Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures

nick baker’s weird creatures
the mimic octopus (8/8)

Concluding his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another of the planet’s strangest beasts. In this evening’s finale, he heads to Indonesia in search of the mimic octopus, which is supposedly capable of changing its colour and shape to copy other animals and blend in with its surroundings.

Nick explores an underwater kingdom of surprises this week, as he travels to the Lembeh Strait off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Nick’s goal is to find the mimic octopus, a chameleon of the deep that can apparently impersonate other creatures that share its environment. The octopus was only discovered in 1998, when a paper detailing its remarkable skills set off a frenzy of research amongst marine biologists.

Nick explains that the mimic’s talents are thought to lie in its use of a connective layer between the skin and the muscle that helps it change shape. Like chameleons, the mimic also boasts pigmented skin cells which stretch and compress to change the creature’s colour. “These are bold claims about an octopus,” Nick says. “I need to see this with my own eyes.”

The Lembeh Strait is one of the best places in the world to find this rare octopus, and Nick enlists the help of local guides and a trio of top underwater cameramen. Taking his first dive into the clear blue waters, Nick encounters a sea bed of black volcanic sand which soon begins to seethe with life.

Amongst the creatures on display are pygmy sea horses, which cling virtually unnoticed to sea ferns. Nearby, Nick finds a pair of pipe fish that are almost identical to the seaweed around them. But even more impressive is an Ambon scorpion fish, which resembles a walking coral. “This, for me, is state-of-the-art, advanced camouflage,” Nick says, as the fish hobbles across the sea bed.

Nick’s first foray underwater has demonstrated the importance of camouflage for the strait’s inhabitants. But he is quick to point out their limitations: “These creatures can’t leave their costumes behind. They’re fixed,” he says. “This is where the mimic excels – it has more than one trick to help it disappear.” Yet Nick is impressed by the wealth of activity on the seemingly barren sea floor. “That place is heaving with life,” he says.

Acting on a tip-off, Nick heads to the other side of the strait, where he encounters a tiny cuttlefish with strobing colours on its skin, and a striped sea snake which is a cousin of the cobra – and just as deadly. “Fortunately for me, the only thing that matches this snake’s toxicity is its friendliness,” he says. Nick knows he is getting close when he finds a striped octopus that is a cousin of the mimic and bears the funkiest name of all: a “Wonderpus photogenicus”. Nick watches in delight as the Wonderpus spreads its tentacles into a net and encloses one of its prey.

Nick’s patience is finally rewarded when he spots a mimic and gives pursuit across the sea bed. As he chases his prey, the octopus takes on the form of a flounder – cleverly disguising itself as its own predator. “If you’re mimicking your predator, then your predator might not want to touch you,” Nick explains. The mimic then adopts a traditional octopus shape in order to give Nick the slip, spraying him with ink for good measure. When he catches up with his target, he observes it performing a highly accurate impersonation of another sea creature, a crinoid.

Nick leaves his quarry in peace, impressed by its talents and delighted with the underwater world of the Lembeh strait. “For me, this will always be the home of… the most mysterious weird creatures,” he reflects.

nick baker’s weird creatures
the night stalker (7/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another of the planet’s strangest beasts. In this evening’s programme, he heads to Madagascar in search of a vision from his childhood nightmares – the extremely rare aye aye lemur, or Night Stalker.

“Now you may laugh,” says Nick Baker at the beginning of his latest quest, “but as a child I had recurring nightmares about one of the world’s rarest lemurs… to me, this animal was terrifying.” Nick is talking about the aye aye lemur, an extraordinary nocturnal primate indigenous to the island of Madagascar. The aye aye’s wide eyes, bat-like ears, rodent-style incisors and long fingers combine to create its striking appearance.

Madagascar is a haven of unusual beasts, home to some 70 different species of lemur. The island’s unique wildlife has developed in isolation ever since it broke away from a larger land mass some 180 million years ago. Its species have evolved to fill “ecological niches” in the island’s wildlife that would normally be filled by other mammals.

