YOUNG: Norton insists the Fish and Wildlife Service will make this decision based on science, as the law requires. But she's clearly hopeful that some land management strategy will allow both habitat preservation and some development.
(Photo: USGS researchers)
CURWOOD: I want to discuss how the Interior Department might try to strike that balance, but first Jeff, let's talk about the concerns Secretary Norton mentioned. How would oil and gas drilling be affected by this exactly?
YOUNG: The Bush administration, as you know, places a lot of emphasis on increasing the domestic energy supply. This goes back to, say, Vice President Cheney's energy task force, where we saw a lot of pressure to allow more exploration and drilling on public lands. Some estimates say there's a trillion dollars worth of oil and natural gas under the intermountain west, and much of it is probably under some sagebrush land. So industry groups see this as a collision course. They're calling the sage grouse "the spotted owl on steroids."
CURWOOD: The spotted owl, of course, being one of the big endangered species disputes of the past, tied in with logging old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. What are business groups doing now, Jeff?
YOUNG: Well, they're challenging the data the environmentalists used in their petition to list the sage grouse. But they're doing more than that. Joe Sims represents ranchers, drillers and some developers in a group called Partnership for the West. Sims says the grouse doesn’t need endangered status because the folks he represents recognize what could happen if the bird is listed, and that has sufficiently motivated them to get together and come up with ways to preserve habitat.
SIMS: I don't think there's ever been a more coordinated range-wide conservation effort aimed at any species than with the greater sage grouse. Now that that's going on, our message to Washington is let that continue. Don't come in and do a federal takeover of our local conservation efforts, because that federal takeover ends up chilling those local conservation efforts.
YOUNG: Western state wildlife agencies have come together on this. And there's another major player: that's the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. BLM controls about half the possible sage grouse habitat. It's just released its strategy for sage grouse conservation, which is aimed at conserving and enhancing sagebrush habitat.
CURWOOD: And how is that conservation plan being received?
YOUNG: Well I talked with a scientist who worked with sage grouse for nearly twenty years before he retired, Clait Braun. Braun’s work is cited in that BLM strategy, and here's what he thinks of it.
BRAUN: I think it's a feel-good document. I think it’s exceedingly shallow, I think it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Basically, the BLM remains in denial that sage grouse has a problem and that they can do anything about it.
CURWOOD: Well that’s far from a ringing endorsement, Jeff. How do the environmental groups see this shaping up?
YOUNG: They point to the access that industry has to this administration. For example, Mr. Sims of the Partnership for the West, who we heard from, he worked in the Bush White House and helped Vice President Cheney with his energy task force.
Jacob Smith directs the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver. Smith thinks that access, that pressure will play too large a role in this decision, and, in fact, Smith says he’s already seen that in other recent negative decisions on whether to list some western species.
SMITH: Fish and Wildlife Service bowed to industry pressure. So it’s a pattern that’s becoming ever more prevalent. I'm happy to reserve judgment, and we'll see what the Fish and Wildlife Service does.
YOUNG: The decision deadline is December 29, and either way it goes, I’m guessing you can expect some litigation to follow.
CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.
YOUNG: You’re welcome.
[MUSIC: Pat Metheny Group “The Search” AMERICAN GARAGE (ECM – 1979)]
CURWOOD: As always, we welcome your comments. But today we want to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to step in front of an open microphone here on Living on Earth. Maybe you’ve always wanted to tell a special story about experiences, concerns and feelings about the natural world we all share. Well, we’re all ears. We invite you to send us a brief recording.
Making one can be as simple as picking up the telephone, or using some of that sound gear you have lying around the house. Our web site, Living on Earth dot o-r-g, has the instructions and some suggestions to help you. Works may be chosen for production, posted online and perhaps broadcast.
Now, this is not a contest. There are no winners or losers. This is simply an invitation to you to get involved. What do we want to hear? Your opinions count, of course, but even better are stories, tales from your life on this planet that we all share. So visit Living on Earth dot o-r-g for complete directions and some sample stories. And if you’re not online, send us a card, and we’ll send you some instructions. The address is Stories, Living on Earth, 20 Holland Street, Somerville Massachusetts, 02144.
