BBC, USFSP Professor Collaborate on Documentary

BBC cameraman Rod Clarke and Producer Rob Pilley huddle together while videotaping footage of fire ants in a lab at USF St. Petersburg.

From left: BBC Cameraman Rod Clarke and Producer Rob Pilley capture video footage at USF St. Petersburg of fire ants for an episode of the upcoming “Animals Like Us” television series.

A two-man team representing BBC’s Natural History Unit is working on a documentary for a five-part television series at USF St. Petersburg.

“We’re doing a series at the moment for the BBC called ‘Animals Like Us,’ which looks at human-like behavior in animals,” said Producer Rob Pilley, who is working with cameraman Rod Clarke to capture video footage of the social insects. “And we’re looking at a whole array of different species from around the world, one of which is the fire ant.”

BBC Producer Rob Pilley pours water over a group of fire ants and dirt in a controlled environment.

BBC Producer Rob Pilley pours water around a group of fire ants to reproduce the effects of flood water in their environment to capture the ants’ reactions and responses on video.

The BBC team is documenting the way that fire ant communities work together and how their behaviors mirror those of humans in their interactions. Working with USF St. Petersburg Professor of Biology Deby Cassill, they also are exploring ants as individuals.

“The more that we look at them, the more we discover their behavior is very similar to that of humans,” said Pilley, who worked with Cassill on another fire ant related documentary for the BBC about eight years ago. “Dr. Cassill is a world expert on it, so she’s the obvious person to come work with on this project.”

“We want to look at the personality and moods that ants have,” she said. “They all have different personalities, even aside from them being from the same castes. Like humans, they have similar idiosyncratic likes and dislikes in their personalities, diets and lives.”

Pilley said that fire ants, a species not native to Florida, also are an exceedingly resilient. When there is a flood, fire ants will gather together to form a pile—akin to a raft—and float to safety.

The show is focused specifically on natural history and will avoid inclusion of humans as much as possible. Using innovative film techniques, the video team will be down on ground level to capture the animals’ perspectives as much as possible.

“Our films don’t feature people, per se, apart from people in the background doing things,” said Pilley. “It’s very much in the animals’ world. It’s all about the natural history, in this case, right under our feet.”

Cassill said that having the BBC team on campus document this type of research affirms the importance of the research being conducted at USF St. Petersburg.

“It legitimizes our role, the importance of our research and the quality of the faculty at USFSP,” Cassill said. “We are a small university, but we are as passionate about research and research opportunities for our students as Harvard.”

“Animals Like Us” will air on BBC and is expected to air in the U.S. on PBS in Summer 2017.

Read more about this collaboration and Cassill’s work in the Tampa Bay Times.