Life

I don’t mind telling you, dear reader, that I’ve enjoyed some mind-melting drugs in my time. I’ve seen things so peculiar that I’ve thought I was going stir-crazy. However, nothing I’ve ever seen under the influence of acid tabs can match the mental sea-wrongs of last night’s Life (BBC One).

Looking at psychedelic creatures from the abyss, the show highlighted the insane, spineless aliens that basically ghost around in the pitch black killing stuff in ways that made my brain crawl.

Attenborough hammed up the amdram in his voice to showcase the weirdest place on Earth. Now, the deep sea has always been a weird place. The water seemingly vanishes, leaving great orb-like jellyfish to hang like planets, piercing stuff with razor sharp tentacles.

Then, we saw the Humboldt Squid… a giant pink thing that flashes red when pissed-off, with it’s barbed face, machete sharp beak and, most worryingly, it’s huge brain and thirst for blood. In my nightmares, these horrible things will take over the world and polish off mankind by floating through ink black skies and popping open our soft heads with a dazzling array of grim armoury.

Of course, away from the flashing and repulsive, there’s really pretty things down there. As the image above shows, parts of the deep sea look like really pleasant screensavers. That is until you see the assembled starfish, worms and urchins swarming over a dead seal and licking the bones clean and infesting eye-sockets in what looked like the most disgusting stop-frame animation in TV history.

See, that’s the problem with nature. Even at its most achingly lovely, you are aware of the fact that it’s always about to kill something or defecate. Still, death never looked as pretty as it does on Life.

Life. It’s terminally dull and irritating isn’t it? Life is queuing, things being late, rude checkout girls, people leaping on you in clothes shops seeing if you need any help, holes in your shoes, inside out umbrellas and charred toast.

Thankfully, the BBC’s nature people aren’t looking at those things in their series Life, narrated by Master of the Universe, Sir David Attenborough.

It’s Life….but not as we know it. (Har har)

Life The TV Show is about extreme and extraordinary behaviour. The kind that makes your eyes pop out of your head on stalks, tie themselves in a knot and stare back at your dizzy skull.

Basically, whilst us lame humans moan about the weather and have unsatisfying sex, our animal and plant cousins do the most incredible things to stay alive. It’s survival of the fittest in their battle against daily life-or-death challenges… and in some cases, survival of the weirdest.

You saw that Sarcastic Fringe Head fish who can open its face like an umbrella, right?

Produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, Life is full of surprises, drama and spectacle. Away from the weird creatures there are spectacles so epic (including millions of fruit bats darkening the Zambian sky, dozens of polar bears feasting on a whale and a billion butterflies cloaking a forest in Mexico) that’ll you think that you’ve started having some amazing stroke.

Of course, this being Attenborough related, there’s a staggering amount of TV firsts and examples of new behaviour. Komodo dragons preying on buffalo? Nothing has ever been aired on television that has been nearly as chilling. Apart from Fearne Cotton of course.

More than four years in the making, filmed over 3000 days, across every continent and in every habitat, this is Life – as you’ve never seen it. This amazing 4 disc box set narrated by Sir Dave and is available from the 30th November priced at around £40.

Buy it someone for Christmas. Make sure they’ve got brains first. Stupid people will probably want a Two Pints of Lager… DVD set.

The picture you see above is a little man in a monkey suit. We’re talking a svelte Ronnie Corbett smashing a huge stone into an impenetrable seed. The BBC’s newest nature doc, Life, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, claims that this footage is a clear indicator of what we humans would’ve looked like millions of years ago when we were monkey-like.

Except that this is clearly a little human passing himself of as a monkey.

Aside from the beautifully shot monkey ruse, we also got to see a whole bunch of beautifully shot CGI things. A giant sorrowful octopus who died so that its eggs could live… a weird insect with eyes on stalks blown up and out by air-bubbles… dolphins swirling clouds of dust in the water to spell out cryptic messages…

…and on and on it went. The programme was the poshest lie ever aired on TV. Attenborough told us all about each magnificent feat with a straight face like it was fact. Hats off to him. Each super slo-mo shot was beautifully captured and made me dribble with joy.

