This Sunday, Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, maker of wildlife documentaries, snuggler of gorillas, wielder of That Voice, keeper of the blue shirt, and Most Trusted Man in Britain, turns 90. To mark the occasion, and celebrate his unbeatable oeuvre, I re-watched all 79 episodes of his Life Collection, and ranked them from worst to best—or, really, from least great to greatest.
Recent series like Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Life are not represented here. Although many bill them as “Attenborough shows,” he only narrated them (and was over-dubbed by movie stars in the U.S.). No, this list focuses on the big series that he himself wrote and presented, the ones that are most marbled with his influence, the ones that feature his beaming face along with his velvet voice. There are nine, starting with Life on Earth in 1979 and going up to Life in Cold Blood in 2008.
These, more than any other hours of television, defined my childhood and adolescence, instilling a love of nature that has persisted to this day and driven my career. I’ve watched them many times over, but doing so in a row was like mainlining decades of awe (and watching an old friend age in time-lapse).
I met Attenborough twice. The first time was over lunch, where he and paleontologist Richard Fortey competitively classified the items in the seafood platter. The next was for an interview at his London house, where he showed me his fossil collection. He is the man you imagine: a peerless raconteur, thoughtful and twinkly when talking about wildlife, cantankerous when asked about his own status. “I just point at things,” he told me. Well, this is me, pointing back.
Happy birthday, Sir David.
79) Life in the Freezer Episode 6: Footsteps in the Snow
An odd episode, this. The first half contrasts Captain Scott’s ill-fated exploration with modern Antarctic research, while the second is essentially cameraperson shenanigans. In a modern documentary, this material would be confined to 10-minute “Making Of” segments that suffix episodes; standing alone, they sit awkwardly with the rest of the oeuvre. Bonus points for the sequence in which singing researchers inside the base are contrasted with freezing, huddling penguins on the ice outside.
Attenborough appearance count: 4, including showing off Scott’s equipment and clothes; and visiting a research base at the South Pole.
Highlight: The tour of Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, where everything has been preserved by the cold some 80 years after his ill-fated expedition.
78) Life on Earth Episode 13: The Compulsive Communicators
I have a hypothesis that Attenborough’s work gets more interesting the further he gets from humans. Hence the low ranking for this episode, a perfectly decent tour of human physical and cultural evolution, from bipedalism to stone tools to literature. The focus on people, in the final episode of his first great series Life on Earth, risks depicting us at the top of a great ladder of evolution, rather than as just another species in the tree of life. Attenborough acknowledges as much in his parting words: “That may have given the impression that man was somehow the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all those thousands of millions of years of development had no purpose other than to put man on Earth. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever for that belief.”
Attenborough count: 14, including standing in a very crowded Trafalgar Square; holding skulls of early hominids and their tools; looking at cave art; and walking among DNA sculptures while looking very strange in a suit.
Highlight: Attenborough rates the sequence where he and his film crew meets the uncontacted Biami tribe of New Guinea as one of his top ten personal highlights, although four decades on, it feels uncomfortable.
77) Life on Earth Episode 3: The First Forests
This one covers the first invasions of land, from mosses and liverworts to trees, and from scuttling millipedes to flying insects.
Attenborough count: 8, including standing by a pool of bubbling volcanic mud like it’s no big deal; waxing lyrical about moss by a stream; and walking among the Petrified Forest of Arizona.
Highlight: While casually sitting on a Welsh hill, Attenborough unexpectedly pulls out a wind-up detonator (and a rather chic varnished hard hat), and blows up a bit of nearby hillside. He then clambers over the rubble looking for fossils.
76) Life on Earth Episode 10: Themes and Variations
Life on Earth, initially broadcast in 1979, was the first of Attenborough’s major natural history series. As we’ll see, many episodes have stood the test of time, but others can’t help but suffer in these rankings because their grainy shots pale next to the hi-definition images that have since filled our screens. That’s especially so for underwater celebrities like the bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales of this episode, which appear murky and occluded.
Attenborough count: 8, including discussing the communication skills of bottlenose dolphins, while three captive ones squeak behind him as if on cue.
Highlight: Although filmed in captivity, the underwater birth of a dolphin is still an indelible image.
75) The Living Planet Episode 2: The Frozen World
This episode about life in Earth’s coldest places, with its shots of Arctic foxes, snow leopards, emperor penguins, and polar bears, is another victim of the “done better later” effect, having been superseded by Frozen Planet, Planet Earth, The Hunt, and even Attenborough’s own Life in the Freezer.
Attenborough count: 10, including sitting among rockhopper and king penguins; and walking among wallowing elephant seals.
Highlight: Attenborough hikes up the seemingly lifeless slopes of Mount Rainier and exposes red algae growing beneath the snow; even here there is life.
74) Life on Earth Episode 11: The Hunters and Hunted
This one’s on plant-eating mammals from cuddly dormice to formidable (extinct) giant armadillos, and the predators that hunt them.
Attenborough count: 4, including visiting a Patagonian cave where the skins of giant ground sloths were found.
Highlight: Lions stalk and attack a herd of wildebeest. Sure, such kills have been filmed many times since, but this sequence is still proof that Attenborough’s command of storytelling and the ineffable quality of his voice can enliven any footage, no matter how familiar.
73) Life in the Freezer Episode 1: The Bountiful Sea
Life in the Freezer, first broadcast in 1993, is very hard to rate. It’s the only one of the nine series that focuses on just one continent, Antarctica, and its episodes are half the length of the others. You can’t help comparing it to 2011’s Frozen Planet, especially since the two have exactly the same structure; the latter is essentially a remake of the former. But the series does include moments that have rarely been bettered (just not in this episode) and it more than fulfills its goal of showing just how much exists in “the loneliest and coldest place on Earth, the place that is most hostile to life.”
Attenborough count: 7, including sailing past Lambert glacier and nervously looking for calving icebergs; watching wandering albatrosses raise their chicks; and sitting among brown, fuzzy king penguin chicks as they inquisitively consider the camera.
Highlight: A long panning shot of a king penguin creche and its 50,000 chicks, ending on a delighted Attenborough sitting among them. Kings get a short shrift compared to the overexposed emperors, and it’s nice to see them get some love here.
72) Life in the Freezer Episode 2: The Ice Retreats
Spring in the Antarctic, and Attenborough catches up with albatrosses, penguins, and crabeater seals (the most numerous large mammal in the world, except for us). There’s a rare shot of a bull elephant seal swimming underwater, and a wonderful sequence of white snow petrels bathing in snow.
Attenborough count: 6, including standing among 80,000 macaroni penguins as the camera slowly pans out to reveal just how many there are.
Highlight: “His sole object in life at the moment is to make quite sure that he and he alone mates with every single one of them,” says Attenborough, next to a bull elephant seal, which then turns around and charges him. “And to that, he must fight!” he adds, retreating hurriedly and brandishing an inadequate defensive stick.
71) Life in the Undergrowth Episode 2: Taking to the Air
In which Attenborough discusses the aerial prowess of butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, and pretty much anything whose name ends in –fly, including, er, flies. “It might seem that he’s absolutely motionless,” he says inexplicably, as an uncooperative hoverfly zips around in front of him.
Attenborough count: 9, including picking up a fossil of Meganeura, an extinct dragonfly with a half-meter wingspan; demonstrating the agility of a hoverfly by firing a peashooter at it; grabbing the six-inch-long titan beetle—the world’s largest; and luring a male cicada by snapping his fingers.
Highlight: After 17 years underground, the periodical cicadas emerge en masse, blanketing the trees in black bodies, causing an almighty ruckus, mating, dying, and blanketing the ground in black bodies.
70) The Life of Mammals Episode 10: Food For Thought
This episode, on the intelligent behaviors of apes and the evolution of humans, gets marked down for promoting the aquatic ape hypothesis—a largely discredited but irritatingly persistent idea about human evolution, in which our two-legged stance, mostly hairless skin, and large brains arose because our ancestors waded about in wet and flooded habitats. “Suddenly an image from our remote past becomes vividly clear—that crucial moment when our far-distant ancestors took a step away from being apes and toward being humanity,” says Attenborough while watching a chimp wading through a river, arms aloft. Yeah, the image is vivid, but that doesn’t make it true. Also, the episode (and the series) ends with a nod to population control, a topic that has increasingly occupied Attenborough in recent years, and has occasionally landed him in trouble.
Attenborough count: 11, including watching a female orangutan mimic human by washing herself; telling nut-cracking chimps to mind their fingers; following fossilized trackways of ancient hominids; walking through the ancient cities of Djenne and Tikal; and visiting a NASA launchpad.
Highlights: A San Bushman brings down a kudu in a persistence hunt, running after it for hours in the midday heat until it is exhausted.
69) Life on Earth Episode 8: Lords of the Air
Effectively a pre-emptive highlight reel to The Life of Birds, Attenborough packs into 50 minutes what he later spent an entire 12-part series describing. That includes archaic-looking hoatzins (with their punky crests and clawed chicks), hovering hummingbirds, and Attenborough’s personal favorites—the birds of paradise.
Attenborough count: 7, including watching white storks on German roofs; searching for fossilized feathers; and comparing the beachball-sized egg of the extinct elephant bird with the pea-sized one of a hummingbird.
