Before the Swarm
Intrepid naturalist Mark Moffett is tracking an ant species on a march toward bug-world domination...
When I shook Mark Moffett’s right hand, I glanced at his left and noticed it was swollen with a distinct red mound the size of a grape. He followed my gaze. “Have you met my botfly?” he asked, grinning. It was late October, and we were standing outside a research station at the foot of the Sierra Nombre de Dios, in northern Honduras. Or at least Moffett and I were standing: His botfly, a white maggot that had been implanted through a mosquito bite and had grown to three quarters of an inch in length, was apparently dead.
“I could see its breathing tube, but then I banged my hand on a door, and I think I’ve killed it,” he said, sounding disappointed.
“Does it hurt?”
“No … it’s dead.”
“Should it be removed before we head into the rainforest?”
“No,” said Moffett. “I’m waiting for my body to absorb it.”
Moffett, one of the world’s leading naturalists, is 52, red-bearded, barrel-chested, and prone to wearing sandals while walking in rainforests or lecturing at New York City intellectual clubs. He spends most of the year traveling. In his closet at his office in Greenport, Long Island, hangs one tweed jacket and a single bow tie with a pattern of orange butterflies.
He had come to Honduras to, as he put it, “look for critters.” Kathy Moran, a senior editor at National Geographic, says that, “in an age when we’re all used to wearing one hat, Mark needs an entire rack.” Moffett holds a Harvard Ph.D. in entomology, is an accomplished scientist, an award-winning author and journalist, one of the best nature photographers of his generation, and an aspiring comedian. Long ago, he left academia to trudge through jungles, occasionally cheating death, drawn by the odd behavior and extraordinary complexity of some of the world’s most neglected creatures.
The northern Honduran climate is so stifling that even the October cold season is hot. The downpours came every afternoon and lasted hours. Honduras is jaguar territory, but Moffett doesn’t care for big cats. Though he’s been shooting for National Geographic for 25 years, the appearance of feline cubs or baby polar bears on magazine covers makes his eyes roll. Moffett’s favorite creature, the ant, is a lot less lovable. (The bullet ant is among his favorites. It sits at the top of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which compares its bite to “firewalking over flaming charcoal with a rusty nail in your heel.”) “Ants,” Moffett tells me, “are melodrama.” They forage and fight, build and destroy. “You can take a box of dirt with a colony in it, stare at it for two weeks, and know the ins and outs of their society,” he says. The fact that ant society is generally dictated by hierarchy and specialization makes it all the more interesting to a man who can’t seem to stand either one.
When Moffett walks, it’s always with his heavy camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, in one hand. It has a short, thick lens and is custom-mounted with additional flashes and batteries. Around his neck is a jeweler’s loupe, a minuscule high-powered magnifier, vital for getting a close look at the tiny specimens he pinches up from the ground. Moffett wanders haltingly, prodding stones, overturning logs, staring up tree trunks, breaking apart rotting wood, snapping dead vines. He’s been known to spend months in the field looking for individual species and then pass entire days sitting cross-legged, waiting to capture a single moment of curious behavior.
Moffett has devoted years to the study of Hymenoptera, the order of insects that includes wasps, bees, and ants. It is a line of work that also kept such men as Charles Darwin and Alfred Kinsey occupied, as well as Moffett’s mentor, E. O. Wilson. Many of the biggest ideas to have rocked science in the past 150 years have come from studying the societies buzzing around us.
On this particular expedition, Moffett is looking for evidence to support a still controversial theory: that ants form superorganisms—colonies that effectively function as a single body. In Honduras he’s in search of two of the most pronounced examples: hyperaggressive army ants, which move in killing columns and bivouac in a living ball on the forest floor, and leafcutters, the agriculturalists of the ant world. The latter, Moffett points out, have been farming on a large scale for at least 12 million years longer than we have.
Last year, Moffett released a book, Adventures Among Ants, to widespread acclaim, lectured across America, including at the Smithsonian, Caltech, and the World Science Festival, and was a guest (for the third time) on The Colbert Report. The media has been dreaming up new names for him: the Indiana Jones of Entomology, the Jane Goodall of Ants, and the Martha Stewart of Dirt. On his Web site he calls himself Dr. Bugs.
Some fellow scientists, however, can have other words for him. The more he crisscrosses the lines separating television, books, lectures, adventure, and biology, the further removed he becomes from the academic world he sprang from. His critics accuse him of passing off observation as science. Reviewing Moffett’s book in the journal Nature, Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, wrote that Moffett “wants to be the first to see a new ant escapade and capture it on film, not to test hypotheses.” Another scientific journal critiqued his “chatty paragraphs.” It noted Moffett’s “willingness to dispense with rigor in the face of a compelling tale” and accused him of “storytelling gone amok.” “He earns a living as a photographer, not as an entomologist,” Gordon told me. “He’s not out collecting data to test hypotheses and establish new results. He’s not asking the community of scientists to evaluate the data. There’s a game we play, and he’s not in that game.”
