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The Savage, Beautiful World of Army Ants

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The Savage, Beautiful World of Army Ants

Radio Expeditions

The Savage, Beautiful World of Army Ants

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Alex Chadwick.

Now a DAY TO DAY first, were going to blend two normally separate recurring features, our National Geographic radio expeditions interviews, and Photo Op, our occasional series of conversations about photography. Go to NPR.org/radioexpeditions now and you can see pictures by Mark Moffett, some of the them current issue National Geographic Magazine.

Mark is a Harvard PHD Insect Scientist, and an Associate of both the Smithsonian Institution and the University of California at Berkley. And he takes the most amazing pictures of ants. He spoke with us earlier from New York City. Mark Moffett, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Dr. MARK MOFFETT (Harvard PHD Insect Scientist, Photographer): Pleasure to be here Alex.

CHADWICK: You're going to write a series of articles for the magazine, write and photograph them, about ants and the world of ants. You're beginning with army ants, so let's start with them. Why are they called army ants?

Dr. MOFFETT: Well, army ants are basically experts at the art of war. They have a couple of characteristics in that respect - actually many - but two basic ones that are often talked about. One is their nomadism, they are migratory, moving around constantly as they run out of food. And the really critical thing is the way they actually attack, the way they work together in these massive raids that they organize.

CHADWICK: So you sort of imagine it like maybe trench warfare in world war I, huge numbers of guys hunkered down for a while, then they all get up and move.

Dr. MOFFETT: Well it's more like the Lord of the Rings movies - if you recall those.

CHADWICK: Yes.

Dr. MOFFETT: Mr. Peter Jackson did a marvelous job - maybe he was thinking of army ants because you'd have these vast landscapes. You can imagine being down at the ant level, and suddenly over the crest of the hills would appear untold numbers of horrific warriors, rushing ahead. And this is exactly what it would be like to witness the arrival of army ants if you were a frog or small creature down in the leaf-litter of a rainforest. They are often called driver ants in parts of the world too, because they actually drive their prey ahead of them. Because of the shear force of numbers, the army ants are capable of killing things vastly largely then themselves.

CHADWICK: You write that they are blind, but in these pictures that you take of them, I see little dots on the side of their heads, which I take to be eyes.

Dr. MOFFETT: Well they have no ability to form an image. Basically all they can do is tell night from day. And so the lives of army ants are lives associated with smells and vibrations, and they move amongst each other with communication signals - pheromones that they lay down on the ground. And through very simple communication signals they can organize vast groups. And this is a fascinating thing for scientists and applies potentially, to things like the organization of computers and other things about technology.

So people are quite interested in ants, and particularly army ants are a good model.

CHADWICK: Because of the way that they associate themselves in fairly simple patterns, but very clear patterns.

Dr. MOFFETT: Very clear patterns emerge from very basic behavior. So a single arm ant is basically incompetent. It's a soldier trained to do certain things very well. Those things seem very simple, but you add 10,000 - 100,000 - a million or more in some cases, of these soldiers together - and these patterns emerge that are unexpected. So these raids can be 15-yards across and contain 100,000 or more ants moving in a very organized way, with a swarm in front moving forward rapidly and a fan of columns behind where the ants tear up and prepare the prey to be carried back. And they're killing huge numbers of prey constantly during these attacks.

CHADWICK: I have to ask you now about one of these pictures. It's of one army ant confronting many other army ants, and these are two different species of army ants. I didn't realize there were so many different kinds. One is very big, and the others are very small. Why is that?

Dr. MOFFETT: There are over 130 species of army ants in the New World alone. The different species differ in many things, but one of them is polymorphism, and that is workers within one ant colony can vary quite a bit in size and shape and do different tasks or play different roles. And so in that picture, you have a number of the middle-sized workers confronting a soldier of the other species.

And they're basically harrying it and pulling on it as if they were trying to deal with an elephant from this perspective. The soldiers usually function simply to deal with people like entomologists and anybody silly enough to get close to army ants. They attack vertebrates and keep the colony safe.

CHADWICK: Well, I guess ants are odd to look at, at least for me. I'm a layperson, you're an ant scientist.

Dr. MOFFETT: They're gorgeous.

CHADWICK: They're gorgeous. Well, what about the jaw part? Because you have some pictures of the jaws of these creatures that are - I mean, these things look like they've got elephant tusks, for heaven's sakes.

Dr. MOFFETT: You can tell a lot about how cool an ant is going to be from its jaws in many cases. I'm doing this book for Harvard, and I'm going around the world, often looking for the coolest jaws going. The ants with the most elaborate jaws are often the ones that do the most bizarre things. And these soldiers have these jaws that seem to go on forever, these vast tusks which are used to pierce vertebrates. They don't use them in killing prey, they're just after us. And they pierce quite deeply. They go right down, I would imagine, to the bone.

CHADWICK: I know that other National Geographic photographers - photographers I've spoken with - like looking at your pictures a lot. How do you do this? I mean, this is a very small world that you're photographing. You use special lenses and little tiny strobe lights?

Dr. MOFFETT: I figured out how to photograph ants by using a book on photographing supermodels, and figured out how to put the flashes - attach the flashes to the camera to duplicate the arrangement in a fine arts supermodel studio, with the fill, the hair light, you know, the side light, all those sort of things. So I'm doing supermodel photography.

CHADWICK: I mean, these are the best ant photographs I - these are brilliantly lit ant photographs.

Dr. MOFFETT: The real trick is really knowing your subjects, and I come at them as an active ecologist. And really, that's a matter of telling stories and digging deeper and coming up with unexpected behaviors. Because things like army ants now have been photographed for 50-odd years and have appeared in magazines countless times. But there's lots of nuances. And you can tell the difference when someone really has a passion and knowledge of the subject.

CHADWICK: People, they work all their lives to be successful academics, and I wonder why that isn't what you do?

Dr. MOFFETT: Maybe I just don't like all the meetings. But in any case, I certainly like being out in nature, and this is one way for me to do it. And the primary drive for me is storytelling. And whatever it is, whether it's mathematics or science or art or whatever, to me these are forms of storytelling. And writing and photography provide means for me to tell a story. I don't really care that much about photography in most other ways, but if I can tell a story with it, it really gets me excited.

CHADWICK: When you say that you think ants are gorgeous, what is it about an ant that is gorgeous? Because when I look at your pictures - and they're beautiful pictures and striking images - these look like alien creatures, maybe from a bad dream.

Dr. MOFFETT: Well, I don't know what kind of dreams you've been having, but these are my good dreams right here. To me, ants are elegant creatures in what they do and how they move through the world, and the way they're built to do that. They are indeed very alien. They share a lot of the genetics with us, though, so the way they work is more like us than we might imagine sometimes.

CHADWICK: Mark, thank you, and we'll see more of your ant pictures in future programs on DAY TO DAY.

Dr. MOFFETT: Thanks, Alex.

CHADWICK: And, dear listeners, how can you see Mark Moffett's pictures of ants? Well, they're in the current issue of National Geographic, or you can go online to npr.org/radioexpeditions.

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