Highlight: The improbable, spectacular mating dances of the incredible birds of paradise, including the six-wired (tip-toeing; iridescent chest patch; head filaments), the greater (jumping; squawking; tail like Trump’s hair), the blue (hanging upside-down; flaring out electric blue cape; sounding like a faulty modem); and the superb (er ... clacking while looking like a black face with a blue smiling mouth, idk, just watch it, okay?).
68) Life on Earth Episode 7: Victors of the Dry Land
A reptile-centric hour that’s historically interesting because Attenborough ascribes the extinction of the dinosaurs to a cooling climate. This episode aired sixteen months before Luis Alvarez and his son Walter proposed that an asteroid strike was the true killer.
Attenborough count: 9, including watching giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and diamondback rattlesnakes; walking up a rocky wall full of dinosaur fossils; and looking at a Triceratops skull still buried in a mountainside.
Highlight: A writhing tangle of mass-mating (and live-bearing) garter snakes takes the runner-up position. But the stars of the show are the Nile crocodiles, which show the most tender care towards their eggs and hatchlings, moving them about in bone-crushing jaws.
67) The Living Planet Episode 3: The Northern Forests
The temperate forests, and this episode, are home to crossbills, moose, lynx, wolverines, woodpeckers, chipmunks, and rattlesnakes. The sawfly caterpillars, which store resin from pine needles and dab it onto the heads of attacking ants, are an unexpected delight.
Attenborough count: 7, including walking among giant sequoias; and advising viewers on correct owl-watching protocol. “All owls are fairly ferocious, so as part of the standard equipment for looking at owls’ nests, you need this,” he says, before putting on goggles and a helmet. And now you know.
Highlight: Not content to peruse an owl nest, Attenborough sticks his head and torch into a rocky den, and comes face-to-face with a black bear and her cubs. Mercifully, she’s still sluggish from hibernation.
66) The Trials of Life Episode 8: Fighting
If you’d asked me which of the 12 episodes of The Trials of Life, each of which is about a particular type of animal behavior, would be the dullest, I would not have picked the one about fighting. But! It turns out that fighting largely involves animals charging at each other, and while the creatures and their armaments are impressive—moose! antler flies! elephants!—the clashes get oddly repetitive. Exceptions include the pistol shrimps (sonic claws), rattlesnakes (full body wrestling), and giraffes (neck-fu).
Attenborough count: 4, including watching squabbling vultures; holding up a set of moose antlers; and trolling a territorial hummingbird with a stuffed hummingbird.
Highlight: The combatants that buck the trend: sea anemones. Sped up, their fights turn out to be an unexpectedly thrilling clash of stinging tentacles.
65) The Life of Birds Episode 9: Problems of Parenthood
An oddly uncaptivating episode even though it’s ostensibly The One With All the Baby Chicks. Far more captivating are the mouths of baby finches, with bizarre colors intended to draw the attention of their parents. Also notable are torrent ducklings negotiating rapids, and a duck that behaves like a cuckoo.
Attenborough count: 5, including getting vomited on by an open-billed stork that’s trying to cool its chicks. He talks about nice, cool showers, and then—splash! “Some showers are nicer than others.”
Highlight: The sight of coots brutally shaking their own surplus chicks to death, so that the surviving siblings will prosper, is testament to the often-uncomfortable nature of nature.
64) The Life of Birds Episode 2: The Mastery of Flight
A tribute to the beauty and elegance of bird flight, from kestrels hovering in place, to barn owls silently closing in on prey, to vast flocks of half a million dickcissels plaguing grain fields in Venezuela. Marveling at the flocks, Attenborough says, “How they coordinate their flight in these extraordinary concentrations, changing direction within as if with one mind is one of the unsolved mysteries of ornithology.” But in the 18 years since, we’ve come a long way towards solving (or at least better understanding) that.
Attenborough count: 8, including watching shearwaters climbing trees to get airborne (and giving a clumsy individual a hand); and catching a golden eagle on his gloved hand.
Highlight: You can’t help but love the joy on Attenborough’s face as he sits in the passenger seat of a glider, soaring on thermals next to griffon vultures. I want to fly in a glider with David Attenborough.
63) The Life of Mammals Episode 4: Chisellers
This episode about rodents veers between the nightmarish—plagues of rats pouring out of a grain silo—and the adorable: a kangaroo rat kicks sand in the face of a rattlesnake, and a baby harvest mouse learns how to harvest mouse.
Attenborough count: 7, including watching capuchins (failing at) and agoutis (succeeding at) cracking nuts; canoeing past beavers; enticing a kangaroo rat to come out with seeds; and getting inadvisedly close to an African crested porcupine, but not as close as a young leopard. Curiosity might not kill the cat, but it certainly gets the cat a face full of quills.
Highlight: The beavers, felling trees to make a dam, building a lodge so sturdy that it’s bear-proof, and living up to stereotype by being inordinately busy. A probing camera reveals the never-before-seen presence of muskrats, lodging inside the lodge.
62) The Living Planet Episode 7: The Sky Above
Flying (gliding, really) lizards and squirrels, spinning sycamore seeds, migrating monarch butterflies, and dive-bombing peregrine falcons all feature in Attenborough’s ode to all things sky-bound. He too takes to the air in a balloon that rises above the clouds. While chugging oxygen from a mask, he reveals a vial of tiny spiders and aphids that have been blown into the skies and will probably revive when they land.
Attenborough count: 9, including bouncing delightedly around in a microgravity aircraft; and entering a cave full of echolocating oilbirds. Also, I think this episode might feature the first appearance of Attenborough in a blue, short-sleeved shirt, which would later become almost a uniform.
Highlight: Baby spiders disperse to new territories by ballooning: They point their bums upwards, release strands of silk, catch the breeze, and fly off to parts unknown.
61) The Life of Mammals Episode 5: Meat-eaters
Delightfully, this episode about big charismatic carnivores begins with a tiny stoat dispatching a rabbit. From there, we get the now-familiar coterie of African hunting dogs, cheetahs, and wolves. Points awarded for featuring the enigmatic, web-toed bush dogs of South America, but deducted for editing several shots of hunting tigers into a single unconvincing sequence in which the lighting and setting seem to constantly change.
Attenborough count: 5, including watching a leopard stalk village goats from television monitors in a hut; having lions roaring right next to his jeep—a spine-chilling encounter since it’s night and the vehicle lights are off, so that only the film crew with their infrared cameras can see the beasts.
Highlights: Lions hunting at night—a stand-out sequence because they’re mostly nocturnal and almost all prior series had shown them hunting by daylight.
60) The Trials of Life Episode 11: Courting
A male lesser florican—a large stocky bird—leaps into the air and then weirdly pedals as he falls back down. A female dwarf Siberian hamster releases a perfume that summons males from all around. A peacock rattles his feathers, and a male hanging fly offers a snack to a female. All these animals are looking for mates. They all have a chance, except for a tragicomic goldeneye duck that wrongly imprinted on a surrogate mallard mother, and so spends his time futilely courting females of the wrong species.
Attenborough count: 7, including kneeling in front of the a satin bowerbird’s bower and cheekily messing about with the arrangement of its prize parrot feather.
Highlight: The manakins—small birds whose dance moves include wing snaps, backward shuffles, aerial loop-the-loops, chin-flicks with tail filaments, and duets where the master gets the female and the apprentice learns the trade. Always two there are with long-tailed manakins.
59) Life on Earth Episode 9: The Rise of the Mammals
Attenborough covers the egg-laying platypuses and echidnas, and the marsupials that raise their young in pouches, like koalas and kangaroos. In the process, he shows how similarities in the plants and animals of South American and Australia hint at a prehistoric time when these continents were fused together.
Attenborough count: 12, including cuddling a platypus; looking for opossums by lamplight; and crawling through an Australian cave and finding piles of bones from giant kangaroos and marsupial lions, swept there by a stream.
Highlight: The arduous crawl of a kangaroo embryo. Born as a pink, pea-shaped creature, with nubbin arms and no legs, it must wrench itself up its mother’s belly to her pouch.
58) The Life of Birds Episode 8: Demands of the Egg
Here, Attenborough reveals the extraordinary lengths to which birds will go to build their nests and care for their eggs. We see dusky swifts roosting behind waterfalls that they must fly through; the sitella, which uses foraged bark or lichen material to make its nest look like part of the tree it’s on; and the preposterously large egg of the kiwi.
Attenborough count: 7, including walking towards a plover’s nest while the bird tries to distract him by feigning a broken limb.
Highlight: the fake nest of the thornbill, with a decoy cup at the top to fool egg-robbers, and an actual egg chamber beneath it.
57) The Life of Birds Episode 3: The Insatiable Appetite
To feed themselves, acorn woodpeckers store acorns in holes they drill into trees; oxpeckers eat ticks off giraffes but also sip blood from wounds that they keep open; and crossbills prize open pine cones with beaks whose halves can move sideways.
Attenborough count: 4, including feeding rainbow lorikeets; and raking a garden to expose food for a robin
Highlight: New Caledonian crows use sticks to extract beetle grubs from decaying logs. These birds are now famed for their intelligence and their ability to make and use tools. But this episode was broadcast just two years after their tool-making skill was documented by scientists in 1996.
