Thursday, 27 October 2011

Top 7 'Evolution' moments including Homer sapien, Mr Garrison's take on things and a lesson from Futurama

Please click here to comment
Here is a list of what I consider to be the top 6 TV Evolution moments. Witness the evolution of Homer sapien and then watch it all in reverse with the classic noitulovE commercial. Be carried away with The Rite of Spring from Fantasia and then hear Mr Garrison's take on things before Family Guy attempts to unite evolution with creationism. Finally we have a lesson in natural selection from Futurama.

Do you know of any more classic TV moments?

1. The Simpsons: Homer's Evolution

Evolution with a Simpsons twist. Starting with an aquatic evolution scene, we see a single celled homer transform into a fish, before emerging onto land as an amphibian or basal tetrapod. In accordance with the  scientifically established order of events, the basal tetrapod eventually evolves into the sail-backed Dimetrodon - a mammal-like reptile (a process which in reality took over 100 million years and countless minute stages). This then transforms into a rodent. We see T-Rex incongruously fighting a Stegosaurus (they didn't co-exist) - a homage to Charles R Knights classic T-Rex & Triceratops paintings (they did co-exist). The homer-rodent runs away to find cover. The meteor hits. Dinosaurs are wiped out, and the little rodent evolves through a series of primates and hominids into Homer sapien.

2. The Rite of Spring, Disney's Fantasia (1940)

Igor Stravinsky's omonimous score was written in 1910 and as he later said '... there arose a picture of a sacred pagan ritual: the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence. This became the subject of The Rite of Spring.'

Disney's animators took a completely different inspiration from it and decided to tell the history of Earth up to the extinction of the dinosaurs. According to the narration it is 'a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth'. It is the fourth piece in the film, following The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and was based on the scientific knowledge of the day. However much you may balk at their assumptions, it is a brilliant and beautiful piece of imaginative conception. It takes us from the evolution of single celled organisms in the sea, to land reptiles and then to the epic battles between dinosaurs. It ends with the dark and gloomy extinction of prehistoric life, hypothesised through the earth turning into a global desert.

Fantasia - Extinction

3. 'noitulovE' aka Guinness: Rhythm of Life - Evolution

One of the most famous TV commercials. Set to the music "The Rhythm of Life" by Sammy Davis Jr.

Human History

The film starts with three men in a typical British pub taking their first sip of Guinness. Time starts reversing and they retreat backwards into the street. As they move down the street, a reverse time-lapse-style sequence transforms their clothes to match a rapidly-changing urban scene, which progresses through modern-day London to the Edwardian period. Electric lights transform into gas lamps and buildings begin to disappear. The city regresses into the past, shrinking to a small Saxon settlement before revealing the three men dressed for the bronze age and passing through a thickening woodland. The men quickly morph into prehistoric hominids before becoming frozen in an ice age glacier.

A Menagerie of De-Evolving Creatures

Reemerging as primitive hominids, they continue their transformation, becoming chimpanzees and de-evolving through a rapid succession of species. The menagerie includes a host of extant, as well as extinct creatures, including flying squirrels, fish, flightless birds, dinosaurs and finally mudskippers sitting around a green-brown puddle. These animals may represent key stages in the rise of the animal groups but some are not part of our direct ancestral lineage - eg Icthyosaurs and dinosaurs sit on a completely different evolutionary branch! It's not the usual progression that you can see in the other 'evolution' videos I've listed. 

Playing the film backwards we see that mudskippers (representing the transition on to land) become a creature resembling the first tetrapods (fairly true). Dinosaurs become flightless birds (true), Flightless birds become mammals (false) which enter the sea (true for whales) pass through fish and marine reptiles (false - these are two separate branches of evolution), before emerging as rodent-like mammals which become flying squirrels (fairly true - flying squirrels are within the order rodentia). Flying squirrels become chimpanzees (false). 

