Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants (Audio Interview)

Image credit: Mark Moffett

If we never grew up and stopped playing in the dirt, says Mark "Dr. Bugs" Moffett, we'd never lose our fascination with ants. Alas, most of us have lost touch with the insect friends of our childhood. Mark Moffett is one of the world's leading explorers and a biologist with an acute ant fixation (he did, afterall, get his PhD under E. O. Wilson, the grandaddy of ant scientists). Moffett's articles and remarkable photographs appear regularly in National Geographic, and he is Research Associate in Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution. His new book is Adventures Among Ants: a Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions. Mark tells us about how ants wage war, practice agriculture, and socialize.

Get the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: You clearly have a passion for ants that runs very deep. Why so fascinated with ants?

Mark Moffett: Well, the thing we all knew as children is that ants are fascinating, because we were down there in the dirt with them, watching them all the time. We tend to outgrow this, because of our size as much as anything else. I think if we did stay the same size as we grew older, ants would still dominate the landscape for us and be as important as they were when we were six months old. Because they do control the Earth's surface the way we do at our own size. They're just out of view doing it. And the numbers of them, of course, are immense.

The other thing that we they have in common with us is sociality, and the fact that their societies, in many cases, can go into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. And so they are the only other species, other than some termites, that have something equivalent to a human city state. And like our giant cities, they have many things in common, from infrastructure to organization, division of labor issues, moving resources around, and market economies.

All kinds of things emerge in giant societies of ants that you don't even see in animals like chimpanzees.

TreeHugger: You talk about war and slavery and agriculture. Walk us through a couple of those things that seem familiar to us from our own world.

Moffett: Well, agriculture, of course, we don't expect in nature. It actually occurs in a couple places. There's a beetle or two that raise their own food, believe it or not, but the ants do it in a mass scale. And they do it in the form of fungus gardens. They're interested in fungus, so they are mushroom eaters. These are the leafcutter ants of South America, and they actually have been worked on in detail so we know what they did and when they did it. About 60 million years ago the ancestors of these leafcutter ants, which are still alive today, started taking fungus from nature and cultivating it in their homes and their nests. But it wasn't domesticated very much, it could still return to the wild, and it was genetically diverse and strong and vigorous.

Then about 12 million years ago, the leafcutter ants emerged, and they domesticated their fungus. Those fungi can no longer return to the wild. They are built to be eaten. They have little bodies on them that look like apples, and those fungi can now be grown in huge monocultures, like we grow them in our modern societies today. And the ant societies, like the human societies, have exploded as a result of this capacity.

But now those monocultures are subject to diseases because they've been over-bred and so meticulously managed that they've lost all their resistance and their genetic diversity. And so these leafcutter ants have to deal with all the modern problems humans have, and they've invented pesticides and all kinds of other techniques to keep their farms pure.

TreeHugger: So they're having the same monoculture problems that we're having?

Moffett: They are indeed, and they've done this for millions of years. The lesson, of course, is unfortunately not an easy one because the ants are stuck in a treadmill with the disease organisms that are attacking their fungi. And over these millennia, the diseases have come up with strategies and the ants have come up with counter strategies. So in a sense it's a continuous war between the two.

We're at the beginning of that war for ourselves as we have only had this scale of agriculture for a few thousand years--and in fact only a few hundred when you think of really massive scale agriculture. So the ants basically put a heck of a lot of energy into keeping their gardens and homes clean and well managed, and it's kind of a rat race. In fact, they burn more calories than they probably did back in the old days, when they had these simpler societies. That's the irony of agriculture is that it takes a lot of back labor, and this happened to humans quite long ago.

Now we at least have machinery to do it, but of course growing crops in humans society is extremely expensive. It burns a lot of fuel.

TreeHugger: Are there examples of ants or other insects actually destroying their own ecological niche and wiping themselves out?

Moffett: Well, that's arguable, but there are ants that are certainly doing some disastrous things to the environment. The great majority of ants, I will say in advance, are essential to the environment, and those include the great majority of what may be 12,000 to 14,000 species of ants (as many species as there are bird). Ants are essential around the world in micromanaging the soil, dealing with pests, and things like harvesting and planting seeds. So they're actually important for the lives of many kinds of plants.
But there are certain ants that have become pests, and those ants are tropical species that have traveled with us. They have learned how to do this (or at least they have the capacity to) and these include the fire ant of the American South and the Argentine ant of Argentina. And these ants have escaped from their homeland and emerged in colonies that are massive and dense.

There can be a million of these Argentine invasive species in the average person's backyard around San Diego. And these ants basically destroy all other kinds of ants and wipe out other species as a result of killing seeds and harrying other organisms to death. Horned lizards which eat ants, actually aren't able to sleep with the Argentine ants around and basically die of exhaustion in time.

TreeHugger: How about going the other way? Is human activity taking a toll on ant ecology around the world?

Moffett: It certainly is, of course. These invasive species are a minority. They have learned to piggyback on us, but they are actually very humanlike in their capacity for warfare and domination of the environment. With their huge societies they are in fact much like human societies in that way.

But the majority of ants live in smaller groups and integrate more with their local environments. And so as we remove rainforest we knock out a lot of these important endemic species. And as the climate changes, some of them are moving up the mountains and being driven to extinction at the mountaintops, potentially. So the same patterns are falling for the ant world, as are falling for many other species right now.

Tags: Biodiversity | Evolution | Latin America | Photography | TreeHugger Radio

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