David Attenborough writes about singing rhinos and cute monkeys…

Ready fur us? Sir David Attenborough writes about singing rhinos, cute monkeys and more ahead of his new BBC series celebrating the seven continents’ most astonishing wildlife

  • Seven Worlds, One Planet, is a breathtaking new series from the BBC narrated by Sir David Attenborough
  • It celebrates the variety of the planet in every continent, with episodes based on wildlife around the world 
  • Each continent has its unique animal treasures, which together make up the rich diversity of life on Earth

The Ultimate Variety Show 

Planet Earth is home to an extraordinary range of life, differing wildly between continents. Scientists have wondered for centuries how our natural world came to be so diverse, yet interconnected. And now we know that the mystery can be explained by a dinosaur called mesosaurus.

With its long, thick tail, powerful jaws and stumpy, frog-like legs, mesosaurus was a strange creature – like a newt the size of a small crocodile, living in freshwater lakes 280 million years ago. But the strangest thing about mesosaurus is that its fossils have been found on both sides of the Atlantic. Clear evidence of this early underwater reptile has been found in southern Africa as well as in South America.

How can this be? There was no way it could swim across the south Atlantic. So why are its fossils found on two continents, 4,000 miles apart? The answer is that Africa and the Americas were once one, along with all the land mass on the planet – one supercontinent called Pangaea. But about 200 million years ago, it was ripped in two and then began to break up into the seven ‘worlds’ we know today – North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australasia, Africa and Antarctica.

That’s why, if you look at a map, the western bulge of Africa looks as though it would fit neatly into the Caribbean, between the Americas. Once upon a time it did. This was discovered by German geophysicist Alfred Wegener in 1912, but his theory of ‘continental drift’ proved controversial for 50 years…until mesosaurus turned up.

Sir David Attenborough (pictured attending the world premiere of ‘Seven World, One Planet’) co-stars with singing rhinos, the cutest monkeys and more in a new BBC series celebrating the seven continents’ most astonishing wildlife

Continents drift because of the molten magma bubbling up from the centre of the Earth at the boundaries between plates. Our planet’s skin is a moving jigsaw puzzle, continually in motion – Australasia, for example, is moving north at 7cm a year and will eventually smash into south-east Asia.

As the continents broke apart, the plants and animals on them began to evolve separately, each adapting to its own environment. The continents developed their own terrains and climates, and with these their own unique flora and fauna. If Pangaea had remained whole, we wouldn’t have the stunning variety of life on Earth we have today.

Seven Worlds, One Planet, a breathtaking seven-part series from the BBC’s Natural History Unit narrated by Sir David Attenborough, celebrates that variety. Earth is more diverse than we could imagine… and this astonishing show helps us understand how wild it really is.

  • Adapted by Christopher Stevens from the accompanying book Seven Worlds, One Planet by Jonny Keeling & Scott Alexander

Here, Sir David Attenborough reveals how each of our seven continents has its unique animal treasures, which together make up the rich diversity of life on Earth. But they’ve all faced their own challenges too…. 

Why don’t polar bears eat penguins? The riddle is probably as old as any other that you will find in a Christmas cracker. And the answer is not difficult to work out: penguins and polar bears live at opposite ends of the world and never meet.

But why is that so? To answer that question, you have to consider the Earth’s geological history. Three hundred million years ago, the only land on this planet’s otherwise ocean-covered surface was a single super-continent. It was there that terrestrial life began. Eventually, however, this immense landmass began to break up. One fragment started to drift south. As it approached the pole, it became so cold that none of its animal passengers were able to survive. This was the continent we now call Antarctica and no land animals – except human beings – have ever managed to reach it since.

Sir David in Kenya with one of only two northern white rhinos, both female, which survive in the wild. His new show, Seven Worlds, One Planet, starts on BBC One later this month

Why don’t polar bears eat penguins? The riddle is probably as old as any other that you will find in a Christmas cracker. And the answer is not difficult to work out: penguins and polar bears live at opposite ends of the world and never meet. Pictured, in mortal danger, a penguin tries desperately to escape the clutches of a leopard seal in Antarctica

A red-billed oxpecker (pictured)  hitches a ride on a hippo in Zambia – one of many mammals it’s happy to be ferried around by

Questions about why different animals live where they do are likely to occur to anyone who watches a natural history series surveying the entire globe, as Seven Worlds, One Planet does. But not all are so easily answered. Why, for example, is it deer that nibble grass in North America, whereas the medium-sized mammals that live in Africa in a similar fashion and with a similar diet are antelope? Or why are there apes in the tropical forests of Africa and Asia but none at all in the jungles of South America?

