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The 'Jane Goodall of ants'

Smithsonian scientist Mark Moffett talks about the insects' social structure, their methods of making war, and why much of California is just one big ant colony.

May 29, 2010|By Lori Kozlowski, Los Angeles Times

Serfdom, war and dying for the tribe: It reads like a page out of a Russian novel. In fact, we're talking about ant life.

Mark Moffett, an ecologist and a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution, has observed all of these behaviors in ants — and much more. Known for his detailed photographs of insects and other small creatures, the author of books about the rain forest canopy and frogs has now written "Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions."

The sci-fi-looking cover signals the journey to be found inside. Moffett, who did his doctoral studies in evolutionary biology with famed ant expert and animal behavior researcher Edward O. Wilson, traveled to remote parts of the world to study hard-to-find ant species and investigate the more intricate parts of the insects' social behavior. The book includes new hypotheses on ant behavior and evolution, including theories on foraging strategy, mass hunting and the origins of ant slaves.

Moffett recently discussed ant life with The Times.

You've been described as the " Jane Goodall of ants" — how do you feel about that?

I grew up reading adventure stories and science fiction, so I am thrilled to fall into a category of explorer naturalists. Careers in nature are thriving because there is a lot to be discovered. Not everything is mapped out. You can be out there, finding new behaviors and species all the time.

Your exploration of different types of ants has taken you to the Amazon, Nigeria, Botswana, Madagascar, Borneo, India, Australia. Is there a place where ants are particularly important, in terms of what they add to the region's biology?

Clearly, ants rule the Amazon basin. That's hard to match. You can get more different types of ants in one tree than you can in all of Great Britain. It's the drama of the Amazon. The early explorers called the Amazon "one big ant hill."

What behaviors in ants seem particularly human?

They outdo us in the amount of effort they put into environmental health and social welfare. Colonies of leafcutter ants put their trash in their innermost chambers that can be huge and take years to construct. It's equivalent to how we store nuclear waste [in the deepest places in the ground]. This level of effort tells us something about a topic we're just beginning to recognize as important, in terms of how we invest in dealing with waste.

On the other hand, ants care about the health of their own society more than themselves. Sick ants wander off and die on their own rather than infect anyone else. For ants, as individuals, it's a rough life. As a society, it isn't so bad.

In your book, you write about ants' different kinds of hunting behavior. Can you discuss?

Most ants either hunt on their own or send out scouts to search individually, much as human armies use spies.

With scouting strategy, you spread out and you look around alone, because in spreading apart, you're going to have the greatest chance of finding something. Scouting strategy allows the ant foragers to search far and wide and therefore to find much more, but after one of the scouts does find something — say a prey she wants to kill — she often has to go get help, which gives the prey lots of time to escape.

Mass hunting is searching in a group. It's something like a fox hunt, but with thousands or millions involved. Only army ants and a few others mass hunt. Army ants put soldiers together in a tight group. The swarm moves forward together. When they do find something, they have the shock-and-awe affect. You find less, but you kill more.

Leafcutter ants — these ants use foliage as mulch, on which they grow domesticated fungus. You describe their agriculture as parallel to the history of farming in humans. Can you talk about this?

Leafcutter ants have agriculture, which we don't think of in the animal world.

The fungus is their food. It has their complete diet. These ants started growing their fungus 50 million years ago. Twelve million years ago, they domesticated that fungus so that it could no longer grow in the wild, much as we domesticated wheat and rice. And 8 million years ago, they figured out how to use leaves as a way to grow the fungus in huge monocultures. They even invented pesticides. These are produced either by glands on the ants or by a relative of the penicillin fungus that they grow in their nests.

Why does slavery exist in ant life?

It's a way to get free labor. Slavery turns out to be very rare in nature. Particularly in North America and Europe though, ants plunder other colonies and steal the young. All you have to do is trick a young ant into thinking it is part of your colony, and it will work to death for you.

Let's talk about war. Can you describe what ant warfare looks like?

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