Antblog, has the latest news on what these highly-organized creatures are up to. I read one item entitled “Alarm Bells for Argentine Ant UK Invasion,” that reports on Linepithema humile, a species more successful than most because, unlike many other ants, members of one nest will seldom attack or compete with a sister nest. “In their introduced range, their genetic makeup is so uniform that individuals from one nest can enter neighboring nests without being attacked.” For this reason, Argentine ants tend to form supercolonies. In 2004, they made the news when one was discovered that stretched sixty-two miles across Melbourne, Australia. Another excellent site, called AntWeb, is hosted by the California Academy of Sciences. The goal of the website is to eventually document every species of ant. To explore the ants listed so far go to the menu and choose “Bioregions.” For ants found in North America, click on “Nearctic.”

To really appreciate how a superorganism functions try the ant colony simulator that you can download for free from Myrmedrome (http://www.not-equal.eu/myrmedrome). The individual soldiers and workers in the program follow simple rules to mimic the complex behavior of ant societies.

In the real world, the achievements of ant colonies are evident in their constructions. Go to “The Nest Architecture of the Florida Harvester Ant, Pogonomyrmex badius,” an article by Florida State University biologist Walter R. Tschinkel, and scroll down to see what their underground cities look like.

Before leaving the subject of superorganisms, I want to mention several sites that examine higher levels of organization as they apply to humans and the environment. An article by Micheal A. Woodley entitled “Ecosystems as Superorganisms: The Neglected Evolutionary Implications” discusses the pros and cons of viewing entire ecosystems as superorganisms. At Wired Magazine, Rowan Hooper writes in his article “People Are Human-Bacteria Hybrid” that “Most of the cells in your body are not your own, nor are they even human. They are bacterial. From the invisible strands of fungi waiting to sprout between our toes, to the kilogram of bacterial matter in our guts, we are best viewed as walking 'superorganisms,' highly complex conglomerations of human cells, bacteria, fungi and viruses.” Dave Ackley looks at the organization of living systems through the eyes of a management consultant at his Web page Origin and Evolution and sees the same sequence of competition and cooperation occurring each time an organism goes to a higher level. And finally, Kevin Kelly at his Web site The Technium writes on “Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism”—which, of course, is the Internet.

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