It's a clever piece of commercial entertainment and from a creative perspective its interesting to note that we rarely see any actual transformation between the species. Evolution is inferred by clever storyboarding. We are carried along by the fantastic music and believe that we are watching these three men de-evolve through their ancestors. Genius!

At the end of the film the middle mudskipper registers his disgust at the taste of the water with a 'Pweugh!' We then cut to a few pints of Guinness and the tag line 'Good things come to those who wait'.

You can read more about the production here

4. South Park: Mr Garrisons Theory of Evolution

Not for the easily offended!

In South Park elementary school creationist Mr Garrison is forced to teach evolution. He obviously hasn't read the text-books and so accords evolution to a series of cross-species breeding events and the resulting production of 'retard' babies, such as the 'retard-frog-squirrel'. If we take the offensive word 'retard' to refer to genetic mutations and consider that evolution proceeds through these genetic mutations, then we might see a glimmer of accuracy. Am I being too nice? At least the scientific names on the wall chart are accurate including Tiktaalik - the 375 million year old missing link between non-tetrapod vertebrates i.e. 'fish', and early tetrapods such as Acanthostega - which is also labeled on Mr Garrison's chart.

5. Family Guy: How it all started?

Uniting creationism and evolution?

6. Futurama: How Evolution Works

A brief lesson in Natural Selection showing the evolutionary dynamics of the predator-prey arms race

7. Beavis and Buthead: Evolution Sucks.
A Beavis and Buthead perspective on Human evolution. This is a newly discovered clip by me and although I don't usually find them funny this did make me smirk in a few places.

Evolution in Music Videos

I'm sure there's plenty of other examples. Please let me know if you can think of one.

Fat Boy Slim: Right Here, Right Now

Korn: Evolution

Have we stopped evolving? Have we changed our surroundings so much that we've reduced the environmental pressures that lead to the mutations which power evolution - have we actually started to regress as a species? Are we too reliant on technology? 

Pearl Jam: Do The Evolution

Analysis from Wikipedia:
Throughout the video, a black haired woman (similar in appearance to the character Death from the DC comic book series, The Sandman) dances and laughs, representing "Death" as it follows mankind through all of its history. The video is misanthropic in its underlying message. The video begins with the evolution of life, from the smallest cell to the extinction of dinosaurs and reign of homo sapiens. The video then cuts back and forth throughout human history, depicting man's primitive, violent nature as essentially unchanged over the centuries. Such depictions include a knight preparing for the coming slaughter during the Crusades, a ritual dance by America's KKK (the dance is repeated with other groups throughout the video), a rally by Nazi-esque troops (with a symbol reminiscent of the Sig Rune instead of a swastika), Auschwitz-like prisoners with the stripes going vertically instead of horizontally on their uniforms, a book burning, carnage upon a World War I-era battlefield (apparently a tribute to Peace on Earth, a 1930s MGM anti-war cartoon directed by Hugh Harman), the apparent virtual-reality rape of a woman, and the bombing of a Vietnamese village by an American jet, the pilot of which removes his mask to reveal a skull laughing wildly. Every scene portrayed complements the song's meaning and tightly follows the lyrics. When Vedder sings "Buying stocks on the day of the crash," a scene is shown where businessmen are committing suicide by jumping from buildings, similar to Black Thursday and the resulting suicides from the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Other social and environmental issues such as slavery, whaling, Manifest Destiny, uncontrolled urbanization, vivisection, pollution, genetic modification and techno-progressivism are included. The music video blames humankind's brutality on leadership; with various scenes depicting a judge, a bishop or pope, an American President, and an Asian leader. It is eventually revealed that the world leaders are being controlled as puppets by the hand of Death. The video concludes in what seems to be future scenarios of the self-destruction of the human race, including the carpet bombing of a city of clones by futuristic aircraft, computers hijacking the human mind, and finally a nuclear explosion which leaves not only a city in ruins, but the planet damaged beyond recognition. During the sequence of flashing images near the end of the video an image of a yield sign being smashed at the corner can be seen, which references the album title and cover art.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Party in the Pantanal - hydrophytes, caiman & tequila

Please click here to comment
Somewhere in the Pantanal...

