ALAN ALDA It's hot. It's dry. It's the Arizona desert. On this
edition of Scientific American Frontiers we'll see how nature
gets by under the most extreme conditions.
We'll see how a desert spider has to fight to capture an ant,
and to win a mate... We'll ask what it takes to be the fastest
on four legs... We'll find out how frogs and flounder make
it through the big freeze... And we'll discover the life of
the ocean depths, and the dangers of mountain peaks.
ALAN ALDA I'm Alan Alda. Join me now as we go to extremes.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We're in Southern Arizona. After the brief
summer rains, the desert's deceptively green. But this is
a harsh environment, posing extreme challenges to the plants
and animals that live here.
SUSAN RIECHERT Usually what we
have is a sort of a permanent sheet that's kind of large,
because these are hungry spiders.
ALAN ALDA Could they be anywhere? Could they be in any one of these
little plants, or...
SUSAN RIECHERT They're gonna need shelter
from the heat.
ALAN ALDA There's a... there's a web.
SUSAN RIECHERT Yep, see,
you did better than I did.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) I doubt it. Susan Riechert, a biology professor
from the University of Tennessee, has been studying the desert
funnel web spider for thirty years.
SUSAN RIECHERT They're
touching the web and they're feeling the vibration of anything
that might be coming down the web. In addition they're...
picking up airborne vibrations of flying insects that are
moving the air. And so they can tell what kind of insect that
is that's in the vicinity and um... whether they want to come
out and attack it or not.
ALAN ALDA They can tell just by the vibrations on the web or...
or in the air what kind of insect is sitting on their trap,
SUSAN RIECHERT That's right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) These are fire ants. They're tough and aggressive,
with a nasty bite.
SUSAN RIECHERT Here we go. I'm dropping
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The spider attacks without hesitation. It's
a female -- summer is breeding season so she has to eat, even
though she's risking her life in the process.
ALAN ALDA She grabs at it then she pulls back.
SUSAN RIECHERT That's
ALAN ALDA What's she doing when she does that?
SUSAN RIECHERT She's
trying to avoid the jaws of that ant. She's trying to inject
venom. Oh... she has to try and get her little fangs that
are very small in through that hard casing of the ant.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But it's not just the ant that could kill
her -- the hot desert sun could, too. She'd be protected back
in the shade, but she can't take her prey in until it's subdued
and safe to move. Five minutes into the struggle the sun comes
out. As the web rapidly heats up, the spider's forced to retreat
to its shady funnel. It's now over a hundred degrees out on
ALAN ALDA How does she know the ant will still be there when she
SUSAN RIECHERT She doesn't. But she doesn't have
a choice, because if she heats up and she goes into a stupor
she'll die... she'll get... she'll cook. But they're hungry
so they have to try for everything.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) She's back within a minute for a quick check
on her victim. Now it seems safe to take in. Susan thought
she had her desert spiders pretty well figured out until one
day she discovered the spiders who live up in this canyon.
The canyon's a lush oasis, so biologists would expect the
plant and animal species living here to be different from
the ones coping with desert extremes. But to Susan's surprise,
the spiders were the same. This launched her on a journey
of discovery that's still continuing, and that may eventually
lead to a glimpse of evolution itself in action.
ALAN ALDA Well this is a lot nicer here. I mean, I can see how
the spiders feel about this...
SUSAN RIECHERT It's better
for us, isn't it?
ALAN ALDA Yeah, but I... I can... it's cooler.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Susan first noticed that, even though it's
cool here, river spiders often stay in their funnels. They're
timid and fearful, unlike their desert cousins. That makes
sense, she realized, because under the trees the enemy's no
longer the sun -- it's hungry birds. But seeing the same species
changing its behavior like this, to fit a different environment,
was a big surprise -- an important discovery in biology.
SUSAN RIECHERT Let's try an ant, shall we? Let's see... do you see
her at all? If she's there, she's back pretty far.
ALAN ALDA I see something in the tunnel.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The threat of birds stops river spiders coming
out to fight a tough ant. There are plenty of softer insects
ALAN ALDA There's a definite lack of interest in this ant here.
SUSAN RIECHERT They're gonna ignore her... the vibratory patterns
that an ant's gonna make. They're not gonna come out...
ALAN ALDA It's not worth the trouble, because you could get killed
SUSAN RIECHERT Yeah.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Susan set up a natural laboratory -- an eight-acre
enclosure running from the river up the canyon side. At the
top the lush river environment gives way to dry woodland,
where the spiders are very aggressive -- like those in the
extremes of the desert. For Susan the question was, what happens
when the tough guys above meet the softies below? The first
thing that happens is any spiders heading down into the canyon
are stopped by the border patrol. They come up against the
study area's boundary, and get caught in pitfall traps.
ALAN ALDA I'll check the ones coming from this side...
We'll see who finds the first animal, how's that?
ALAN ALDA ... all right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Both sides of the fence are checked, but
most spiders are heading downhill toward the easy life on
ALAN ALDA Ah... there's something in here... oh.... oh geez...
watch out, there's something in there!