56) The Living Planet Episode 5: The Seas of Grass
Alongside other grassland animals, such as giant armadillos, burrowing owls, cheetahs, and bison, this is the first of many episodes in this list to feature leafcutter ants—famed for their ability to farm fungus, and to appear in almost every natural history documentary ever made, ever. It’s a wonder they’re not in The Life of Birds, a thousand of them stuffed hiding in a robin costume.
Attenborough count: 3, including saying, “As long as I keep downwind of it, there’s no reason why it should be particularly disturbed by my presence,” as he walks literally next to a giant anteater, while talking loudly.
Highlight: The saiga, a peculiar, balloon-nosed, Mongolian antelope with an extraordinary reproductive cycle. “The females, when they are a mere four months old and only half-grown, mate and produce their first calf,” says Attenborough. “After it’s weaned they grow rapidly so that by the beginning of the next breeding season, they’re full size, and then they quickly breed again—and this time three-quarters of them will produce twins.” But even their prolific breeding might not save them from a mysterious disease, which recently killed off more than half of the population.
55) The Living Planet Episode 4: Jungle
These were the days when Attenborough could hoist himself into the rainforest canopy by rope. On his way down, he shows how the jungle changes in layers. In the tree-tops, weaver ants using their own grubs to stick leaves together, while flying squirrels glide between branches. On the forest floor, gorgeous argus pheasants dance, while the Waorani people hunt monkeys with poison darts and stamp messages by kicking tree buttresses.
Attenborough count: 5, including hoisting himself to the top of a kapok tree in South America—an island that rises above a sea of leaves, with a “climate all of its own.”
Highlight: The flying snake of Borneo leaps from a tree and, improbably, glides long distances by flattening its body into a air-catching ribbon. Imagine being the first person to look up through the trees and see a snake soaring across the sky.
54) Life in Cold Blood Episode 1: The Cold Blooded Truth
This one’s all about heat, and how reptiles and amphibians regulate theirs. We get marine iguanas basking in the Galapagos, armadillo lizards socially sunbathing, painted turtles surviving being frozen in winter, and a leatherback turtle crawling out of the cold ocean.
Attenborough count: 10, including getting nipped by Balearic wall lizards; holding the jaw of Tyrannosaurus; and egging on fighting angulate tortoises by going “Weeeeyyyyyyy.”
Highlight: After a python swallows an antelope, computer graphics reveal how its liver doubles in size and its heart grows by 40 percent.
53) The Life of Mammals Episode 6: Opportunists
A menagerie of opportunistic mammals, including sensitive-handed raccoons feeling for shellfish; the babirusa pig with its tusks that grow through the roof of its mouth; skunks foraging for baby bats in a cave (hey, at least it’s not the flesh-eating beetles that get them); grizzly bears putting on 1,000,000 calories over spring and summer in a 24-style split screen; and, of course, us.
Attenborough count: 4, including watching giant pandas in zoos (as examples of non-opportunists); and attending an Indian festival where rats are ubiquitous and welcome.
Highlight: In front of a North American river, Attenborough says, “No one dish remains available for very long so you have to make the best of it while you can, and top of the menu right now is: salmon.” And on that last word, a grizzly bear with impeccable timing lunges into the water behind him.
52) The Living Planet Episode 12: New Worlds
In which Attenborough shows how humans have affected wildlife by giving them cities to inhabit, domesticating them, moving them about, and killing them. This being 1984, when he talks about humanity’s impact on the world, he focuses on air pollution, deforestation, and acid rain, without once mentioning the phrases “greenhouse gases,” “global warming,” or “climate change.” That would come later.
Attenborough count: 9, including visiting Beidha in Jordan, where one of humanity’s earliest villages was formed; walking along a British garden and pointing out where all the plants originally came from; and beholding the construction of a titanic dam.
Highlight: In Peru, Attenborough explains how overfishing anchovies slashed the populations of cormorants, which no longer dropped nutritious guano into the sea, which reduced the numbers of plankton, which brought low the anchovies. “It’s not only that if you get less anchovies, you get less cormorants, but if you get less cormorants, you get less anchovies,” he says. “And anchovies are food for sea fish like tuna and sea bass. Through that one rash act of overfishing 30 years ago, Peru has lost anchovies, cormorants, guano, and sea fish. It’s a major blow to the nation’s economy.” Trophic cascades, explained in a few minutes. The man’s a master.
51) The Living Planet Episode 11: The Open Ocean
Amazing footage of underwater mountain ranges give way to rare shots of horseshoe crabs swimming underwater, narwhal whales fencing with their unicorn-like tusks, and crabs boxing with sea anemones.
Attenborough count: 6, including scuba-diving while being circled by reef sharks and ducking nervously; and standing on a shore in Canada as a pod of hundreds of belugas swim past him.
Highlight: The leafy seadragon, a stretched-out seahorse with weedy growths projecting from every bend. It’s a staggeringly beautiful and unlikely animal.
50) The Living Planet Episode 8: Sweet Fresh Water
The episode follows the course of the Amazon, from its fast-flowing youth high up in the Andes to its massive mouth, belching into the Atlantic. On the way, we see insect larvae anchoring themselves among the torrents, the hairy clawed frog, electric fish, piranhas devouring a capybara, giant river otters, and the snapping turtle with its worm-like fish-luring tongue.
Attenborough count: 4, including tracing the start of the Amazon in the Peruvian highlands and meeting its end at the port of Belem.
Highlight: Splashing tetras leap out of the water to lay their eggs on overhead leaves.
49) The Life of Mammals Episode 1: A Winning Design
An introduction to the mammals gives way to essentially the same menagerie as in #59 above—egg-layers and marsupials. We do get better shots of the wonderful long-tongued numbats, and a view of a baby platypus inside its den. Although there’s an echidna, Attenborough’s probably too modest to ever film the long-beaked echidna species that’s named after him.
Attenborough count: 6, including pulling up in a snowmobile; and sitting with his feet dangling in a river while a platypus swims around him.
Highlight: “I can see its tail just under my boat here. And it’s coming up. It’s coming up! There! The blue whale! It’s the biggest creature that exists or has ever existed on the planet.” There are actually two takes of this moment in the series, but I suspect this was the first because the utter joy on his face is palpable. I’ve seen blue whales. I’ve made that face.
48) The Trials of Life Episode 9: Friends and Rivals
In which dwarf mongooses cooperate, lions take turns at a kill, swan gangs defeat solo swans, and naked mole rats take on a snake.
Attenborough count: 5, including watching a literal pecking order among barnyard chickens; standing above a naked mole rat colony and watching one kicking sand out; and, yep, looking at leafcutter ants.
Highlight: Attenborough sticks his head into a rocky hollow in a rainforest, points out drops of congealed blood on the ground, and looks up to see a colony of vampire bats. The bats are reciprocally altruistic: If one lacks for blood on an evening, its roost-mate will regurgitate some, on the assumption that the favor will be returned later.
47) The Trials of Life Episode 2: Growing Up
Baby animals find their way in the world—with help. Floppy elephant calves play at being adults; baby scorpions ride on mum’s back, and elephant-seal pups guzzle the fattest of high-fat milk. Meanwhile, the female lacebug guard her nymphs against spiders, and Mexican free-tailed bat parents somehow find their youngsters amid a crowded, cacophonous cave ceiling.
Attenborough count: 4, including sitting by a bat cave and watching them rush past him.
Highlight: Young albatrosses take their first flight, but “in the shallows, dark shapes have appeared.” Tiger sharks explode out of the water and snatch the newbie birds.
46) The Living Planet Episode 9: The Margins of the Land
Attenborough goes to the beach, as well as mangrove swamps, mudflats, and rock pools. He sees archerfish shooting down their insect prey with bullets of spittle; surfing snails devouring a jellyfish; and the mighty leatherback turtle, excavating a nest in the sand and laying its eggs.
Attenborough count: 6, including getting stuck in the mud of an English estuary; and sitting next to an egg-laying leatherback.
Highlight: The shots of microscopic worms and larvae, wending their way in the interstitial spaces between sand grains. There’s one that looks like it has two turbines, and another with a crown of tentacles. It’s a magical unseen world in the gaps of a beach.
45) Life on Earth Episode 2: Building Bodies
This episode does what Life on Earth does so very well: it reveals not just the present diversity of an animal group but also its origins, via fossils and animations. In this case, Attenborough talks about the evolution of marine invertebrates, including the origins of seashells, and the evolution of echinoderms, whose five-way symmetry can be tweaked into forms as different as starfish and sea urchins. He briefly shows Hallucigenia, a fossil animal so weird that scientists have only recently confirmed which end was the head; Attenborough has it the wrong way forward and the wrong way up.
Attenborough count: 7, including walking through the legendary Burgess Shale fossil site; yanking a robber crab off a tree; and moving the leg of a nonplussed Japanese spider crab on a fishing boat, to explain how arthropod joints work.
Highlight: The sea slug Glaucus devours a jellyfish and repurposes its stings for its (the slug’s) own defense. The bubble-rafting snail Janthina pulls off the same trick with the lethal Portuguese man of war
44) Life on Earth Episode 4: The Swarming Hordes
This is more like a didactic seminar on insect biology than its successor series Life in the Undergrowth, but it still thrills with images of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, and ants guarding acacia trees in exchange for food and shelter. In bigging up the insects, Attenborough says that despite our efforts, “so far, we haven’t managed to exterminate a single species of them.” Sadly, he’s wrong. By the time this episode aired, we had already wiped out the Rocky mountain locust and the Saint Helena earwig among others, and we have since added the condor louse (inadvertently) and many more to the list.
