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The Private Life of Plants Living Together

   1995    Nature
The fifth programme explores the alliances formed between the animal and plant worlds. Attenborough dives into Australia's Great Barrier Reef and contrasts the nocturnal feeding of coral, on microscopic creatures, with its daytime diet of algae. Some acacias are protected by ants, which will defend their refuge from any predator. Besides accommodation, the guards are rewarded with nectar and, from certain species, protein for their larvae as well. Fungi feed on plants but can also provide essential nutriment to saplings (Mycorrhiza). The connection is never broken throughout a tree's life and a quarter of the sugars and starches produced in its leaves is channelled back to its fungal partners. Meanwhile, fungi that feed on dead wood leave a hollow trunk, which also benefits the tree. Orchids enjoy a similar affiliation. Lichens are the product of a relationship between fungi and a photosynthetic associate, usually algae. They are extremely slow-growing, and a graveyard is the perfect location to discover their exact longevity. Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that obtains its moisture from a host tree, while using own leaves to manufacture food. Its seeds are deposited on another by the mistletoe tyrannulet, following digestion of the fruit. The dodder (Cuscuta) is also parasitic, generally favouring nettles, and siphons its nourishment through periodic 'plugs' along its stem. The rafflesia has no stem or leaves and only emerges from its host in order to bloom — and it produces the largest single flower: one metre across.
Series: The Private Life of Plants

Surviving

   1995    Nature
the final episode deals with plants that live in hostile environments. Attenborough visits Ellesmere Island, north of the Arctic Circle, to demonstrate that even in a place that is unconducive to life, it can be found. Algae and lichens grow in or on rock, and during summer, when the ice melts, flowers are much more apparent. However, they must remain close to the ground to stay out of the chilling wind. In the Tasmanian mountains, plants conserve heat by growing into 'cushions' that act as solar panels, with as many as a million individual shoots grouped together as one. Others, such as the lobelia in Mount Kenya, have a 'fur coat' of dense hairs on their leaves. The saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert flourishes because of its ability to retain vast amounts of water, which can't be lost through leaves because it has none. Many desert dwellers benefit from an accelerated life cycle, blooming rapidly within weeks after rainfall. Conversely, Mount Roraima is one of the wettest places on Earth. It is a huge sandstone plateau with high waterfalls and nutrients are continuously washed away, so plants have to adapt their diet if they are to survive. A bladderwort is shown invading a bromeliad. Inhabitants of lakes have other problems to contend with: those that dominate the surface will proliferate, and the Amazon water lily provides an apt illustration. Attenborough ends the series with an entreaty for the conservation of plant species.
Series: The Private Life of Plants

The Private Life of Plants: Travelling

   1994    Nature
Sir David Attenborough reveals plants as they have never been seen before - on the move and dangerously devious. About the major problems of life - growing, finding food, reproduction - and the varied ways plants have evolved to solve it. Filmed from the plant's point of view, using computer animations, fibre-optics and unique time-lapse photography. The first episode looks at how plants are able to move". The bramble is an aggressive example: it advances forcefully from side to side and, once settled on its course, there is little that can stand in its way. An altogether faster species is the birdcage plant, which inhabits Californian sand dunes. When its location becomes exposed, it shifts at great speed to another one with the assistance of wind — and it is this that allows many forms of vegetation to distribute their seeds. While not strictly a plant, the spores of fungi are also spread in a similar fashion. One of the most successful (and intricate) flowers to use the wind is the dandelion, whose seeds travel with the aid of 'parachutes'. They are needed to travel miles away from their parents, who are too densely packed to allow any new arrivals. Trees have the advantage of height to send their seeds further, and the cottonwood is shown as a specialist in this regard. The humidity of the tropical rainforest creates transportation problems, and the liana-species Alsomitra macrocarpa is one plant whose seeds are aerodynamic 'gliders'. Some, such as those of the sycamore, take the form of 'helicopters', while others, such as the squirting cucumber release their seeds by 'exploding'. Water is also a widely used method of propulsion. The tropical sea bean Entada gigas has one of the biggest fruits of all plants and is dispersed by water streams. However, most plants use living couriers, whether they be dogs, humans and other primates, ants or birds, etc., and to that end, they use colour and smell to signify when they are ripe for picking.
Series: The Private Life of Plants

Growing

   1994    Nature
The second episode is about how plants gain their sustenance. Sunlight is one of the essential requirements if a seed is to germinate, and Attenborough highlights the cheese plant as an example whose young shoots head for the nearest tree trunk and then climb to the top of the forest canopy, developing its leaves en route. Using sunshine, air, water and a few minerals, the leaves are, in effect, the "factories" that produce food. However, some, such as the begonia, can thrive without much light. To gain moisture, plants typically use their roots to probe underground. Trees pump water up pipes that run inside their trunks, and Attenborough observes that a sycamore can do this at the rate of 450 litres an hour — in total silence. Too much rainfall can clog up a leaf's pores, and many have specially designed 'gutters' to cope with it. However, their biggest threat is from animals, and some require extreme methods of defence, such as spines, camouflage, or poison. Some can move quickly to deter predators: the mimosa can fold its leaves instantly when touched, and the Venus flytrap eats insects by closing its leaves around its prey when triggered. Another carnivorous plant is the trumpet pitcher that snares insects when they fall into its tubular leaves. Attenborough visits Borneo to see the largest pitcher of them all, Nepenthes rajah, whose traps contain up to two litres of water and have been known to kill small rodents.
Series: The Private Life of Plants

The Big Freeze

   1993    Nature
As almost all animal inhabitants of Antarctica are forced to migrate north, the sea underneath the frozen ice still provides a home to many specially adapted fish whose cells are protected from freezing through an 'antifreeze' liquid. Many of them feed on the faeces of other animals. The most notable larger animal that does not migrate north is perhaps the Weddell Seal, which can be found as close as 1300 kilometres to the pole. Groups of seals tear holes into the ice to dive for food and come up to breathe. The females come back to the ice to give birth. This episode also describes primitive plant life such as lichen, which can still be found on the continent in winter, even in the extremely dry and permanently frozen valleys conditions under which dead animals can lie frozen for many centuries without decomposing. It details the life of the Emperor Penguin, 'the only birds to lay their eggs directly on ice'. While other animals retreat, Emperors migrate not just to the ice, but into the Antarctic continent. The females lay eggs which are incubated by the males under the harshest conditions on Earth (huddling closely together for warmth), while the females return to the sea.
Series: Life in the Freezer
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