Monday, 29 September 2014

Brian Blessed reveals the meaning of Life?

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Life is an unfathomable mystery. How did it spark into being? Was the blueprint scorched onto a meteor, or did it rise up, from a bubbling soup? However it happened, a spectacular explosion, from geology to biology, had begun. And, as far as we know, it triggered a chain reaction unique in the universe...

So what's the meaning of Life Brian?...

'Surely, it's to live it!'

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Monster leech sucks down giant worm like spaghetti #WondersofTheMonsoon BBC2

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'Wonders of the Monsoon' starts on BBC2 5/10/14
Please Note: The leech that we filmed was 50 cms long, half a metre.
This story was first published by the Telegraph 26/Sept/2014

On Mount Kinabalu in Borneo lives the legendary Giant Red Leech - one of the biggest leeches in the world. Fortunately they don’t have a taste for blood, instead they hunt giant blue worms and suck them down like spaghetti, revealed for the very first time in our new BBC 2 series ‘Wonders of the Monsoon’.

Cameraman Richard Kirby and I travelled to Mount Kinabalu in Borneo in the hope of catching a glimpse - what we managed to film was simply gobsmacking. We joined ecologist Alim Biun who was keen to study the elusive animal.

The giant leeches are so mysterious that they don’t even have a full scientific name. "I am convinced that the Kinabalu Giant Leech is obviously an undescribed species of the genus Gastrostomobdella." said Leech scientist Dr Takafumi Nakano of Kyoto University.

“Very little is known about them, we don’t know how they hunt, or even how big they grow, because no one has researched them” said Alim.

The individual we filmed was 50cms long - 1/2 a metre and the worm was even longer

Finding the species on mount Kinabalu, the biggest mountain in Borneo, was a huge challenge. But if you want to film a predator the best thing to do is to find its prey, but it took us several weeks of searching before an extremely heavy rainstorm eventually brought worms out in huge numbers. Sure enough the red leeches were not far behind. Alim and his team quickly collected specimens and moved them to an open area, where the scientists could see what was going on.

By working with Alim we were able to sufficiently light the area of forest to record the predation as it unfolded It was exciting and fascinating, as he was making his new scientific discovery, we were documenting the behaviour for the very first time.

Our extraordinary new footage reveals how the giant leech (the leech in the video is 50cms long) is able to quickly detect a worms trail, and like a sniffer dog follow it and latch on to its prey. “There are many sense organs on the bottom surface of their oral sucker and they can probably sense the chemicals and the shed cuticles of the worms.” said Dr Takafumi Nakano.

Giant blue worms, almost 70 cms long. After a heavy rainstorm they emerge in large numbers to mate... and where you find the prey, the predator isn't far behind.

The leech looks for an end to grab

Once it had latched on, the leech creepily moved its quivering lips up and down the worms iridescent blue body. It was either searching for an end to grab, or was working out whether it was too big to eat, non-the-less, when it found an end it started to suck. It was incredible. The worm tried to pull away but slowly the leeches lips inched forward until with a slurp, the worm was gone.

The worm tries to escape but the leeches lips slowly inch forward

A long way to go but the leech continues to devour the worm

Dr Nakano who has studied a much smaller relative of the Giant Kinabalu Leech said “When they eat too large or too many earthworms, they often throw up portions or whole body of the worms.” This is behaviour similar to that seen in large snakes, like the reticulated python. With poor vision the snake has no accurate way to tell how big the prey is and so they keep on swallowing until its too much - with no way to bite off a chunk they have no option but to regurgitate the prey. This is the same behaviour we saw a few times with the giant leech allowing the worm to make a quick exit.

The whole process of swallowing the worm lasted about 15 minutes and then the leech disappeared under leaf litter, coiling up to digest its meal. Dr Nakano estimates that it would take about a month for the leech to digest the worm. The result is that we can confirm the predatory behaviour of a rarely-seen and unidentified species for the first time.

When the story was reported in ifls Leech expert Dr. Mark Siddall of the American Museum of Natural History said, “I think the BBC footage is terrific and I am eagerly looking forward to the Monsoon series. I have often wanted to see this in action for myself; the only existing video (from a related species in Japan) suggests they eat earthworms sideways, which never made sense to me. Williams and his team have made an important contribution to my field. It will be interesting to see if this is indeed a new species, or if we leech taxonomists got it wrong in the past..." 

