Mark Moffett “…has developed a career that combines science and photography, in spite of being a high school dropout. Although his family was not academic, encouraged by his parents he sought out biologists by the age of 12.” He continues to travel to conduct research on ecology and behavior, photograph and write for National Geographic and other magazines, author books, and lecture and appear on television as an ecologist-storyteller. He has been compared to Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall, and National Geographic has called him “the Indiana Jones of Entomology”.
Moffett received his B.A. in Biology at Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1979, where he was elected into Phi Beta Kappa. He received his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University in 1989, funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He came to Harvard to study under Edward O. Wilson, who had developed the field of sociobiology and was at the time popularizing the concept of biodiversity. After receiving his doctorate, Moffett became curator of ants under Dr. Wilson at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, which has the largest collection of these social insects in the world. He remained at the museum as a Research Associate through most of the 1990s while continuing his efforts for National Geographic Magazine. Afterward, he became a Research Associate at Department of Anthropology at Harvard (1997–2000) and Visiting Scholar at Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at University of California, Berkeley (1998–2005).Moffett is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian Institution. He travels the world looking for new species and behaviors while studying social behavior and the structure and dynamics of ecosystems, particularly their canopies.
Moffett taught himself photography to document his doctorate on ants. National Geographic published these novel photographs, and he went on to become a leading photographer and frequent writer for that magazine, with more than two dozen articles and hundreds of images to his credit.
Moffett has explored every Latin American country, every tropical Asian country, and many parts of Africa. He has discovered and described new species of ants on these journeys, and has had new species of beetle, frog, and ant named after him. (Amy Tan includes Moffett as a character in her book Saving Fish From Drowning and has his character collect a Chinese species of aphrodisiac plant that in her book is named after him as well.)Several of Moffett’s expeditions have been noteworthy. During multiple visits to Venezuela, Moffett has explored remote parts of the mountainous tepui regions with the explorer Charles Brewer-Carias on trips in which they found new frogs, insects, and plants. He also has worked on the supertall coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest, for which he co-led (with Steve Sillett) the first ascent and study of the world’s tallest known tree at the time, a specimen named the National Geographic redwood that they found to be 365 feet 6 inches in height. In 1999 he joined a group of University of California scientists to survey animals in Iran. During an expedition into a remote area of northern Myanmar on September 11, 2001, Moffett was standing beside cobra expert Joseph Bruno Slowinski when Slowinski was bitten by a deadly relative of the cobra called a krait.
“Adventures Among Ants” (University of California Press, 2010) combines science and adventure, and is based on several years of Moffett’s travels to many parts of the world looking for remarkable ant species. He documents the ant colony’s numerous parallels to human societies and its similarity to an organism (often called a superorganism). Moffett proposed that a superorganism arises when the members of a society develop an unbreakable common identity, as happens among workers of ant species (much like the component cells of any organism identify absolutely and uniquely with the body to which they belong).
Moffett’s children’s book describes his journeys to find the world’s largest, smallest, and most deadly frogs. Stephen Colbert said “Face to Face with Frogs” (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2008) “is a gorgeous book. I wish I was in it”. In 1993 Harvard University Press published “The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy,” concerning the research of his tree-climbing colleagues. The Boston Globe described Moffett’s book as “a stunning mix of adventure, nature photography, and hard scientific inquiry that ranks with the best work of Jacques Cousteau.”
In 2009, the exhibition “Farmers Warriors, Builders: the Hidden Life on Ants” became the first and only exhibit of the National Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian Institution) to feature a single individual’s perspective on a group of organisms, containing 40 of Moffett’s images. The exhibit will soon travel across the United States. An exhibit of Moffett’s frog images was shown at National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2008, and travelled in 2009 to Singapore and London.
Moffett is known for combining serious science with quirky adventure stories. He is a frequent lecturer for the National Geographic Society. Moffett appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien on May 23, 2007, and February 7, 2008, and in May is scheduled to appear for the third time on The Colbert Report. He has also been interviewed in such radio programs as National Geographic’s Weekend Edition, NPR programs, West Coast Live!, Voice of America, and Living on Earth. An article on ants appeared in the Dec. 2011 Scientific American.
Click to see video clips of Mark’s television appearances on The Colbert Report, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and more:
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