Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants (Audio Interview)

TreeHugger: How about warfare among ants?

Moffett: True warfare among humans (masses of people against masses of people) only became possible as society grew through the use of agriculture from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, then eventually millions of individuals. And these large-scale societies had a capacity of making armies, an excessive labor force, that they can throw at the enemy with little cost to themselves. They can suffer a lot of deaths and potentially gain territory.

Ants have exactly the same pattern. Many ants have small groups; those tend to be more retreating. If you live in a small society, it's easier to get up and move your teepee or your temporary nest, in the case of ants, than to face the enemy. But as ant societies get bigger, they tend to be more and more aggressive and large colonies will just go straight at the jugular. They actually start in right away with just trying to kill each other.

TreeHugger: If people look at your photographs, like those in Adventures Among Ants, they will see you in some of those images actually being bitten, providing the backdrop for ants and other bugs. Is that your approach, does that enhance your study?

Moffett: Well, I think it does, because you can't be shy to really understand nature. And you've got to be right in there and, of course, taking pictures makes that doubly clear. The famous photographer Robert Kappa said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." And he never photographed an ant. To photograph an ant, you've got to really be in there. And that means you're going to get bit, and people say, "Wow, that must be a pain." And I say, "Oh, no, it's just a sign of their love and respect for me," because in a sense it's like any relationship.

I talk with people a lot about the fact that you do have to take risks. You do have to suffer a bit of pain to be in any relationship, whether it's a woman you love or something in nature. We can't retreat every time we see a shark near a beach. We can't decide that this is horrifying and we should go shoot it, or nature is going to disappear. So that's true of both sharks and ants, and we have to manage the fact that ants are with us in this world and actually do a lot of good things, and not throw some pesticides around every time we see some near our picnic.

TreeHugger: Do ants have individual personalities?

Moffett: They do. This is something I talk about in the conclusion of Adventures Among Ants. People have certain expectations about ants that I like to break. And in fact, I would say that ants always look like identical specks to us, because we're too far away. It's like watching people from an airplane. You're not going to be as impressed by the difference between your sister and your brother from the airplane height. You have to get down close and take in the details, and once you do, you get as much relationship with the individual ants as Jane Goodall had with her chimpanzees.

You begin to see the individual differences, and these include differences in their approach to even things like work. People assume that ants, like honeybees, work themselves to death all the time; but there are, in fact, lazy ants that sit around and do very little.

And there are a few ants that work especially hard and in many cases try to get other ants to do work with them. They're the instigators and the hard workers. They're the ones in your family that do the dishes every night, you know.

TreeHugger: How do you feel about killing insects?

Moffett: Well, the good news about killing insects, or at least ants in particular, is that it's not lethal to the colony. Ants, in fact, expect to die. Worker ants will die at a moment's notice. They will swarm up to you to keep you off the nest, and this is at little cost to the colony. So it's not like killing a reproductive individual, like a lion, tiger or bear. Ant workers don't reproduce. Their mother, the queen, reproduces, and they are there for her sole benefit, to make sure that she keeps producing more sisters. And so if you walk along the sidewalk and step on an ant every three of four steps, which is likely, I wouldn't panic about it.

TreeHugger: Where are the man ants in all this?

Moffett: The man ants, well, they're not very manly, I must say. They're retreating and not up to the Latino machismo ideal at all. Male ants, in fact, do not partake in the society. They just lie around and do nothing. So I'm probably stereotyping all kinds of things here. I'll have to be careful. But they, in fact, are thrown out by the sisters after a while, at the time when the colony reproduces, and they fly up and mate with the virgin queens from the other colonies and then they die. So they mate and they die. It's a very stripped-down male lifecycle, one very enjoyable perhaps to the males. I don't know, maybe they don't need anything more, but they don't get much time.

TreeHugger: We've all seen plenty of photographs of oil-covered birds from the Gulf Coast. As someone who observes ecosystems very closely, what do you see as some of the long-term but perhaps more subtle impacts from the oil spill?

Moffett: Well, this is an interesting question, and one I'm no expert on. But I do know some people, like Mary Power at UC Berkeley, who study how things move from water systems, like rivers, onto the land, and everything is in fact interconnected. So the amount of fish in a river can impact the number of spiders along the shore, because the fish are eating the nymphs of the things that the spiders will eat when they emerge from the water. So effects have spread throughout the world in ways which are, unfortunately, very difficult to prove and quantify. We just know that they're strong and they're there. Particularly in the case of the Gulf Coast, it's going to be a totally mystery what's going to happen.

And that's part of the tragedy. All I know is that the Gulf Coast is eventually going to affect us throughout the continent.

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

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