Brief thoughts on tonight’s Planet Earth selections

1 04 2007

Unfortunately I missed the big debut of Planet Earth being that I can’t afford television, but this weekend I’ve been petsitting at a household with the requisite cable connection, so I was able to see all of what I missed. While I’m not going to say that I was unimpressed by the shows, I still much prefer the Life of… shows that have a more central theme of evolution (and David Attenborough as host, not just as a narrator) to the “jumpy” Blue Planet and Planet Earth shows. Others have expressed their disappointment with this new series, and while I can’t say it was my favorite, I can’t say that I didn’t highly enjoy it either. As you can tell from my blog, I’m certainly a charismatic megafauna kind of guy; I want to appreciate a larger swath of life, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m not more immediately drawn to big cats than I am to bacteria or mussels. It was absolutely astonishing to see the Amur Leopard and her cub in their own habitat, as well as the Snow Leopard hunt and the attempts of a starving Polar Bear to get a Walrus. There were plenty of moments captured that I had never seen before, like Flat Lizards leaping for flies or birds chasing off a reindeer from their nest nearby, and the cinematography was wonderful.

I suppose some of my disappointment lies in not having Attenborough as the narrator (there are some things I’ve come to expect from a BBC production), but I just wish there was a more coherent way to tie all the little vignettes together other than vague ecological similarity. While others have criticized the shows focus on the weird and wonderful charismatic megafauna, and I agree that the little guys should get some more attention and not just the most obvious creatures, I can understand why the filmmakers chose the animals they did; many are endangered and (as the show proposes about Bactrian Camels specifically) some of these films may be among the last to capture these animals. While I’m sure anyone could name a list of many more animals that need help but lack the same star power, I think it’s entirely appropriate to plead a case for a far-ranging, charismatic animal. Why? Because if you can save the big animal, it means conserving its habitat, habitat inhabited by many other animals that may not stir the same emotions Pandas or African Elephants might. While animals should not be “left out” because they aren’t especially cute or interesting (i.e. leeches), I think it’s entirely appropriate to use charismatic animals as a symbol and springboard to conserve large swaths of habitat, in turn saving other animals in that area. I think that is part of the mission of this documentary; to show us some of the animals we could very well lose in the near future, and if we lose the charismatic animals, what hope will other endangered species have?

While the vignette about the hapless male polar bear, forced to swim through areas once covered in sea ice, may be viewed by some as a bit heavy-handed in its attempts to make people conscious about global warming, I think it’s important video to see. Not often do we actually get to see global consequences of local actions, and while the film might be designed to stir feelings of guilt in the viewer, such feelings are certainly not entirely unwarranted, especially if we do nothing to try and fix the situation. Indeed, polar bears are the new “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to global climate change, and (to divert from the main topic a little) I think we are living in an unprecedented time to see how such changes affect evolution. How this fast change will affect natural selection certainly merits study, especially if polar bears in areas now melting become adapted to swimming more of the time, perhaps as another return to the sea. Then again, perhaps the change will happen too fast and they’ll have to move inland, putting them in competition with brown bears, or perhaps they will go extinct altogether. Whatever happens, the changes that are happening as a consequence of man-made climate change are changing the ecology and evolution of creatures all over the world, and we should not let such an opportunity for understanding pass by (although I certainly do not encourage complacency about global climate change “just to see what happens”).

In any case, although some say they tire of seeing the same charismatic animals on nature documentaries (Africa’s Big Five + tigers, crocodiles, great white sharks, primates, etc.), I don’t hold the same view; although some of the animals may be familiar, the BBC has always upped the ante by seeking out new and interesting behaviors, looking at animals in habitats where they are not always associated (i.e. baboons in the Okovango Delta, elephants and lions in the desert, etc.). To reduce the show to simply another mish-mash of footage of popular animals is missing a lot of exceptional behavior not often seen, and perhaps many of the science blogging community are bit jaded when it comes to the show. We must remember that we are not the most important audience for the show; it is primarily for the people who’ve never seen a snow leopard hunt, those who’ve never even heard of a Superb Bird of Paradise, those who don’t believe that our actions can change global ecology. Indeed, I’d rather have a few scientists be a little grumpy but have the average viewer come away with a greater appreciation for the unity and diversity of life and have some come away with the motivation to slow the rate of ecological degradation. I never tire of seeing various documentaries by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Nature, Nova, National Geographic, the BBC, and even the Discovery Channel; they may not all be gold but what the natural world can show us is far more enthralling to me than your average prime-time ratings grabber. While nature documentary producers shouldn’t skimp on science or revealing a greater diversity of life henceforth seen, I can’t blame them for focusing on the “sexy” creatures either. How many children first got their interest in science/nature from the Tyrannosaurus skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History, from watching Born Free, from getting together to watch Wild Kingdom every Sunday night; while none of these things are wholly representative of nature or natural science, they can be powerful images to provide the impetus for future scientists of various disciplines, and so I hope that powerful and responsible nature film making continues for some time to come.


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2 04 2007
Brief thoughts on tonight’s Planet Earth s…

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