CURWOOD: Coming up: strategies of survival—why some make it against seemingly impossible odds. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Charlie Haden/Hank Jones “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” STEAL AWAY (Verve – 1995)]
- Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver
- Bureau of Land Management’s new strategy for conserving sage grouse habitat
- Partnership for the West
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CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
In the face of life threatening dangers, what factors determine who will survive? Hikers and trekkers sometimes pride themselves in preparing for an ordeal of survival, like breaking a leg high on a remote mountain. But preparation tells only part of the story, according to author Laurence Gonzales.
Like an ecosystem, he says, there’s a whole matrix of mind, body and spirit that combines to bring people out of situations where they are up against the odds. Laurence Gonzales’s book is called “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” and he joins me now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Hello, Laurence. Welcome to Living on Earth.
Deep Surival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (Photo: Philip and Karen Smith/Getty Images)
CURWOOD: Now, Laurence, when most people hear the word “survival” they automatically think of facing an extreme life and death circumstance, such as a plane crash or being stranded in the wilderness. But your book really expands this definition. Tell me, what do you mean by the term “survival?”
GONZALES: Well it’s interesting, because it’s evolved as I’ve written the book, even. I talk a lot in the book about cases where people get into extreme circumstances. One guy breaks his leg at 19,000 feet on a Peruvian mountain and has to spend six days crawling off, for example. And that’s kind of a classic survival experience. Another guy drifts for 76 days in a raft on the Atlantic.
But as I’ve gone along I’ve realized that much of what I talk about as survival is about enduring with grace the challenges that life brings us all the time. One of our growing readerships, for example, is among women who have had breast cancer who read this book and see themselves in it. And they realize that the wilderness is a metaphor, and that the survival journey these people go through is the same whether you’re going through a divorce or through an illness or a crisis in business, or any of these other challenges that we all find in our lives.
CURWOOD: I want you to tell me one of the survival stories that impressed me a lot in your book, and that’s of a 17-year-old girl who was in a plane crash in Latin America. And she among, what, a dozen people was the only one to survive. Could you tell us her story and why you think she was a survivor?
GONZALES: Yeah. She was in a plane with her mother. She was wearing her Confirmation dress and high heels, if I remember correctly. The plane broke up over the jungle in Peru, I think it was, and people fell out of the plane. She fell out still strapped into her seat. And they fell into the jungle and I’m speculating that the reason they survived was because the trees broke their falls. In any event, she found herself on the ground alone and pretty much unhurt in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. And the adults who fell out decided to stay and await rescue.
This girl looked up and saw that, you know, nobody’s going to see you down here under those heavy canopies of leaves, and she decided to walk out. And she had heard somewhere that if you walk down a streambed it will lead you to civilization. So she used that as her strategy – it’s not necessarily true, but – and she walked for 11 days. She had no equipment, no training, nothing to set her apart except her attitude. And this was a story that was especially important to me because you have to start asking yourself well, what does determine survival? If it’s not equipment and training, you know, why would this 17-year-old make it?
And it is a matter of, ultimately, attitude. People who sit and wait for rescue have an attitude that someone else is responsible for them, that somebody else is going to take care of them. The survivors in every case that I’ve seen are people who tend to first and foremost take responsibility for themselves in their daily lives. This isn’t something they invent on the spur of the moment. There’s a type of person I refer to as a whiner. And we have all met this type of person, who is always complaining and blaming others for what happens and expecting someone to rescue them when things go wrong. And these type of people do not tend to do well in survival situations.
CURWOOD: You also say that to survive one needs to surrender. Can you explain this?
GONZALES: There comes a point when they, in effect, let go of their fear of death, to put it one way. They give up, in a sense, they say, well I know that I’m going to die. In fact, Lance Armstrong, who most people will know won the Tour de France after surviving what should have been a fatal cancer – they talk about, well, I know I’m going to die; I’m probably going to die. The chances are really good that I’m going to die. And in Lance Armstrong’s case he said, you know, I kind of like fighting against the odds stacked against me, so I’m going to fight another day. There is this moment at which they let go of the outcome and they surrender to the circumstance and just say: My job isn’t to decide whether I’m going to live or die; my job is to do the best job of living I can do right now. And that means, you know, taking this next step that is in front of me.
