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Ants: 'A Global Safari With A Cast Of Trillions'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
If you don't find ants interesting, you might change your mind after spending a
little time with our guest, Mark Moffett. In his new book, you'll learn that
ant colonies developed coordinated labor forces and cultivated their own food
millions of years before we did.
Today, Moffett writes, ants are Earth's most ubiquitous creatures. They number
in the millions of billions, and globally, they weigh as much as all human
But trust me, there's even better stuff to come. Mark Moffett is an explorer,
biologist and photographer who's traveled the world studying many creatures,
but the complex societies of ants hold a special fascination for him. He's
studied ants so closely, he's been called the Jane Goodall of the ant world.
Mark Moffett spent two years as curator of ants at Harvard's Museum of
Comparative Zoology. He's now a research associate at the Smithsonian
Institution. He's written two previous books. His latest, which includes some
amazing close-up photographs, is called "Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari
with a Cast of Trillions." I spoke to Mark Moffett in June of last year.
Well, Mark Moffett, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book tells us about so many
diverse and fascinating species of ants across the world, and I thought maybe
you'd just give us a taste by telling us about the bulldog ant of Australia,
which actually I've read a piece of yours about - and I don't think it's in the
book, but it's such an amazing story.
Mr. MARK MOFFETT (Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution; Author,
"Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions"): Well, Dave,
the bulldog ant is one of the contenders for the world's most vicious ant, and
in the book, I focus more on the Paraponera, which is a South American
Both these species are large, nearly an inch long, built like tanks. The
bulldog is interesting because it has very good vision. So if you're in
Australia, and you look down, and you see an ant look up at you and turn and
follow you and then start running after you, you should probably leave.
DAVIES: So, I mean, can it actually catch up with you and then, what, leap on
to your leg?
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes, they're actually good jumpers, Dave, that's right. And
there's some contention about which of these two ants has the worst sting. I
really wouldn't want to be in the competition, but there are certain people who
make a kind of sport in determining the most pain in the different ants.
DAVIES: First some general questions about ants. You refer to them throughout
the book, and when you're talking about an individual ant, as she. Why?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, ants are a sisterhood. They guys really don't do too much.
They're kind of kicked out of the society pretty soon after they're born. They
have a single function, that is to have sex - okay, two functions, to have sex
and die. And they don't participate in the social life.
DAVIES: Right, when you see a swarm of ants, I mean, how many of them will be
male and female?
Mr. MOFFETT: They're all female, Dave, that's the thing, no males among them.
If you saw a male ant, it would look like a wasp, and it would probably be
flying around, and you wouldn't recognize it at all as an ant. Ants are a group
of females without males doing a thing.
DAVIES: Okay, I don't know if this varies a lot from species to species, but
they clearly are social animals. They work together on so many things. How do
they communicate with one another?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, ants communicate mostly through chemistry. That's the
advantage of being small. Scent can travel fairly rapidly, compared to humans,
over distances that can lead to the ants signaling large groups, particularly
ants who move in dense swarms, like army ants or the marauder ant.
And they sometimes use sound. For example, if you step on a nest, everyone is
getting crunched down below, and there's all kinds of cave-ins, and the ants
that are buried signal with a little squeak that they need to be dug up.
DAVIES: Wow. But typically, it's by releasing chemicals that they can, what,
smell, detect some way?
Mr. MOFFETT: That's what their little antennae are doing. As they wave them
around, they are constantly surveying for the scents being released by other
ants, and those indicate all kinds of things. They can indicate there's a war
going on, that there's food, that the queen needs assistance. They
fundamentally indicate nationality.
Ants are very nationalistic, much more than people. They live in societies that
are tightly bounded. You cannot defect from an ant colony. And so every ant
needs to know whether you're friend or foe, immediately - and they do that
through scent, as well.
DAVIES: So if a swarm of ants is out, and one of them sees food and says hey,
let's all go get this caterpillar, or another one says here's an enemy we need
to prepare to fight, or another one says something else, there are different
chemicals within their bodies that will simply release, and the other animals
will be prompted to act?
Mr. MOFFETT: That's right, and the thing is that ants being social, in large
groups and this is the thing that's unique between ants and humans, you can
have colonies of ants up to millions, the size of a city-state - they actually
have chain reactions that can lead to mass actions that are very intelligent so
that even though a single ant may know nothing of what's going on, as a group,
the whole response leads them to go to the best food at the best places. It's
this mass reaction that makes ants smart.
