Saturday, 28 November 2009

My love affair with the Natural History Museum

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The Natural History Museum stands proudly on Cromwell Road in London, a monument to great Victorian ideals and grandeur. It was built by men of god whose ambition was to celebrate creation and to share the glory of god with the great British public - it was in essence a cathedral to creation. The NHM now stands as a testament to scientific endeavor and with more than 300 scientists working in subjects across the five departments of Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Palaeontology, it continues as one of the worlds largest and leading public academic institutions.

My eye-straining endeavor

The Natural History Museum is home to a staggering 70 million items - all of which have been meticulously catalogued by some of the most dedicated and often eccentric personalities that you could ever hope to meet. Much of my postgraduate work was carried out in the presence of these great men and women, undergoing my research in the department of Palaeontology. My research focused on probably the least glamorous, and yet the most useful, area of palaeontology - microfossils. Microfossils are the foundation of the oil industry - crucial to biostratigraphy (the dating of rocks). Extremely abundant, widespread, and quick to appear and disappear from the geological record, they are the ideal index fossils. I know people who can tell you the age of a rock, and where in the world it is from, just by taking a quick glance of its microfossils. They also provide us with a peek back through time - helping us to discover environmental changes across millions of years.

With a sense of a higher academic purpose, and motivated by the grandiosity of my surroundings, I would spend hour after hour gazing down the microscope, peering into a lost world of miniature prehistoric lifeforms. My particular expertise was in fossil algae, and while it may not have been a subject I could regale people with down the pub, it was my little corner of science. The highlight of my eye-straining endeavor was discovering a new species of Prasinophyte algae - Dictyotidium retiulatum porospora. And if you really want to learn more about that you can see the slides from one of my presentations here.


I found it very easy to be distracted at the Natural History Museum - when the microscope became too much I would wonder over to the palaeobotany collection (fossil plants) to help the curator, Dr Paul Davis, with his gargantuan task of resorting the vast collection and in transferring data from old dusty victorian name cards into a more useful, albeit less romantic, online database. The process of refining and updating records is a thankless task that continues infinitum, as do the tantalisingly endless corridors, rooms and towers which constantly beckoned me to explore.

When I had locked my microscope away for the night, and the doors to the Palaeobotany collection had been locked, my good friend Dr Aaron Hunter and I would venture into the main hall, into an eerily silent and dimly lit world of wonder. A far cry from the bustling thoroughfare that most people experience. It was these after-hour perusals of the exhibitions that spurred me into wanting to work in Wildlife Television. I had always dreamed of being an explorer and Sir David Attenborough himself was as much my hero as he was that of just about everyone else at the NHM. He has spent his life engaged in the challenge and adventure of filming the very treasures that this cathedral was created to celebrate.

It gave me immense pride that I was allowed to participate, in a very small way, in the scientific explorations of one of the worlds foremost and prestigious academic institutions and now I wanted to go out and explore, photograph and film the wonders of the world first hand.

I was recently honoured to be asked, along with my colleague Chris Howard, to speak at the Attenborough Studio, part of the new Darwin centre, about my adventures and experiences filming wildlife and traveling around the world. It felt like my home coming, going back to where my adventures had all started only 10 years ago. I love the Natural History Museum, it will always have a special place in my heart, alongside fossil algae.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hope in a Changing Climate

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A film by John Liu. Theatrical screening at COP15 - the UN Copenhagen Climate Change Summit - "..the most important meeting in human history.."

Airing globally on BBC World November 27, 2009.
Directed by Jeremy Bristow, Produced by Louise Heren, Music composed by Al Lethbridge.

Please take a look at on Monday 30th Nov, where the film of the same name will begin screening, or if you get BBC World or will be attending Copenhagen in early December, then see below.