Mount Kinabalu, home of the Giant Red Leech, Borneo

The giant red leech features in episode 4 of 'Wonders of the Monsoon', to find out more about this remarkable species and how we worked with the scientists to find it, watch the episode and the behind the scenes section at the end.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Wonders of The Monsoon BBC2 - from The Himalayas to Australia - The Greatest Weather System on Earth

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'Wonders of The Monsoon' has finally been announced - starting on Sunday October 5th on BBC2.

This series explores the impact of The Monsoon - the greatest weather system on Earth, and how this powerful natural force influences the wildlife, the people and the landscapes between the Himalayas and Northern Australia.

For me, this marks the end of an epic adventure with an incredible team, that started in 2009 with photographers Kalyan Varma and David Heath, as we travelled around the Western Ghats of India and worked up an idea 'Chasing the Monsoon'. For the past 2 and a half years we've filmed in spectacular locations, from volcanoes to rainforests, and experienced incredible natural events, from mind-blowing storms and flocks of 80,000 budgies, to monster leeches hunting giant blue worms. It's been a true journey of discovery and revelation with some of the most talented and passionate people I've ever had the privilege to meet. We really hope that you enjoy the results! (See the clip below for a taste of the series)

We have many images to share over the next few weeks, but here's one of my favourites - a monk in the ruins of Yapahuwa temple, Sri Lanka, as a monsoon storm closes in. I'm proud that this is being used as the main series image as I feel it captures the evocative and exotic essence of this rich part of the world.

Official press release and sneak peak video...

The wildlife and cultures from the Himalayas to Northern Australia have been shaped by one of the greatest phenomena on Earth: the mighty monsoon winds. This series explores how life flourishes under the tumultuous weather system that annually transforms an enormous part of our planet, home to over half the world’s human population.

Wildlife in this region has adapted to, and depends upon the cycles of the monsoon, from the build-up before the rains, to the impact of the downpour and the devastation of the drought. This series reveals the remarkable stories of humans and animals, from insects to tigers, orang-utans, herdsmen and stock brokers, who live in the shadow of the monsoon.

Innovative filming techniques and technology capture animal behaviour and stunning storm footage as never before. Weird and wonderful creatures emerge on camera for the very first time, from blood sucking red leeches of Borneo, feeding off monster earthworms their own size, to the smallest bird of prey in the world, the Bornean falconet. The remarkable ways that animals adapt to survive the monsoon are revealed, from baby orang-utans, building umbrellas from forest leaves, to the beautiful and bizarre caterpillars in the tropical forests, who harness poison from the trees to defend themselves against predators. We discover the curious partnerships between different species as they team up to survive the extreme conditions brought about by the monsoon winds – between the chital and the langur monkeys in India and shrew and exotic pitcher plant.

The relationship between nature and the peoples of the monsoon has evolved to support some of the richest wildlife on the planet. Over thousands of years, ancient beliefs have helped people and nature to live together in the monsoon region. The series looks at these beliefs and how they have shaped the way people live today, and reveals the effect of global markets on this part of the world. The wildlife that inhabits it still depends on the humanity and passion of people; we all have a part to play in its future.

Executive producer James Honeyborne says: "Join us on a journey through the colourful and exotic lands of the monsoon. From Australia to India, lives are shaped by and lived out under the greatest weather system on our planet."

Series producer Paul Bradshaw says: “This is natural history set in the planet's most glorious and dramatic theatre - the lands of the monsoon. It's an incredibly rich mixture of extraordinary creatures, great and small, with some of the planet’s most colourful and ancient cultures, all bound together through the story of this rampaging weather system.”

Wonders Of The Monsoon was commissioned by Kim Shillinglaw in her previous role as Head of Commissioning for Science and Natural History. The executive producer is James Honeyborne and the series producer is Paul Bradshaw, both for the BBC’s Natural History Unit.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Why did the Sulawesi crested macaque eat the charcoal?

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Male crested black macaque at an old camp fire, Tangkoko, Sulawesi. 

In Tangkoko, Sulawesi, I was following a troop of black crested macaques when I became intrigued by a male who had separated from the main group. I followed him as he walked across the black sandy beach towards an old fire pit. He dug around inquisitively, moving the burnt out pieces of wood as if he was building a fire. Much to my surprise he then he started to chew on the charcoal. He may have been using this as a form of self medication to help relieve indigestion, a behaviour documented in colobus monkeys.