Moffett, however, values his independence above all things. He calls universities places “filled with nervous people.” He survives on book advances, lecture money, grants, and National Geographic assignments. He maintains attachments to Harvard and the Smithsonian; they are prestigious but unpaid. “That way I don’t have to be indentured to anything,” he says. He has often lived without health insurance or savings, juggling television-news appearances, chat shows, Web interviews, newspaper reporters, magazine columns. He also posts videos to YouTube that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Moffett traverses the boundaries between science, adventure, and journalism, and he believes none should exclude the other. He seems to agree fully with a sentiment expressed by Charles Darwin in 1856, that “general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” And with his latest theory, he intends to prove it.
Moffett wasn’t always outgoing. Like many biologists who spend their lives devoted to an unloved species, he had an introspective childhood. He was born in the tiny town of Salida, Colorado, and his father, a Presbyterian minister, remembers Moffett giving individual names to the ants and insects that passed through their backyard. “Through graduate school, I was very shy and reclusive,” Moffett says. He credits the change to his camera. “Once I learned to tell stories with pictures, I found that people would be interested in me in a natural way, and I would flow into the kinds of stories I tell now.”
During his preteen years, his family moved to Wisconsin, and he started attending meetings at the Wisconsin Herpetological Society, a place populated, he says, by “a mixture of serious scientists and bizarre amateurs.” Max Nickerson, the eminent herpetologist who founded the society, says Moffett was “the youngest member—easily.” The majority were master’s candidates. Moffett was 12 years old.
Three years later, his father left the church and became a career counselor at Beloit College, near the Illinois border. Moffett, never one to let classes interfere with his education, dropped out of high school and began to work casually as a research assistant to the college’s biologists. Liberal Beloit turned a blind eye to his missing diploma and let him enroll. Determined to be an autodidact, he avoided any courses that coincided with his interests, roaming from German to psychology, music to anthropology. To this day, he’s never taken a class in entomology.
His first break came at 17, when Nickerson invited him on a species-collection research trip to Costa Rica. Because he had once caught a black-tailed rattler by himself in Arizona, and perhaps because of a dearth of volunteers for the role, Moffett was given the job of snake wrangler. While biologists with long poles wrested poisonous vipers from trees overhanging rivers, Moffett would stand in the water beneath and catch them. He used one hand to break their fall and the other to grab for the backs of their heads to avoid being bitten. He felt so at home in the jungle that he kept a wild pet in his tent, a Hercules beetle the size of a man’s fist. It ate a banana a day and kept him awake at night with its heavy breathing. Nickerson was soon surprised to find his teenage apprentice pursuing his own fieldwork on insects. It was, he says, “the sort of experimental design I’d expect from a master’s candidate.”
By the age of 20, Moffett’s name was already appearing in scientific publications for work he had done chasing lizards, snakes, and butterflies across Central and South America. Still, Moffett’s heart remained with his “unloved ants,” an affection that had been cemented when he read a book called The Insect Societies, by Harvard professor E. O. Wilson. He still remembers it as “an awesome book full of arcane mysteries.” On a whim, Moffett wrote Wilson and asked if he might visit the world’s most famous entomologist. Wilson replied simply, “Come by.”
If Wilson was surprised to see Moffett when the young man tapped on his office door, he didn’t let on. One was a Pulitzer Prize winner, the other a high school dropout with a few academic citations. Moffett’s first words were “Hi, Ed.” Until he enrolled at Harvard, Moffett wouldn’t realize how presumptuous his behavior had been. What was important was that the great scientist shared his enthusiasm. “It was like being with another boy who loved ants,” remembers Moffett.
Wilson encouraged Moffett to apply to Harvard’s biology department for his Ph.D., and then selected Moffett as his only graduate student for seven straight years. What Moffett hadn’t learned by avoiding entomology classes he discovered instead in the lab and out in the field. The University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology housed the department, and it was home to the world’s largest collection of ants. Moffett would open compartments at random, searching for a species interesting enough to study. In the corner of one drawer, he spotted an ant whose enormous major workers, the heavy lifters and warriors of the colony, measured 500 hundred times the size of their minor colleagues. He eventually gave the ants their common name, marauders. Their main habitat was in South Asia, an area ideally situated for Moffett’s traveling tastes: hot and cheap.
