How do we ‘use’ colour? In our attires, to look a specific way. Also, to identify the different objects we come across. We even tell stories through colours — a visual artist uses colour to bring life to rectangular frames and express themself.
Some people use the shades of the skin to identify a race and exploit others. In our self-indulgence as humans, it becomes necessary to remember that we are not alone on this world.
We share residence with more than eight billion species on our planet, who also have colour receptors , through which they are exposed to unknown worlds that humans are blind to.
David Attenborough, in his new Netflix documentary Life In Color, takes us across the planet, through a multitude of terrains, to tell us how mammals, birds, aquatic animals, reptiles, insects, and flowers use colour in an ecosystem that manipulates the working of colour.
The first reveal is that in most cases, the way colours are used is not much different from the examples above on how we use colour. The first of the three episodes, titled Seeing in Colour, is straight forward.
As the name suggests, it shows the dynamic colours of the natural world and delves into how they are used. The episode is packed with examples, like the colourful Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise that has a wondrous dance to attract a mate, enough to explain why the bird is named so. A few other beings stand out due to their unusualness.
The narrator introduces us to butterflies and flowers that have ultraviolet patterns invisible to the naked eye. A state-of-theart camera is used to show us these, and the world that is now open to our eyes is something out of James Cameron’s Avatar.
The docuseries ups the game and introduces another modern-day invention, a camera that can show polarised light. A plethora of possibilities opens up. One such camera is taken underwater to meet the Peacock Mantis Shrimp, which has 12 colour receptors as opposed to a human’s three.
The discovery of natural beings’ ability to look through polarised light is a huge takeaway from the series. The episode’s final scene is truly entertaining. Strawberr y poison dart frogs have red pigments to signal a warning to predators and to distinguish themselves from their fellows with a different colour. Unlike humans with their racial biases, these frogs are kinder to frogs with a different colour.
It’s when a red frog is pitted against another red one that we get something akin to a stand-off in a Spaghetti Western. This episode delves deep into how colour is used to hide from predators and prey. Ever wondered why a tiger is orange with black strips? Deers only have two colour receptors and they can’t see red or orange.
The tiger practically looks invisible to them. With Attenborough’s brilliant narration, the scene is like an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Episode two, like the first, is packed with examples.
There’s a microscopic and a macroscopic reason for why Zebras have stripes. A Blenny fish masquerades as a Wrasse fish by changing its colour to hunt. It seems like every animal has a colour for a reason.
It’s as if evolution deemed these to be so as cogs in this well-oiled, unbiased machinery called the ecosystem. We learn how ptarmigan birds, foxes, hares, and weasels that live in the snowy mountains, change their fur or ‘costumes’ in winter, to hide from predators and prey.
Though episode three touches upon this sequence and why it is important to study these behaviours, it doesn’t quite dig deeper. The third episode provides a good insight into the technology used in capturing the lives of these creatures and in understanding the logic behind the colours.
The last episode also touches upon how the global climate crisis is impacting these habitats. The animals in the snowy terrains are becoming more vulnerable to predators as the rate of change in the seasons is faster than the rate at which they change their fur colour. There’s also a deep dive into how rising sea temperatures affect the coral algae in the Great Barrier Reef. Attenborough ends it all with a quote that says that the more we understand colour’s function, the better we will be able to protect the natural world in all its beauty, for future generations.
Docuseries: Life in Colour
Directors: Adam Geige, Bridget Appleby, Nick Green, Sally Thomson
Streaming on: Netflix