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The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct [Paperback]

Bert Hölldobler , Edward O. Wilson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

26 Oct 2010 0393338681 978-0393338683
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of The Ants comes this dynamic and visually spectacular portrait of Earth's ultimate superorganism. With a text suitable for both a lay and a scientific audience, The Leafcutter Ants is the most detailed and authoritative description of an ant species ever produced. Each colony of leafcutters contains up to five million workers, all the daughters of a single queen that can live for over a decade. A nest can stretch nine metres across, rise one and a half metres or more above ground and can reach over seven metres below ground. The leafcutter ants have expanded their instinctive civilisation into a virtual domination of the land from Louisiana to Patagonia. Inspired by a section of the authors' acclaimed The Superorganism (ISBN 978 0 393 06704 0), this is the ultimate explanation of what a social order with a half-billion years of animal evolution has achieved.

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The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct + The Super-organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies + The Lives of Ants
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Product details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (26 Oct 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393338681
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393338683
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 16 x 1.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 387,541 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Bert Holldobler is the Foundation Professor at Arizona State University. Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University professor for nearly five decades, is the author of more than twenty books. Both are the recipients of numerous awards.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Vary Easy-to-Understand Book 8 Feb 2011
By Traffic TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have been fascinated by ants ever since I was knee high to one and have quite a library of ant books. This is my latest one and is written by the "Godfathers" of myrmecology (the study of ants).

It is vary easy to read and understand with lots of vary interesting information.

Seeing as it is a "text" book with diagrams and charts, it works vary well on the Kindle.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
For a biologist like me, interested in insects, reading this book is like eating chocolate cookies. The book feels sometimes quite technical (lots of taxonomy etc.), but the subject is so interesting that the scientific grip doesn't ruin it. Based on structuring of the chapters, I got the feeling that the book is written in haste - so only 4 stars. In any case, I recommend the book to everyone interested in Nature's little wonders!
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4.0 out of 5 stars A good reference 27 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'd had this book recommended to me by a colleague who shares my interest in the leaf cutters. I believe it be only part of a much larger work - and at a much higher price. However, you get the bones of what the leaf cutters are all about, how they stand in the ant line-up/evolution and the text is accompanied by a lot of good quality photographs. If you are after instructions on how to maintain the leaf cutters in captivity, however, this is not the book for you. It simply mentions how they are maintained in universities and such-like institutions which, on thinking about it, may actually fit your requirements.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An expanded chapter from 'The Superorganism' 27 Dec 2011
By Jonathan Birch VINE VOICE
Leafcutter ants are fascinating creatures, and this is a fascinating book about them. The downside is that it is, as Hölldobler and Wilson openly admit, merely an expanded chapter from their 2009 book, 'The Superorganism'. To be honest, it does feel more like a long chapter than a whole book: the main text runs to only 127 pages, with generous line spacing and wide margins, and about a third of those pages are taken up by photographs.

If you're interested in ants, this will whet your appetite for more. But 'The Superorganism' gives better value for money, and the new book has relatively little to offer readers who already own its larger predecessor.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intensely interesting subject and compelling writing 25 Dec 2010
By Clark B. Timmins - Published on
I received this book on Christmas Eve as a present and I stayed up all night reading it (much to my wife's dismay). I'm anxious to start reading it a second time. The book is superbly written and exceptionally interesting--just as you would expect from these Pulitzer-prize winning authors (I am a biologist and an ant-nerd, so your mileage may vary). If you are interested in biology or ants you are in for an exciting and fascinating tour of leafcutter society. If you're looking at the book and wondering if it's going to be interesting--my unqualified and enthusiastic response is "Yes". Physically, the book is printed on thick coated paper with numerous full-color photographs. Additionally, numerous black and white drawings are included to illustrate particular discussion points. The writing is easily accessible and although the 160-page book contains some scientific jargon most of the terms are explained the first time they are used and the book has an extensive glossary. The book also features an extensive reference section for further reading, as well as a comprehensive index. Front-matter includes a prologue, list of chapters, a table of illustrations, and a table of photographic plates.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters of unequal length. Chapters are topical and follow a logical presentation of topics from the general to the specific. Chapter one discusses the concept of a superorganism and evaluates the historical interpretation of this exciting concept. The authors argue that eusocial complex colonies--such as those formed by leafcutter ants--are best understood as a superorganism, not merely a collection of millions of discreet organisms. Chapter two examines the development of agriculture by the Attine ants. Chapter three discusses the specific methodologies used by the leafcutter ants (Acromyrmex and Atta) in fungal agriculture. The phylogeny of the Attine ants is discussed and also presented graphically. Continuing through the book, chapter topics include leafcutter life cycles (both individuals and colonies), caste systems, harvesting methods, and communication systems. Also considered are the ant-fungus mutualism, methods of hygiene in the symbiotic colonies (including waste management), predators and parasites, and nest and trail layout and management. Indeed, the latter chapters of the book fully support the initial prologue claim that prior to the rise of humanity "leafcutter colonies were the most advanced societies" of the planet.

