The Shape of Life is a documentary mini-series which premiered on PBS in April 2002. This relatively obscure series pursues the modern ancestors of some of the world’s oldest and most amazing species, interviewing and following many experts of different scientific disciplines in the field and in the laboratory. Investigating the latest research from fields as divergent as genetics, paleontology and taxonomy, this series helps paint the newly emerging picture of evolution and the origins of animal life as we know it today. The series’ website lists eight different episodes but at the time I have only been able to locate the first seven, which are:
Episode 1: Origins – This introduction to the series starts out with the quest for the first “true animal”. We are brought to Indonesia where Spanish born taxonomist Christina Diaz studies the sponge; this unsuspecting sedentary creature seems like it would be more comfortable placed among the plants, but is in fact the modern ancestor of the first animal, or “animal eve”.
Episode 2: Life on the Move – Moving on to the next logical step after the first animal, we are introduced to the first animals that moved. This episode explores the cnidarians; the direct ancestors of animals who made the groundbreaking achievement of developing the first recognizable nervous system and, therefore, the first movements. Much like the case of the sponge, many of these cnidarians may not seem to move at all to the untrained or impatient eye. The sea anemone certainly seems more like an alien like underwater flower than a mobile animal…until you speed the camera up.
Episode 3: The First Hunter – Once movement was achieved through the development of a nervous system, we see the beginnings of intentional movement, and with the time, the rise of the first predatory hunter. For the first time in evolutionary history we begin to see animals with heads, a necessary adaptation for a hunter trying to move forward. Instead of the fierce breeds full of teeth and claws that we tend to associate with terms like “hunter”, we are introduced to the flatworm; the ancestor of first creature to develop eyes and to use those organs to move with intent.
Episode 4: Explosion of Life – With the rise of hunter/prey relationships as well as changes in environmental factors, the fossil record demonstrates the sudden emergence of animal diversity as never previously seen in what is known as the Cambrian Explosion. All of the major animal body plans developed in this short burst of evolutionary diversity, and no more have arisen since. Following the rise of the bilateral flatworms, we next see the rise of annelids, or worms, and the large body of work they have done for this planet.
Episode 5: The Conquerors – This episode focuses on one of the most successful groups in the animal kingdom; the arthropods, who account for 80% of modern animals. Viewers follow the path of the eurypterid, the remarkable arthropod that first made the transition from sea to land dwelling
Episode 6: Survival Game – In the wake of the Cambrian explosion, evolution was suddenly being driven by the predator/prey relationship: Predators acquired traits better suited for hunting and in turn prey developed traits to elude the increasingly efficient predators. Dr. Geerat Vermeij, a scientist who has been blind since childhood, introduces us to the world sea shells; the beautiful defense mechanism utilized by many molluscs to survive life in the ocean. Then we continue to study the ever versatile molluscan body plan in all of its forms.
Episode 7: Ultimate Animal – What is the ultimate animal? This episode seeks to define what an “ultimate” animal would be, how we would judge it, and who the contenders are. Do we go by the most prolific? The most versatile? The most intelligent? Do humans even deserve to be in the running?
It seems like in the last decade or so there has been a real explosion in the budgets and efforts of naturalist documentaries. With the release of visual giants like Planet Earth, Life and the theater released March of the Penguins; I think many documentary viewers have too casually overlooked this series which fills an important niche largely missed by the more famous ones. While scenes of large viscous predators on the hunt have gradually become more common place, this series manages to reawaken the feeling of awe many experienced when they were first viewed such amazing and rare footage. Many of the subjects in this series have been largely over looked and generally regarded akin to pretty foliage as opposed to active animal species. This series manages to not only recast these many species in the minds of its viewers but also does an amazing job at placing all of these evolutionary adaptations within their proper contexts of evolutionary time.
This is the true accomplishment of this documentary; it makes the processes of evolutionary history become very relatable to the creatures we have experience with. Each episode reviews the evolutionary ground covered in previous episodes before introducing new topics, the effect of which is a much more clear picture of the environments and challenges that eventually spurned evolution in our direction. While beat visually by other nature series, Shape of Life is still far from starved for eye candy with its recurring amazing footage of surprising creatures and is honestly one of my favorite documentary series ever. Really cannot recommend this one enough!
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