"Hope in a Changing Climate" will be aired globally by BBC World on November 27, 2009, and screened at the COP 15 climate change summit in Copenhagen from December 7 - 18.
This documentary demonstrates that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems, to restore ecosystem functions in areas where they have been lost, to fundamentally improve the lives of people who have been trapped in poverty for generations, and to sequester carbon naturally. This approach has been dramatically proven on the Loess Plateau in China, the highland area spanning some 640,000 square km in north central China. It is the birthplace of the Han Chinese, headwaters of The Yellow River and home to a new environmental and economic paradigm; a degraded ecosystem of more than 35,000 square km of land now teems with life and supports the sustainable economic, social, and agricultural activities of its people.

"Hope in a Changing Climate" is the latest documentary produced by the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), an organization dedicated to placing ecosystem restoration at the center of the global discussions on climate change, poverty, and sustainable agriculture. Shot in stunning HD on location in China, Ethiopia and Rwanda, the film features a diverse collection of interviews, from world leaders such as president of Rwanda HE Paul Kagame, to local people telling their own stories. "Hope in a Changing Climate" is directed by Jeremy Bristow, producer of the award-winning BBC documentaries featuring Sir David Attenborough, "Are We Changing Planet Earth?" and "Can We Save Planet Earth?"

The film is presented by John D. Liu, an environmental filmmaker and ecological field researcher who has produced and directed documentaries for CBS, National Geographic and the BBC. Financial support for the film is provided by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-The Netherlands, Open University, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, and The World Bank.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Natural World: Black Mamba, White Witch

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Tonight - BBC 2, 9pm.
In the small African kingdom of Swaziland, the Black Mamba is a snake both feared and revered. During summer, these elegant yet lethal snakes turn up everywhere - in homes, schools and cars - and people are bitten every week. In a country with very limited health care and no anti-venom, it is becoming a crisis.  Enter Thea Litschka-Koen, a mum and hotel manager who has become known affectionately as the white witch. She and her husband are on call twenty four hours a day to rescue and release Black Mambas when they get too close for comfort. But what everyone wants to know is - "will they come back again?" We follow Thea and her team as they set up a pioneering new scientific project: to track the Black Mambas they release back into the wild, and find out just how these deadly snakes spend their lives.

Produced and directed by Jo Scofield
Series Editor Tim Martin

Monday, 16 November 2009

'Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour' - Insects

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There are 200 million insects for each of us. They are the most successful animal group ever. Their key is an armoured covering that takes on almost any shape.Darwin's stag beetle fights in the tree tops with huge curved jaws. The camera flies with millions of monarch butterflies which migrate 2000 miles, navigating by the sun. Super-slow motion shows a bombardier beetle firing boiling liquid at enemies through a rotating nozzle. A honey bee army stings a raiding bear into submission. Grass cutter ants march like a Roman army, harvesting grass they cannot actually eat. They cultivate a fungus that breaks the grass down for them. Their giant colony is the closest thing in nature to the complexity of a human city.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

VIDEO: Weird Indian Bird - What is a Frogmouth?

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A frogmouth is a tropical nocturnal bird related to the nightjar. They're active at night, when they hunt insects using their large gaping mouths to scoop them up. It was during the night that we ventured into the Thattekad forest to try and find one of the smallest and most elusive of the frogmouths - the Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), endemic to South India and Sri Lanka. The only way to find one is to follow their distinctive calls - a loud descending cackly and frog-like series of 'Klock-klock-klock-klock-klock' calls (often described as sounding like rattling pebbles) the females call in response with a low long shrill 'Krrshhhh'.

The next day, with the help of local expert Eldos (who is a legend when it comes to finding birds), we found a roosting pair. They were barely visible amongst the leaves and even though we spotted them, filmed them and photographed them, they seemed pretty confident in their ability to hide and just gave us the occasional perplexed look. I was even able to interview Eldos, while we were in the company of these roosting frogmouths - they remained unfluffed by the situation!


