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The dawn of time and all that followed

Michael Prestage visits a dazzling new centre in Bristol, which seeks to explain the mysteries of life on Earth.

Tropical plants hang lushly across the path, strange butterflies hover in the humid air, the sounds of some exotic creature suggest it is about to emerge from the undergrowth. It's a jungle in here.

Wildscreen at-Bristol is one part of a pound;97-million endeavour which combines state-of-the-art technology, science and the natural world. Wildscreen, which opened in July, houses plants and animals to present the story of life on Earth from simple, single-celled lifeforms to more complex creatures to demonstrate how all living things interact.

Apart from the tropical gardens, there is a theatre boasting a screen more than four stories high. There are internet facilities, a television studio and laboratories for schools.

An early devotee of the project was Sir David Attenborough, who said: "This is going to show people how the natural world works in a more exciting, more revolutionary and more thrilling way than anything else... It harnesses all we have learned about zoos, all that we've learned about wildlife film-making in television, plus a lot of very inspired ideas."

Wildscreen at-Bristol is designed as a linear journey that reveals the extraordinary range of Earth's biodiversity. Models, graphics, live and recorded electronic images and sound, special lighting and interactive systems are used to full effect. The idea is to balance learning and fun so that young people emerge stimulated and inspired by what they have seen.

A three-storey multi-media light sculpture introduces the history of life on Earth. Interactive displays let visitors explore the microscopic world of bacteria and other simple lifeforms. Marine invertebrates and fish make their entrance. There are always moving images and sound to call on for further information.

The journey progresses on to land, showing the development of plants from simple mosses and liverworts, through horsetails, ferns, cyads and conifers to the flowering plants.

As well as an array of multi-media support at your fingertips, there are also plenty of assistants to offer help and information. Dina Gillick, a horticulturalist recruited from Kew Gardens, points out the connections made between plants and animals.For example, the heliconid butterfly's life revolves around the Passiflora vine. She reels off entire plant biographies.

"Wildscreen at-Bristol attempts to take a holistic view of the natural world," says Anne Finnie, Wildscreen's director. "Often such ventures tend to concentrate on big cuddly animals. We are looking at the whole variety of life on Earth."

Further on, a visit takes you into a large gallery area given over to life on land. Much of this is taken up with insects. These creatures have the largest animal species diversity on the planet and there are plenty of them to watch live.

In an area devoted to ecosystems, visitors can experience what it is like to join an Antarctic penguin colony, without freezing to death. You can also go on a journey beneath the sea or interrogate moving screen images about more detailed aspects of life on Earth.

Then it's back to the botanical house and the tropical heat of the rainforest, where a colony of leaf-cutter ants are going about their business in one tank and another tank reveals what a flooded forest looks like from underwater.

The final gallery explores the relationship between people and the environment. This has some hard-hitting messages to convey as visitors are shown that wildlife habitats are under threat and extinctions are becoming commonplace. More species are disappearing now than at any previous time in Earth's history. It is a sobering thought.

at-Bristol, Harbourside, Anchor Road, Bristol BS1 5DB.

Tel: 0117 915 5000;

Open daily except Christmas Day, 10am-6pm. Admission: pupils pound;3.95, adults free 1:10 pupils. Extra adults pound;5.50. Worksheets for KS1-4 include ICT, PSHE and science.

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