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Tracking A 'Sisterhood' Of Traveling Ants
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
If you don't think ants are interesting, you might change your mind after
spending a little time with our guest, Mark Moffett. In his new book, you 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. 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
studied ants so closely, he's been called the Jane Goodall of the ant world.
Mark Moffett is a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution, who spent
two years as curator of ants at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. 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
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 â 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 â 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. So 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
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 â 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 â 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 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 new 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. Tell us how you get so close.
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, I get close because I've always been close. My parents say I
watched ants in diapers. That was easy because I was small then. Now I have to
get down much lower. So I tend to lower my body exactly to the ground.
My eye, if I'm working and being paid, has to be within one inch of the soil,
and at that latitude, you can actually take in the ants as if they were aliens
in a movie, and that's always how I've seen them, not as small things, but as
DAVIES: 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 â 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 all 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: Well, don't take it personally, but I think I might just let you take
the next nest, and I'll read about it in your next book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: But let me ask this about â I mean, when these ants swarm up your legs
and finally reach your â I mean, how many stings will you sustain in the course
of that little exercise?
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, like army ants, marauder ants actually don't have stings,
which is somewhat of an improvement. They just use their jaws. Because they
depend on mass action, stings aren't quite necessary.
DAVIES: So they bite rather than sting, in other words, right?
Mr. MOFFETT: Right. So they're not actually injecting poison, but, you know,
you get above 1,000 ants biting at once, and you begin to notice something
DAVIES: Like, what does it feel like?
Mr. MOFFETT: Oh, I donât know. If feels like a nice, sunny day in Malaysia
doing ant research. How can I explain it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: It's not debilitating pain?
Mr. MOFFETT: No, it's not debilitating. It's sort of hard to match with
anything else. You have to imagine tiny little jaws all over you at once.
DAVIES: Mark Moffett's 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 speaking 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."
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 about them.
Mr. MOFFETT: Well, ants are one of the few creatures other than humans, of
course, that have invented agriculture. And theyâve 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 youâve all seen in
films and different places, I'm sure, and they carry those leaves along. They
donât 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 didnât 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 doesnât get
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 visa 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, call 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: 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 fish hooks with a re-curve
tip a little knife blade edged to the fish hook. Youâve seen those if you look
closely enough on an actual fish hook. And they - those jaws serve as fish
hooks 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 fish
hook, they can't remove the jaws once theyâve done this. They're stuck with
you, and the only way to remove them, itâs 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: Wow. Didnât you once have one of these attached to your finger and
simply chewed the head off?
Mr. MOFFETT: Oh, yes. Well, you can chew the head off. Yes indeed. That will
stop them from getting in much deeper. And they're kind of tangy, and the ants
are eaten in many parts of the world. If youâre getting to that subject, it's a
delicious treat to many people. But you still are stuck with those little jaws
inside, so one way or another youâre going to have to figure out how to get
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
individuals. So bees may have a battle or two. No one's really studied them
very much. Maybe termites a little warfare now and then, but ants and humans
really have it down.
And the Argentine ants, having the largest societies, have the most amazing
warfare of all. Unfortunately, they're an invasive species and theyâve 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 didnât 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
youâre 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 it's 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 doesnât 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, didnât 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 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 on top.
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 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.
Most societies of ants are born when a queen flies out and forms her own nest
with its own identity. These colonies simply keep expanding and expanding and
expanding. 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 donât 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 theyâve 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
Now, the fire ant is in danger of entering California. The Department of
Agriculture is trying to stop it.
DAVIES: Can humans fight them? Is that happening?
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: Our guest is Mark Moffett. His new 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 youâre just joining us, our guest is Mark Moffett. He's an award-
winning naturalist and photographer. He's a research associate at the
Smithsonian Institution, has studied ants. His new book is called "Adventures
Among Ants: A Global Safari With a Cast of Trillions."
You know, I believe you wrote this in the book, or maybe I read it somewhere
else, that, you know, youâve done some amazing photography of ants and that you
got started by buying a book on photographing models?
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: How does one...
Mr. MOFFETT: Supermodels. Supermodels.
DAVIES: Okay. Right, super models.
