Did you know there's a sort of terrorist-style termite, one that can blow itself up when it meets an enemy? Neither did I. But Mark Moffett can tell you a little about it. After all, he's not called Dr. Bugs for nothing.
Though truthfully, Moffett will be the first to tell you termites aren't his specialty. Other creepy crawlies are more his bag: the ants, spiders, beetles, frogs. His passion for these and others of the world's teeny-tiny denizens has taken him to caves that wend a mile into the earth and tree canopies that spread branches more than a mile above the ground. Oftentimes, he travels with a camera, documenting, in eye-popping detail, the small world that most of us never get to gaze upon directly.
His photos are part of what's allowed him to become one of the country's -- the world's? -- most well-known scientists, leading him to publish more than 500 photos in and write more than two dozen articles for National Geographic Magazine, along with landing him on The Colbert Report. But perhaps more than being a talented photographer, there's this: Moffett is a master storyteller. All those critter-filled encounters in the field? He's able to translate those meetings into tales that allow humans to connect, emotionally, with the creature bearing six legs or the animal with eight eyes or even another person.
Moffett came to town recently as part of the "National Geographic Live!" tour, to give two evening slideshow lectures at Benaroya Hall. On the afternoon before his second lecture, right after he'd spoken to 2,500 students, he took a seat in the Fairmont Olympic hotel and let the stories fly, rhapsodizing about ants and Ecuadorian rainforests, lamenting the plight of vine-swinging monkeys, and revealing the secret of the ring on his finger.
So, your press release says that you will "open people's eyes to small wonders of the natural world."
I haven't read this release, but I guess I can live with that one.
Can you remember the first time your eyes were opened to that world?
Well, I'm kind of a bizarre case because I was in diapers looking at ants. I was out in the backyard, trying to figure out what they did, giving them little bits of food and following their activities. So for some reason or another, that's basically all I've ever done. My parents are amazed that I actually do this as a living. But the fact is it's great for me because I'm just going around finding things I liked when I was a kid.
What makes ants so interesting?
Well, lots of things, but most fall under the question of what it takes to be social in the world, so there are lots of parallels between ants and humans.
Mostly, they have to do with how groups have to get together and organize, whether intellectually, like humans do, or just sort of mindlessly, like ants do in most cases.
Ants have the same range of size of their societies as humans, from a couple dozen hunter-gatherers up to cities of tens of millions, and within that range you see a lot of the same things. A couple examples: Small ant colonies tend to be very egalitarian; everyone's capable of doing all the work. Individuals can go off hunting and bring back the meals, and there's relatively less fighting. In bigger and bigger ant societies, you start getting warfare. Ants and humans are the only creatures that have warfare, large-scale warfare, because there's this excess labor force. You also have more division of labor.
In all kinds of ways, ants and humans fall along the same patterns. Big societies tend to have a lot more infrastructure, building, highways. Ants with big societies have highways that go hundreds of feet and are extremely well maintained. So these are all about how you organize social groups.
Besides studying ants you've also written a book for kids about frogs.
One time, I read that frogs can be considered a canary in a coalmine: When you start seeing deformities in frogs or tadpoles, you realize there might be environmental hazards in the world. Is that true?
It seems that frogs are the first things dropping out. In Central America, it's become extremely serious. The national frog of Panama has gone extinct: It's an amazing gorgeous orange species and only exists now in a few zoos. There have been problems up here, but the total decimation of large numbers of frogs is pretty amazing in Central America. It seems to have to do with a fungus they're getting. When it gets warmer, the fungus tends to grow easily on their skins, and they get sick and die. So, global warming.
[But] we don't know any of the rules of the environment really. We're just operating in the dark. And of course it's very hard to change corporations or even individual behaviors in response to someone saying that there's a canary dead. Unless you're sitting there in the same cave with it and having trouble breathing, it's hard to take it very seriously.
Do you think we'll ever take it seriously?
Well, we tend to only take things seriously once they're gone. I mean, dinosaur movies sell really well! [Laughs.] It's a property of human behavior that's really hard to deal with.
The rainforest is getting cut down, this is a big deal, but what's happening? It's not only big corporations: It's some guy in the middle of a rainforest and he's got to cut down a piece of the rainforest to make a [house for his] family. What other choice does he have? So we're all making choices, millions of people are making choices and they add up. To turn that around really takes thinking at a global level that's really hard to achieve with governments. Right now, it's at a point of too much talk and, frankly, getting some environmentally friendly water bottle is not doing squat for the world. Even our moves with the auto industry are very minor compared to the size of the problem.
You wrote The High Frontier, about canopies. How would you describe the canopy, say, in a rainforest in Ecuador?
Well, a canopy is basically, to me, like a city. The architecture of trees is fantastic! And there are only certain ways you can make a tree, it turns out, and animals know their way around this architecture: It's a maze that you can learn. These trees have their own structures and they're stacked, so there are all these layers. So for birds, there are ways of navigating between the layers and having corridors where you can fly free. Every animal knows its way through this thing. It's all a matter of learning the rules, like moving through a building. Once you get into it and you see how familiar everything is, even the plants that are moving around -- the vines are fantastic! -- sweeping their way through the canopy, finding their best way to light. These things are treating this labyrinth like we treat a city.
