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Field Notes
Mark Moffett
Photograph by Mark W. Moffett
Mark W. Moffett

After successfully digging up the nest and finding the queen of Australia's primitive Nothomyrmecia ant, ecologist Mark Moffett, left, and bulldog ant expert Robert Taylor switch into celebration mode. Moffett holds a black container with the queen in one hand; that's Penguino, his stuffed animal totem from the Galápagos, in the other.

What was your best experience during this assignment?

It's a fight to get to the bottom of the bulldog ant's nest to find the queen. But like any battle—whether it's crossing the Amazon or finishing that report you've been working on for weeks—there's a wonderful feeling of euphoria at the end that makes up for all the struggle that went before.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Digging up the bulldog ant nest was pretty bad. Entomologist Robert Taylor and I wanted to create an artificial nest to observe them, but to do that we had to pump carbon dioxide into the natural nest and try to knock the ants out. Unfortunately, they weren't out for long, and they got irritable as they recovered and saw these gigantic creatures hovering over them. Then they started leaping on us. We tried our best, but we got stung a fair amount. It was like a syringe going in; you could feel the poison entering your blood. The pain can last for a couple of days. Bulldog stings occasionally kill a person, more from an allergic reaction than anything else.

What was the quirkiest experience during this assignment?

The average person would have found my attempts at taking pictures of a bulldog ant nest entrance pretty quirky. The ants at the entrance can see you from a couple of yards away, and they start running at you. I realized if I kept my eye on the lens, I was going to get stung within an inch of my life. But with a wide-angle lens, I could put the camera right up to the nest with my arm stretched in front of me and still manage to take pictures. One of the photos in the story shows the ants leaping onto the camera lens because they saw me coming. Fortunately, my body was far back behind the camera.

Stalking ants is a lot like tracking big animals: In time you learn to recognize their responses, moment by moment. Just as when you photograph a tiger or a bear, you have to watch for the instant when an ant notices you. Then you must back off before it attacks or gets nervous and runs away. Bulldog ants, however, are so alert, agile, and aggressive that it's hard to sneak up on them.