I spent the early part of yesterday evening listening to Richard Fortey talk on “Survivors: the animals and plants that time has left behind” at Van Mildert College in Durham. Fortey is a palaeontologist, best known for his work on trilobites, but who has also presented popular television series on natural history topics. In this lecture, he talked about the small number of organisms that were well represented in the fossil record (some pre-dating dinosaurs) yet which had survived the various mass extinctions and which could still be found today. Did these organisms have anything in common, he wondered.
One group of organisms that he talked about were the blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) responsible for forming “stromatolites” which are found both in Precambrian rocks over a billion years old and in a few locations today. I’ve talked about blue-green algae in many of my posts (e.g. “More reflections from the dawn of time …”) but what amused me this evening was Richard Fortey’s anecdote about a discussion with a BBC producer as they devised a television series based on his book:
Fortey: “These are the most important organisms in the history of the earth” (commenting on their role in creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere that every organism since has relied upon)
BBC producer: “they don’t do much, do they?”
It is a subject that I have addressed several times in this blog (see “The sum of things …”, “Every second breath …”): how do we address the imbalance in natural history broadcasting between the charismatic “few” and the unfashionable “many”, bearing in mind, of course, that these are, in many cases, the hard-working, unglamorous “back office staff” who keep our planet running. Television natural history programmers are in the entertainment business first and I’m not going to pretend that a stromatolite made of blue-green algae is, on its own, a recipe for compelling television. But I also feel that there are possibilities that could be explored, and that we may be held back by a lack of imagination on the part of broadcasting creatives and commissioning editors. They, too, are children of the television age, brought up on a style of broadcasting from Zoo Quest through Life On Earth and onwards that is interested only in the televisual aspects of natural history. Whoa .. hold it there … I’m coming dangerously close to criticising David Attenborough … Saint David … that’s close to heresy.
Fortey, R. (2011). Survivors: the animals and plants that time has left behind. Harper Collins, London.