I lay on my stomach in my driveway. The breeze ruffled my skirt and the sun warmed the backs of my legs. Three ants scurried across the concrete. They were tiny, like cumin seeds but smaller. They seemed to come and go from a crack in the pavement where weeds sprouted and untold ant-sized wonders must lie, but I could see no pattern to their hurried movements. I pinched one between my fingertips, stood up, then let her fall. The drop was four feet or more, easily a thousand times the ant’s height, and my actions seemed like cruelty—but I told myself it was science and I’ll admit I got a little thrill. I was testing a theory I’d just learned: Ants are so small they have no “critical injury height,” no height above which a fall can cause harm. An ant could drop forever and land without being bruised.
By the time I got my face back down toward the pavement, the ant was upright though not unfazed. She bent over double, antennae quivering around her leg. Was she nursing an injury? Cleaning herself? Trying to get oriented? But then she started forward again, zig-zag stumbling across the warm, infertile ground. Before long she was back where she started, making haphazard-looking arcs near a particular crack. The moment of truth came as another ant approached her. Would my victim’s fall mark her as damaged in some way? Would her sister reject her? In less than a second I had my answer, as the two locked antennae for a brief moment, then moved on. It was as if I’d never been there at all.
Ants have always seemed to me simultaneously ubiquitous and inscrutable. Easy to find, hard to understand. I’d hoped my newfound willingness to experiment on them would open a door for me into their world, but it was clear I’d have to do much more than lie in the driveway for a few minutes to gain that kind of access. I might, for example, have to fly to Singapore and sit for fifty hours straight in a forgotten corner of a botanic garden, through sunburn and rain, to really understand a little corner of an ant’s world. If I really wanted to do it right, I’d need a camera with a lens that worked as a magnifier, and a waterproof field notebook, and patience like steel. I’m not that patient, so my front-yard taste of ant science would have to do. Besides, I’d already found a shortcut to ant insight, in the form of Mark Moffett’s new book Adventures among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, released in May 2010 by the University of California Press.
“Wherever we notice parallels between ant colonies and our own societies, we should remember that the ant societies came first,” writes Moffett. Adventures Among Ants (or AAA, as Moffett, AKA Doctor Bugs, calls it on his blog) is partially a memoir and travelogue from three decades of stalking ants around the world. Moffett’s had an interesting life—he earned his Ph.D. under the legendary Edward O. Wilson, earned his living in part as a photographer for National Geographic, and earned the title of the “Indiana Jones of entomology” by capering through jungles around the world—but what makes the book a worthy read is its other half: his close and thorough telling of the stories that belong to the ants.
Moffett’s first accomplishment is that he differentiates the teeming invertebrate mass that the ant world seems to the uninitiated. In the tropics of Asia, large marauder ants carry “minor” workers of their own species on their heads; the minor workers weigh 500 times less than the large ones. The marauders work as a group to swarm out from their nest, capture prey, and bring it home. The minors lead the swarm and immobilize the victims, from termites to pill bugs to lizards, by pulling on them in dozens or hundreds of places at once. Then the larger ants arrive to smash and dismember the prey as needed. When the marauders chance to encounter another colony, they fight, but mostly the more expendable minors. “After some minutes of struggle,” Moffett writes, “one of the ant’s limbs will pop off like the arm of a medieval torture victim stretched on the rack. Slowly, surely, the workers pull each other apart.”
Contrast that to the life of the temperate-zone Amazon ant, Polyergus breviceps, an orange pumpkin seed-sized species that only leaves home on slave raids. The Amazons follow a scout to the nest of gray Formica, invade, and steal their brood. Arriving home at their own nest, the Amazons hand off their burdens to adult Formica workers who have grown up indentured to their captors as part of the Amazon colony. It’s the gray Formica who raise the young of both species, scavenge for food, maintain the nest, and generally keep life running. Imprinted on the scent of the Amazons from birth, the Formica likely have no idea that the queen they toil for is not their mother.
“Is it reasonable to apply the word slavery to ant practice?” Moffett muses, in a long meditation on what the Amazon behavior means. He takes inventory of animals who practice slavery, including humans and a large Australian bird. He enumerates the differences between ant slavery and human slavery, the most important of which being that the ants likely don’t realize that they’re slaves. “Among animals other than ourselves,” Moffett concludes, “actions are neither right nor wrong. They just are.”
Yet how they are can teach us, as humans, about what works, or about who we are. Ant colonies get faster paced and the labor gets more specialized as they get larger, just like in human cities. Colonies can accomplish complex tasks, like building and maintaining roadways, without any centralized leadership but with well-networked, redundant communication. Moffett illustrates each of these concepts with concrete examples and fascinating stories of ants simply being remarkably themselves.
The scientific process is in plain view throughout, as Moffett makes and tests hypotheses right in front of his readers. He strikes a good balance between clear and precise science and an accessible tone. In addition to describing many of his own experiments, Moffett refers to discoveries by other scientists, and gives them warm credits and cameos. Extensive endnotes to peer-reviewed research should satisfy anyone wanting to explore more in depth. The work is not for the total beginner, but it could have been—a labeled diagram of ant parts and the ant lifecycle would have cleared up a lot for me, for example.
Though it is filled with stories, the book lacks a larger story arc to push you to keep turning pages. But gorgeous photographs and smaller-scale mysteries make up for the lack of momentum. (Why do the Amazons mill around outside their own nest for a while before going on their raids? SPOILER: They’re waiting for a scout to show them a better place to mill around.) Apart from the occasional far-fetched metaphor, Moffett’s prose is smooth and goes down easy. He’s charmingly enveloped in the tiny world he studies, and through his eyes the ants grow huge. “Like a lion,” Moffett observes, “an ant is easiest to approach and photograph when it is preoccupied.” That sentence is best read in an Australian accent.
Most of all, Moffett’s discoveries left me wanting to make my own, even in my own yard. His stories reminded me of what’s possible in the natural world. For those of us who dream of far-flung explorations, Moffett’s explorer’s life may inspire a bit of jealousy, but he redeems himself by leaving us the richer for having encountered him, our world enlarged as our focus shrinks. He reminds us to pay attention, and that even among ants, there’s adventure. Give this book to any eleven year old dreaming big about science, and go ahead and keep a copy for yourself. Just now you may wind up together, face down on the driveway.