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Life of Mammals Previous Broadcasts

Chisellers (Episode #104Z)

KQED Plus: Sun, Feb 10, 2013 -- 8:00 PM

Plants usually protect the goodness inside their seeds with very hard outer cases - as David Attenborough testifies after he has tried and failed to crack open a tropical nut by bashing it with a rock. 'Believe it or not,' he proclaims, 'there are mammals here in Panama which can break into these nuts with their bare teeth!'
They are agoutis, terrier-sized rodents, which chisel through the rock hard shells with their remarkable front teeth, as if it was butter. The reward is a protein-rich kernel, and all rodents from the tiniest harvest mice to the mighty beaver, have these special, constantly growing inscisor teeth, with chisel sharp enamel on their front edges, in order to get at food of this kind.
Many rodents, like squirrels, carry away excess nuts one by one to bury them for eating later on. But the seeds of plants in the Mojave desert are so tiny, that kangaroo rats use special cheek pouches, like shopping bags, to carry enough seeds back to their burrows. The Gambian pouched-rat has the largest pouches of all, so that when they're stuffed full of date palm nuts the rats can hardly squeeze through the entrance to their burrows!
Some rodents use their special front teeth to chop off vegetation or chew bark instead. Canoeing in Wyoming, David Attenborough watches beavers fell massive trees with their front teeth and then build dams to rival anything that humans can achieve. In the deep cold-water ponds that are created, the beavers store branches and leaves underwater, so that even when its iced over they have a store of fresh food to take to the safety of their lodge throughout the winter. Naked mole rats stay underground all their lives finding roots and tubers by tunnelling hundreds of metres from their breeding chambers.
Rodents are renowned for being prolific breeders and sometimes, in Australia, mice cause such plagues that the farms and are literally overrun by carpets of running mice! The largest rodents in the world, capybara, also occur in huge numbers on the swampy grasslands of South America. Grazing in great herds, they look remarkably reminiscent of the antelopes to be seen on the grassy plains of Africa, in the next programme.

Repeat Broadcasts:

  • KQED Plus: Mon, Feb 11, 2013 -- 2:00 AM

Food for Thought (Episode #110Z)

KQED Plus: Fri, Feb 8, 2013 -- 2:50 AM

Human beings appear to be unique amongst mammals - we live in huge cities, we walk on two legs and we have language. But how far have we really come from our mammal heritage? Are we really as different as we think from other mammals?
To answer these questions we journey from the urban jungle to the real jungle. This is the natural home of apes. In the forests of Borneo, David meets a remarkable orangutan who has learnt how to row boats and wash clothes by imitating humans. You may be surprised that an ape can do something so human, but of course we are apes too. Food and how apes find it has been key to the evolution of large brains - something that all apes share with humans.
But are we similar to apes in the way that we think? David communicates with Koko the gorilla in sign language and cracks nuts with chimps in the Congo who have learnt this tradition from watching humans. We visit the famous chimps of Gombe to witness another tradition common to both humans and chimps - hunting for meat.
Humans are different from apes because we walk on two feet - or are we? David wades through water with a remarkable group of chimps that give us a unique window into our past. There are only four men on earth who can run a kudu antelope to its death. They are Kalahari bushmen - this 'persistence hunt' is thought to link modern humans to the earliest form of human hunting. Humans hunt animals with more techniques than any other mammals and have learnt to shape wild animals to our needs with domestication.
But the ultimate control is when you can grow your own foods... anywhere. Man began to reshape the earth into patterns that can be seen from space - from the hand-sculpted rice terraces in China to the vast irrigated wheat circles in the desert of Arizona. Once a surplus of food could be made and stored, humans could settle. David travels to the remote thatched granaries of the Dogon tribe of Mali, to an ancient mud city,and then to the ruins of one of the great capitals of the Mayan civilisation to trace the evolution of human settlement from villages to great cities. The temples of Tikal used to be the highest building in the Americas until the skyscrapers of New York were built. So why did the city collapse? Satellite technology reveals that over-intensive agriculture was probably to blame.
Can modern day city-dwellers avoid a similar fate? NASA scientists believe that they have come up with a way of genetically modifying plants with jellyfish genes so that they can be remotely grown and monitored on Mars. David launches the latest plant experiments in a recent shuttle launch.
'Now we are looking for food not just on our planet but beyond our planet to others. Perhaps the time has now come when we should put that into reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, maybe we should control the population to ensure the survival of our environment.'

