Science Interviews


Sun, 20th Nov 2005

Life in The Undergrowth

Anna Lacey interviews the series producer Mike Salisbury, from the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol

Part of the show Genetics, DNA Extraction and the Human Genome Project

Mike - It's called Life in the Undergrowth, and it's about everything from slugs and snails, to bugs and butterflies and beetles and the wonders of ants and bees and termites, and things like that.

Anna - Why haven't there been more programmes like this?

Mike - There have been quite a few insects and other invertebrates featured in programmes. But I think we felt it was time for another in-depth look at them because the cameras are more sensitive, so you don't have to use so much light, and the improvements recently in the sorts of lenses we can use reveal a bit more of this fairly hidden world.

Anna - But the world is so big and insects are so small. How do you make sure you're in the right place at the right time?

Mike - Sometimes we haven't been in the right place at the right time, but that's really down to good research. For instance, we wanted to film the mass emergence of cicadas in the Eastern USA that actually only come out every 17 years. Luckily there are a number of people studying them and we hit upon a population that was going to emerge, or so the scientists told us, and indeed they did. We got a wonderful sequence.

Anna - Did you learn anything else that nobody knew about before?

Mike - Yes, I think there are several instances where our cameras revealed something that hadn't been noticed before. For instance, there are these weird clearings in the rainforest in the Amazon part of Peru that the locals call Devil's Gardens. They're a monoculture of one particular type of tree, and they give a home to tiny little black ants. There's a biologist called Megan Frederickson who's researching these things, and all of the saplings of other trees around this species were dying off. She knew it was something to do with the ants because the ants were visiting them but she didn't know how it happened. When we got our tiny lenses there, she saw for the first time that they were not only chewing into the outer bark but they were actually injecting formic acid into the wounds. And that's how these tiny ants were making these clearings bigger and bigger and bigger. Up to now, nobody knew how they did it.

Anna - What do you think people are going to be most surprised about by watching this?

Mike - I think they will be mostly surprised at the intricate behaviour that's happening all around them if you care to look. Why do hoverflies tend to stay in the same patch of sunlight, look around, and then suddenly dart off? What are they doing? They then come back to the same spot. Well we've done a sequence where we see that they're either chasing off rival males that come into their patch or they're showing off to females and then trying to mate with them as they fly off overhead. When people see that in detail, they'll be fascinated.


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