DAVIES: All right, well, let's talk about marauder ants. I mean, this is a
species, I believe, that you gave the common name to, right?
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes.
DAVIES: Where do you find them?
Mr. MOFFETT: The marauder ant lives in Southeast Asia and India, and I'd seen
it in the Harvard collections when I was a graduate student, looking for
something cool to do. And the really neat thing I found about them is that the
specimens in these drawers of dried ants were extraordinary.
There were all these different sizes and shapes of the workers, and in ants,
you divide up the labor often by making different kinds of workers. You know,
you can tell a lawyer from a doctor by what they wear and so forth. Ants, you
can actually see in their body forms and the toughness of the exoskeletons and
other features, and their sizes, what they do.
And these ants have a huge array of sizes. So I knew they had to have fantastic
DAVIES: Right, and so we have these ants that are of the same species but come
in many different sizes, I mean, some several times as large as the minor
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes. In fact, the size range of these ants is 500-fold, from tiny
little minor workers up to the big majors, or soldiers, if you will.
DAVIES: Okay, so these live in colonies of, what, millions or hundreds of
Mr. MOFFETT: In their case, hundreds of thousands, and almost all of them are
the minor workers. There are a variety of intermediate sizes. The soldiers are
rather rare. The minor workers, the little ones, are the workhorses that do
most of the drudgery of the colony. The bigger ones do more specialized tasks.
So the largest ones, for example, often serve as school buses, moving bunches
of small ones to the battlefields, where they catch prey.
DAVIES: So they climb on to the big ant and just catch a ride?
Mr. MOFFETT: That's right. Energetically, it makes more sense for them all to
ride on a big one than to all walk separately. So it's a very sensible ant
DAVIES: Conserves energy for the colony as a whole.
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes, ants are green.
DAVIES: All right, even though they're brown.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOFFETT: Exactly.
DAVIES: All right. Now you have a fascinating description of how these marauder
ants forage and attack in swarms. Would you just kind of describe that and give
us the roles of the different kinds of ants?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, marauder ants move forward in a swarm. There a couple ways
you can organize an attack in the ant world. One is to send out scouts and
figure out what's going on in different directions and then have the scout come
all the way back, and you get a whole bunch of soldiers going out to do a deed.
But that takes a lot of time. There's this big delay. And so if you have
something fantastically important that has to be dealt with immediately, like
say a giant prey, like a frog, it's going to probably have hopped off.
Now, the marauder ants get around that by moving their swarm forward blindly,
and they depend on shock and awe. So they may not find much because they don't
know where they're going. They don't know if there's going to be a frog ahead,
but if they find a frog, it's overwhelmed instantly.
DAVIES: Right, they catch little insects, right, but things as big as frogs and
geckos, right? Now, how could these tiny ants overwhelm a frog, who I would
figure would see this coming and hop to safety.
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, the army ants, which do much the same thing as the marauder
ants, they can catch lizards, snakes. They can even kill infants in cribs and
cattle, if they're tied up. So their capacity for destruction is immense.
That's why you do not tie up your cattle in Africa.
But in all these cases, it depends on a immediate presence of a huge force, and
you pour on - well, it turns out the front lines of these raids have these
little minor workers, which are the cheap labor, and this is the way the Romans
conducted their attacks.
You see in all these movies, the Mel Gibson guy running out ahead, being really
macho. No, no, no, he's way back behind there. What they had up front, the
Romans, were all these farmers, untrained, carrying their sticks and getting
slaughtered. And this is what happens with the marauder ants.
The minor workers, the little guys - or gals I should say - run ahead, get cut
in half, left and right in some cases, and then - but eventually, they pin down
these large prey because there are just so many of them. And at that point, the
raid has moved ahead, and now the bigger guys - gals again - arrive, and they
can do the kill without any danger to themselves.
You don't want to put your really expensive equipment where it can get hurt.
It's a rule of military warfare throughout history.
DAVIES: So you might have a centipede, for example, and these minor ants will
go charging in, relentlessly tearing at the legs of the centipede with no
regard to the fact that they themselves are going to get chewed up in the
process, and enough of them immobilize the creature, and then the big ones come
along for the kill. How do they kill it?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, a single blow to the head can be enough if you're a very
large, major worker, and incidentally, the small ones are about three
millimeters long or just over a tenth of an inch, and the large ones are maybe
a quarter-inch long.
So they have very powerful mandibles. Much of their mass is the muscles for
their jaws. They often don't actually kill the prey, though. They will chop off
its legs and carry it back, and I once took a cricket from the ants that was
being carried to the nest, and I put it in a little dish, and I looked at it
the next day, and it was still alive. It just didn't have any legs or anything.
