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Mark Moffett gets a kick out of making people fall in love with things they didn't expect: a spider, a frog, an ant. He drops you into their world so that you feel their trials and tribulations. Says retired National Geographic photo editor Mary G. Smith, who gave him his start at the magazine: "You haven't lived until you've seen Mark imitate the mating dance of a spider or a praying mantis."
But at times, Mark also gets a kick out of shocking people. Like the time he returned from a research trip into the Peruvian canopy with an annoying, crawly itch in his scalp. "I was showing everybody this lump that was getting bigger and bigger," he recalls. Worried that a mosquito bite might have transferred a botfly maggot to his scalp, he stopped by Harvard's Tropical Medicine office. "They were stumped and suggested I schedule a time to come back and have whatever was in there cut out." But as he was walking home, he suddenly felt something on his head. "I felt this finger coming out of my scalp," he says. "I had just seen Aliens and wondered what bizarre creature was popping out of my head. I dropped down to my knees; just the thought made me feel a bit faint. Then I reached up and pulled this inch-long grub out of my scalp. Meanwhile, my head was collapsing from the space this thing left." He had been working on a National Geographic story called "Life in a Nutshell," about how insects cut and drill their way inside acorns and use them as edible homes. "After that experience, I could easily empathize with those poor little acorns."
An intrepid ecologist and photographer, Mark Moffett is full of stories. His great sense of humorous storytelling, skill in photography, penchant for offering up body parts to the insects he researches, and brilliance in his field has made him a popular contributor to National Geographic. Recently, the Explorers Club honored him with the 2006 Lowell Thomas Medal for Exploration, a prestigious award named for the renowned journalist whose news reports introduced the world to "Lawrence of Arabia."
The Explorers Club, which presents the award to men and women who have distinguished themselves in the field of exploration, recognized Moffett because of the work he does in the rain forest canopy. "Trees are like buildings, and forests are like cities," he says. "My background is in the ecology of animal behavior. I climb trees to figure out the complex architecture of the forest and how creatures live in it." But Moffett encountered man-made architecture when—at the awards dinner—he descended from the ceiling past the massive chandeliers in New York's Cipriani Wall Street.
Better to have a couple of crystals dangling from your hair than a couple of grubs, Mark! Congratulations!