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Mark W. Moffett
University of California Press
2010; 280 pgs
Price: $29.95 (hardcover)
Over the past three decades, Mark Moffett has made many of his fellow entomologists (well, at least me) envious with his tales of high adventure in exotic locales, appearances on nationally televised talk shows, and gorgeous color spreads in National Geographic. I found that there were many aspects of the life of Moffett that I wanted for myself. But the comfortable life of a lab jockey was apparently more seductive—I’m fond of indoor plumbing and not so keen on malaria. My dreams of trekking were relegated to moments of wistfulness as I settled down at my microscope. But now I can safely experience untamed research escapades while reading Moffett’s latest literary contribution, Adventures Among Ants. This is a delightfully crafted volume that is part travelogue, part research notebook, and at all times entertaining. It helps that I also like ants.
Following a short introduction, in which Moffett explains his abiding passion for field science and ants, there is a short but thoughtful primer on ants for the uninitiated. The meat of the book follows, with 17 chapters divided into six major sections. The first section, covering the marauder ant, introduces us to the graduate student years. The narrative here sets the tone found throughout the rest of the book. Although the text is always approachable and often humorous, Moffett takes care to carefully lay out the science. Facts are presented, observations made, and conclusions drawn when warranted. Unlike so many books for the coffee-table displaying set, idle and fanciful speculation is avoided. We are told the how, when, where, and why demanded in all good reporting. Not only are these pertinent facts conveyed about the ants, but about the author as well. Moffett puts us on location and in his head as he gathers up the scientific data that comprised his thesis. He shares with us his infectious enthusiasm and fascination, and makes it obvious why we should also be excited about being a naturalist. Following the introduction to marauder ants are sections on African army ants, weaver ants, slave-making Amazon ants, leafcutter ants, and the Argentine ants. None of these are as long or detailed as the first section of the book, but collectively they present a very rich survey of the ants and of Moffett’s scientific endeavors. He wraps the book up by describing the different levels of perspective by which ants can be viewed, from the individual to the collective intelligence of the colony. He also tells us of his native-style marriage on Easter Island. This truly is a compelling personal account of scientific endeavor from start to finish.
Enhancing the text throughout is some much-welcomed annotation. In addition to carefully referencing material, Moffett provides a number of informative asides. They would have been a bit distracting had they been included in the main text, but here they give the more scholarly-minded reader a chance to further explore various subject matters. They also help to demonstrate the author’s command of a wide range of topics, and provide launching points for aspiring graduate students looking for a thesis project. Unless there is some need to complete the book as quickly as possible, I strongly recommend that the time be taken to look at the notes as they occur.
As if engrossing stories and fascinating biology were not enough, the book is replete with color photos of the ants being discussed. That these were not just an inconsequential scattering of stock images comes as no surprise given the author’s virtuosity with the macro lens. Moffett has culled through his massive photo library, selecting some of his best to illustrate the dynamic lives of ants. The photos include action shots of farming, fighting, and foraging behavior.
Others portray the habitats in which the ants live, or the sometimes hazardous interactions between the author and his study subjects. Most importantly, the close-ups cast these colonial insects as unique and intriguing individuals, not just a seething mass of vermin bent on disrupting a picnic. My only complaint about the book was that I was left craving more graphic content. An equal ratio of pictures to text would have been transcendent, but the actual ratio is merely great.
In summary, Mark Moffett has done a brilliant job of making his research accessible to most everyone. The pictures are beautiful, the stories captivating, and the science fun. This book is recommended for anyone with a bit of field biologist in them, or those with a need to understand the kind of people who risk themselves to get a better look at something crawling on the ground.
Colin S. Brent, Ph.D.
USDA-Agricultural Research Service
Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center
21881 North Cardon Lane
Maricopa, AZ 85238