Adventures among Ants

Adventures among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions

MARK W. MOFFETT
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pndq7
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  • Book Info
    Adventures among Ants
    Book Description:

    Intrepid international explorer, biologist, and photographer Mark W. Moffett, "the Indiana Jones of entomology," takes us around the globe on a strange and colorful journey in search of the hidden world of ants. In tales from Nigeria, Indonesia, the Amazon, Australia, California, and elsewhere, Moffett recounts his entomological exploits and provides fascinating details on how ants live and how they dominate their ecosystems through strikingly human behaviors, yet at a different scale and a faster tempo. Moffett's spectacular close-up photographs shrink us down to size, so that we can observe ants in familiar roles; warriors, builders, big-game hunters, and slave owners. We find them creating marketplaces and assembly lines and dealing with issues we think of as uniquely human-including hygiene, recycling, and warfare.Adventures among Antsintroduces some of the world's most awe-inspiring species and offers a startling new perspective on the limits of our own perception. • Ants are world-class road builders, handling traffic problems on thoroughfares that dwarf our highway systems in their complexity • Ants with the largest societies often deploy complicated military tactics • Some ants have evolved from hunter-gatherers into farmers, domesticating other insects and growing crops for food

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94541-8
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[v])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vi]-[viii])
  3. introduction: travels with my ants
    (pp. 1-6)

    My first memory is of ants.

    I was down in the dirt in my backyard, watching a miniature metropolis. A hundred ants were enraptured with the bread crumbs I had given them, and they enraptured me as they ebbed and flowed, a blur of interactions. I marveled at how they sped into action when an entrance cone collapsed, or when one found a crumb or wrestled and killed an enemy worker. I could see that ants addressed problems through a social interplay, just as people did.

    Years later, I met a group of Inuit children who had been brought by...

  4. a brief primer on ants
    (pp. 7-10)

    Anatomically, ants are like other insects in having three primary body sections: head, thorax, and abdomen—though the addition of a narrow waist gives ant abdomens extra mobility, enabling a worker to, for instance, aim a stinger or repellant spray from her rear end.¹ Almost every ant has pores near the rear of the thorax through which two metapleural glands discharge phenyl acetic acid and other fungicides and bactericides, required for a healthy life in the soil.

    Ant antennae are elbowed at the midpoint so they can be manipulated like arms, though unlike the individual’s jaws, often called mandibles, they...

  5. Marauder Ant, the Ultimate Omnivore
    • 1 strength in numbers
      (pp. 12-23)

      “We have three kinds of ants here,” declared Mr. Beeramoidin, the forestry officer at the village of Sullia in India. “A black one, a big red one, and a small red one that bites.”

      I was twenty-four, a graduate student on a quest for the ant I had reason to believe had one of the most complexly organized societies in existence. A column of dust-speckled sunlight emblazoned a rectangle on the floor too bright to look at directly—a reminder of the intense dry heat outside. It was late November, and I was worried my choice of season wasn’t giving...

    • 2 the perfect swarm
      (pp. 23-36)

      At the end of my first week in Singapore I had my first clear view of a swarm. It was late afternoon in a remote corner of the Botanic Gardens. Paddy Murphy sat nearby, smoking a “fag” and examining a silverfish on a tree. I had spent the previous hour on my hands and knees following a trail of marauder ants that were obviously on a foraging expedition, because they were bringing back all kinds of prey. And there, suddenly, near the base of a Brazil nut tree, was a throng of ants—shimmering with the movements of thousands in...

    • 3 division of labor
      (pp. 36-51)

      In the short grass of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, I dropped to my knees, then lowered myself to my elbows and, at last, to my stomach, eye pressed to soil, camera extended in front of me. My perspective standing up had been abstract, like that of a general assessing the movements of troops from a hilltop, where they were more pawns in a game than people engaged in a life-and-death struggle. Now, seen close-up through my camera lens, a marauder minor worker stood tall and solid before me, antennae moving as if to sniff me out. Her forebody was raised,...

