Wild times ahead

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Two hundred million years ago, mammals and flowering plants were only just beginning to evolve. John Stringer describes what life on Earth could be like millions of years into the future

Imagine a world 200 million years from now where humankind is extinct. The continents have drifted together again to form one huge landmass. The Earth has experienced strikes from meteorites, mass extinctions, a second Ice Age, and a massive rise in sea levels. But, through all this, evolution has continued. On the sprawling supercontinent of Pangea II, sitting in the middle of a single global ocean, there are eight-ton land-living squid, fish that fly like butterflies, and snails that hop like kangaroos. Welcome to the world of the future - and that future is wild.

The Future is Wild is a multimedia project, including a 13-part television series currently being shown on BBC2, that began as a concept in the mind of John Adams, who formerly developed the Eyewitness series for Dorling Kindersley Vision. He brought together two original ideas. First was that while we always think of evolution as something that happened in the past, it is a dynamic process, happening now and continuing to happen in the future. Second is that since the basic rules of life will apply in the future, it should be possible to predict some of the paths that evolution might take. With these in mind, he approached geologists, climatologists and biologists to devise three possible future worlds: in five, 100 and 200 million years.

The international science team began by imagining how Earth's continents might be distributed 200 million years from now. We already know, from studies of the Earth's magnetism, that the continents have been slowly moving and changing over the past several million years. There have been no sudden changes in direction of these movements, so it is possible to predict where they are likely to go in future. The likely outcome is a single, central landmass surrounded by sea.

Landmasses and mountain ranges determine climate, so a climatologist deduced the climates of these future habitats. Then the biologists could take over, predicting future creatures that might evolve from our present animals to thrive in these habitats. They made certain assumptions - that wood and bone would be as strong as it is today, and that muscles would exert the same force as they do at present; and that plants and animals would grow no faster than they do now.

Guiding this work was Professor R McNeill Alexander, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Leeds. As a specialist in biomechanics - the study of animal movement - he made the numerous calculations ensuring that the future creatures are not products of mere fantasy, but could live and move, feed and reproduce.

The scientists also drew on the past to imagine the future. In the past, several patterns of change have occurred repeatedly. Birds, bats, insects and reptile pterosaurs have all separately evolved the ability to fly.

Lungfish, the amphibians, land snails, land crabs and insects have separately evolved the ability to breathe air instead of water. Ostriches and some salamanders reproduce while still juvenile; aphids and water fleas reproduce by virgin birth. Nothing, it seems, is impossible in evolutionary terms. Our knowledge of the past can help us imagine the future.

More than 40 animals and plants of the future were devised by the scientific team, each with its own natural history - its place in the habitat and in the food chain, its means of movement and of sensing the world around it, and its method of reproduction. Their calculations and sketches became detailed illustrations, and then these were brought to life with computer-generated imagery (CGI) - the same electronic technique used in the film Jurassic Park and TVseries Walking with Dinosaurs. The result is nearly three hours of gripping animation - as if you had three windows into the Earth's future and could see how it would evolve.

Five million years from now

This first leap into the future sees the Earth in the grip of a second Ice Age. So much water is locked up in the ice caps that the sea level has dropped by 150 metres. The British Isles are once more part of the continent - a frozen blizzard-swept tundra of sand and gravel. Some plants can exist in these harsh conditions - grasses, heather and willow trees, growing horizontally to escape the fierce winds. Cold conditions favour large animals with a small surface area for their mass. Small ears, eyes and noses are less prone to frostbite. Thick coats insulate well, and dark colours absorb what heat there is from the Sun. What can live in these conditions?

The predatory snowstalker has evolved from the weasel family. Its white fur is not an efficient heat-absorber, but it is better camouflage. Its canine teeth have evolved into slashing sabres. It is a solitary animal with a huge territory. It needs one, since its prey - the furry herbivorous rodent shagrats which are as big as sheep - are few and far between, eking a living themselves from the coarse vegetation. Pregnant snowstalker females are able to hold their developing embryos in suspension; that way they can be born as the brief summer thaw begins. The embryos growing together in her womb may have several different fathers; this ensures that there is a mixing of inherited characteristics and no risk of inbreeding and genetic weakness. The snowstalkers are successful hunters, attacking swiftly and silently. They can kill animals much larger than themselves.

100 million years from now

By now the world is a hothouse. The icecaps have melted, sea levels have risen and global temperatures are higher than they were in the Human Era.

Only the highest mountains remain above sea level. Australia has moved north to collide with Asia and throw up a chain of mountains far higher than the Himalayas. A high altitude habitat, the Great Plateau, supports an amazing fauna, including the remnants of a once successful group - the mammals.

The poggle is a small rodent that feeds on grass seeds. The changing temperature of the Earth has signalled the end for the mammals - their dominant place taken by land arthropods - insects, crustaceans and arachnids. But the poggle survives in the caves of the Great Plateau - living on seeds provided by its host, the silver spider. Poggles can eat and breed; and that's exactly what the silver spiders want. Their giant silver webs, spread across the plateau, billow gently in the wind. Grass seeds from the lower slopes are caught in the webs, harvested and stored by the silver spiders. The poggles eat the seeds. And the spiders, in turn, eat the poggles. This abundant supply of fresh meat gives the spider colony a greater chance of surviving through the winter. The poggles are livestock for the new masters of the Earth.