Moffett left for India the moment he received his first research grant. Most scientists would drift back to their academic home after a few months; Moffett stayed two and a half years. After three months at Harvard, he left again. Though he admits that the university contained a few “marvelous pools of positive energy, including Wilson’s lab,” Moffett says he spent as little time there as possible. “I’d already figured out that I could live in Asia for six months on $100,” he says. From abroad, he mailed fresh articles to Harvard, balancing remote research with mainstream academia.
Moffett was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Wilson, a man so closely associated with fieldwork that he titled his autobiography Naturalist. Recently, Wilson was asked if there was anyone he considered an intellectual heir. He replied, “I’m especially proud of Mark Moffett. He’s a real naturalist, more than I.” Wilson even named an ant species Pheidole moffetti. According to the professor, its genus is both “dominant and hyperdiverse.” According to Moffett, it’s simply “a bigheaded ant.”
But Wilson’s status as a grand old man of science was achieved in part by tempering the naturalist impulse with the rigors of a university existence, something his protégé has little tolerance for. Moffett admits to problems with “pretty much all authority.” “To have someone tell me what to do in biology never made sense to me,” he says. “I don’t like exams. I don’t like giving exams, and I don’t like meetings.”
National Geographic’s Kathy Moran points to this as “perhaps the one weakness” in Moffett’s diverse career. As a biologist who taught himself to tell stories, a photographer who understands narrative, a man who can entrance audiences, he is obviously a teacher. Moran points to the fact that had Moffett stayed within academia, “he would already have a generation of scientists generating buzz” on his behalf. Wilson, at 81, has certainly benefited from the rise of his disciples to scientific prominence. Moffett chose to find his community in places more remote.
As a grad student, Moffett thrived in the field. His lodgings in Sullia, India, had no running water, electricity, or toilet, but he was delighted to be on the ground with the marauders. To document his observations, he began taking photography seriously. He spent time with a species of swarming ants and immediately noticed something about them that seemed peculiarly Indian: Minor workers hitched rides on the back of the giant majors like mahouts and their passengers being ferried by elephants.
Moffett bought a book on how to shoot supermodels and shrank the process down to ant size, using three $15 flash attachments that jolted him with electric shocks. He’d received a small grant from the National Geographic Society, and Moffett, saving money by pushing his luck, mailed six rolls of film to the magazine and asked if they could be developed on his behalf. In response he received a Telex announcing that a staff writer was coming to India to meet him. As Moffett recalls, the cornflakes at the hotel breakfast in Bangalore cost more than he spent in a week.
The magazine had developed the photographs on the off chance that Moffett had produced a single usable frame, and the prints soon found their way to Mary Smith, a National Geographic editor who had worked with Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey. She fell in love with Moffett’s work; he was, she said, the only person who could make ants “look glamorous.” Moffett was baffled by the attention, since he hadn’t seen the developed photographs. To his surprise, he was made a National Geographic photographer, and he has taken pictures for the magazine for 25 years. (Moffett photos have appeared in several anthologies of the magazine’s best work.)
Moffett’s success as a photographer springs from a combination of technique, patience, and doggedness. No matter how aggressive the species, most of his photographs are taken from an inch away. He has spent hours sitting in dirt or dangling from a rope tied off against a tree branch, 100 feet up in the rainforest canopy. Sometimes he’ll stand six feet from an ant hill, binoculars pressed to his eyes, losing track of his surroundings. In Thailand, he once crawled after a trail of ants for hours, until he bumped his head against the foot of a bull elephant. It stared at him, blinked slowly, and moved away.
Elephants aren’t the most dangerous thing Moffett has run into. In Iran he was part of a group of American biologists who had been targeted by kidnappers. But the group was running late, and a bus of Italian tourists was seized by mistake. “It was our loss,” he says. “They were fed well, kept in a very interesting mountain habitat, and released in a few days.” Searching for the world’s most toxic frog—a side project—in Colombia’s Chocô region, Moffett hired a suspected narcotics trafficker to lead him into a rainforest valley. Not far from what Moffett describes as a “slimy coastal town,” he found himself negotiating between his armed guide and the valley’s residents, the latter carrying blowpipes.
In his 1994 book The High Frontier, Moffett recounts attaching his harness to a tree by using a crossbow to shoot ropes around the limbs. Suspended at 150 feet, he lost control of his line and cartwheeled into a surprise discovery—an ant’s nest. During a rapid descent from the canopy in a rainstorm, he was electrocuted by his own camera equipment. As Wilson once said, “I don’t know how he’s still alive.”