CURWOOD: Now throughout your book you make several references to both Zen and Taoist philosophy. What do those perspectives, what do those philosophies have to do with survival?
GONZALES: Well, in going through the patterns that people used to survive – and I’m talking about everyone from a modern mountain climber to a prisoner at Auschwicz -- reporting sort of the spiritual journey that they go through in the course of their survival and suffering. I went back to some of these ancient texts, which I had always liked to read anyway, and began just to find these wonderful similarities of thought in them. And realized that, you know, what we’re dealing with here when we’re looking at how people make it through these survival journeys, is kind of an ancient and very basic pattern of human behavior and emotion.
CURWOOD: Now, on this business of Zen and the Tao, you discuss the importance of maintaining, and I quote you here, “a Zen mind, beginner’s mind” in a survival situation. Explain for those of us listening what is a Zen mind? And why is it important to survival?
GONZALES: This is related to the beginner’s mind that they talk about in Zen literature, which means you do not assume you know. If you were an expert and assume you know what you’re doing, you’re heading for trouble because there’s definitely something out there you don’t know and you won’t have room to take it in. The beginner’s mind is open and behaves as if it’s empty, so that new information comes in and informs you. A big part of the process of staying out of trouble or getting out of trouble is the process of constantly adapting to your changing environment.
So if you think you know everything, you don’t pick up those changes in your environment. And the environment includes you, so you might not notice that you’re becoming hypothermic, or you might not admit to yourself that you and your wife are having a fight every day and you’re heading for divorce. Or you might ignore a symptom that you’re experiencing that could signal an illness that needs treating. So, we try to talk about keeping an open mind all the time to what’s going on around us and within us, and that, I believe, is what we’re talking about here.
CURWOOD: Can you give me an example or two of how too much training or experience actually becomes a liability in a survival situation?
GONZALES: Getting away with something, getting away with doing something wrong, can train you that it’s okay. In one case that I examine in the book there were a group of climbers on Mt. Hood who climbed roped together, roped to each other. But the rope wasn’t tied to anything on the mountain –
CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) Okay…
GONZALES: And now, this is a very common technique for climbers to use, so there’s a lot of controversy about whether you should or should not do this. But the search and rescue people I talked to refer to a rope as a suicide pact unless it’s tied to the mountain. In any event, the top guy fell, dragged all the others off the mountain. They picked up another team along the way down, and they picked up a third team along the way down – nine people went into a crevice and three of them died, three were critically injured.
So these people were experienced climbers, quote-unquote “experienced.” They had climbed many mountains this way, roped together with no fixed protection, as they call it, nothing stuck into the mountain to hold that rope. And they had done it over and over again and gotten away with it. They’d even taken little falls and stopped them. So they had been trained to think that this was a safe technique.
Well, you know, we get trained in all kinds of things every day. You know, if you smoke a cigarette and it doesn’t kill you, why, you know, it must be safe, right? So you smoke another one. You just have to be careful about what experience you have had, and what’s it training you to do? What is it training you for?
CURWOOD: What drives us to put ourselves in potentially life-threatening situations in the first place?
GONZALES: The emotional system that we’re equipped with is designed to keep us alive. Since we don’t have to keep ourselves alive any more in our modern society with these, you know, fight and flight type of responses, that system just sits there begging to be used. And a lot of people find that the only way to get it really excited is to go climb Mt. Everest. Everybody has a different level of risk they seek, but everyone seeks to excite that system because it is the system that keeps us alive, and when we use it, we feel more alive.
CURWOOD: What’s the worst thing you can do in a survival situation?
GONZALES: Panic. I mean, panic is really, really incapacitating, and anyone who’s experienced it knows. (LAUGHS) I mean, you can’t remember the simplest thing, and you’re apt to really hurt yourself. So that’s one of the reasons I keep that high up on the list of learning to stay calm. People can learn this stuff. It takes a long time to make new connections in the emotional systems, but it can be done.
CURWOOD: So, there are a lot of things in your book, Laurence, but what’s the most important thing that people should take away from what you’ve written here?
GONZALES: I was reading the other day about the four-minute mile. You know, for decades no one thought it was possible to run a four-minute mile. And people tried and tried and tried, and there were doctors who just said, you know, it’s impossible, humanly impossible. And in 1954 a British guy ran a 3:59.4, I think it was, minute mile, so he beat it by roughly half a second.