They'd removed all its moving parts.
So I had this nightmare the next night of having all my legs removed and being
dragged into the underground chambers of the ant to be eaten at their
DAVIES: What a nightmare.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Now, do you think the ants deliberately leave the prey alive as they
transport it back to the nest?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, deliberately is, of course, a loaded term. Ants don't have
much in the way of thought processes that way, but it's a logical thing for
them to have developed as a strategy because in the tropics, where they live,
food goes bad quickly, and they're catching a lot of prey, and they may not be
able to eat it right away.
And so having it alive there means that they can hold on to it. It can be part
of their pantry for a few days.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Moffett. His book is called "Adventures Among
Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions." We'll talk more after a short
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Mark Moffett. He is an award-
winning naturalist and photographer. He has studied ants across the world. He
has a remarkable book with descriptions and amazing pictures of ants. It's
called "Adventures Among Ants."
All right, now, a lot of what you do is first-hand observation of ants in their
natural setting. How do you protect yourself from stings?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, I don't. I don't take them personally. I believe they're a
sign of affection. I obviously have certain relationship problems, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, there's a cost to any relationship, human or otherwise, and
if you're going to fall in love with anything, whether it's a human or an
animal, you have to take the good with the bad. And stings for me are part of
the process, and I have a great tolerance for them.
People find this curious, watching me down with ants, of course, trying
desperately to get me away, but I don't - I'm not easily dissuaded.
DAVIES: We've been talking about these marauder ants that you studied in Asia,
which live in colonies of hundreds of thousands and, you know, forage and swarm
and kill little creatures and bring them back to their nests.
One of the other fascinating things is that these tiny worker ants spend a lot
of time in effect building infrastructure for the colony. What do they build?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, ants who live in small groups, like a dozen or two or
something like a hundred, gather a group of people, they don't need
infrastructure. They don't need roads. They don't really need to build houses
or anything. They can have temporary shelters.
And marauder ants are an instance of a large ant society, where infrastructure
is required. And in their case, they're building nests, of course, with lots of
chambers, as you might expect, but they're particularly fond of building what
are called trunk trails, which are a kind of a superhighway. And those can
extend for about a hundred yards, which is a lot of ant miles.
DAVIES: And so what does an ant superhighway look like? Is it simply leveling
out the land? Are there overpasses or shelters on it?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, there can actually be overpasses. It's a complex structure,
really. They build a complete cover over it. They flatten it out perfectly. All
the different ant sizes get involved. The very largest workers, the ones that I
mentioned serve as school buses, will actually push off twigs that fall on the
trail, much like elephants will push off logs on trails in India.
And so they serve as heavy-duty road equipment. Other ants gnaw away the
surface, make it smooth. The whole point of that exercise is to get the goods
and services moving quickly, from colony to the field and back.
And they actually form highway rules along these highways, as well. And the
ants coming down the middle of the road are inbound, and the outbound ants go
down the edges. So they actually organize things slightly differently than
humans do, but still, everything has to be coordinated to get all these foods
back and all the information out to the field, where the ants are patrolling
and doing their duties.
DAVIES: Now, of course, we're talking again about how the remarkable level of
cooperation among ants, I mean, how intensely social these creatures are. And I
was amazed to read that the older, weaker ants readily take on the crappiest,
riskiest jobs in the colony, right?
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes, well, I said ants are nationalistic, and this is part of the
deal. Ants are quite willing to die for their colony. So what they want to do
for their colony is much more than we'd want to do for our society, usually,
and that includes killing themselves in warfare, including if you come along;
and it also includes, if you're dying of old age, they do not have health
insurance. They don't argue about such things. They wander off and die if
they're diseased or hurt, or they serve what final duties they can, and that
includes, as you say, guarding the trail.
So along the borders of the trail are all these old ants, crippled ants,
staggering and unable to stand up but yet reaching up with their jaws, feebly
trying to keep the enemy at bay.
DAVIES: An enemy like what? An ant from another colony?
Mr. MOFFETT: An ant from another colony or you. It depends who comes first.
They'll gladly do themselves in for whatever causes arises.
DAVIES: But they know when they're old and infirm to take on those tasks. How
do they know all this? Is anybody in charge?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, that's the great thing about ant societies, actually, is
that nobody is in charge. And it sounds unlikely to us, but it's actually a
really good idea.
