Jan 19, 2022
You’ve probably seen those lists of the so-called “wonders of the world.” Many are works of architecture: the Great Wall, the pyramids, the colosseum, Taj Mahal. But these lists are, in a sense, always incomplete. Our world holds other architectural wonders, after all—albeit ones that are hidden from human eyes, made from different materials, and a bit scaled down. I’m talking, of course, about the wonders of the underworld. I’m talking about ant nests.
My guest today is Dr. Walter Tschinkel. Walter is an Emeritus Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University, where he’s led a distinguished career as a myrmecologist—a scientist who studies ants. He’s the author of the recent book Ant Architecture: The Wonder, Beauty, and Science of Underground Nests. For decades now, Walter has been delving into ant colonies using a variety of creative, homegrown techniques. Foremost among these is his method of “nest casting”—the process of making durable, three-dimensional casts of ant nests.
In this conversation, Walter and I do a bit of “Ants 101.” We discuss the notion of ant colonies as superorganisms. We talk about how Walter developed his nest-casting technique (not to mention other ingenious methods). We discuss where the blueprint for an ant nest resides, and whether ants might appreciate the beauty of their own nests. We also talk about the scientific process—about the joys of low-tech problem solving, about the importance of negative results, and about the pleasure of pursuing a good scientific mystery.
One last thing I’ll mention: a podcast really can’t do justice to these ant nests. So be sure check out the show notes below—and also Walter’s gorgeously illustrated book—to see these architectural wonders for yourselves.
Alright, folks, on to my conversation with Dr. Walter Tschinkel. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
5:00 – Dr. E. O. Wilson, one of the starts of myrmecology, recently passed away at the age of 92. Read a recent tribute to him.
6:00 – Dr. Tschinkel’s previous book, published in 2013, was The Fire Ants.
6:30 – See a recent popular article about harvester ants.
10:20 – An interactive map showing the diversity of ant species.
15:00 – On the “superorganism” concept, see the book by the same name by Bert Hölldobler & E. O. Wilson.
24:05 – A photo of Dr. Tschinkel’s original plaster cast that has made the rounds on the internet. You can also view numerous other images of Dr. Tschinkel’s nest casts in this recent paper. Finally, check out this recent video showcasing some of Dr. Tschinkel’s methods and nest casts.
38:30 – A recent editorial on null results in science.
39:00 – An article by Dr. Tschinkel describing his technique for building artificial ice nests.
43:00 – A photo showing the contrast between the charcoal-covered nest disk of an old harvester ant colony with the in-progress (uncharcoaled) nest disk of a new colony.
56:00 – A recent article on the so-called “insect apocalypse.”
Dr. Tschinkel recommends the following books:
The Ants, by Bert Hölldobler & E. O. Wilson
The Superorganism, by Bert Hölldobler & E. O. Wilson
The Guests of Ants, by Bert Hölldobler & Christina Kwapich
For more on ant architecture, be sure to check out Dr. Tschinkel’s fascinating book!
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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