CURWOOD: This is Roger Bannister
GONZALES: Bannister, thank you. Within 46 days another guy had beat that record. So for all these decades no one could do it. Well, between then and 1999 they knocked 14 seconds off that record, people just kept beating it and beating it and beating it. Now, why is it that nobody could beat it before? You know, human evolution didn’t change during that period of time. The reason is because they learned that it was possible. And one of the greatest things about these survival stories is that they give you a sense of what’s possible. In fact the last line of the last chapter before the appendix in my book is, “anything is possible.”
CURWOOD: Laurence Gonzales’s book is called “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.” Thanks for taking this time with me today.
GONZALES: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks very much.
[MUSIC: Kathryn Tickell “Raincheck” THE GATHERING (Park – 1997)]
- "Deep Survival"
- mp3 | RealPlayer)">
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CURWOOD: It’s tradition that turkey takes center stage at Thanksgiving dinner. But what anchors the annual holiday feast at tables where no one eats meat? Didi Emmons, a well-known chef in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of the cookbook “Vegetarian Planet” has an answer for that.
CURWOOD: Each year, Ms. Emmons hosts a Thanksgiving spread for vegans who not only steer clear of meat, but cream, butter, and all other dairy. And this year, she invited us into her kitchen.
EMMONS: When people know they’re going to a vegan Thanksgiving dinner, you know, they know they’re not going to be getting that big bird. But I think that what they do want is something that is similar, that has the same kind of chew value. Turkey, you know, like any meat, it’s much harder to chew than a vegetable, and there’s something really kind of very satisfying, probably it goes back to our hunting days.
Veggie Planet co-owners Didi Emmons and Adam Penn in their restaurant kitchen (Photo: Brandon Nastanski)
[SOUND OF POT LIDS, COOKWARE HANDLED]
EMMONS: For this year’s vegan Thanksgiving we’re going to have a roasted seitan, which is going to be, you know, the bird. Seitan is wheat gluten, and more than tofu, and more than tempeh, really has great chew. And it also has good flavor. It’s got much better flavor than tofu.
EMMONS: It comes in this box. And I’m throwing the wheat gluten into a bowl. And it’s pretty simple, even a six-year-old could do it. You’re just adding water –
EMMONS: – and all of a sudden, it starts to look a little brainy. It starts to kind of…it’s just strange. It doesn’t look like your regular average dough.
[WET KNEADING SOUNDS]
EMMONS: So right now, as the seitan is resting, I’m making its braising liquid. It’s gonna have to braise in a liquid. It’s gonna have to cook for an hour.
EMMONS: Turkey already has a lot of flavor, but seitan needs a little help. I’ve added an onion, I’ve added a bunch of garlic, I’ve added fresh tarragon, a lot of Worcestershire sauce. I’m gonna add about a quart of water and a good amount of salt and pepper.
[RUNNING WATER, MIXING SOUNDS]
EMMONS: I’ll throw in a little more tarragon. Because it’s a special occasion – only comes around once a year.
[LIQUID, MACHINE SOUNDS]
EMMONS: We’re going to make a Portabello Madire gravy. And what I’ve done is I’ve taken Portabello mushrooms and I’ve thrown them into a food processor and I’ve just kind of obliterated them. They’re just very finely ground. We’ve got the braising liquid from the seitan and that is a stock. And it’s a delicious stock, with the tarragon and the fennel seed, and so we’re going to borrow some of that and we’re going to make gravy out of that.
[CLANG OF COOKING BOWLS]
EMMONS: It’s time for the seitan to hopefully be done. And the Worcestershire has given it a really lovely golden brown color. So we’re just going to put the seitan down like we would the way that dad would put the turkey breast down on somebody’s plate. And then we’ve got our gravy, and we’re going to drizzle it right over the seitan. Mmm… [TASTING], it’s there. It’s everything I wanted it to be.
