UC Santa Cruz scientists star in PBS documentary The Shape of Life

The Shape of Life, a new television documentary series about the diversity of animal life on Earth, features UC Santa Cruz researchers among the scientists who lead viewers on a dramatic exploration of the animal kingdom. The series premieres Tuesday, April 2, on PBS stations nationwide.

John Pearse, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, played a significant role in planning the series, and is one of the main characters in an episode entitled "The Ultimate Animal." Pearse serves on the board of directors of Sea Studios Foundation, which produced the series for National Geographic Television and Film in association with PBS.

"I got fairly involved in putting the series together, and in one episode there is quite a bit of me stomping around on the Big Sur coastline, diving around Hopkins [Marine Station], and viewing some old time-lapse films of sea star behavior," Pearse said.

The first episode, "Origins," features Cristina Diaz, a research associate at UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences and at the Museo del Mar in Venezuela. Diaz's enthusiasm for the organisms she studies, sponges, is infectious. Most people, if they think about sponges at all, don't think of them as the most exciting creatures on Earth. But if anyone can change people's perceptions of sponges, it is Diaz, who earned her Ph.D. in organismal biology from UCSC.

"They are beautiful. They're original. They're mysterious. They are hundreds of millions of years old, yet they are still found all over the planet, in every sea," she said.

Innovative camera techniques, computer animations, and strikingly beautiful underwater video footage help Diaz make her case. The Shape of Life tells the history of animal life on Earth, and in the process it celebrates the unsung heroes of the animal world. Not only sponges, but also worms, jellies, crabs, bugs, snails, and sea stars all get their chance to shine in the limelight. High-definition video photography reveals these often-ignored creatures in all their glory.

Damhnait McHugh, who earned her Ph.D. in biology at UCSC and is now on the faculty at Colgate University, is also featured in the series, describing the wonders of annelid worms in the episode "Explosion of Life."

The Shape of Life consists of eight one-hour episodes. It will air in two-hour blocks from 9 to 11 p.m. on April 2, 9, and 16. Two additional episodes will not air with the premiere, but will air locally on PBS affiliates later in April and May.

Sea Studios Foundation, based in Monterey, is a nonprofit organization specializing in natural history and science programming. Staff scientists and award-winning filmmakers work together at the foundation, which was formed in 1996. More information about The Shape of Life can be found on the Sea Studios web site (http://www.seastudios.com).


Editor's note: Reporters may contact Sheila Foster, public relations coordinator for Sea Studios Foundation, at (831) 649-5152 or sheila@seastudios.com.