For safety as much as for company and cost, Moffett occasionally coordinated his perpetual fieldwork with biologists from other disciplines. One such companion was the herpetologist Joe Slowinski, a cobra specialist and the founder of the herpetology department at the California Academy of Sciences. The two biologists had become friends during a lecture stint Moffett accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, and they bonded over their mutual fascination with “disrespected creatures.” Slowinski called Moffett “bro.” Moffett believed they looked alike. They shared a passion for intrepid research, and Moffett would later write that he was captivated by the fact that Slowinski’s “habitual expression of sheer uninhibited wonder was matched by a precise and agile mind.” Over pizza at La Val’s in Berkeley in the summer of 2001, Slowinski invited Moffett to be part of a team that would conduct a general species inventory in the mountainous region of northern Burma.
In early September, the group began their walk near 1,400-foot Machan Baw village, an old British outpost, with a plan to climb to 10,000 feet. From the beginning, Moffett says, the journey was “tough going.” It was monsoon season, and the trails had turned to mud. Every evening they would pick leeches from their legs; every morning they would spit tobacco juice onto their skin to keep the bloodsuckers away. Moffett remembers that the rain puddles they walked through “were red with blood.” Slowinski, the expedition’s leader, was the only biologist who stuck with shorts and sandals.
Slowinski grew increasingly frustrated. Most of his energy had gone into coordinating food and research supplies. He suspected he’d been overcharged, while Moffett suspected his friend was being worn down by minutiae and the trail of bickering biologists, “each one with his own agenda.”
A week into their trek, when the team was still treading through subtropical forests, a Burmese field assistant returned to camp with a small cloth bag. As he passed the bag to Slowinski, he told him it contained a harmless Dinodon snake. Slowinski, like Moffett, had always been inclined to examine a specimen up close. He reached in and removed his hand, a thin gray snake attached to the tip of his finger. “That’s a fucking krait,” he said.
Moffett watched as Slowinski examined his finger closely, trying to determine if the tiny fangs had fully punctured his skin. The herpetologist knew that a krait’s poison is 15 times more potent than a cobra’s—the safest thing to do this far out in the jungle would be to cut the digit off. Slowinski opted not to. Within the hour, he realized he had made a serious error.
When Moffett thinks back now, he knows that both of them were comfortable “accepting the risks in nature.” Slowinski had been bitten in the field before, and sometimes a snake can bite without injecting toxins. Years before, when Moffett had been studying marauders, he had sat on the head of a fer-de-lance, a snake even more poisonous and many times larger than Slowinski’s krait. Moffett had jumped up, and the terrified reptile had hurled itself away from him.
Slowinski gathered Moffett and the rest of the biologists together and explained what would happen to his body if the neurotoxins spread through his system. They radioed for help as Slowinski advised them how to keep him alive. His mind would remain sharp, he explained, even as his body began to shut down. Moffett listened as his friend described how he would first lose control of his arms and legs, until he’d be forced to signal with a toe. Then he would appear comatose, and they would have to do his breathing for him. It was September 11, 2001. Their radio operator had heard the news from New York and Washington and had kept it to himself. They waited for a rescue helicopter to arrive. “Much of the time,” Moffett would write, “was spent in simple exhausted witness,” standing over Slowinski’s body.
The biologists stared at the sky. It rained heavily all afternoon, and the last hope of a helicopter rescue disappeared. Moffett and his fellow biologists continued massaging Slowinski’s heart for hours after he died. I asked Moffett if he changed his behavior in the field after what happened. “It’s not worth the trouble in life to become panicked about things,” he said. Then he paused. “We’re surrounded by the wondrous all the time.”
The path Moffett chose has precedents, albeit from another century. Like all biologists, he’s an admirer of Charles Darwin. But he is a disciple of Darwin’s great rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. The two 19th-century giants had traveled separately and arrived at their theories of evolution simultaneously. To Moffett’s mind, however, Darwin had it easy; family money enabled him to devote himself to his ideas. Wallace, like Moffett, was lower middle class and spent a lifetime scrambling to support his calling as a naturalist—working as a civil engineer, teaching mapmaking, grading government examinations, and editing the work of lesser colleagues.
A hundred and fifty years later, Moffett has sought richer possibilities without wandering from the naturalist’s path. Yet the more he has insisted on creating his own world, the further he’s moved from the strictures of modern science. In his published work, for example, he doesn’t present a single idea at a time. In Adventures Among Ants, Moffett took the unusual step of including, by my count, nine hypotheses. He writes of the origins of army ant attack strategies and ponders how the practice of slavery among species in California might have originated as a form of food hoarding. Woven into his adventure narrative rather than explicated in peer-reviewed papers, his hypotheses have mostly been ignored by his fellow scientists.
Moffett, however, desires to be more than just an adventurer or a scientific journalist with a camera and a Ph.D. from Harvard. These days he isn’t merely looking to discover new ant species, though that’s always a pleasure. He wants to change the way humans regard our own world, and he wants to do that by pushing his mentor’s ideas into uncharted realms.
