The first time the Virtual Ranger met Nick Baker he was presenting prizes at the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Stricken with a streaming cold, he manfully posed for photos and shook hands with sponsors before pulling out of his hat a masterful extemporised address to the assembled photographic dignitaries.
And whereas the government minister and the CEO of a big environmental body had both slipped away to their taxis almost before the flashbulbs had cooled, it was Nick Baker who stayed to sign autographs and chat with passing bloggers, and indeed was still standing animatedly discussing the details of moth physiology with one of the photographers as the gallery was being closed up. Naturalist and invertebrate enthusiast Nick Baker is to conservation what Professor Brian Cox is to particle physics. His playful charm and easy manner ensure that television producers form an orderly queue at his door; but Nick is no lightweight – his scientist’s enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject mean that he is in constant demand from wildlife charities to get across the conservation message – and that’s a job he takes very seriously. So, reading about Nick’s latest TV show, ‘Nick Baker’s Beautiful Freaks‘ (showing on January 14th on the Sky 3D channel) I was surprised to see no mention of invertebrates. I asked him about this and he laughed knowingly. “My passion for the evolutionary underdog is well known,” he said, “but even though TV commissioners want weird creatures, they still want a good proportion of fluffy ones!” Nick’s new documentary is ground-breaking production – the first ever presenter-led 3D wildlife documentary. This meant using some untried 3D technology in some extremely difficult conditions. He explained “It was a prototype camera, and when the director phoned me up and said ‘where would you suggest going?’, I wasn’t thinking about the camera or the collection of lenses and computers, I was thinking about my own selfish desires, so I suggested Namibia, which for a camera person, is a nightmare – it’s very dusty and sandy, the least camera-friendly environment on earth!” And Nick thinks that this gamble has paid off – his documentary is an analysis of the ways that animals and plants are moulded and shaped by the pressures put upon them by their environment. The more extreme the environment, the more bizarre and peculiar their adaptations can be. Yes, there are plenty of vertebrates – snakes, lizards, seals and the elusive bat-eared fox. But Nick Baker stays true to his roots, and there are some invertebrates every bit as good – crabs, spiders and the impressive armoured ground crickets. Of course, when he mentioned the spiders I had to find out more. Nick told me a spider story that you won’t see on the TV – or at least, not yet.
“A highlight for me was a really cool salticid spider. While I was waiting for the camera one day I noticed this little tiny brown spider, particularly cute. It looked like a pebble – it had evolved to hunt on the pebble plains between the dune systems of the Namib. “I was on my hands and knees watching this little fellow hunting, and as he was bobbing along, a little gust of wind blew, and he got sand on his eyes. He looked at my camera, and I saw these beautiful big forward-facing eyes. Then he brought up these brilliant palps that were densely fringed with bristles, and just like a rally car, he polished his eyeballs. He wiped them backwards and forwards like windscreen wipers, and then carried on. “It was such a cool thing, I had to see it again, but the wind had died down, so I spent the afternoon blowing sand into the eyes of a jumping spider, just to see him wipe it off! It was a little story that never made it onto the big screen, which is a shame. So that’s the next step – I want to take this 3D technology to the really small things.”
So look out for some more Nick Baker in 3D coming sooner or later – and I’ve got a feeling that it might just feature the hidden world of the inverts in a new way. Nick was very clear about his future intentions. “I could spend the rest of my life telling the tales of the invertebrates.”, he said. “They’re so critical to every system on earth, and they’re totally underrated by the majority of human beings – which to me is a crime that needs to be addressed!”
‘Nick Baker’s Beautiful Freaks‘ Showing on January 14th, 2012 on the Sky 3D channel