A convent of Mexican nuns is helping to save the one of the world's most endangered and most remarkable amphibians: the axolotl, a truly bizarre creature of serious scientific interest worldwide and an animal of deep-rooted cultural significance in Mexico.
The Sisters of Immaculate Health rarely venture out of their monastery in the central Mexican town of Patzcuaro. Yet they have become the most adept and successful breeders of their local species of this aquatic salamander. Scientists marvel at their axolotl-breeding talents and are now working with them to save the animal from extinction. BBC News science correspondent Victoria Gill is allowed into the convent to discover at least some of the nun's secrets and explores why axolotls are a group of salamanders so important to protect from evolutionary oblivion.
Axolotls are able to regrow lost limbs and other body parts. As a result, the aquatic salamanders are of great interest to researchers worldwide who study them in the hope of imitating the trick: to grow tissues and organs for medicine. The nuns also began to breed and rear their axolotls for medical reasons. They use the salamander as the key ingredient in an ancient Mexican remedy for coughs and other respiratory illnesses. The Sisters of Immaculate Health sell the medicinal syrup to the public. As well as being the basis for a popular folk remedy all over Mexico, the axolotl is also the manifestation of one of the ancient Aztecs' most important gods.
The big problem is that all species of axolotl are critically endangered. The nun's species is known locally as the achoque. It only lives in nearby Lake Patzcuaro and it has been pushed to the edge of extinction because of pollution and introduced fish species. This is why the sisters began to breed the animals in the convent about 30 years ago. They were advised to do this by a friar who was also a trained biologist because the supply of achoques from Lake Patzcuaro's fishermen diminished. In the 1980s, 20 tonnes of axolotls were fished from the lake every year. Today they are very few left in the wild.
Biologists from the nearby Michoacan University discovered that the nuns are expert breeders of the species and have started to collaborate with them in a conservation programme to make the Lake Patzcuaro an axolotl-friendly habitat once more and (if necessary) to introduce convent-bred animals to restore the lake's tiny population. The project is being supported and funded by the UK's Chester Zoo. The zoo's curator of amphibians Dr Gerardo Garcia visits the convent with Victoria, and demonstrates some of the technical help being offered to the nuns. For example, he micro-chips and takes DNA samples from the nun's breeding salamanders so the sisters can refine their breeding success even further.
Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.
The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer
How do the rich and the poor live together, side-by-side every day?
Journalist Cole Moreton walks across the London Borough of Kensington in a revealing series of real-life encounters that build and tell a story like a drama. From a food hall to a food bank, he goes into the homes, shelters and multi-million pound apartments of the men and women who are surviving - or thriving - as inequality grows.
Life expectancy drops dramatically, wages are slashed and property prices fall through the floor in just a few miles, but the encounters with rich and poor along the way are unexpected, moving, heart-breaking and at times inspirational. This surprising, spell-binding programme asks the question so many are asking - how can we live like this?
This documentary was recorded using binaural microphones placed inside the sound recordist's ears. Binaural recording accurately recreates the sound of being in the location itself, with sounds appearing to move in three dimensions around the listener. To experience The Walk in this aural "3D", please listen in headphones.
Presenter: Cole Moreton
Producer: Jonathan Mayo
A TBI production for BBC Radio 4.
Pursuit of Beauty: Slow Art
So - how slow are we talking about, when it comes to art?
French anarchist vegetarian artists Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes & Cyril Leclerc rescue snails bound for the cooking pot, and display them as a sound and light installation - Slow Pixel - before setting them free.
To watch illuminated snails crawl across a concert hall for 6 hours is one way of bringing your heart beat right down!
Twenty-two ash trees, shaped and sculpted as they grow quietly for 40 years, in a secret location; an extinct volcano filled with subterranean light passages; music to play for a 1000 years; a mile of writing, and a 5 hour composition for a string quartet called 'Slow', played as slowly and quietly as possible...
As the 21st century continues at break-neck speed Lindsey Chapman brings you a moment of calm, as she meets some extraordinary musicians and artists, to find out the motivation behind creating slow art.
Lindsey - a performer herself, as well as presenter for BBC TV's 'Springwatch' - explores what added value the length of time of creation gives to an artistic idea. Does it make time shrink? Or does it distract us from our awareness of our own finite existence?
