Creepy Crawlies Up Close

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER PATERSON

Life In The Undergrowth (BBC1); Imagine: Elgar And The Missing Piano Concerto (BBC1)

THE CREATORS of those weird space monsters in the Star Wars films had nothing on Mother Nature here on earth.

As David Attenborough's wonderful new series, Life In The Undergrowth, opened last night, we saw the first of many amazingly grotesque creatures filling the screen. This one was slimy, for a start, and blobby, and it suddenly thrust out a jellified pylon towards us, on the end of which was a white disc with a black spot just a fraction off centre.

Just as I was preparing to dive behind the sofa to escape this frightening spectacle, I heard the comforting voice of Sir David reassuring us that all we were looking at was the eye of a common garden snail.

We've noticed over the years that David Attenborough loves to get hold of the latest technological gizmos, all the better to capture the wonders of nature.

The optical probe that can reach all kinds of underground creatures has greatly improved in definition this time round, and was used to great effect last night to photograph scorpions in their desert burrows - did you know they have a gestation period of more than a year, and give birth to up to 50 young?

The same device allowed us to hear the squelching under the earth of the 6ft giant Australian earthworm, a creature that never voluntarily comes to the surface, though, of course, Attenborough found us one that had been exposed by a landslip: what a star!

A ten-minute segment at the end of each episode tells us about the dangers and difficulties, the laughs, and the technologies employed in the two years of filming.

So we learned about new tiny lenses and electronic cameras that can show every detail of an animal, even if it's smaller than the head of a pin, and the improvement in slow-motion photography that enables film to be slowed to a 4,000th of the normal speed - it will come into its own next week when the subject is flight.

In short, Sir David promised over the next six weeks to show us sights that no human eye in history has ever seen before.

My own eye was astonished enough by sequences showing the mating habits (compared with the more familiar mammalian copulation) of millipedes, slugs, worms and snails: only puppy dogs' tails were missing.

AND SIZE is of no consequence - the Central American rainforest harvestman, related to spiders, is the size of a grain of wheat, and assembles a collection of up to 100 eggs acquired by fertilising different females.

Thanks to technology, we saw one harvestman's egg store.

A female of the species more deadly than the male is the tiny forest- dwelling springtail - as small as the full-stop at the end of this sentence - which chooses a mate by engaging in a trial of strength with several males, and (forget the flea) can jump the human equivalent of leaping over the Eiffel Tower. …