Blue Planet II’s Attenborough Masterpiece

Blue Planet II_EP03_Coral Reefs

The broadclub cuttlefish is one of the psychedelic creatures featured in “Blue Planet II.” Photograph courtesy BBC

blue_planetWe have not linked to many television reviews, and the reason is simply that we instead mostly promote going and seeing instead of sitting and watching.

But this one seems a perfect exception to the norm because the series narrator is such a frequent guest in these pages, for good reason after many good reasons. This show may be his own sense of a masterpiece, if you consider what he says in a recent interview to a confirmed urbanist, which is worth half an hour of listening to in addition to the review below:

“Blue Planet II” Reviewed: The Ocean Continues to Impress

The seven-episode follow-up to the 2001 series flexes the BBC’s mastery of a genre that it created.

By Troy Patterson

The nature documentary “Blue Planet II” is oceanic in topic, tone, scope, and majesty. A production of the BBC Natural History Unit, the seven-episode series flexes its broadcaster’s mastery of a genre that it created. Over excellent footage shot on a circumglobal photo safari, the venerable narrator David Attenborough orates zoological narratives as if delivering a state-of-nature address. “Blue Planet II” follows the network’s “The Blue Planet,” which dropped in 2001, but it is less a sequel than a subsequent quest, like the second voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, or Apollo 14. Continue reading

A Lone Couple, a Desert Island, and Turtles

Despite living in utter isolation on a desert island for 40 years, one inspirational couple has overcome disability and blindness to make a difference. PHOTO: BBC

Despite living in utter isolation on an island for 40 years, one couple has overcome disability and blindness to make a difference. PHOTO: BBC

Isn’t there a line about finding heroes in the most unlikely places? This is the setting of Daeng Abu’s and his wife Daeng Maida’s inspirational story: a desert island off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia, disabilities in Abu being blind and facing leprosy, their days spent raising sea turtles and speaking against the cyanide and dynamite fishing that is devastating Indonesia’s reef.

Neither knows how old they were when they entered their arranged marriage on nearby Pulau Pala (Nutmeg Island) – they currently believe they’re in their 80s – but Abu thinks he was older than 20 and Maida remembers it was the dry season. Her uncle fired three shots in the air; she walked over to his family’s home; Abu built a shack from bamboo and palm leaf; and married life began. Little did they know at the time – the couple was bound to become a rather unlikely pair of environmental activists.

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Venice’s First and Only Gondoliera


In 2009, 23-year-old Giorgia Boscolo overcame one of Italy’s last all-male bastions (for 900 years) to become a certified gondolier. PHOTO: BBC

Travel empowers. Not just the map-toting, lens-faced tourists but also the people who make travel possible. Often, mere faces. Rarely remembered by their names for their service. Giorgia Boscolo is an exception. She’s a rare breed, in a league of her own on Venice’s canals. Should your travel plans point towards this city, do catch a glimpse of this spirit who sails right through 900 years of taboo.

As a little girl in Venice, Giorgia Boscolo was forever bugging her father to let her ride with him in his gondola. While her three sisters played with their dolls, she would beg him for a turn with the remo, or oar. Dante Boscolo, an indulgent Italian father, humored his pint-sized shadow — to a point.

“My father only let me row when it was bad weather,” Giorgia recalled with a laugh.

His retort was swift: “That’s how you learn.”

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Who Dreamed This City into Being?


In the 19th century, George-Eugene Haussmann completely redesigned and rebuilt the French capital. PHOTO: Matt Robinson

“Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history; so she seemed in this age of Napoleon III with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself. All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafes, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower. Even the majestic trees that graced and sheltered her streets were attuned to her–and the waters of the Seine, contained and beautiful as they wound through her heart; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.”
Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

Literature, history, art, everyday news, talk at a neighborhood cafe – the exquisite and the commonplace are rife with paeans to this city. But how did she come into being?

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Hiking for E-mail

mahabir pun

For six years, Mahabir Pun trekked long distances to check emails in Nepal. Until he brought the Internet home to his remote village. PHOTO: Hiking for Emails, Vimeo

In India, there exists this dwindling practice of writing letters to the Editor. Of publications. Most people write on current affairs, some write to highlight issues that range from a lack of streetlights to dissent. Some write in to commend actions, public campaigns. A handpicked bunch of these are published in a column titled Letters to the Editor. Mahabir Pun of a remote village in the mountainous country of Nepal wrote to BBC, asking for help to bring the Internet home.

