If at first you don’t succeed you don’t succeed. That’s the stark warning in the animal kingdom, as Professor Aubrey Manning discovered when he travelled around the globe in search of The Rules Of Life. In this eight-part BBC Radio 4 series Aubrey set out to explore the forces, influences and pressures that bear down on an animal, from the moment of conception through to its death.
Aubrey, who last year presented The Sounds Of Life on Radio 4, explains: "We had this general idea of doing a series about evolution – not what happened in evolution, because that’s very well covered by all kinds of super programmes – but a bit more about mechanisms, about how behaviour evolves."
After some six months since the first recording, Aubrey was looking forward to visiting the Farne Islands to marvel at the spectacle of new-born seal pups.
"The seals are giving birth at the moment and one of the programmes is about the very earliest days of life, so it will be good to see young pups actually arriving and speculate what their chances are," he muses.
Just as in the human world, first-time animal mothers can be less than competent with their offspring, and Aubrey agrees there can be similarities.
"I think, if we’re careful, there are often parallels we can draw – lessons we can learn. I think that understanding really well about the difficulties which animals face can often help us and perhaps help us to be a little kinder to ourselves," he explains.
"I think sometimes we get the impression, perhaps with parenting, that everything runs smoothly in the animal world and it’s only humans that get all these hang-ups. That’s absolutely not the case. In many cases we know that birds or mammals breeding for the first time just aren’t as successful as they are later in life. Everybody benefits from experience," he says matter-of-factly.
Humans generally tend to believe that raising a family comes naturally to animals, but Aubrey, who also presented Landscape Mysteries and Talking Landscapes for BBC Television, adds: "It’s good to point out the difficulties because there really are casualties; there’s huge mortality around. We have a programme about ageing and dying, but a lot of dying goes on early in life as well."
Another programme focuses on adolescence and, again, there are human parallels. "That’s a difficult time for animals, too," points out Aubrey. "They have some tough times getting into the adult world."
There were many surprises and fascinating spectacles during Aubrey’s journey, including the meerkats of the Kalahari.
"I knew that they were habituated so that it was possible for the biologists there to study them very closely, but I hadn’t realised what that meant. These animals are so tame that when I lay down on the ground as they were going to a roosting hole, they ran over my legs to get into it. They just treat you as a piece of the landscape," he explains.
Another incredible sight was red deer fighting on the Island of Rum. "It was just extraordinary," marvels Aubrey, "in the sheer, swashbuckling energy that they put into this rutting – roaring all night long, fights that go on for 10 or 15 minutes, stags pushing one another backwards and forwards."
Closer to home, Aubrey visited a fig tree greenhouse in Leeds – one of the few outside the Tropics - to learn about minute fig wasps. "One had to look at them through a magnifying glass, but there they are, leading the whole of their lives around these fig plants, and that was equally remarkable."
The series doesn’t shy away from reflecting the brutality of the animal kingdom. One programme reveals how, in the kookaburra family, the youngest chick is stabbed to death by its elder siblings if times are hard.
"I’ve been a zoologist long enough to recognise that one doesn’t look for any moral code amongst animals," is Aubrey’s philosophical reaction. "The rule in the animal kingdom is that the ends always justify the means, there’s no doubt about that. You just have to recognise that every animal is acting as selfishly as it can in order to try to reproduce itself and only animals that have played the game that way come through, so I just accept that this goes on."
"There are some bizarre stories," he continues. "We heard about sharks where the female incubates its eggs inside its body and the young fight it out inside the womb. They eat each other and one of them emerges. This is extraordinary but, of course, the one that emerges has come through the school of hard knocks. It’s the toughest, it’s the fittest and, from the mother shark’s point of view, that’s fine. It emerges as a half-grown animal which is a formidable shark in itself."
Aubrey adds: "I think it’s one of the values of this programme to show how evolution works; that what seems to us an absolutely ludicrous idea that you should lay a lot of eggs and then just calmly sit back and allow the young to eat one another, this seems ridiculous. But it’s the best way, in this case, of producing really fit offspring and that’s what the game’s about."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the programmes explores the profound effect which human behaviour has on animals in the wild – not just through habitat loss and global warming, but in more subtle ways, including altering the sex ratio of turtles in the Mediterranean through the building of high-rise hotels and, by encroaching into their habitat, forcing lions in southern Tanzania to kill and eat more humans.
"I don’t doubt that probably the people who built the hotels know, or may have known, that there were turtles breeding on the beaches, so they very carefully didn’t build on the beach because that would have disturbed them," comments Aubrey.
"But what they didn’t realise is that these great, tall tower blocks shade the beach – they keep the sun off it – and that means that the nests of the turtles are a bit cooler and, since the sex of these turtles is determined by what the temperature was in the egg, it’s a very crucial thing that unwittingly has upset the sex ratio."
Aubrey describes the situation in Tanzania as tragic. "The problem is the pressure of human numbers and what humans require," he explains. "They have shot out all the local game animals – the big animals that lions would normally feed on – because they need them for food, and also they’ve cleared the land for agriculture.
"The agriculture attracts wild pigs, which wouldn’t normally be there, and they’re raiding the crops so the local people have set up little huts where they sit, among the crops, and guard them against the pigs. The lions are very hungry because their big game has disappeared and they’re after the pigs."
The mounting loss of human life is caused by the difficulty experienced by the lions in catching the pigs.
Aubrey explains: "The lions have discovered that there are other animals around which are easier to catch – and those are the human beings who are guarding the crops. There’s been quite a rash of lions killing and eating people, which is desperate."
However, he stresses: “The reaction of the Tanzanians has been quite remarkable and gives us pause. I can imagine, if something like that were happening here, the call would go out to kill all lions; every lion within a hundred miles would be killed. That’s not what the Tanzanians say. They say the lion is a noble beast and they want to live with it, but they can’t put up with this, so they need to be protected.
"But they have not gone over the top about it and I think there’s a lesson for all of us there – that we should try to live with animals and not against them.
"The problem has to be solved," he urges. "I think it can be solved, probably, but it’s all about restoring balance between humans and the other animals we share the planet with. One way of doing that is to understand the animals’ lives more and I hope these programmes will do that."