    • 4 infrastructure
      (pp. 51-61)

      Through my camera lens, I closed in on a grayDiacammaworker with an elegant silver sheen striding along with what appeared to be a sense of purpose. I tracked her ascent of an embankment of soft soil. She went over the top and landed squarely among marauder ants following a trunk trail on the other side. Six minor workers pinned her in place as workers laden with food retreated; then a major arrived and executed her with a crushing blow, discarding the corpse just off the trail, where several minors buried her in the dirt as their food delivery...

    • 5 group transport
      (pp. 62-70)

      It was late in 1983. For the final leg of my doctoral fieldwork, after traveling without a break for twenty-nine months, I had ended up in the Philippines. I had just arrived at the base of Mt. Apo, on the southern island of Mindanao, at almost 3,000 meters the highest mountain in the Philippines and cloaked with forests. On exiting the bus, I found José, a self-proclaimed guide who, an hour into our walk, broke his silence to speak of the need for revolution while patting what he claimed to be a gun in his waistband.

      On my way to...

  6. African Army Ant, Raiders on the Swarm
    • 6 big game hunters
      (pp. 72-85)

      It was January 2005, and I was in Africa again. I had already had many adventures in the sub-Saharan region. Years before, pursuing my love of frogs, I had hunted the goliath frog in Cameroon, hoping to set a new world’s record with a 3.3-kilogram specimen but settling for one that weighed a little less and was a meter long with its legs extended. In Gabon, I’d surveyed ants in the rainforest canopy, working on a canopy raft—a network of pontoons placed 40 meters high on the tree crowns. (My fellow researchers and I were so bothered by the...

    • 7 clash of the titans
      (pp. 85-95)

      Early on my first evening at Gashaka-Gumti, after the long day’s search for driver ants, I collapsed on the hard earth outside my room at the field station and contemplated the parrots flying overhead. But then I became aware of movements in the grass, and I turned my head to witness a remarkable sight: a row of handsome, 2-centimeter-long cylindricalPachycondyla analisworkers, right next to my face.

      Scientists studyingPachycondylahave determined that raids of species like the one at Gashaka don’t proceed like those of driver ants and other army ants. Rather, they are led by an individual...

    • 8 notes from underground
      (pp. 95-108)

      After a four-hour drive in a sedan taxi crammed with five other people, including Caspar Schöning, I emerged barely able to stand. The driver had dropped us off in front of a low building, the headquarters of Nigeria’s best-known national park, Cross River. There a young woman showed us to the office of the assistant director, who informed us that we would have to wait for the director before seeking our ants. After an hour in his waiting room, he ushered us into an expansive office, through a door labeled “S.O. Abdulsalam, Director, Esq.”

      Caspar and I explained to Mr....

  7. Weaver Ant, Empress of the Air
    • 9 canopy empires
      (pp. 110-120)

      Cross River National Park, with its rich yield of driver ants, was the highlight of my visit to Nigeria with Caspar Schöning. But the highlight of that highlight was a dramaticMission: Impossible–style assault I saw occur between driver ants and weaver ants.

      It was our only night inside the park. Caspar and I had pitched our tents at the edge of the rainforest, near the guard post. All was silent. I awoke early, my back aching from the hard ground, and got up to find a line of bright orange weaver ants hanging by their long legs from...

    • 10 fortified forests
      (pp. 120-133)

      Oecophyllaweaver ants swarm through the tropical rainforests of Africa, Asia, and Australia, but because life in the trees has so many advantages, the New World has its own hyperaggressive canopy-dwelling ants.

      One morning in late spring 1990, I found myself slung by ropes a dozen meters above the jungle floor rummaging for beetles in clumps of litter on tree branches. I was in Peru, on assignment forNational Geographicmagazine, to document the rainforest canopy, one of my research specialties.¹ Since finishing my thesis four years earlier, I had served as the curator of Harvard’s ant collection (where I’d...

    • 11 negotiating the physical world
      (pp. 133-146)

      Arboreal ants scramble around the labyrinth of the canopy, spreading out along interconnected branches and vines, coursing up and down the trunks of trees. Vertigo is a human problem: most canopy-dwelling animals, ants included, are indifferent to height. What matters for them is finding the conditions and resources suited for their survival. Potential habitats occur at many levels—both on different parts of a plant and within each layer of growth in the plant community, from herbs to shrubs to shaded understory trees to tall trees with crowns in the sun, to the occasional emergent tree that sticks up above...

