peteg's blog - noise - books - 2012 09 07 MarkMoffett AdventuresAmongAnts

Mark Moffett: Adventures Among Ants

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I read about this book in the travel section of the New York Times a while ago, and bought a copy from Amazon while in the U.S. in July/August. Moffett got his PhD under Edward O. Wilson at Harvard in the 1980s, apparently by studying marauder ants in Singapore (and other places) in more detail than hitherto. As the cover blurb by the great Prof assures us, he is a fantastic photographer, so good he has been regularly commissioned by National Geographic. (You can find his pictures by searching for his name in the National Geographic Image Collection or at Google Images.)

This text is essentially a Paul Theroux-quality travelogue with a focus on ant novelties that consciously avoids overtly scientific nomenclature and analysis. As such it is far more accessible to a general audience than e.g. Superorganism, which has sat on my shelf for too long now.

An ant garden.

New to me were the ant gardens of Peru (and presumably South America in general) (p120), which are a multi-way symbiosis of two ant species and several kinds of plants. The ants manufacture a "carton" (papery) base (see the photo on the right) and grow specific plants there, which in turn seem to need the ants' ministrations to germinate.

The leaf-cutters and the weavers get a chapter each. Moffett tells us that the weavers in overhanging trees can pull individual (blind) army ants from their raiding columns on the ground, and moreover that the army ants exhibit a fear response if a weaver lands amongst them. I'd forgotten that the weavers also farm various small insects (aphids and the like). That there are only two species of weaver that dominate their respective habitats shows how successfully adapted they are.

Argentina apparently has spawned some ant super-species that are currently exterminating all other ant species in the northern hemisphere. The largest unicolony (a set of colonies with multiple queens that collaborate) of the "Argentine" ants stretches 2000km from Italy to Spain's Atlantic coast. Their strongest competitors are other ants from their region of origin, back in South America. One such, the fire ants, builds some pretty amazing rafts that helps them survive floods. There are several videos of these on YouTube. In contrast the driver (army) ants just drown.

I was disappointed that he did not include a photograph of an army ant bivouac. Clearly the nomadic army ants need to somehow vote on where to move to, and therefore engage in a process of "quorum sensing" (p244, references 16 and 17). We're told that cancer cells may use an analogous process for a similar purpose.