If you've read the authors' magnum opus The Ants, you'll know what to expect--only here with additional years of data and a tight focus on perhaps the most-interesting group among the ants. If you haven't read The Ants this book will serve as a great primer and lead you to further great reading.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A glorious case study 17 Jun 2012
By Laurence Chalem - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Presented as a detailed case study, THE LEAFCUTTER ANTS is immediately accessible, fascinating, and informative. Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson bring the colony right to you, including a quite creative way of showing what a colony looks like. Imagine pumping tons of cement into a colony, letting it harden, and then digging it up to see what it looks like. Well, that's what they did, and, let me say, it is quite impressive. So much information in less than 150 pages that it is sure to please the most demanding nature enthusiast. Highly recommended... - lc
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars clear and concise 2 Dec 2011
By john k mt - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
i enjoyed the 1990 book "the ants" and hadn't gotten around to any of these authors' other books. i bought and read this instead of the "the super-oraganism", which is much longer and got some poor reviews for read-ability. this book makes clear what these authors consider a super-organism, and how these ants illustrate the concept. a fast and easy read for anyone interested in the subject.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Budget version of E.O. Wilson's famous comprehensive ant-book 14 Nov 2013
By Nerodog - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This was very interesting. I have wanted to read E.O. Wilson's Ant study for years but could never afford to buy it. This was the poor man's version but one learned a lot. Well written.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review of "The Leafcutter Ants" 6 May 2013
By Mark J. Palmer - Published on
Review of "The Leafcutter Ants" by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, W.W. Norton & Co., 160 pp.

By Mark J. Palmer
Associate Director
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute

One of nature's fascinating spectacles, at least on the small spectacle side of things, is a line of leafcutter ants, marching off across a trail (or via a glass tube in insectariums) with leaf upon leaf flashing green.

Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, authorities on ants, tell the story of leafcutter ants in detail, and the story of this line of troopers in the woods becomes an epic indeed. The subhead of their book is "Civilization by Instinct." Leafcutter ants, it turns out, build elaborate nests that stretch for many meters underground, with chamber upon chamber dedicated to a form of insect agriculture.

The leafy bits these ants carefully cut out are destined to be laid down and "farmed" as a growing bed for fungus, which the ants eat. The complexity of this process is mind-boggling, but occurs without the intelligence we ascribe to such activity in "higher" animals and humans.

"The Leafcutter Ants" is thoroughly researched and well documented (so much so that the references tend to get in the way of the reading), suitable for general reading and expert reference alike. Hölldobler and Wilson received a Pulitzer Prize for their extensive book "The Ants" -

"The Leafcutter Ants" is essentially chapters from that larger work. Also confusing is the wealth of Latin names to describe the behavior and life of different species of the leafcutter ants, found in both the New World and the Old World tropics and subtropics, so it can get a bit difficult to remember each genus that is referenced.

The book works through all aspects of the biology and behavior of leafcutter ants. Some species have more advanced organization than others. For example, one species not only has the worker ants that cut and move the leafs into the nest, but includes smaller "fighter" ants which ride piggyback on the worker to fend off attacks of parasitic flies that prey on the workers. The range of complexity in the organization of the different species and genera of leafcutter ants illustrates the evolution of such complexity and adaptations over time.

The center of the nest is the bloated queen ant, which lays the eggs that provide the colony with workers. Farmed fungi provides the colony with food. The ants even secrete antibiotics to control invading fungi in the farm cells that threaten the food source.

Then there are the predatory ants that try to steal the fungus from leafcutter ant colonies. These specialized freebooters will invade a nest, take it over, eat all the leftover ant pupae and fungus, and then move on to invade another ant nest. Others are more sneaky, living as parasites within the leafcutter ant colony itself.

The ants communicate chemically, such as marking trails to leaf sources from the nest, and using sound, such as rubbing body parts to produce sound (called stridulation, a word I really like), which appears to be picked by other ants from the ground rather than through the air.

The authors conclude: "...(T)here can be little doubt that the gigantic colonies of the Atta leafcutters, with their interlocking symbiont communities and extreme complexity and mechanisms of cohesiveness, deserve special attention as the greatest superorganisms on Earth discovered to the present time."

The "discovered at the present time" qualifier is important. E.O. Wilson has pointed out that our knowledge of the insects inhabiting the soil is extremely limited. New species are being discovered all the time, and their interactions, while critical to the functioning of natural ecosystems, are barely understood. There is a lot to be learned from looking down into all that dirt.

The book includes excellent black & white photographs and diagrams that illustrate the text, and a handy glossary of ant terms.

"The Leafcutter Ants" is an excellent and detailed introduction to a species that builds incredible civilizations beneath our feet. Highly recommended.
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