Terrorism doesn't stop an ant colony. If you come along and smash a quarter of
the population, you can never slow the colony down. It has to grow back, but
you can never get a nerve center.
Ants disperse all this information amongst themselves, and they move
efficiently and do the right thing without anyone telling them what to do.
DAVIES: There's a description in the book of when you decided you needed to see
the nest of the marauder ants and had to excavate it. Just describe that
process for us.
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, Dave, you'll probably want to come along on my next
excavation because it's really kind of fun.
What you do is you get an axe, and you sort of slam it into the top of a
marauder ant nest, and apparently, they don't like that because they start
pouring out in a mass.
And the important thing to remember, which I've learned over repeated
experiences, is to tuck my socks over my pants and make sure my shirt is tucked
down and that I'm wearing long sleeves because they swarm up you as you're
digging away, and eventually they reach your neck. And at that point, you run
like the dickens and start scraping them off your body, and then you come back,
and you start digging again.
The goal of this exercise is to see how the nest is organized. It's also to get
the queen. She's, you know, the holy grail for ant biologists, and the queen is
deep down in the nest.
As I say, ants don't have a leader. She produces the young. She's their mother.
She doesn't give any orders, but she holds the colony together through, you
know, the relationship as a family.
DAVIES: You write about a lot of different fascinating kinds of ants in the
book, ants that live in the canopies of forests hundreds of feet above the
ground. And there are some animals that are actually farmers of a kind. Tell us
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, ants are one of the few creatures, other than humans of
course, that have invented agriculture. And they've done it surprisingly, it
turns out, pretty much exactly how humans did it. They domesticated a crop.
They eat a fungus. And these are the leaf-cutter ants, which you've all seen in
films and different places, I'm sure, and they carry those leaves along. They
don't actually eat leaves.
What they do is they chop them up and make them into a mulch to raise their
fungus gardens, and they started doing this quite a long time ago. And the
origins of this agriculture is amazing because they - basically ants for a long
time didn't domesticate their fungus.
And there are species of these related to the leaf-cutter ants around like this
and they have basically a wild fungus that they can snatch and grow at home,
and that fungus might return to the wild, and that fungus is genetically
diverse and very robust and doesn't get diseases.
And then that went on for about 30 million years or more until the leaf-cutter
ants emerged among them, and those ants actually domesticated their fungus.
They turned those fungus into a form that cannot return to nature. Like apple
trees, these fungi have little bulbs at the tip that the ants eat.
And at that point the fungus was stuck with the ant and vice versa, and they
became like one thing. And they bred this fungus so thoroughly and their
colonies grew enormously that they have these huge monocultures now that are
over-bred, have no genetic diversity and are subject to all these diseases. So
the ants, the modern ants, the leaf-cutter ants, have the same problems in
agriculture that humans have today.
DAVIES: And do they spend a lot of time tending their fungus fields?
Mr. MOFFETT: The amazing thing is they do virtually everything the human farmer
does. They have to clean their fungus, weed them, cull them. They fertilize the
fungus. They have to apply pesticides. They invented pesticides. All...
DAVIES: Pesticides? What's an ant pesticide?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, they grow a couple different kinds of fungi - many of them
are on their bodies - of a kind related to the fungus that produces penicillin
in humans. And that actually destroys certain diseases that the crop fungus,
their food fungus, can get, and keeps those gardens healthy.
DAVIES: Mark Moffett, recorded in June of last year. His book is called
"Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari With a Cast of Trillions." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're listening to my interview recorded last year with biologist, writer and
photographer, Mark Moffett, who spent years studying the complex societies of
ants around the world. His latest book is called "Adventures Among Ants: A
Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions."
DAVIES: You also write about the driver ant and its peculiar bite. Tell us
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, the driver ant come in two forms. The African ones, they're
perhaps worse in some ways, because they have jaws like knives and so they can
cut human flesh. And so I have actually been with pigmies in the Congo, and
gone to their traps, and found antelopes that were eaten alive by a driver ant.
The army ants in South America can't cut. They can pierce though. And they have
long, piercing mandibles that are shaped just like fishhooks with a re-curve
tip a little knife blade edged to the fishhook. You've seen those if you look
closely enough on an actual fishhook. And they - those jaws serve as fishhooks
and they actually pierce deep into the skin and at the same time they sting you
at the other end. And this is a kamikaze behavior because like a fishhook, they
can't remove the jaws once they've done this. They're stuck with you, and the
only way to remove them, it's a specialized skill that I've gained, is to get
out that Swiss Army knife with those little scissors and chop off the jaws and
then tweezer each of the jaws out.