Here in Washington, you have all kinds of things happening at the tops of these doug firs. The coastal redwoods particularly have these huge branches, which can be more than a yard wide, and 200 feet up, you can have a meter of soil on a branch, with trees growing from the soil, out of view from the ground. So trees growing on trees. Some fantastic things up there. In fact, more than any other place in the world, the West Coast of the U.S.
I see you've got a snake ring on your finger. A few years ago, you wrote a piece in Outside magazine about a friend of yours, Joseph Slowinski, and a trip you took to Myanmar with him. Could you talk about that?
Well, Joe was the leading expert on cobras. And he lived, as you might not be surprised to hear, a sort of risky life, going after cobras in very obscure places. [He] had found new species, had been bitten before by cobras.
We were in a remote part of Myanmar, in the north, several days in on foot. He reached into a bag by accident that had a krait in it. If you've ever read [Rudyard] Kipling, there's a story called "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," and you find out about the krait being more deadly than the cobra. [In the bag] was supposed to be a mimic of the krait: In other words, a harmless snake that looked like a krait.
He pulled out the snake, which was clinging to the side of his finger, and pulled it off: There wasn't a scratch. The krait is only about 10 inches long, not much bigger than a worm, but it's extraordinarily dangerous. What you're supposed to do when you're bitten by a krait is cut off your finger. But Joe had survived before, and he just kept his finger. By the time breakfast was over -- this was like seven in the morning when he was bitten -- he started having effects, and it was already too late. We kept him going for 26 hours in this remote spot and the story in Outside goes through all the details of us trying to find people to help us, which we almost succeeded in.
In any case, the message of the story, and the reason I wrote it as soon as I got back to the States, was that he still loved snakes when he was dying. And I began to realize that taking risks -- love without risks, whether it's a woman or a snake or whatever, has no meaning. So for him, the risk was worth it. He gave lectures which were amazing and made people really excited about snakes and nature. And true nature is not a garden. True nature has snakes in it. And if it's true nature we want to keep, we have to allow those things to be out there. We can't panic every time a great white shark shows up at somebody's beach.
So, this was on 9/11: Joe was bit within an hour of the towers falling and we got stuck overseas for the next few days. I got this ring in Hong Kong waiting to get out. I've kept it since then. You're the first person to ask me about the snake ring.
Last week I was driving out to the Oregon Coast -- I was a passenger -- and we were traveling west. Running across this field came a coyote. A car was traveling to the east and it hit and killed the coyote. We stopped and helped get the coyote to the side of the road and I noticed that there were carcasses of other animals. It made me think that maybe these animals, it was probably innate in them to travel this expanse of land toward the Columbia River, which was on the other side of us. And it made me think a lot about our not so positive interactions with the natural world. Do you think there are things we can do to have better interactions with the creatures that are around us?
Well, the truth is that humans are growing in population so fast that some things are going to go extinct. There's just no way to stop it. What we have to do is manage what happens. The species that are doing well right now are the species that are figuring out how to deal with us; and coyotes running across roads and getting killed, they're not figuring it out. They are staying wild. But the animals that are doing well are anything that gets domesticated by us, like dogs, cattle: These are the big winners right now. And rats, and fungi that can grow in our kitchen, anything that can figure out how to stay around humans are the winners. We can't just pretend that bald eagles are gonna float around being happy, without us being kind of aware how to deal with them.
So the trick is how to manage things to give them space. In the case of roads, this is a big issue because all round the world, roads go through the tropics. A lot of species of monkeys cannot cross without vines, so roads are basically destroying their ability to move anywhere. Migrations all over the world are getting stopped. But in parts of Asia they're actually making ropes across the roads so monkeys can work their way along. And coyotes could presumably go in culverts under the road. Maybe there are simple solutions, not necessarily expensive ones, if we start thinking. Whether they're gonna fit in the budget with the current situation is the big question.
So here we are, in a time where we say, "Deforestation and global warming and climate change." Do you think there's enough reporting on it? And do you think the reporting gives us enough solutions?
Basically I turn on the news and the things that bore me most are the stories about rainforest destruction, because I've already heard them a hundred times. I've even been there and I love rainforests. But how do you convey that where it doesn't sound like the back of some baseball card with a bunch of statistics? And once you turn things into statistics, whether it's people dying in Darfur or animals dying somewhere, it's not something people emotionally care about.
How you connect with people's emotions is really important to me, and the problem with science is we're used to conveying things through statistics. What I'd like to do -- and it'd be great if any of the readers out there are artists -- is connect with artists and musicians and so on, the people that care about these issues, and figure out how to tell stories in ways that connect with people's emotions. Because the artists are the ones that know how to do that better than we [scientists] do. Y'know, telling the story in a way that matters. Making it kind of personal. Not statistics. Personal.
If you're doing things to get people to fall in love with the "unexpected" and tap into the emotional side of it, then are you an artist?
Since I take photographs I can kind of pretend to be an artist. When I look through a camera lens at an ant, I know it's supposed to be a little mindless machine, but it's not. Because I can tell the moment the ant starts to think about me, the way it tilts its body, the same way you can tell with a human or coyote or anything. There may not be a big mind in there, but there are things going on. And when you're connected with them emotionally that way, then you convey the energy of the moment. I don't talk about that with my scientific friends, but there's a way of connecting with them emotionally, and maybe that's the artistic side.