TV / Films

Five things I’ve learnt from nature documentaries: feat. chimps, elephants, and sloths

It’s a simpler, but by no means less interesting post this week. I’m continuing the series I started late last year by giving you five things I’ve recently learnt from nature documentaries.

(My anxiety makes it hard for me to watch fiction, so I watch a lot of nature documentaries. I find them relentlessly fascinating, and I love sharing my favourite facts with everyone I know).

Here we go.

1. Sloths are infested with parasites — but in a good way.

Sloths are one of the internet’s favourite animals. It’s almost common knowledge that their fur grows backwards and that they climb down trees once a week to poo. But did you know that sloths also have 900 moths and beetles and 84 species of fungi living on them? They are literally crawling with parasites. But it turns out that they’re actually beneficial. The insects aerate the sloth’s fur, and many of the fungi are antibacterial or antimalarial. They keep the sloth clean, healthy, and germ-free, and its fur in good condition.

Hello there.

Source: Spy in the Wild, episode 2.

2. Chimpanzees catch yawns, like humans.

Chimpanzees are one of a small number of animals who ‘catch’ yawns, just as when someone yawns near us we yawn too. (I yawned writing this sentence). The amount of empathy this means they have is impossibly endearing. Imagine yawning in a zoo and seeing a chimp yawning back at you through the glass. We’re not all that different.
So dangerous, yes, but so cute. The kind of cute that means you can almost imagine what it’s like to be them.

Source: Spy in the Wild, episode 3.

Also, I’m not sure whether gorillas catch yawns or not, but I need to remind you that this exists.

Cold stethoscope!

3. Baby zebra start eating grass at just a week old.

Mammals in the savannah pretty much hit the ground running, since they’re such easy prey: they can’t flop around, helpless, as humans do. I’ve mentioned in another post that newborn wildebeest are already some of the fastest creatures in the world. Zebra are also alarmingly precocious: they are partially weaned at just a week old. They’re well on their way to self-sufficiency almost immediately. No langurous childhood for the zebra.

Looking a little hard done by in the rain.

(Source: Animal Babies, episode 1.)

4. The word for elephant dung also means ‘moon’ in Thai.

Perhaps this fact appealed to me so much because of the vast amounts of elephant dung I have handled in my lifetime. But it’s quite poetic. Just as the moon waxes and wanes but ultimately keeps things in balance, elephant dung is a vital part of the ecosystem. Elephants eat 100-150kg of greenery each day, but they also spread seeds throughout the forest and fertilise new plants to replace the ones they consumed. They’re like enormous, smart, mobile compost heaps.

Look at the teeny tiny tusk. Or maybe it’s stray food.

(Source: Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, episode 2).

5. Bryde’s whales share their Thai name with the word for mafia, and harming them is forbidden.

Oh man, whales. Imagine them now, slowly sliding through the deep ocean, munching on fish and contemplating whatever they whatever they think in their enormous brains. This is another beautiful fact about the Thai language: Bryde’s whales are referred to as ‘Very big grandfather’ — the same word as the Thai mafia.

This made me feel a lot of things. I thought how lovely a name for a whale that is: because they do seem to be immortal and demanding of respect, don’t they? I thought about how equating the mafia and whales is the right amount of respect to give such a huge animal. And I thought about how, unlike nearby Japan, the Thai people have that respect embedded in their culture as well as in their language. Whales feel remote and wise and ancient — and utterly precious — to me, and I respect other cultures with that ethos.

(Source: Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, episode 2).