DID YOU KNOW? 

Hippopotamuses once roamed across Britain, during the warmer periods between Ice Ages. 

They travelled into Europe from Asia when the two land masses were joined by changing sea levels.

Seven Worlds, One Planet helps to answer such questions. It also explains why communities of animals and plants on the seven continents of our planet are still so different from one another that they can justifiably be described as separate worlds.

Each has its own particular animal treasures. Some are rare and little known. Take, for example, the olm that lives only in the caves of eastern Europe. 

It is a kind of salamander, as long and as slim as a small snake, and has two pairs of diminutive legs and a moist, scale-less skin. Because it lives in permanent darkness, it has lost its eyes and the pigment in its skin and so has become a ghostly white. Now its life is so uneventful and requiring so little energy that it only needs to eat once in a decade.

Or consider the blue-faced golden-coated monkey that lives in northern China in places that are snow-covered for at least five months of the year. It is so cold there that the monkeys have developed thick furry coats and reduced the danger of their noses being frostbitten by evolving ones that are so severely snubbed that they can hardly be described as noses at all. Both these strange creatures are rare and scarcely known because they live in restricted and little-visited habitats.

There are, however, other rarities whose numbers are also small but for very different and more alarming reasons. They were once abundant but we have displaced them from the territories that were once theirs. Sometimes we have done so for the most trivial of reasons. 

During the 19th century, European settlers both in Australia and North America introduced blackbirds and thrushes from Europe because they considered that their songs were more melodious than those of the local birds. They imported foxes because the hunters among them had nothing they thought suitable for the chase. And some brought their pet cats because they enjoyed having them sitting purring by the fireside. 

Some of these introductions failed and died out after a few generations. But others flourished and became plagues that had catastrophic effects on the indigenous animal populations.

Seven Worlds, One Planet explains why communities of animals and plants on the seven continents of our planet are still so different from one another that they can justifiably be described as separate worlds. Pictured, black bear cubs search for crabs on the west coast of Canada

Golden snub-nosed monkeys (pictured) huddle for warmth in China’s freezing Shennongjia National Park

Others of our introductions have been accidental rather than deliberate, as on the many occasions when we have allowed rats, hitchhiking on our ships, to escape ashore in territory where they never existed before. Again and again these hardy, omnivorous and prolific intruders have then caused havoc among the local animals which had no defence against them.

But the greatest changes we have caused are those we have made deliberately in order to provide for our ever-increasing numbers. We have felled forests, drained swamps and covered fertile meadows with concrete in order to build our homes and factories, airports and motorways. So, over the past 200 years, wild animals that were once relatively abundant on every continent except Antarctica have been decimated and now survive in dangerously small numbers. Such are the Iberian lynx, European wolf, Arctic musk ox and many others.

Seven Worlds, One Planet describes and illustrates rarities of both kinds, together with some of the most dramatic natural wonders that still remain on Earth. Let us hope that our increasing understanding of the way nature functions will at last persuade people everywhere to care for the animals that evolved on this planet’s continents and allow them the space they need to live in the particular world that once was theirs. 

ANTARCTICA: FREEZE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA! 

They might look like Muppet babies, but these gorgeous grey-headed albatross chicks on the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic are gravely endangered – and their fate is an unexpected result of climate change. To keep their eggs off the freezing ground, the adults build these chimney-pot nests, but the worsening storms in the South Atlantic, with winds now frequently gusting at hurricane force, are blowing the chicks off them. When this happens, the adults are unable to recognise their own babies – it seems evolution has programmed them to know their chicks only when the bundles of feathery fluff are in their right place.

‘This must be a new problem,’ says Fredi Devas, who produced the Antarctic episode of Seven Worlds. ‘The birds haven’t had time to evolve an effective response, so a lot of the chicks freeze to death in the icy mud. It’s tragic – and it’s reduced albatross numbers on South Georgia by more than half in 15 years.’

