Presently I am a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution, where I primarily pursue two subjects: Social evolution, especially in ants, and the ecology of forest canopies, which harbor most of the earth’s biodiversity.
I have served as Associate Curator (in charge of the world's largest ant collection) and Research Associate at Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University (1987-1997), Associate Curator at the Essig Museum at University of California at Berkeley (2001-2007), Visiting Scholar at Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, also at the University of California, Berkeley (1998-2006) and and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Human Evolution, Harvard University (1997-2000 and ongoing).
My undergraduate degree is from Beloit College, where I published five scientific papers and earned high honors and a Phi Beta Kappa. In graduate school at Harvard I held a National Science Foundation Fellowship. For my dissertation I did field research on ants for twenty months in countries from Sri Lanka and Nepal to Hong Kong and New Guinea.
Research on canopy biology has taken me many countries, including on expeditions of the French canopy raft, Opération Canopée.
I am interested in conceptual frameworks for research, especially the idea that forest experts can learn from studying ecosystems such as coral reefs, grasslands, kelp forests, algae mats, and biofilms (the plaque on your teeth or the film forming on a cold cup of coffee are examples of biofilms).
These ecosystems share problems of extracting nutrients from a fluid matrix (air or water) and transferring them through food chains. Two of my reviews have been considered essential reading in the field.
I addressed these ideas at two critical conferences early on. University of California-Berkeley scientist Mimi Koehl and I organized the first dialogue between experts on marine and terrestrial canopies at the meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists in 2000; I also led a session on issues for vertebrates in the canopy in 2002 for the 18th Congress of the International Primatological Society in Adelaide. (Since then I have largely moved on to animal and human social behavior.)
Moffett, M.W. 2013. Comparative canopy biology and the structure of ecosystems. Pages 13-54, in M. Lowman, S. Devy, and T. Ganesh, editors. Treetops at Risk: Challenges of Global Canopy Ecology & Conservation. New York: Springer. (PDF)
Moffett, M.W. 2002. The highs and lows of tropical forest canopies. Journal of Biogeography 29:1264-1265. I consider the confusion stemming from the varied ways scientists talk about canopies and canopy biology. (PDF)
Moffett, M.W. 2000. What's "up"? A critical look at basic terms of canopy biology. Biotropica 32:569-596. This invited paper deals with conceptual ramifications of the vocabularies of ecologists, botanists, zoologists, anthropologists, aerodynamics experts, and others. (PDF)
The thin film that builds up on your teeth or dirty dishes comes to look like a forest of bacteria, which stratify into little “trees” (microcolonies). The resemblances suggest commonalities across ecosystems.
The Social Behavior of Ants
I’ve worked on a variety of ants around the world, but am best known for research on the Asian marauder ant, the sizes of the workers vary 500 fold in service of a complex division of labor. The smallest workers carry out such tasks as catching prey and excavating the soil they use in building protective covers to their highways, while the largest ants give prey the death blow and clear those highways. The ants forage in swarms in the manner of some army ants, as described here.
The years focused on researching the book Adventures Among Ants yielded ideas that I continue to pursue. I’m especially intrigued by what supercolonies—ants united into societies that can reach into the trillions—tell us about maintaining social groups. For a description for the general audience, read The Scientist and a Smithsonian Magazine video by Melissa Wells of me looking at leafcutter ants. On an expedition to Ethiopia in 2015 I discovered a new ant species with supercolonies with Magdalena Sorger (North Carolina State University).
Sorger, D.M., W. Booth, M. Lowman, M.W. Moffett 2017. Outnumbered: A new dominant ant species with genetically diverse supercolonies in Ethiopia. Insectes Sociaux 64:141-147. PDF
Moffett, M.W. 2014. Why Ants don’t Play. American Journal of Play 7:20-26. PDF
Moffett, M.W. 2012. Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society? Behavioral Ecology 23:925-933. PDF
Moffett, M.W. 2012. Picnic with ants. Nature 482:434. PDF
Moffett, M.W. 2011. Ants & the art of war. Scientific American 305:84-9. I review the patterns of aggression in ants, and the parallels to warfare in humans. Moffett Scientific American final PDF
The Nature of Societies
Few experts outside of those studying social insects investigate how a sense of identity and membership can bind individuals of different species, from certain fish and birds to elephants, chimps, and humans, into separate societies and allow the societies to grow and generate new such societies.
After publishing “Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society?” in the journal Behavioral Ecology, I expanded my interests beyond ants and led a session on social evolution at the 2012 conference of the Human Behavior & Evolution Society in Albuquerque. The following year my review “Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies” came out in the journal Human Nature. That article became the foundation of The Human Swarm: How Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall, a book that took me five solid years to write and was released in 2019.