SUSAN RIECHERT Yeah,
a cricket or something.
ALAN ALDA What? A cricket?
SUSAN RIECHERT A cricket, and an itsy,
bitsty spider, and...
ALAN ALDA You never know what it could have been. It could have
been a scorpion.
SUSAN RIECHERT Well, you're losing out on...
ALAN ALDA I don't want it back!
SUSAN RIECHERT I emptied it.
ALAN ALDA Oh.
SUSAN RIECHERT You always have to empty all the insects
out... when you do this.
ALAN ALDA You know...
SUSAN RIECHERT By... by the way, there are
ALAN ALDA There are or aren't?
SUSAN RIECHERT There are.
ALAN ALDA There are. Of course there are! What do you think I was
SUSAN RIECHERT So watch your fingers when
you reach in.
ALAN ALDA Nothing... something, something! Huh-huh, a spider...
SUSAN RIECHERT Yeah, probably another cricket...
ALAN ALDA No, no, a spider.
SUSAN RIECHERT Oh yeah?
ALAN ALDA Yes.
SUSAN RIECHERT Let's see. What kind?
ALAN ALDA Very aggressive spider... ha... That's a spider!
SUSAN RIECHERT Oh.
ALAN ALDA What is it?
SUSAN RIECHERT Well, that is an Agelenopsis
ALAN ALDA I told ya!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Every day trapped spiders are brought to
the lab close to the enclosure. They'll be returned to the
wild just across the fence, at the point they were caught,
to continue their journey. But first they're put through their
paces. This is a test for aggression. Two males are placed
on a web built by a female who's been removed. Immediately
one male takes possession of the web funnel, looking for the
female. Susan's seen this kind of face-off many times in the
wild. The result can be anything from one spider's running
away, to a fight to the death. These are both aggressive,
dry-land spiders so neither is prepared to back down. In fact,
after he's first driven off, the attacker heads right back
to the web funnel. Inside the funnel the defender slowly edges
toward the attacker, who's lurking just outside. They're both
looking for a fight. When it finally erupts it's ferocious.
In a surprise reversal the attacker, now on the left, bites
the defender's leg and hangs on -- it could all be over. But
then the defender pulls free, scares the attacker off and
pauses to nurse his leg. He once again takes possession of
the funnel. But it's not over yet. The defender wants the
attacker well clear of the area. But the attacker stays lurking
nearby. This particular confrontation took about two hours,
although Susan's seen them run for an entire day. The end
came like this -- with a vicious tangle that was going to
lead to death, until the referee stepped in.
I've got them separated.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Susan doesn't want to lose any of her spiders.
The aim is to score them for aggression, mark them, and then
see how they do back in the enclosure. The contestants will
be returned within the hour. There are about fifteen hundred
spiders within the enclosure, and Susan has caught and tested
every one. Females are kept in the lab until they build webs
in their plastic boxes, then they go back in the field with
the males. Now the study moves to the next stage.
ALAN ALDA You know exactly where it is?
SUSAN RIECHERT Ah... yes.
ALAN ALDA It's like, there's a favorite night spot they go to or
SUSAN RIECHERT Um... no, well, potentially any one of
these spiders that is in a box could be mating. Now, I think
if you were to look inside that funnel you will see...
ALAN ALDA Down in here?
SUSAN RIECHERT Yes, you will see that there
are two spiders.
ALAN ALDA Oh, yeah yeah. OK.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) There's a mating going on between an aggressive,
dry-land male who came down the hill, and a timid river female.
It would have gone something like this, with the male cautiously
approaching while doing his mating dance, to signal his intention
to the female. Both spiders have to be careful because things
can turn ugly pretty quickly. A fight could start, especially
if male and female are very aggressive. Or if one's too aggressive
and the other's too timid, then the timid one might simply
run away. But in this case wedding bells ring out and the
tough, dry-land male wins his shy bride from the river. The
happy couple will be blessed with about three hundred kids.
Susan's been following the spiders in her enclosure for twenty
years now and she's run into a puzzle -- the spiders just
aren't behaving right.
ALAN ALDA Right there?
SUSAN RIECHERT Yeah.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Many spiders are much more aggressive than
makes sense here. Susan's figured out they are the hybrid
offspring of aggressive, dry-land males and timid, river females.
ALAN ALDA That really seems aggressive. You think that's a hybrid?
SUSAN RIECHERT It's gotta be. I mean, here's a spider that
obviously isn't hungry. She takes these ants, that could kill
her, into her funnel and she lets them go.
ALAN ALDA Just catching them for no reason? And they're dangerous
SUSAN RIECHERT And she probably won't even eat it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Here's the kind of super-aggressive behavior
by the hybrids that Susan discovered. Dangerous fire ants
are pulled into the funnel without first being subdued. Not
even a hungry desert spider would take this risk, and sure
enough, Susan's found most hybrids don't make it. Many are
taken by birds, many don't breed because they scare off their
partners. So now Susan predicts a new behavior will evolve
among the river females, that prevents them from mating with
aggressive males. The offspring of those females would survive,
unlike hybrids. If she's right, she'll see much more of this
-- a male with no partner.