They might look like Muppet babies, but these gorgeous grey-headed albatross chicks (pictured) on the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic are gravely endangered – and their fate is an unexpected result of climate change. To keep their eggs off the freezing ground, the adults build these chimney-pot nests, but the worsening storms in the South Atlantic, with winds now frequently gusting at hurricane force, are blowing the chicks off them 

Some populations of the southern right whale (pictured) – so called because its inquisitive nature made it easy to harpoon and when it died it floated, making it the ‘right’ whale to catch – have doubled in the past decade

Robot drones capture amazing pictures of the whales feasting for the show, but technology was little use to the brave divers who had to drop down 9ft wide holes in the ice shelf to film the seabed below the frozen surface. Their GPS trackers didn’t work under such thick ice, so they had to find their way back to the holes by memory before their air supply – with enough oxygen for just 20 minutes – ran out Pictured, bull elephant seals fighting

Also on South Georgia the team filmed bull elephant seals, the largest seal in the world which can be almost 7m long and weigh up to five tonnes – five times the weight of a small car – fighting to settle mating rights. They rear up and slam their bodies together, but these epic battles don’t interest the 500,000 king penguins, whose colony stretches from the beach to the mountain peak around St Andrews Bay. The penguins are more concerned with feeding their chicks, so they must trot back and forth to the sea to get fish dinners.

But the biggest fish dinner around here is gobbled up by hundreds of immense fin whales, the most ever filmed at one time. Once on the verge of extinction, their numbers – along with those of other whales – have surged back thanks to global conservation efforts. Fin whales are twice the size of humpbacks, yet they feed on some of the ocean’s smallest creatures: krill, a tiny shrimp.

Robot drones capture amazing pictures of the whales feasting for the show, but technology was little use to the brave divers who had to drop down 9ft wide holes in the ice shelf to film the seabed below the frozen surface. Their GPS trackers didn’t work under such thick ice, so they had to find their way back to the holes by memory before their air supply – with enough oxygen for just 20 minutes – ran out.

ASIA: THE WORLD’S MOST DEVOTED MUM! FROM CARING ORANGUTANS TO A CUNNING SNAKE AND A CRITICALLY ENDANGERED RHINO, THE PLANET’S LARGEST CONTINENT IS HOME TO SOME OF ITS RAREST CREATURES 

Deep in the Sumatran forest, a haunting song floats through the dense undergrowth… the sound of the singing rhinos. Emma Napper, producer of the Asia episode, could scarcely believe local stories that, to communicate in the impenetrable rainforest, Sumatran rhinos sing to each other. But their music was the first thing she heard when she opened her car door on the first day of the jungle shoot.

Golden snub-nosed monkeys pictured in Qinling Mountains, Shaanxi, China. It doesn’t pay to be a loner if you’re a golden snub-nosed monkey in the mountains of China’s Shennongjia National Park, though. Living two miles above sea level where snow covers the ground for almost half the year, it makes more sense to huddle together in groups of up to 200. These sociable animals are great chatterboxes too. They gossip constantly, making a variety of noises without ever seeming to move their lips – like ventriloquists

‘It’s almost like the song of the humpback whales,’ she says, ‘mournful and melodic. It’s a lovely, lyrical sound, and these rhinos are so sweet – they’re hairy, and much smaller than their African cousins. They’re heavily protected – there may be as few as 50 left in the wild, and their habitat is fenced off to protect them from poachers and loggers. Getting permission to film was hard, but I’m so happy we did: it’s my very favourite segment.’

DID YOU KNOW? 

There are around 10,000 orangutans remaining in Borneo, but because half have been lost in the past 16 years and mothers only rear one infant every seven years, they are listed as critically endangered.

In the lush rainforests of Kalimantan, where the trees tower more than 300ft high, the crew followed another lovable jungle character – Bibi the 40-year-old orangutan and her mischievous two-year-old baby Bayas. To help her adventurous toddler get around without falling, which could be dangerous from such a height, Bibi bends branches and knots them together to create aerial bridges between the trees.

Bayas is a lucky lad. Research shows that orangutan mothers are the best in the world, with about 91 per cent of babies surviving till they are fully weaned at around eight years old. One reason for this is that these adorable orange apes are solitary animals. Bibi and Bayas will just have each other for company, which means they’re less likely to pick up infectious diseases.

