“In Our Nature,” a new six-episode digital series, takes viewers to settings in Tanzania and the U.S. and features gorgeous animals and fascinating info about their lives. And you can watch it free on YouTube.
Three of the hosts talked to Inhabitat about their new series — favorite moments, what they learned and why viewers should care. Joe Hanson is a biologist and the creator and host of PBS Digital Studio’s It’s Okay to Be Smart; Trace Dominguez is a science communicator, and the producer and host of PBS Star Gazers, Uno Dos of Trace; and Emily Graslie is a science communicator who worked as the Field Museum’s chief curiosity correspondent, for which she created more than 200 episodes for the natural history-themed YouTube channel The Brain Scoop. Here’s what they have to say about “In Our Nature.”
Inhabitat: How did “In Our Nature” come about, and how did you get involved?
Joe Hanson: The project came about originally as a digital program alongside PBS’ broadcast series “Life at the Waterhole” and I was involved in developing our series from the outset. During pre-production we embraced the opportunity to create a top-quality nature education series designed specifically for audiences that primarily watch YouTube and other digital video platforms rather than TV or streaming services. I worked with my production team from It’s Okay to be Smart to create a format and story approach that would feel native to YouTube but allow us to present top-quality nature filmmaking at the same time. We immediately thought of Emily Graslie and Trace Dominguez as co-hosts thanks to their awesome track record making creative and high-quality educational videos.
Emily Graslie: Joe Hanson approached me about this series back in January and I was immediately hooked on the premise of looking at ecosystem health in such a holistic manner. And, it’s not very often a YouTube channel gets the opportunity to film an international, high-quality nature series, so being a part of this has been really special and rewarding.
Trace Dominguez: “In Our Nature” came about when Joe Hanson reached out to me about working on a new kind of nature show. I’ve known Joe and Emily for years yet, incredibly, the three of us had never worked together! We all agreed that nature documentaries are incredible, but needed a bit of a refresh. Traditionally, documentaries try to bring attention to individual animals, or single ecosystems. They often eschew discussion of human influences or exploring the wider parallels across continents, or the delicate web of connections running across different species. I was super interested in the challenge and thanks to our group of admirable nerds I think it worked out swimmingly (pun intended).
Inhabitat: What have been the most exciting parts of making this show?
Hanson: Filming a nature series in the Serengeti ecosystem is as good as it gets. This was my first time in Africa, and even though I knew I would see some awesome things, I wasn’t prepared for just how MUCH awesome stuff we would see. I was simply blown away by the richness of life, at scales big and small, in this place. We also saw herds of wildebeest that stretched to the horizon and over 100 elephants in one grassy clearing. There was just so much of everything. I think it speaks to just how valuable wild places like this really are, not just for the life they contain, but also for the effect they can have on us.
Graslie: Filming for Episode 3 in the Andrews Forest in Oregon came with all sorts of adventures — but ascending 140 feet up a Douglas fir to examine how scientific instruments stories in the canopy can teach us about things happening on the forest floor was the most thrilling. Getting into a drysuit to snorkel in the forest’s streams to follow that cycle into the water was a close second. It was freezing!!
Dominguez: The most exciting part, for me, has been working with Joe and Emily; full honesty! Plumbing the depths of the collections at the California Academy of Sciences is great and all (that place is an amusement park of nerdery), but this business is often pretty solitary. Getting to work with such excellent science communicators has been a privilege.
Inhabitat: What about the most challenging parts?
Graslie: I’ve helped coordinate plenty of filming shoots, but this was the first time doing it during a global pandemic. Lots of decisions and potential ideas were up in the air because there was so much uncertainty around vaccinations and travel. At the same time, everyone else – our crews and filming partners – were more or less in the same boat, so we all just learned to go with the flow and support one another as best as possible.
Dominguez: The most challenging part of “In Our Nature” is the hardest part of any science project: the execution. We can have ideas and plans to tell giant stories, but actually capturing animals, ecosystems, and humans all together at the same time and in the same place is extremely challenging.
Inhabitat: What’s your favorite episode and why?
Hanson: It’s hard to pick just one! Our episode about animal culture is a real favorite. Scientists are starting to appreciate how widespread and varied culture is across animals. And my hope is that will change how people look at conservation. Because it’s teaching us that we aren’t only saving animals themselves, or even just the places they live. We are also preserving their ways of existing and surviving in those places. And those ways of existing are often irreplaceable if the animals were to disappear, even temporarily.