Attenborough count: 5, including holding a huge atlas moth on his hand; gazing upon a column of army ants; and watching a plague of locusts.
Highlight: It’s a tie. First, the leafcutter ants. They’ve been arguably over-exposed in nature documentaries but Life on Earth got there first, detailing the way they feed leaves to grow a fungus, dress their crops with antibiotics, and chuck the waste into refuse tips. But also, the orchid mantis. Attenborough shows us an beautiful white orchid, and then: “For this, with flaps on its legs that perfectly match the petals of the flower, is a mantis.” The insect’s camouflage, right down to the stuttering walk that matches swaying petals, was one of the most astonishing things I had seen when I first saw this episode as a kid.
43) The Private Life of Plants Episode 3: Flowering
Pollination, from the plant’s point of view. In this episode, plants are the manipulators, and animals, their couriers and dupes. A South African iris has helpful arrows telling a hoverfly where to stick its absurdly long tongue. The dead horse arum imprisons blowflies overnight and releases them covered in pollen. A seemingly drab bush is actually in full bloom—its flowers are hidden at ground level because they’re serviced by mice not insects.
Attenborough count: 8, including walking through a meadow while suffering from hayfever; riding an elephant among 20-foot-tall grasses; using a tuning fork to vibrate the pollen off a flower; and meeting the monstrous 9-foot, super-phallic titan arum, which smells of bad fish.
Highlight: The tricky manipulations of orchids. One covers its leaves with a sticky oil so that insects fall onto a pollen station. Another has a trigger that causes a pollen basket to fall onto a bee. And just when you think things can’t get any more astonishing, we get the hammer orchid. It has an extension that looks and smells like a wingless female wasp; when a male tries to carry her away, the plant rapidly swings the fake female, repeatedly smashing the male’s head against its pollen tubes. And you think you’ve had bad dates.
42) Life on Earth Episode 5: Conquest of the Waters
Life on Earth episodes tend to be a bit scattershot, like visual lists of specific animal groups. That approach works really well in the fish episode because it shows just how radically the archetypal fish body plan can be molded into the diverse shapes of pikes, hammerhead sharks, stonefish, gulper eel, flatfish, sawfish, and Attenborough’s favorite fish—the Pacific salmon.
Attenborough count: 10, including holding fossil scales that he just picked up in Australia; standing between the open jaws of the enormous (and very extinct) megalodon shark; swimming in the Great Barrier Reef (Attenborough-in-a-T-shirt sighting!); descending into the deep ocean in a submersible.
Highlight: Attenborough goes fishing in the Amazon, sort of. He uses a rod to dangle an electrode into the water, which detects the pulses used by electric fish to find their way around. The signals are conveyed to a loudspeaker on his “extraordinary hat,” which has a helpful counterweight so it “doesn’t flop over one ear.” Yep, David Attenborough has a magic electric-eel-detecting hat. And later, he squats next to an eel that’s sitting on a river bank, taps its head and tail with electrodes, and gets it to light up some bulbs. But, seriously, the hat.
41) The Life of Birds Episode 4: Meat-Eaters
Birds of prey take center stage, as a great grey owl pounces on lemmings, a harrier hawk thrusts its long and double-jointed legs into trees in search of prey, a sparrowhawk hurtles through dense forests at alarmingly high speed, and a lammergeier drops bones onto rocks to get at their marrow.
Attenborough count: 4, including watching kea parrots brutalize shearwater chicks; and hiding an extremely smelly piece of meat from black and turkey vultures.
Highlight: It’s either the sight of a marine iguana still gamely running around despite having a Galapagos hawk on its back and really big talons in its face, or two white-bellied sea eagles fighting over the same fish, spiraling downwards in a mesmerizing helix.
40) The Private Life of Plants Episode 6: Surviving
Attenborough reveals how plants survive the toughest environments. Melting ice fields reveal snowbells, already in bloom. Mount Kenya moss survives a lethal night frost by rolling into a ball and bouncing along the ice. The window plant looks like a ball of pebbles, each of which is the transparent top of an underground leaf and acts as a lens for sunlight.
Attenborough count: 10, including sitting on low-lying cushion plants on Tasmania, which produce 100,000 shoots per square meter; watering a clump of dessicated white spheres in the desert, and watching it transform into the green nubbins and pink flowers of a conophytum; and being drenched with rain on the enormous sandstone plateau of Mount Roraima, and marveling at the carnivorous plants that live there.
Highlight: A carnivorous bladderwort goes hunting. It grows into the puddle of water collecting within a bromeliad, and creates tiny traps that suck water fleas to their doom.
39) The Life of Birds Episode 1: To Fly or Not to Fly
After showing how some dinosaurs evolved into flying birds, Attenborough spends the rest of the episode on those that have returned to the ground. He meets extinct terror birds, kiwis bumbling along a New Zealand beach in search of sandhoppers, and one of the 80 remaining takahes (a kind of blue coot).
Attenborough count: 9, including watching red-tailed hawks going after bats; flipping through plates of fossilized rock until he sees a bird feather; shining a torch onto a foraging kiwi; and going in search for the endearing but endangered kakapo—a large, flightless, bumbling, green parrot.
Highlights: The pathos of a male kakapo, booming away in the New Zealand hills to a vanishing number of females.
38) Life in the Undergrowth Episode 5: Supersocieties
Surprise, surprise: leafcutter ants! But also: mangrove ants evacuating their grubs from a flooded nest, harvester ants trolling neighboring colonies by sealing them in at night, and bumblebees being all but bumbling when they turn on their own queens.
Attenborough count: 8, including putting on a bee-suit and climbing up a tree to watch giant bees that, he says, can sting through a bee-suit; and antagonizing wood ants into spraying formic acid.
Highlights: It’s a tie. First, giant bees that do Mexican waves to ward off intruders, including parasitic wasps and stick-wielding Attenboroughs. Second, Matabele ants brutally raid a termite nest. They “grab the termite’s jaws and sting it in the only vulnerable place on its head—in its mouth.”
37) The Life of Birds Episode 5: Fishing for a Living
Boobies and kingfishers missile into the ocean, the shoebill lunges at lungfish with its murderous beak, and the black heron draws fish to within striking distance by encircling its head with its wings and creating an attractive patch of shade. It’s the sheer diversity of tactics that birds use to pursue the same meal—fish—that make this episode a winner.
Attenborough count: 6, a long panning shot of a flying mallard that somehow lands next to Attenborough in a boat; swimming with little penguins in a masked booby T-shirt (Attenborough-in-a-T-shirt klaxon!); and using a bucket of fish oil to summon a throng of shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses into a once-empty patch of ocean.
Highlight: On Queen Charlotte Island, the chicks of ancient murrelets hatch within inland tree hollows. Responding to the adults calling from the sea, they careen towards the water, past one elated David Attenborough. There’s a long tracking shot of a manically running chick that is every bit as joyous as it sounds.
36) The Life of Mammals Episode 3: Plant Predators
Plants make for surprisingly challenging meals for mammals. Sloths cope with the lack of nutrients in leaves by living in the slow lane. Tapirs cope with poisons by licking detoxifying clay. African mammals deal with out-of-reach leaves by ignoring them and browsing low (dik-diks), swiveling their hips to stand en pointe (gerenuks), being really tall (giraffes), and straight-up bulldozing the tree to the ground (elephant).
Attenborough count: 7, watching a sloth come down to the ground to defecate in its preferred spot (it’s vulnerable there, and no one knows why it bothers); eating lunch and filming a shot in time-lapse while the sloth does basically nothing; and watching salt-mining elephants on an infrared camera.
Highlights: Attenborough offers flowers to a pika, a rabbit-relative that looks like a hamster. It stacks plants in a larder for the winter, and places the more poisonous ones at the bottom because their toxins preserve them for longer. As it bounds over rocks, Attenborough turns to the camera and beams.
35) Life in the Freezer Episode 3: The Race to Breed
This short Life in the Freezer episode includes shots that even later, bigger-budget series can’t surpass. We’ve seen playful sea lions cavorting underwater, but the first shot here of a fur seal torpedoing straight ahead shows just how fast they are. We’ve seen terrifying leopard seals elsewhere, but not two of them gently pirouetting around each other in the water. We’ve seen bumbling penguins, but the sight of chinstrap penguins fording torrential streams and climbing up cliffs stands out; they do so to reach their partners and chicks nesting high on the slopes.
Attenborough count: 3, including cautiously approaching cantankerous fur seal bulls (“You have to be fairly cautious how you approach---now, now, now—these big bulls”).
Highlight: A chinstrap penguin looks like it’s wearing a red apron after being mauled by a leopard seal. Despite its wounds, it still struggles up a mountain towards its nest, but then flops onto its red-stained belly before the camera cuts away ambiguously. It’s easily the most harrowing shot of all these 79 episodes.
34) The Private Life of Plants Episode 5: Living Together
This is more an episode of The Private Life of Plants and Plant-Ish Things. Since the episode aired, biologists have realized that the algae inside corals, jellyfish, and some lichens aren’t plants—they’re classified within different groups. Still, the episode is spectacular, with shots of lichens growing in time-lapse, swarms of photosynthesizing jellyfish, and plants that recruit defensive ants by offering them mansions and snack stations.