Even though this show was complete fiction, there’s no hiding from the fact that it was the most beautifully shot show of 2009. It was insanely attractive.

Wait.

What?

It was all real? There really are fish that sprout wing-like fins and glide for 200 meters out of the water to escape being eaten by predators? There really is a strange dance undertaken by grebes that see them running on the surface of the water and… and…

Sorry. I can’t quite process it all. Life is clearly the greatest television programme that has ever been shown on British TV. Watch this and prepare to be completely knocked out of the ball park. Sensational television.

(Are you sure it’s not all lies? It can’t be! etc)

Intelligence and adaptability allow primates to tackle the many challenges of life, and this is what makes our closest relatives so successful. This resourcefulness has enabled primates to conquer an incredible diversity of habitat.

Hamadryas baboons live on the open plains of Ethiopia in groups up to 400 strong. Strength in numbers gives them some protection from potential predators. But, should their path cross with other baboon troops, it can lead to all-out battle, as males try to steal females from one another, and even settle old scores.

Japanese macaques are the most northerly-dwelling primates and they experience completely different challenges. Some beat the freezing conditions by having access to a thermal spa in the middle of winter. But this privilege is only for those born of the right female bloodline.

For western lowland gorillas, it’s the male silverback that leads his family group in the rich forests of the Congo basin. He advertises his status to all with a powerful chest-beating display.

Most primates are forest dwellers, and one of the strangest is the tarsier – the only purely carnivorous primate. As it hunts for insects the tarsier leaps from tree to tree in the dead of night, using its huge forward-facing eyes to safely judge each jump.

Good communication is essential for success in primate society.

Phayre’s leaf monkeys have bright orange babies to alert other group members that they need looking after.

Ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar use their sense of smell for seduction, wafting their perfumed tails at each.

But the most important type of communication is the passing on of knowledge.

Sumatran orang-utan mothers spend up to nine years teaching their infants about the complex forest world about them – what to eat, where to travel safely, how to build a nest and even how to deal with the regular downpours!

Primates have found some extraordinary ways to improvise, especially dealing with challenges beyond their physical means. The biggest breakthrough in primate evolution has been the ability to use tools to get food.

Clams are normally too strong for white-faced capuchins in Costa Rica to open with their hands and teeth. So these intelligent monkeys repeatedly hammer them to weaken the clam’s muscle.

A close relative of theirs in Brazil has learned how to use hammer stones to smash open palm nuts.

And nowhere is the imaginative use of tools more vividly displayed than by the chimpanzees in the forests of Guinea, West Africa. They have learned to dip for ants, pound and soften palm hearts using leaf stalks and to hammer nuts with precision and efficiency. So valuable are their tools, they will even share them with one another.

Ninety Nine Per Cent
As the majority of primates live in tropical forest and spend a lot of time up in the trees – or concealed behind leaves – filming them is a tough challenge.

The Life team had to use all their primate intelligence, forward-thinking, field craft and hand-eye co-ordination to succeed.

Camerawoman Justine Evans, primatologist Tatyana Humle and their field assistants filmed chimpanzees using tools in the forests of Guinea, West Africa. It took a month of intense effort for Justine to capture some unforgettable behaviour, and earn the trust of our closest living relatives.

Producer: Patrick Morris.

Plants have successfully managed to conquer every habitat on the planet by using ingenious and cunning strategies.

Through the use of time-lapse photography, Plants reveals how plants battle for life and face the challenges of their habitats.

Plants are dependent on three main elements for survival: sunlight, water and nutrients.

Sunlight is a rare commodity on the forest floor so climbers, such as the Boston ivy and the cats-claw creeper, use other plants as a ladder to get to the light.

More than 20,000 different kinds of plants spend their entire life up in the canopy. They get their nutrients by trapping dead leaves among their roots. The rotten leaves provide a kind of compost in the branches and their exposed roots quickly absorb the slightest rain or mist.