E. O. Wilson began his career by observing insect societies, and in his 40s he pioneered the idea of using those societies to help explain humankind. Among his most original, and most controversial, suggestions, laid out in 1975’s Sociobiology, was the idea that evolution plays a strong role in our own social organizations. According to Wilson, after hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, we aren’t so much a tabula rasa as an accumulation of inherited experiences. He argued that there were limits on how much our behavior could be altered. At a time when America was passing from free love to disco, he argued that free will was partially an illusion. Though he devoted only the last chapter of his book to humans, Wilson was accused of biological determinism, as if humans shouldn’t be considered part of nature alongside the ants, wasps, and termites.
Thirty years later, Moffett is taking Wilson’s reverse anthropomorphism a step further and using ants to explain the design of our urbanized world. It’s Moffett’s contention that all societies, be they ant or human, follow the same rules as they grow in size and complexity. Highways and infrastructure, public health and safety, market economics, assembly lines and teamwork, division of labor, warfare, slavery and terrorism—all tend to emerge among ants, as they do among humans, not because of genetic similarities but because their vast societies require them.
It is both a fresh idea and a simple one. The 21st century is marked by ever increasing urbanization: 79 percent of Americans live in towns or cities, while China has 150 cities with more than 1 million people, all of which are still growing. When it comes to organizing millions of individuals, however, we’re rookies. Ants are the veterans.
A hundred years ago, a predecessor of Wilson’s at Harvard named William Morton Wheeler was considered one of the great scientists of his day. Among his contributions was the idea of the superorganism: the notion that in species such as ants, a colony should be considered a single being. Among other varieties, Wheeler concentrated his studies on the army ants that Moffett and I are pursuing in Honduras. The workers act as brain cells, Wheeler surmised, roving for intelligence; the queen is the womb; soldiers are the hands that defend and attack. Superorganism theory was forgotten until the 1970s, then resurrected, co-opted, and debated.
Moffett is looking to move beyond simple metaphors about ant colonies developing like organs in bodies, and he has adapted the superorganism concept to his own ends. A colony, Moffett believes, is fundamentally like an organism because it behaves as an absolute, unbreakable unit with a common identity. Ants literally wear this identity in the form of pheromones, as a scent. It signifies to their colony mates that they are connected to one another and simultaneously implies that all other organisms are foreigners to be avoided or attacked. The arrangement is similar to white blood cells that combat bacteria and other intruders in our bodies based on the absence of a recognizable biochemical stamp.
One particular species, Moffett believes, is leading the superorganism theory into new territory: the Argentine ant. Argentines are the only animal species other than humans that have learned to manage societies with billions of members. They have turned their superorganisms into what some scientists, including Moffett, call supercolonies: Argentine nests have expanded by territorial conquest across four continents, devastating other ant species along the way. When they reached the United States by steamer in the 1890s, there wasn’t a true competitor in sight. A hundred and twenty years later, the unimaginatively named Very Large Colony of Southern California has approximately 1 trillion members. It is one of four Argentine-ant colonies in the Golden State, and they are constantly warring with one another; each one derived from a separate, tiny colony back in Argentina. In Southern California, biologist David Holway of the University of California, San Diego estimates that the Argentine wars claimed as many as 30 million lives last year, between two of the colonies alone. Their bodies lie three-deep in piles in San Diego suburbs, hidden under the grass of mowed lawns.
The Argentines’ taste for warfare is aided by a key evolutionary adaptation. Instead of producing queens that fly off to form new colonies with new identities, they gamble on related queens that remain and breed together. In an average colony, a queen takes flight, mates midair with a male from another colony, and quickly looks for a place to establish her own nest. Once settled, she makes no decisions, focusing exclusively on the task of producing offspring. Her workers feed her, clean her, and dispose of her waste. And when she dies, the colony dies with her.
The Argentines’ outrageous success depends partly on their production of broods that can mix freely with one another: The ants, despite being born of different mothers, still consider themselves kin. Moffett contends that with this strategy, Argentine ants have rewritten the rules of life. “What it means is that their colonies have broken the usual ant cycle of birth and death,” he told me. “In a way, they’ve learned to never die.” Holway has spent ten years of his life studying Argentines and has written nearly 50 papers on the subject. “At a supercolony level,” he says, “they’re essentially immortal.” The genetic differences within the vast colony are small, and those tiny variations don’t prevent the ants from recognizing their common identity as the colony expands—even as, in the case of the Very Large Colony, it has expanded for more than a century. The ants’ loyalty applies only within their own society, however. Other Argentines are as much of an enemy as any other species of ant. (The species also evolved another specialty: Because of the rigors of their Argentinean habitat, they adapted to fight all day long. They have formed an army that never sleeps.)
