Strange Days on Planet Earth is a recent example of producer and writer John Rubin’s extraordinary documentary production abilities. The first episode of this series, “Invaders,” explores the current state of invasive species throughout the world. In the hour long episode host and narrator Edward Norton follows experienced researchers as they investigate invasive species that range from Formosen Subterranean termites in New Orleans to Water Hyacinth that wreak havoc in Uganda. “Invaders” is effective in portraying the scope and range of the invasive species problem in a compelling manner.
This episode of Strange Days on Planet Earth begins with dramatic music composed by three time Emmy nominee Sheldon Mirow. The modern music and a playful mystery theme give the documentary an unusual light hearted tone. This tone contrasts to the sobering facts about invasive species- in the United States alone 35-43% of endangered species are effected by invasives (pbs.org).
The first discussed invasions are of aquatic invaders in the San Francisco Bay. These are introduced alongside marine ecologist Jim Carlton, who is researching aquatic species in New England through a series of rapid inspections. The second invasive species to be discussed, Formosan subterranean termites, is introduced with a humorous scene of a piano falling through a rotted and termite infested wooden floor. John Rubin then continues to describe the havoc termites wreak in New Orleans, and the solution used by researcher Claudia Reigal to control the damaging insects.
The episode goes on to describe multiple other sites of species invasion and the tactics researchers and citizens alike are taking to eradicate the pests. At Lake Victoria the episode takes a personal twist as it explores the damaging effects Water Hyacinth has on residents, including increased rates of dysentery and shistomaisis. Here the documentary focuses on Ugandan researcher James Ogwang and his extensive efforts to remove Water Hyacinth from Lake Victoria.
In “Invaders” John Rubin manages to make the threat of invasive species relevant and comprehensible. The documentary episode covers the reason for recent surge in spread of invasive species and the three basic ways in which invasive species can be dealt with: mechanical, biological and chemical treatments. Emphasis is placed on the responsibility of the community and the individual to prevent and manage species invasions with mention to honorable groups such as the “Weed Warriors” who fight against Ice Plant invasion in their own community. This episode presents the invasive species threat in an engaging manner which makes the information accessible and relevant.
The Miconia plant has taken root on an island far from its origins in native Mexico. The islands of Hawai’i are the unlucky recipients of the Miconia, a plant that seems determined to take over the vegetation of the tropic islands. It was first transported from Mexico as a decorative plant, considered beautiful because of the brilliant coloring of its leaves’ undersides. Upon introduction to Hawai’i, the Miconia soon flourished and spread. Currently, it can be found occupying 10,000 acres on the Big Island.
The plant endangers native species by growing above the vegetation line and blocking the sunlight from the plants below. Starved for the light they need to live, native plants die, leaving Miconia roots the only ones supporting the soil. Because Miconia roots are few and relatively shallow, the danger of erosion quickly becomes a reality in Miconia-dominated areas of forest. In the event of a large rain or runoff from the hillsides, the chance of a landslide is alarmingly high. The Miconia plants would be unable to sustain their position in such conditions and the runoffs from such a landslide would head straight for the ocean, covering delicate coral and endangering the aquatic species that make coral their homes.
A species of bird called the Japanese white-eye, another introduced species, has had a part in spreading this plant. When the Miconia plant flowers, it produces thousands of seeds, many of which are transported about the islands by the Japanese white-eye. Once these seeds find soil, they take root and a new area of growth is established. The Miconia plant flowers three times a year, making it a very prolific plant, detrimentally so in an area where it is unwanted.
Scientist Greg Asner, followed in the National Geographic “Strange Days on Planet Earth” documentary episode Invaders, has undertaken a project to create aerial maps of Miconia infestations using a variety of technology—helicopter remote sensing, satellite photos, simple walks through the vegetation to record plant locations, etc. With these maps, he hopes to be able to manage the infestations before they become too large, mainly through the work of volunteers.
The efforts made by Asner, and other involved researchers, seem to be the best course of action to take with such prevalent invaders. I was impressed by the variety of venues through which Asner collects the information to create his maps of Miconia infestations—he takes into account leaf size and plant height as well as simple longitudinal and latitudinal measurements. I think that if public interest remains concerned about the spread of Miconia, Asner’s method of management will continue to succeed. However, if public interest falls, it will be difficult to continue. The focus of the public is a powerful tool in any effort to stop the force of invasive species like the Miconia.
In the National Geographic documentary series, Strange Days on Planet Earth, narrator Edward Norton introduces the increasing global change related to invasive species as a mystery that the film attempts to solve by providing the audience with clues of such alien invaders. Along the way, Norton elaborates on some of the ecological and social effects these aliens have affected along the way. As expert ecologist Jim Carlton featured in the film explains, these aliens are spreading disease and devouring buildings with more and more arrivals every year.
The film is well organized, presenting each successful invader and showing its harmful effects in a visually interesting matter to ensure the viewer is captivated by the issue at hand. For example, to illustrate the fast movement of many insect species around the world, train wheels are juxtaposed with millipede legs. Flashback-style film clips keep the viewer intrigued and interested in the origin stories for many of the aliens.