Where there is little rain, plants find clever ways of trapping and retaining water.

The dragon’s blood tree survives in a rocky desert on moisture carried in mists. It even manages to reduce evaporation by shading its own roots.

Others, such as the desert rose, lose all of its leaves to stop evaporation and carefully stores water in its trunk.

In boggy ground, there are few nutrients so plants have to find another source.

The Venus flytrap gets its nutrients from animals. It attracts insects with its pink colour and a ring of nectar. If an unsuspecting fly touches two trigger-like hairs within 20 seconds of each other, the trap snaps shut, the fly is imprisoned, and the plant then slowly digests its victim.

The sundew, also a predatory plant, has a pinkish red colour and nectar to attract insects. It’s like a living fly paper – when a fly lands on the sundew, the leaf immediately curls up around its prey, and drowns it in sticky fluid before digesting it.

Many plants rely on animals for pollination.

In the cold, windswept Tasmanian mountains conditions are dangerous for a flower. The richea honey bush fuses its petals together into a protective case. And when the sun comes out, briefly, the plants warm up enough to produce nectar, which attracts a bird – the black currawong. The bird pulls apart the casings to get to the nectar and, at the same time, exposes the flower inside to pollinating insects. The honey bush gets pollinated before the biting winds kill the flowers.

Timewarp
The team were trying to achieve a shot that had never been attempted before – the entire growing season in a woodland filmed in one shot. It would bring together elements of time lapse photography, in the both the field and the studio, computer graphics and a lot of hard work and patience.

Set in a secret location on Dartmoor, the team carried numerous wheelbarrow loads of kit the 1.5 miles to the site and took two days to build the track.

With a bicycle wheel, a piece of string, a ladder and a stills camera, the team finally managed to get the base shot.

Then the track had to be rebuilt in the studio to exactly the same length and angle – and the forest had to be reconstructed around it in blue screen by time lapse cameraman Tim Sheppherd.

It took over a year to be fully completed, from a five-week track to film the foxgloves opening, getting spiders to spin webs, and even a high-speed camera shoot to get the water droplet falling at the end of the sequence.

Then it was over to Mick Connaire, the graphic designer, to bring it all together.

Producer Neil Lucas.

Marine invertebrates are extraordinarily diverse, outnumbering fish by ten to one. They range from some of the most primitive creatures in the sea to some of the most intelligent.

Many creatures of the deep make a nightly migration to shallower water.

For the first time, a huge number of six-foot long carnivorous Humboldt squid are filmed hunting co-operatively to attack a shoal of fish off the coast of Mexico. Co-ordinating their assault, they herd the fish and drive them onto the reef. They flash their bodies red and white – either to confuse the fish or to signal to each other when they are about to go in for an attack.

Conditions under the ice in Antarctica’s Ross Sea are similar to the deep ocean. But, rather surprisingly, the sea bed is carpeted with thousands of sea stars, sea urchins and huge nemertean worms which make this sub-zero world their home. Seen in tracking time lapse for the first time, they swarm across the sea bed to feed on a dead seal pup carcass – a rare bounty.

Off the southern coast of Australia giant spider crabs emerge from the deep to congregate in vast numbers in the shallows to moult. Having shed their old shells, they are soft-bodied for a while before their new shell hardens. This is their opportunity to mate, but it is also a time when they are vulnerable to attack from stingrays.

Giant Australian cuttlefish also emerge from deep water to mate in the shallows. A large male will attract and mate with a female, and then guard her from his rivals. If another large male challenges him, he flashes colours and stripes that pulse along his side to tell the rival to keep off. However, devious smaller males have a different approach. They change their colour to look like a female and hold their tentacles just like a female who wants to mate. With this disguise, they slowly swim towards the female, and right under the larger male’s nose, quickly mate with her!

