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Life on Our Planet

11 April 2024

In 1979, the BBC produced the series Life on Earth, which cost over £1 million to produce and was filmed at over 100 locations worldwide. Coverage, however, was limited to live organisms. I recall wishing for a similar series for the fossil record, however we did not have the knowledge on how fast Tyrannosaurus could run or the computer-generated imagery (CGI) needed to make such a series exciting to the layperson. 

Over four decades later, Netflix has released a ground-breaking series, Life on Our Planet, based on the premise that the estimated 20 million species currently on Earth are just a minor percentage of those that have existed, with 99% having gone extinct. This book accompanies the series, detailing what happened between the five mass extinctions that punctuate life’s evolution on Earth. Our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) makes an appearance, though we are extremely unlikely to ever find their remains. The book documents the rise and extinction of major lineages, ranging from the Precambrian oceans to the Lower Palaeozoic migration of plant life onto land, to the dinosaurs’ rise and end-Cretaceous demise (for most, that is; don’t forget the birds). The Cenozoic follows, with the Pleistocene devastation and hominins’ role in it. 

The book includes over 200 photographs taken from the series, plus some extras. After flicking through to gaze at the pictures, I found it best to peruse the last chapter, “Behind the lens”, first. This chapter covers how scientists, computer specialists, and camera operators made the series, with early CGI sketches and details on how the colours for the creatures were deduced. I presume that aspects such as the mating dances of T. rex and terror birds were based on trace fossils of footprints. 

I had my father watch one of the series’ episodes to get his impression. He thought there must have been much supposition; for example, how did the producers know the colour scheme of the Jurassic glider, Anchiornis? Only in the book is one told that melanosomes from feathers and fur allowed mapping of creatures’ colours – including for Anchiornis a “rufous head crest”. One must watch the series and read the book to get a complete view of the project’s information; I would recommend that anybody interested do both. This has been a most fascinating and exciting review to undertake. 

Reviewed by Brent Wilson



By: Tom Fletcher (2023). Witness Books. 312 pp. (hbk).

ISBN: 9781529144147 

List Price: £30.00 https://www.penguin.co.uk/