Sex, violence and sneaky tactics

November 11, 2005

In the dead of night, a detachment of aphaenogaster ants embarks on a covert mission. Its target is a colony of harvester ants (pictured top) that has arrived in the aphaenogasters' corner of New Mexico. But the aim is not to fight the interlopers. Instead, the raiders carefully execute an act of sabotage, plugging every entrance to their rivals' nest with debris. As day breaks, the bewildered harvester ants have to dig their way out of their nest before they can forage for food. This gives their sneaky rivals a head start, an advantage that could make all the difference when times are hard and competition poses a threat to survival.

The ant saboteurs leave Deborah Gordon, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, in awe. "How can such small animals, with no central control or hierarchy, do such remarkable things?" she muses. The same wonder captivated the BBC natural history film crew that arrived at Gordon's field station to record the behaviour for Life in the Undergrowth .

They posted a cameraman to watch over the harvester ants' nest through the night armed with the latest technology to capture the raiding party in action.

Gordon was full of praise for the BBC crew. But she was particularly thrilled to work with Sir David Attenborough. "He is very charming, seemed very knowledgeable and was very quick to pick up what he needed to understand," she says. It is a respectful mantra repeated by all the scientists whose insights into the realm of the terrestrial invertebrates have lent the series scholarly clout.

"Attenborough has such a pull," says George McGovern, the series consultant and assistant curator of entomology at Oxford Museum of Natural History. "A whole new generation of young students will watch these programmes, read the book and get fired up about arthropods." And, McGovern hopes, some will choose to study the creatures. The entomologist zealously proselytises for the invertebrates: "They are much more varied and fascinating than the vertebrates." In fact, McGovern finds it vaguely baffling that anyone would want to work on anything else. He explains that during one recent ten-week African field trip, a colleague studying giraffes found out nothing new about his subject. Over the same period of time in Africa, McGovern found 100 new insect species, including one caught as it scuttled across the floor of the latrine that he found himself confined to one day.

"Vertebrates are boring," he concludes. "There's more sex and violence happening among the invertebrates in my compost heap than among the vertebrates in the rainforest or depths of the oceans."

The new series capitalises on this overlooked drama, drawing together remarkable stories brought to light by the latest research. This includes a journey into the heart of a giant termite mound. Attenborough's crew joined a team of British scientists in Namibia to find out how such tiny insects can build such sophisticated structures. Rupert Soar, lecturer in mechanical and manufacturing engineering and head of the rapid manufacturing research group at Loughborough University, says his interest was originally sparked by watching Attenborough on television in the 1970s standing under a towering mound. Almost three decades later, Soar has trained the latest 3-D scanning technology on a nest built by the termite Macrotermes michaelseni . For a month this summer, working day and night, the machinery divided the mound into 1mm slices and digitally recorded every cavity, passageway and filigree pore. A unique partial computer reconstruction was recreated back in Loughborough for the programme while the scientists' ongoing analysis is throwing up new scientific insights.

Soar says the results are astonishing. "The complexity took our breath away and exploded a lot of the misconceptions about how these mounds work," he says. The constantly modified maze of ducts and channels, altered by the insects in response to outside changes, serves to control the flow of energy, moisture and air within the structure. "Termites prove that it's possible to thrive in huge numbers using only renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind and rain," Soar says.

Attenborough's film crew have gathered many such exclusives for the series.

In Costa Rica, they used infra-red film to record cockroaches queuing to gently drink droplets of honeydew expelled from the bodies of fulgorid (plant hopper) insects (pictured bottom with moth). In Ukraine, they captured the smallest insects - sub-millimetre aquatic wasps known as fairy flies - swimming underwater. In Peru, they filmed ants poisoning the weeds that threatened their host plant. In Trinidad, they shot webspinners (pictured middle) using their mandibles to delicately deliver their young from their eggs.

A combination of the rigour of the research and Attenborough's gravitas is expected to turn Life in the Undergrowth into an international recruiting sergeant for studying invertebrates at university. Hopes in the field are high. A New York symposium was told that the series would make 2006 the year of the invertebrate.

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