The female Pacific giant octopus is a dedicated parent – she finds a cave and blocks herself and her eggs in with rocks. For the next six months she does not leave her den but guards her eggs, keeping them oxygenated and free from disease and predators. Gradually she starves, and her last act of devotion is blowing water over her eggs to help them hatch. And then she dies.

In the warm but nutrient-poor seas of the tropics, microscopic coral polyps multiply and grow, creating the largest living structures in the world that, staggeringly, harbour a quarter of all marine life. And yet coral reefs are built by the tiniest of creatures, occupying less than half of one per cent of the oceans’ floor.

Sink Or Swim

The Life team travelled to the freezing waters of the Antarctic to film the slow motion world of the creatures living under the ice.

First they drilled a huge hole in the ice to feed all the equipment through. It took more than 150 dives to gradually construct and operate a tracking time lapse rig.

And, finally, they could film the behaviour of starfish, sea urchins and giant worms swarming over a dead seal pup, speeded up 500 times.

The Life team also discovered creating their very own ship wreck in the Bahamas was much more difficult than they imagined – but in the end the boat sank perfectly, settling upright on the bottom. The team returned several times during the next two years to watch nature take a hold on the rusting hulk.

Producer: Neil Lucas.

There are more kinds of insects than all other animals put together. There are thought to be 200 million individual insects for every one of us.

Insects are successful because of their flexibility, their ability to develop new ways of living and changing their body shapes.

Darwin’s stag beetle of Chile is the insect world’s perfect demonstration of a flexible body form. The female is shaped like a normal beetle. But the male’s jaws are vast – longer than his body. They are serrated and strangely curved. Over millions of years they have grown to become fighting weapons. Males battle with them high in the trees and getting the right grip is crucial. The first male to grab under his opponent’s wing case tries to lever his rival off the branch, before hurling him away to the ground, 100 feet below.

Insects’ flexible bodies enable them to become walking chemical weapons.

The bombardier beetle has two chambers within its body, each a store for a different, inert chemical. When threatened, the beetle mixes the chemicals in a third chamber where they react explosively and burst towards its enemy from its rear end in a boiling, caustic jet. The jet pulses 500 times per second, allowing the beetle’s rear to cool just enough between each burst to prevent it from cooking itself!

The Japanese red bug displays amazing care for its young. The youngsters eat a rare fruit but, as they are too small to scout the forest floor for it, their mother collects it. It can take her hours to find a suitable fruit, and when she does another mother may fight her for it. But if she doesn’t win and get the fruit back to her young quickly enough, they will grow impatient and abandon their nest to search for a better mother.

Insects’ greatest societies are the closest thing in the natural world to the complexity of a human city.

Grass-cutter ants harvest the grass of northern Argentina. Some of the ants are huge-jawed, perfect for cutting, others are smaller and do the carrying. They march in their thousands along well-worn roadways, carrying cut grass above their heads. And yet they can’t digest it. Instead they act like farmers, cultivating a fungus in their nest which is able to break down the grass and grow on it. The ants then eat the fungus. They grow so much fungus a colony may contain five million ants – as many inhabitants as a good-sized human city.

Flying With Butterflies

The team wanted to “fly” a camera through thousands of monarch butterflies during their mass hibernation in the Mexican forests. First, they worked at a special place where the butterflies come to the ground each day to drink from a small stream.

Climbers Tim Fogg and Jim Spickler took three days to rig a very complicated spider’s web of cables among the trees, all to support the central one which was the runway for the camera. The result was a unique series of camera shots flying alongside butterflies.

Then they rigged the whole system at 50 metres up in the trees, in order to fly the camera close past vast roosts of butterflies hanging from the branches. This was a much more demanding and delicate job as the roosts disperse at the slightest disturbance.

Producer: Rupert Barrington.

The ability to learn from past experiences and so develop novel solutions to problems has allowed mammals to flourish in the harshest environments. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the life and death struggles between the hunters and hunted.

In northern Kenya three cheetah brothers live together, working as a coalition to hold onto their territory. Uniquely, they have learnt to work together to hunt prey that most other cheetahs would not dare to confront – taking on ostriches. As male cheetahs play no part in the raising of their young, this novel adaptation will most likely disappear when the brothers die.