DAVIES: In the book of "Amazing Stories" I was even more amazed as you recount
the tale of the Argentine ants and the scale of their colonies in California.
Tell us about those.
Mr. MOFFETT: Turns out that only ants and humans have full-scale impersonal
warfare, where masses of individuals go after each other. And that's because
ants and humans have larger societies than anything else, up to millions of
And the Argentine ants, having the largest societies, have the most amazing
warfare of all. Unfortunately, they're an invasive species and they've escaped
Argentina and they're now in California. They have been there for about a
century expanding their realm.
But what's been recently discovered is that there are in fact different
colonies there. It was thought that they didn't fight until someone
accidentally took some of them, mixed them up with what turned out to be a
different society and they started killing each other. And these societies
turned out to be enormous. There are four of them in all of California. The
large of the four is called the very large colony and it extends from San
Francisco down to the Mexican border and contains maybe hundreds of billions to
a trillion individuals.
This is a single nationality with a single scent. So you can carry an
individual ant from San Francisco with you all the way down to Mexico, if
you're so inclined, and drop it off and it will merge seamlessly with the
society there. You carry that same ant a quarter inch across the border to the
next society in Escondido and its dead within a minute. And these huge colonies
have borders that are miles long, and millions of ants are dying each month
right in people's backyards out of view at the base of the grasses. And it's
basically the largest battle ever waged. And it doesn't seem like much because,
heck, what are they doing?
But in fact these ants are extremely aggressive, not only to each other but to
every other kind of ant. They're wiping out all the native ant species and
those ants were important for dispersing seeds and in keeping the soil healthy
and having other functions. So California is in the middle of a real ant
DAVIES: You said millions of ants are dying on a monthly basis. And these are
these places, these border scrimmages where huge ant colonies come in to
contact. You actually witnessed a battle line, didn't you once?
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes. I went with a friend of mine, David Holway, who's studying
this in University of California in San Diego, and he took me to the exact spot
where the two of the ant colonies come together, which took a long time to
find. They actually had to carry ants from neighborhood to neighborhood and
drop them off and see if they were killed until they narrowed down the
borderlands. And there you have a line of ants, but dead bodies with the ants
What they do, the live ants on top of this mass, is circle each other, grab on
and start pulling, and ants start pulling from a different side and suddenly a
leg will pop off or an antennae. They literally spread eagle and tear each
other to pieces slowly over time. And this is non-negotiable. No ant says I
will not die for my society. So the ants sort of flow into these borderlands
constantly and renew the battlefield.
DAVIES: And then retreat when they're beaten and the line is moved a few yards,
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, they're never retreating. The line might move but that's
only because there is a greater population pushing the border forward. So these
borders do shift back and forth, but there's never a retreat. There is some
advantage to moving swiftly, so the ants that attack first and ask questions
later, essentially, those colonies tend to overwhelm the other colonies. But
none of these colonies have lost yet. This will take the long haul of time to
happen because these battles have been going on probably for most of the
century that this species has been in California. And that's the amazing thing
about these colonies, they're basically - they never end.
And they will just keep going, and in fact they're expanding around the world
right now. The same colonies are taking over places like Northern New Zealand.
There's a single colony that occupies a thousand kilometers of coastline in
Europe. South Africa has a huge colony, and so forth.
DAVIES: Now, there is one other real bad girl out there in the ant world, the
fire ants. Tell us about that.
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, the fire ant, of course, is in the American South. The cool
story about the fire ant is that it's virtually the same story as the Argentine
ant. Because these two species and a number of other invasive species that are
causing immense damage around the world all came from the same spot in northern
Argentina - a river valley where they have learned to fight against each other
with such precision, they cannot be stopped.
DAVIES: And how do they skip over oceans?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, these ants live in a flood plain where the waters go up and
down and they're driven up the trees all the time. And they have to learn very
quickly to run to any place that's available to live in. So if a boat pulls up,
they're up the gangplank in, you know, no time and heading to New Orleans with
a load of coffee.
DAVIES: When I left Texas in 1975 and moved north, there were no fire ants. And
my relatives soon told me, when I went back down there, you don't just lie
around on the grass. These guys can really hurt.
