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24 September 2014
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Life In Cold Blood


Behind the scenes: programme two


Babies that eat their own mother's skins

 

Skin eating behaviour in caecilians is a recent discovery – a scientist in Africa collecting caecilians noticed some strange behaviour in a bucket of soil. David and the team were very excited about filming it, but even the experts had no knowledge of when and how frequently it occurred.

 

The producer, Hilary Jeffkins, and cameraman, Alistair MacEwen, were advised to travel to Brazil to try and film it in a species there – siphopus annulatus. On arrival, the caecilian scientist confirmed that he had never seen the behaviour, but the fact that the youngsters had large-hooked teeth was very significant.

 

Caecilians breed in shallow humid chambers beneath the soil and are light- and humidity-sensitive creatures that can be easily disturbed. So, the scientists recommended building natural sets for the mothers and their youngsters to allow filming with the minimum of disturbance.

 

Several sets were built and the caecilians settled in well, but still any movement or light caused them to burrow down. The cameramen set up an infrared camera and cool lights to minimise disturbance. But which clutch of caecilian babies would skin feed, and would it be the ones in the set with the camera?

 

The behaviour was thought to last several hours so there was a chance of catching it. Amazingly, it happened – but in the wrong set. So, in order to catch it, a 24-hour caecilian watch was set up to establish their feeding patterns.

 

The team had alternate three-hour shifts of watching and sleeping – on the benches in the scientist's lab. Don't let anyone tell you wildlife filming is glamorous! But the results were incredible. The skin eating occurred every three days or so, but lasted for only ten minutes – and was often at night.

 

Also, for the first time, the female was seen feeding her young with a rich, milk-like secretion.

 

Marsupial frog father gives birth on New Year's Eve

 

The Life In Cold Blood team was amazed to hear about the male marsupial frog – with pouches on its hips to carry its developing tadpoles that later popped out as tiny frogs. But catching the exact moment that the tadpoles crawled into the pouches, and then emerged, was tricky.

 

The team was working with scientists at studying this behaviour in their own breeding colony and they had to advise the Australian cameraman, Mark Lamble, when to film. But, even they had rarely seen the behaviour during their years of study.

 

The cameramen needed to be on hand the minute things started, and a fast filming plan was at the ready. But there were problems – the cameramen had other work, too, so another was put on put on standby. At last, the tadpoles looked near to hatching and Mark headed over.

 

The scientific team helped with the watch, and, after several days, the tadpoles crawled into the pouches and he successfully filmed it.

 

It would be another month before the male "gave birth" to the froglets, and the due date was inconveniently between Christmas and New Year. Mark arrived the day before New Year's Eve, and he was still waiting. The volunteer frog watchers had all disappeared to celebrate.

 

On New Year's Eve, the marsupial frog finally "gave birth" – an amazing start to Mark's New Year.

 


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