SUSAN RIECHERT Hey Terry!
You got something Susan?
SUSAN RIECHERT Yeah I'm at A134 and
I have a male. It looks like ah... white, yellow, pink...
TERRY He was there last check.
SUSAN RIECHERT The female is...
ah, not here, so he must have chased her off.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Susan expects that somewhere there's a timid,
river female who won't mate with an aggressive male from up
the hill. Her offspring will inherit that behavior, they'll
thrive, and eventually they'll take over the canyon. They'll
never mix with the guys up the hill again. It'll be a shift
to a new species of spider -- evolution in action. To make
that discovery Susan Riechert's prepared to put in another
ALAN ALDA Do you ever at night before you go to sleep say to
yourself, wouldn't it be great if in the next few months I started
to see this shift.. and I... I was there to experience it?
SUSAN RIECHERT Oh... we'd all love to have that kind of...
ah.. event happen. But... that's nature. It does what it wants.
Whatever happens, happens, and we can just follow it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Beneath the waters of the North Atlantic
as November comes, life faces a conundrum. How to survive
at a temperature that turns blood to ice? Here to find out
is biologist Sally Goddard.
SKIPPER What we're going to do,
we're moving close to the headland here, and the divers will
have about 20-30 feet of water and you should find quite a
few flounder there, hopefully.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) These divers - warm-blooded animals - survive
the cold by burning body fat to generate heat - and by wearing
elaborate protective gear. But the creatures below are cold-blooded,
living at the temperature of their surroundings. Which here
means their cold blood gets very cold indeed.
SALLY Most fish
blood freezes at about minus 0.7, and the water around here
can go down to minus 1.8. So you could tell they'd have a
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) At minus 1.8 degrees Celsius, sea water isn't
yet frozen. Hidden but for their eyes under a layer of sand,
these flounder aren't frozen either - though their blood is
also at minus 1.8 degrees. As long as the water itself doesn't
freeze, the flounder survive - thanks to an antifreeze protein
in their blood, manufactured to order for the long winter
SALLY The production of anti-freeze protein in the
flounder is really triggered by the days getting shorter.
So the flounder can sense that the day length is shorter and
winter's approaching, and the whole system for making antifreeze
proteins is triggered round about November time.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Alive and well back at Sally Goddard's lab
at Memorial University in St. John's, this flounder becomes
a blood donor. The fish will survive till another day - and
its blood will demonstrate the property that makes it so remarkable
- and potentially valuable.
SALLY Pleased to be back.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As well as the blood sample she's just taken,
SALLY has some blood from a flounder caught during the summer.
SALLY I'm going to set the temperature of the bath to really
cold sea water-winter temperature-which is about minus 1.8-that's
as cold as sea water gets before it freezes solid. Now this
is the blood taken from a fish in summer. This fish doesn't
have any antifreeze in its plasma. Now once I disturb the
blood, ice crystals start to form in the blood, and they propagate
very quickly, spread through the blood, and turn it into something
looking like a slush puppy, a red slush puppy. If this was
a fish with blood like this, the fish wouldn't be able to
breathe, the blood wouldn't circulate around the fish. You'd
have a dead fish, for sure.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But at the same low temperature, the winter
flounder's blood stays liquid - thanks to the antifreeze protein.
SALLY The proteins have a special affinity for ice crystals...so
at the first hint of an ice crystal forming, these proteins
bind onto it, and effectively lower the freezing point. So
a fish with high levels of antifreeze is just about protected
under any circumstances in Newfoundland waters.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Sally Goddard now has a small business purifying
the fish antifreeze, anticipating the day when it could be
useful to humans as well as flounder. One of her best customers
is across the continent in Berkeley, California. Here Boris
Rubinsky looks at what freezing does to living cells. He's
hoping to radically improve the availability of human organs
for transplant surgery.
BORIS One would like to be able to
preserve organs for long period of time in order to facilitate
organ transplantation. There are many organs available, but
because of the lack of compatibility in terms of time and
placing, one cannot really implant all the available organs.
If we would be able to preserve organs for long periods of
time, then obviously we could resolve some of these problems.
Learning how animals solve their problems is probably, in
my opinion, the best way to actually resolve the problem of
organ preservation for transplantation.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The big problem with preserving human organs
is that freezing destroys the cells it's meant to save. This
is human blood. As it freezes, the blade-like crystals trap
and squeeze the red blood cells.