[MUSIC: Charlie Haden/Hank Jones “Hymn Medley” STEAL AWAY (Verve – 1995)]
CURWOOD: Didi Emmons is co-owner and chef of the restaurant Veggie Planet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of “Vegetarian Planet.” Our sound portrait was produced by Living on Earth’s Steve Gregory. Didi Emmons’ recipe for roasted seitan and other vegan Thanksgiving treats are posted on our web site, Living on Earth dot o-r-g.
EMMONS: Going vegan forces you to get into creativity, and that for me is something that’s a lot more fun than just eating what I’ve been eating every single year.
Sample some of Didi Emmons' Vegan Thanksgiving Recipes
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: where humans are simply an asterisk -- the world according to ants. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
CHU: Will the plant used to make heroin help fight one of the world’s most deadly diseases? A team of Australian scientists hopes so. The researchers recently engineered the opium poppy to stop producing narcotics and make a compound used to treat malaria instead.
They were able to change the plant’s nature by literally reforming its genetic character in the lab. Using a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference, the scientists selectively “turned off” the genes in the poppy plant that cause it to synthesize opiates like morphine, which is used to make heroin.
But the technique did more than strip the plant of its narcotic element. The RNA interference prompted the plant to suspend synthesis just at the stage when it produced a compound called reticuline. As it happens, an alkaloid made of reticuline molecules is the active ingredient in many herbal remedies used to treat malaria.
The scientists published their findings this month in the journal “Nature Biotechnology.” And they hope that if the morphine-free poppy proves commercially viable for farmers, it will offer a legitimate alternative to its black market cousin supplying the heroin trade. That’s this week’s Emerging Science Note, I’m Jennifer Chu.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Ford, maker of the Escape Hybrid. A full hybrid SUV able to run on electric power alone at certain speeds. Ford vehicles dot com back slash environment; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR -- National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: Kathryn Tickell “The Gathering” THE GATHERING (Park – 1997)]
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CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. On the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lives perhaps the largest collection of preserved ant specimens in the world. The person normally associated with this array is acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson, who won the Pulitzer prize writing about ants and whose life’s work is championing biodiversity and describing as many species as possible. But the day to day maintenance of the Harvard ant collection is the responsibility of Stefan Cover, whose relationship with his subjects of study tends to range beyond the formal boundaries of science. Producer Sean Cole has our story.
Left: The Ant Room contains sample drawers full of ant brigades and the smell of napthalene; Right: A single ant specimen from Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (Photos: Christine Fichera)
COLE: When I first set foot in the ant room I got a headache. The air was heavy with this overpowering... sciencey smell. At first I thought it was formaldehyde. But it wasn’t. It was...
COLE: This is Stefan Cover, curatorial assistant of entomology at Harvard. He says mothballs, or naphthalene, keep hungry, preying beetles from eating his ant specimens the same ways it keeps moths away from your sweaters. There are 50 pounds of naphthalene flakes tucked away in the gray metal cabinets of this room. But Stefan told me he’s been working here so long he can’t even smell it anymore. Then he stuck his nose directly into a little white jewelry box full of naphthalene.
COLE: You can stick your nose in that!
COVER: Yeah. Yeah oh yeah, I’m immune. Either that or I’m, like, on my way out.
COLE: Actually Stefan looks extremely well-preserved for his 50-some-odd years. His face is almost cherubic, framed by silver-rimmed glasses and thick waves of salt and pepper hair. He spends ten hours a day in this room, a virtual city of cabinets stacked with drawer after drawer of specimens. Maybe a million ants, each of them lovingly labeled and mounted to its own slim, metal pin.
COVER: I can mount a hundred or a hundred fifty ants a day and that’s it. And here we’re talking I’ve got a backlog of hundreds of, hundreds of thousands. So I’m never gonna get this done. So you become a fatalist when you do collection work, you know. Sometimes you don’t even know why you persist.
COLE: As we ambled around the room, Stefan would occasionally pull out a drawer and we’d gaze down at ant carcasses arranged into these neat, toy-soldier brigades. If you think an ant is an ant is an ant, you’re wrong. They range in size, shape, color, culture and temperament about as widely as we do. If not more. Stefan showed me ants both terrifyingly large and infinitesimal. Some had wings. Most didn’t. Some were almost beautiful. Others were armed with huge stingers on one end.
COVER: Yeah, these are ants from a canopy fogging study in Panama.
COLE: There’s tiny ones in here.
