TV / Films

5 Facts of Nature: 14 Nov

(I’m trying to come up with a snappy title for this series; it’s a work-in-progress. Part 1.)


Before I go on to my learnin’s, I hope everyone has been watching Planet Earth 2, the latest major nature series headed by David Attenborough on the BBC. It contains some of the most beautiful photography I’ve ever seen on screen, as well as a truly spectacular score from Hans Zimmer.

Case in point (brace yourself):

I was sending messages throughout this scene, which are what I would have shrieked had I been alone in the house.

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Exhausting.


1. Some kangaroos are eight feet tall.

(From Life Story: Power).

When I think of kangaroos I think of cute mama roos, who give birth to rice-sized offspring and carefully lick a path up their abdomens so that the grain-babies can crawl into a soft, comfortable pouch. (Although that vision was also soured by the discovery that those pouches are full of mucus and stink). But then Davey A added this little stat about the male ones in a throwaway moment, as if it weren’t absolutely terrifying.

It turns out that not only are kangaroos as muscular as a bodybuilder, but they are taller than any man.

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Horrifying.

I now refuse to believe that this beast is not fully capable, and willing, of tearing my head from my body. Not as cute as the Aussies would have you believe (although they really don’t have much choice of attractive wildlife Down Under).

(Incidentally another BBC documentary, Kangaroo Dundee and Other Animals, is all about kangaroos and is very good).


2. Prairie dogs may have the most complex communication of all animals.

(From Natural World: Prairie Dogs).

I mean, they don’t look particularly erudite.

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But according to the excellently-named zoologist Professor Con Slobodchikoff, the waveform of prairie dogs’ cries is so complex that with one bark, they can describe which predator is approaching, its direction, colour, and size.

For example, a single bark may be attuned to say “tall, skinny coyote in distance, moving rapidly towards colony”.

The prairie dogs do this with frequency modulations and variations of tone within a single cry.

To test this hypothesis, the scientists analysed the waveforms of baby prairie dogs who hadn’t learnt the full range of communication yet, whose cries were simplistic and short; prairie dogs brought up in zoos, whose cries had nuance and complexity, but without the full range of descriptives for incoming threats; and adult, wild dogs, who had the whole package. Through leading toy predators throughout the dogs’ territory, and recording the corresponding cries, they were able to deduce much of their ‘vocabulary’, and found that an enormous amount of information was encoded in a second-long squeal.

They all sounded exactly the same to me. But the differences when you looked at the waveform were crystal-clear — and absolutely astonishing from such a small, unimportant-looking animal.


3. Newborn wildebeest are among the top ten fastest land animals.

(From Animal Babies: Safari Babies).

I guess they have to be, don’t they, if there are lions around.

Wildebeest migrate thousands of kilometres across the Kalahari, and will only give birth when they arrive in lush plains with enough nutrients for them to support their calves. But lions know this, and this is a bonanza for them.

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Look at her little eye. Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘Hit the ground running’.


4. Senegal chimps grin at each other to show they mean no harm.

(From Life Story: Power).

Chimpanzees have social hierarchies, and this one was, sadly, at the bottom of his. Earlier on, he had tried to approach some of the higher-ranked males but had been driven away and injured for his efforts. He hardly ever ate meat, and hung around on his own most of the time.

But then, another low-ranked male approached him, and gestured for the loner to follow him up a tree. We saw a close-up of his face as he hung around at the bottom of the tree, the injuries of his previous attempt at socalising still fresh in his memory, trying to decide whether or not he should try again.

He did, and as the two of them sat on a bough and harvested fruits together, the loner gave his new friend an appeasing grin. I mean no harm. I want to hang out with you.

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5. Since hydrothermal vents were discovered in 1979, a new species has been discovered every ten days.

(From Blue Planet: The Deep).

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Hydrothermal vents are the weirdest habitat on Earth. Boiling, sulphur-laden water pouring out from fissures in the Earth’s crust, miles below the surface of the sea, completely inaccessible to the Sun’s rays. Amazingly, I can share the sound one of them makes with you here.

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And these places are teeming with life: life that has never experienced any light, let alone the Sun, and doesn’t need to photosythnesise. There are whole, complex webs of it — bacteria and archaea, tube worms, snails and shrimp and crabs, even intelligent, complex animals like octopuses.

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Hey, little buddy.

And more are being discovered constantly. Some scientists think that this habitat was where life first formed — and that finding similar environments elsewhere is key to finding extraterrestrial life.

If David Attenborough’s oeuvre has one thesis, it’s that life endures, everywhere. These vents really are the zenith of that idea.