Kingdom of the Ants: José Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World
Edward O. Wilson and José M. Gómez Durán
2010; 120 pages
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
ISBN-13: 978-0-8018-9785-6 Hardcover
ISBN-10: 0-8018-9785-6 Hardcover
This short book is a myrmecological biography of the 18th-century naturalist and polymath, José Celestino Mutis (1732–1808), and presents his observations on ant biology and behavior that have been pieced together from his diaries and various letters to and among colleagues. Mutis received his Ph.D. in Medicine in 1757 from the University of Seville and had a classical education in physics, chemistry, anatomy, astronomy, and botany. He arrived in what is now Bogotá, Colombia as the private physician of the viceroy of New Granada, Pedro Messía de la Cerda in 1761. In addition to his duties as physician and instructor of various sciences and mathematics, Mutis studied and catalogued the plant life in the vast region encompassed by the new Kingdom of Granada (now Costa Rica and Panama in Central America and Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela of the north of South America). Beginning in 1783 until his death, Mutis led the Royal Botanical Expedition of New Granada, which produced extensive lists, drawings, and specimens of the plant life of this megadiverse region of the world. He was an apostle and correspondent of Linnaeus and a contemporary and colleague of Alexander von Humboldt.
Professors Wilson and Gomez Durán present a pleasant story of the dedication and curiosity of the young Mutis seen in his studies of ants from 1761 to 1779, pieced together from observations in his diaries and letters, or from comments ascribed to Mutis in various botanical publications and letters. Mutis wrote in his diaries mostly about two groups of ants, the leafcutters, which he called arriera ants (mule-train ants, the genus Atta), and the army ants (Eciton, which he called the pataloas or long-legged ants). He described the crop damage caused by the arrieras and the colony cycles associated with movement and mating of the patoloas. More than half of the book consists of background, interpretations, and descriptions by Wilson and Gómez Durán of what is now known about these ants, which provide both depth and clarity to the observations by Mutis. The authors paint a picture of Mutis as an honest, unbiased scientist, as he comes to understand the castes in the army ants and his realizations of the different roles of the sexes, including the short-lived and specialized role of the adult males. Mutis was not equipped to study the detailed morphology of ants that would have assisted him in viewing crucial differences in genitalic characters. They also paint a picture of Mutis isolated from western science in New Granada and how his legacy appeared to suffer from careless handling of his papers by various Spanish soldiers, mariners, and bureaucrats; two missing treatises on the ants by Mutis appear to have been lost in this manner.
The book is well supported with footnotes, drawings, and photos and is easy and fun to read. It is broken into 16 short chapters, which include these interesting titles: 6, “Ants Are Transported by Ships”; 7, “Ant Plants and Plant Ants”; 8, “Mutis Learns about the Mule-Train (Leafcutter) Ants”; 10, “Ant Wars”; 11, “Mutis Solves the Mystery of the Nomadic Pataloas”; and my favorite—14, “Mutis Studies the Gender of Ants and Makes an Amazing Discovery.” I recommend this book to anyone interested in natural history because of its broad historical sweep and wonderfully clear and simple prose. The book, the 26th by Wilson, is selling for $16 at Amazon and for less than $5 at various independent booksellers. It is also available in a digital “Kindle” version for $15.
Further reading: Kingdom of the Ants piqued my curiosity about the natural history explorers of the age of the enlightenment and particularly of the journals of Alexander von Humboldt, which are available from Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) as the three original tomes. The botanical expeditions of Mutis and his associate Caldas are described in the 1923 botanical treatise: Expedicion botanica de Jose Celestino Mutis al Nuevo Reino de Granada y Memorias ineditas de Francisco Jose de Caldas; Diego Mendoza Pérez, reprinted in 2010 by Nabu Press and available online. Many of the notes used for Kingdom of the Ants were extracted from Guillermo Hernández de Alba, edited (1958), Diario de observaciones de José Celestino Mutis (1760-1790), Bogotá, Instituto Colombiano de Cultura Hispánica, Editorial Minerva, in 2 volumes. A technical article that gives the modern species names for the ants described by Mutis with only their common names of the time, together with the description of a new species honoring Mutis, can be found here: (Fernández, F. and E.O. Wilson 2008, José Celestino Mutis, the ants, and Pheidole mutisi sp. nov. Revista Colombiana de Entomología, 34 (2): 203-208.).
Thomas R. Unruh
Wapato WA, 98951
Vol. 57, No.4, Winter 2011