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Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions Hardcover – May 5, 2010
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Are ants exciting? You bet they are! Entomologist Moffett, who has been described as the �Indiana Jones of entomology,� takes the reader along as he travels the world in search of ants. Ants are found on every continent except Antarctica and in virtually every climate. They are masters at exploiting an abundant niche�the cracks, crevices, gaps, hollows, and other interstices of the environment. As a small child Moffett was enraptured by ants, and, after reading the exploits of the early explorer-naturalists, he wanted to be a field biologist. Studying ants has led him to India and the marauder ant, which has workers of three sizes, the largest being 500 times the size of the smallest�the smallest, however, are those that start the hunt. In Nigeria, he watches army ants on raids, observing how individual prey species fight back. Weaver ants in Australia, Asia, and Africa use their larvae�s ability to spin silk to bind leaves together to make a nest. In Brunei, the author observed ants diving into pitcher plants to retrieve drowned insects. California reveals the slaver Amazon ants, who steal pupae from other ant species to do all of their work for them. In South America, Moffett digs up colonies of leaf-cutting ants, who grow their fungus food in gardens based on leaves they cut. Illustrated throughout with the author�s exquisite closeup photos, photos that bring the actions of these tiny protagonists to a size we can appreciate, Moffett�s work will make ant appreciators of even the most phobic. --Nancy Bent
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The ants are great and interesting. The pictures are incredible and will leave you wishing for more.
Like an old man reminiscing, the author tends to ramble regarding his past. It often gets to the point of annoying and definitely overshadows the ants at times.
There is a lot of repetitiveness with an inconsistency of reading levels ranging anywhere from third grade to PhD.
The author is definitely a legend in his own mind while the ants are fascinating.
Ants are important just by the numbers. They always live in colonies, though some of the more than 10,000 species have colonies of just four; some colonies number in the billions. In the tropics, they may comprise 25% of the animal biomass. If you weighed all the Earth's ants and all the Earth's humans, the weights would be about the same, but of course there are a million times more of them than us. It is when Moffett describes his field adventures that he is the most personally engaging, a fine storyteller with a self-deprecating and amused look at ants and at his fellow humans. The adventures are not without risk or pain. Driver ants in Africa pain him more by mechanical chomps than by poison, and although he would try to crush them with a thumbnail on his clothes before they got to his skin, their pincer jaws stayed embedded in the cloth after being washed. "Bites on a fingertip were so agonizing that pulling the ant off wasn't an option: when I gripped the offender between two fingers of the opposite hand, she would clamp down even more savagely on the delicate finger pad. In time I found a solution: I inserted the finger in my mouth and crushed the ant's head between my teeth, which immediately disengaged her jaws. The ant was about the size of a Tic Tac breath mint and just as crisp." Moffett has chapters on just six species of ant, with many remarks to compare them to others, so this would be a perfect book for anyone looking for a scientific introduction to the species. The details included here are fascinating and often deeply weird. Take for instance the examples of child labor (the slave-making ants are normal by comparison) within different ant colonies. The larvae of weaver ants don't spin silk to make a cocoon, but are shuttled back and forth by workers so that their silk can bind leaves together. There are only four colonies of Argentine ants in California, but they are supercolonies; in fact, the largest is named the Very Large Colony, and it stretches from the Mexican border up past San Francisco. Moffett reports from a San Diego battlefield where competing Argentines are in constant warfare, with thirty million ants dying in battle every year. These are dangerous aliens; not only do they destroy the native ants and the ecosystems dependent upon them, but like cattle farmers, they raise aphids and scale insects that damage fruits and flowers.
Moffett's book comes with some of the most beautiful photographs ever of the little creatures, taken by the author himself, and it is all on glossy pages within a handsome volume that can be proudly left on a coffee table but begs to be read carefully. It is packed with astonishing facts about ants that can be easily appreciated by those of us who never did quite catch the ant fervor as did this enthusiastic author.
And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature's workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.
We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they're going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.
In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.
Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.
The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What's more, he's an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett's photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.
What's more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual's lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course - ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.
For all that, however, I don't think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don't have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn't Moffett's fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.
And I don't.
Oh sure - I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I'm not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn't quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.
If you like ants - or you know someone who does - this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.
"Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony - a masterly feat, considering that she's a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator."
- Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants