The Future is Wild (2003) s01e12 Episode Script

Graveyard Desert

Imagine a world, millions of years in the future.
A world where evolution has written a new chapter in the story of life.
The world is inhabited by very strange creatures, like nothing the Earth has ever seen.
the FUTURE is WILD GRAVEYARD DESER 200 million years in the future, a parched, barren desert stretches over 8000 kilometres.
Only a few creatures survive in this harsh, brutal landscape and to do so requires some very unusual lifestyles.
Here nothing is what it seems.
This baking desert is fuelled by a food that comes from the other side of a massive range of mountains, running down its eastern edge.
In 200 million years' time the planet, itself, is very different.
All the continents have collided and formed one massive supercontinent.
The desert is formed where the mountains on the east coast shield the land from the moisture of the global ocean.
On this side of the mountains, strange, flying creatures - flish, descended from fish, live on the coast and feed over the open water.
But they have to live with the continuous danger of violent storms.
Now one of the things about the supercontinent is that with all of the landmasses clumped together, surrounded, in essence, by one huge ocean, the energy balance of the globe changes.
There's a lot more energy, a lot warmer ocean, a lot more energy is transferred to the atmosphere, we have much more power storms.
Huge hurricanes batter the coastline of the supercontinent.
They are hypercanes 50% stronger than today's most powerful hurricanes, with 400 kilometre an hour winds.
It would be impossible for any creature to fight against this wind.
Swept up by the howling winds, the flish are carried deep into the mountains.
Every once in a while one of these giant storms that is strong enough to make it over the mountains and make it into this desert inside the continent will bring with it flish.
Enormous numbers of flish that got caught up in the storm, blown inland and, as the storm dies out, the flish settle down, as it were, as aerial fertiliser, entering the ecosystem as carcasses.
The flish lay dying in the scorching sun, but already, there is something looking for them.
A bumblebeetle.
It can fly at 35 kilometres an hour fast for an insect.
And it has to it must such vast areas to find one of these flish graveyards.
The bumblebeetle has got two problems.
The overriding one is that its food source is very spread out and it doesn't know where it is.
Because it is spread out, it has got to be able to travel fast and cheaply and because it has got to find the food, it needs an effective sensory mechanism.
Now modern insects often find food by scent with antennae.
The problem with antennae is they are big and they create a lot of drag, so it makes flight expensive, or forces the insect to go slowly.
The bumblebeetle can't do that.
It has therefore become rather modified.
It is still a bit like an insect in shape, but it is very streamlined.
The front legs are covered in hairs, turning them into extra antennae.
But these hairs and the antennae, fold down in flight to reduce drag.
Stiff wing cases also provide extra lift, saving energy in flight.
It starts its journey with 40% of its body filled with fat which gives it just enough fuel to fly for 24 hours non-stop.
The bumblebeetle can pick up the scent of the dead flish from 10 kilometres away and after searching for several hours, it has found one.
But this flish is already occupied.
By a grimworm a bizarre kind of insect.
Inside the body of the dead flish, grimworms grow quickly on the rich meat.
They double their size in 48 hours.
As grimworms spend their whole lives eating, their mouth parts have been modified into three sets of slicing and grinding jaws.
A bumblebeetle can't compete with this eating machine.
It has no choice but to continue its search.
Time is running out.
This desert is one of the harshest environments we can imagine for terrestrial plants and animals to survive in.
But they are there, how do they do it? Well, we don't really had to use science fiction again, we can simply turn around and see how plants and animals survive in similar environments, the Namib desert of southern western Africa for example, the Atacama Desert of Chile in the present day.
These two have life.
Today, desert animals have different ways of staying cool.
The sidewinder keeps most of its body off the burning sand.
Other animals, like meerkats, stay in in the shade during the day, keeping of out of the fierce sun, and a ground squirrel lowers its body temperature by flattening it body on to the cool earth at the bottom of its burrow.
But the most common and effective way of staying cool is to wait for nightfall.
Now, a whole variety of creatures emerge from their burrows into the cool night air.