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes. They're, in fact, worse than the Argentine ants in that
respect because they have stingers. And, of course, that's a horrifying
experience to everyone in the South now. We know they've been in a battle with
the Argentine ant down there. The Argentine ant actually entered the South
before the fire ant. The Argentine ant came in through New Orleans. The fire
ant came in through a different port, and both of them expanded their ranges
DAVIES: Can humans fight them? Has that happened?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, it seems to me the only hope is to deal with the fact that
they're such nationalists, that they depend on these scents absolutely to know
who's friend and foe. So if we could crack that code, we have the best chance.
DAVIES: The descriptions and the pictures in this book are fascinating, but at
some level they're, they're scary. I mean, you know, you look at an ant with
these kind of lifeless dots on her heads that are eyes and, you know, you see
her using her mandibles to tear apart some hapless insect that's encountered
the colony, and you just see this relentless drive for self-preservation, which
is expressed in these millions of ants being heartless, relentless killers,
which is maybe, you know, the norm in the natural world. But it's very
unsettling. I mean do you ever just get creeped out by all this?
Mr. MOFFETT: Creeped out. Well, you know, there can be - I would not like to
have been in the war in Vietnam. I think I could get creeped out by human
behavior just as much. And this is the thing, that these commonalities between
the two of us are actually really important to me. Ants didn't come about any
of these things through intelligence. We have choices that we can make through
intelligence but we've still made a lot of wrong choices. But they, you know,
they do have a total devotion to their societies that is actually almost like a
form of love.
They don't have facial expressions like you are pointing out. They have these
mask-like faces. That's true of all insects. And it turns out that humans
actually judge emotion and character through facial expressions. A person who
has lost the capacity to mood their face can get misjudged all the time. And
ants because of that don't get a fair shake. I think there's some pretty good
emotions going on there.
When I'm chasing an ant through the jungle brush down on the forest floor and I
see it through my camera, I see it start to turn. I see the antennae quiver and
its body tense because it knows I'm there and it's turning and it's going to
respond. And I back up and I hide behind a twig, just as an elephant
photographer would hide behind a tree and my emotional connection with the ant
is just like it would be to a person or a dog.
And whether that's an accurate representation of the mental condition going on
in the ant, I don't know, but there's the same kind of beauty and elegance and
positive things going on in ant societies and those things also fascinate me
DAVIES: Well, Mark Moffett, it's been an adventure. Thanks so much.
Mr. MOFFETT: With great pleasure, Dave. Thanks.
DAVIES: Mark Moffett recorded in June of last year. Moffett is a biologist,
writer and photographer and a research associate at the Smithsonian
Institution. His latest book is called "Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari
With a Cast of Trillions."
You can see a photo gallery featuring some of Mark Moffett's remarkable
pictures on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward tells us the story of Ace Records, which made
hits with New Orleans musicians in the 1950s.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Ace Records: New Orleans Hits, Made In Mississippi
DAVE DAVIES, host:
A great music scene doesnât mean there's always a great local record label
there to document it. Nowhere has this been more true than New Orleans, which
went decades without a homegrown label to document its riches. This explains
why, during the late 1950s, Ace Records of Jackson, Mississippi released so
many New Orleans classics.
Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.
(Soundbite of music)
ED WARD: Johnny Vincent was born John Vincent Imbraguglio to a couple who ran a
restaurant in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1925, and he went into the Merchant
Marine straight out of high school. After mustering out, he ran a jukebox
business in Laurel for a while. But in 1953, he took a job with L.A.'s
Specialty label as their local talent scout. He sent one good record after
another to Specialty, but they went nowhere. Finally, he organized a session in
New Orleans with Eddie Jones, who called himself Guitar Slim, and had a young
piano player named Ray Charles do the arrangements.
The song, "The Things I Used to Do," was a top seller in 1954, so after one too
many arguments with Specialty, Johnny set up his own label, Ace. Early on, he
leased songs from smaller labels or did one-off sessions in Jackson or Houston,
but it was when he discovered J&M Studios in New Orleans and the musicians who
worked there that his label took off.
(Soundbite of song, "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu")
HUEY "PIANO" SMITH AND HIS CLOWNS: (Singing) I wanna jump but I'm afraid I'll
fall. I wanna holler but the joint's too small. Young man rhythm's got a hold
of me too. I got the rockin' pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu.
Want some lovin', baby, that ain't all. I wanna kiss her but the gal's too
tall. Young man rhythm's got a hold of me too. I got the rockin' pneumonia and
the boogie woogie flu.
I wanna scream...
WARD: The record announced that the group was Huey "Piano" Smith and His
Clowns, a group which had nearly as many personnel changes as it had personnel
over the years - there are even a couple of records under this name on which
Huey "Piano" Smith doesn't appear. As huge a classic as it is today, though,
"Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu" barely dented the pop charts,
although it was a Top 10 R&B hit.