COVER: Oh, and here’s paraponera. You see paraponera.
COLE: Oh yeah yeah.
COVER: Was… was…
COLE: Was the ant he almost let sting him in Costa Rica.
COVER: In 1979, when I was a dumb graduate student, I went to Costa Rica and did a scientific survey of the ant bites of Costa Rica. And I got variously nailed by all kinds of ants and was sort of trying to figure out who was the worst. But there was an ant in Costa Rica and in much of South America called paraponera. The Costa Ricans call it the bala, which I think means spear. So I got to that one and I was about to let it bite me and someone said, someone from Costa Rica said, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. That’s the ant that makes grown men weep. (LAUGHS) And I said, all right, that’s the end of this ant biting survey. Forget it.
COLE: As well as mounting the ants, Stefan also spends his day helping grad students find their way around the collection. He boxes up specimens to be mailed out on loan to researchers around the world. He identifies ants that lay-people send him, along with letters that say things like, “I found this in my kitchen. What is it?” And he’d probably deny this, but he’s also something of an ant world phenom. He’s discovered about 40 different species of ants on his annual excursions out west – 40 species that science didn’t know about. And the main reason he does all this, he says, is because people are still asking the question...
COVER: What good are ants, you know? To which I’m always tempted to respond, well, what vital role are you playing in the maintenance of the universe? You know, besides taking up space? And in actual fact, we all have a role to play in the world. Ants have a role to play in the world that’s completely independent of whether they make us happy or not. And ants actually are incredibly important in the natural world.
COLE: The main thing ants do, Stefan says, is break down dead organic matter into little nutrients so plants have something to eat, so we in turn can eat the plants or eat the animals that eat the plants. Stefan says ants and us are both links in the same chain. And the ant link is crucial.
COVER: If ants suddenly said, wait a minute, we’re not getting any appreciation here. You know, no wages, no benefits, plus grief. They spray us with Raid, you know, and all this, and they said, we’re going on strike. If ants went on strike it would have a dire effect on human society. You could actually speculate how long human society would continue to be recognizable in its present form. And answers might very. But I’ll tell you five years is a long shot.
COLE: And as well as being indispensable, Stefan says ants are endlessly entertaining. Their society works a lot like ours does, he says. So sometimes it seems like they were created to parody human beings. And sometimes, Stefan says, human beings seem like they were created to parody ants.
COVER: So, for example, ants make slaves. Some ants sneak into other ants’ nests and sponge off the owners. Some ants keep other insects much the same way we keep domesticated animals. And it just … the list just goes on and on. Ants fight wars. And for just about as good reasons as we do too, you know? I mean meaningless violence is common in the ant world.
COLE: The thing is, not all ants do all this stuff. Different species exhibit different behaviors—vastly different behaviors. Researchers estimate that there are 20,000 or so different species of ants on the planet, only half of which have been discovered and named. The ant collection at Harvard contains only 36 or 3700 different species, with multiple examples of each one.
COVER: I’ll just show you a few pictures that we’ve taken. Isn’t that a gorgeous beast? That’s the matamermex. It’s a specialized ponerine ant of the South American tropics. And see, it has these beautiful long pitchfork-like mandibles. It turns out—we didn’t know this for years—but it’s a specialist predator of a certain family of millipedes. Doesn’t eat anything else other than these millipedes, and it uses these, these pitchfork-like mandibles to catch them so it can hold them while stinging and paralyzing the millipede. Another interesting specimen we have here is this one…
[COVER TALKING IN BACKGROUND]
COLE: Stefan’s ant life began one bored summer when he was a kid growing up in New York City. He was scratching around for something to do and made the seminal discovery that if you put two ants of different colors together in a peanut butter jar, they’ll fight. And that sealed it. Soon came the ant books and the ant farms. And then one late night when he was lying awake in bed, his mother called down to his room, telling him to turn on the Long John Nebel radio show.