Mr. MOFFETT: I donât - not just average models. I have, you know, high
ambitions for my ant photography. And in fact, what I did is I got to Harvard
and realized I wanted to escape from the academic nervousness of all these
intellectuals. I was a student of E.O. Wilson, a wonderful environmentalist,
but otherwise it was just like I was from a small school and it was just too
much. So I figured I wanted to get of there as soon as possible to the field.
And so I found out about the marauder ant and I went off to Asia.
Before I went, I realized I couldnât just go to India for months and come back
with all these stories without people thinking I was sitting around smoking
something with a guru. So I got this book on supermodels and I figured out
about the hair light, the fill light, all these things that make supermodels
beautiful, and I tried to apply that to the ant world.
DAVIES: Well, you know, I mean, 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 didnât come about any
of these things through intelligence. We have choices that we can make through
intelligence but weâve 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 donât 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. So even a
person who has lost the capacity to mood their face can get misjudged all the
time. And ants because of that donât 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 antennie(ph) 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 donât 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: Mm. You know, youâve been called the Indiana Jones of entomology. I
think it was National Geographic that coined that term. And I hope you'll
indulge us by telling us the story of the itchy scalp you came back with after
this trip to Peru.
Mr. MOFFETT: Oh well, this is not an ant story, Dave.
DAVIES: Right, I know.
Mr. MOFFETT: But it's a...
DAVIES: But itâs a good story.
Mr. MOFFETT: It's an insectoid story. Yes, well, I had been down in Peru
hunting army ants and I came back feeling just okay and then my head started to
swell. And this was very unusual for me because I traveled for years in the
Tropics and I never ever get sick, but my head gets more and more swollen. So I
started to show the top of my head to various people and they said, nah, nah,
nah, I'm not looking at your head, and they waved their hands and waved me
away. And I couldnât figure out what it was but I was a little worried because
there's a certain kind of parasite that sometimes enters ones head. And I went
to the Harvard Medical office where they looked at it and they didnât know what
it was. They said, well, we could try to remove it. And...
DAVIES: It was like a bump or something?
Mr. MOFFETT: A large bump. In any case, I'm returning from the Harvard Medical
office, which, where they should've known better, and I'm walking back to the
Museum of Comparative Zoology, where I was a graduate student. And at that
moment I feel something, and I reach up and touch the top of my head and
something's coming out. And I dropped to my knees and feel this thing emerging
from my head. And I pull it out and there it is in my hands. And I'm feeling
faint remembering the movie - I donât know if you remember it, Dave - "Aliens."
DAVIES: Sure. Who could forget?
Mr. MOFFETT: Where the human splits in half and a creature comes out. And I'm
looking at this thing and it's wriggling around. I'm not sure what to do with
it but I'm an entomologist so I know I can't leave it there. So I try to run
upstairs to my office with this thing between my hands and Burt Holldobler, a
very famous myrmecologist ant expert says: Mark, Mark, I must talk to you for a
I go to his office and he starts showing me pictures of ant glands and I'm
sitting there not really quite willing to show him this thing that emerged from
Moffett - this mini Moffett. And I'm also not quite sure whether this thing
crawling around between my hands is capable of gnawing its way back into my
flesh. I'm a little nervous.
And he finishes with me and I rush to my office and put it in some alcohol and
that was a bot fly larvae. This is a fly that actually lays its egg on a
mosquito. It's clever. It doesnât go to you directly where you'll swat it. The
mosquito lands on you. The egg hatches from your body heat and drills down into
your body and gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
DAVIES: So it was a fly larva growing under your scalp and finally emerged?
Mr. MOFFETT: Yes.
DAVIES: Mm. Well, where you going next?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOFFETT: Dave, I have to get you to come with me and we'll have grand
DAVIES: I'm going to wear a hat, Iâll tell you that.
Mr. MOFFETT: Oh, I do as well. I am now just relaxing for the summer because
I've gone through an amazing series of trips that have taken me over the last
few months from Madagascar, Maresias, India, Assam, Bhutan, Yemen and I'm now
just going to collapse for a while and think about ants.
DAVIES: Well, Mark Moffett, itâs been an adventure. Thanks so much.
Mr. MOFFETT: With great pleasure, Dave. Thanks.