Social Climbers (Episode #109Z)

KQED Plus: Fri, Feb 8, 2013 -- 2:00 AM

The most brilliantly coloured of all mammals are our relatives the monkeys. The scarlet face of a Uakari and bright blue bottom of a Mandrill, are matchless. But colour-vision first gave this group another advantage up in the trees - finding ripe fruits and leaves. Hanging from a rope high in the canopy of Venezuela, Sir David watches brilliantly-coloured red howler monkeys use their sharp eyes to pick only the best leaves, before seeing off their rivals with one of the loudest sounds in nature.
Acute vision and a lively intelligence allows the capuchin monkey to eat clams in the swamps of Costa Rica. A group crack open shellfish on their favourite tree-anvil as Sir David commentates. The swamps are also full of insects, but the monkeys rub themselves with a special plant that repels them. The only nocturnal monkey is caught in David's torch beam. Far from losing it's reliance on vision, the Douracouli, or Owl monkey, compensates with enormous eyes and reserves social activity for moonlit nights. In the dim light of the West Africa forest beautiful guenon monkeys send messages to each other with colourful face patterns.
These forests are full of eagles, leopards and chimps, but the guenons have an extraordinary anti-predator alliance to deal with them. Communication in monkeys goes way beyond simple colour signals though. These intelligent mammals often live in large groups - where the socially skilled excel. When toque macaque monkeys battle for mates, we see how brain can triumph over brawn. A change in climate forced one group of African monkeys down from the trees and on to the grasslands. But living on the ground brought an increased risk from predators, forcing baboons to live in larger groups where social skills became even more important. Life on the ground also opened up new hunting opportunities - the hapless flamingos of Kenya are now on the menu.

Food for Thought (Episode #110Z)

KQED Plus: Thu, Feb 7, 2013 -- 8:50 PM

Human beings appear to be unique amongst mammals - we live in huge cities, we walk on two legs and we have language. But how far have we really come from our mammal heritage? Are we really as different as we think from other mammals?
To answer these questions we journey from the urban jungle to the real jungle. This is the natural home of apes. In the forests of Borneo, David meets a remarkable orangutan who has learnt how to row boats and wash clothes by imitating humans. You may be surprised that an ape can do something so human, but of course we are apes too. Food and how apes find it has been key to the evolution of large brains - something that all apes share with humans.
But are we similar to apes in the way that we think? David communicates with Koko the gorilla in sign language and cracks nuts with chimps in the Congo who have learnt this tradition from watching humans. We visit the famous chimps of Gombe to witness another tradition common to both humans and chimps - hunting for meat.
Humans are different from apes because we walk on two feet - or are we? David wades through water with a remarkable group of chimps that give us a unique window into our past. There are only four men on earth who can run a kudu antelope to its death. They are Kalahari bushmen - this 'persistence hunt' is thought to link modern humans to the earliest form of human hunting. Humans hunt animals with more techniques than any other mammals and have learnt to shape wild animals to our needs with domestication.
But the ultimate control is when you can grow your own foods... anywhere. Man began to reshape the earth into patterns that can be seen from space - from the hand-sculpted rice terraces in China to the vast irrigated wheat circles in the desert of Arizona. Once a surplus of food could be made and stored, humans could settle. David travels to the remote thatched granaries of the Dogon tribe of Mali, to an ancient mud city,and then to the ruins of one of the great capitals of the Mayan civilisation to trace the evolution of human settlement from villages to great cities. The temples of Tikal used to be the highest building in the Americas until the skyscrapers of New York were built. So why did the city collapse? Satellite technology reveals that over-intensive agriculture was probably to blame.
Can modern day city-dwellers avoid a similar fate? NASA scientists believe that they have come up with a way of genetically modifying plants with jellyfish genes so that they can be remotely grown and monitored on Mars. David launches the latest plant experiments in a recent shuttle launch.
'Now we are looking for food not just on our planet but beyond our planet to others. Perhaps the time has now come when we should put that into reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, maybe we should control the population to ensure the survival of our environment.'

Social Climbers (Episode #109Z)

KQED Plus: Thu, Feb 7, 2013 -- 8:00 PM

The most brilliantly coloured of all mammals are our relatives the monkeys. The scarlet face of a Uakari and bright blue bottom of a Mandrill, are matchless. But colour-vision first gave this group another advantage up in the trees - finding ripe fruits and leaves. Hanging from a rope high in the canopy of Venezuela, Sir David watches brilliantly-coloured red howler monkeys use their sharp eyes to pick only the best leaves, before seeing off their rivals with one of the loudest sounds in nature.
Acute vision and a lively intelligence allows the capuchin monkey to eat clams in the swamps of Costa Rica. A group crack open shellfish on their favourite tree-anvil as Sir David commentates. The swamps are also full of insects, but the monkeys rub themselves with a special plant that repels them. The only nocturnal monkey is caught in David's torch beam. Far from losing it's reliance on vision, the Douracouli, or Owl monkey, compensates with enormous eyes and reserves social activity for moonlit nights. In the dim light of the West Africa forest beautiful guenon monkeys send messages to each other with colourful face patterns.
These forests are full of eagles, leopards and chimps, but the guenons have an extraordinary anti-predator alliance to deal with them. Communication in monkeys goes way beyond simple colour signals though. These intelligent mammals often live in large groups - where the socially skilled excel. When toque macaque monkeys battle for mates, we see how brain can triumph over brawn. A change in climate forced one group of African monkeys down from the trees and on to the grasslands. But living on the ground brought an increased risk from predators, forcing baboons to live in larger groups where social skills became even more important. Life on the ground also opened up new hunting opportunities - the hapless flamingos of Kenya are now on the menu.