Female mammals tend to look after their young for extended periods of time, allowing the youngsters to learn skills from their mother that might just give them the edge in the fight for survival.

Off the Falkland Islands lives a pod of nine orca – killer whales. One female has learnt to sneak in to a tidal pool in which elephant seal pups first learn to swim. In an act of extreme daring, she edges into the dangerously shallow pool, to try to grab a naive pup. No other orca knows how to do this, but crucially her calf is learning the technique by following its mother.

Mammals also have the ability to use their senses in ways that defy belief.

Star nosed moles in Canada have the most amazing noses and sense of smell. Their nostrils are fringed by 22 lobes that look like little fingers. These are incredibly sensitive to touch and allow the mole to find and consume food faster than any other mammal. But the mole’s senses are even more stunning under water when it dives. In another TV first, Life reveals a new discovery recently made by scientists that the mole exhales a bubble from its nostrils and then re-inhales the bubble. It is effectively sniffing under water at the rapid speed of ten times a second.

Bulldog bats also have finely-tuned senses. They use echolocation like normal bats – but these bats focus on detecting the ripples created by fish swimming and then use their enlarged feet as grappling irons to snatch them from the water.

Some mammals are so clever that they take advantage of the super-acute senses of others to outwit their predators.

In the forest of Bandhavgarh in India chital deer live under constant threat from tigers. But the deer have allies in the trees above – langur monkeys. The monkeys’ alarm calls often warn them of the imminent threat of a hunting tiger.

But mammal predators also have their own inventive tactics.

In Florida Bay, dolphins have learnt to corral fish by creating rings of mud around them – rings that are made by the lead dolphin beating its tail on the bottom while swimming in a tight circle around a shoal of fish. The fish are so disorientated by this wall of silt coming towards them that they panic and jump out of the ring – straight into the waiting mouths of the dolphins.

Rock Pooling
Cameraman Mike Pitts and producer Adam Chapman travelled to the Falkland Islands on a tip-off that a pod of orca had learnt how to hunt naive elephant seal pups when they first venture into the water.

Despite over-inquisitive seal pups, bad underwater visibility and South Atlantic storms, the crew managed to film a unique hunting strategy and discovered in the process that it is actually only one female in the pod that dares to edge into the small pool where the seals first swim.

Producer: Adam Chapman.

From the equator to the poles, birds have found the most ingenious ways to overcome the many challenges of life. Everything revolves around their unique attribute – feathers.

Few go to greater extremes than the male marvelous spatule-tail hummingbird. His tail feathers are so long that he can barely lift off. But still he performs the most extraordinary aerial displays, using fast-beating wings and super-long tail feathers, adorned with iridescent discs.

Lammergeyers soar across the Ethiopian highlands on their nine-foot wingspan, searching for carrion. They use precision flying to find, and then smash, bones into a size they can comfortably swallow.

Red-billed tropicbirds depend on extreme speed and manoeuvrability to escape from piratical frigate birds.

And red knots use extreme endurance to migrate 10,000 miles every spring from their wintering grounds in Argentina to their nesting sites in Canada. But they can only achieve this by making a crucial fuel stop on the east coast of America, to feed on the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs. Timing is everything.

During the nesting season, birds are grounded for extended periods. It’s the toughest time of their lives.

Lesser flamingos must build their nests in highly-caustic soda lakes, which can become a lethal quagmire for their chicks.

Chinstrap penguins, which fish far offshore in the icy waters of Antarctica, have to make an exhausting climb up the steep flanks of a volcano to get food back to their chicks.

When it comes to power parenting, few birds beat the great white pelicans. These fish-eaters have learned how to supplement their natural catch by plundering live gannet chicks.

Birds also use their feathers, together with colour, song and ingenuity to win the hearts of their mates.

Clarke’s grebes perform a mesmeric courtship dance which climaxes with the pair running on water in perfect synchrony.