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Jerusalem’s 800-year-old Indian Connect

There is a little corner of Jerusalem that is forever India. At least, it has been for more than 800 years and its current custodian has plans for his family to keep the Indian flag flying for generations to come. PHOTO: BBC

There is a little corner of Jerusalem that is forever India. At least, it has been for more than 800 years and its current custodian has plans for his family to keep the Indian flag flying for generations to come. PHOTO: BBC

For close to a century, many generations of an Indian family have been looking after the Indian Hospice, a symbol of India’s heritage, in the old city of Jerusalem.The Indian Hospice was born in 1924, with Sheikh Nazir Ansari, a police inspector’s son from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, becoming the first Indian to look after the hospice, situated opposite Herod’s Gate in the old city. Since then generations of the Ansari family have kept the Indian flag flying in a situation which is “politically fraught where every inch of territory is claimed or counter-claimed”.

From the roof he flies an Indian flag, its saffron and green visible over a city that remains as volatile as ever. Sheikh Munir, though, is not easily intimidated. “I am not afraid. I am satisfied for the future, that we, the Ansari family, are serving. After me, my elder son, Nazer, should replace me as Sheikh of the zawiyya [lodge].”

I ask if Nazer, who works overseas, is interested in taking over. Sheikh Munir hesitates. From a frame on the wall, his father looks down silently. The old man raises his hands, palms up.

“It’s not a question of interested.”

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Did Scrabble Almost Fail to Take Off?

The game also formerly known as It and Criss-Cross Words acquired its lasting moniker in 1948, but its story begins 15 years earlier, when a 32-year-old architect named Alfred Mosher Butts joined the millions who’d already lost their jobs in the Great Depression. PHOTO: Getty

The game also formerly known as It and Criss-Cross Words acquired its lasting moniker in 1948, but its story begins 15 years earlier, when a 32-year-old architect named Alfred Mosher Butts joined the millions who’d already lost their jobs in the Great Depression. PHOTO: Getty

A game played avidly by amateurs and pros alike. In jails and by the British Royal Family, and has fans even at The White House. No other game brings wordsmiths together like Scrabble. And to think it may not have seen the light of living rooms:

Though words are its currency, it’s really a game about anything but. It’s a spatial game, a game of patterns and of memory. No wonder many top players have a mathematical rather than a linguistic background. You certainly don’t need to know what an obscure two-letter filler like ‘ee’ or ‘da’ means in order to play it, only that it appears on the endorsed word lists.

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In The Line of Fire

A firefighter monitors the flames in Cualedro. PHOTO: Pedro Armestre

A firefighter monitors the flames in Cualedro. PHOTO: Pedro Armestre

The Mediterranean climate, particularly the prolonged dry and hot summer season, is naturally favourable to wildfires. Their frequency and impact have increased over the last few decades in southern European countries, mainly due to land-use and socio-economic changes. Many traditional rural activities (e.g. firewood collection and livestock grazing systems) have been partly or totally abandoned in favour of alternatives (e.g. fossil fuels and factory farming). These changes have led to more homogeneous landscapes and the accumulation of dry matter in forests and rangelands, resulting in a greatly increased fire hazard.

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The Decision is To Bee

Researchers are using micro sensors to learn about the problems bees face. PHOTO: BBC

Researchers are using micro sensors to learn about the problems bees face. PHOTO: BBC

Around here, we understand the importance of bees. That explains the numerous posts on these winged creatures. If you must know right away, bees are guardians of the food chain and keepers of biodiversity, thanks to their super power of pollination. Precisely why it’s a cause for worry when we hear of their numbers dwindling. Now, an international group of scientists, beekeepers, farmers and technology companies is using cutting-edge technology to help find out why honey bee populations around the world are crashing.

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The Disappearing Cajun Culture

A shrimp boat heading out to fish on Bayou Lafourche. PHOTO: BBC

A shrimp boat heading out to fish on Bayou Lafourche. PHOTO: BBC

Cajuns are mostly descended from French immigrant ancestors. Their name comes from Acadia in Nova Scotia, Canada, where they originally settled – they were expelled by the British in the 18th Century, and many eventually ended up in southern Louisiana. What was once home to several hundred families now only counts a few permanent residents. Where there were cotton fields, there’s now open water. Where a cemetery once stood, a few last remaining tombstones are sliding into the bayou.The people here have survived hurricanes, including Katrina in 2005, and the BP oil spill in 2010. But their resilience is being tested again by a less dramatic, but no less dangerous threat – the long-term erosion of the marshes and wetlands that run all along Louisiana’s coast.

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The Wettest Place on Earth

New Zealand-based photographer Amos Chapple captures a "living bridge" deep in the forests of Meghalaya, India.

New Zealand-based photographer Amos Chapple captures a “living bridge” deep in the forests of Meghalaya, India.