Plant Predators (Episode #103Z)

KQED Plus: Sun, Feb 3, 2013 -- 8:00 PM

Some of the biggest predators to walk the earth face a constant battle - their prey is heavily armoured, often indigestible, sometimes even poisonous, and what makes this struggle between predator and prey the more remarkable is that these predators do not prey on animals, but on plants... Although we live on a green planet, eating plants presents one of the greatest challenges to mammals, shaping them and their lives in the most extraordinary ways.
The sloth is 'half blind, half deaf' and moves at a snail's pace - an extreme example of what can happen to you if you live on nothing but leaves! Plants arm themselves with deadly weapons, from razor sharp spines to deadly poisons, but plant predators are not deterred. The elusive tapir of the South American jungle visits secret clay licks in search of a natural antidote to the poisons. The pika, or rubble rabbit of the Canadian Rockies has found a way to make poisons work to its advantage, exploiting them as a natural preservative.
But sometimes the problem is not what's in your food, but what is not - we bugged the caves of Mount Elgon to reveal startling images of underground elephants mining for salts deficient in their green diet. Even the great wildebeest migration is now understood to be driven by the need for minerals... The next great battle that plant predators face takes place on the open plains - behind every plant-eater lurks a meat-eater.
For once we see the hunt from the plant predators' point of view; wrap-around vision, ears that rotate 360 degrees and elongated limbs make it harder for them to be caught than most wildlife films would make you think... Plant predators are equipped with dangerous weapons used in the greatest battle of all - with each other. We witness the drama of the annual bison rut in the Badlands of North America, discover the secret of the battering rams of the big-horned sheep of Canada, and analyse the fighting technique of horned animals as they ram, wrestle and stab their opponents. Amazing to think that all these extraordinary behaviours stem from the apparently simple act of eating leaves...

Repeat Broadcasts:

  • KQED Plus: Mon, Feb 4, 2013 -- 2:00 AM

Life in the Trees (Episode #108Z)

KQED Plus: Fri, Feb 1, 2013 -- 2:50 AM

An emergent tree in a tropical forest can grow to over forty metres high. The first branch may be twenty metres from the ground. A slip from this height would almost certainly be fatal. To make matters worse, branches may break without warning, or the tree may blow over. But, though life may seem precarious here, for those mammals which have made this three dimensional world their home the rewards are great; trees provide food, security from ground living predators and a refuge from the elements.
To reap these benefits, however, some very specialised adaptations are needed. Rock hyrax are not your typical tree dweller. They look more like ground hugging guinea pigs than accomplished climbers but, surprisingly, they are well adapted to walking around the low level branches of the acacia trees on which they feed. The soles of their feet are moist and rubbery creating a slight suction which allows the hyrax to almost stick to the branches.
But this adaptation would not be sufficient to negotiate much taller trees - for that, tree dwelling mammals have evolved other more unique adaptations. Clearly a good grip is a basic requirement for moving around at height - sloths and slender lorises may have very different looking mechanisms for gripping (claws on one, fingers and thumbs on the other) but both can grip tightly with all four limbs. If, however, you require both your hands for feeding, like the tamandua, another adaptation is necessary - a prehensile tail. This gripping tail allows the termite eating tamandua to hang on while keeping its front limbs free for breaking into the hard mounds of its prey.
Some tree dwelling mammals spend little time actually hanging on to branches. A grey squirrel's agility is legendary - their light body, balancing tail and sharp claws allows them to move around the tree tops at an astonishing speed. But evolution hasn't stopped there. Flying squirrels don't just leap they glide - as much as 90 metres. Fruit bats, or flying foxes let go of the trees all together. They, along with their insectivorous cousins, are the only group of mammals to have developed true flight. For the flying foxes, this ability has enabled them to travel large distances looking for fruiting trees.
Across the globe, mammals have evolved to exploit every conceivable type of forest. In one special place - the island of Madagascar - an ancestral tree dweller diversified into an astonishing range of species. Lemurs have now filled almost every niche - the sifaka is perhaps the most spectacular, leaping as much as fifteen metres between branches. But the lemurs don't have the trees all to themselves. Living alongside them is the predatory fossa - a sort of giant mongoose - which can match any lemur for agility.

Return to the Water (Episode #107Z)

KQED Plus: Fri, Feb 1, 2013 -- 2:00 AM

As the first signs of life left its watery environment to colonize dry land the race was on in the search for food. After millions of years the increasing competition to survive made some mammals take one of the greatest steps in evolution - they returned to the water. Retaining the fur of their shore bound ancestors' mammals like voles, otters and seals still return to land to breed but yet have the ability to swim to great depths in their search for food. Still breathing air and giving birth to live young, dolphins and whales became the new hunters of the world's oceans. With complex communication, perfect streamlining and great underwater speed these mammals have mastered all the problems that had to be solved to survive in this harsh alien world.

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