Attenborough count: 11, including twanging a rattan cane to summon its defenders—angry ants, which then sting him painfully; standing in the hollow interior of a still living oak; walking among orchids in a greenhouse, each of which depend on its own special root fungus; and pointing out the buds and blooms of Rafflesia, a fly-pollinated parasite that has the world’s largest flowers and that stinks of rotting meat.
Highlight: An unforgettable time-lapse shot shows parasitic dodder vines writhing over nettles like a swarm of serpents. “Wherever the going is good, the parasite inserts a tube and draws off the nettle’s sap,” says Attenborough. These are the shots that make The Private Life of Plants one of his greatest and most underestimated series. They show plants as organisms of motion, drama, and agency.
33) The Life of Mammals Episode 7: Return to the Water
Attenborough’s tour of aquatic mammals starts with a surprising shot of an elephant swimming in the sea, and then takes in the snorkel-nosed desman, the superlatively fuzzy sea otter, and the riotous mating clashes of southern right whales. Memorably, he watches a CG blue whale form around him, before seeing a real one surface next to him. He says its heart is the same size as a small car, but the CG model suggests that someone really needs to buy David Attenborough a bigger car. He says its main artery is so big a person could swim down it. Please don’t; it looks tight and the whale wouldn’t appreciate it.
Attenborough count: 8, including riding an elephant on a beach; swimming among sea otters; sticking his noggin into a seal’s ice-hole; watching bottlenose dolphins beaching themselves to capture fish; and, of course, the blue whale.
Highlights: I’ve already spotlighted the blue whale, and this is essentially the same sequence with a longer explanation afterwards. So this episode goes to the gentle manatees. Three of them surround a wetsuit-wearing Attenborough, who’s trying to talk about their biology while recoiling at their breath. “Ooh … ooh dear. Ooh,” he says. “I suppose a little halitosis is what you’d expect from all those leaves but, phew, that’s a bit strong.”
32) Life in the Freezer Episode 4: The Door Closes
Winter is coming. Adelie penguins lead their chicks over broken ice, a dead penguin is consumed by giant isopods and meter-long nemertean worms, and giant petrels advance menacingly at each other. They are terrifying—like airborne velociraptors.
Attenborough count: 4, including walking along among the now refrozen continent, where most of the animals are gone—except the emperor penguin, which Attenborough sidles up to.
Highlight: A huge shadow bursts out of the water as a leopard seal tosses a penguin it into the air, before playing a game of cat-and-mouse with it for 20 minutes, and then thrashing it on the surface of the ocean to flay it. Savage. Unflinching.
31) The Trials of Life Episode 3: Finding Food
That’s “Finding Food Except For Meat, Cos That’s The Next Episode, But Insects Are Okay.” The swordbill hummingbird dips its perfectly matching beak into the long, curving Columnea flower, while the mountain gem hummer flips the (humming)bird to co-evolution and just stabs Columnea’s base. Barracudas, pelicans, and gulls pinion hapless fish between them. Frigatebirds pilfer fish from tropicbirds in mid-air. And honey ants store their food inside their workers, whose abdomens expand into living, golden pots.
Attenborough count: 6, including watching hummingbirds patrol their Heliconia flowers in strict rotation; and tasting honey ants (Verdict: “Delicious.”)
Highlight: A heist episode! The tiny spider Argyrodes steals food right from the web of the comparably gigantic Nephila, by cutting the ensnaring silk and lowering the goods to safety.
30) The Life of Mammals Episode 9: The Social Climbers
On his tour of the monkey world, Attenborough explains why the guenons of Africa have such colorful and diverse faces, watches a finger-sized pygmy marmoset as it gnaws at bark and eats the gum that oozes out, and reveals the intricate social lives of a troop of Sri Lankan macaques.
Attenborough count: 9, including watching capuchins crack nuts and self-medicate with the right leaves; demonstrating monkey alarm calls by dragging an amusing stuffed leopard on wheels; watching baboons take down flamingos; and using balls of plasticine to demonstrate the link between group size and brain size.
Highlight: A huge troop of geladas grazes in the Ethiopian highlands. They look like a cross between baboons and Animal from the Muppets, and they sound like a group of muttering old men. They shuffle around on their buttocks, eat grass, and communicate with eyebrow flashes and lip curls that turn their baboon-like faces into something that looks like a demon. The gelada: because evolution gets drunk sometimes.
29) The Trials of Life Episode 12: Continuing the Line
It’s sexy-times at Camp Attenborough. Hermaphroditic barnacles impregnate each other with the longest penises in the animal world (relative to body size), and a blue-ringed octopus delivers sperm with a modified tentacle. A desert tarantula male must hold a female’s females venomous fangs at bay while he impregnates her. A ploughshare tortoise upends its rival and mates with a female, with a frankly disturbing amount of grunting and thrusting. A male sea louse spends three months assembling a harem in his burrow before mating them whenever they molt. Meanwhile, a female chinchilla rejects a suitor by squirting urine in face, a female cockroach drags her mate around by his genitals, and a female jacana (a long-toed bird that walks on lily pads) coerces a male into sex and then destroys his clutch.
Attenborough count: 5, including looking at a male Heliconius butterfly waiting by the pupa of a female, mating with her as she emerges, and then rubbing her with an off-putting smell to put off later suitors; and walking down a beach at dusk to see the spawning of the palolo worms, millions of which are caught for food by local people.
Highlight: Attenborough meets a pair of monogamous royal albatrosses, who’ve been together for 20 years.
28) The Private Life of Plants Episode 1: Traveling
The Private Life of Plants was the first of Attenborough’s series focused on a particular group of organisms. It was a risk: Plants are fascinating but not necessarily visually so. The solution—to use liberal amounts of time-lapse—was enormously effective. Flowers unfurl with urgency, foxgloves yawn, and leaves pulse as they grow. Given that this episode is about how plants disperse their seeds, animals make many appearances, but even charismatic ones like elephants, orangutans, and rhinos are re-cast as seed delivery vehicles. And the stars of the show don’t need animals at all. The squirting cucumber and Himalayan balsam have explosive seed launchers, the grapple plant latches onto ostrich feet with wince-inducing spikes, and the ivy-leafed toadflax plants its own seeds in nearby cracks.
Attenborough count: 12, including walking through the snow-covered English countryside in winter; picking the jumping jack-like seeds of the devil thorns from his shoe; tracking the durian which smells like an “open sewer with just a dash of coal gas”; picking up some fresh elephant dung full of acacia seeds; and gazing at a magnolia tree, grown from seeds found in a 2,000-year-old box.
Highlight: The bramble crawls menacingly along the forest floor, waving its spiny shoots from side to side like it’s feeling its way forward. There’s no better example of the secretly active nature of plants, as revealed by this series.
27) The Living Planet Episode 1: The Furnaces of the Earth
I remember how mind-blowing it was to learn how mountains grow—heck, to learn that they grow at all. The animal stars of this episode—pheasants, red pandas, sloth bears—are great, but it’s the geology that sticks in the mind.
Attenborough count: 14, including hiking the valley of the Kali Gandaki river in the Himalayas; picking up fossils of marine animals at the roof of the world; standing in front of an Icelandic volcano (“There are gusts of choking poisonous gases, and it’s so hot that this is about as close as I can get to it”); and visiting hot springs, volcanic flats, and an underground lava cave.
Highlight: The Krakatoa monologue. In a modern series, the explosion of Krakatoa would be accompanied by CG animations. Here, it’s just three full minutes of Attenborough talking at the screen, fists clenched and arms waving, as the camera zooms in on him. No visuals. No effects. Just his voice, and his words:
Ships that were sailing nearby had their decks covered in ash and in pumice, and at night electric flames played over the rigging. Day after day, this continued. And as it was doing so, it was emptying the lava chamber deep within the Earth’s crust beneath the sea. And that was the cause of the greatest catastrophe of all. Because on the morning of August 27th, Monday, at 10 ‘o’ clock, the roof of that lava chamber collapsed. Millions of tons of seawater poured onto the red hot lava. So did millions of tons of rocks. And this produced a titanic explosion. The noise was almost certainly the loudest noise that has ever echoed round the earth in recorded history.
26) Life in Cold Blood Episode 2: Invaders of the Land
Giant salamanders wrestle each other, an African bullfrog digs a canal to save his trapped tadpoles, and a marsupial frog houses its tadpoles in pouches until they wriggle out as fully-formed froglets. But it’s the Panamanian golden frog, which signals by waving its front legs in a froggy semaphore, that makes the most impact. By the time the episode aired in 2008, a doomsday fungus had wiped out all the golden frogs. Today, they only exist in captivity. Their fate awaits all the amphibians, one of the most endangered groups of animals around.
Attenborough count: 7, including sailing past signing frogs on a rowboat, as if he was in The Little Mermaid; signaling to a golden frog with a robot; and holding a pygmy frog—a “miracle of miniaturization,” barely as big as his fingernail.
Highlight: Infrared cameras show that baby caecilians—legless amphibians that look like earthworms—feed by flaying their mothers. They tear nutritious strips of skin from her flanks, which she then re-grows. Until the filmmakers saw it, no one knew this happened.