Perched atop a ridge in the Khasi Hills of India’s north-east, Mawsynram has the highest average rainfall – 467in (11.86 metres) of rain per year – thanks to summer air currents gathering moisture over the floodplains of Bangladesh. When the clouds hit the steep hills of Meghalaya they are compressed to the point where they can no longer hold their moisture. The end result is near constant rain. Even the world’s biggest statue, Rio de Janeiro’s 30m tall Christ the Redeemer, would be up to his knees in that volume of water.

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The Japanese Women Who Married the ‘Enemy’

Atsuko, Emiko and Hiroko were among tens of thousands of Japanese women who married their former enemies after World War II. They landed in 1950s America knowing no one, speaking little English and often moving in with stunned in-laws.  PHOTO: BBC

Atsuko, Emiko and Hiroko were among tens of thousands of Japanese women who married their former enemies after World War II. They landed in 1950s America knowing no one, speaking little English and often moving in with stunned in-laws. PHOTO: BBC

What does it mean to leave your country, where you were somebody, and move miles to a continent you’d only heard of? A country where you’d be a ‘nobody’. Not knowing whether the decision to say ‘yes’ to a former enemy was right. Struggling for words that help start a conversation. Being told not to wear the one piece of cloth your identity hinges upon? And years of trying to fit in, juggling two distinct identities? Listen to the Japanese War brides as they tell their story on BBC this week. 

For 21-year-old Hiroko Tolbert, meeting her husband’s parents for the first time after she had travelled to America in 1951 was a chance to make a good impression. She picked her favourite kimono for the train journey to upstate New York, where she had heard everyone had beautiful clothes and beautiful homes.

But rather than being impressed, the family was horrified. “My in-laws wanted me to change. They wanted me in Western clothes. So did my husband. So I went upstairs and put on something else, and the kimono was put away for many years,” she says.

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A ‘Ketchup’ Sachet and its Power to Heal

An HIV positive mother in Moshi, Tanzania, giving her baby antiretroviral medicine from the sachet

An HIV positive mother in Moshi, Tanzania, giving her baby antiretroviral medicine from the sachet

Inside a foil sachet, which looks more at home in a fast-food restaurant, an exact dose of antiretroviral medicine is helping to protect newborn babies against the threat of infection from their HIV-positive mothers. According to the UN, mother-to-child transmission in the developing world creates 260,000 new infections in children every year. Thanks to a program involving the Ecuadorian government, the VIHDA foundation in Guayaquil and Duke University in North Carolina, at least 1,000 babies have been born without the infection from HIV-positive mothers.The program is enabling newborn babies to take their medicines efficiently – via a pouch that looks just like the small ketchup sachets you get at fast food restaurants. Only in this case, they are filled with antiretroviral drugs, which protect against HIV.

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Flipping Tortoises

Credit: RubberBall / Alamy. Via BBC

A couple of our contributors have connections to tortoises through the Galápagos Islands, or at least from reading about them in the news. We’d always been aware of the danger for tortoises if they were flipped on their backs, but had never given the issue much evolutionary thought to consider the variations in the animals’ shells. Now, scientists at the University of Belgrade have published a paper on the self-righting ability of Hermann’s tortoises, which live in the Mediterranean. Matt Walker writes for the BBC:

Depending on your point of view, it is one of life’s great questions.

How does a tortoise that has flipped onto its back, get up again?

It’s not a rhetorical question, and it goes beyond being a metaphorical or metaphysical query, or a subject for drunken debate.

For a tortoise it is a deadly serious matter; being able to right itself counts as one of life’s epic struggles, a potential matter of life and death.

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For Peat’s Sake, Conserve Amazonia

BBC: In Amazonia’s most carbon-dense ecosystems, an estimate 90% is stored underground as peat

A couple of weeks ago, we featured a story from another British news source about the peat success story in Indonesia, where the new president has pledged to tackle his country’s deforestation rate, the highest in the world. President Joko Widodo announced that both rainforest and peatland would be protected under his governance, even if that meant cracking down on the powerful plantation companies.

This week, scientists at institutions in the UK, Finland, and Peru published a paper in Environmental Research Letters calculating that peatlands, rather than rainforest, are the most dense store of carbon in Amazonia. Mark Kinver reports for BBC News:

Writing in the paper, the scientists observed: “This investigation provides the most accurate estimates to date of the carbon stock of an area that is the largest peatland complex in the Neotropics.”

They said it also confirmed “the status of the [Pastaza-Marañón foreland basin in north-west Peru] as the most carbon-dense landscape in Amanozia”.

“We expected to find these peatlands but what was more of surprise was how extensive they were, and how much this relatively small area contributed to Peru’s carbon stock,” explained co-author Freddie Draper from the University of Leeds.