DAVIES: Mark Moffett is a biologist, writer and a 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.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Tamsen Donner: Pioneer Dame Of The Donner Party
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The story of the ill-fated Donner Party continues to fascinate us because it's
the American Westward Ho nightmare writ large. But for writer Gabrielle Burton,
other lessons generated by the expedition take precedence over the familiar
lurid accounts of cannibalism.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a rave review for Burton's two new books about
the Donner Party.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Summer gives me the chance to go off-road in my reading, to
investigate books by lesser-known authors that have piqued my curiosity. Lots
of times these detours turn into dead ends, but once in a while the road less
traveled leads to the literary equivalent of El Dorado â the lost city of gold.
That's where I've been happily ensconced for the past week or so, thanks to
Burton is a writer closing in on 70 whose near lifelong obsession with Tamsen
Donner â the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party â has produced
two recent books: one a very good novel, the other an extraordinary must-read
The known facts of Tamsen Donner's life are these: She was born in 1801 in
Massachusetts. And, as a young woman, traveled by herself to teaching posts in
Maine and North Carolina. After the death of her first husband and son, Tamsen
went on to marry George Donner, an older widower. In the spring of 1846, when
Tamsen was 44, she set off with George, their five daughters, age 13 to three,
and some 80 other men, women and children on the California-Oregon Trail, bound
for San Francisco Bay.
As everybody knows, the Donner Party was trapped in the Sierra Nevada by freak
early snows and resorted to cannibalism to survive. When rescuers arrived,
Tamsen sent off her daughters, while she made the fatal decision to stay behind
with her dying husband. Tamsen's body â and the journal she kept throughout the
trip â were never found. According to eyewitnesses, the three littlest Donner
girls spent weeks at Sutter's Fort in present-day Sacramento, their eyes on the
mountains, crying: If mother would only come.
Gabrielle Burton is also the mother of five daughters. She'd been drawn to
Tamsen Donner not just because of that coincidence, but also because, she says,
Tamsen always seemed restless, seemed to want more. As an overwhelmed young
mother in the late-1960s, Burton knew firsthand about the illicit desire for
One of the things she desired was to become a writer, and on and off over the
decades, Burton worked on a novel about Tamsen Donner. All those years of
research and meditation have given the novel Burton has finally published a
sense of authority. Its title, "Impatient with Desire," is taken from a phrase
in one of Tamsen's 17 extant letters. The novel is imagined as Tamsen's lost
journal. And, in particular, the sections that depict Tamsen and the dying
George alone in the vast vacancy of the deserted campsite are haunting.
It's Gabrielle Burton's own fault, however, that I'm not spending more time
talking about her fine novel, because last year she published an unusual memoir
called "Searching for Tamsen Donner." You'll probably have to search a bit
yourself for this book, since it was put out by The University of Nebraska
Press as part of their "American Lives" series. But, it is so worth the effort.
Burton writes about a shoestring-budget trip she took in 1977, along with her
husband and five daughters, all crammed into the family station wagon. Already
deep into Donner research, Burton wanted to retrace the party's route from
Illinois to California.
Originally, Burton, newly fired up by the women's liberation movement, had
planned to make the pilgrimage alone, on a cherry-red motorcycle. But, being a
small woman, she couldn't control the heavy bike. And so begins a feminist
family-on-the-road saga, the likes of which I've never read before.
The Burton family stops at lonely pioneer graves off highways and swims in the
Great Salt Lake, and all the while, fledgling writer Gabrielle Burton is making
daily calculations about how to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife and
mother, without - like Tamsen Donner - discovering all too late that her duty
had cost her her life.
As Burton wisely says, talking about emotional cannibalism: The nicest husbands
and children will eat you up alive if you offer yourself on the plate, and
they'll ask for seconds.
Both Madonna of the Trail, Tamsen Donner, and feminist mother, Gabrielle
Burton, turned out to be pioneers, carving new roads for women to travel. Both
their stories are absolutely unforgettable.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed two books by Gabrielle Burton: "Searching for Tamsen Donner" and
"Impatient with Desire." To see Maureen's top crime picks for summer, go to the
summer book section of npr.org.
For Terry Gross, 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.