Cosimo Matassa, co-owner of J&M Studios, found Ace its best-selling artist. A
band from Baton Rouge called the Rockets had auditioned there, and Cosimo
thought the lead singer had something. He was right.
(Soundbite of song, "Just A Dream")
Mr. JIMMY CLANTON (Musician): (Singing) Just a dream, just a dream. Just a
dream. All our plans and our all schemes. All our schemes. How could I think
you'd be mine. Could be mine. The lies I'd tell myself each time.
I know that we could never last. Never last.
WARD: What Jimmy Clanton had was a good-looking white face, and an ability to
write material that suited the times. Dick Clark liked him and made him a
national figure. Vincent figured this was the way to go and looked for another
like him. Frank Guzzo from suburban Gretna, Louisiana, was his man. Renamed
Frankie Ford, he turned out to be another hitmaker, but of an entirely
(Soundbite of song, "Sea Cruise")
Mr. FRANKIE FORD (Musician): (Singing) Old man rhythm is in my shoe. It's no
use to sittin' and a'singin' the blues. So be my guest, you got nothing to
lose. Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?
Oo-ee, oo-ee baby. Oo-ee, oo-ee baby. Oo-ee, oo-ee baby. Won't you let me take
you on a sea cruise?
Feel like jumping baby won't you join me pleas? I don't like begging but I'm on
I got to get to rockin'...
WARD: As the owner of a successful label, Johnny Vincent was often approached
by artists whose contracts elsewhere had run out, and this is how Joe Tex got
to record for Ace.
(Soundbite of song, "You Little Baby Faced Thing")
Mr. JOE TEX (Musician): (Singing) You little baby faced thing, you just a liven
me. Woo. You little baby face thing. I bet your kisses taste sweet. Yeah. You
little baby face thing. Iâm keeping all the fellows from you. Whoa yeah.
Theyâll be a rock 'n' roll dance that's coming town at night. I bet your mama
and papa take you and she said all right. So I go down baby bought a ticket for
two 'cause I'd rather go to the dance with you.
You little baby face thing.
WARD: The reason none of his records there were hits, of course, was that he
was trying to sound too much like others - Little Richard, in this case.
By the time 1960 came around, New Orleans had sprouted some labels, most
notably Minit, which drained some of Ace's talent away from it. Saxophonist
Alvin "Red" Tyler had been arranging sessions, but he followed the exodus,
leaving things in the hands of a strange young kid named Mac Rebbenack.
Rebbenack was a great rock 'n' roll guitarist until an incident with a gun
injured his left ring finger, and he switched to piano, which figures on
"Sahara" - cut in 1961 before he, too, left the label.
(Soundbite of song, "Sahara")
DR. JOHN (Musician):
WARD: Johnny Vincent always blamed The Beatles for the decline of Ace Records,
but the fact is that the times left him behind well before the British
Invasion. Jimmy Clanton's pop success had blinded him to the proto-soul music
his sometime session musician Allen Toussaint was making, and when Toussaint
became the talent scout at Minit, Ace's fate was sealed. A British company
called Music Collection, however, paid Vincent a reported million pounds for
his catalog in 1997, and he died rich and happy three years later.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Captain America."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Captain America': Nostalgic Fun, With Muscles
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Two months after "The Mighty Thor" made his big screen debut, another Marvel
comics superhero, Captain America, hits the screen. The comic about a
chemically altered soldier, ready to fight the Nazis with a shield fashioned
from a new alloy, first hit newsstands in the early 1940s. The film stars Chris
Evans as the captain and Hugo Weaving as his German super-nemesis.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Unlike many other middle-aged moviegoers, I don't groan at the
prospect of every new comic-book-based movie. I grew up adoring stuff a lot
tackier. The problem is that modern superhero movies cost $100-plus million and
use up studio resources that could be better used for almost anything. And they
seem bogged down instead of liberated by their expensive computer-generated
But I like the new "Captain America," or, as it's officially titled, "Captain
America: The First Avenger," which is meant to remind us the captain will be an
ally of Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor in the upcoming Marvel Comics epic "The
Avengers." No, it's not destined to be a classic. Material so pulpy just isn't
worth doing at these prices. But the movie has an easy, classical pace and a
lot of good, old-fashioned craftsmanship.
