A Slow Motion Picture Of Life And Death
The Shape of Life, produced by Monterey's Sea Studios Foundation, brings a new story of evolution to PBS.
Thursday, March 28, 2002
Its uncomfortable for some people to accept the fact that we evolved from loping, hairy primates. Now scientists are generating hard evidence--using fossils, gene sequencing, and careful observation--that traces human roots much deeper, back half a billion years, to a plant-like creature thought to be the first animal on earth.
Premiering nationwide on April 2 on PBS (KTEH and KQED locally), The Shape of Life, an $11 million project produced by the Monterey-based Sea Studios Foundation, in conjunction with National Geographic Television and Film, takes us deep inside the biology and behavior of creatures rarely celebrated and often misunderstood.
Looking at a dried out sponge gathering soap scum at the bottom of a bathtub, it''s hard to imagine that humans owe the foundation of our complex abilities to the plant-like organism that provided the cellular building blocks for all multi-cellular animals to follow. The Shape of Life asks us to not only to examine our evolutionary links to animals like the sponge, but to realize our genetic indebtedness to them.
Mark Shelley, Sea Studios co-founder and co-executive producer for the series, thinks it''s a viewpoint whose time has come.
"If people follow the argument and look at the science that underlies what were saying, it''s pretty exciting," Shelley says. "If you imagine a billion years of time working step by step slowly, it''s such an elegant understanding to realize that something as amazing as a human could result. We aren''t made of new genetic information--we''re built upon roots and patterns you see in a sponge."
Using never-before-seen footage of underwater creatures (much of it gathered in Monterey Bay), and pairing it with computer animation and interviews with scientists in their element, the production has resulted in eight hours of mind-bending programming that tells a new evolutionary story. (Full disclosure: Bradley Zeve, the Weekly''s executive publisher and executive editor, is the chairman of the Sea Studios Foundation board of directors.)
"It''s really original," says biologist Cristina Diaz. "It brings us not only the narration of biological events and behaviors told by experts, but also uses analogies to give a human connection to each area."
Each video challenges the assumption that humans are somehow better than these mysterious creatures, which on first glance don''t even resemble animals. Through high-definition video, time-lapse filming sped up 5,000 times, and motion control devices, the footage reveals creatures that appear motionless to the naked eye performing complex behaviors--sea anemones fight, starfish shove each other off rocks, and worms strangle each other.
Airing two episodes each Tuesday night at 9, PBS will show six of the series'' eight episodes on April 2, 9, and 16. The episodes provide vivid examples of evolutionary building blocks, showing how different creatures'' body plans spawned movement, predation, defense mechanisms and explaining how we humans owe our intelligence and survival traits to the adaptations of an unusual array of predecessors.
The evolutionary improvements that each class of creatures provided are shown in relation to their genetic links to humans. Categorized by phyla, the series explores sponges, cnidarians, flatworms, molluscs, annelids, arthropods, echinoderms and chordates. Each category of animal is revealed to have special survival skills in an escalating "arms race" of the survival of the fittest.
Violence in Miniature
Charles Baxter, local biologist and Content Director for Sea Studios, worked with filmmaker Shelley and biologist Nancy Burnett, Sea Studio''s other co-founder and series co-executive producer, to draw viewers'' attention away from the large mammals usually glorified in science programming. The goal was to foster an appreciation for creatures, usually overlooked, which make up most of animal life on the planet.
"Each organism is differently adapted in some exquisitely complex way to do the type of things it does--this is what evolution is all about," Baxter says. "There''s not a general recognition of this--people tend to think of animals as higher and lower or good and bad. You see a sponge and would never expect that within a sponge is the potential for a fish or a human."
With a lab leased from the Department of Fish and Game in Big Sur''s Granite Canyon, as well as international sites, Sea Studios cinematographers were able to capture animal behaviors never seen before, and hardly imagined in creatures lacking a centralized brain.
"Most people don''t think about the 99 percent of creatures on this planet who are smaller than a fist," Shelley says. "We were only able to do this series because new tools are available to tell the story of these small creatures who act on different time scales than us."
These tools included tiny cameras and deep-sea remote operating vehicles, or ROV''s, borrowed from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
On the legs of a pier under Cannery Row, from the vantage point of a miniature camera hidden inside a mussel shell, viewers watch a sea star on the prowl. In sped-up time-lapse videography, the starfish takes on a whole new characteristic as it crawls up the pier post to a clump of mussels, and pries open a crack in one of the shells with hydraulic pressure from its thousands of tiny tube "feet." A translucent white stomach floats out of the starfish underside and pushes into the mussel shell, where it digests its prey, still alive, into a soupy dinner.
Episodes like "The First Hunter," illustrate these adaptive behaviors in sometimes excruciating detail. A flatworm, the creature that provided the evolutionary leap required for our own "bilateral" design, can be, well, kind of gross. They''ve also proven to be fearsome predators, and the first creatures who searched for food and sex. Taking advantage of their stereo senses--two eyes, two ears and two nostrils--these slithering hunters can be seen finding their prey with uncanny precision.
Even though this ultra-primitive hunting ability was surpassed, in evolutionary terms, eons ago, it can still be devastating. As explained in the episode, the tiny, legless flatworm is currently invading Scotland and spreading through the U.K., slaughtering earthworms on a massive scale. Without earthworms to aerate soil, farms are turning into swampy boggy mess. There is no end in sight: a couple dozen flatworms can exterminate 1,000 earthworms a year. Frustrated farmers smashing them to pieces have found regeneration a nasty side-trick of the slimy serial killer.