BORIS Most of the cells are
being pushed to the side by the ice crystals and all the cells
are being pushed inside these channels and compressed, and
this is where they're destroyed. The walls become leaky, the
cells are not nice and round anymore like they were at the
beginning of the freezing process.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Adding Sally Goddard's fish antifreeze to
the cells not only holds back freezing. Even at very low doses
- not enough to prevent ice crystals growing - it helps keep
the red blood cells round and intact. But the fish antifreeze
alone won't solve the problem of preserving human organs for
transplantation. So Boris Rubinsky's conviction that nature
will teach him how to freeze then bring back to life human
tissue, has led him beyond fish to an even more remarkable
winter survivor. It's hunted in the woods of Ontario every
year by Carleton University biologists Janet and Kenneth Storey.
KEN It takes a lot of hard work. It makes you wonder what
a middle-aged scientist is wandering around the woods picking
leaves. It's like my mother says that the good news is that
my son is a doctor, and the bad news is that he's the wrong
kind. I end up looking for frogs.
JANET There's one. Oh.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) They're here to catch - or attempt to catch
- wood frogs.
JANET Oh, a beauty.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Obviously still quite active in the late
fall, the frogs are approaching a long, hard Canadian winter.
JANET This is an adult wood frog. Looks to be a female. You
can see that her abdomen's quite extended-she's already got
the eggs in place that she will lay in the spring at the breeding
ponds. Could be in the jar with her.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And during that winter, like everything around
them, they'll simply freeze solid.
KEN This is probably a
young of the year. That is, he was a tadpole months ago-he's
been eating flies ever since. And now, if we didn't disturb
him, he would just burrow down, and live frozen all winter
underneath the leaves. If you're frozen your metabolism slows
down to nothing and you can live in a state of suspended animation.
Instead of having to grow huge and eat a lot of fuels and
then use them up, if you're frozen, for many months, you're
not using your fuels. In the spring they come out before there's
any insects to eat, and they mate and lay eggs in ponds that
are still covered with ice.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For these frogs, winter is coming a little
early this year.
JANET What we're doing is getting ready to
freeze the frogs at what is a natural temperature to them,
about 25 degrees F.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The freezer may not be as comfortable as
a forest floor, but once the temperature starts falling, the
frogs settle down, tuck themselves in - and over the course
of several hours, freeze solid.
KEN Frosty, hard frogs. The
animal's completely frozen now. About 67% of their body is
turned into ice. The heart is truly stopped. The blood is
all frozen in a big pool in the center of the frog. There's
no blood in the arms or the legs at all. And they're hard.
They're ice crystals on the skin, and the frog can't even
be flexed at all.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For Ken and Janet Storey, only one thing
is more entrancing than watching a frog freeze - and that's
watching it thaw.
KEN The first thing you can see in a newly
thawed frog is the heart beginning to pump blood. The thickened
blood is now being pushed back into the exterior limbs and
around the brain to get the frog re-oxygenated and back to
work. He seems to be doing fine...no need to notify his next
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's a sight right out of science fiction
- the frozen body coming back to life. Which is why this wood
frog is now in Boris' lab - where it's about to be frozen
while its insides are imaged by an MRI scanner of the type
usually used in hospitals. As soon as ice forms on its skin,
a wood frog starts pumping out huge quantities of the blood
sugar glucose from its liver. Like the fish antifreeze, glucose
seems to both lower the freezing point, and protect cells
from damage when ice does start forming. And in the MRI images
- where frozen tissue appears darker - it's the triangular
shaped liver - the source of the glucose - that freezes last.
But what Rubinsky is especially intrigued by is how the frog
unfreezes. Because if it thaws as you'd expect, from the outside
in, then its limbs and head would unfreeze before the heart,
and so begin to die through lack of blood. The MRI explains
the mystery, as it reveals that the frog thaws evenly throughout
BORIS Now nature has somehow ensured that, essentially
through glucose, as we found later, it has ensured that the
whole frog thaws simultaneously throughout all its tissues,
and therefore, as soon as it thaws, the blood circulation
perfuses all the tissues and brings them back to life simultaneously,
and the frog can begin hopping.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Copying nature's solutions to surviving extreme
cold, perhaps one day human organs will freeze and come back
to life with the same unconcern as the wood frog.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's a race we've all seen on television
nature shows. The cheetah gives chase; the antelope flee.
But what we're watching is much more than a race between hunter
and prey. It's a race between two entirely different biological
designs, each fine-tuned through evolution to achieve the
highest speed land animals can reach: 60 - even 70 - miles
per hour. It's another example of nature at the extreme. How
animals run is a fascination of University of California,
Berkeley physiologist Rodger Kram.
RODGER KRAM I got interested
in studying locomotion because that's what I enjoy doing...
I enjoy exercising and running myself. But, I think what the
most interesting thing about animals is, is that they move.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Rodger Kram is especially intrigued by the
extremes of animal locomotion, and the limits - like gravity
- that set those extremes.