200 million years from now

It is 100 million years since the mass extinction that destroyed most of life on Earth. The pull of the Moon has slowed Earth's rotation and now a day is 25 hours long. The continents that once, long before the Human Era, drifted apart, have drifted together again.

A second supercontinent - Pangea II - has formed, surrounded by a Global Ocean that accounts for the extreme climate of the era. On the north coast of the continent, the area is pounded by storms and the constant rain and warm climate have created a vigorous forest, teeming with life. In these conditions, lichens flourish, growing to the size of Human Era trees. These trail feathery algae that photosynthesise and produce the food that the animals of the forest need.

Bright creatures flit through the lichen trees - as vivid as butterflies, as quick as wrens, and humming like hummingbirds. They are Forest Flish - flying fish. There had been fish in the Human Era that could maintain a brief flight; but the flish have developed wings from their pectoral fins, and the ability to breathe.

Present-day fish use swim bladders to dive and surface like submarines.

Future fish use them as lungs. Now they resemble hummingbirds. They spend their entire life among the trees, snapping up insects with their long beaks. They communicate much as grasshoppers did in human times - chirruping by rubbing together special teeth at the back of their throats.

The flish rest by hanging upside-down from branches under the leafy tree canopy, sheltered from the constant rain.

What we can learn

The educational potential of the television series is huge: one episode alone provides material to teach about human impact on the environment, survival, habitat, differences between herbivores and carnivores, simple food chains, extinction, the importance of eggs in reproduction, environmental niches, symbiosis, body size and heat conservation and Gaia theory in Life and Living Processes. It also develops ideas about materials and insulation.

In geography, the same episode includes Earth's poles, cold climates and conditions, ice ages, glaciation, permafrost and tundra, earthquakes, ocean trenches and mid-ocean ridges.

There are opportunities for other curriculum areas, from the use of information and communication technology to create and investigate future organisms, to the development of music to highlight the more dramatic moments in the films.

Supporting the series, a beautifully illustrated book details the natural history that make the on-screen creatures so authentic. In the pipeline is a feature film and interactive games. Education will feature strongly in future developments, with CD-Roms for school or home use and a range of educational resources. The building blocks of the Life and Living Processes strand of the science curriculum will be presented in an original, engaging and scientifically accurate way.

* Find out more from The Future is Wild website; click on "education" for more on the organisms, for lesson plans and teaching and learning ideas: www.thefutureiswild.com

* The 13-part television series is currently being broadcast on BBC2 at 1pm on Sundays (ends November 7).

The Future is Wild book accompanying the series is published by Dorling Kindersley, pound;15.99

Videos and DVDs are also now available.

The Future is Wild, Solomon's Court, Bourne's Green, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL6 8LY

Email: infor@the futureiswild.com

John Stringer heads the education division of The Future is Wild

Rules for designing animals

The Future is Wild Education is being trialled by a number of schools in Gloucestershire, including Crypt School, a boys' grammar where, for two weeks later this month, the whole Year 8 timetable will be given over to the project, covering creative writing, maths, drama, art, models and music. Members of the Future is Wild scientific team will work with students.

Applying the following rules, pupils can design their own new future animal:

* An animal that can live in only one habitat will die if that habitat is destroyed. The more habitats your animal can live in, the better its chance of survival.

* Animals in cold climates need insulation to keep warm. Fat, or fur, or both, are ideal for this.

* Animals in hot climates will need to find or store water.

* Animals that eat only one food are in danger if that food runs out.

Animals that eat a variety of foods are more likely to survive.

* The bigger an animal is, the safer it is from predators.

* Many types of animal started out in water and have moved to the land.

Desert hopper

Scientists imagined how a snail of today might evolve to meet changing conditions. The 80,000 kinds of snail on Earth all have a hard shell and glide on a muscular foot. But one sea snail hops to escape from predators.

Snails are great survivors. They can live in most habitats, including deserts. They survive in extreme heat by sealing themselves into their shells. They are not fussy eaters, feeding on both plants and animals.

Two hundred million years in the future, snails live in the Rainshadow Desert. Water and food are scarce, and the desert hopper has found a way to travel without wasting water on a slime trail. About the size of a rabbit, its thick skin prevents the loss of moisture. Its long shell balances it as it hops along.

Animals of the future

IN Five million years

Gannetwhales: huge flightless birds that spend most of their lives in water.

Babookari: intelligent monkeys with long tails for signalling, that trap and eat fish.

Deathgleaners: giant meat-eating bats.

IN 100 million years

Lurkfish: stun their prey with a powerful electric shock.

Toraton: giant, almost shell-less tortoises; the largest animals ever to walk on Earth.

Spitfire birds: spit acid at their attackers.

IN 200 million years

Sharkopaths: shark-like creatures that signal with luminous skin patches.

Squibbon: intelligent, octopus-like animals that swing through the forest trees.

Megasquid (below): air-breathing eight-tonne squid, as big as an elephant.

The blue vocal sacs vibrate to produce sound. Its huge limbs consist of a network of muscle.

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