Saturday, 20 April 2013

Out of the office: Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

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I'm currently out of the office on Mount Kinabalu, Borneo, the highest peak between the Himalayas and PNG. We're filming for the BBC series 'Monsoon' and waking up to scenes like this...

I may not be reachable until the end of May but Please email me at Paul[at] and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The forgotten father of evolution - Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero

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I'm currently filming in peninsular Malaysia before moving onto Borneo, it's a part of the world that I  am becoming very familiar with as we produce the BBC Natural History series 'Monsoon'. My series won't be on TV for another couple of years, but as I explore these wonderful islands I often hear stories about a peculiar gentleman by the name of Bill Bailey! The reason is because he's been exploring this corner of the world for himself, following in the footsteps of another man whose name I keep coming across, one of the great forgotten heroes of natural history – Alfred Russell Wallace. Ever heard of him? You should have...

I watched a sneak preview of Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero before I left the UK and I thought it a wonderful blend of humour, history, culture and wildlife. Bill Bailey is a natural for bringing the natural world alive, and in this series he pops a pith helmet on your head and leads you on a fantastical journey through the peculiar world that Wallace experienced.

"I was on a trip to Malaysia a few years ago and discovered there was a huge group of Indonesian islands known as Wallacea, named after Wallace," "He is still considered to be a hugely important figure there but has been ignored in Britain. I got interested and became absorbed by the man, like so many other individuals have been. There is a sort of secret society of Wallace fans. Mention his name and you create a frisson of interest among these people. I have tried to get over the feeling of the excitement that is evoked by his name in our programmes." - Bill Bailey, Observer.

Second Fiddle to Darwin

In the mid 1800s Welsh born Wallace travelled through the East Indies, (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens to study and to sell to museums and collectors. Captivated by the diverse range of species, which varied from island to island, he devised the theory of evolution by natural selection – independently of Charles Darwin who had been working on a similar theory for nearly a decade.

"Wallace had sent his paper to Darwin to help get it published." said Bill, "Unluckily for him, he sent it to the one person in the world who had a vested interest in not seeing in print. Lyell and Hooker intervened and a reading was arranged instead.""Darwin's paper was read first and he is the one we now remember as the man who came up with the idea of natural selection. Wallace should have got priority, but it was Darwin, the man with the connections, who got the glory."

Tarsiers, Sulawesi. Photo: Paul Williams

Wallace may have played second fiddle to Darwin on the theory of evolution by natural selection, but he did leave another well known legacy that continues to play a significant role in evolutionary theory. He observed that a different mix of species lived on the islands on either side of a narrow strait in the middle of the archipelago, and he proposed the zoogeographical boundary that is now known as the Wallace line.

As Wallace wrote in 1858... "In this Archipelago there are two distinct faunas rigidly circumscribed, which differ as much as those of South America and Africa, and more than those of Europe and North America: yet there is nothing on the map or on the face of the islands to mark their limits. The boundary line often passes between islands closer than others in the same group. I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia, the eastern the fragmentary prolongation of a former Pacific continent. In mammalia and birds the distinction is marked by genera, families, and even orders confined to one region..."

The archipelago of South East Asia that Wallace explored were his Galapagos, and as this series will reveal they are just as enticing to anyone interested in the natural world.

Bill Baily with Wallace's portrait – which after being kept for years in a storeroom is now hung beside the grand statue of Darwin that overlooks the natural history museum's main hall.

Orangutan, Sumatra. Photo: Paul Williams

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero starts on Sundays from 28th April on BBC TWO.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Secret Life of Rock Pools - with Prof Richard Fortey

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Pop your knotted hanky on and roll up your trousers for an hour of rock pooling with our favourite TV palaeontologist, Professor Richard Fortey, who we last saw presenting Survivors: Nature's indestructible CreaturesThis time he's joined by an enthusiastic band of marine biologists as they jump into the rocky crevices of Britain's beeches to reveal startling behaviour and new insights into how animals cope with intertidal life. Many popular rock pool species have survived for hundreds of millions of years and this film aims to show why they do love to be beside the seaside...

I personally find rockpools enchanting habitats that every child should be allowed to explore, and I hope that this film encourages people to do just that. When I spoke with Richard Fortey earlier today he told me how much he had enjoyed filming. "I learned many new things" he said "I was fascinated by  the adaptations of the glass shrimps. They stay in the pools when the tide retreats, and have a behaviour that allows them to continue to breathe by beating their limbs and stirring oxygen into the water." 

The Professor's Wellies
As for behind the scenes, Richard didn't enjoy discovering that his wellies were leaking, "but I had to keep them on for the sake of continuity no matter how sore my feet became". Simon Williams, the producer, confessed "I made him wear them for up to 10 hours each day. His blisters were huge. I had to buy him beer to ease the pain". Richard, Simon says sorry!

Other than leaky wellies, Simon told me that their "biggest challenge was the amount of filming we had to do in such a short amount of time". "We only had 7 days to get all the contributors and their experiments in the lab and we had 6 days to film all the beach scenes - this included contingency days for bad weather. That's not an easy task when you realise just how busy academics are and what a bad Summer we had in 2012. We had no idea if any of the animals were going to do their stuff in the lab. Luckily they got into the spirit of it."

"The best bit for all of us in the crew was learning so much from leading rock pool scientists and seeing up close all the incredible behaviour that goes on around our rocky shore. None of us will be able to look at limpets ad anemones in the same way again."

Don't miss the film - 9pm, 16th April on BBC Four.