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The Dark: Nature's Nighttime World

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Dr George McGavin Dr George McGavin | 06:18 UK time, Friday, 27 July 2012

Human senses are not well adapted for life in the dark so it's not surprising that we are not familiar with what goes on when the sun goes down.

The opportunity to be a presenter on a TV expedition to South America is one that few biologists would pass up. But The Dark: Nature's Nighttime World would be even more challenging, as most of the filming would be done at night.

Recent advances in thermal and infrared imaging make it possible to get a real idea of what nocturnal creatures are doing without altering their behaviour.

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Headlamp beetles: Scientists think they use their lights to attract a mate

The most taxing aspect for the team was that we had to work all night on location and try to sleep during the day.

The heat and humidity made sleeping difficult and sometimes impossible.

As darkness falls, the danger of working in wild places such as jungles increases considerably. Without daylight it it's much easier to get lost as you tend to focus your attention in a much narrower field of view.

Venomous species such as snakes become very hard to spot.

During the filming I encountered a fer-de-lance on a path in the Peruvian Amazon.

This extremely dangerous snake is responsible for more human fatalities in South America than any other species.

It was curled up under dry palm frond just by the side of a track and as I tried to get a better look I realised that the snake was well over more a metre long - much longer than the stick I used to lift the frond up.

These snakes are very aggressive and do not react well to bright lights. There have been very few times in my life when I have been in mortal danger - this was one of them.

I backed away very slowly and lowered the frond. I still consider myself very lucky not to have been bitten.

My real passion is insects and spiders, and for me one of the highlights was finding and filming headlamp beetles.

After dark but only for about an hour or so, these strange click beetles with two luminous green spots on their thorax fly through the forest.

Collect enough in a jar and you read a book by their eerie glow. Stranger still is the orange light on the underside of the abdomen that illuminates briefly at they take to the air.

Another highlight were trapdoor spiders.

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Trapdoor spiders only risk coming out for a fraction of a second after dark

Normally they are very hard to spot as the silk-hinged lids to their burrows are so neat and tight fitting but when they are hungry they raise the lid just a fraction.

These ambush hunters seize passing insects and drag them below.

To shoot footage for episode two, we visited a Venezuelan tepui, or table top mountain.

Living for several days deep inside a cave in the heart of the tepui was quite testing.

I was alone in the dark for several hours as the rest of the team went off to rig some climbing kit and I turned off my headtorch to conserve the battery.

The interior of the three-mile cave has never seen the sun in all the millions of years it has existed and the darkness is absolute.

The stream that flows through the passages makes splashing and gurgling sounds as it goes and these are amplified and distorted as they echo through the cave system.

It was not long before my brain, struggling to make order out of the acoustic chaos, began to play tricks on me.

I was sure I could hear voices calling - and laughter, changing imperceptibly into gentle sobbing. If you got lost down here for any length of time you could go mad.

Dr George McGavin is a biologist with a particular expertise in insects.

The Dark: Nature's Nighttime World begins on Sunday, 29 July at 9pm on BBC Two. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Not sure what the above two posts have to do with George's blog on the trapdoor spiders lol :)

    Looking forward to this series immensely, George McGavin is so keen & enthusiastic he can even make my spider hating daughter watch things like this..and even in the UK there are so many creatures out there after dark going about their business without most of us giving a thought. This programme looks most interesting!

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Episode 1: views from a tropical ecologist with lots of time logged in the jungle:

    - It would be truly remarkable to see a wild tapir get so near the presenter as we were led to believe; perhaps the animal wasn't that wild?
    - The chap in the river (forgot his name) told us he has done a bit of ramblings in the forest: if so, how come he still doesn't know how to handle a machete? I bet his guide was wincing...
    - And by the way, shouldn't he know by now that the difference between alligators and crocodiles?
    - Are you people really telling us that in a short river outing, just by chance, TWO sharks decided to have a taste of the underwater camera? Those Central America rivers are deadly places indeed.

    Nice images, great idea, but not credible as source of information. Despite my earlier expectations about this series, I am not watching episode 2.

  • Comment number 6.

    I love this series I think I learn loads and also I am astounded at some of the creatures. I love insects If only the whole program was about them

  • Comment number 7.

    Just watched the first episode on iplayer and loved it. I am though wondering if any one can confirm if 'base camp' is on the Osa Peninsula and more specially on or near Carate beach? Me and my fiancé did some conservation work their with sea turtles and would be very interested to know if some of the shots were around here

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    I absolutely love this series can't wait for next one. But, why aren't there any books to accompany them? No book for Lost Land of the Tiger or LLOTJ...

  • Comment number 10.

    This is a fantastic series. I dont think this concept has been done before, and its so interesting!! Im a particular fan of the 'creepy crawlies' so George with his headlight beetles, trapdoor spider and swimming cricket are my favourite clips at the moment. Saying that the whole crew including those at the back of the camera have done so much justice to this series.

  • Comment number 11.

    I love the show. But I do get concerned when I hear comments such as the Puma is the largest South American carnivore. When clearly its the Jaguar which is the largest, some males weighing as much as 350lb's compared with the Puma's 200lb's.

    It's comments such a these which makes me doubt some of the information the show provides.

  • Comment number 12.

    Some great moments, more please. But I think the series was dragged out into three episodes when there was only really enough material for two. BBC nature programs are about the nature and not about the presenters. But some of those scary moments [like on the beach] were fantastic viewing, but no more Bryce please. Shame about all the inconsistencies like the Puma and Jaguar mentioned above, are these people experts ? There were lots of time wasting and fillers I think in all the episodes e.g. in the last episode, lots of time (first 20 minutes I think) was spent searching for 'signs of the Puma' in daylight 'with all the resources we have', only to learn later when filming in the dark that they had guides with them who had been researching the Puma's in that area for over 20 years ! And the whale scenes - nothing you can't see in the daylight, what was all the fuss about? and why didn't they dive close to shore during the day to find out what was there, as experts couldn't they have figured out what was going?


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