RODGER KRAM The ant is a very small
animal...it's not very fast in absolute terms but even though
it moves it legs very quickly, it has short little legs. Ants
are in no danger of breaking their legs-they're so small,
gravity's not an important force for them. The elephant, on
the other hand, is really dominated by gravity-it's huge,
it can take enormous strides, but it can't run, because if
it started to run and left the ground and landed, it would
literally break its bones.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The cheetah is a spectacularly successful
compromise between the lightness of the ant and the power
of the elephant. Here at the Phoenix Zoo, Rodger is at the
very beginning of a research project that he hopes will reveal
the secret of the cheetah's speed. He's about to film a chase,
not between a cheetah and an antelope but between a cheetah
and a rabbit's foot at the end of a very long line. For the
zoo's cheetahs, even a rabbit's foot is a welcome reminder
of the thrill of the hunt - though on the first trial run,
it's disappointingly easy prey.
RODGER KRAM He caught it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) One rabbit's foot down - but fortunately
plenty more to go. And on later runs the rabbit feet pose
more of a challenge - enough to give the cheetahs a workout
and Rodger several seconds of high speed video. For both cheetahs
and scientist it's been a rewarding morning.
RODGER KRAM I
feel really lucky to have the opportunity to study cheetahs,
I spent...building my career on studying how animals run,
and cheetahs are the fastest animal in the world. Not only
are they the fastest animal in the world, but they're endangered
and the next generation of scientists might not be able to
study how cheetah's run so fast.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) At full tilt the cheetah takes such enormous
strides that it's literally flying half the time. It's secret,
Rodger believes, is its extraordinarily flexible back.
RODGER KRAM It flexes and the extends its back to lengthen its stride.
But you can see that there's a dip in its back at one part
of the stride.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The cheetah's flexible spine may give it
RODGER KRAM It not only allows it to lengthen
its stride, but it also may be used as a spring to store energy
when the animal lands, then give that energy back as it takes
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So Rodger's research will aim to find out
if the cheetah owes at least some of its speed to spring power.
What's certain, though, is that the cheetah pays a price for
its ability to accelerate from zero to 45 miles an hour in
two seconds. Like any sprinter, after a few hundred feet it's
exhausted - and takes a full half hour to recover. Completely
uncheetah-like in design - and endurance - are these pronghorn
antelope, here running at over 50 miles an hour in Colorado.
Once endangered, there are now over a million pronghorn in
the Western United States. And two here in the Boston suburbs,
where I recently helped out at a mini-round-up at Harvard
University's field station.
ALAN ALDA How did they get the ability to go this fast in the first
JIM JONES Well historically, up until about the time
of the Pleistocene-about 10,000 years ago-there was a cheetah
in North America. We can argue that perhaps they co-evolved
such that predation from this very fast cat then led to their
escape mechanism being developed at high speeds themselves.
ALAN ALDA When did the cheetah check out? JONES The cheetah checked
out about 10,000 years ago.
ALAN ALDA So for 10,000 years they've had this ability...I mean
they're all dressed up and no place to go!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Jim Jones, like Rodger Kram, is setting out
to answer the basic question
JIM JONES How are these animals
able to achieve speeds as does the cheetah that are simply
far, far in excess of what almost every other mammal is able
ALAN ALDA What have you found so far? How can they run so fast?
JIM JONES Well, we look at it in a very general sense as two
possibilities. One is, either the animals have a very large
motor, which is their metabolism, how much energy is available,
to fuel the running, or alternatively, maybe they have a specialized
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's the pronghorn's transmission - the way
it converts its motor power to speed - that's about to be
checked out today. Judah is being chased down a corridor past
an observation port manned by Jim Jones' student Seth Wright.
SETH WRIGHT OK, that's good, we've got a right rear.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The aim is to get Judah to step on a plate
that will measure the force behind each stride at the same
time that a high speed video camera records it. Finally they
get a perfect shot of a rear leg in action. SETH WRIGHT One
of the most dramatic features is that they have these huge
extensions at the ankle, which is in the same place as the
knee on the human-it's the first major joint off the ground.
That means that the muscle is acting very far from the joint-and
that gives it a great deal of leverage, akin to pushing on
the side of a door, far from the hinge gives you a great deal
of leverage for opening the door.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The ankle lever allows the pronghorn to leap
into its run with the acceleration it once needed to keep
one step ahead of North American cheetahs. In marked contrast
to the cheetah's strong sinuous back, the pronghorn's is rigid
and light - as are its long delicate-looking legs. But as
the high speed video reveals, its gait minimizes the risk
of breaking its bones. SETH WRIGHT You can see that as the
antelope lands, its skinny forelimb is perfectly straight.
That's the strongest arrangement for a bone-it's not undergoing
any bending as it strikes. So these antelope aren't compromising
safety to achieve their high speeds.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Judah's companion, 4x4, will also be getting
a work-out today. In her case, though, not to test her transmission
- which seems in fine shape - but to run a detailed check
on her motor.
ALAN ALDA Your treadmill is ready, Grace. RESEARCHER We will put
this mask on her, which will collect the gases that she's
expiring as she's running. This is the mask...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) I think I've just discovered the ultimate
ALAN ALDA An old Wisk bottle.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The treadmill is cranked up and 4x4 is off
and running - with a little encouragement.
JIM JONES Flap
it behind her and that'll be enough to ....
