South America

South America - the most species rich continent on Earth.

Published: 22 October 2019
You’ve got this one continent which covers only 12% of land on Earth, and yet it has 40% of all species on the planet.
— Chadden Hunter

From the volcanoes of the Andes to the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, animals here must specialise to carve out a niche.

In Patagonia, a puma mother draws on a lifetime’s experience to catch prey three times her weight. In the cloud forest, rarely seen Andean bears clamber thirty metres into the canopy to find elusive fruit. Poison dart frogs use ingenious methods to keep their tadpoles safe, whilst anacondas stalk capuchin monkeys. At Igauzu, swifts make death-defying flights through one of the biggest waterfalls on Earth.

Stories from filming

Number of days filming: 332

  • Camera operator Howard Bourne got an eye infection from penguin poo blowing into it! Filming crew also had to resort to walking around in wooden hides to get close to penguins. Strangely the penguins were afraid of humans but not a box with legs... fitting all the filming kit whilst trying to carry it was a bit of a challenge.
  • The team were outsmarted by Andean bears as they schlepped all the kit up mountains to 4,000m to leave camera traps only to come back to the traps and find they had messed around with them (one was thrown down a hill)!
  • Camera operator Bertie Gregory was busy setting up a drone on a mountainside, when all of a sudden he felt like he was being watched, and turned around to find a puma standing three metres away.
  • While filming macaws the crew were attacked by a swarm of bees that pull your hair out!

Filming locations and species

1. Puma and guanaco - Chile
2. Humboldt penguin and sea lion - Peru
3. Andean bear - Ecuador
4. Cotton-top tamarin - Columbia
5. Blue manakin - Brazil
6. Poison dart frogs - Peru
7. Scarlet macaw - Peru
8. Piraputanga, brown capuchin and anaconda - Brazil
9. Swifts - Brazil and Argentina

Facts on species featured

  • Adult male poison dart frogs are no bigger than a human thumbnail
  • Scarlet macaw couples bond for life and may stick together for over 40 years
  • Anacondas are the largest of all snakes and can grow to over 200kg
  • Pumas live further south than any other cat in the world and can run up to 80kmph
  • Guanacos can walk within five minutes of being born
  • Eyes and nostrils on the top part of an anacondas head allow them to remain almost fully submerged in the water and can remain submerged for up to ten minutes at a time

South America: did you know?

  • Patagonia to Venezuela is the world’s longest mountain range
  • Angel Falls is the highest waterfall in the world, almost a kilometre from top to bottom
  • The Amazon carries more water than the world’s next seven biggest rivers combined
  • Up to 20 million litres of water tumble over the Iguazu falls every second

An interview with Chadden Hunter, producer of South America

Tell us about South America and the animals you encountered there...

Seven Worlds, One Planet is a series about diversity and there is nowhere more diverse than South America. You've got this one continent which covers only 12% of land on Earth, and yet it has 40% of all species on the planet. In a relatively small continent it’s got the world's longest mountain range and the world's biggest rainforest; it's got deserts and ice caps and all sorts of creatures that we haven't filmed before.

It is a treasure chest for a wildlife filmmaker, and we wanted to celebrate that diversity, which meant trying to get to all corners of the continent. We go to the far southern tip in Patagonia, we go to the Amazon, we go to the Andes. Alongside the geographic diversity we also wanted to get a kaleidoscopic range of animals in there. So many different types of animal have had to specialize to survive in this crowded world. Our question was: what do you need to do to carve your own niche or find your own way?

One story for instance, is about the poison dart frog. It's a tiny little thing, only the size of your thumbnail and yet to find its own niche in the rainforest it's had to come up with the most ingenious parenting strategies. The dad will carry around individual tadpoles on piggyback and drop them in individual ‘cups’ of water in amongst leaves throughout the rainforest. Then he has to remember where he put them all and he has to go and check on them individually. Even though he is so small, he has to scale these huge trees - but he can't feed the tadpoles himself. Instead he has to go and call his partner and basically guide her to each one of the tadpoles and then she lays an unfertilized egg, on which the tadpole can feed. It’s this heartwarming story of these wonderful parents and this unique thing that they're doing. The Amazon is so rich, the most diverse forest on the planet and yet each creature there is doing some utterly remarkable things, trying to specialize to get ahead.

