Sunday, June 11, 2006
Life in the Undergrowth
In the Alice books, Lewis Carroll presents reality as pretty boring compared to the world of imagination and dreams. The dreams, of course, may turn out to be rather nightmarish. David Attenborough makes nature documentaries which advance the thesis that the natural world is actually truly amazing if you get down and take a look at it. His latest series, Life in the Undergrowth, focuses on terrestrial invertebrates. It includes a giant centipede in Venezuela that catches and eats bats, a spider that catches its prey by swinging a silk line with sticky mucus on the end, and leaf cutter ants that eat a particular fungus that they grow on the leaf bits that they gather. Strange eating and mating behaviors are not limited to creatures in exotic locales. Shown here, for example, are two leopard slugs (common pests in gardens) mating while hanging from a tree on a thread of mucus. The blue parts are entwined genitalia, and both are hermaphrodites. Like Wonderland, this world has its nightmarish elements as well, usually deriving from the basic horror of animals eating other animals alive.
There is a nice book companion to the series, and a web site with video clips, including the slug mating sequence.
David Attenborough would make an excellent guide to the Zymoglyphic regions as well. He has great qualifications - he had a little museum when he was a boy, and now has huge collection of souvenirs from his travels. He is a perfect mixture of authoritativeness, enthusiasm, wonder, and a taste for the bizarre. A phrase he often uses is "and the strangest of all is this one...". He combines all that with the latest technical wizardry in closeup photography and has an engaging personal style. He is always on the scene, often windblown or out of breath, battling mosquitos to sneak up on some hapless creature. He keeps up with recent discoveries, so each series often includes some new odd animal, plant, or behavior that I have not heard about. He has covered a full range of biological and anthropological themes, and he has managed to contribute to science without having to specialize. He always has interesting ideas on the interconnectedness of things; not just describing some odd behavior, but explaining what forces have caused it to evolve that way. If he is not available for the job (as is likely), he can still serve as a role model!