The musclebound jock Captain America with his mighty shield, born Steve Rogers,
actually was the first Marvel Avenger, conceived in 1940 to do battle with
Hitler. Rogers began his life not as a jock but a 98-pound weakling who
couldn't get into the Army. Rogers is classified 4F until he is overheard
vowing to keep applying by Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, a German scientist who
defected to the Allies.
Erskine thinks Steve, despite his asthma and poor muscle tone, has the strength
of heart to become the first biochemically enhanced U.S. soldier, which puts
Erskine at odds with Tommy Lee Jones as a brusque colonel, whose choice is a
more obvious candidate, a soldier named Hodge.
(Soundbite of movie, "Captain America: The First Avenger")
Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (Actor): (as Colonel Chester Phillips) When you brought a
90-pound asthmatic onto my Army base, I let it slide. I thought, what the hell.
Maybe he'd be useful to you like a gerbil. Look at that. He's making me cry.
Hodge passed every test we gave him. He's big. He's fast. He obeys orders. He's
Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Actor): (as Dr. Abraham Erskine) He's a bully.
Mr. JONES: (as Colonel Chester Phillips) You donât win wars with niceness,
doctor. You win wars with guts.
EDELSTEIN: This early section is the best part of "Captain America." You watch
Jones with his acid deadpan bicker with a shining-eyed, lovable Tucci, while
anticipating little Steve Rogers' transformation into a superhero. I caught a
faint whiff of one of my favorite films, Preston Sturges's "Hail the Conquering
Hero," also about a weakling who dreams of fighting in the war - but who
doesn't have a German scientist to pump him full of super-sizing chemicals.
The super-villain in this case isn't Hitler but a breakaway Nazi named Schmidt
who was the first recipient of an early version of Dr. Erskine's serum, which
has, with the help of a supernatural glowy thing, transformed his head into a
red skull. He's played to icy perfection by Hugo Weaving, but the dialogue is
generic megalomaniac stuff.
Even more disappointing is Chris Evans' Captain A when he gets put into his own
muscular body. Evans isn't physically inventive enough to suggest a nerd's
surprise and then elation with his new abilities. This would have been a good
role for a wittier hunk like Ryan Reynolds - who got cast, alas, as the Green
But "Captain America" is good fun anyway. It's deftly directed by Joe Johnston,
who did special effects for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" before making such
graphically strong fantasies as "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "The Rocketeer."
Johnston learned his sense of economy from Spielberg: He doesn't waste a shot.
The production design by Rick Heinrichs is bold and unfussy, the palette,
monochromatic with splashes of comic-book greens and reds, the compositions
evocative of World War II newsreels. And there are hints of futurist designs in
Schmidt's souped-up stormtroopers with their disintegrating ray guns. Every
The score by Alan Silvestri is a marvelous pastiche with a life of its own, and
there's a wonderful song-and-dance montage in which the captain is trotted out
along with leggy chorus girls to raise patriotic spirits. It's both satirical
So is the film, in its retro nostalgic way. Early scenes at a World's Fair
remind you of how this whole superhero mythos was born, out of patriotism,
utopianism and hucksterism; out of the belief that science, the military and
nerdy messianic dreamers could free the world from evil. Okay, that didn't work
out so well, but "Captain America" proves how grand it once was to have faith.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed
As you know Terry isn't normally here on Fridays, but she joins us now because
she has something she wants to say.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Thanks, Dave. You know, as you know Dave, today is the last day that producer
Joan Toohey-Wesman is going to be working with FRESH AIR. Now I've said a lot
of FRESH AIR goodbyes over the years. But I got to tell you, this one really
hurts. Even though it's not the first time I've had to say goodbye to Joan.
Joan started working here in 1989 and a few years later she left to work in
South Africa, and then took another job. Okay, that was a blow. But then she
came back to be the first producer of our weekend program. But then she left to
have her first child - another difficult goodbye. But later she returned part
time and we got to know her daughter, Julia.
And then there was another goodbye when she had her second child Isabelle. But
a couple of years ago, she returned. Now she's moving far away to St. Louis to
teach college, so the odds of yet another return are seeming kind of slim.
I am really going to miss her. When youâre facing the craziness of a daily
program with its constant deadlines, there's nothing like having someone like
Joan, who was always grounded and sane, incredibly smart, reliable, fair, open-
minded, warm, honest. That's why this is so darn hard.
We wish Joan and her family good luck in their new home. At the very least
Joan, you'd better come back and visit.
Thanks, Dave. I know youâre going to miss Joan too. And while I reflect on how
sad I am, why donât you do the closing credits.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Okay. We'll all miss Joan.
For Terry, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.