Filmed using an iPhone and Camalapse egg timer. Edited on an iPhone. 

The Pantanal is not only the worlds largest wetland but also contains the highest diversity of aquatic plants. As the waters rise and recede these hydrophytes form floating islands known as 'camalotes' - small self-contained ecosystems. Using sails to power through the water, they move around, coalesce and accumulate, expressing the rhythm of droughts and floods that define the Pantanal.

Read more from my travels in the Pantanal.

Top 8 Dinosaur songs of all time?

Please click here to comment
Sadly, the list of Dinosaur themed music is very limited. You could include anything by T-Rex or Dinosaur Jr, but considering that they didn't actually release a dinosaur themed song I have excluded them. If you're seeking dinosaur nursery rhymes then this album on Amazon has a great selection of old favourites with a prehistoric twist. My favourite is Old Pangea sung to the theme of old Macdonald had a farm 'and on the earth walked saurpods, eons, eons ago...'

So come on X-Factor contestants, get creative - you have almost 200 million years of material to play around with. Tragedy on a global scale, immense diversity, gentle giants, ferocious predators, and the alien world of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. 

Here's some of my favourites, PLEASE let me know if you can think of any more..

1. Johnny Cash, The Dinosaur Song 
Johnny Cash is one of my favourite artists, I love his gritty music and so I was very suprised to discover thant in 1975 he released a series of songs for children on 'The Johnny Cash Children's Album'. This includes my favourite all time dinosaur song, aptly named 'The Dinosaur Song'.

2. They Might Be Giants, I am a Paleontologist 
This is a superb track that surprisingly sneaked under my radar until recently. The bands most famous track is 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' which was orginally released in 1990, but became a bigger hit in 2010 when it was used in a TV ad for Clarks shoes. However, a year earlier, in 2009, they had released this paleontological gem on a children's album. Not only a celebration of Dinosaurs, but of those brilliant people who study them - the Paleontologists.

3. The Dinosaur Song 
An internet phenomenon and a song that is always on my iPhone playlist.

4. Was (not was), Walk The Dinosaur 
This was a hit single released in 1987, and later featured on What Up, Dog?, the bands hit 1988 album. The song was most recently used in the animated film Ice Age 3.

5. John Williams, Jurassic Park Theme 
The Jurassic Park music is so embedded in popular culture, and  it continues to conjur up the images of awe that so engrossed the worldwide audience back in 1993.

6. The Family-Ness Theme Song 
Iv'e included this as many monster hunters do consider Nessie to be related to the plesiosaurs (marine reptiles who were contemporaries of the Dinosaurs), and the Loch Ness Monster also has an official scientific latin name Nessiteras rhombopteryx as published in Nature in 1975.

7. Weird Al Yankovic, Jurassic Park
Excellent parody of the film released on the Alapaloosa album in 1993. Nominated for a grammy in 1994 for best short form music video.

8. Ke$ha, Dinosaur
From the 2010 album, Animal. OK, so I had very little to choose from but Dinosaur by Ke$ha only makes the list because while it is mostly about pervy older men, she does actually make an attempt to teach us how to spell the world 'dinosaur'. (I look forward to replacing this with something a little less derogative of dinosaurs.)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A roll call to the majestic - 49 exotic animals escape and are hunted in Ohio

Please click here to comment
Last night 56 animals escaped from a zoo in Ohio, to protect the public they were hunted down and 49 were killed.

An unbelievable story. The owner, Terry Thompson, had previously been convicted of animal cruelty and was allowed to continue running his 'zoo'. He is quoted as once saying 'My cats are happier than most people... I feed them every day, and they have a great place to live. How many people can say they have all they can eat and don't have to worry about a place to live?'

After being released from prison, where he was incarcerated as a result of a firearms conviction, he released the animals and then shot himself. Close friends claim he was severely depressed. Was he trying to reek revenge on the authorities or did he release his animals after himself experiencing time behind bars? Whatever his intentions it inevitably ended in tragedy.

