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The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina honored Arizona State University Foundation Professor Bert Hölldobler and two others with Cothenius Medals as part of the opening ceremonies of the Leopoldina’s Annual Assembly on Sept. 23, in Germany.
Hölldobler is highly-regarded, internationally-recognized behavioral scientist and evolutionary biologist, who revolutionized understanding about social organization in insects. Ants in particular have served as models for his ground-breaking work in the fields of behavioral physiology and ecology, evolutionary biology, sociobiology and chemical ecology. Awarded the Cothenius Medal for lifetime achievement, Hölldobler has advanced new discoveries about chemical communication and orientation behavior in animals, the dynamics of social organizations and the evolution of animal communities.
“Social insects are among the ecologically most important species in almost all land ecosystems and their cooperative group behavior is unparalleled in the animal kingdom,” says Hölldobler. “With more than 14,000 described species and hundreds of different forms, habit, quirks and lifestyles, ants are among the most fascinating creatures on the planet and can serve as a source to answer some of the most fundamental questions in biology.”
Hölldobler came to ASU in 2004, following professorships with University of Frankfurt, Harvard University, Cornell University and University of Würzburg, Germany. In ASU's School of Life Sciences, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he has built dynamic partnerships and helped to develop the social insect research group (SIRG), with Robert Page, vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and founding director of the School of Life Sciences. This creative collective of 10 faculty members, their postdocs and graduate students, studies bees, ants, termites and wasps with focus on neuroscience, biomedicine and sociobiology; genetics and epigenetics; complex adaptive systems and robotics. The group’s synergistic partnerships have contributed to many high-impact publications. These include the sequencing of the first complete genome of the honey bee and two ant species, with local support from ASU’s Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity and experts from across the globe. The publication of the complete sequence of four more genomes in 2010 opened the door to understanding about several economically important ant species: the fire ant, the Argentine ant, the harvester ant, and, Hölldobler’s favorite, the leaf-cutter ant.
“Bert Hölldobler’s impact on biology is huge and continues to be reaffirmed,” says Dean Page, who is also a member of the Germany National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. “The Cothenius Medal demonstrates once again how distinguished his career is. He has received nearly every honor possible for his research and scholarship over his lifetime.”
Hölldobler’s creative efforts have taken him from Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Germany, Finland, Kenya, India, Jamaica, Panama and Sri Lanka to Arizona, Florida, New England, New Mexico and Texas in the United States. He has authored or co-authored more than 300 scientific research papers, in addition to four books co-authored with longtime collaborator, Harvard Professor Emeritus Edward O. Wilson. This dynamic ant duo received the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for “The Ants.” Their third book, “The Superorganism,” was listed on the New York Review of Books and chosen as a Financial Times “book of the year” in 2008. Hölldobler and Wilson’s most recent publication “The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct,” offers general audiences information and stunning photographs, many taken by Hölldobler, focusing on the charismatic, underground farmer of fungus – the leaf-cutter ant.
Hölldobler’s work has also been featured on film and television, including Animal Planet, and the Science Channel. “Ants: Nature’s Secret Power” is an award-winning film about Hölldobler’s research and the ant nations – their complexity, social dynamics, versatility and majesty. Produced by Wolfgang Thaler and Adi Mayer Films for ORF Austrian Broadcasting with Docstar and WDR in 2005, the film won 19 international film prizes, including the Special Jury Prize from the International Wildlife Film Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Hölldobler is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina). The golden Cothenius Medal was established by a Leopoldina member Christian Andreas von Cothenius in 1708-1789, the private physician of Friedrich II, King of Prussia. It was awarded for the first time in 1792. Originally, the medal was bestowed for work in the field of medicine. Since 1954 the Leopoldina has awarded this medal for excellent scientific life’s work, mainly to members of the Academy.
"Two Cothenius Medals are awarded only every second year. It is the highest recognition the German National Academy, which is also an international academy, bestows on its members or other scientists in recognition of their lifetime scientific achievements,” Hölldobler says. “Naturally it is a good feeling being recognized in such a way by the oldest Academy of Sciences in the world.”
In addition to the Cothenius Medal, Hölldobler has received a number of international prizes, including the Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz-Prize of the German Science Foundation (1990); Karl Ritter von Frisch Medal and Science Prize of the German Zoological Society (1996); Körber-Prize for the European Sciences (1996); Benjamin Franklin-Wilhelm v. Humboldt Prize of the German-American Academic Council (1999); Werner Heisenberg-Medal of the Alexander v. Humboldt-Foundation (2003); Alfried-Krupp Wissenschaftspreis (2004); Treviranus-Medal of the German Society of Biologists (2006); and Lichtenberg Medal (2010), the highest honor that the Göttingen Academy of Sciences, one of the oldest academies in Germany, bestows, and the Ernst Jünger Prize for Entomology, a prize given once every three years by the government of Württemberg (a state in Germany) in memoriam of the late Ernst Jünger, a great novelist and entomologist.