In his description of supercolonies, Moffett again finds himself running afoul of at least part of the scientific establishment. Stanford’s Deborah Gordon sums up the opposition: “There is no functional supercolony of Argentine ants, no single giant colony stretching for miles, much less across the globe.”
Holway counters that Moffett’s is an unusual but valuable perspective, based in part on his desire to explore beyond the academic realm. Moffett considers his theory a parallel to human experience. “Imagine coming to this world,” Moffett says, “and looking first at a group of a dozen Bushmen around a campfire, then going directly to China with its population of over a billion. You’d think there was something fundamentally different between the two, but a child could be taken from one society to the other and survive without a problem. The key for the Argentine ants remains the strength of their identity, the ability to recognize their own society despite living miles apart in different environments and never having met.” Concludes Moffett: “The Argentines are just as versatile as we are.”
Back in Honduras, Moffett was looking to observe the superorganism phenomenon in two collections of ants that hadn’t yet had to face the Argentine menace: leafcutters and army ants. Though climate change could expand their horizons, the Honduran rainforest remains too tropical for the Argentines’ tastes. When night fell, we spent an hour sweating our way up toward the cloud forest to a leafcutter nest Moffett had identified the day before. He estimated it contained around a half-million ants, a modest community in Moffett’s experience. In daylight the nest had been quiet, but Moffett suspected the ants would be hard at work at night. He moved around it with his flashlight, explaining the leafcutters’ agricultural life. The scene looked like a football stadium after a late-night game—thousands pouring out into the darkness, lit as if by floodlights.
With the beam of his flashlight, Moffett followed a column returning from a tree 60 feet away. If you were a leafcutter, he said, you’d be humping the equivalent of 750 pounds of vegetation. That would be a weight lifting record, except that instead of holding it for a few seconds, you’d have to jog three miles, including straight down the side of the Empire State Building. Luckily, once the ants reached the ground, their colleagues had cleared a vast highway to ease their progress. The roads leafcutters pave through the middle of the rainforest are wide and smooth, with sharp, well-defined curbs. Humans often mistake them for man-made paths and follow them into the rainforest, only to find themselves lost.
The ants don’t eat the leaf segments they carry. Instead, they chew the foliage into a mulch, and that mulch is fed upon by a fungus—the ants’ true food source. The nest works to keep the fungus properly fed, watered, and free of pests, making leafcutters the only creature other than humans and a few termites to farm on such an elaborate scale. Moffett explains that as ant societies grow larger, the need for organization and specialization increases. Among the ants are specialists in hygiene, sanitation, road building, defense. There are ants that carry a strain of bacteria to fight off pests that attack the fungus, and those that use their mouthparts to manually groom the crop. Traffic regulations are introduced in the larger colonies, where ants keep to one side. To follow the trail, they need a chemical scent. The smell is strong: One milligram of pheromone would be enough to lure a column of workers around the world multiple times.
A heavy rain began to fall without any warning drizzle. The rain itself was the signal, no chemicals necessary. The leafcutters dropped their cargo and, in a stream, poured toward the safety of the nest. Moffett stood looking down at the abandoned leaf segments.
While many biologists confer only with their colleagues, Moffett explores freely across disciplines. When he wanted to challenge the belief that leafcutters must be in constant communication while they harvested leaves, he turned not to other myrmecologists but to Henry Ford’s biographer, who explained that once efficiency had been established, Ford deliberately designed his factories to maximize productivity and minimize communication. Moffett believes leafcutters evolved to behave similarly.
Moffett also corresponds with Luis Bettencourt, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who, with his colleague Geoffrey West, created the field of urban science, developing rules and formulas for our own ever expanding cities. West and Bettencourt can predict, for example, exactly how much electricity a city of 1 million will need to sustain itself or the surface area that a city of 500,000 devotes to transportation. It doesn’t matter whether the city is in South Korea, Germany, or the U.S.—according to West, “Every city is the same.” He argues that “every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating.” West applies the principle to humans, but Moffett believes that ants, too, abide by it. Basiceros singularis are Ecuadoran ants, hunter-gatherers that live in small groups of a dozen, including their queen. They move only a tiny bit faster than their prey: snails. Yet in larger groups, as with leafcutters and army ants, the speed of their movement and productivity is stunning. “To me it’s obvious,” Moffett says. “Any New Yorker has much more in common with a leafcutter society than with any primate society. Chimpanzees don’t have traffic pileups or public-health issues. They don’t need to organize assembly lines to make their food. Leafcutters do.”
We were not alone at the research station. Every once in a while as we walked through the rainforest, a flash would suddenly go off, and Moffett would grin. Three young Honduran biologists, part of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, had been setting camera traps for jaguars along the jungle paths.