ALAN ALDA How Long can she keep going like this, at this speed?
JIM JONES At this speed, forever.
ALAN ALDA She'd just go on and on at this, forever
JIM JONES This
is so easy for her...this is one-tenth of what she can do.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A force plate under the pronghorn's front
legs records her gait, displayed as she trots by the red line.
The green line is her breathing - one breath for every three
JIM JONES Now she's going up to 8. This will be about
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) At this speed, 4x4 breaks into an easy gallop.
But to keep going at over 20 miles an hour, she really needs
to feel there's a cheetah on her tail. By now her breathing
pattern has changed. Instead of three strides per breath,
at a gallop her stride and breathing rate seem to be locked
JIM JONES The question that's been raised about
that is.. might it be that every time the animal's body goes
forward in its stride, it hits down as it begins to momentarily
slightly decelerate before the next stride goes forward and
the inertia, the momentum, as it were, of the guts going forward
would push the air out of the lungs a little bit, then as
the animal accelerates forward the inertia causing those guts
to move backward a little bit might help it to inspire.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For an animal its size, the pronghorn has
huge lungs - and it could be, then, that the gallop itself
is helping her take the great gulps of air she needs to keep
going. To run the pronghorn's motor even harder, the angle
of the treadmill is cranked up to a grade of twenty percent.
Now it's Judah's turn - and she seems to be looking forward
to it. As Judah set off uphill, Jim Jones summarized what
makes her and her kind such extraordinary athletes.
The largest single part of it is that indeed the animal has
a huge motor. She has got muscles that are designed to utilize
oxygen at a rate...It's about as much as five times as a not
highly aerobic athletic animal like a goat. To support that,
she has to have this very high ability to pump blood from
the lungs to the muscles, so she's got an extremely large
heart-very, very large for her size- and in turn, she gets
the oxygen from the air into that blood, she's got the lungs
that we mentioned earlier that are much, much larger-about
two and a half times larger-than those of a less aerobic animal.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In Africa, unlike North America, the race
between extreme solutions for speed - one emphasizing endurance,
the other lightning sprints - still goes on everyday. Sometimes
one wins, sometimes the other.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Early morning fog shrouds the harbor of Moss
Landing, 75 miles south of San Francisco, as the research
vessel Point Lobos heads out to sea. Operated by the Monterey
Bay Aquarium Research Institute, its destination is the edge
of the last great unexplored region on earth. Just 10 miles
out, the ocean floor plunges into a canyon bigger than the
Grand Canyon, poising the Point Lobos over water as deep as
almost any in the world's oceans. Below the top few hundred
feet, these depths were until recently almost entirely unknown,
though by volume they make up more than 90% of the earth's
living space. On board the Point Lobos is one of the first
regular visitors to these hidden depths, the submarine Ventana.
ALAN ALDA What is all this stuff here?
BRUCE ROBISON Well, we've
got a variety of tools that we use at depth. These are samplers
that we use to collect the more fragile and delicate animals.
Down here is the big eye. Up here along this middle bar are
four metal halogen lights. The depths we'll be working at
today are very dark. Less than a hundredth of a percent of
the sunlight which reaches the surface penetrates as deep
as we'll be working today.
ALAN ALDA If we were down there without a light, what would it
be like? Would it be like being in a room that just has a
tiny crack somewhere under a door?
BRUCE ROBISON Even less
than that. About the only thing you can see is that looking
up towards the surface is less dark than looking down.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Bruce Robison has been using the Ventana
to explore the darkness below for some 7 years now. The submarine
has no crew. Bruce and his crew operate it remotely from the
surface, where the ocean swell is making life distinctly uncomfortable
for me and our camera crew. Unfortunately, going below only
makes things worse. The control room is small, dark, hot and
constantly pitching. As I munch saltines to settle my stomach,
the pilot takes the Ventana on a dive that will penetrate
a half-mile into the darkness. The view from Ventana's camera
is like something out of Star Wars...
ALAN ALDA So we're just traveling through space here, it looks
like we're, oh what went by? Something good went by. What
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) ...complete with aliens.
BRUCE ROBISON Oh,
ALAN ALDA What's that?
BRUCE ROBISON These are great big, brown
ALAN ALDA Oh, that's gorgeous.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In a sense, the creatures down here are like
ALAN ALDA Look at this guy.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) ...adapted to an environment quite unlike
the one the rest of us who live on earth inhabit. This creature
is called a siphonophore.
BRUCE ROBISON This is the propulsive
end. There are two swimming bells, one on either side, that
allow the animals to pull itself through the water.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In fact, the siphonophore may not be a single
animal at all but an assembly of many. Until it was seen here
in its habitat, no-one knew much about it.
ALAN ALDA You couldn't have ever brought this up in a net, could
BRUCE ROBISON No. We would have had only bits and pieces.