Graslie: I’m really proud of the work we put into “Are some species more important than others?” – in part because of the partnerships we developed with the Intertribal Buffalo Council, and Oglala Lakota Parks & Recreation. The ITBC is doing critical work to reintroduce bison to tribal lands across the country for reasons that are environmental, cultural, and spiritual. Oglala Lakota Parks & Recreation welcomed us to participate in a sacred buffalo dance ceremony they usually only hold once a year, and later invited us to film their herd.
Dominguez: I think my favorite episode might be Emily’s episode about nutrient recycling. When you get enough bio-nerds together they will inevitably start to geek out about whale falls, carrion eaters, and decay. With both Joe and Emily together on this show it was inescapable that we’d see a decomposition chapter in this series too; I was riveted!
So many different organisms benefit when one huge African animal kills another, or when an ancient tree comes crashing to the ground. The parallels between these massive herds of wildebeest and the rotting of giant ancient trees were through-lines I never would have made without help, but once they were side-by-side they were so similar!
Inhabitat: I’m especially intrigued by animal culture. What were the most surprising examples you found?
Hanson: This example didn’t make it into the episode, but I was really surprised to learn just how deep and significant whale culture is. It may even be influencing speciation. Groups of orcas possess culture in how and where they hunt, as well as how they vocalize. They specialize to such a degree that they only mate within these cultural groups, which some scientists believe is or already has led to the creation of several subspecies of orcas. So culture and behavior are capable of driving evolution, which is pretty special.
Dominguez: Animal culture is something I’ve spent a lot of time learning about. I studied behavioral psychology in undergrad, and find intelligence, social interaction and the culture that comes out of that fascinating (in both humans and non-humans).
Ultimately, the story of white-crowned sparrows passing on their song cultures won out. Not just because of the story itself and how it affects the lives of the sparrows, but it’s also kind of a meta-cultural story on top of that. There are stories about the researchers carrying on Baptista’s legacy, the story of Baptista himself, and the exploration of how human noise impacts other species.
Inhabitat: Tell us a couple of memorable things you learned from “In Our Nature.”
Hanson: Dung beetles navigate by the sun and stars. They are tiny, smelly astronomers. That will never not blow my mind.
Graslie: I love Trace’s story in “Are humans the only animals that have culture?” on the white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco, especially how fast those birds changed their songs during the times when traffic noise was lessened during the COVID-19 shutdowns. I was also completely blown away by Joe’s facts in “This is the REAL circle of life” episode about dead wildebeest providing, like, 10 blue whales’ worth of nutrients when they die crossing the Mara River.
Dominguez: One of our goals for this series was to help people see that ecosystems don’t exist in a vacuum; instead ecosystems across the world have parallels and even influence each other. I don’t typically cover a lot of these huge biology and environmental stories so working with Emily and Joe really opened my eyes in how to tell these stories and really emphasized their importance.
Inhabitat: Why is it important that the world knows about Serengeti animals?
Hanson: This area is the cradle of humanity, and our species has been interacting with this ecosystem for tens of thousands of years. But today, humans impact the Earth to such a degree today that there really is no corner of the world that we haven’t changed in some way. But the Serengeti ecosystem is proof of just how rich and beautiful wild nature can be if we protect it, let it be, and minimize our impact and influence wherever possible. That’s a hefty challenge, but it’s hard to work to save what we don’t know about. That’s why we share stories like these.
Dominguez: Giraffes, zebras, lions, elephants and hyenas have been the protagonists, antagonists and everything in between in stories across the world, but even though people know these beautiful animals exist — they rarely understand the ecological nuances that they fit into. We’ve all seen incredible videos of giraffes lumbering across the savannah, but they’re rarely depicted holistically, or as a complete story of the animal.
Inhabitat: What else should readers know about “In Our Nature”?
Graslie: I promise it’s some of the best science/nature content on all of YouTube!!! Seriously, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Dominguez: “In Our Nature” is one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on; I’m really proud of what we’ve done with it. Watching it will open your eyes to stories you might have missed before, and while it’s great on a phone, the footage just sings* on a giant screen. That said, no matter where you watch, you’re going to see stories you’ve never seen before!
* just like the white-crowned sparrow!
Images by Joe Hanson, David Schulte, Emily Graslie, In Our Nature