Life is a nature documentary series made by BBC television, first broadcast as part of the BBC’s Darwin Season on BBC One and BBC HD from October to December 2009. The series takes a global view of the specialised strategies and extreme behaviour that living things have developed in order to survive; what Charles Darwin termed “the struggle for existence”. Four years in the making, the series was shot entirely in high definition.
The UK broadcast of Life consists of ten 50-minute episodes. The opening programme gives a general introduction to the series, a second looks at plants, and the remainder are dedicated to some of the major animal groups. They aim to show common features that have contributed to the success of each group, and to document intimate and dramatic moments in the lives of selected species chosen for their charisma or their extraordinary behaviour. A ten-minute making-of featureLife on Location aired at the end of each episode, taking the total running time to 60 minutes.
Life is produced by the BBC Natural History Unit in association with the Discovery Channel, Skai TVand the Open University. The original script, used in the British and Canadian versions of the series, was written and narrated by David Attenborough.
In nature, living long enough to breed is a monumental struggle. Many animals and plants go to extremes to give themselves a chance.
Uniquely, three brother cheetahs band together to bring down a huge ostrich. Aerial photography reveals how bottle-nosed dolphins trap fish in a ring of mud, and time-lapse cameras show how the Venus flytrap ensnares insect victims.
The strawberry frog carries a tadpole high into a tree and drops it in a water-filled bromeliad. The frog must climb back from the ground every day to feed it.
Fledgling chinstrap penguins undertake a heroic and tragic journey through the broken ice to get out to sea. Many can barely swim and the formidable leopard seal lies in wait.
Reptiles and amphibians look like hang-overs from the past. But they overcome their shortcomings through amazing innovation.
The pebble toad turns into a rubber ball to roll and bounce from its enemies. Extreme slow-motion shows how a Jesus Christ lizard runs on water, and how a chameleon fires an extendible tongue at its prey with unfailing accuracy. The camera dives with a Niuean sea snake, which must breed on land but avoids predators by swimming to an air bubble at the end of an underwater tunnel. In a TV first, Komodo dragons hunt a huge water-buffalo, biting it to inject venom, then waiting for weeks until it dies. Ten dragons strip the carcass to the bone in four hours.
Mammals dominate the planet. They do it through having warm blood and by the care they lavish on their young. Weeks of filming in the bitter Antarctic winter reveal how a mother Weddell seal wears her teeth down keeping open a hole in the ice so she can catch fish for her pup.
A powered hot air balloon produces stunning images of millions of migrating bats as they converge on fruiting trees in Zambia, and slow-motion cameras reveal how a mother rufous sengi exhausts a chasing lizard. A gyroscopically stabilised camera moves alongside migrating caribou, and a diving team swim among the planet’s biggest fight as male humpback whales battle for a female.
Fish dominate the planet’s waters through their astonishing variety of shape and behaviour.
The beautiful weedy sea dragon looks like a creature from a fairytale, and the male protects their eggs by carrying them on his tail for months. The sarcastic fringehead, meanwhile, appears to turn its head inside out when it fights.
Slow-motion cameras show the flying fish gliding through the air like a flock of birds and capture the world’s fastest swimmer, the sailfish, plucking sardines from a shoal at 70 mph. And the tiny Hawaiian goby undertakes one of nature’s most daunting journeys, climbing a massive waterfall to find safe pools for breeding.
Birds owe their global success to feathers – something no other animal has. They allow birds to do extraordinary things.
For the first time, a slow-motion camera captures the unique flight of the marvellous spatuletail hummingbird as he flashes long, iridescent tail feathers in the gloomy undergrowth. Aerial photography takes us into the sky with an Ethiopian lammergeier dropping bones to smash them into edible-sized bits. Thousands of pink flamingoes promenade in one of nature’s greatest spectacles. The sage grouse rubs his feathers against his chest in a comic display to make popping noises that attract females. The Vogelkop bowerbird makes up for his dull colour by building an intricate structure and decorating it with colourful beetles and snails.
There are 200 million insects for each of us. They are the most successful animal group ever. Their key is an armoured covering that takes on almost any shape.
Darwin’s stag beetle fights in the tree tops with huge curved jaws. The camera flies with millions of monarch butterflies which migrate 2000 miles, navigating by the sun. Super-slow motion shows a bombardier beetle firing boiling liquid at enemies through a rotating nozzle. A honey bee army stings a raiding bear into submission. Grass cutter ants march like a Roman army, harvesting grass they cannot actually eat. They cultivate a fungus that breaks the grass down for them. Their giant colony is the closest thing in nature to the complexity of a human city.
Mammals’ ability to learn new tricks is the key to survival in the knife-edge world of hunters and hunted. In a TV first, a killer whale off the Falklands does something unique: it sneaks into a pool where elephant seal pups learn to swim and snatches them, saving itself the trouble of hunting in the open sea.
Slow-motion cameras reveal the star-nosed mole’s newly-discovered technique for smelling prey underwater: it exhales then inhales a bubble of air ten times per second. Young ibex soon learn the only way to escape a fox – run up an almost vertical cliff face – and young stoats fight mock battles, learning the skills that make them one of the world’s most efficient predators.
Marine invertebrates are some of the most bizarre and beautiful animals on the planet, and thrive in the toughest parts of the oceans.
Divers swim into a shoal of predatory Humboldt squid as they emerge from the ocean depths to hunt in packs. When cuttlefish gather to mate, their bodies flash in stroboscopic colours. Time-lapse photography reveals thousands of starfish gathering under the Arctic ice to devour a seal carcass.
A giant octopus commits suicide for her young. A camera follows her into a cave which she walls up, then she protects her eggs until she starves.
The greatest living structures on earth, coral reefs, are created by tiny animals in some of the world’s most inhospitable waters.
Plants’ solutions to life’s challenges are as ingenious and manipulative as any animal’s.
Innovative time-lapse photography opens up a parallel world where plants act like fly-paper, or spring-loaded traps, to catch insects. Vines develop suckers and claws to haul themselves into the rainforest canopy. Every peculiar shape proves to have a clever purpose. The dragon’s blood tree is like an upturned umbrella to capture mist and shade its roots. The seed of a Bornean tree has wings so aerodynamic they inspired the design of early gliders. The barrel-shaped desert rose is full of water. The heliconia plant even enslaves a humming bird and turns it into an addict for its nectar.
Primates are just like humans – intelligent, quarrelsome, family-centred.
Huge armies of Hamadryas baboons, 400 strong, battle on the plains of Ethiopia to steal females and settle old scores. Japanese macaques in Japan beat the cold by lounging in thermal springs, but only if they come from the right family. An orangutan baby fails in its struggle to make an umbrella out of leaves to keep off the rain. Young capuchins cannot quite get the hang of smashing nuts with a large rock, a technique their parents have perfected. Chimpanzees, humans’ closest relatives, have created an entire tool kit to get their food.