We wouldn't have known how many siphonophores were there,
whether there was 1 or 100. These animals get to be extraordinarily
large. We have measured them up to 120 feet long. That is
a very big surprise.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And it makes it one of the longest creatures
on earth. Capturing siphonophores and the deep's other gelatinous
creatures in one piece is a job for one of Ventana's specialized
ALAN ALDA You gonna put him up the vacuum cleaner there?
BRUCE ROBISON That's right. We're gonna draw this siphonophore into
the suction sampler. So that we can look at it's stomach contents.
ALAN ALDA You can get a big guy like that into one of your containers?
BRUCE ROBISON Sure.
ALAN ALDA And it wont break?
BRUCE ROBISON It will be, what's the
polite term, "wadded up".
ALAN ALDA Ha, Ha. This is why I don't believe in flying saucers
coming down and taking samples of humanity. I don't want to
be "wadded up" by one of those things.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The siphonophore is gently sucked aboard
in one piece - accompanied by some of the dust-like particles
that are everywhere down here.
ALAN ALDA What's all this snow-like stuff we are seeing around
BRUCE ROBISON You called it by the right name.
We refer to it as marine snow. It's sort of all of the junk
and detritus and dust of the upper layer of the ocean.
ALAN ALDA So, that's stuff falling off of animals up above. And
it passes through this region and continues on it's way all
the way down to the bottom?
BRUCE ROBISON That's right.
ALAN ALDA And animals are feeding on it all the time?
Yes, certainly bacteria feed on it while it descends. But
there are other animals, filter feeders, that occur in mid-water,
and they process these particles. But eventually, they all
reach the sea floor.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Since Bruce Robison and his colleagues began
their deep water explorations, they've identified dozens of
new species. Creatures down here range from the gruesome fangtooth...
to the angelic-looking ribbonfish. Some 2100 feet down, the
Ventana passes through a layer where oxygen levels are very
low. Among the creatures adapted to hanging out here is the
splendidly named Vampyroteuthis infernalis, a distant cousin
to octopus and squid. It glares at us balefully through a
huge blue eye.
BRUCE ROBISON Oh boy, time out. This is a paralepidid.
A very, very beautiful little fish that we don't see all that
often. It's nose is up, it's keeping itself almost vertically
in the water column. It's looking up trying to see it's prey
silhouetted against the surface. Very soon, it's going to
take off and it will be gone just like it vaporized. There
he goes. He's history.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To evade shadow stalkers like the Paralepidid,
potential prey are often transparent... Or, like this little
fish, they generate their own internal light. When viewed
from below, this makes them less visible against the lighter
surface. Bioluminescence is used a lot down here. The otherwise-black
angler fish has a luminous beard to attract prey. But why
so many animals glow in the dark is still a mystery.
BRUCE ROBISON This is a red-bellied tomachtarid. It's a type of
polechite worm that lives down here. This animal has bioluminescent
organs at the ends of all it's legs.
ALAN ALDA What a great shot that is.
BRUCE ROBISON It's like having
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) There are so many questions down here. This
catcher's mitt shaped creature seams to propel itself along
with shimmering hairs along its edge, but otherwise is utterly
ALAN ALDA How does this animal reproduce?
BRUCE ROBISON Good question,
I don't know.
ALAN ALDA Ha, Ha. Well, you know what's wonderful is how much there
is to learn down here.
BRUCE ROBISON Oh sure.
ALAN ALDA It's a whole other universe.
BRUCE ROBISON That's part
of what makes it so exciting. Each dive can, and often does,
bring us something new, something unexpected.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Unfortunately, my own curiosity had begun
to lose its battle for attention with my stomach.
ALAN ALDA I think I have to go up and get some air.
ALAN ALDA It's not that this isn't fascinating. But I think staying
in one piece will be more fascinating.
BRUCE ROBISON Certainly
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Up in the light and air, it's hard to believe
that just beneath us lies the earth's strange final frontier.
Pioneers like Bruce Robison will be exploring its mysteries
for many years to come.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The Alps. Beautiful. Enticing. And all too
often, deadly. Hardly able to move, this climber is a victim
of mountain sickness. Here at 15,000 feet, thin air is starving
her body of oxygen. She could become one of the one-in-ten
climbers who get so sick their lives are in danger. It's an
all too common sight for the mountain guides.
It's mostly from the high altitude, why they get very tired.
Sometimes they vomit in the snow. They walk like drunken people.
But mostly they don't like any help, but they don't like to
go down also. Strange. It's difficult to say why they don't
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Like most new climbers, she probably had
no reason to suppose that she'd be especially vulnerable to
the altitude. Which is why there's a research program at the
University of Heidelberg in Germany to try to predict who's
most susceptible to mountain sickness. This young man, named
ARNDT, is one of a group of volunteers willing to push their
bodies to the limit to help find a test that will tell people
before they climb if they're likely to get sick. Arndt's testing
begins by finding out how fit he is. As he works harder, his
body responds by increasing his heart rate, pumping more blood
to his muscles and so supplying them with more oxygen to burn.
SYNC (Yelling in German)
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To get that extra oxygen into his blood,
he breathes faster and more deeply. Now the real test begins.
