A Close-Up Look at Marvelous Ants with Entomologist Mark Moffett

As The Children’s School often says, the smallest among us are clever, imaginative, striking creatures. Little did we know that when we said that, we were talking about more than our students!

The one and only “Dr. Bugs” taught us this invaluable lesson this spring during his virtual visit to TCS. The esteemed “Dr. Bugs” is a world-class entomologist, explorer and wildlife biologist with the Smithsonian who studies animals around the world, particularly smaller species such as insects and frogs. His real name is Mark Moffett, and TCS was honored to have him grace our classrooms as the featured speaker for our Scientist-in-Residence program. As a longtime photographer for National Geographic, Mark has visited over 100 countries, which means he goes where the creatures are, whether it’s an island off the coast of Brazil that teems with venomous snakes, or into the depths of a sinkhole on a tepui mountain in Venezuela, where he discovered a new species of frog.

The children were enthralled by Mark’s striking photographs and entertaining stories about the muddy, often uncomfortable work of observing species in the wild. Mark explained that a tropical forest is like a city, and each species needs to find a place to live among the trees. Did you know that you can’t just look on the ground to find most of the species in a forest? Instead, you must climb up to the treetops. There, birds and fruit bats living in the canopy must figure out how to fly through the forest maze to find fruit and flowers and return to their nest. The hunt for food, however, is the most challenging for the tiniest of creatures, like ants. Look straight up at the treetops in a forest, and you’ll see what’s called “crown shyness,” a space between the canopy of each tree. Weaver ants have evolved an interesting way to move between those gaps. In an astonishing feat of acrobatics, a long line of ants will cling to each other to form a chain, and when the wind pushes two trees together, they’ll grab onto the other trunk and create a living bridge for other ants to walk across. To put it mildly, the supporting ants have a tough job, yet somehow they manage to stay in that bridge formation for days and days!

Intriguingly, Mark told our students that he likes to photograph ants at their eye level to capture how they look at each other and interact. He noted that many ant behaviors have to do with how many ants live together. Those that live in huge colonies move very quickly, like humans in New York City. But ants that live in tiny groups tend to move slowly, like people in small towns. How do the slowest ants in the world survive? They hunt snails!

Mark then touched on how ants communicate with one another, asking the children if they had ever watched a trail of ants in their kitchen or garden and noticed how they touched one another with their antennae. That is how ants communicate: there is an exchange of chemicals via the antennae. Other insects have evolved the ability to communicate with ants. For example, some beetles look just like ants and give off similar chemicals so the ants will feed them. “It’s like the ants have a beetle,” Mark said, “for a pet!”

When it came time for students to ask questions, there was no shortage of eager and enthusiastic children raising their hands. They asked if all ants are good at teamwork, and Mark noted that leafcutter ants are exceptional in this regard. Leafcutter ants live in colonies of millions and build houses and highways in the forest; their nests can be 30 feet across and extend three stories underground. You’ll find leafcutters in the woods, carrying leaves back to their nest. They don’t eat the leaves but cut them up into mulch to raise a particular fungus; the food that blooms off the fungus is their diet. So, leafcutter ants are farmers as well as builders. When the children asked if different species of ants get along, Mark answered that ants will always defend their territories, but sometimes two ants will avoid outright fighting by circling each other in a staring contest, with the bigger ant winning. He has seen small ants cheat by standing on a pebble to look bigger and win all the fights.

Our students loved getting a glimpse into the complicated, extraordinary lives of ants and hearing about the patience—and tolerance for ant bites—it takes to become what one person called him, the daring “Indiana Jones of entomology.” After Mark Moffett’s talk about the thrill of exploring the natural world, our students were feeling inspired to explore the outdoors, examine leaves and twigs, follow ant trails, listen for frog chirps and keep an eye out for fascinating insects.