The 120,000 sq km basin accounts for just about 3% of the Peruvian Amazon, yet it stores almost 50% of its carbon stock, which equates to about three billion tonnes.

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Tricking Taste Buds: Easy as Miracle Fruit Pie?

© Getty Images / BBC


Synsepalum dulcificum, also known as miracle fruit (Thinkstock)

The miracle fruit is one of the many trees that we have incorporated into the edible landscape at Marari Pearl. So we thank Veronique for writing about it in her BBC feature article How to Hack Your Tastebuds. In Kerala we have an abundance of the Indian gooseberry, or amla, which is described as sour, astringent, pungent, and bitter, but also sweet. A weird combination, to say the least. After reading Veronique’s explanation, it is easier to understand that the transition from sour to sweet in one or two bites can be explained through some chemistry that takes place on the tongue:


Tasting orange juice after brushing your teeth can be unpleasant, but why? (Thinkstock)

Your tongue is not a blank slate. What you’ve just eaten can change the flavour of what you eat next – for better or for worse. It’s all because your taste buds respond differently when the environment around them shifts – an effect you can use to go on a little mouth-hacking tour.

Let’s start with an artichoke. Eat one and then drink a glass of water and you might notice that the liquid tastes strangely sweet. Then there’s orange juice. Drink a glass after brushing your teeth with toothpaste, and the normally sweet drink tastes foul instead. And for mind-bending parlour tricks, nothing beats miracle fruit. These little red West African berries make anything sour taste sweet – and it’s a remarkably clean, pure sweetness. Continue reading

First Witnessed Bonobo Birth


Bonobos are the smaller and less researched species of chimpanzee, and just a few days ago the first birth witnessed in the wild by a human took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The three main discoveries that primatologist Pamela Heidi Douglas made while observing the birth were: the mother bonobo gave birth in a tree, rather than on the ground; the mother had two other females present at the birth, who may have served as midwives or at least supporters; and the mother and her female friends all ate the placenta after the birth. Matt Walker reports for the BBC:

For almost two years, Douglas has followed and studied the bonobos at Luikotale, as part of her research towards her PhD.

“One component of my Ph.D. research is the study of reproductive endocrinology in female bonobos,” she told BBC Earth.

To do this, Douglas regularly collected urine samples from Luna and other females in the community on a regular basis.

These were tested with human pregnancy kits, which can detect pregnancy in bonobos as well as other non-human primates.

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Predatory Selection


Writing for the BBC Earth section, Colin Barras explores “how the ‘art of killing’ changed the world.” Did multicellular organisms arise because single-celled ones were too easily attacked? Did skeletons evolve primarily as protection against predators? And, maybe the hardest question to answer with certainty: did animals move from water to land because it would be easier to avoid getting eaten? Read the excerpted introduction below and follow the link to learn about these theories and others from Barras.

If you’ve ever seen a lion or a polar bear on the hunt, you know how powerful predators can be. Life may well have been troubled by these killer species since its very beginning, over 3.5 billion years ago, and they have wrought untold death and destruction. As a result they get a bad press: even the word “predator” stems from the Latin term to rob or plunder. Small wonder that, when people imagine paradise, it normally doesn’t have any predators in it.

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Zombie Ants

African ant (Pachycondyla sp) attacked by an insect eating Fungus (Cordyceps sp) Guinea, West Africa. Photo © PIOTR NASKRECKI/ MINDEN PICTURES/National Geographic Creative

A few years ago I wrote about a curious and very specific relationship between some beetles and their wood-eating fungus symbiotic partner, and we’ve also shared other work on crazy parasitic creatures that can alter their hosts’ behavior, sometimes pretty radically (warning, creepy video). Believe it or not, the photo above isn’t some weirdly-antlered African ant–well, actually it is, but the antlers aren’t part of the ant’s body, they’re the spore-spreading apparatus of a parasitic fungus. Read on for more about the real-life World War Z that has been going on between ants (as well as other insects) and a family of zombifying fungi for millennia.

Earlier this week I went to a lecture hosted by Cornell’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior titled “Zombie Ants: the precise manipulation of animal behavior by a fungal parasite.” The lecturer was David Hughes, Professor of Entomology at Penn State University, whose faculty webpage provides PDF links to most of the articles that he has contributed to if you’re interested in checking out the actual journal pieces on this topic.  Continue reading

What Ice Reveals

Good news is meant to be shared., and we are excited to share the achievements of another branch of our company: La Paz Group, Heritage Conservation Project – Mammuthus. (Click on the photo to go to the BBC Nature News link.)

A year and half ago we began discussions with Discovery Channel and BBC, and the first step of our four-year media plan for Mammuthus was set in motion with the airing of “Woolly Mammoth: Secrets from the Ice” in the UK this week. Continue reading