Attenborough's greatest hits are first in BBC web archive

Nation's best-known wildlife film-maker has chosen favourite films for massive online experiment

Sir David Attenborough will today front the BBC's first major step in putting its vast archive on the internet by introducing a service that will permanently offer thousands of the greatest film moments from the corporation's famed natural history unit.

Britain's best-known wildlife filmmaker has contributed some favourite clips from his own work to an initial offering of 500 short films that are available on "Wildlife Finder", a new division of the BBC's website.

The service, which is supported by extensive background information on habitats and species, includes clips such as Attenborough's famous forest encounter with the Australian lyrebird as it mimicked the sound of lumberjack chainsaw gangs and the noise of car alarms.

Fresh clips are being uploaded to the new site on a daily basis and, by early next year, 3,000 clips, all between two and eight minutes long, will be available for viewing, along with audio recordings of the featured animals and birds.

Users of the service will be able to search by species or habitat and it is hoped that Wildlife Finder will reflect not only the diversity of the natural world but the depth of work produced by the natural history unit in Bristol, which has been making programmes for the BBC since 1957.

The BBC has told The Independent that it plans to create similar resources to make the archives of its arts and science departments available as well. Those ambitions include a plan to put the entire archive for the BBC's landmark science series Horizon on the internet in full long-form version.

This would represent an extraordinary resource for researchers and students, given that Horizon was first broadcast in 1964 and more than 1,000 episodes have been made since. George Entwistle, the BBC's controller of knowledge commissioning, said the challenge for the corporation would be to ensure that programmes that highlighted scientific theories that have since been qualified or disproved were offered online with appropriate explanation. "It's an incredible story of the history of science, captured by a really good, high-end [programme] strand for decades. That in itself is an amazingly valuable thing – but you've got to contextualise it," he said.

"What you don't want is somebody just arriving at a Horizon programme that is 20 years old and includes the state-of-the-art science for that moment, which has subsequently been shown not to be accurate or to be seen in a different light."

The BBC is anxious to create an online arts archive, expanding on a prototype project with the Public Catalogue Foundation to make Britain's 200,000 publicly-owned paintings available for viewing on the web. Entwistle said that arts programming, more than some other genres, retained its validity. "The glorious thing about the arts is that the television doesn't go out of date in any way," he said, although he admitted that broadcasting rights issues were more of a problem with arts programming than natural history films. "We might discover rights are a huge problem, but we're definitely going to look and see what we find," he said.

Wildlife Finder, which Entwistle described as the BBC's "first really concerted experiment" in putting its archive online, shows that Sir David, only recently a critic of the BBC over threats to the natural history unit, has been won around, partly through the potential of new media.

"The web has totally changed how we can link together information, connect people and reach audiences in an on-demand world," Attenborough tells users on the website's homepage.

"I've selected some of my favourite clips. For me they represent not only a walk down memory lane, but also a snapshot of the incredible diversity of life on earth. I hope that they inspire you as much as they have me."

Killer Whales: One of the best-known sequences in the BBC's natural history archive saw killer whales attacking sea lions just off the beach in South America. "As long as the sea lions stay well up the beach, you might think they were safe. But the hungry whales are very daring," Attenborough said.

Ant Bivouac: The presenter braved one of the most powerful of stings to bring the viewer pictures of an army ant community in their bivouac home using a special probe. "The bite of the jaws and the sting in the tail of these ants is so painful," he said, "that it makes getting close to them almost impossible."

Gorilla Encounters: In one of the greatest moments in broadcasting, Attenborough's team stumbled across a family group of gorillas: "There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know," he adlibbed as the creatures sat nearby.

Global warming: Attenborough visited Easter Island and, in a haunting prediction, told of a society which descended into warfare and died out as its natural resources dwindled. "Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations, a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species," he said.

Lords of the Land: Attenborough, clearly over-awed by its majesty, remained silent for much of the sequence when he came face-to-face with the tiger. He interrupted images of the big cat hunting only sparsely to explain its demise from being the planet's top predator to one of its most endangered species.

The Blue Whale: "The Blue Whale," Attenborough said, "thirty metres long and weighing over 200 tonnes. It's bigger than the biggest dinosaur. Its tongue weighs as much as an elephant, its heart is the size of a car and some of its blood vessels are so wide that you could swim down them," he said.