COVER: And so I turned on this radio talk show. And there was a graduate student from the American Museum of Natural History named Howard Topoff who was talking about ants. He talked about ants until 5 a.m. I listened to the entire thing. It was fascinating. And the next day I wrote him a letter, as only an 11-year-old kid can write. You know, which is like, “Dear Mr. Topoff, so you like ants. I like ants too. I have ants in my backyard. Some are red. Some are brown.” And so on…immortal prose. But I didn’t think that an actual scientist would write back to a kid. I mean, hey, I knew I was a kid. So a week later an envelope arrives from the Museum of Natural History, and I’m terrorized. I’m horrified—a scientist, an actual scientist, has written back to me.
COLE: But Howard Topoff hadn’t just written back. In that letter, Topoff was inviting Stefan to volunteer at the Museum of Natural History as a lab assistant. Now, as you’ve probably already guessed, Stefan was a bit of a shy-bones back then. He was terrified, terrified of meeting an actual scientist. His father, however, was not.
COVER: So he dragged me to the American Museum, walked down a long hallway. He finds the office door, and we look in there and there’s this nice bearded young gentleman sitting in there. He says, “you Howard Topoff?” And he says yes. He said, well, here’s the kid. And he slings me in the door and shuts the door on me.
COLE: Stefan got over his shyness when he found out working in the museum meant a day off from school. Besides which, he says, something about the work itself transformed him into Mr. Confident. He was tending Topoff’s ant colonies, going on collecting expeditions with him. It was one of his luckiest breaks – the same kind of luck that led him to his current job. In 1986, shortly after an aborted stint at grad school, Stefan moved up to Cambridge hoping to gain access to Harvard University’s ant collection. It was Christmas week and the campus was empty. But eventually he ran into a student named Mark Moffit, and asked him for keys to the collection.
COVER: And Mark said, “Oh,” he said, “I can’t do that. Only Dr. Wilson can give you keys to the ant collection.” And I said, well, what should I do? And he said, give me your phone number and I’ll have him call you up. And I thought, oh my goodness, curses, foiled again! I said, you know, E.O. Wilson is not going to call up me. You know? But I gave him the number and I went back home. And two days later the phone rings, and this voice comes over the line and says, “Stefan, I’m Ed Wilson. Mark Moffit tells me you want keys to the ant collection.” Well, I almost fainted.
COLE: Wilson asked Stefan if he had any museum experience. We can’t just let anybody into the ant collection, he said.
COVER: And I said, well, when I was a kid I worked for the American Museum of Natural History. And then I said it. Out it came. Then I said, plus I mount an ant like Michelangelo chisels marble.
COLE: You didn’t say that.
COVER: I said it. And I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those things where I said, Oh, I can’t believe it! I can’t believe I said that! Oh! If it was like casting a fishing line I would have been trying to reel it in, you know.
COLE: In the end, Wilson invited Stefan back over to Harvard. Stefan brought a box of his ant specimens with him. And when Wilson saw that a lot of Stefan’s ants hadn’t been discovered yet by anyone but Stefan, he gave him a set of keys there and then. That was 18 years ago. And Stefan’s been working in the ant room ever since.
COVER: Yeah, here’s a common one in the forests of eastern North America. It’s called lasius umberatus.
COLE: Along with all the new specimens he’s found in the southwest, Stefan discovered one in a state forest in Plymouth, Massachusetts, about ten years ago. New species, by the way, are the Holy Grail of ant researching—the most fun a researcher can have. Discovering something no one knew existed, figuring out what genus it comes from, giving it a species name. I asked Stefan what he called the ant he found in Plymouth.
COVER: Oh, I haven’t named it yet, and this is very bad news. It’s on the back burner. It will be described, but I haven’t published the description yet.
COLE: Why not just name it after yourself?
COVER: Oh that’s considered extremely bad form in science. You do not name species after yourself. And so if you want a species named after you, you have to get one of your pals to do it.
COLE: Of course, in Stefan’s case, one of those pals is famed ant researcher E.O. Wilson. In his study of the ant genus pheidole, Wilson found more than 300 new species and named one of them...
COVER: Pheidole coveri.
COLE: Coveri being Stefan’s last name with an “i” on the end. This is how scientists turn English into Latin.
COVER: So Dr. Wilson, for example, has a cockroach named after him. It’s a genus of cockroaches, not a species. And the genus is E.O. Wilsonia. [LAUGHS]
COLE: You learn an awful lot about ants spending time with Stefan. For instance, he told me most ants are girls. It sounds terribly outmoded, but the ants that do most of the work around the colony are female. The few male ants hanging around are basically just there to inseminate the queen. Also, ants evolved from wasps. There’s some argument as to whether they’re once or twice removed from their wasp cousins, but Stefan says ants are essentially wasps-without-wings, adapted for life on the ground.