The desert comes alive.
Lizards, like geckos, are joined on the surface by birds, like burrowing owls.
Under a clear sky, the desert quickly radiates away the day's heat.
In many respects, we would assume that the same adaptations we see today would arise by what we call 'convergent evolution' in the future.
That there would simply be features that are sufficiently adapted that different groups, with very different genetic histories, would ultimately arrive at similar solutions to survival in this environment.
200 million years in the future, there are no mammals, no reptiles, no birds.
But there is still life in the desert.
These creatures spent the heat of the day buried deep in the cool soil.
Desert hoppers.
They are about 30 centimetres high, and weigh two kilograms.
But, despite their size, they still look similar to their ancestor the snail.
It seems like a big change for a common snail to live in a desert, and hop.
Snails have a large foot the bulk of the body mass is a strong foot which they crawl on.
Living snails secrete a mucous out of the bottom of the foot, small muscular waves in the foot propel themselves through the mucus then.
That's the way the vast majority of snails locomote.
A few have invented another way and this way makes it not implausible that a snail be jumping around the desert.
The conches are marine snails that already have evolved a foot that has modified into a jumping organ so they will push the foot and actually lift off the floor into the water, escaping predators, for example.
And it is completely believable that an animal could take on land into the desert.
So in some ways, today's snails are already pre-adapted for this strange way of moving.
Hopping has a lot of advantages in the desert it keeps their bodies off the hot sand, and they don't need a slime trail which wastes water.
And hopping is a much more efficient way to cover long distances in search of the sparse desert plants they eat.
But finding the plants is only part of the problem.
Desert plants will have hard cuticles on the outside because they need to conserve water.
The desert snail will have to get all its water from its food.
Well, present day snails have mouth parts that allowed them to feed, called a radula.
A snail's radula is like a rasping, grazing tongue.
It's surface is covered by lines of sharp little hooks that make snails so horribly efficient at eating soft, tender leaves.
And this powerful rasping tongue could easily adapt to handle much tougher plant tissue.
The radula is pre-adapted for the future desert snail to drill a hole through the hard outer cuticle of the plant and get to the soft, watery tissues inside.
It is just a matter of the right group of snails using these pre-adapted features, putting them together to be able to make it in this future world.
As the cool of the night creeps over the future desert, it is not just the desert hoppers that take advantage of the darkness.
The grimworms have eaten all they can of the carcass and to find more food, they have to change.
Burying themselves in the ground to metamorphose into the next stage of their lifecycle.
The Desert hoppers still out foraging, eating what they can of the desert plants throughout the night.
But some plants here are deadly.
This is the trap of a huge, carnivorous plants the death-bottle.
Next morning, as the sun rises, the rest of the desert hoppers retreat to the shade before they are caught out in the heat.
But for the trapped hopper, there is no escape, impaled on the poisonous spines of this death-bottle plant.
As the hopper dies, the plant will start to digest its victim.
The plant really grows the lid of the trap.
Once it is covered by sand, the trap is set once more.
There are carnivorous plants around today.
Living on poor soil, they feed on insects to gain essential nutrients.
The sundew is covered by hairs with sticky ends.
When the trapped insect struggles, the plant seems seals the trap.
A pitcher-plant uses a different tactic.
Colourful patterns attract ants to the very slippery edge of a deep well, filled with water and digestive acid.
But in the future, carnivorous plants are much more sinister.
This new bottle trap out in the desert is a desert predator.
It is different because it is predating upon a much larger sized prey most carnivorous plants today are dealing with insects, they are not out after things that could be measured in many ounces.
Because it is working on bigger prey, it has something that has the potential, once that prey has fallen into the trap, to do damage to the trap.
So then you need to immobilise that prey item very quickly.
So, instead of simply killing it off by immersing it in the digestive juices, the death-bottle trap actually has poisoned spines that will kill the organism before it can thrash around.
So, by trapping and digesting animals, the death-bottles have solved the problem of obtaining nutrients from the sterile desert soil.
