Hidden Kingdoms

Confirmed for BBC One on 16 January at 8.00pm to 9.00pm

Ep 1/3

Thursday 16 January



What a tiny grasshopper mouse lacks in stature, it makes up for in attitude.

It’s a fearsome creature capable of disarming the desert's deadliest scorpions and venomous giant centipedes twice its size. It warns others of its presence like a tiny wolf, standing on hind legs, throwing back its head and howling at the moon. Its home in the Sonoran desert is not only a world of relentless heat and bleached-out sunlight, but a realm of reptiles, ruled over by a posse of pack-hunting Harris Hawks. When you are a few inches tall, the desert becomes a real life Jurassic Park.

In new BBC One series Hidden Kingdoms we follow the story of a young male on the verge of independence. After avoiding rattlesnakes and tarantulas, he becomes separated from his home and family during a flash flood. Grasshopper mice are nocturnal by nature, and when he finds himself unexpectedly homeless and exposed during the desert day, he faces the unfamiliar dangers of this inhospitable place.

The power and athleticism of the tiniest creatures escapes our notice until the Hidden Kingdom cameras get close to the action.

A ring-tailed lizard and a collared lizard accelerate so fast that they end up running on two legs - an adaptation that allows for greater speed. Using miniature tracking cameras alongside them as they run reveals that the highly developed extensor muscles in their rear legs not only give them speed but the ability to leap many times their own body length.

In Africa, an elephant shrew (known by its African name of 'sengi') spends its whole life on the run. Unlike most small mammals, it doesn’t have a burrow to shelter in, but instead constantly races through the miniature jungle of the savannah grasslands. The sengi must survive in the world literally beneath the feet of some of the largest and most deadly animals on Earth. The sengi’s answer is to rely on its incredible speed and some remarkable trail-building skills. A sengi constructs a meticulously maintained network of tiny trackways through the undergrowth, using them to race through its territory in search of food, and evade even the fastest predators. But while these trails are the source of a sengi’s strength, they are also its greatest weakness - the racetrack is a prison: without it, the sengi cannot survive in the dense undergrowth.

We follow the story of a young sengi when her mother goes missing and she inherits the family ‘estate’. She learns how to use the trails to hunt food and sidestep Africa’s giant animals. Keeping the trails clean and tidy, even if blocked by a pile of elephant dung and the attendant army of dung beetles, is only half her job. She must also be on the look out for danger from both within and outside her miniature world. As the dry season reaches its peak, the young sengi finds herself, and her trails, in the path of a herd of stampeding wildebeest and a raging bushfire.

It isn't just lightning reflexes or incredible muscles (though both of those feature in the series) - instead, it's also down to being meticulously tidy. Sengis owe their speed to a network of miniature racetracks they build in the savannah, spending half their waking hours sweeping aside every last piece of debris to create the perfect, pristine racetrack on which to exhibit their cheetah-beating speed. It was only by earning the trust of a wild sengi in purpose-built filming territories that the team were able to film the fastidious nature of the sengi in such detail.

When the tracks were clear, the combination of low-level tracking and ultra high-speed cameras reveals not only their extraordinary speed but that, compared to a reptile, a sengi has greater ability to change direction – negotiating the twists and turns in the track with barely a break in speed.