Fascination in ecology’s dark side …


There is, we are told frequently, too much sex and violence on the television.  Much of it, I am afraid to say, courtesy of natural history documentaries which are too quick to focus on anthropomorphic organisms participating in acts to which humans can relate than on the more prosaic organisms that constitute the bulk of both biomass and diversity in ecosystems.   I’ve written about this subject before (see “The complicated life of simple plants”) but a quick analysis of the index for The Blue Planet – the book which accompanied David Attenborough’s series for the BBC – offers some (semi-) objective evidence.

No surprise, for me at least, to see “phytoplankton” and “diatom” on the right hand side of the graph when I ranked organism groups from the most cited to the least.   It was a desire to promote the “unfashionable end of biodiversity” that prompted me to start this blog, to raise the profile of organisms that are responsible for half the primary production on the planet (see “every second breath …“).  On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see “kelp” in a strong mid-table position.   The Blue Planet book has a beautifully-illustrated chapter on kelp forests, describing the brown seaweeds that live in ocean littoral zones and the organisms that live on and amongst them in detail.


An analysis of index entries in The Blue Planet for major organism groups.   Each category contains all page references to the organism group, along with any sub-categories classified underneath this (so, for example, “dolphin” includes references to “care of young”, “hunting”, “sonar” etc.)

Having set out my argument for anthropomorphism as the driver behind natural history documentary programming, I was surprised to see that sharks came out as top of my list of index entries (which, I assume, roughly correlates to the amount of space that the authors devote to these organisms).   My explanation is simply that interest in sharks reflects human fascination with the dark and macabre: they are the Hannibal Lectors or Walter Whites of the underwater world.

I don’t underestimate the effort and technical skill needed to get good footage of charismatic aquatic vertebrates, whether sharks, whales or penguins.   However, once the footage has been obtained, it is easy to weave stories with which viewers can empathise.   Making documentary programmes about microscopic algae carries its own technical challenges but, even when the footage has been obtained, for how long can you hold the viewer’s attention?   Or, perhaps more to the point, can you persuade a commissioning editor that you can hold the viewer’s attention for long enough to justify the investment?

Whilst musing on the fascination with the dark and the sinister reminded me of press coverage of an upcoming exhibition on the art and influence of Caravaggio at the National Gallery and, from here, to other great artists whose works often have macabre undertones.  Géricault’s Raft of Medusa and Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes were two works that immediately sprang to my mind but you could include almost every crucifixion scene painted from the Renaissance onwards.   The Dutch Golden Age stands in stark contrast to these, often focusing on the everyday, the mundane.   Every time I look at a Vermeer, I marvel at how he can raise prosaic activities to this higher level, how he can convert a mundane act such as pouring milk from a jug into a transcendent moment (see “A wet afternoon in Berlin“).   The analogy between the existential drama that seems to be a subtext for every natural history documentary and the quietly spinning flywheels of nature that convert solar energy to sugars and, from there, power the processes that drive the ecosystems of which the charismatic organisms beloved of television natural historians, are obvious.

I have a theory that television natural history is a prime recruiting agent for undergraduate ecologists whilst, at the same time, presenting a very distorted view of the reality of ecology.   The reality is that the bulk of the biomass in ecosystems is in the primary producers – the plants – followed by the organisms that eat these and finally by the predators.   The histogram at the top of this article, by contrast, has sharks and whales receiving far greater attention than kelp and phytoplankton (coral reefs are a complication to this argument to which I will return at some point).   Students may be entranced by the images they see on television, but the reality of ecology is very different and, dare I say, involves more mathematics than most biology undergraduates want to contemplate.

The point of my diversion on the art of Vermeer was to offer a suggest that the route to greater public understanding of the unfashionable end of biodiversity lies not in trying to hype this up to be something that it will never be, but to appeal to a quieter, more contemplative side of human nature.   Algae are not for those with short attention spans, looking for instant gratification, but they are perfect objects for meditating on the diversity of life on earth and, indeed, for the myriad of hidden processes that keep life on earth ticking over …


Byatt, A., Fothergill, A. & Holmes, M. (2001).  The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans.  BBC Publications, London.


Costing the earth’s pantomime villain …

Some of the themes I wrote about in recent blogs came together in the latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth , which unpacked the issue of river water quality and, in particular, the pernicious effects of nitrogen and phosphorus on aquatic ecosystems.   Overall, I thought that the program did a good job of explaining a complicated issue but it also served as a case study of the issues I wrote about in “Wide Sargassum Sea …”: algae are forever portrayed in the media as if they were A Bad Thing. Paul Knight, Chief Executive of Salmon and Trout Conservation UK, interviewed during the program, described algae in the River Itchen as “… a brown sort of claggy stuff …” and then went on to explain that excessive nutrients “… speed up the growth of algae and the wrong sort of weed”. From which I infer that there is a right sort of weed, but that all algae are universally bad?   Pedantic? Maybe …

However, a few minutes later we hear John Slader, also associated with Salmon and Trout Conservation UK, bemoaning the lack of invertebrate life in the River Itchen: “You’ve got to recognise that this is part of a food chain and if these insects aren’t there, what would happen to your swallows, your martins, your wagtails …”   The same subtle (or careless) omission: the food chain, of course, extends down to the algae as well as upwards to fish and birds. Successful restoration of chalk streams needs to be based on an understanding of the right sort of algae, as these ultimately create the habitat within which the insects and fish will thrive.

Later in the same programme, Mike Bowes of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology was interviewed and he pointed out some of the practical problems associated with reducing nutrient concentrations to levels that would reduce the quantities of algae, based on the fine research he has performed over many years in southern England.   He then went on to echo some of the points I made in my previous post, “An embarrassment of riches …”: it is possible to reduce the quantities of algae not just by reducing nutrients but also by planting bankside trees in order to create more shade. This would, incidentally, have bonus effects for wildlife and aquatic diversity, and would undoubtedly be much cheaper than removing nutrients.   We should, however, remember that this may reduce the risk of eutrophication although the hazard that the nutrients presented would remain.

The program did a good job of presenting the complexity of river pollution and therein lies the challenge: if a problem is complex, there will not be straightforward cause-effect relationships.   It should not, perhaps, surprise us that the interviewees representing the pressure group were the ones that simplified the story to a cause-effect relationship (“high nutrients = bad fishing and fewer birds”) whilst the independent academic scientist offered a more nuanced view.   And it is perhaps inevitable that algae, the most diverse component of the river ecology story (see “The sum of things …”) are overlooked except when the narrative demands a convenient villain.


Bowes, M.J., Ings, N.L., McCall, S.J., Warwick, A.,Barrett, C., Wickham, H.D., Harman, S.A., Armstrong, L.K., Scarlett, P.M., Roberts, C., Lehmann, K., Singer, A.C. (2012). Nutrient and light limitation of periphyton in the River Thames: implications for catchment management. Science of the Total Environment 434: 201-212.

“They don’t do much, do they?”

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.