25) Life in the Freezer Episode 5: The Big Freeze
Winter in the Antarctic. A Weddell seal, the world’s most southerly mammal, gives birth onto the ice—“Imagine a shock of leaving the womb at 37 degrees Celsius and being dropped into a world of minus 20.” Mesmeric jellyfish and globular stalk sponges thrives beneath the ice. And those celebrities of the poles, the emperor penguins, huddle against the cold while auroras play overhead.
Attenborough count: 4, including walking along the barren Antarctic Plateau (“It’s not just that human life here seems insignificant, it’s that it is totally irrelevant”); and sitting next to a preserved penguin in Scott’s hut, collected by Edward Wilson in “the worst journey in the world.”
Highlight: Attenborough walks along a ridge overlooking the Dry Valleys, an huge area of unexpectedly bare rock in Antarctica. It’s the driest place on Earth, and the ground is frozen to a depth of half a mile. Solid granite boulders have been carved into ethereal shapes by wind alone. A mummified crabeater seal has been lying there for about 3,000 years. And when Attenborough cracks open a rock, there’s still life—lichen, growing inside.
24) The Trials of Life Episode 5: Finding the Way
This episode is about how animals navigate. Spiny lobsters go on long marches, honey bees waggle to communicate the location of plants, eels swim from the Sargasso sea to the rivers of their birth, rufous hummingbirds fly over mountain ranges, and Arctic terns fly from pole to pole and back again. One great sequence after the another, except for some amusingly bad back-projection in shots of flying birds and insects.
Attenborough count: 7, including using electrodes to signal to electric eels; watching European eels return to their natal rivers; and getting pecked in the head by an Arctic tern.
Highlight: The desert ant Cataglyphis walks this way and that in search of food, but by keeping an eye on the position of the sun, it can somehow calculate the straightest path back to the nest.
23) Life in Cold Blood Episode 4: Sophisticated serpents
There’s plenty to love here, including a snake that dismembers crabs, a python swallowing an antelope, a sea snake that’s gone mostly vegetarian, dueling king cobras, a green anaconda giving birth to live young, and an egg-eating snake swallowing a huge egg and piercing it with spines on its spine (filmed with X-ray video). But this episode has historical importance because it began the British press’s obsession with “authenticity” in wildlife documentaries. The sequence where a spitting cobra launches venom at a visor-wearing Attenborough used a captive cobra taken from a local zoo. Some outraged reporters suggested the sequence was “faked,” ignoring the fact that the cobra was indeed spitting exactly like wild ones do, and that captive animals had always been a part of past documentaries. Such pseudo-scandals have plagued later series, forcing producers to start talking about “special filming burrows” and whatnot.
Attenborough count: 10, including picking up a worm-like flowerpot snake, which has travelled round the world by stowing away in soil; using a branch to prod a hognose snake that’s playing dead; and explaining the difference between the venomous coral snake and the harmless look-alike king snake. (Both are in jars, and in an outtake, just as Attenborough talks about how venomous the coral snake is, it pushes the lid off, prompting handlers to rush in.)
Highlight: with infrared cameras, the filming team capture the first ever shot of a wild rattlesnake killing a mouse.
22) The Living Planet Episode 6: Baking Deserts
The challenge of desert survival is made abundantly clear by the heat haze that frequently surrounds Attenborough and the creatures he’s talking about. Those include the Gila monster, a venomous lizard; the Dorcas gazelle, which can survive without ever drinking; and the sidewinder viper, throwing its coils forward, so that only two parts of its body ever touch the sand at any one time.
Attenborough count: 10, including kneeling next to a rock that reveals itself as a poorwill bird when the camera zooms in; marveling at water condensing on the curtain-like leaves of a 1500-year-old Welwitschia plant; trudging ineffectually up a sand dune; and following the tracks of a golden mole before rapidly digging it up.
Highlight: Another tie. First, a black widow spider takes on a scorpion in pitched battle; she loses a leg but the scorpion, suspended in mid-air by the spider’s bungee-like web, loses its life. Second, Attenborough meets King Clone, a ring-shaped creosote bush that started growing between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, soon after the Mojave desert first appeared. He says it’s the oldest known living organism in the world—its record would now be hotly disputed but its age is undeniably incredible.
21) The Living Planet Episode 10: Worlds Apart
Islands are places where evolution goes to town, producing giants and dwarves, large dynasties of unique species, and unpredictable behavior. These patterns, so beloved of explorers like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, are exemplified here by giant tortoises, the extremely diverse honeycreepers and Drosophila flies of Hawaii, and formidable Komodo dragons tearing apart a carcass. There’s an outtake where Attenborough’s tries to explain how the kakapo only defend themselves by freezing still, only for a kakapo to repeatedly foil him by bumbling away. At least it didn’t try to shag his head, as one did to Mark Carwardine.
Attenborough count: 16, including walking over a chasm where many giant tortoises have fallen to their deaths; straddling a giant tortoise and hoisting it up; tracking Komodo dragons with a worryingly insufficient forked stick; and pointing at a tuatara, a New Zealand reptile that looks like a lizard but isn’t one.
Highlights: The Komodo dragons would be an obvious choice, but I’m instead going for the carnivorous caterpillars of Hawaii. They look exactly like protruding twigs, until they spring forward and snag insects with their front legs, devouring them in a most un-caterpillar-like way.
20) The Life of Mammals Episode 2: Insect Hunters
A mother shrew leads her young in a mouth-to-tail caravan. A star-nosed mole hunts for worms with the world’s strangest nose, which looks like two open hands with outstretched fingers. Two hedgehogs mate (very carefully, so goes the joke). A pangolin—a cross between an anteater and an artichoke—trundles along on two legs. And viewers who are already mewling over the adorable elephant shrew will implode at the sight of its baby.
Attenborough count: 9, including giving elephant shrews stuff to clear from their tracks (“Oh dear, I’m afraid I’ve put in too much”); tempting hedgehogs out in his own back garden; watching a giant anteater rip open a termite mound; and tracking a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats by hot-air balloon. (Those bats are as bad as the leafcutter ants; they show up everywhere.)
Highlights: A tie between two bats. Natterer’s bat shows off the precision of its echolocation by snatching spiders right off their webs. Meanwhile, the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bats spend a third of their time scurrying through the leaf litter and grabbing crickets. (At university, I may or may not have admonished my tutor for studying these bats because (a) I was drunk, and (b) “ground bats are dumb.” Sorry, tutor!)
19) The Life of Birds Episode 7: Finding a Partner
Courting birds make for an eclectic episode that includes grebes dancing an aquatic pas de deux; the Vogelkop bowerbird decorating his nest with beetle shells, flowers, and fruit; the buff sandpiper and his seductive armpits (“Now there are three females. It’s time to reveal all!”); the calfbird, which looks like an attempt at taxidermy gone horribly wrong, and sounds like a cross between a cow and a ringwraith; and the vigorous dance of the orange-quiffed and improbably named cock-of-the-rock.
Attenborough count: 6, including watching frigate bird males inflating their red chest balloons; looking at albatrosses fencing with their beaks; and spying on the surprisingly complicated sex lives of the seemingly dull hedge sparrow.
Highlight: Attenborough stands next to an amorous capercaille—a large black grouse. “He is so charged up, this being the breeding season, that he will display at almost anything…” he says, before the capercaille barrels straight at him, forcing him to retreat so quickly that he falls over. “Including me!”
18) Life on Earth Episode 6: Invasion of the Land
This amphibian-centric episode has the same theme as the Life of Cold Blood one at #26, but despite airing decades earlier, I think it’s better. Its sequences are shorter, perhaps due to the constraints of 1970s filmography, but it compensates by showing a wider variety of species to greater effect. We get the coelacanth, whose plump fins hint at the changes that brought vertebrates onto land; Wallace’s flying frog gliding on its parachute feet; whistling frogs, which go from tadpole to adult inside their eggs; Darwin’s frog, where males incubate eggs inside their mouths and vomit out fully formed froglets; and a Nectophrynoides toad, which raises her tadpole inside her body on flakes of oviduct tissue, and gives birth to the froglet by squeezing it out with her lungs.
Attenborough count: Er, between 8 and 10, depending on whose finger is in a couple of shots. Watching mudskippers haul themselves onto land; cradling a dead coelacanth on a beach at the Comoro Islands, where the first live one was seen; and holding the aptly named goliath frog (it’s roughly cat-sized).
Highlight: A male pipa toad clings to a female. She lays eggs and he sweeps them onto her back. They stick, and her skin grows around them, at first forming gross craters and then enveloping the completely in skin. When the tadpoles hatch, they burst through mum’s back.
17) The Private Life of Plants Episode 4: The Social Struggle
Plants may seem passive, but this episode reveals the intense competition they face. We see seedlings racing to ascend a tree, oaks outlasting birches, and fungi (not plants, as Attenborough notes) devouring the dead. And continuing the theme of this series, in which plants are the protagonists and animals their sidekicks, Attenborough portrays tree-demolishing elephants as the means through which grasses outcompete bigger plants. Walking among fields of wheat, he suggests that this is “a trick that other grasses have played on a world-wide scale”.
Attenborough count: 16, including gawping at ferns and flowers at the top of a 200-foot-tall koompasia tree, “a complete garden in the branches, with no part of it touching the ground”; leaping across a line of smoldering flames in Australia; and watching a strangler fig, which encases host trees in a cage of roots that fatally steal its nutrients, leaving behind a hollow cylinder.
