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Secret Lives of Ants

Jae Choe foreword by Jane Goodall photographs by Dan Perlman

Publication Year: 2012

In the great naturalist tradition of E. O. Wilson, Jae Choe takes readers into a miniature world dominated by six-legged organisms. This is the world of the ant, an insect that humans, as well as most other life forms, depend upon for their very survival. Easily one of the most important animals on earth, ants seem to mirror the actions, emotions, and industries of the human population, often more effectively than humans do themselves. They developed ranching and farming long before humans, and their division of labor resembles the assembly lines of automobile factories and multinational enterprises. Self-sacrifice and a finely tuned chemical language are the foundations of their monarchical society, which is capable of waging large-scale warfare and taking slaves. Tales of their massacres and atrocities, as well as struggles for power, are all too reminiscent of our own. The reality of ant society is more fascinating than even the most creative minds could imagine. Choe combines expert scientific knowledge with a real passion for these miniscule marvels. His vivid descriptions are paired with captivating illustrations and photographs to introduce readers to the economics, culture, and intrigue of the ant world. All of nature is revealed through the secret lives of the amazing ants. In the words of the author, “Once you get to know them, you’ll love them.”

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Front Matter

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pp. ix-xiii

I first met Jae Choe in 1996 when he interviewed me for a science magazine during my first visit to South Korea. I was immediately impressed by his warmth, his passion for the natural world, and his conviction that it is important to share scientific findings...

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pp. xv-xviii

I give a lot of lectures for the general public and schoolchildren, sometimes more than a dozen a month. My career as a public speaker began shortly after I returned to Korea from the United States in 1994. I even appeared on national TV and gave a six-month-long...

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Introduction: My First Journey to the Ants

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pp. xix-xxvi

In 1970, Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was in high school then and dreamed of becoming a poet or novelist someday. As soon as his collected works came out, I immersed myself in the literary world of Solzhenitsyn...

Part I. The Economics of Ant Society

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1. Ants Mean Business: How the Futuristic Economics of Ants Maximizes Their Returns

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pp. 3-9

Perhaps the best-known story about ants is “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” A grasshopper fritters away the hot summer in the shade of the grass, having fun singing and eating the plentiful food around him to his heart’s content. Meanwhile, the ant is toiling away...

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2. Economies of Scale and Rational Business Management: From Joint Ventures to Multinational Enterprises

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pp. 10-16

People frequently compare ant colonies to factories because ants have developed elaborate divisions of labor in their colonies in order to maximize their profits, much like human industry has. However, unlike our companies, some of which go bankrupt at the...

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3. A 50-Million-Year Tradition of Farming: The Massive Underground Mushroom Farms of the Leaf-cutter Ants

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pp. 17-27

It has been said that farmers are the founders of human civilization, but mankind’s first farms are believed to be no more than ten thousand years old. This so-called agricultural revolution and the subsequent industrial revolution made us the mightiest species on Earth...

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4. Ant Ranchers: Masters of Dairy Farming Second Only to Mankind

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pp. 28-36

No one knows exactly when humans first started raising livestock—cows, pigs, and other now-domesticated animals. Human beings breed animals in order either to directly consume the bodily tissues, as in the case of beef, pork, and chicken, or to snatch the eggs, milk...

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5. The World’s First Bodyguards: Standing Watch for Room and Board

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pp. 37-46

It is widely understood even by people with scant knowledge of natural science that plants and animals have symbiotic relationships; for example, that honeybees and butterflies flit from flower to flower transferring pollen in return for nectar. Unlike animals...

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6. The Charge of the Ant Brigade: The Terrifying March of the Army Ants

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pp. 47-54

The razor-sharp, sickle-shaped jaws of the ants snap mercilessly as the giant insects swarm the village. The village becomes bedlam, the villagers climbing over each other in their desperation to escape. Those who cannot outrun the ants are cut to pieces by the massive...

Part II. The Culture of Ant Society

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7. Talking with the Ants: The Clever Designs of Ant Communication

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pp. 57-64

In the science-fiction novel Empire of the Ants by French author Bernard Werber, humans learn the language of the ants and open lines of communication with them. Modern biology is developing at breakneck speed: could the day actually come when communication...

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8. The Ants Come Home: Sense of Direction and Biological Clocks

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pp. 65-71

The story could happen only in the movies. Lassie Come Home is a classic, and probably everyone has heard about Lassie, the dog that overcame all kinds of adversity on her long journey as she finds her way home. But dogs actually mark their paths with their urine...

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9. Ants at Work: Maids, Nannies, Laborers, Soldiers

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pp. 72-81

Every ant is a member of a highly organized society, and every ant has its own job to do. The ants carry out their jobs faithfully. Once the queen has hatched enough workers to care for her, she dedicates herself entirely to laying eggs. Worker ants perform...

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10. Con Artists of the Ant World: Parasites That Have Cracked the Ants’ Secret Code

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pp. 82-88

To human eyes, it really is quite a sight to see slave ants faithfully serving their slavemasters, even though the master ant looks nothing like the slave. Ants do have eyes and can see the differences between one object and another. However, since ants rely so heavily on a...

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11. Villains and Monsters of the Ant World: Predators and Parasites

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pp. 89-98

Many different insects fall prey to birds, lizards, spiders, and carnivorous plants such as sundews and Venus flytraps. But some predators specifically prey on ants. The larva of the antlion is an interesting example. In its adult stage, it is a flying insect that looks...

Part III. The Politics of Ant Society

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12. No Children of Their Own: Females in the Service of an Amazon Queen

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pp. 101-109

I consider ants and humans to be the two rulers of the world. We run the civilized world because it is our invention. But if we step out of our world and move into the natural world, the ruler there is the insects, who ecologically are Earth’s dominant creatures...

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13. Conflict in the Queendom: Divine Right of the Queen? Or the Will of the Masses?

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pp. 110-118

When I observe ant colonies, these stiflingly organized societies with every individual faithfully performing its duty often remind me of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. In human society, such events may largely be fiction, but ant societies have to some...

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14. Political Conflict and International Alliances: Yesterday’s Comrade, Today’s Enemy

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pp. 119-127

In human history, some countries have always been ruled by a king or a queen—an absolute monarch. Throughout such countries’ histories, none of them has had more than one king or queen at any given time. There are also many modern democracies...

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15. The Foundation Myth of the Aztec Ant Queendom: The Queens’ Battle for the Throne

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pp. 128-138

The histories of human nations contain bloody struggles for power, and ant societies are no different. New ant colonies are constantly sprouting up, even in the tiniest slivers of land between firmly established, large, powerful ant colonies. More often...

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16. War and Slavery: From Full-Scale Slaughter to Bloodless Warfare

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pp. 139-147

A soldier’s severed head rolls onto the ground. There have been heavy losses all day in this seemingly endless battle. Every soldier on the field faces impossible odds, outnumbered by as many as two or three to one. There is no way they can possibly stem...

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Epilogue: To Know Them Is to Love Them

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pp. 149-156

Ants are not particularly gorgeous animals. Even in the most amazing of the photographs in this book, the ants themselves are rarely as attractive as their surroundings; in fact, making a book based around photographs of ants is like making a movie mainly...

E-ISBN-13: 9781421405216
E-ISBN-10: 1421405210
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404288
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404281

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 75 color illus.
Publication Year: 2012