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Ecologist and explorer Mark Moffett has trekked across the globe to document new animal species and behaviors. Just like the creatures he studies, Mark can be found crawling in the dirt or clinging to the tops of trees to track nature at its best. Joined by a scaly friend, he shares his breathtaking work, urging all of us to go out and find stories of our own.
Episode filmed live at the 2011 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.
Oh, yes. I was born an adventurer. Let me explain. I started off in diapers, down there where the adventures were with those acorns in the dirt, and then a few years passed. I started to climb trees, a great place to escape parents and learn about nature. How many people here have climbed a tree or two? Excellent. Trees are the place to be, and down in the dirt is the place to be. As I got older, I realized, those childhood ways of looking at the world were still useful to me. So, I continued to do both, and I eventually got a doctorate in ants. Myrmecology, the study of ants. I did a book last year about my adventures among the ants, tracking ants all over the world. My parents are amazed that this can be called a job because this is what I was doing in diapers.
What’s going on there? But ants are so cool. I knew that as a child. Ants do all the things we do. It’s really amazing. In fact, ants are much more like modern people than we are like chimpanzees. What chimpanzee has to worry about public health issues, highways and traffic rules, warfare, and slavery? Ants do all these things, and they also have division of labor. They have jobs. So, here’s a picture of the species I worked on for my dissertation, the Marauder Ants in India. You see on the top of the big ant, a little ant. The big ant weighs about 500 times as much as the little one and in humans, you can usually walk down the streets of New York and see that, well, this guy is wearing a construction hat and an orange vest, and that guy has a suit and a briefcase, and guess what their jobs are.
In many kinds of ants, you can do this same thing by looking at their size and shape. These worker ants are built to do certain jobs. Well, why would you build such a huge version of yourself? There’s a big one there. There’s actually a number of sizes in between. It turns out the big ones have a number of jobs in the Marauder Ant colonies. One job that’s a little unusual is they serve as school buses for the small ones. Here’s about a dozen small ones. Unfortunately, they’re not being taken to school. They’re being taken to the battlefront. They are in war, as ants often are. In fact, I’ve been studying warfare in ants for a while, they’ve come up with many of the strategies of human warfare. Just about anything you can think of. There’s even a suicide bomber ant in Borneo.
This ant is the orangeish one here, and it actually walks up to the enemy and explodes. In this case, spewing out a toxic yellow glue which kills both of them in a tableau, as you see here. Now, ants like this, they’re up in the treetops. Lots of the cool things in nature are over our heads, so that childhood ambition, adventure spirit of me when I was a kid came to play again. I started to climb trees again, and that’s become part of my life for the last years. I did a book on these explorations and what lives up there is basically like New York. You have all these layers of branches and trees, and it’s like a city. Thousands and thousands of species live in this city. You can look at it from any number of angles. You can climb the trees in any number of ways.
This is a tower erected by NASA in Costa Rica. It extends well above the treetops. You see the canopy down below. The researchers are there. This is a fisheye lens view, so you see the horizon all around, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out how I didn’t get my toes in this picture, but it made Jeff down below me very nervous. You can use some really fun ways of getting into trees and doing these kinds of studies. The French have developed the [Foreign Language 00:00:04:57], the French canopy raft. This is a series of pontoons thrown out over the treetops with kind of a trampoline between them. So, you just bounce around from tree to tree, in this case, collecting information on insects.
You can take it to any extreme you want. I’ve climbed with Steve Sillett out in California. Steve likes redwoods and sequoias. We climbed a 360-foot tree that got into the Guinness Book of World Records. He’s since found even taller trees. Now, up there is where my passion is because the animals are so cool. They can be all kinds of animals. Sometimes I even look at a vertebrate. It’s all right. They’re big. They’re a little clumsy at their size, but they’re cool. Here I was down in Colombia with the spectacle bears. This is the world’s only canopy bear, a tree-climbing bear.
I’m photographing the mother. I shimmy up a tree to take a picture of this picture here, and she’s like looking around for epiphytes, little canopy plants that she eats. I sense my branch start to wave back and forth, and then it starts to creak and it sounds like it might break, and I looked down and her cub had come up my tree and was batting at my foot. I recall this is an endangered species, so I wasn’t sure what I was allowed to do. I didn’t think I could kick it, so I started waving my foot at it, and the mother looks across and roars and she comes straight at me. I don’t know how they can do that in the tops of the tree, but she’s just coming at me through the branches. Luckily, the cub was more terrified than I was, and the cub took off, and the mother left me alone.
So, the animals up there, very cool. I pursued my childhood favorites. My expertise is on ants, but I had those favorite things. When I was first an explorer, down there in diapers or growing up in the trees, and those included frogs. In the tops of trees, you’re going to have some fantastic frogs. You have gliding frogs, frogs that spread their wings, not their wings, but their feet like wings, and they can actually glide in the next tree to escape predators. Here’s one here.
So, over the course of time, as I explore around the world, this one is in Vietnam, I looked for things that are unexpected or different. Frogs, a favorite, so I’ve gone after the world’s smallest frog. Okay, smallest doesn’t impress people so much, so the world’s largest frog may be more fun. These two boys actually caught the frog. This frog can jump more than 20 feet and six and a half pounds. What can you do? The record’s over seven pounds, 7.1. Maybe it’s grown up. It’s got a couple of years to grow. Maybe I should go back. So, we all look around the world and take the risks that we need to take to get our stories, to learn what we need to learn. My favorite place to go is the tepuis of Venezuela. These are the flat-top mountains that were made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the lost world.
This one is about a half-mile tall. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought they were so remote and so inaccessible that dinosaurs could live on top of them, and in fact, I traveled down there working with an explorer named Charles Brewer, a Venezuelan, and he’s found thousands of new species. These are places worth taking the risk. One of our last trips was to descend about a quarter-mile deep in a sinkhole. This is looking up at the sky and in the shaded depths of that hole there’s a forest hidden from the rest of the world, and there’s Charles at night with a torch that he’s made from tree sap. Charles is a real solid adventure person. He doesn’t need to bring a hammock with him. He makes his hammock. There we found in the bottom of this hole, hidden from the rest of the world, a number of new species, including this frog Colostethus moffetti named after me. Whoa. It’s the rocket frog.
My message to you is this. There are new species and wonders to find out there. The world has not been all explored. You can go to places like Venezuela and be on top of a tepui like this, where no human being has yet been. In this particular tepui, it’s like being on the asteroid with the Little Prince. Remember that story? The Little Prince and his asteroid. That’s where his rose would be, and indeed, the flowers and new species up there are amazing. You can drop a boulder off the edge of that cliff and you will never hear it fall. It’s a half-mile straight down. So, find your stories, find your adventures. We were all born adventurers. We’ve just forgotten it. Those adventures could be everywhere in our lives. Find your own adventures and go with them. Thanks for coming tonight.