Arndt's oxygen is cut back, simulating high altitude. The
idea is to see how he responds when there is less oxygen available.
Again his heart rate increases - and again his breathing gets
faster and deeper. At the equivalent of 15,000 feet, Arndt
is breathing five times more air than usual, even at rest.
This is Michael, another of the volunteers for the test. On
the fitness test, he's as good as Arndt. But when Michael's
oxygen is reduced, there's a curious difference. At a simulated
15,000 feet, Michael's breathing is little different from
what it was at normal altitude. Even during moderate exercise,
his body - unlike Arndt's - seems to be ignoring the fact
that his oxygen supply is dropping. The Heidelberg researchers
wondered if people like Michael, whose bodies don't seem to
recognize they're getting into trouble when oxygen is scarce,
might be the ones most susceptible to mountain sickness. There
was one way to find out - and perched at 15,000 feet on the
Italian-Swiss border is the perfect laboratory - a 100-year
old mountain hut, the highest building in Europe. Peter Bartsch,
the leader of the Heidelberg team, is heading there now. He's
taking it slowly, giving his body time to acclimate. But the
subjects in his experiment don't have that luxury. They climb
fast, rising two miles in elevation in just over a day. The
experiment is designed so that neither Bartsch nor his subjects
know how they performed in their tests. So Arndt, for instance,
doesn't know his test suggested he'd cope with the mountain
air by breathing much harder.
ARNDT I feel good, very good.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Michael, who didn't breathe harder in the
test, is finding the going rough. As the test predicted, his
body just isn't getting the message that the air up here is
thinner. But then there's a third subject, Udo, who like Arndt
breathed harder in the lab - but may be having the first hint
of a problem. UDO I've just a little bit of a headache, very
little bit. Except for this I'm feeling really good, and I'm
lucky to do this now.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We are going to see what happens to Arndt,
Michael and Udo once they reach Peter Bartsch's mountain top
laboratory. Night falls - the most dangerous time for those
vulnerable to mountain sickness. During the shallow breathing
of sleep, blood oxygen levels can drop steeply. Six hours
after arriving, Arndt - whose test suggested he'd do well
at high altitude - is absorbed in a murder mystery. But Udo,
whose test results also suggested he'd cope by breathing harder,
is in trouble. UDO And when I came up I was feeling quite
good. But then it was developing a big headache. And it was
a stomach ache and wasn't good. I had to vomit.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) All he wants to do now is rest. UDO My body
is exhausted and I have to sleep. So I hope that I will have
a good night.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Knowing the dangers of the night, Bartsch
makes regular checks. At 5:30 am, the only one complaining
DR. PETER BARTSCH Udo has a lot of problems. He was
vomiting once at night and he had headache. I gave him some
drugs. His symptoms went away. He didn't feel nauseated anymore
but he couldn't sleep.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Neither Udo nor Bartsch knows that his test
predicted his breathing should adjust to the altitude. But
if it has adjusted, it hasn't been enough to prevent his worsening
symptoms. Arndt, meanwhile, as predicted, is still doing fine.
His balance is good, his blood oxygen normal.
ARNDT Now I
feel me good. Only muda, in German, tired.
DR. PETER BARTSCH
He would love to climb the Dufourspitze or any other mountain
here. I actually think he's enjoying himself here, that's
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Which leaves Michael - who is definitely
not enjoying himself. His pre-climb test suggested he wouldn't
adjust his breathing to high altitude - and he is now very
DR. PETER BARTSCH The problem with him was he didn't
call us last night. When he went to bed he already realized
that something was wrong and no one called us. And when I
saw him this morning he was really in a severe condition.
I think if we had caught him earlier we could have stopped
the process at an early level.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Michael's decision to tough out the night
could have been a fatal error.
MICHAEL I didn't quite notice
that I was getting worse and worse. So just this morning at
half past five they wake me up and I couldn't do anything.
I couldn't breath and I couldn't stand on my feet. It was
an extremely bad feeling.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) X-rays show Michael has advanced pulmonary
edema. The lace-like pattern in his lungs, especially the
right, means they are filling with fluid.
DR. PETER BARTSCH
This means that we have a very severe illness. If we do not
treat Michael he's most likely going to die. Fluid will accumulate
in all his lung and he will eventually drown. And we have
to immediately install treatment by giving oxygen now and
fly him down as soon as possible.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The oxygen will stabilize Michael's condition
for a while - but the only way to clear the fluid from his
lungs is to get him off the mountain - fast. A rescue helicopter
is called in from Zermatt, Switzerland. Once he gets to a
lower altitude, Michael will be fine. It turned out that Peter
Bartsch's pre-climb test correctly predicted his sickness
and Ardnt's health, but missed Udo's vulnerability. So the
mystery of mountain sickness isn't solved yet. Meanwhile,
Michael's experience dramatically demonstrated why being able
to predict the effect of extreme altitude could potentially
save so many climbers' lives.