Director’s Letter February 2023

An ode to superorganisms: ant colonies and field stations

An MBA might have been better preparation than a PhD for serving as RMBL’s Executive Director. But studying ants turns out to have been good job training.

For 5+ years I hiked up to Virginia Basin above Gothic and counted ants to understand what controls the sizes of colonies. When my friends call me Dr. Ian I clarify I can only consult on their health if they have six legs and two antenna (and nor do I have ants capable of sniffing cancer).

Counting ants is no small task. A study estimated the global population at 2.5 million ants for every human. You don’t become that common without evolving solutions to environmental challenges, such as dealing with mold. The HBO series Last of Us follows a fungal species that eats humans from the inside out and changes human behavior to maximize fungal transmission. Yucky.  Based upon a fungus that manipulates ant behavior, when you live in moist soil, fungi are not your friend. On the other hand, some ant species have coopted fungi! Just like humans use cows to convert inedible grass into steaks, leaf cutter ants use fungi to convert plants into the ant equivalent of McDonalds. Trillions served!

I am fascinated by ant colonies as superorganisms. In deep evolutionary time, single-celled organisms like bacteria joined forces to become multi-cellular, with cells specializing on tasks (e.g., eye and skin cells). Just as humans are colonies of cells, ant workers, queens, and males form a colony, with workers of some species taking on different shapes and specializing on tasks.

Cooperation is key to the evolutionary emergence of superorganisms. When genetically distinct cells merge to form a larger organism, as in some slime molds or sponges, there is a conflict over which cells pass their genes to the next generation. Cell lineages that are willing to sacrifice by serving in the stalk, rather than in the fruiting structure, get left behind, literally and evolutionarily. But if cells are genetically identical, progeny of a pairing of sperm and egg, there is no conflict. Cells can specialize, supporting the emergence of a superorganism, at no evolutionary cost.

As an administrator, I have moved from theoretical investigations to being a practitioner of cooperation. With 4,000+ research sites, finding a field site is no small task for our scientists; coordination takes time that could be spent elsewhere. But there is opportunity in working alongside 100+ scientists, from sharing costs around administration and physical infrastructure to new types of research based upon collaboration and synthesis.

RMBL’s Science Director, Dr. Jennifer Reithel (see adjoining article), coordinates research groups, facilitating communication.  She makes it easier to work on public lands, handling permitting. She solves logistical problems, from chemical management to overwinter storage. In serving the needs of scientists and emphasizing cooperation over competition, she supports new types of research, making possible RMBL’s emergence as a super field station!

To learn more about the emergency of higher levels of biological organization, check out Major Evolutionary Transitions by Eors Szathmary and John Maynard Smith.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL