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The Superorganism

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies
Bert Hölldobler & E.O. Wilson
New York : W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009
QL496 .H65 2009

In their first major collaboration since the Pullitzer Prize-winning The Ants, Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, two of the most reknowned biologists in the world, present a brilliant new look at social evolution. Written in fine detail but for a broad readership, the book chronicles the remarkable growth of of knowledge concerning the social insects during the past two decades. It provides a deep look into a part of the living world hitherto glimpsed by only a very few.

Superorganisms - colonies of indviduals tightly knit by altruistic cooperation, complex communication, and division of labor - find their highest expression in the insect world. By examining many species, biologists have been able to trace the evolution of superorganisms in exacting detail all the way from their antecedents among solitary species to the origins of the most complex forms. As the authors show, this knowledge allows an early, clear look at one of the major transitions of life, which proceeds from molecule through cell to ecosystem.

This groundbreaking work begins with an overview of the nature of the insect superorganisms and the impact they have had on the land environment. Social insects - ants, bees, wasps, termites - make up as much as two-thirds of the insect biomass, although they comprise ony 2 percent of insect species. In a tropical rain forest, ants alone collectively weigh more than all the mammals and other land vertebrates. The authors describe how the study of superorganism has illuminated many phenomena of general interest in biology, from the genetic nature of altruism to the basic principles of specialization and division of labor.

The Superorganism is filled with details that will fascinate all readers - for example, how foraging workers of honeybees and ants communicate and direct nestmates to distant food sources, how they regulate the food expenditure and intake within their societies, and how honey ants conduct display tournaments in which hundreds of ants participate in ritualized combat. The authors explain why workers of some ant species remove themselves from the nest when they are about to die, how nest workers of the Diacamma ant bite off the head and thorax of the male after copulation but keep his genitalia, and how the queen of an Atta ant colony can live over a decade and produce as many as 150 million daughters, which can then serve as her workers.

Especially memorable are the leafcutter ants, Earth's "ultimate superorganisms," who possess sophisticated communication systems, a most elaborate caste system, air-conditioned nest architecture, and population in the millions. They are rivaled by the great colonies of the African driver ants. Viewed from afar, the huge raiding column of a driver ant colony seems like a single living entity, a giant amoeba spreading across 70 meters of ground - whereas a closer look reveals that it is composed of several million workers. The swarm is a river of aggressive huntresses, capturing and killing most of the insects in its path.

Combining dramatic passages with a new synthesis of social insects, TheSuperorganism, in a long tradition stretching back to Charles Butler's 1609 Feminie Monarchie, presents the full sweep of of the 150-million-year history of the social insects in spectacular detail. A work that will provide the basis and inspiration for countless studies in years to come, The Superorganism, writes Thomas E. Lovejoy, is a "riveting exploration of insect societies, a triumph by two of our greatest naturalists."

Quoted from dustjacket.