Highlight: Many plants have adapted to survive fires, and thrive after them. The mountain ash, a type of eucalyptus, actually relies on fire to spread its seeds. Walking among them, Attenborough notes “This magnificent forest can only survive if it is first almost destroyed.”
16) Life on Earth Episode 1: The Infinite Variety
Aired on 16 January 1979, this is chronologically the first episode in this list. Didactic by today’s standards, it is also audacious. Can you imagine a modern, big-budget, natural history series spending its first episode talking about the origin of cells, describing how ancient bacteria oxygenated the Earth’s atmosphere, and showing obscure microbes liked Volvox and ciliates? Or, once it moves onto animals, focusing on the simplest of them, such as sponges and jellyfish? Or, for that matter, opening with a ten-minute monologue about the theory of evolution by natural selection, and how Darwin conceived it? Or having such a sinister and unsettling score?
All of this works because of Attenborough. His explanations are always perfectly clear and although he’s more serious here than in later series, both the infectious enthusiasm and intellectual sparkle are obvious. “There are some 4 million different kinds of animals and plants around the world—4 million different solutions to the problem of staying alive,” he says. Those figures have more than doubled and other bits have dated—the blasted “primordial soup” concept just won’t die!—but this episode still stands the test of time.
Attenborough count: 11, including sailing to the Galapagos and sitting among giant tortoises; riding a donkey into the Grand Canyon and then looking at fossils; walking over stromatolites (rocks produced by ancient bacteria) in Australia; and diving among corals in a gaudy crimson wetsuit.
Highlight: That first shot of Attenborough talking straight into the camera about evolution. His hair is still brown, his body is lithe, and his grin is cheeky. You can’t help but like him. You might fall slightly in love with him.
15) The Trials of Life Episode 6: Homemaking
Attenborough explores how animals find and build their homes. The Indian tailorbird sews leaves together with spider silk; hermit crabs jostle for seashells in an underwater real estate market; weaver birds thread grass stems into hanging apartments; and a potter wasp fashions mud into delicate urns.
Attenborough count: 9, including huddling by a campfire in a Welsh cave; using a smoky candle to illustrate the ventilation systems of prairie dog burrows; and being drenched in a rainforest while looking for tent-making bats.
Highlight: having shown us the exterior of a towering African termite mound, Attenborough sticks his disheveled head into its basement. There, he shows us “the most remarkable animal structure I have ever seen—lines of concentric veins. They are made of mud and they absorb moisture from the colony above. As it evaporates, it cools,” drawing down stale air from the colony above. Termites, with neither plan not intellect, build air-conditioning systems.
14) The Life of Birds Episode 6: Signals and Songs
A visual and aural extravaganza, as Attenborough looks at the colors and songs of birds.
Attenborough count: 8, including rowing along a Brazilian river in search of a potoo, camouflaged as a tree branch; trolling a Magellanic woodpecker by thumping a tree trunk; ascending to the rainforest canopy to hear the piercingly loud bare-throated bellbird and screaming piha; and listening to a British dawn chorus.
Highlight: A lyrebird mimics birds in the local area. Then, it makes a clicking, whirring noise. “That was a camera shutter,” says Attenborough, blowing my mind. He continues, escalating: “And again. And now a camera with a motor drive. And that’s a car alarm. And now the sounds of foresters and their chainsaws working nearby.” When viewers were asked to vote for their favorite Attenborough moment, they picked this one as number one.
But there’s a problem. Remember the spitting cobra faux-troversy from #24? In that sequence, Attenborough used a captive cobra to show how a wild one behaves, and he never made a claim about the wildness of the filmed individual. Not so here: about the lyrebird, he says, “in an attempt to out-sing his rivals, incorporates other songs that he hears in the forest.” But this was a captive lyrebird, which did not hear those songs in a forest. And, to date, there are no examples of wild lyrebirds mimicking man-made equipment. I think this crosses a line. It shows how amazing the lyrebird is at mimicry, but it also explicitly misleads us. That’s why this episode is here, rather than in the top five.
13) The Trials of Life Episode 4: Hunting and Escaping
This episode about predators and prey largely avoids the classic lions and bears in favor of less obvious hunters like the greater black-backed gull, which attacks puffins; the death adder, which lures prey with a wriggling, worm-like tail; and Harris hawks, which are the only birds of prey that hunt in teams. Defending themselves are a salamander that sticks its own ribs through its skin; a caterpillar that mimics a snake; and a frog with a face on its bum. No, Attenborough has no idea what that last one’s about, either.
Attenborough count: 5, including ducking great skuas (“among the most aggressive and ferocious of birds”); provoking a striped skunk into doing its warning handstand (“Now I’m going to press my luck a bit”); probing a nest of army ants; and racing through the jungle as he follows hunting chimps in the canopy.
Highlight: Another tie, between chimps working as a team to kill a colobus monkey, and killer whales beaching themselves to capture sea lions. Both behaviors highlight the intelligence of these hunters and both are testament to nature red in tooth and claw. Either would guarantee an episode a high rank; together, they make this one a classic.
12) Life in Cold Blood Episode 3: Dragons of the Dry
Attenborough meets the lizards. Baby lace monitors hatching in a termite mound are rescued by their mother. South African dwarf chameleons court and give birth to the most adorable babies. The huge perentie, a type of monitor lizard, runs down a rabbit. And the pygmy leaf chameleon, barely bigger than a thumb joint and dwarfed by insects and millipedes, crawls onto Attenborough’s finger.
Attenborough count: 11, including sitting face-to-face with an upright sand goanna; using a mirror to provoke an anole lizard into flashing its red throat flap (“You’re not going to get rid of me that way; show us your signals”); fishing for a pygmy blue-tongue skink, hiding in a spider-hole; getting squirted in the face by an acid-shooting beetle; and watching flat lizards (a related species was named after him in 2015).
Highlight: I did not expect to be deeply moved by a sequence involving shingleback lizards, which look like pine cones crossed with turds. They form life-long bonds, so that even if one is turned into roadkill, the other will stay with the body. Also, the female gives birth to live youngsters that are almost as big as she is.
11) Life in the Undergrowth Episode 3: Silk Spinners
The ogre-faced spider holds its web in its legs and throws it onto passing insects. The bolas spider swings a silken lasso at moths that it lures with a sexually attractive pheromone. Social spiders collectively weave huge tree-top webs. And the redback creates a forest of taut threads, so that any insect blundering into it is catapulted off the ground and suspended in mid-air.
Attenborough count: 6, including being startled by a trapdoor spider; looking at the triangular bungee web of Hyptyotes; and standing in a cave lit by thousands of glow-worms. (The “worms” are actually the larvae of gnats, and their glows are lures for drawing insects into silken death-traps.)
Highlights: It’s either the nightmarish sight of dozens of social spiders descending upon a grasshopper (and biting its knees), or the mating dance of the wolf spider, which looks like he’s being illuminated by a strobe light.
10) The Life of Birds Episode 10: Limits of Endurance
The world’s entire population of spectacled eider ducks gather on half a dozen blocks of ice. Flamingoes raise their chicks among caustic alkaline lakes. Sand grouse dip their breast feathers in rare puddles of desert water and give their chicks something to drink from. Murmurations of starlings ripple over European cities. The birds that appear in this episode on extreme environments are fascinating enough, but it’s the ones that don’t appear that matter more. Attenborough talks about the dodo, the birds of Guam that were wiped out by introduced snakes, and the passenger pigeon—once the most numerous bird on Earth, and now extinct thanks to us.
Attenborough count: 8, including watching hand-reared whooping cranes being led by conservationists in a glider; watching purple martins descend upon an oil refinery in Brazil; and standing in a field, observing zero passenger pigeons.
Highlight: In Japan, a crow has learned to crack nuts by waiting at traffic signals and putting them in front of car tires.
9) The Trials of Life Episode 1: Arriving
I re-watched all 79 episodes to make this list and I’m here to tell you: The Trials of Life is the best of the nine series. In focusing on animal behavior, and not being restricted to any one group or habitat, it offers shot after shot of different species—often very obscure ones—doing the most spectacular things. This opening episode has millions of Christmas Island crabs blackening the ocean water with their eggs; hermaphroditic giant clams releasing giant clouds of sperm and eggs; male pipefish getting pregnant; a tsetse fly doing an impression of a mammal by giving birth to a live (and horrifyingly large) grub; a bat giving birth upside-down and catching her baby in her own tail; and the grisly sight of parasitic wasp grubs exploding out of a caterpillar host.
Attenborough count: 4, including watching those crabs; and looking bemused as a mallee fowl kicks sand at his face and then playfully by flicking the sand back.
Highlight: Matriphagy! The grubs of the cecidomyiid ‘fungus gnat’ can hatch inside their mother and feed on her internal organs, “so that she herself is reduced by her own young to a sausage skin, through which thirty or so grubs force their way—coming out at both ends.”
8) The Private Life of Plants Episode 2: Growing Up
Here, we see the challenges that plants face as they grow. Attenborough talks about water: to pump it 70 feet above ground level, he needs a fire truck’s ladder, a hose, and a very noisy engine, while the tree next to him sends 100 gallons an hour up its trunk in total silence. He talks about carnivory, from the fast-closing Venus flytrap to pitcher plant’s jug-shaped leaves, filmed growing in time-lapse. And he talks about defenses: the pebble plant looks exactly like a rock, while the passion flower uses yellow spots that look like butterfly eggs to deter butterflies from laying actual eggs onto it.
