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Studies Nature, Will Travel

January-February 2007

From the highest treetops to the tiniest anthills on the ground below, Mark Moffett, Ph.D. ’87, has seen it all. An expert in insects and canopy biology, he has devoted his life to exploring the world of tropical rainforests and of the creatures living within them. He has traveled to some of the farthest corners of the earth, to many of the most exotic locales on the planet. “I’m basically a master at finding ways to leave town,” reports Moffett, who lives in New York.

Hanging around on the job is typical for Mark Moffett.
Dr. Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures

“I’ve climbed trees in somewhere between 50 and 60 countries, looking around in the tree-tops,” he says. His research has led him to places as varied as South America, Cambodia, and Australia. (He was the first to climb the world’s tallest tree, “a coastal redwood at Redwood National Park, over 365 feet tall.”) But once he reaches the tree-tops, his work is just beginning. “I’m interested in…the ecology of treetops,” he explains. “In how all these different species manage to fit together in these high-rise apartments called trees.”

In addition to his research projects—he is currently an associate in entomology at the Smithsonian Institution—he says he fills up most of the rest of his time with photography and journalism. More than 500 of his photographs have appeared in National Geographic, and he often writes for the publication.

He is now working on a book for Harvard University Press that will share his findings on the “fascinating” ants he has sought out around the world. His interest in the tiny insects was apparent from an early age. “I was four years old and looking at ants,” he remembers. As he grew older, he discovered there were others out there with the same interests.

“I bought Ed Wilson’s book in junior high and I couldn’t even understand most of the words, but I thought it was absolutely amazing,” he says, referring to Pellegrino University Professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson. “He was very influential [in my life] before he even knew me.” Once Moffett entered college, he traveled to Harvard to visit Wilson, who was more than welcoming. “We got down on floor of his office and basically looked at pictures of ants,” Moffett recalls. When he returned to Harvard for his doctorate, he was able to work closely with Wilson, whom he considers a mentor.

Since then, Moffett, who received the Lowell Thomas Medal for Exploration this past October, has shown no signs of slowing down. “The best thing about my job is that I’m doing what I wanted to do as a child,” he says. “I’m amazed that they send me money.”

~Ashton R. Lattimore