It doesn’t pay to be a loner if you’re a golden snub-nosed monkey in the mountains of China’s Shennongjia National Park, though. Living two miles above sea level where snow covers the ground for almost half the year, it makes more sense to huddle together in groups of up to 200. These sociable animals are great chatterboxes too. They gossip constantly, making a variety of noises without ever seeming to move their lips – like ventriloquists.

There are around 10,000 orangutans remaining in Borneo, but because half have been lost in the past 16 years and mothers only rear one infant every seven years, they are listed as critically endangered

The Sumatran rhino (pictured) is thought to be a close relative of the extinct woolly rhinoceros. There are fewer than 80 in the wild

The males fight frequently to earn the right to the best of the limited food sources, and can even bite off each other’s tails in the heat of battle. But these miniature warriors dislike getting their hands cold. They walk upright in the snow, cartwheeling their arms, and when they’re on two feet they look like drawings of the fabled Abominable Snowman. Is this the real origin of the legend of the Yeti?

RUSSIA’S DELINQUENT BEARS 

Wherever you go in the world you’ll find delinquents. And the bears of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia are no exception. They’ve taken to sniffing aviation fuel from discarded barrels at airfields where the mining company helicopters land to refuel. High on the fumes, the brown bears roll about in the snow, in what Russian nature photographer Igor Shpilenok calls ‘the nirvana position’. They’re so addicted they’ll even stalk the helicopters to sniff any fuel that drips down when the aircraft refuels.

Meanwhile, mothers and cubs enjoy lying beside steaming-hot geysers that blast up from deep below ground and shower them with hot rain. These bears are sheer hedonists.

Meanwhile, in the deserts of Iran the spider-tailed horned viper attracts its prey with a lure at the end of its body. To a hungry bird, that creamy bulb with spines looks just like a juicy spider. When the bird tries to grab it, however, the snake strikes, swallowing smaller victims whole. But only migrant birds, flying over on their way to a distant destination, run the risk of being fooled. The local birds are wise to the snake’s tricks and ignore it.

EUROPE: LOOK WHAT’S ON OUR DOORSTEP

Against the dramatic backdrop of the Rock of Gibraltar, on the roof of a perilously swinging cable car, a kidnap drama is playing out. A baby’s life is in danger… and its desperate mother will do anything to save her child.

The scenario sounds like the climax of a Hollywood thriller, but it’s a real-life crisis captured by a team filming the complex social lives of Barbary macaques. These yellow monkeys live in one of the world’s most spectacular tourist spots, on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

Macaque troops have strict hierarchies, and director Kiri Cashell and her crew trained their lenses on the lowest-ranking female in a troop of 60, who had just given birth. But infant macaques face a bizarre risk – other adults try to snatch them and present them to higher-ranked macaques as a gift. Sometimes they take a baby just because they want to.

As the cameras rolled, another female grabbed the week-old infant and bolted. ‘She seemed to want to play at being a mother,’ says Kiri. ‘The baby started to cry, but the low-ranking mother could only look on and watch what was happening – we think the captor was of a higher social status.’ The mother had a clever trick up her sleeve, though. As the thief hauled her hostage up a pylon, the mum approached an alpha male on the roof of a cable car and began to groom him. Jealous, the kidnapper bounded over to join in… and the mother rescued her baby.

The rise in the number of Iberian lynx kittens (pictured) is a sign of the species’ resurgence after facing extinction 20 years ago

Barbary macaque male holding a baby, bridging behaviour to reduce aggression and form social bonds in the Upper Rock area of the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, Rock of Gibraltar (pictured). Macaque troops have strict hierarchies, and director Kiri Cashell and her crew trained their lenses on the lowest-ranking female in a troop of 60, who had just given birth. But infant macaques face a bizarre risk – other adults try to snatch them and present them to higher-ranked macaques as a gift. Sometimes they take a baby just because they want to

Brown bear cubs (pictured) love climbing trees – but can then discover they have a fear of heights!

A Danube delta pelican (pictured) displays its cavernous bill. The team was particularly astonished by the behaviour of pelicans in the Danube delta. They wait for cormorants to dive down and seize a fish, then grab them by the neck. Choked and frightened, the cormorants cough up their catch… straight into the gullet of the pelican

Life can be dangerous for all animal babies, however grown-up they might think they are. On the border of Finland and Russia, the team filmed brown bear cubs showing off their climbing skills. ‘One day,’ says director Charlotte Bostock, ‘a cub climbed too high and seemed to get vertigo. He froze at the top of a tree that must have been 30m high. He was quivering with fright, while his mother was below. She must have been there for a good hour, and eventually coaxed him down.’

