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24 September 2014
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Life In The Undergrowth
David Attenborough with a morpho butterfly © BBC/Mark Carwardine

Life In The Undergrowth


Unearthing the secrets of the undergrowth - an interview with David Attenborough

David Attenborough has spent the last two years immersing himself in ants, beetles, spiders and every imaginable insect, but for someone who has spent a lifetime studying the natural world, the intricacies of the invertebrate world are nothing less than fascinating to behold.


"There are some things you ought to be squeamish about – very big centipedes that are 18 inches long, for example, because they are extremely poisonous. They can kill a human baby with a bite.


"But I don't think I'm particularly squeamish about anything else. I suppose big spiders as big as your hands can make you jump, but that's quite irrational, really, as they seldom bite."


For David, the real challenge of filming the world's invertebrates came not from confronting swarms of bees and giant bat-eating centipedes, but from filming their miniature universe.


"I think the biggest challenge, as a film-maker, is that you're going into this very small world and, if you're not careful, it gets very, very claustrophobic.


"When you're making a drama where none of your characters is more than a quarter of an inch long, and some of them are no bigger than a full stop, you have a problem in making that absorbing, but I hope we've done it!"


He adds: "I've certainly wanted to make the series for a long time because of the importance of the subject, really, and because it's so seldom covered."


As David points out in the series, invertebrates were the first creatures of any kind to colonise the land.


They established the foundations of the land's ecosystems and were able to transcend the limitations of their small size by banding together in huge communities of millions.


If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well.


But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the land's ecosystems would collapse.


Technical difficulties have, up until now, prevented film-makers from producing a series on invertebrates, but as cameras progress and digital technology advances, a whole new world has been opened up.


"It wouldn't be true to say that you couldn't film insects at all in the old days, and indeed, when I look back 50 years, we were filming insects.


"We made films about army ants in 1954 but we were only able to film in the full sunshine and very few things behave in that way.


"The arrival of electronic cameras has meant that you can work with extremely low light levels."


Secondly, adds David: "They have now developed new kinds of lenses which are known in the business as 'chip in the tip', which means that you can film a thing the size of a match head, and you can modify it by quite simple ways and mount it on the end of a computer-controlled device which enables you to move alongside an ant, or spider, looking at it from beneath.


"All these developments mean that at last we have a chance of looking at this miniature world."


Gaining a glimpse into this world of invertebrates opened up a wealth of possibilities and showed up new behaviour, invisible to the human eye.


David admits to being amazed himself by the behaviour caught on camera for the first time.


"I think the thing that surprises you is that when you watch invertebrates normally, say spiders, you think, 'well, they're just spiders and mechanical little creatures', but when you start to film them, you discover that they have individual personalities.


"I mean, you can watch spiders of the same species, and some are lazy, some are hard working, some don't like light. They all have personalities, there's no doubt about it."


So, out of the thousands of creatures that David encountered during the filming of Life In The Undergrowth, what was his most memorable moment?


"I suppose it was filming 17-year cicadas. There is a species of cicada that live in the eastern half of North America and attach themselves underground to the roots of trees.


"Here they stay, drinking sap from the trees, and absorbing its nutrition for 17 years whilst they develop properly and grow.


"After 17 years the entire population emerge at the same time. There are literally millions of them in the wood and all the males sing.


"The noise is absolutely deafening! You can hardly see a tree trunk between them. That's an extraordinary phenomenon."


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