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Natural World: Andrea, Queen of the Mantas

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Tonight BBC 2, 8PM & BBC HD,10PM

Manta rays are one of the most intelligent creatures in the ocean and, at up to seven metres long, one of the largest. Yet, despite their size and curious nature, almost nothing is known about their lives. Young marine biologist, Andrea Marshall, has given up everything for a life in Mozambique, diving amongst these beautiful animals. Superb underwater photography reveals new manta ray behaviour including breathtaking footage of their ritual courtship dances. The film follows Andrea as she studies these endangered animals up close. With the discovery of a giant new species and remarkable insights into mantas' secretive lives, Andrea's findings are already rocking the world of marine biology.

“These huge, strangely beautiful, highly intelligent and fascinating fish certainly make for soothing viewing.” Daily Mail

Produced and directed by MARK WOODWARD
Series Editor TIM MARTIN

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Natural History Museum: Life Behind the Camera

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I'll be speaking at the Natural History Museum's Attenborough Studio on Sunday 15th November at 12.30 and 2.30pm.

Have you ever dreamt about what it would be like to venture out into the wild and make a wildlife documentary?  Ever wondered how easy is it to capture lions hunting on camera?  Come and meet a wildlife filmmaker from the BBC and discover the highs and lows of his enviable job!  Ask him your questions and discover what it’s like to be involved in groundbreaking series such as Springwatch and Big Cat Diary.

Monday, 9 November 2009

'Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour' - Birds

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Birds owe their global success to feathers - something no other animal has. They allow birds to do extraordinary things. For the first time, a slow-motion camera captures the unique flight of the Marvellous Spatuletail Hummingbird as he flashes long, iridescent tail feathers in the gloomy undergrowth. Aerial photography takes us into the sky with an Ethiopian Lammergeier dropping bones to smash them into edible-sized bits. Thousands of pink flamingoes promenade in one of nature's greatest spectacles. The Sage Grouse rubs his feathers against his chest in a comic display to make popping noises that attract females. The Vogelkop Bowerbird makes up for his dull colour by building an intricate structure and decorating it with colourful beetles and snails.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Natural World: Victoria Falls, The Smoke That Thunders

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BBC 2 - 8pm
This is a beautiful, intimate tale of life on the Zambezi River, set against the epic backdrop of Victoria Falls. The story is told from the point of view of a local fisherman, Mr White, who has fished these waters for 69 years, and whose riverside companions are elephants, baboons, hippos and kingfishers. We follow the fortunes of these animals through his eyes, learning how their lives are ruled by the moods of the river and the rains.

“The second in the new season is downright spectacular… This stunning film … at least gives you some idea of what everyday life is like on what Mr White calls “the edge of the world”. The Times

Producer Jamie McPherson

Monday, 2 November 2009

'Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour' - Fish

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Tonight, 21:00 on BBC One
Fish dominate the planet's waters through their astonishing variety of shape and behaviour.

The beautiful weedy sea dragon looks like a creature from a fairytale, and the male protects their eggs by carrying them on his tail for months. The sarcastic fringehead, meanwhile, appears to turn its head inside out when it fights.

Slow-motion cameras show the flying fish gliding through the air like a flock of birds and capture the world's fastest swimmer, the sailfish, plucking sardines from a shoal at 70 mph. And the tiny Hawaiian goby undertakes one of nature's most daunting journeys, climbing a massive waterfall to find safe pools for breeding.

For your free Open University Tree of Life poster call 0845 300 88 54 or visit

Weedy Sea Dragon
If you never thought Dragons could be weedy then Watch 'Life' tonight. Things are going to get fishy...

The tiny fins of a sea dragon beat frantically to prevent the current sweeping it away. At the beginning of spring, sea dragons begin their courtship, dancing in pairs in the evening light. In a graceful duet, each partner mirrors the actions of the other and this continues well into the dark night. Two months later, the result of their courtship is revealed. The male now carries rows and rows of eggs embedded on his tail. The female passed them over to him on the night of the dance. By carrying them with him he keeps them safe from predators until they are ready to hatch. In the calm of a summer morning, with its yolk sack still attached, a baby sea dragon is born. In the weed bed are older youngsters, already able to feed themselves. After being well looked after by their father, the new babies must now make their own way in the world.