Following on immediately after the main Life in Cold Blood programmes, Under the Skin reveals some of the secrets of the production process. Here we offer a short preview of what's coming up in each of the ten-minute specials.
Programme 1: Charismatic chameleons
David Attenborough travels to Madagascar in search of a reptile he has been waiting nearly half a century to see. He first visited Madagascar in the early 1960s filming for the series Zooquest and was taken with the incredible variety of chameleons he saw there. He had read of one, the Pygmy Leaf Chameleon, the world’s smallest reptile, but he never managed to see one. Now, forty six years later he is going to get another chance. This time though he has the help of chameleon biologist Bertrand Razafimahatratra, and it’s a good job too - because these tiny chameleons are barely the size of your thumbnail.
The technique Bertrand uses to find chameleons in the forest is based on years of experience. Despite them being active in daytime, he hunts for them in pitch black using only torch light. This is because they are paler and they stand out in the light of a torch whereas their camouflage makes them nigh on invisible during the day. He also knows that they tend to hide at the tips of branches to escape predators like snakes. It’s a far cry from when David first tried to find them all those years ago. With Bertrand’s help they find many different chameleons during their night time safari, huge Oustelet's Chameleons, enigmatic stump-tailed chameleons and colourful Panther Chameleons. Only with Bertrand’s local knowledge, field-craft and a lot of luck, will David have any chance of fulfilling his life long ambition of finding the Pygmy Leaf Chameleon.
Programme 2: Warning from the wild
The filming of the bizarre semaphoring behaviour of the Panamanian Golden Frog is to be a race against time. The rushing water of the mountain streams and waterfalls where they live, drown out croaks and calls so they have evolved a visual method of communication. Already threatened by habitat destruction and over collecting, a killer fungal disease is now moving towards their last remaining forest stronghold at about 40 km a year, wiping out every one of these stunning looking frogs in its path. So series producer Miles Barton cuts short his Christmas to join the crew and frog biologist Erik Lindquist at the top secret location in the Panamanian rainforest. Before filming the crew have to disinfect their filming gear with bleach to prevent infection of the frogs but eventually they capture the frogs waving and social behaviour for the first time. When David Attenborough joins them Erik shows him how to find the frogs by calling to them and he describes how he first discovered the frogs waving behaviour back in 1994.
He also explains how he and other scientists have investigated whether the golden frogs are indeed communicating with each other, using a variety of equipment including tiny mirrors, a plastic model frog (which David Attenborough uses without much success!) and even one on TV.
But there is a sad end to the story. Since the filming, the location was overtaken by the chytrid fungus and the surviving frogs have been taken into a frog hospital to be cured of the disease. So for now the Golden Frog has waved its last in the wild.
Programme 3: Family affairs
David Attenborough meets Mike Bull and his team who study the social lizards of South Australia. They know thousands of the reptiles individually and use all manner of gadgets and gizmos to investigate the Sleepy Lizard or Shinglebacks' secret life. The aptly named ‘waddleometer’, measures the lizard’s rate of movement, its position and even whether it is in the sun or shade – all automatically. Then there is the robo-lizard mounted on a toy truck to test how the lizards react to intruders. In the course of this work they have made new discoveries and overturned our preconceptions about “cold-blooded” animals.
Mike’s twenty year study of Sleepy Lizards revealed that they are faithful to each other for up to two decades and will even remain with their partner for several days if it dies.
Mikes team suspected that another lizard in the area - the Gidgee Skink - had an even more enduring family life than the Sleepy Lizard. But this was difficult to prove because when approached, they wedge themselves in cracks in the rocks making it impossible to identify who's who. Their solution was to microchip each lizard so it could then be scanned, just like supermarket shopping, with a bar-code reader on the end of a pole. This revealed that the clumps of lizards seen on rockpiles are actually close-knit families whose young stay with them till adulthood.
Now Mike is studying a lizard that was believed extinct for over 30 years - the Pygmy Blue-tongued Skink. Further investigation revealed exactly why it has stayed hidden for so long - it lives in tiny trap-door spider burrows. To unlock its secret lifestyle Mike Bull and the ‘Life in Cold Blood’ crew join forces to record, for the first time ever its family life – 3 baby skinks in the burrow with their mother.
Programme 4: Rattlesnake stakeout
In New York, the Life in Cold Blood crew travelled to New York State to film the ‘Holy Grail’ of wildlife behaviours – a rattlesnake hunting in the wild. This has seldom been seen and never before filmed so they sought the help of world renowned expert Harry Greene. He has been studying snakes for more than forty years and has uncovered some remarkable secrets about rattlesnake behaviour, revealing them in a whole new light.
Radio telemetry technology has enabled Harry and his students to follow individual snakes for days, weeks and, in some cases their entire lives. With the help of Harry and his team, the ‘Life in Cold Blood’ crew have the opportunity to find and track a wild timber rattlesnake called Hank. Using a specially constructed camera trap the team max out on their luck when they film him hunting at the very first attempt but then they fail to get the complete sequence with him eating. So it’s back to the drawing board as they track Hank, twenty four hours a day for two weeks. They discover it is both difficult and dangerous tracking a perfectly camouflaged venomous snake in the pitch black!
Their progress is also hampered by the worst floods that New York State has seen for years. Days of rain bring activity to a standstill, but finally Hank starts to hunt again. When he chooses an ambush site the team work fast to set up infrared lights, remote cameras and motion detectors to bug the area, meanwhile the team retreat to a filming hide to wait. To their surprise the cameras capture a second successful hunt and this time Hank, rather obligingly, eats his meal right in front of the camera!
Programme 5: The end of an era
David Attenborough goes to the Galapagos to meet the rarest reptile in the world - a giant tortoise which is the last of his kind. ‘Lonesome George’ as he is known, is a shining example of evolutionary theory in practice. Each island in the Galapagos supports a different race of tortoise; each with a different shell shape that better suits them to eat the food available to them. Over the years they have been hunted as food and some are now critically endangered. George is the very last individual from Pinta Island so it is likely that his race is doomed to extinction. For the other tortoises there may be some hope because scientists on the islands are working to preserve these pillars of Darwinian history. Each race is captive bred in a separate enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Station and the hatchlings reared till they are big and strong enough to resist attack by the rats that have been introduced to the islands. Once rat proof, they are safely returned to their native islands.
These are not the only threatened animals that the Life in Cold Blood team came across while filming the series. Habitat destruction in Japan is threatening the welfare of the five foot long giant salamanders. The Panamanian Golden Frogs that David met filming for the amphibians programme are, at the time of transmission, officially extinct in the wild. Gharial crocodiles have been on a knife edge for thirty years and are still in trouble as more and more of their habitat is destroyed, meanwhile Gopher tortoises are also fighting a losing real-estate battle with developers in Florida.
Lonesome George is an iconic representative of the threats that face the reptiles and amphibians; as well as a testament to the hard work from scientists working to help them. It is likely that it will all come too late to save him but as David Attenborough puts it,“at least he can be a living inspiration to us all to protect the remainder of the reptiles and amphibians of the world.”
First broadcast: Monday 4 Feb 2008 on BBC ONE