The film shows images even more disturbing to swallow. Many flatworms have evolved into parasites, with hooks and suckers that can latch securely into a host''s intestinal wall. It''s a bit nauseating as the camera shows a bloke chomping his rare steak in a diner, then flashes back to digitized detail of a tapeworm, which can grow up to 60 feet long while living off a human host.
"There''s plenty of places they can go," series narrator Peter Coyote says dryly, against a close up of the steak being speared on a fork. "The number of eggs one tapeworm can produce exceeds the number of humans living on earth."
As the hapless diner swallows his last bite, Coyote proclaims, "Flatworms may not be beautiful, but you have to admire their ability to go forth and multiply."
Strangers in Paradise
It''s a relief to move from the slimy worms, for all their evolutionary glory, and see some of their more colorful and, honestly, more attractive cousins. Biologist Leslie Newman has found 450 new species of much nicer flatworms in waters off Australia in the Great Barrier Reef. Unfolding and curling like ribbons in the turquoise waters, some of these brightly colored critters, such as a yellow-bordered penis-fencing worm, also have flamboyant mating habits.
As we see in living color, these hermaphroditic worms are each equipped with male and female sex organs, the most impressive being a pair of white, knobby penises apiece. Each battling to be the impregnator, the purple and black worms dodge and jib in a contest of swordsmanship, tearing holes in each other''s bodies in an attempt to inject sperm into the skin. The "loser" is destined to be mommy.
It''s incredible behavior like this that causes Gail Kaaialii, a marine biologist in Hawaii, to ask, in the episode "Ultimate Animal," if being further along on the evolutionary timeline denotes superiority, as is generally believed.
"It''s easy to see why people think we are at the top of the scale," says Kaaialii, an endurance athlete and teacher. "I believe otherwise."
As Kaaialii paddles a Hawaiian outrigger canoe, Coyote asks, "Do you have to be big, brainy and fast to be successful?"
Perhaps one of the most surprising episodes, "The Ultimate Animal" highlights echinoderms, such as the seastar, which are shown to have predatory and communication abilities, despite their lack of brain or even head.
Sea urchins, appearing like motionless pincushions to the naked eye, are shown in time-lapse to munch down entire kelp forests. Chomping noises are actually heard as their powerful jaws slice kelp leaves into bite-sized pieces.
The episode shows the odd but effective defenses of echinoderms, including brittle stars'' ability to shoot off spare arms at an attacker as decoys, and to camouflage themselves as a living forest on the ocean floor.
Even more amazing are the apparent social abilities of the sea star. UC Santa Cruz Biologist John Pearse, tidepooling in Big Sur, says, "For years we didn''t think they had social lives--no more than a tomato plant would."
Baxter says careful observation destroyed that myth.
"It was an absolutely incredible thing; one of our local citizens, Don Wobber, discovered sea stars interacting in a way that many animals do when they come together and establish dominance for food," he says. "They appear to be working to establish a dominant position." It''s absolutely amazing to see the activity of starfish speeded up."
The footage shows a deadly dance, as sea stars bend their arms to shove each other away from a yummy decaying fish, or wrestle to be the king of the mountain on a piece of rock.
The filmmakers were not above employing a touch of bathroom humor while observing some of the creatures more humorous in appearance. As a sea cucumber, "vacuum cleaner of the deep," sucks up sand off the ocean floor, the camera hones in on a close up of its rear end. As it slowly expels waste, Peter Coyote narrates, "Legend has it that every grain of sand on the ocean floor has passed this way," and the music makes a "plop" sound. Another shot shows thin white strands, growing 20 times the length of the sea cucumber and "packing a potent mix of poison and glue," shoot out of its butt, demonstrating a claim made by Kaillaii: "When you get close to them, you discover these creatures are even weirder than you thought."
It''s a beautiful weirdness, which is seen in every episode. Watching an orange sea anemone twist off a rock and then swim away from a hungry starfish is astounding, given that the creatures, when seen in nature, seem hardly more animated than plants. An octopus is shown swimming to a clump of sand, immediately morphing its body to match the grainy texture and color of the underwater environment. Another type of octopus flashes electric blue warning circles on its body to warn of its toxic poison, which is lethal to humans.
"It''s very different than the way we do things, but no less effective, cool and interesting," Shelley says.
When the camera finally leaves the underwater environment and moves onto land, I find myself anxious to submerge again. What were once creatures my eyes scanned on briefly have now become a mystery package of secrets that I''m eager to unfold.
It''s a passion for discovery that took plenty of patience for scientists to uncover.
"Hopefully it will tell people we''d better start paying attention to what is around us," Diaz says. "To look at life historically helps us understand that we are a part of a web of life, so we become humble."
Though not expressly stated in the series, it''s obvious that the producers hope viewers will begin to appreciate the importance of maintaining a biologically diverse planet. "We are a very voracious species," Diaz says. "I hope our brain capacity helps us preserve the system we depend on."
After more than five years making The Shape of Life, Sea Studios is currently working on a new series--The Living Machine, which uncovers the whole system of planet earth. It also looks at the role that humans play in the world.
"We are changing the evolutionary pathway of virtually everything on earth," Baxter says. "We are transporting, species, eliminating habitats, changing climate, driving a lot of them to extinction. The next series will explore what the future of evolution holds for the rest of life on earth."
Episodes one and two of The Shape of Life will premiere on April 2 at 9pm on KQED and KTEH. Subsequent episodes will be aired on April 9 and April 16.