In the mountains of the Sierra de Andujar in Andalucia, Spain, Charlotte set up camera traps to film Iberian lynx. These spotted cats with their magnificent whiskers, like Victorian gentlemen, were virtually extinct 20 years ago. But a dedicated conservation programme has rescued them, and some 200 kittens were born last year. Still, they remain some of the most elusive animals in Europe. ‘Filming the lynx was like finding a needle in a haystack,’ says Charlotte.

The team was particularly astonished by the behaviour of pelicans in the Danube delta. They wait for cormorants to dive down and seize a fish, then grab them by the neck. Choked and frightened, the cormorants cough up their catch… straight into the gullet of the pelican.

BACK TO THE ICE AGE: Musk oxen are true relics of the last Ice Age (pictured). They roamed northern Europe at the same time as sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths. Though they were wiped out on the continent by the middle of the 19th century, they survived in Arctic Canada and were reintroduced at a nature reserve in Norway after the Second World War. Though they look like cattle, they are more closely related to sheep and goats. Musk ox fur is fantastically warm, and said to be the rarest natural fibre in the world. The Inuit word for the creature is omingmak, meaning ‘the animal with skin like a beard’.

NORTH AMERICA: IT’S MANATEE TIME

Filming the sea cow, or manatee, around the warm Florida springs proved a problem – because the inquisitive, docile creatures were just so darn friendly. ‘Manatees sense the world through their long whiskers, so they wanted to come right up and nuzzle,’ says assistant producer Sarah Whalley. ‘They chewed on our hair and even on the airpipes of our breathing apparatus. But they’re a protected species and we weren’t allowed to touch them, not even to push them away. Usually you wish you could get closer to wildlife when filming, but this time we were trying to get further away!’

At the other extreme, the team watched polar bears hunting beluga whales in Canada’s Hudson Bay. In the summer, when the whales are calving, they’ll swim into the shallows to rub their bellies on the shingle. The bears wait for them on the rocks above, but they have to time their pounce to perfection – the belugas can turn tail in an instant.

Some animals rely on other species to chase away their predators. The prairie dog, or gopher, is vulnerable to attack from the American badger, which snatches infants from its burrows. But burrowing owls hate the badgers too. To protect their chicks on the ground, the owls divebomb the badgers, making the owls and gophers unlikely but effective allies.

One creature that knows how to maximise its feeding opportunities is the North American black bear. At low spring tides it will venture from the forests on the West Coast to the vast boulder fields revealed by the retreating water where a feast of eels and shellfish awaits – all the bear has to do is flip over the boulders.

In winter manatees are drawn to the waters around Florida’s hot springs (pictured). Filming the sea cow, or manatee, around the warm Florida springs proved a problem – because the inquisitive, docile creatures were just so darn friendly. ‘Manatees sense the world through their long whiskers, so they wanted to come right up and nuzzle,’ says assistant producer Sarah Whalley. ‘They chewed on our hair and even on the airpipes of our breathing apparatus. But they’re a protected species and we weren’t allowed to touch them, not even to push them away. Usually you wish you could get closer to wildlife when filming, but this time we were trying to get further away!’

One creature that knows how to maximise its feeding opportunities is the North American black bear (pictured). At low spring tides it will venture from the forests on the West Coast to the vast boulder fields revealed by the retreating water where a feast of eels and shellfish awaits – all the bear has to do is flip over the boulders

In many of North America’s rivers in spring, the river chub can be seen building impressive pebble mounds to attract a mate. There can be 7,000 pebbles in a mound – and the little fish positions them all with his mouth!

On America’s Great Plains, a burrowing owl (pictured) chases away a badger – much to the relief of the local gopher population, which badgers prey on

Pictured, a polar bear prepares to pounce on a beluga whale. The team watched polar bears hunting beluga whales in Canada’s Hudson Bay. In the summer, when the whales are calving, they’ll swim into the shallows to rub their bellies on the shingle. The bears wait for them on the rocks above, but they have to time their pounce to perfection – the belugas can turn tail in an instant.