The field biologists were working 18-hour days in rain and mud. Moffett sympathized. He knew exactly what it was like to go without a hot meal for months. While treating them to dinner one night, Moffett used what he calls his “ice breaker.” During our walk, he’d gathered a couple of trap-jaw ants. Their mandibles are controlled by trigger hairs activated by any object brushing against them. They snap shut at 145 miles an hour, the fastest muscle action of any animal on the planet. Under threat, such as sitting on a dinner table and being prodded by a bearded naturalist, the ant will deliberately dip its head and snap its jaws shut, launching itself backward to escape. If they were human, they’d be setting records for the high jump at 44 feet and the long jump at 132 feet. The laughing biologists plucked the trap-jaws from their dinner plates.
After dinner, Moffett was invited by the team’s young herpetologist, Mario Solis, for a walk in the rainforest in search of poisonous snakes. Solis carried three flashlights. “Once,” he said, “I had to make it down the mountain with just the light from my telephone.” Though Moffett was 52 and Solis still in his 20s, the age difference melted away through common interests. The two men would pause behind me, seeing what I missed: wolf spiders spread across a leaf, milk and rat snakes looping from trees branches. At one point, a tarantula shot across the trail. “They’re fast,” I said. “They have to be,” said Moffett, “otherwise the females eat them.”
The two men shared stories as they walked. Solis talked about setting a camera trap and feeling a sharp pain in his hand, then recoiling to see an army ant scout cutting into his skin. He looked ahead and saw that the green jungle in front of him was turning black. Tens of thousands of ants were rushing through the undergrowth, plant by plant. Army ants can travel at five miles per hour in columns of millions. Solis turned and sprinted down the jungle path.
Solis promised us that his team would keep their eyes open for army ants during the next few days. Moffett smiled at me. “They’re out here somewhere,” he said. He wanted me to share the excitement. As a scientist, he’s unlikely to gain anything from finding yet another army ant column, but as a man who appreciates stories, he wanted me to have one of my own. The science of entomology is driven by statistics, but for Moffett its as much about emotion.
In a sense, Moffett is caught in a trap of his own making. By maintaining his independence, he has to move at an extraordinary pace: researching, writing, photographing, and making appearances to earn enough money to continue his work. He calls it “a marginalized existence in one way.” His best hope for stability—a grant or book advance large enough to allow him an extended period of study and reflection—would come much more easily had he stayed in academia. But his aim is discovery, not stability, and each journey into the field builds to the next. In just six months in 2009, he worked in India, Panama, Bhutan, Yemen, Mauritius, Hawaii, and Madagascar.
Moffett has a simple rule for travel to foreign countries: Never look at what the State Department is recommending, otherwise you’d never go. For instance, the day he landed in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, 14 men were murdered on a local soccer field, victims of a drug war between rival gangs. On our last day together, he was still anxious to share with me the experience of witnessing an advancing army ant column. We searched at dawn, on either side of the afternoon downpour, and were out again in the dark. When we returned to the cabin, one of the Honduran biologists, Sandra Pereira, passed Moffett a vial. It had a pair of army ants in it. We leaped into her small silver Honda and bumped our way down a dirt road until we could cross the Rio Corloradito and double back to the foot of the mountains where she had collected the specimens. The town we drove through was poor, consisting of a few shops selling sodas, flour, and tinned foods. The buildings were made of concrete blocks and lit by bare lightbulbs.
Heading back up toward the mountains, we stopped by the last farmhouse before the land rose sharply and the rainforest took over. Dim light leaked from its windows 100 yards away. We left the headlights on and walked the path, looking for the ant column. The sides of the road were covered with barbed wire and thick vegetation, and I could see that Moffett was frustrated by the long odds against finding the bivouac. By this time, the ants would have created their living fortress for the night, impeccably ordered. The queen would lie at the center, surrounded by her unborn brood. The ants creating the outer layer would be the oldest—female pensioners are always the first line of attack or defense.
Pereira seemed nervous, odd since she often spends weeks at a time in dense jungle. As the de facto translator, I told her in Spanish not to worry, that with army ants, as long as you see them coming, you can get out of the way. “I’m not worried about ants. We’ve had two murders around here recently,” she said, pointing toward the light coming from the farmhouse. “And the suspect, he’s a lodger in that house.” Moffett tramped back to the car, shaking his head, and proposed a final early morning search.
Perhaps Honduran army ants have a sense of humor. The next morning, when we returned from our final hunt, the security guard looked sheepish. An army ant column had passed through minutes after we’d left. He had stepped away from his guard post and watched as it was engulfed. Generally, the ants are welcomed by home owners. Their assaults are easy to spot: The rest of the rainforest runs before them, and they’re escorted by ant birds, which pick off those that take to the air. The insects enter in a stream and cleanse the property. Scorpions, spiders, lizards, and frogs are attacked and dissected, their bodies passed backward along the column. Moffett once witnessed a legless grasshopper being shipped to the rear. For days afterward, he dreamt of being passed limbless through an ant column.