The animals were subsequently hunted down and 49 of them were killed. The list of lost animals reads like a roll call to the most majestic of species - 18 bengal tigers, 17 lions, 6 black bears, 2 grizzly bears, 3 mountain lions, 2 wolves, and a baboon. My first question was why didn't they use tranquiliser guns? In the video below Jack Hanna, wildlife expert who helped the authorities find the animals, explains why this wasn't an option, and how police did the only thing they could do to protect the public.

What are your thoughts? Please comment below.

Read more about this on BBC news and on CNN.
See images here

(Photo: CNN)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Amazing adventure of a Quebecian logging truck

Please click here to comment

Filmed and edited on iPhone.

These huge logging trucks whiz about at high speed on the undulating back-country roads of Quebec. Out here the loggers rule, most of the roads belong to the logging companies, so when you see one of these beasts it's best to shift out of their way. They're capable of carrying up to 80 tonnes. I thought it quite amusing to be following this one as it appeared to reverse down hill.

Bees stick tongue out in the face of a worldwide decline @qikipedia

Please click here to comment

In recent years there have been a spate of high profile projects aimed at turning bees into conditioned field agents. Their objective, to create an inconspicuous line of defence against terrorism, able to quickly detect a wide range of substances from TNT to Uranium. In order to train a bee it's a simple case of rewarding them with an intoxicating nectar of caffeine and sugar laced with the chemical that you want them to detect. After as few as five runs the bees become conditioned, and have learned to associate that chemical with food. They are ready to become field agents.

Thereafter, when a bee encounters a desirable scent, its reflexes cause it to extend its proboscis in a bid to feed – essentially sticking its tongue out. A British company, Inscentinel Ltd, has used this method to train bees to sniff out narcotics, plastic explosives and more than sixty other dangerous substances. Three bees are placed inside a small 'sniffer box', into which air is sucked in and wafted gently over the bees. All that their human partners need to do is watch for the 'tongue' signal. They might not be as a cuddly as a sniffer dog but bees are a lot more accurate - hitting the mark 98 per cent of the time, rather than 71 per cent for dogs, and bees only require 10 minutes training.

Another ingenious system has been devised by the University of Montana to detect landmines. Honey bees fitted with GPS microchips are sent out into the battle field. As they zip around, the electrostatic charge from their bodies attracts TNT residue from landmines. Once they return to base, this is detected, and the GPS data reveals the location. Honey bees are also being used as early detectors of lung and skin cancers, diabetes and TB, as well as to monitor fertility cycles and confirm pregnancies.

Even before bees were eyed-up to be high-tech field agents they were seen as a keystone species, of fundamental importance to ecosystems and to the survival of humans - Einstein is oft quoted as saying “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

So with all this in mind, isn't it a global tragedy that millions of bees are dying worldwide - honey bees are being hit by colony collapse disorder (CCD) - a phenomena that we barely understand but could be caused by a parasitic mite from South-East Asia. Bumble bees and solitary bees face a different problem, mostly the loss of suitable habitat. Many species collect nectar and pollen from a restricted range of plants - usually wild flowers which were traditionally abundant in flower-rich meadows, but in an age of intensive farming and pesticides these are now far and few between.

To find out more about bee conservation contact : The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Micheala Strachan, you broke my heart... but it's OK 'cos now you're on Autumnwatch!

Please click here to comment
To celebrate Micheala Strachan's much anticipated return to British wildlife TV I'm playing this track by Scouting for Girls...

Be sure to catch Micheala and Chris Packham, on Autumnwatch this Friday from 8.30pm on BBC Two.  Reunited just like the good 'old 'Really Wild Show' days - Martin Hughes makes an amiable stand-in for Terry Nutkins!

Over the past few years Autumnwatch has been broadcast from just outside our offices at the Natural History Unit in Bristol but this year they have made a move to the more colourful National Arboretum at Westonbirt and then for the final four weeks, to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge.