AUSTRALASIA: FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM 

Australia’s long-term isolation has resulted in an unusually large number of endemic species such as the kangaroo. But seeing a mob of these marsupials in a snowstorm is somewhat surreal. Normally you’d expect to find them in the arid outback, yet in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales where temperatures can fall to -23˚C they are frequently seen – their thick fur protecting them from the worst of the cold.

In the mountains they’re safer from dingo attacks than on the warmer plains. These wild dogs are probably descended from animals brought over from New Guinea by humans making the voyage by canoe between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago – though some naturalists think the dingo’s ancestors might have trekked to Australia across a land bridge up to 18,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower.

For the dingos, kangaroo hunts demand agility and stamina. The dogs can run at a steady 30mph, while their prey bounds along at a slightly slower speed, with sudden bursts of up to 40mph. If the kangaroo slips or allows itself to be outflanked by other dogs, the hunt is soon over.

A curious kangaroo peers at the camera in the Snowy Mountains. Australia’s long-term isolation has resulted in an unusually large number of endemic species such as the kangaroo. But seeing a mob of these marsupials in a snowstorm is somewhat surreal. Normally you’d expect to find them in the arid outback, yet in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales where temperatures can fall to -23˚C they are frequently seen – their thick fur protecting them from the worst of the cold

Cassowary males take care of the chicks (pictured). On the beach of the Wet Tropics Rainforest in Queensland, you might be surprised to see fresh tracks that appear to have been made in the sand by a dinosaur. In fact, the footprints have been made by a cassowary, a colourful flightless bird that looks like a psychedelic turkey and stands up to 6ft tall. They are so shy that they run at the first sign of humans, and proved one of the camera crew’s most testing challenges

Other animals in Australasia have a less taxing technique for catching dinner. In the Roper River in northern Australia, crocodiles lie in the water, half-submerged in the 45˚C heat. Unlike their bigger saltwater cousins, these freshwater crocs are not man-eaters – but they are deadly to little red flying foxes. As the foxes, which are really a type of bat, swoop down in flocks of up to 20,000 to soak the fur on their breasts with water, which they will drink later, the crocodiles snap them up. The prey literally flies into those wide-open jaws, but the bats have no choice: in the dry season they have to take the risk or they will die of thirst.

Sometimes though, when bubbles appear on the surface of the water in Australia it isn’t a sign of crocodiles. The mysterious underwater bubble-blower might be a duck-billed platypus, a creature so bizarre that when Victorian scientists first saw a stuffed exhibit they assumed it was a taxidermist’s prank constructed from an otter’s feet with a beaver’s tail and, of course, a duck’s bill.

That bill has electrical receptors running along its edge, making it able to detect fish in the murkiest water. And it has poisonous glands linked to spurs on its back feet, making it one of the few venomous mammals. On top of that, it’s a mammal that lays eggs. No wonder the Victorians thought someone was playing an April Fool’s joke.

Sometimes though, when bubbles appear on the surface of the water in Australia it isn’t a sign of crocodiles. The mysterious underwater bubble-blower might be a duck-billed platypus, a creature so bizarre that when Victorian scientists first saw a stuffed exhibit they assumed it was a taxidermist’s prank constructed from an otter’s feet with a beaver’s tail and, of course, a duck’s bill

On the beach of the Wet Tropics Rainforest in Queensland, you might be surprised to see fresh tracks that appear to have been made in the sand by a dinosaur. In fact, the footprints have been made by a cassowary, a colourful flightless bird that looks like a psychedelic turkey and stands up to 6ft tall. They are so shy that they run at the first sign of humans, and proved one of the camera crew’s most testing challenges.

SOUTH AMERICA: PURR-FECT FOR PUMAS AND PADDINGTON!

You can always rely upon one animal to get into mischief, and that’s a bear called Paddington. And the spectacled bears of Peru, on which the beloved children’s character is based, proved true to type.

When the film crew for the South America episode set camera traps to film these elusive creatures remotely, their expensive equipment did not last long. ‘These bears are very naughty, curious and destructive,’ says assistant producer Sarah Whalley. ‘Once they caught sight of their reflection in the lenses, they wreaked havoc. We had to come up with ways to stop them chewing the cameras to bits.’

