Mark W. Moffett

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Mark Moffett (born 7 January 1958) “…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.”[1] 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”.[2]


A high school dropout with an intense interest in nature, 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 and a visiting scholar at the Department of Human Evolution at Harvard. 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's research interests have ranged widely. In the field of ecology he has researched the architecture of forest canopies and how these compare to the structure of other ecosystems, from coral reefs and kelp forests to microbial films (biofilms).[3] He has worked for many years on the social behavior of ants. An article on warfare strategies among the ants, Ants and the Art of War, appeared in the Dec. 2011 Scientific American.[4] In 2012 he published on a species called the Argentine ant that has clearly defined societies that can reach into the billions. This capacity for growth that has confounded other scientists and lead Moffett to ask, "what is a society?"[5] This question lead him to write a technical article on humans, pursuing this question for our species from the perspective of biology, anthropology, and psychology,[6] taking the very broad outlook of "consilience" advocated by Edward O. Wilson.[7] This career shift was documented in an article, Before the Swarm, in Atavist Magazine.[8]

Since 2012 Moffett has largely dropped his public engagements and photography assignments to focus on documenting the forces that bind societies together and tear them apart, across species and in humans right up to the present day, integrating the perspectives of hundreds of scientists from different fields. The Human Swarm: How Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall is due for publication in April 2019.[9]


Moffett taught himself photography using a book on photographing supermodels to document his doctorate on ants.[10] 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 National Geographic images to his credit.[11] He has promoted the view that too much of nature photography takes a calendar image approach, rather than digging deeply into the rare but significant moments in the lives of its subjects from a journalistic (and scientific) perspective.[12] He finds photography exciting as a means to tell stories, rather than as an end in itself; and in fact throughout his career Moffett has often spent months without picking up a camera during times when when being on stage or writing have been more suited to the stories that currently intrigue him.[13]


Moffett has explored every Latin American country, every tropical Asian country, and many parts of Africa.[14] He has discovered and described new species of ants on these journeys,[15] and has had new species of beetle, frog, and ant named after him.[16][17] (Amy Tan includes Moffett as a character in her book Saving Fish From Drowning[18] 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.[19] 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.[20][21] In 1999 he joined a group of University of California scientists to survey animals in Iran.[22]

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 fatally bitten by a deadly relative of the cobra called a krait.[23]


“Adventures Among Ants” (University of California Press, 2010)[24][25] 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) [26] “is a gorgeous book. I wish I was in it”.[27] In 1993 Harvard University Press published “The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy,” concerning the research of his tree-climbing colleagues.[28] 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.[29][30] In the ensuing years the exhibit travelled across the United States.[31] 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.[32]

Lectures and Media[edit]

Moffett is known for combining serious science with quirky adventure stories. He has been a speaker for The Moth and is a frequent lecturer for the National Geographic Society.[33][34]

Moffett has appeared multiple times on the Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Colbert Report.[35] He has also been interviewed in such radio programs as National Geographic’s Weekend Edition,[36] NPR programs,[37][38] West Coast Live!,[39] Voice of America,[40] CBS Sunday Morning, and Living on Earth.[41]


External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-12-03. Retrieved 2010-05-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-03-23. Retrieved 2010-05-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Moffett, Mark W. (2013), "Comparative Canopy Biology and the Structure of Ecosystems", Treetops at Risk, Springer New York, pp. 13–54, ISBN 9781461471608, retrieved 2018-12-05
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  5. ^ Moffett, Mark W. (2012). "Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society?". Behavioral Ecology. 23 (5): 925–933. doi:10.1093/beheco/ars043. ISSN 1465-7279.
  6. ^ Moffett, Mark W. (2013-06-29). "Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies". Human Nature. 24 (3): 219–267. doi:10.1007/s12110-013-9170-3. ISSN 1045-6767.
  7. ^ O., Wilson, Edward (1998). Consilience : the unity of knowledge (1st ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 0679450777. OCLC 36528112.
  8. ^ "Before the Swarm". The Atavist Magazine. 2011-03-06. Retrieved 2018-12-05.
  9. ^ The Human Swarm. 2018-02-06.
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  12. ^ "Guest Blogger – Mark Moffett | Stuck in Customs". Retrieved 2018-12-05.
  13. ^ "PHOTOGRAPHY". Retrieved 2018-12-05.
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  31. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-06-10. Retrieved 2010-05-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
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  33. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-04-28. Retrieved 2010-05-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
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  36. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-03-29. Retrieved 2010-05-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
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