Are there any standout stories about biodiversity in the South America film?

We heard of this one moth, this unique black and orange striped thing, that’s only found in one tiny patch of forest in Peru and it's not even really protected. Once that forest gets logged that's it - they'll be extinct in the wild. It felt like a quite timely species to go and film because it's right on the edge.

How important is new technology to your work?

Because we use very large sensors these days to compete with Hollywood and big dramas, that creates such a challenge for our lenses. It's all very well in a drama where you are just filming a room but of course we're trying to film things in the field; we're trying to stretch lens technology to the absolute nth degree. For macro photography we're now dealing with these things called scopes and tubes, which sometimes could be a metre long and look like a cardboard toilet roll holder. It's something to do with the optics of trying to get your lens right beside a creature the size of a thumbnail and still capture enough light to spread across the sensor. That’s a real challenge in the rainforest.

Which sequence in South America was the most challenging to film?

We wanted to film these mountains called Tepui in Venezuela. They're these flat-top mountains that are the inspiration for the Paradise Falls scenery in the film Up.

Angel Falls comes off the top of one and that's the largest waterfall in the world. Now, no one had been to film there for about 15 years and Venezuela's been enduring a lot of unrest. We wanted to use these mountains as a microcosm of South America's richness and uniqueness, by showing that one flat top mountain can be home to more species of plants and animals than in all Britain… and the very next mountain can have completely different plants and animals.

We went at the very end of the wet season when there was still going to be swirling clouds around and the waterfalls would still be big, but it meant that the flying conditions were really hairy - clouds underneath us, above us, beside us. We had an incredible helicopter pilot who was careful but talented. We would pop through one cloud bank and there would be massive waterfalls above us. We'd pop through other cloud banks and there would be canyons and spires and dark rocks with rainforest water pouring off them. It was like a science fiction film: you really expected dinosaurs to be roaming around.

I wanted to do a shot where we were looking at the falls and falling with the water as the helicopter dropped. We were getting buffeted around because the wind roars off the top of these Tepui and is really, really dangerous. But the results are worth it - we’ve got stunning footage of these beautiful, mystical looking worlds.

On location with Seven Worlds, One Planet

Puma hunting guanaco in Chilean Patagonia
by Benji Wilson

In the southern tip of South America the Andes rise like bones from a carcass. The landscape in the Torres Del Paine national park is both severe and spectacular. Once you leave the single road it is not the easiest place for a film crew to get around but that is the challenge the team from the South America episode have set themselves.

Their goal is to film puma; the puma’s goal is to hunt and kill guanaco, a relative of the camel that, most notably, is two metres tall and at least three times the size of a puma. It is 'the continent’s most challenging prey', according to episode producer Chadden Hunter. Cameraman John Shier has been coming here for eight years. He’s never witnessed a successful puma hunt.

The team start early. A dawn of peach-pinks and purples with surreal lenticular clouds is startling but, as series producer Scott Alexander puts it: “The guys are so focussed on the pumas they don’t even notice the sunrise.”

“This,” says camera operator Bertie Gregory as he looks out to the 90 square kilometres of glacial blue that is Lake Sarmiento, “is puma paradise.” There are gulleys and caves in the sedimentary rock for resting, and then down by the lake layers of calcium deposits have created a natural nursery for young puma. At dawn the cats move as a family from their resting places by the lake to their hunting grounds in the plains and hills. This is when the team’s ace spotter, Diego, plans to pick them up and track them.

The easiest way to spot a puma, it turns out, is to ask Diego to spot one for you. He has been coming here for 15 years and has a preternatural ability to separate well-camouflaged big cats from bushes and tufts of grass. There is another way, he tells me: watch the herds of grazing guanaco. They see the puma first because if they don’t, they are dead.

“You need to know where to hang out, read well the signs… And then be patient,” says Diego.