Fortunately, the camera traps weren’t needed because, though spectacled bears (also known as Andean bears, and the only bear to be found in South America) are notoriously difficult to film in the wild, the team picked the perfect time and place to watch them. Their favourite food is the small, olive-shaped fruit of the pacche tree, and when the fruits appear the bears trek down from the cloud forest high in the Andes where they live to feast on this delicacy. They climb the trees, performing acrobatic leaps to get into the best position, and then chew off the branches so they can reel in the fruit at the tips. When they’ve stuffed themselves for a couple of hours, they make a nest from the branches and settle down to sleep off their blowout.

While their mother Sarmiento is out hunting guanaco, these puma cubs (pictured) wait by a lake in southern Chile

Wary of ocelots, macaws mine sodium-rich clay for their young on a riverbank in the Peruvian Amazon

The crew couldn’t believe their eyes. ‘Andean bears are very rarely seen, but Sarah really hit the jackpot,’ says cameraman Bertie Gregory. ‘On our first day we saw five, on another day ten. The expert who was advising us didn’t believe us at first, but then we saw three large adults together in a single tree.’

Did you know?

The puma can be found in 28 countries throughout the Americas from Canada to Chile, and it has up to 80 names – including the mountain lion, cougar, catamount, panther, red tiger and deer tiger.

Sarah’s favourite animal though was Sarmiento, a puma living in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine on the southern coast of Chile. She was hoping for a feast of her own as she taught her three growing cubs to hunt guanaco – an ancestor of the domestic llama that is basically a camel without a hump. The big cat had to be brave, because the bad-tempered guanaco are twice her size… and born fighters. When the males battle for mating rights, they try to bite off each other’s testicles. You don’t mess with a guanaco. Sarmiento wasn’t afraid though, and the crew tracked her efforts for days. ‘She’s such a fierce and attentive mother, there’s a special place in my heart for her,’ says Sarah.

Vying with the vibrantly coloured macaws of the Amazon for most flamboyant creature on the continent must be the cotton-top tamarin, a tiny monkey with a wild white moptop. Their variety of whistles and chirps is so varied that scientists regard it as a language. But they are critically endangered – their habitat in the coastal rainforests of Colombia is being poisoned by mercury pollution washed down from the goldmines upstream.


Left: A spectacled, or Andean bear perching in a tree. Right: A cotton-top tamarin monkey

AFRICA: SURVIVAL OF THE SMARTEST 

There is a lot to learn when you’re a young chimpanzee. But Pegatta, five, has a great teacher in mum Perla. At 43, she is the champion nut-cracker of her troop in the tropical rainforests of the Ivory Coast in West Africa. With a rock, she can burst open a nut against a stone anvil in no time.

When French soldiers first heard these strange banging noises in the 19th century, they thought there was a rebel army forging weapons in the forest – animals using tools was unheard of. It’ll take Pegatta five more years to perfect the skill, and she may not get a chance to practise with Perla’s tools – stone hammers are highly prized in chimpanzee communities and a queue of chimps will form to use the best rock.

Elsewhere, the oxpeckers of South Luangwa National Park in Zambia are choosy about their hosts. The red-billed birds prefer to divest hippos of ticks and parasites because they can also suck their blood through their thin skin. The yellow-billed birds are happier on a giraffe, however, and will roost between its legs at night to make sure it hasn’t wandered off in the morning. 

Pegatta watches her mother Perla cracking nuts in West Africa’s Ivory Coast

At Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, some African elephants have learnt to rise up on their back legs to reach the highest fruit on the ana tree – inadvertently scattering food on the ground for smaller animals

A baby gorilla in the Congo Basin. In its first two years it will put on weight twice as fast as a human baby, and it is likely to depend on its mother for up to five years

An aardvark uses its sensitive snout to sniff out ants and termites in South Africa’s Northern Cape

A flamingo at Lake Bogoria, Kenya. They get their colouring from pigments in the organisms they eat

Yellow-billed oxpeckers roost between a giraffe’s legs during the night. Giraffes are their favourite source of ticks and parasites to eat

  •  Seven Worlds, One Planet starts on 27 October on BBC1.
  •  Seven Worlds One Planet by Jonny Keeling & Scott Alexander is published by BBC Books, £25. To order a copy for £20 (20% discount), call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk. Free delivery on all orders. Offer valid until 02/11/2019

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