Besides being visually interesting, the documentary also contains a great deal of valuable information. Creatures from termites in New Orleans to water hyacinth in Lake Victoria are highlighted, and the consequences of their invasions are detailed. In the ideal hot and sticky climate of New Orleans, termite arrivals from Asia make themselves right at home and destroy homes as well as outcompete native species by having the ability to nest anywhere. In Uganda, the water hyacinth covered up to 80% of the shoreline at one point, preventing fishermen from moving in the lake and getting sufficient catches to feed themselves and their families. It also blocks sunlight, causing the death and rotting of other species and thus decreasing water quality and serving as an impetus for many waterborne diseases. Possible methods of control are discussed, including poison for termites and biocontrol with weevils for the hyacinth.
Another valuable aspect of the documentary is its message to the audience to examine the world through a different lens. As Norton stresses, ignorance is seldom bliss and we must be responsible for our own actions. If we push our luck by carelessly transporting species from port to port in ballast tanks, our planet will eventually become one continent in which enormous amounts of extinction may occur. In my opinion, this documentary does a fantastic job of providing an overview of some effects alien species have on their new homes and makes an impression on the viewer by highlighting the dangers of the globalization of species.
“When Everything Moves Everywhere, What Will Survive?”
National Geographic’s “Strange Days on Planet Earth” captures the intensity, immediacy, and growing problems that are stemming from the spread of invasive species. With visual stimuli, harsh realities of destroyed environments presented, and the impact that individual actions can have to help this growing problem, this film effectively draws in the audience and forces us to face the seriousness of this epidemic. James Carlton emphasizes this by saying, “If we change our lenses a little, you can start to see the drastic changes of our world.”
The film highlights that plants and animals are being found in areas that they once were not found. In fact, over ninety-nine percent of marine life in the San Francisco bay area originated from another place in the world. The cause of this problem correlates with the acceleration of transportation, and with that, a surplus of invasive species that are contributing to “extinction on an epic scale” (National Geographic).
From red fire ants in America to the Brown Tree snake in Guam, invasive species are clearly identified in most parts of the world. While some may not be initially harmful, others threaten ecosystems and pose serious health issues. For example, an invasive termite invaded the New Orleans area, destroying homes, structures, and overall communities in its path. Crates made of local wood were sent to New Orleans at the end of the Vietnam War, and it soon became evident that the wood was responsible for carrying terminates across waters to their new home. The heat and surplus of wood, along with the fact that native termites prefer to live underground rather than above ground, are among the few reasons for the drastic incline and infestation.
As a result of these examples, I began to recognize and respect the magnitude of this problem. The movie ended by asking the audience to think about what will survive when everything moves everywhere. This idea is both shocking and disturbing. The more occurrences of invasive species taking over habitats, the less likely are native plants to survive. Our world is slowly becoming less and less diverse. And with constant changes of climate, technology, and society, we are putting our environment and ourselves at larger risks of disease and undesired consequences. I enjoyed this film because it not only thoroughly discussed invasive species, but it also brought in a personal appeal to the individual and the effects that our progression and actions have on our world.
“Strange Days on Planet Earth” is a documentary created by National Geographic and narrated by Edward Norton. It was created to provide a general audience with a glimpse at a problem that is plaguing the global community. The documentary details the problems associated with invasive species and provides examples from Uganda to New Orleans. Each example shows a different facet of the problem that the global community faces. The documentary opens with Jim Carlton’s work in an Oakland Port. He is in the process of making one of twenty rapid assessments in the area to determine new species in the area. His introduction is brief, but he is reintroduced later.
The viewer sees Claudia Riegel’s research of the Formosan subterranean termite. An invasive species introduced to America after the September 1945 Japanese surrender. When the Americans left they made crates from local wood, but the termites were in the wood. Once in America, the termites prospered in New Orleans because its climate is hot and sticky, similarly to the termites’ native land, and Orleans is composed mostly of wood. The termites then out competed native species because they can live above and below ground unlike the natives, which are only, settle below ground. The viewer even sees the efforts being made to eliminate the species.
Next, James Ogwang’s efforts to save Uganda’s Lake Victoria are shown. Here the viewer sees how the water hyacinth brought Uganda to its knees. Although the events in this part are quite riveting, details will be saved for SW3.
Finally, the documentary shows David Duffy’s research in Hawaii. In Hawaii, Duffy and Greg Asner are working to stop the miconia from destroying the island. The plant was brought to the island as a gift from Europe, but it soon got into the wild and began to outgrow surrounding vegetation. The growth began to shade lower growth until only miconia remained in the area. Areas where this occurred now have loose soil and are therefore prone to landslides. Asner is trying to find miconia colonies by determining how they reflect the sun and using this to find them from the air.
“Strange Days” then shows the viewers that scientists are not the only people contributing to these efforts. Civilians all over the world volunteer to help. In Uganda local fisher are helping to fight the water hyacinth. In America, the Weed Warriors are helping to eliminate the ice plant in their state.
The documentary is put together quite well and provides excellent insight for those who do not know very much about this issue. National Geographic’s usage of the word invaders became a motif present throughout the documentary. Edward Norton primarily uses when he describes the invasive species like they are an invasive alien army. He uses words and phrases such as “alien powers”, “invader assault”, and “encounter with aliens.” These puns provide brief levity to a serious matter. Also, I found one statistic to be quite powerful; 99% of the species in San Francisco, by weight, are foreign. An impressive and powerful statistic that ends an informative documentary.