  8. Amazon Ant, the Slavemaker
    • 12 slaves of sagehen creek
      (pp. 148-157)

      A thousand orange, pumpkin seed–sized ants raced across the earth so quickly they seemed to fly over the stones. They were arranged in a phalanx 4 to 5 meters long and 25 centimeters wide, exhibiting the orderliness of a military parade conducted at a full run. I followed the raid’s almost arrow-straight course up an embankment and onto sandy ground dotted with rock and scraggly patches of sage, huckleberry oak, and powdery-leaved mule’s ears. There, the column began to disintegrate. My companion, Alex Wild, then a graduate student at the University of California at Davis, warned me to watch...

    • 13 abduction in the afternoon
      (pp. 157-168)

      A week into my stay at California’s Sagehen Creek, I was lounging among the grass tufts next to aPolyergus brevicepsant nest with Faerthen Felix, the station’s assistant manager. I was trying to determine exactly how their raids transpire, and we had shown up early to catch the moment when the action began. But for most of the day not a single Amazon had shown her face. When the first slavemaker appeared at 4 p.m., she showed a supreme indifference to the slaves that were industriously collecting bits of my jelly sandwich. By 4:45, a hundred Amazons were milling...

  9. Leafcutter Ant, the Constant Gardener
    • 14 a fungus farmer’s life
      (pp. 170-187)

      In a pasture near Botucatu, Brazil, two cows were staring at me with heat-addled eyes, when all hell broke loose. Luiz, a laborer we had hired to help us, gave a shout of pain as part of the trench he was digging in collapsed. In front of him was a gash wide enough to hold a treasure chest, from which spilled not gold but a porridge-like material. Despite Luiz’s screams, my heart started beating with the same excitement a prospector must have felt when he struck a vein of gold. I ran over and lowered myself into the trench.

      We...

    • 15 the origins of agriculture
      (pp. 187-200)

      In Ecuador I once had the good fortune to sit in view of the Napo, an immense tributary of the Amazon. To my right flowed what, for their size, seemed to be an equally mighty river of leafcutter ants hefting pink petals; to my left, a similar line of army ants carrying their slaughtered spiders. Looking from one species to the other, I recognized the apogees of two distinct lifestyles: the sedentary communities of vegetarian farmers and the migratory hordes of meat eaters.

      How did leafcutters shift away from the hunter-gatherer habits of most other ants to a life of...

  10. Argentine Ant, the Global Invader
    • 16 armies of the earth
      (pp. 202-212)

      Weaver ants attain colony sizes of a half million; certain driver ants, possibly twenty million or more. But we close this book with the Argentine ant, whose dominion is the granddaddy of them all—colonies that can span hundreds of square kilometers. Knowing that as colonies grow larger, their inhabitants tend to become more aggressive, I had anticipated that colonies this large would have an almost unlimited capacity for bloodshed, and I was on the brink of witnessing their battles.

      It was the fall of 2007, and I was in southern California with David Holway, an energetic associate professor from...

    • 17 the immortal society
      (pp. 213-220)

      In 1997 chemists Dangsheng Liang and Jules Silverman, working for Clorox, a company that makes baits for ants and cockroaches, were raising both kinds of insect in the laboratory. When their practical technician decided to feed their stock of Argentine ants a diet of the roaches on hand, what ensued was an example of scientific serendipity that parallels Jill Shanahand’s discovery of Argentine ant warfare. At first, the ants happily ate their new food source. But then, as Dangsheng wrote me, “One day we noticed that instead of eating the roaches, the [ants] were trying to kill each other. Then...

  11. conclusion: four ways of looking at an ant
    (pp. 221-231)

    Ants fascinate me as individuals, and I have developed the patience to watch a single worker for an entire day. Yet to focus on the peculiarities of an individual ant is to miss the forest for the trees. Ants, in a sense,aretheir colonies. In recognition of this, I have explored, at various points in this book, three additional ways of looking at ants. These perspectives may be expressed as analogies: the ant colony is like a human society; the ant colony is like an organism; and the ant colony is like a mind. But before revisiting these, let’s...

  12. acknowledgments and a note on content
    (pp. 232-233)
  13. notes
    (pp. 234-264)
  14. index
    (pp. 265-280)