Across the planet, animal life is constantly battling for resources, territory and survival, but there are wars beyond human comprehension being waged every day – sometimes beneath our very feet. The aggressors? Plants and fungi, which star in the BBC and David Attenborough’s latest five-part series, The Green Planet.
It’s hard to imagine plants and fungi as particularly active participants in warfare, but as this deep dive into their silent feuds reveals there is savagery among the foliage. State-of-the-art technology enables the viewer in episode one to take an ant’s-eye view into the fray as we follow an army of leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) in Costa Rica serving their fungus overlord, Leucoagaricus.
The fungus is in fact the biggest leaf eater in the forest despite spending its entire life stationary and underground. How does it feed? The fungus gives chemical cues to its army of ants who clear paths in the forest in their millions to bring back a constant supply of leaf fragments. They will deliver whatever tree species it so desires and as Leucoagaricus continues to grow it fulfills its part of the deal in sprouting mushrooms for the ants to eat.
However, the peace is broken as tree species under attack protect themselves by releasing toxins into their leaves, which are then taken to the fungus like so many tiny, leafy Trojan horses. As the fungus falls to the toxicity, it directs the ant to a different type of plant so it can stop unwittingly feeding from the poisoned chalice.
No stranger to plants and fungi, David Attenborough returns to the kingdoms as presenter 26 years after The Private Life of Plants first aired on BBC One. Safe to say, a few things have changed since then, most critically of all how we can now capture time-lapse photography in a way that makes the movement of plants look as active as dueling octopuses.
“Plants fight one another, plants strangle one another, and you can actually see that happening [in real time],” said Attenborough. “That you can suddenly see a plant putting out a tentacle! Now, you know it can't actually see, but you can see it trying to find its victim. And when it does finally touch the victim, it wraps around it quickly and strangles it. You know, it's pretty tough stuff.”
While the chemical warfare and traumatic injuries inflicted on some of Earth’s more leafy species might lead you to believe they are extremely tough, the series comes at a pertinent time in our history when green spaces face threats in all directions. By showing plants and fungi as living, moving species that carry out ecosystem-sustaining processes, The Green Planet hopes to drive home the message that these species are as worthy of our protection as any animal.
“The world depends on plants,” said Attenborough. “It's a cliché now, every breath of air we take, and every mouthful of food we eat, depends upon plants."
"An awareness [has grown] of another world that exists to which we hardly ever pay attention to in its own right… this is about a parallel world, which exists alongside us, and which is the basis for our own lives, and for which we have paid scant attention over the years."
You can catch episode one, "Tropical Worlds", in all its gore and glory on Sunday, January 9 at 7 pm UTC on BBC One and iPlayer.