Life In Cold Blood
Armoured Giants – programme five
The intimate lives of some of the largest and most impressive animals alive today – crocodiles, turtles and tortoises – are revealed in Armoured Giants, the final programme in this landmark series. All of them are covered in thick scales that have turned into armour, yet, despite their tough exteriors, these animals are capable of astonishing behaviour and warm-hearted interaction.
David Attenborough begins the story of these ancient armoured giants in the Galapagos Islands among the beautiful volcanic mists, where he finds the biggest and most long-lived of all reptiles – the giant tortoises. Observing the difficulties they face, David says: "Making love in a suit of armour is not easy." Luckily, these tortoises have a solution – their shells are specially shaped so that the mating pair fit together like spoons.
Green turtles mate in the water and face a different problem. Filmed in exquisite detail, a mass of green turtles in a stunning tropical blue sea passionately fight for a mate. The tension increases as several males frantically jostle to attach themselves to the female, almost drowning her in the process. Eventually, the attacking males give up and the mating pair breaks free to take a life-saving breath of air.
In Australia, David reveals newly-discovered behaviour. On a flooded road by a small river, over 40 huge saltwater crocodiles gather and work together to feast on migrating fish. Just like bears feeding on salmon, they gather together especially for this event and dramatically pick off fish as they leap through the air. This is remarkable behaviour, since these crocodiles are highly territorial and have to suppress their aggression when they are massed together.
And there are surprising moments of compassion, too. Perhaps most touching of all is a female spectacled caiman, which has to escape the onset of a drought while looking after a whole crèche of babies belonging to other caiman mothers. Their only chance of survival is if she can lead them on a migration across a parched wasteland fraught with danger. The female rises to the challenge and leads the youngsters to a new life-saving pool of water.
Finally, David concludes that the primitive reputation of reptiles and amphibians is far from the truth. In fact, they are very sophisticated – especially in the way they use energy. David says: "At a time when we ourselves are becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which we get our energy from the environment, and the wasteful way in which we use it, maybe there are things that we can learn from Life In Cold Blood."
Under The Skin – The End Of An Era
David Attenborough returns to the Galapagos to meet the rarest reptile in the world – a giant tortoise, the last of his kind, called Lonesome George. Each island in the Galapagos is home to a different race of tortoise; each with a different shell shape that suits them best to exploit the food available on their particular island.
Over the years, the tortoises have been hunted as food and some are now critically endangered. George is the very last individual from Pinta Island and it is very likely that his race is doomed to extinction. The search for a mate has been on for over 30 years. For the other tortoises, there may be some hope because scientists on the islands are working to preserve these ancient pillars of Darwinian history. Some are hatched at the Charles Darwin Research Station and reared until 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 survival of the 5ft-long giant salamanders. Panamanian golden frogs are now believed to be extinct in the wild. Gharial crocodiles are facing extinction in India's crowded rivers and gopher tortoises are fighting a losing battle with developers in Florida.
Lonesome George is an iconic figure among endangered animals – a living symbol for reptiles and amphibians that have been pushed to the edge of survival by human threats but at the same time a testament to the hard work of scientists working to help them. It is likely that it will all come too late to save him, but, as David says: "At least he can be a living inspiration to us all to protect the remainder of the reptiles and amphibians of the world."
- Giant tortoises are among the oldest living creatures on Earth and can live to be at least 150 years old. So, David Attenborough is much younger than some of the Galapagos tortoises he has been filmed with!
- Giant Galapagos tortoises use volcanoes as a very improbable hot water bottle to warm their huge bodies.
- Ornate box turtles can shut their shells completely with a trap door. Predators like racoons are unable to open the shell. Of course, one downside is that the turtle can't see when the predator has gone so has to check carefully before emerging.
- Alligators have more recorded sounds than any other reptile.
- The female broad-snouted caiman is a model mother – she helps her youngsters dig their way out of the nest, lifts them gently in her jaws, carries them to the water and carefully releases them. She even takes unhatched eggs down to the water and gently opens them by turning them in her huge teeth – like cracking a nut successfully with a sledge hammer.
- The spectacled caiman shows extreme parental care. The females leave groups of babies together in nursery pools to be looked after by a single female babysitter – maybe as many as 100 babies. She will protect them and even lead them to a new source of water when their pools dry up.