BBC Autumnwatch

Chris, Terry & Micheala on the Really Wild Show (1992)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

BBC Frozen Planet - a glistening wilderness beyond imagination #FrozenPlanet

Please click here to comment
Frozen Planet, 26th October 2011, 9pm BBC One.
WATCH Preview Clips HERE - See Penguins Fly? (updated 26th October)

It's one of the most beautiful places on the planet and yet few people have been, or are even able to visit. It's the remote polar regions - splendid, harsh, brutal, beautiful. I was lucky enough to spend a month filming in a remote valley on Svalbard for the series Life - it was a profound experience. For four weeks the sun never set and the harsh polar wind blasted us from all sides threatening to steal our tents, we scaled huge sheets of ice and hiked up glacial streams - it was the first time that I've felt like a true explorer, and yet I was there in the summer! 

My colleagues in the Natural History Unit have just spent the best part of three years filming in these brutal landscapes for the series Frozen Planet, they faced some of the last great frontiers on earth to bring home magnificence and awe. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, Frozen Planet will whisk you away to a glistening alien world where giants roam and the earth creaks - Polar Bears, Narwhals, Elephant Seals, these are animals and landscapes that fuel the imagination. Even though most of us live in a seemingly disconnected world our everyday actions do have a profound effect on their future in this barren wilderness. The final two episodes of Frozen Planet explore our relationship with the ends of the earth. From explorers and indigenous people to scientists unlocking the secrests hidden in the ice. Some regions, like the Antarctic Peninsula, have warmed significantly in the years since Sir David Attenborough first visited them. In episode 7 'On Thin Ice' he explores what this means, not just for the animals and people of the polar regions, but for the whole planet.

Not since 1993 and 'Life in the Freezer' have we seen a series on the poles as ambitious as this. You may think that it's just going to be another series about polar bears and penguins, but believe me this is going to be a landmark event in television history.

I'm fortunate to have seen a preview of this epic series and it left me gob-smacked. Nothing can prepare you for the splendor of Mt Erebus, Antarctica's only continuously active volcano. It's fuming neck pokes up 12,448 feet above the endless white landscape, its ferocity betraying an inner beauty that few have ever seen until now. At the end of episode one, Freeze Frame takes us behind the scences, revealing the multiple crews and cameras that were needed to film Erebus from the air, from inside the caves and from under the icy waters. The aerial crew had to wait eight weeks to get a clear view of the top of the volcano - it was worth every minute.

Even though I work in wildlife TV some sequences left me in awe of the shear accomplishment of filming the behaviour. My personal highlight is the whale hunting sequence. It reveals how orcas work together to make giant waves, which over several hours wash seals from their ice floes and to their deaths (watch the clip below).

After a three hour attack by a pod of orcas a seal is finally pulled from its ice floe.

One of the most unbelievable moments in the entire series is the brinicle formation. A simple explanation is that a brinicle is like a finger of ice that reaches down from the frozen sea surface, when it touches the sea floor it freezes everything around it. It blew my mind, not only how incredible the phenomenon is, but also how on earth it was filmed. You can find this out first hand, and see some images on the website of cameraman Doug Anderson.

David Attenborough at the Poles
David Attenborough travelled to both polar regions in the making of the series. He first visited Antarctica 17 years ago, but this was his first time ever to visit the geographical North Pole. To get there, meant flying in to a Russian ice camp on the frozen Arctic ocean, where he could (after several days of bad weather) finally reach the pole itself by helicopter.

He also returned to Scott's hut, a place he first visited several years ago, but still touches him today. This is the place where Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men began their fateful journey to reach the geographical South Pole. "I remember very vividly indeed the first time I entered this extraordinary building…it was not like any other place - because it isn't like any other place on earth. If ever there was a place that held the personality of the people that had lived in it, a century ago, this surely must be it".

Preview Clips

Can Penguins Fly?

Criminal Penguins

Orca Wave Washing

Searching For A Mate