But, like all plants, they still have to reproduce and spread their seeds across the vast desert.
The death-bottle plants produce flowers that look, and smell, just like a dead flish.
Just what the exhausted bumblebeetle has been trying to find.
It's sensitive antennae pick up the fake scent and it homes in on the flower.
But it only has a few hours of fat reserves left.
It even finds what looks like a wound a way into the carcass.
But this time it is not a deadly trap, it is a clever way for the plant to use the bumblebeetle.
A major problem facing any plant is going to be reproduction.
And in the case of the death flask in the desert, where plants are widely spread from each other, one could envisage wind dispersal, but it seems much more likely and effective to have animal dispersal which is where the bumblebeetle comes in.
How are you going to attract a carnivorous beetle to a plant? Well, the answer is the usual, and this has been invented repeatedly in living plants, that you fake it out by smelling bad.
There are plants today that do this.
This is a raflesia the worlds largest flower, nearly a metre across.
It grows in the rainforests of Borneo and attracts thousands of flies by mimicking the colour and smell of rotten meat.
As the flies search for food, they crawl around the inside of the giant flower and get covered in blobs of slimy pollen.
Eventually, they give up their search for the nonexistent meat and leave.
To be fooled by another raflesia and so carry pollen on to the next plant.
But insects can be made to do more than carry pollen.
In the future, the death-bottle plant puts the powerful, fast flying bumblebeetle to another use.
Down comes the bumblebeetle tracked in by both the smell which gives it a sense of 'here comes another free meal', and the appearance.
It goes in to what it thinks is a wound within this what it perceives to be a flish, and it ends up falling into what amounts to another kind of flask-like trap, except this one is lined by the seeds.
The seeds are sticky and the bumblebeetle sort of bumps around trying to get its way out and seeds get stuck all over it.
And at some point in its attempts to escape the trap, it lights upon a particular portion of the inside of the trap which is more lightly coloured, which happens to be a completely surprise laden spring.
And when it hits that particular point within the flower, the flower literally catapults the bumblebeetle out.
Bumblebeetles carry the seeds over long distances.
But there is another advantage to the system.
The second aspect which makes the bumblebeetle such a great pollenator is that not only does it require fewer seeds that the bumblebeetle can move, but the bumblebeetle has behaviour.
It is not going to randomly go fly off and sit on a rock to get rid of these particular seeds, it is going to go out and it is going to seek its own sustenance.
And what is its own sustenance? A nice rotting flish.
The bumblebeetle is now laden with seeds and finally picks up the scent of a real dead flish.
But there is one last problem to solve.
Dead flish attract beetles from all over the desert.
And this one has use its last reserves of strength to fight for the carcass.
As they fight above the dead flish, the seeds are dislodged and sewn around the carcass the only fertiliser in the barren soil.
Thanks to the bumblebeetle, the death-bottle plant has spread it seeds to a new part of the desert.
The beetle has been flying for nearly a day this is its last chance.
Most bumblebeetles never find a flish in time they simply run out of fuel and die.
But even though it has found a flish, the beetle won't eat it.
All this time, it has been searching for a flish to deliver its very strange cargo.
A cargo of grimworms.
The grimworms are the maggots of the bumblebeetle.
They live their entire life inside the dead flish, eating and growing.
But to find more flish, the grimworms dig into the ground, pupate, and change into the adult bumblebeetle.
The adult bumblebeetles scour the desert desperately searching for new flish carcasses.
But instead of carrying eggs like normal insects today, the eggs hatch out the inside the bumblebeetle.
Small, maggot grimworms grow inside their mother, so that when the bumblebeetle finds a flish, they can emerge and start eating straight away, before the flish dries out in the desert heat.
The bumblebeetles job is done, and her young crawl out from her broken body.
Her journey is over and she dies.
A new generation begins.
And life in the desert goes on.
Somewhere, the other side of the mountains, another storm is brewing.
And more fish are swept over the mountains into the desert.
200 million years in the future, the death of one creature supports a strange and bizarre collection of plants and animals that inhabit this graveyard desert.