Male sage grouse advertise their virility by rubbing their wings against their chest feathers, making bizarre popping sounds.

And the male Vogelkop bowerbird crafts a giant bower around a central sapling which he decorates with flowers, beetles, fungus and even deer dung to try and impress a female. Should it catch her interest, he backs off into the darkness of his bower and calls to her with an impressive repertoire of song.

But perhaps the most dazzling courtship spectacle is of that of the lesser flamingo on Kenya’s Lake Bogoria. In a sea of pink, up to a thousand birds promenade side by side with neck feathers ruffled and heads held high.

Hide And Seek

The very last filming trip for the Birds episode for Life was perhaps the most challenging for cameraman Barrie Britton and assistant producer Stephen Lyle.

Their aim was not only to film the male Vogelkop bowerbird weaving and decorating his extraordinary bower, but to also capture his courtship behaviour and the mating ritual itself – an event which has never been filmed before.

To do this Barrie, Stephen and their field assistants spent a month camped deep in the forests of West Papua. Though there were many bowers to choose from, picking the right one to film was always going to be a gamble.

Day in, day out, Barrie returned to his trusty hide and, after several weeks of concerted effort, his patience was wearing thin. Though he had managed to film some wonderful bower construction and decoration, the actual courtship event still eluded him.

It wasn’t until the last few days of the shoot that Barrie was able to capture this extraordinary piece of behaviour. It only lasted a matter of seconds, but it was well worth the wait!

Fish are the most varied and diverse backboned creatures on the planet. To date, 28,000 species of fish have been discovered.

From pregnant males to fish that fly and fish that have a top speed faster than a cheetah, the diversity of fish is amazing.

The strange looking weedy sea dragon lives off the coast of south Australia. These brightly-coloured fish appear to have no obvious means of propulsion. In spring, weedy sea dragons gather and the males and females pair up for courtship. Each pair engages in a mirror dance until, finally, under the cover of darkness, they spawn. Bizarrely, the eggs are laid onto the tail of the male and two month later the young weedy sea dragons hatch and, with a shake of his body, he helps them free of their egg cases. His job done, father and offspring go their separate ways.

Other fish’s family links last rather longer.

The convict fish is an oddity. No- one knows what the adult eats, as no one has ever seen one leave its burrow to forage. It shares its network of tunnels with thousands of its offspring, which are not bound to the tunnels. They venture out and feed on the rich plankton around the reef – returning every night to join their parent in the safety of their tunnel. They may in some way feed the adult – but how this happens is a mystery.

Even the most enormous natural obstacles don’t seem to deter fish.

In Hawaii, famous for its waterfalls, gobies manage to climb them – sometimes over 400 feet – using a specialised disc that enable them to stick to vertical rocks. Their reward at the summit is access to secluded pools and very few predators.

Flying fish are capable of bursting from the water and soaring on ‘wings’ created by their elongated pectoral fins to escape predators. And their spawning behaviour is astonishing as they mass around any flotsam they find. The action can become so extreme that living fish are entombed in the mass of eggs that the fish lay on floating palm fronds. So many eggs are laid that finally the frond sinks into the depths, bringing an abrupt end to the spawning action.

Fish Out Of Water

Sail fish are cameraman Rick Rosenthal’s life passion so he jumped at the opportunity to film them off the coast of Mexico.

They were lucky to hit a bumper year and, with over 30 sail fish in the water at once, the action was extraordinary. For the very first time using a hi-speed camera in an underwater housing, the team were able to film unique footage of these top predators.

Meanwhile, in Tobago another crew led by Doug Anderson were after flying fish.

When flying fish start spawning they do so on a huge scale and anything and everything becomes a target for their eggs – including cameramen and assistants! Eventually the team were forced to abandon the area as the numbers of flying fish were so huge that they risked sinking the boat by laying such a weight of eggs on it.

Undeterred, the crew spent the remainder of the trip filming hi-speed images of the fish doing what they do best – flying – with astonishing results!

Producer: Adam Chapman.

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