Steve Backshall is one of the best-known wildlife TV presenters in Britain, working primarily with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. He studied arts, and later biology, at university before moving into presenting. His TV work has seen him win two BAFTAs and front a variety of shows including Lost Land of the Jaguar, The Really Wild Show and the hugely popular Deadly 60. When not dodging snakes and the like on TV, Steve is also a black belt in judo, rock climber, writer for the Rough Guides series and also appeared as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing.
There is a possibility that things like tapeworms and hookworms could be tremendously valuable to us.
On becoming interested in science
I had a very convoluted route into the sciences: it’s not how it started off at all. I’m generally much better at humanities and I studied English to begin with. But then when I started working in television with wildlife, I realised that there was so much knowledge that I was missing; I knew an awful lot about animals but I didn't know particularly how they worked, particularly down to the cellular level.
So I went back to university and I started again from scratch; I didn't have any science A levels so I had to do foundation courses and all that kind of stuff but the joy I experienced in discovering this whole new wonderful world was boundless and it’s something that I still feel today and even now, as a 40 year old, if I don’t learn something astounding every single day then my day hasn't been complete.
I’m incredibly lucky in that my parents are both extraordinarily adventurous people who are mad keen on travelling and the outdoors and about animals as well and so from a young age it was totally expected that that was the kind of thing that I would do with my life. I had everything available to me from a very young age: we grew up on a small holding, like a small farm, so we had domestic animals around us, rescue animals - we had an asthmatic donkey and guard dog geese and all kinds of crazy animals - but it was always the wriggly things that you’d find in the compost heap that were perhaps most fascinating. But I also had the opportunity to go to a lot of exotic places as well and to see the kind of wildlife that normally you read about in a book or see on an Attenborough documentary. And so I had everything there to inspire me at a very early age.
On the zombie snail
To me, I think one of the most fascinating things in the natural world is the interaction between parasites and their hosts. It sounds bonkers, it sounds like the kind of thing squeamish people would just get as far away from as possible, but for me it’s perhaps one of the most important drivers of the struggle of life, of the biological arms race of life. Perhaps one of the most fascinating is the zombie snail parasite: it’s a worm that has to pass through two different hosts in order to complete its life cycle, first as a bird and then it ends up in a snail and it wriggles up through the snail into its antennae and it creates this bizarre, pulsating, grotesque light show and then it seems to take over the mind of the snail and drives it to go up into the most exposed, obvious place in the really highest leaves so that birds can spot it and then the bird will come down and eat it and it passes into their digestive systems and the whole cycle continues. What I think is most interesting is that this tiny little maggot that has an insignificant brain, if you can even call it a brain, has somehow managed through the secretion of various chemicals to alter the behaviour of a snail, and that’s not unusual: there are tens of thousands of parasites that do just that, from cordyceps fungus right up to plasmodium, and there’s a wealth of information and knowledge that I would just like to saturate myself in.
Obviously we see parasites as something phenomenally grotesque and we see them as something that lives off something else, but there is a possibility that things like tapeworms and hookworms could be tremendously valuable to us. The oldest ones we know of come from 270 million year old fossils, so the entirety of vertebrate evolution has been lived out in tandem with parasites and in certain parts of the world, for example in the forests of New Guinea where the people have an enormous parasite load, they eat a lot of uncooked pig and so everyone has tapeworms and hookworms, there is no such thing as hay fever, food allergies, colitis, Crohn’s disease, asthma, none of these things exist, and in the late nineties there was a big experiment by the University of Iowa. They had seven people with severe allergies and made them take tapeworms and the allergies just disappeared and they went into remission almost instantly, and it seems that those tapeworms secrete something that suppresses our immune system and all those diseases that we’re suffering an epidemic of are caused by an overactive immune system. So actually in some ways we can be kind of healthier with tapeworms inside us, I know that sounds bizarre.
On ‘hairy moments’
I’ve had more than my fair share of hairy moments but it’s always with people, very, very rarely with animals. I’ve swum with dozens of species of sharks, with hippos - although admittedly that was accidentally - six species of crocodiles, I’ve even been zapped underwater by an electric eel that I was filming, and I don’t think that many people can say that. But genuinely, all of the most frightening and dangerous encounters have been with human beings; we’re far more unpredictable and far more malicious, I guess, than any animal can ever be.