How Ants Helped During the Vietnam War

Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism).  Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.

A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

  • Transcript


Edward: But just to amuse you, I’ll tell you a story that’s never been told. Nothing is top secret anymore. But because it was so interesting.

During the Vietnam War, I had been doing a lot of work on chemical communication particularly on ants. In the ants, the study of ants as we claim credit, all of us who have studied the biology of ants, for having really advanced the subject of pheromone study and chemical communication, which is important among animals, which is important, because human beings are one of the very few audio-visual creatures on earth. Most of the rest of life is chemical, is pheromone, how they communicate.

So, I was working on that in the ants and helping to this decode, we were decoding the ant pheromone language. About that time, the Army decided they wanted to literally sniff out the enemy in Vietnam, because there is so much danger, and these rascals coming out of their tunnels suddenly or advancing on you slowly through the jungle, and we didn’t know how to pick them up, figure it out when an attack was coming.

So, there was actually, I had only a marginal amount of this, I had hardly any at all, but I kept all that I knew about it was to analyze the odor of a human being, as we had been analyzing the odors and the chemicals released by ants to communicate, and to then have what’s called a sniffer scope, which would be set up so that down wind, you would turn the red light on when human odor came into it, and there were more than, in the course of this research was just valuable, basic research behind it.

They actually chemically identified more than 100 elements of the human odor. I never heard that the sniffer scope was ever used.

 Recorded on: December 4, 2008