COVER: Ants of course would argue that they’re new and improved wasps, and I wouldn’t criticize them on that score. But fundamentally they just are wasps.
COLE: You say that as though they’ve told you this personally.
COVER: Well…well, you know, um…it’s either too much naphthalene over time makes you dotty, or else you can’t work. When you work with organisms of a group for a long time it’s not actually off the radar screen to say that there’s a communication process between…you know, between…you and the critters.
COLE: And this is the thing you learn about Stefan when you hang around with Stefan. Most of us carry around a mental catalogue of the characteristics that make us human. But to Stefan, a lot of those characteristics aren’t ours alone. His mind isn’t as human-centric as that. So sometimes he ends up talking about ants in the same way he talks about people.
COVER: Well, I do because…because… ants and other forms of life are beings. Now what on Earth does that mean? They’re beings the same way we are. That doesn’t mean they have our kind of consciousness. That doesn’t mean that they worry about their stock portfolios. But they’re beings, they’re not…they’re not like rocks. And we human beings, we relate to beings.
Ants experience – and I’m certain of this – they experience pleasure and fear and pain. And you can’t not know that if you spend a lot of time with them. You can’t not know that. You do find yourself reacting to them in part as objects of scientific study, but also in part as acquaintances, you know, and hopefully friends, really. You know. And, you know, if that makes some people nervous, well, let ‘em, you know. That’s the truth.
COLE: This might sound insane, but spending three hours in a room full of dead ants was pretty humbling. We go through life thinking of this as our world, as the place the humans live, and that our concerns as humans have universal meaning. But that just isn’t true. Not if you start to let ants creep into the equation. Regimes change, governments rise and fall, and all the while there’s this whole, separate, intricate society scurrying around our feet that could care less. As I said to Stefan, they don’t even know we’re there.
COVER: No, they don’t, but, but, the thing that has to be said is…we don’t know that they’re there either. See, we think we’re so smart. Now here’s another great thing about ant collections and insect collections in general. This is an ant that was collected at dinner with Joseph Stalin in 1945 by Professor Harlow Shapely. He was at dinner in the Soviet Union at this banquet in 1945, and an ant ran across the table and he pulled a vial out and filled it up with vodka and shoved it in the vial and it's now here.
COLE: Oh my god. That little vial with the pink top?
COVER: Yeah, see it's a very unprepossessing smallish beast, but nonetheless it's of historical significance. How could you possibly…how could I, as a curator, possibly get rid of an ant that was collected at dinner with Joe Stalin. You know?
COLE: Bow down to the ants of the earth my friends. They’ve seen more than we have. They’re just smart enough to keep quiet about it. For Living on Earth, I’m Sean Cole in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[MUSIC: Frank Sinatra “High Hopes” THE CAPITOL YEARS (Capitol – 1990)]
Harvard University’s Department of Entomology
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CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth – The retail shopping season is upon us and that means many folks will be heading out to their local shopping mall. A radio producer returns to his Midwestern hometown to reflect how the mall has become the town green.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
FEMALE: What we have here is what we have, and if you want things that’s where you have to go to get them.
MALE 1: Anything you ever wanted is inside of a mall.
MALE 2: Well, I met my wife at the mall.
CURWOOD: “Anytown mall” – next time, on Living on Earth. And remember you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot o-r-g.
CURWOOD: Now we take you to the northwest corner of Costa Rica.
[BUBBLING AND STEAMING SOUNDS]
CURWOOD: The lush forests of Rincon de la Vieja National Park brim with volcanic activity, including bubbling mud pots and steaming vents, and a boiling lake.
[EARTH EAR: Andrew Roth “Boiling Mud Pots” NATURAL SOUNDS OF COSTA RICA (Zona Tropical – 2001)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet and Susan Shepherd, with help from Carl Lindemann and Kelley Cronin.
Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore and Jenn Goodman. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our web site. You can find is at Living on Earth dot o-r-g. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.
I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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