John Moser, Friend of Cornell
February 5th, 2017
John Conrad Moser 1929-2015
By Ann Hajek
I first met Dr. John Moser when I sent him some bark beetle-associated mites for identification as part of my master’s thesis. His position was as a forest entomologist and acarologist for the USDA Forest Service and, to my delight, one of the mites was a new species that he named after me. Our paths crossed several times in the ensuing years, especially spending some time together in South Africa between scientific talks at a conference and looking at giraffes and elephants in a game park. John passed away a few years ago, at age 86, and established the Martha N. and John C. Moser Chairs in Arthropod Biosystematics and Biological Diversity both at Cornell and Ohio State. This gives me an opportunity to share a little about the life of an excellent entomologist.
John grew up in Columbus, Ohio and received both B.S. (1951) and M.S. (1954) degrees in entomology from Ohio State. He then moved to Ithaca and received a Ph.D. from Cornell in 1958, working under Howard Evans; both his master’s and doctoral theses were involved with insects causing hackberry galls and their natural enemies.
While searching for a job, John was offered a position in the northeastern US working on gypsy moth parasitoids and predators. However, an opportunity at a lower level of pay presented itself, for working on a native species of the genus Atta, commonly called the town ant, in Alexandria, Louisiana. While working on his B.S., John had done field work with Professor C.H. Kennedy and had been advised that if he ever had an opportunity to work on Atta, he should take it. So, John accepted the lower paying job offer and moved to Louisiana. Thus started many years of interest in and studies of leaf-cutting ants. His work with ants included chemical ecology, mating behavior, and the communities of ant colony associates. Among these studies John and Murray Blum were the first to describe the trail-marking pheromone used by ants (publishing this in Science). Many years later, in 2007 when I hosted John at Cornell to give a departmental seminar, he gave a terrific presentation about his studies digging up an entire huge town ant nest.
In 1962, John joined a Forest Service lab in Pineville, Louisiana and his research shifted to principally working on mites associated with bark beetles, with specific focus on the southern pine beetle. This was a largely unknown area of research and that seemed to suit John just fine. He worked on bark beetle mites for many years, describing many mite species, and was part of seminal studies demonstrating the involvements between bark beetles, mites and tree pathogenic fungi. Through this work, John collaborated with scientists internationally, but especially in Europe and Mexico. I am not sure how many mite species John described but at least 20 species of mites have been named for him.
John retired from the Forest Service in 1989 but continued living in Pineville and also continued going to his lab at the Forest Service every day. It’s estimated that he worked for the Forest Service for 55 years in all. During his career, he published almost 200 papers, with 4 published in Science and 2 in Nature. Throughout his career John was a consummate biologist who was not hesitant to delve into little-known subjects in which he uncovered fascinating associations and interactions.
If you would like to read more, The USDA Forest Service has published an excellent biography of John C. Moser that gives much more detail: Barnett, J.P., Streett, D.A., Blomquist, S.R. 2013. Town Ants: The Beginning of John Moser’s Remarkable Search for Knowledge. USDA, Forest Service, Southern Research Station, General Technical Report SRS-182, 32 p