Life in Cold Blood
The last of David Attenborough’s “Life” series, and the first to be filmed entirely in high definition video. David is 83 now, and though he looks as hale and hearty as ever, it’s probably time to hang it up. Besides, what is there that he hasn’t covered? (We’ve seen and loved all of them but “The Private Life of Plants,” and that’s only because for some inexplicable reason it isn’t available on Region One DVD.) David is still the world’s champion camera hog, absolutely determined to get into every shot he possibly can, which is delightful. Just watch him facing down a giant monitor lizard in Australia, or a spitting cobra in Africa. And his delivery is still as distinctive as anyone since Julia Child. His arms semaphore, his body jerks up and down like a robot, but when the occasion requires it he can sit still long enough for moss to grow on his head. These are all endearing traits; David wouldn’t be David without them.
This series is about reptiles and amphibians, and as usual he runs the gamut from the largest (the leatherback turtle; I would have thought it was the anaconda) to the smallest, the pygmy leaf chameleon, which could circumnavigate your thumbnail with room to spare. There are many marvels along the way.
1. “The Cold-Blooded Truth.” An overview and introduction. The overriding concern for all reptiles is regulation of body temperature. They can live in the hottest places on Earth, but they have to be careful. For amphibians it is keeping their skin moist. Neither of them waste energy like mammals do. We see a python swallowing an antelope that is many times larger than its mouth. It takes him most of the day to get it down. That meal will last him up to a year.
Each episode has something called “Under the Skin” at the end, which deals with how they got the footage they got, and I love stuff like that.
2. “Land Invaders.” Amphibians. Would you believe there is an actual marsupial frog, in Australia? There is! The world’s frogs are in deep, deep trouble. They are dying off everywhere, and no one is quite sure why. It seems to be different reasons, but there is a real possibility that most of them will be gone in our lifetimes. Well, maybe not mine, but the younger people alive today. David and his crew filmed the actual very last Panamanian golden frogs in the wild; after they left, scientists gathered up every one of them to save them from an advancing deadly fungus, hoping to keep them alive until they can figure out a way to save them. Good luck. I’m not optimistic.
3. “Dragons of the Dry.” Lizards. Again, all sorts of interesting stuff, but the star is the Australian shingleback, a fat and slow lizard that, almost alone among reptiles, bonds for life, returning to the same mate every year. How slow are they? A researcher interviewed in “Under the Skin” says, “Driving along, you spot one a hundred yards down the road, and you know you’ve got him.” This guy knows hundreds of shinglebacks as individuals. Of course, as they like to bask on the highway, like snakes, they get run over a lot.
4. “Sophisticated Serpents.” David claims no one had ever filmed a timber rattler actually striking and consuming its prey. Seems hard to believe—they are quite common—but they hunt at night, and are hard to find and film in those conditions, so it could be true. They used remote cameras and infrared film, and caught one killing a mouse. The mouse leaps into the air and I thought it had escaped, but that was a spectacular muscle convulsion from being pumped full of enough venom to kill a cat or a dog.
5. “Armoured Giants.” Turtles and crocodiles. It’s only recently that we’ve learned that alligators and caimans care for their young for a considerable time after they’ve hatched. We see an attempted gang rape among sea turtles, with the original male clinging to the female, both of them literally at risk for their lives as four other males try to dislodge the male and/or keep him underwater until he drowns. This is one determined suitor, though. He hangs on, and they make it to the surface. At the end we see “Lonesome George,” the rarest animal on Earth.
He’s a Galapagos Pinta Island Tortoise, and there are no others. They died off when feral goats stripped his island down to the bare dirt, before someone finally decided to kill all the goats. (Our domesticated animals and accidentally imported pests have wreaked havoc all through the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand, particularly house cats and rats.) The vegetation is back, but George is all alone. He may get the last laugh on us, though. He’s only somewhere between 60 and 90 years old, and could last another century. Do you think we’ll still be around in a century? I wouldn’t bet on it, at the rate we’re destroying our planet.