Attenborough count: a record-breaking 18, including deliberately touching a nettle to show how its sting works; holding up the biggest pitcher plant Nepenthes raja, large enough to catch small rodents; walking among the giant sequoias; and demonstrating the rapid movements of the sensitive mimosa. When it’s touched, its leaves fold away—and an insect’s meal disappears. Another touch, and the stem suddenly collapses—and the insect disappears.
Highlight: The supremely old and fabulously gnarled bristlecone pine. The camera pans along a cross-section of its trunk as Attenborough points out growth rings that it laid down when Columbus reached the New World, when Egyptian pharaohs were building pyramids, and when humans were inventing agriculture. “We can be quite sure that when the first human farmers were just beginning to plant seeds for themselves, this ancient ravaged tree was first sprouting,” he says. “It’s 4000 years old.”
7) The Life of Mammals Episode 8: Life in the Trees
This is one of two episodes in the top ten about tree-dwelling mammals and they both have the same name. Go figure. This one features flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree, millions of fruit bats begin attacked by eagles and crocodiles, lemurs being hunted by the fossa (a large, arboreal, killer mongoose), and a slender loris that looks slow and unthreatening until it grabs a mantis in a flash and tears it in two.
Attenborough count: 9, including watching sunbathing meekats; worrying about the arboreal safety of rock hyrax; stretching out his hand to show how bat wings evolved; and grinning like a kid while gibbons swing around him.
Highlights: Unquestionably, the gibbons. Before I watched this episode, I knew that gibbons swing through trees by brachiating, using a wrist joint that can swivel like those in our shoulders. What I didn’t know was that they do this really, really fast. If I was to pick any moment from any of the 79 episodes that truly, indelibly blew my mind, it would be the aerial shot of gibbons, recklessly rocketing through the canopy.
6) Life in Cold Blood Episode 5: Armoured Giants
Turtles and crocodiles dominate the best episode of Life in Cold Blood. We see how tortoise shells evolved, eavesdrop on the complex vocals of the American alligator, and watch broad-snouted caimans delicately crack their babies’ eggshells to help them hatch.
Attenborough count: 5, including dropping a pig-nosed turtle shell into a jar of water and watching it hatch; antagonizing an American alligator which antagonises him back; and once again catching up with those Galapagos tortoises (I bet the leafcutter ants are jealous).
Highlight: Another tie. In one thrilling sequence, a pair of mating green turtles is harassed by one male after another, until the duo risk drowning because their weighed down by so many would-be suitors. In another, a female spectacled caiman leads an entire crèche of babies, many of which aren’t even hers, on a long trek from a drying river bed towards permanent water.
5) Life in the Undergrowth Episode 1: Invasion of the Land
This opening episode covers all land invertebrates that aren’t insects or spiders, including a harvestman that shows great paternal dedication; a velvet worm that immobilises its prey by spraying glue from its head; and adorable springtails, no bigger than a pinhead, fighting and leaping. Filming these creatures (and making this whole series) required cameras that could zoom in on the tiniest of animals without using roasting lights. But such tech wasn’t necessary to film meter-long Australia earthworms squelching through mud, or giant centipedes plucking bats out of mid-air.
Attenborough count: 8, looming over snails and earwigs; prodding springtails with a pin; and watching scorpions fluoresce under a blacklight.
Highlight: The mating embrace of the leopard slugs, which really has to be seen to be believed. The two partners (both hermaphrodites) embrace each other, dangle from a thread of mucus, extrude huge blue penises from their heads, entwine these around each other into a “flower-like globe”, and exchange sperm. Attenborough calls it “almost beyond imagining”. He’s not wrong.
4) Life in the Undergrowth Episode 4: Intimate Relations
Amazonian ants create “devil’s gardens” by poisoning all the plants surrounding the tree they live in. A writhing ball of blister beetles gathers on a blade of grass and releases the smell of a female bee, prompting a male to pick them up. The caterpillar of the Alcon blue butterfly turns ants into babysitters by mimicking the sounds of queens. All the best aspects of nature—cooperation, parasitism, mimicry—are showcased in this episode on the relationships of insects.
Attenborough count: 9, including watching ants farming aphids; seeing a feather-legged bug impale the ants that it attracts; and uncorking a vial of minuscule fairy wasps, whose wings look like hairy paddles.
Highlights: the wasps. This episode may as well have been titled “Wasps Are Awful.” It includes a wasp grub that sucks the juices from a spider while deranging it and forcing it to spin an uncharacteristic web; a wasp that mimics an ant so that it can parasitize an ant-eating beetle larva; tiny fairy wasps, so small that they lay their eggs inside the eggs of diving beetles; a wasp that parasitizes the butterfly that parasitizes ants; and a wasp that parasitizes other wasps that parasitize plants.
3) The Trials of Life Episode 7: Living Together
Much like the one above, this episode is an ode to symbiosis—the sharing of lives between two species, for better or worse. Some of the sequences beggar belief. A blind shrimp digs burrows that a goby inhabits, while the goby keeps watch and rescues the shrimp when it wanders astray. A Liphyra caterpillar, encased in impregnable orange armor that looks like a Klingon’s forehead, walks straight into a nest of angry ants and starts eating grubs. A hermit crab pastes sea anemones on its shell to defend itself from octopuses. A buffalo is portrayed as an entire ecosystem, with ticks in its skin, leeches in its mouth, tapeworms in its guts, flukes in its liver, and protozoans in its stomach—“a whole community.” I’ve just written a book in which I portray animals as ecosystems full of with microbes, and I first learned that here.
Attenborough count: a record low of 3, including flicking ticks off his trousers.
Highlight: In Denmark, a snail has been infected by a fluke—a parasitic flatworm, which must get inside a bird to complete its life cycle. So it sends its broodsacs (full of larvae) into the snail’s eyes, transforming them from slender stalks into grotesque pulsating popsicles, which look like juicy grubs. It also commandeers the snail’s brain, forcing it to crawl onto open leaves while its peers seek shade and shelter. Both changes attract a hungry flycatcher, which eats the snail—and its parasite. The claim of manipulation was only proven in 2013, decades after this episode aired. Still, this sequence taught me that parasites can be incredible puppeteers—a lesson that I didn’t forget.
2) Life on Earth Episode 12: Life in the Trees
A tradition of washing sweet potatoes and dehusking rice spreads among Japanese macaques, howler monkeys bellow in the rainforest, and sifakas leap through a forest of thorns. Which is all great, but let’s face it, you’re here for the gorillas.
Attenborough count: 7, including the gorillas.
Highlight: The gorillas, obviously. When Attenborough went to film mountain gorillas in Rwanda, he originally intended to use them as a backdrop for a lecture about the thumb. Instead, he found a female gorilla’s curious hand on his head. So, he ditched the script, turned to the camera, and ad-libbed this:
“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. We’re so similar. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell, is so similar to ours that we see the world in the same way they do. They live in the same sort of social groups, and form permanent family relationships. They walk along on the ground as we do though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if ever there was a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively… [heavy sigh]... in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla. And yet, as I sit here surrounded by this trusting gorilla family... The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. So it seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolize everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not — and that we are.”
He stays there with the biggest of smiles plastered over his face, while the gorillas play and mooch around him—and sometimes on top of him. When he went back the next day, they groomed him and tried to nick his shoes, but the cameraman, who was saving his dwindling film supply for the bit about the thumb, missed it all. The footage he did capture was then almost nixed because producers felt it too frivolous. Fortunately, they relented, and history was made. The gorilla sequence has become synonymous with Attenborough’s name, and an icon of British television. It speaks to our deep connection with other animals, and the joy we can find among them.
1) The Trials of Life Episode 10: Talking to Strangers
If this list was ordered by moments, the gorillas would surely triumph. But since it’s a list of episodes, the winner is this underappreciated jewel from the crown of Attenborough’s oeuvre—The Trials of Life. Fittingly, it’s about communication. Gazelles stot in front of wild dogs, leaping vertically to advertise their strength. Water striders court by strumming the very surfaces of lakes and ponds. Vervet monkeys tell each other about danger with alarm calls that are specific to either leopard, eagles, or snakes. A squid uses his color-changing skin to display different patterns on each half of his body: courtship colors to the female on one side, and threats to the rival male on the other. And the song of the singing toadfish penetrates into the walls of Californian homes, infuriating their owners.
Attenborough count: 7, including following a honeyguide bird to a bee’s nest and munching on a delicious bit of freshly ripped honeycomb; diving in a submersible to see deep-sea animals outlined by their own luminescence; and lounging around a charming Sausalito house.
Highlight: Attenborough communicates with no fewer than four species. He drums his hand on the ground in an Israeli desert, and a hairy mole rat returns the repartee by drumming its head against its tunnel roof. He flicks a torch on and off to summon a male firefly by imitating a female (“Well, I’m afraid I’m a disappointment to you.”) He spins and cartwheels with spotted dolphins, while describing their intricate vocabulary of clicks, postures, and even whistled equivalents of names. “The result is an amazing web of communication unexcelled by any other animal except ourselves,” he says to the fourth of his audiences—us, his human viewers. “But how marvelous it would be if we could become a part of that.”
Thanks to him, for a brief time, we are.