The biggest art project in progress in the world today is the Roden Crater. You may not have heard of it yet, but Leonardo DiCaprio has been booked to open it, although no one yet knows when that will be. It's the work of artist James Turrell who dreamed, in the 1960's, of sculpting an extinct volcano as a celestial viewing post. and he's spent 40 years working on it so far - Tim Marlow, artistic director of the Royal Academy, has been watching its progress.
Also in progress for 40 years, the Ash Dome - created by world acclaimed wood sculptor David Nash. he gives Lindsey is given the coordinates to find the secret circle, and she comes across it on a bluebell strewn forest floor at dawn, a magical moment of pure beauty - but one which leads her to consider where she might be in 40, or 400 years from now.
Slow art has that effect - seeing into the future, and sometime fearfully into infinity.
Jem Finer, musician and ex-Pogue bassist, has created a piece of music called 'Longplayer', which has already been playing for 18 years and which has another 982 to go - and of course he knows he won't be there to hear it end.
Tanya Shadrick knelt beside an open air swimming pool, day after day, month after month, writing a diary, line by line, a mile long. What inspired her to create "Wild Patience?" and what did she learn?
Composer Morton Feldman is well known for his long slow quiet pieces of music - but what is it like to actually hold and play the violin on stage for five hours? Darragh Morgan recounts the intensity, and how he never gets bored, and in fact falls in love with the beauty of the music - lie being wrapped in a beautiful shawl of sound.
Slow art in under half an hour - sit back and relish the moment.
Producer: Sara Jane Hall.
Moondog: Sound of New York
New Yorker Huey Morgan examines the life, work and enduring appeal of a musician known as Moondog who lived and worked on the city's streets in the 1950s and 60s.
Born Louis Thomas Hardin in Kansas in May 1916, he played musical instruments from an early age and lost his sight in an accident when he was 16. He went on to teach himself music and composition by ear, as well as music theory through books in braille.
In 1943, Moondog moved to New York where he soon became acquainted with Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini as well as jazz performers and composers like Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman.
In the late 1940s, he lived as a street musician, composer and poet on the streets of New York City and became known as The Viking of 6th Avenue because of his beard, long hair and attire which included a cloak and a Viking-style horned helmet.
Moondog's music would take inspiration from street sounds such as the New York subway and foghorns. His compositions were a combination of classical, traditional jazz and American vernacular. He became a pioneer with a unique attitude to composition and melody. He also invented instruments including a small triangular shaped harp known as the "oo" and the Trimba, a triangular percussion instrument.
Huey Morgan returns to his home city to learn more about Moondog, his life and his music. He discovers how Moondog went on to influence other musicians, including Phillip Glass, and how his work is continuing to be used and adapted to this day.
Huey is joined in New York by Moondog biographer Robert Scotto and poet and writer Magie Dominic who remembers meeting him in the 1960s. They take Huey to some of the places popular with Moondog, including Carnegie Hall and his regular pitch on 6th Avenue.
Huey hears from the Swedish musician Stefan Lakatos who befriended Moondog when he moved to Europe, from composer John Zorn, saxophonist and composer John Harle and classical pianist and composer Joanna McGregor.
The programme also includes rare recordings of Moondog speaking in the early 1980s.
A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4.
Is That Machine On?
Stuart Maconie celebrates the golden age of the music press interview.
In the heyday of the printed music media between the mid-sixties and the early noughties, the music interview was many things - combative, intimate, confessional, unhinged, flirtatious, sometimes violent - but it was rarely dull. Still, it seems that long-gilded age of rock journalism is now over.
The days of extraordinary access, when a reporter might spend a week with a band on its tour bus or private plane, hanging out in their dressing rooms and hotel suites, are at an end. The music papers are gone. Earlier this year NME - the last inky survivor - went online only.
Stuart Maconie looks back at the lost world - those revealing encounters between journalist and musician. The programme features classic recorded archive interviews with Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson - as well as contributions from journalists Caitlin Moran, Barney Hoskyns, Allan Jones, Dawn Slough and others.
Presenter: Stuart Maconie
Producer: Jonathan Mayo
A TBI production for BBC Radio 4.