Much of wildlife photography is watching and waiting. As Seven Worlds, One Planet executive producer Jonny Keeling puts it: “To watch an animal and to try and work out what the animal is doing, when it's going to do it and anticipate that in a way that you can then film it… that is one of the greatest pleasures. It’s the ultimate in mindfulness: when you stand there, you're just watching and watching and listening.”

For several hours in the Torres Del Paine national park that is exactly what we are doing. I can’t see anything; Diego instantly points to a guanaco up on the ridge:

“Tranquillo,” he says. Which means there are no puma nearby.

Today, on location, patience is a necessity not only for the guanaco and puma but for the team too. One of the lead cars keeps overheating. It is the one with the Cineflex giro-stabilised camera mounted on the bonnet (so that the camera itself hangs at headlight height, tracking the animals at their eye-level so the viewer feels immersed in the hunt). But with the car overheating the metal rig holding the stabilised camera has become welded to the car’s bumper. So the Cineflex is out of action; we head out on foot.

Roberto, another of the ace spotters, catches sight of a female called Rupestra. She is down by the lake with her two cubs. Though a large part of the Seven Worlds, One Planet team’s task here is to film a puma hunting a guanaco, for natural history film-making these days merely photographing the kill is not enough. The sequence has to come with context and a story. In this case pumas are a good news story: Recent conservation efforts in the national park have provided the cats with a safe haven from hunting by humans. Numbers are increasing. But families of cats like Rupestra’s will only flourish if they can find food - this is why the guanaco hunt is still central to the story.

Down by the lake one of Rupestra’s cubs appears to be playing a game with the other. It is hiding down among the warren of calcium deposits, waiting for its sibling to amble by and then ambushing it. Bertie Gregory, the crew’s drone pilot, quickly unpacks his machine and sends it skywards with its quiet whine and peculiar tilted glide. Now the puma are on the move, skirting the shore. They head north towards the hills with Bertie’s drone following them in and out of the mata negra bushes. He controls the drone and its camera with two iPads and two remote controls, fingers and thumbs working in precise consort (he later admits to having honed his skills on Playstation). He tracks Rupestra and family for nearly 20 minutes, until he suddenly presses a single button and the drone returns home.

“The drones have a habit of choosing the worst times for a firmware update.”

We change batteries and walk another half mile to a new position. John Shier is way ahead in the distance - Shier is known as Robocop to the team. He works on foot, yomping all day through the shrubland with a heavy tripod and long lens film camera over his shoulder. He radios back to tell us about a herd of guanaco 70 strong and once again Bertie Gregory sends up the drone. Quickly he is able to film a tracking shot where the camera pulls back to frame the guanaco with the ‘torres’ of the torres del paine behind them - three vast granite peaks like rotten giant’s teeth.

“That,” says Gregory with his face glued to a viewfinder, “is one nuts backdrop.”

John Shier, meanwhile, has circled back down to the shore. There’s a single guanaco that has attracted Rupestra’s interest. She has laid down stock still by a bush. When the guanaco, still more than 100 metres away, puts its head down to eat, the puma creeps towards it, so slowly as to be barely moving at all. When the guanaco lifts its head, the puma stops. It is a game of grandmother’s footsteps, albeit one with fatal consequences - for both the guanaco and the puma with mouths to feed, a hunt could mean life or death.

John Shier radios Bertie Gregory. The drone is up within minutes, only 30 feet overhead, yet neither the guanaco nor the puma, senses on high alert, are disturbed. The stand-off continues, the puma approaching metre by metre, the crew all silent now, waiting and hoping. And then the guanaco raises its head, makes a strange guttural noise and skips off out of range.

“That’s the alarm call,” says producer Scott Alexander. “They’ve clocked Rupestra.”

So the hunt is off but the shoot goes on. The puma head back down to the lakeside and the mother instigates more play time. The cubs scrap over a bone, they bundle their mum, they play the ambush game again, and all the while John Shier films them at eye level while Bertie Gregory’s drone looks on from above. They shoot until the light runs out, because the family story is important too.

“Sometimes,” says producer Chadden Hunter back at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, “there are animals that have been elusive or shy for so long because of human pressures. It's nice to find some stories where they've found a safe haven and they're feeling more relaxed.”

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