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Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Cover to Adventures Among Ants

Ants are among the most numerous animals on the Earth, but few people pay little attention to them other than to step on them when they become an inconvenience. Have you ever wondered how ants are always able to summon swarms of allies seemingly from nowhere?  Or, how ants can plan massively-coordinated attacks and design gigantic nests?  Mark W. Moffett wondered and wrote a book, Adventures Among Ants, detailing the discoveries he made after years of research. The book is filled with intriguing information and stunning photographs, making it an excellent read for anyone interested in biology.

The chapters not only explain the different types of adaptations and strategies ants use to survive. They also detail Moffett’s globe-spanning quest to learn about the most unique and unorthodox species. His diagrams of the swarms of Southeast Asian marauder ants are just as interesting as his anecdotes about the landscapes and the people he encounters in his studies. Most of the book is dominated by descriptions of ants, yet Moffett’s writing style is scientific without being dry and boring. The author has a particular gift for describing the violent nature of ant colonies. He provides elaborate diagrams, explains the differences between a swarm and a raid, and examines how ants recruit their fellow colony members to help them in hunting and in battle.

Moffett’s descriptions of the more peaceful aspects of ant society are also interesting, although they lack the immediacy of the hunting and war activities. One of the best parts of the book is his explication of the forest canopy-dwelling weaver ants of Nigeria which form elaborate colony structures with their own bodies to protect their queens and eggs. His explanation of how ants use pheromones and scent to identify useful plants and aphids is also intriguing. These reveal just how important the reflex responses to pheromones are in the “agriculture” of ant colonies. The “slavery” system of Amazon ants, in which pupae of other ants are abducted and imprinted into becoming a slave caste for the Amazons, is a much more disturbing depiction of the social functions of ant colonies.

One of the best aspects of Moffett’s writing is that he makes the ants seem accessible to the readr while avoiding anthropomorphic phrasing. For example, when he describes the detailed attack formations of the ants, he avoids description using human concepts, preferring to refer to the attacking ants as a “superorganism” in which all the ants serve a unified goal as determined by chemical markers. Similarly, while admitting he was horrified by the “slave” labor used by the Amazon ants, he avoids giving ant slavery the same ethical and moral problems as human slavery, treating it more similarly to a business transaction of a colony for a portion of the potential workers rather than as a loss of “liberty”-- which does not exist in the lives of ants. Adventures Among Ants is a well-written explanation of the intricate social functions and adaptations that allow the seemingly insignificant ants to exist all over the planet and play a major role in countless ecosystems.