After missing the army ants, Moffett was moved to act. “Does anyone have an old-fashioned razor blade?” he asked. I knew what he wanted to show me. He still had the vial containing the two army ants, their pincers sharp enough to puncture human skin. The mandibles cross to form a fishhook once they pierce and are almost impossible to remove. That’s why the ants continue to be used by certain South American tribes (and certain American naturalists) to close wounds in the absence of a needle and thread. Moffett carved a small slice into his hand with the razor blade, grabbed the army ant, and snapped its jaws shut on his skin.
Life became more complicated for Moffett in 2008 when, at 50, he married. Marriage is normally a strain for field biologists. Either they wed other biologists and risk competition or are drawn away from fieldwork by the needs of families who demand a more regular life. Moffett’s wife, Melissa Wells, is a rare exception. She’s a health care consultant, and she’s entirely supportive of Moffett’s work. In fact, she often joins him in the field as an assistant and videographer. Moffett calls her “fluid and fearless.” At his lectures, he sometimes drags her out of the audience and makes her share horrifying anecdotes about how he almost got her killed in Africa or South America.
When Moffett spoke at the 2010 Boston Book Festival, he was paired on the podium of the Trinity Church Sanctuary with Dan Ariely, a best-selling author and behavioral economist. Ariely specializes in how human irrationality can override logical thought. Irrationality, he contends, is a deeply ingrained part of human behavior, rendering us less individualistic than we suppose. Ariely’s is another discipline catching up with work pioneered by Wilson in the 1970s—namely, that our free will might be on a tighter rein than we suspect. For instance, according to Ariely’s experiments, humans tend to cheat in equal measure regardless of their sex, nationality, and other factors. The bugs in our moral code that compel us to be dishonest are not cultural, in other words. They are an outgrowth of being human, controllable but also inevitable. Ariely’s talk reminded me of something Moffett once told me: As much as he admires ants, he’d said, he is relieved to be human. There is still room in many of our societies to pursue our own dreams. Not so the ants. There is one absolute rule in ant life—you can never leave the colony. As T. H. White put it in a 1958 short story, for ants “everything not forbidden is compulsory.”
But that doesn’t stop Moffett from seeing shades of humanity in them. When, in Boston, he explained his belief in ant patriotism, their division of the world into us and them, Ariely was barely a step behind. He turned to the audience. “I could give half of you red T-shirts and half of you blue,” he said. “We know that within two minutes you will start to feel morally superior to the other side.” Together now, they were on a roll, and Moffett was embracing territory that his mentor Wilson had only tiptoed into. “We come from hunter-gatherer groups,” said Moffett. “We are in a very awkward social situation, living among millions where we haven’t before.… We’re learning how to do this for the first time.” Is it really so foolish to look to those who’ve been dealing with similar problems for millions of years?
Having seen Moffett in the field full of sweat-soaked enthusiasm, and having twice watched him lecture to large crowds, it struck me that he never changes his style. The last time I visited him, we discussed his ideas on supercolonies. This time, he said, he was shaping them into a journal paper. He also mentioned that he had just signed a contract to write an article for Scientific American, a magazine with a reputation for mixing the popular and the academic. I had thought that, if and when he reentered the competitive arena of academia, that entrance would be loud. Instead, he talked quickly but calmly as he attempted to dismantle Gordon’s ideas challenging the existence of Argentine supercolonies. It made me think of Moran’s prediction that soon Moffett will be “vindicated as a big-idea guy.”
In December 2010, to finish a trip that had taken him from Honduras to Botswana and Tanzania, Moffett traveled north to Harvard for a meeting of the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Moffett sat across from the 81-year-old Wilson, part of an international group of biologists and anthropologists committed to preserving diversity in the service of conservation. He felt a sharp pain in his left hand. To his amazement, his presumably dead botfly had decided to emerge. His fellow scientists gathered around to watch the maggot break through the skin of Moffett’s hand.
One had a smartphone and recorded the scene. Moffett later posted it to YouTube; within days over 300,000 viewers would share his experience. At the time, a Brazilian anthropologist asked Moffett why he hadn’t smothered the maggot with Vaseline and had it removed. “What kind of statement would that be for biodiversity?” asked Moffett. He placed it carefully in a vial of moist soil and gave it to the museum’s curator of ants. In early 2011, Moffett would be back in Boston to give a lecture at the Harvard Travellers Club, and he hoped to visit the fully formed adult fly.