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One Picture

Movie Review
Tiny Titans
From ladybugs to snails, ants to spiders, small creatures take center stage in two visually stunning films, now available on DVD.  

Life in the Undergrowth
Narrated by David Attenborough
BBC Warner, 2006 DVD release, 250 minutes


Life in the Undergrowth is a mesmerizing exploration of the world of invertebrates—insects, in particular—and their evolutionary climb over millions of years. The two-disk, 250-minute DVD may seem daunting to view at one time, but host Richard Attenborough lures in his audience with droll narration and keen observations. Whether he’s digging deep in the dirt, looking for grubs, scaling trees to survey wasps’ nests, or strolling through English gardens in pursuit of butterflies, his accounts of this often-overlooked web of life will make viewers lose track of time.  

The film is divided into five manageable sections for easier viewing; each is devoted to key stages in the evolution of invertebrates. The fist segment, “Invasion of the Land,” explains how invertebrate evolution onto land began about 400 million years ago, when organisms started crawling out of the sea. As Attenborough explains, the primary challenge for creatures making the transition to land—particularly those moving into desert regions—was moisture control. One solution was the development of an exoskeleton, which not only helped lock in water but also protected vulnerable and vital internal organs. This adaptation, among others, enabled some ancient shrimps to evolve into woodlice, for example, and mollusks into snails. “Invasion of the Land” also examines horseshoe crabs, which are more closely related to spiders than to crabs and are some of the earth’s oldest living animals. 

“Taking to the Air” is set some 320 million years ago, when the ancestors of mayflies began flying, allowing them to find more mates and expand their breeding territory. Attenborough discusses dragonflies, which were some of the earliest flyers and whose aerial acrobatics are still unrivaled by any manmade machine. This populous group includes many of the more recognizable insects, including damselflies, butterflies, and beetles, of which an impressive 300,000 species exist today.

One of the most fascinating sections is the “The Silk Spinners.” It features the spider, which evolved just more than 300 million years ago. While most people are familiar with these innovative hunters, Attenborough reveals that they do more than spin webs. Take the trapdoor spider, which leaps out from a hole it has dug in the ground to nimbly nab its prey, or the gladiator spider, which spins a rectangular net that it stretches out to catch insects by their hairy legs. Another hunter, the bolas spider, dangles a silken line attached to a sticky ball infused with pheromones to attract moths. When a moth gets stuck to the suspended ball, the spider reels up the line for dinner. (For more on spiders, click here.)

“Intimate Relations” illustrates how invertebrates, through rapid reproduction and adaptation, are among the most numerous and capable organisms on earth.  Indeed, as Attenborough explains, many species of insects can produce several generations of progeny within one year, enabling them to then adjust to changes in their environment and evolve remarkably fast. During this section, Attenborough also describes methods insects use for finding mates and protecting eggs and offspring, noting that some insects use other insect species and plants in both symbiotic and parasitic ways to ensure enough of their numbers survive.  For example, a stick insect lays eggs that resemble seeds, which ants harvest underground. The ants are, in a sense, “tricked” into looking after the eggs and keep them safe for up to three years before they hatch, even after discovering that they’re larder is inedible.

The final chapter, “Super Societies,” shows how insects use strength in numbers to transcend the limitations of their diminutive size. Examples range from honeybees and harvester ants working together to guarantee enough food for the group in any season, to termites that build natural air-conditioned mounds that they build at an angle to minimize their exposure to the sun. These tiny titans create openings in their mounds that allow breezes to enter and cool the area, keeping their queen in an ideal egg laying state that permits her to crank out about 30,000 eggs a day. This section also reveals a dumbfounding—and perhaps humbling—fact: There are about 200 million invertebrates for every person on earth. 

By the show’s end, Attenborough makes it clear that invertebrates are far more complex and fascinating than they’re often given credit for. From worms tilling our soil, bees pollinating our crops, and beetles removing our waste, these behind-the-scenes workers are key to the very health of this planet. So next time you’re out outside, take a minute to look around and check out some of the marvelous work going on in the undergrowth.

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Microcosmos: Le peuple de l’herbe
Agencie Jules Verne, 1996, 80 minutes

This French film opens dreamily, with ephemeral clouds drifting by, complemented by a soft, eerie choir in the background. The inventive camera angles bring the audience close to the ground, revealing the underbelly—sometimes literally—of invertebrate life. There is minimal narration, and the audio track consists mainly of sounds collected from the field, from the slithering of snails across crackling leaf litter to the pattering percussion of countless insect limbs on a tree trunk.

From beginning to end, viewers will feel like (pardon the expression) flies on the wall of the lives of these creatures, witnessing their daily routine of survival: birth, foraging, reproduction, death. Visually rich footage highlights each of these steps from an almost surreal perspective. For example, mating slugs perform a dangling aerial dance, writhing from a single sticky string of mucus. Territorial scarab beetles lock horns from a camera angle so close, viewers might wish to duck as one raises its opponent above its armor-plated head to hurl it to the earth.

Observing the trials and tribulations of these minute creatures makes our day-to-day lives look downright simple. What would seem like a light rainstorm to us becomes a monsoon for forest insects that scuttle for shelter under the nearest leaf. A tiny thorn in the ground rears up as an almost insurmountable obstacle for a dung beetle: The tip impales its delectable dung ball mid roll, forcing the beetle to push from every angle, until it finally rolls loose. 

If these organisms’ ability to overcome obstacles isn’t impressive enough, viewers will also marvel at accounts of their innovation. There are ants that tend herds of aphids, harvesting the smaller insects for honeydew drops (contained in the aphids’ bodies) while defending their tiny flock from predators such as ladybugs. There’s also a spider that lives underwater by inhabiting a large bubble into which it draws smaller bubbles of air collected at the surface. In this manner, it maintains a constant oxygen supply while also keeping its food fresh. 

Though it might have been helpful to know the names of the creatures we were spying upon, the film’s artistic perspective more than compensates for the absence of intimidating scientific terminology. Indeed, Microcosmos is a key tool for spreading appreciation for this vibrant landscape of life that is richer than many of us may have imagined—one that creeps, crawls, and flies by, often unnoticed.

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