At first glance, Nick admits that the aye aye is an exceedingly odd animal. “You’re not supposed to look like this if you’re a primate,” he says. Dr Anna Nekaris of the Natural History Museum describes them as “a contradiction to every rule”. “It’s got huge ears like a bat,” she says. “It’s got incisors like a rodent and it’s very rare that another animal other than a rodent should have these continually growing incisors.”

The aye aye is an endangered species because of its low birth rate and negative image in local folklore. Nick learns that Madagascar is full of “fadys” or taboos concerning aye ayes, including the rule that if you see one, you will immediately die, unless you kill it yourself. Other superstitions include the belief that if an aye aye comes to your village, everyone must decamp to avoid bad luck. These fadys, along with the lemur’s habit of attacking crops, mean that they often suffer brutal treatment from humans.

As he ventures into the forests of Madagascar, Nick encounters some of the aye aye’s cousins, including mouse lemurs, golden bamboo lemurs and indri lemurs, who live in the tree tops and call to each other every morning.

But Nick is determined to locate the legendary Night Stalker, which he describes as a “hodgepodge of an animal”. “It’s about the size of a cat, with the ears of a bat, the snout of a rabbit, the tail of a squirrel, the teeth of a rat and hands which could be straight out of a horror film,” he says. Nick travels first to the dense rainforests on the island of Nosy Mangabe, set up as a reserve for aye ayes in the 1950s, before heading to the promisingly named Aye Aye Island.

At last, Nick catches his quarry on film when he coaxes an aye aye out of the trees with a coconut. Meanwhile, Dr Nekaris provides further astonishing details about the creature’s biology, including its promiscuous mating system and lengthy sexual couplings – the longest of any primate. Nick also points out the curious location of the aye aye’s nipples – in the groin area. “Her nipples aren’t in the right place, certainly not for a primate,” he says. “Why? Well, nothing else about the aye aye is standard, so why not?”

Nick also has a chance to watch the aye aye forage for food when it plants its ear against a tree and taps for hollow areas. Once the aye aye finds the right spot, it bites through the bark and extracts grubs with its long middle finger.

Having confronted the demon of his dreams, a delighted Nick is able to revise his impression. “It’s rare, it’s special and it’s surprising,” he declares. “The weirdest of the weird!”

nick baker’s weird creatures
the frankenstein fish (6/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another of the planet’s strangest beasts. In this evening’s programme, he goes in search of the wels catfish: the largest freshwater fish in the western world.

“This one is going to be a real challenge,” says Nick. “This is a quest for a real monster!” Knowing that seeing one of these giants in its own environment will be the best way to learn about the animal’s natural behaviour, he wants to find out more about it – and catch the big one. He certainly has a difficult job on his hands: it will not be easy to spot the wels catfish in the murky waters of its natural habitat.

The wels catfish is found in some 150 lakes and rivers in the UK and can also be found in central, southern and eastern Europe. In his quest to find one, Nick first heads for East Sussex, in southern England. He is going to the Withy Pool fishing lake, which is home to a UK record-breaking wels catfish weighing a whopping 62 pounds. On the way, he picks up his ‘secret weapon’ – his father, who he hopes will be able to pass on some fishing tips. Having not fished for 25 years, Nick knows he could use some assistance…

Arriving at the fishing lake, Nick gets ready to explore the three-acre, 30-foot-deep freezing waters while his dad settles down for a spot of fishing from the safety of the banks. Nick is surprised to find the water near the edge teeming with life, including insects and tiny fish, but further down, the fauna is not so abundant. He later sees a huge school of small fish being observed by a pike, which Nick describes as a “perfect predator”. Negotiating these murky waters is difficult, but a catfish would have no problem thanks to its incredible sensors – whiskery barbels designed to test vibrations and tastes in the water. After spotting two big perch, Nick looks up to see two catfish. “Aren’t they great!” he exclaims, just before seeing a giant carp swimming past. “It’s so special for me to see an animal in its own environment like this.”

The Withy Pool catfish are big, but Nick realises that he is going to have to go further afield to find the true monsters. At a pub called the Angler’s Retreat, he hears stories of giant fish caught on Spain’s River Ebro. One of them apparently had two cormorants in its belly when it was brought in!

To find out if there is any truth in these tales, Nick and his father travel to Spain to see for themselves. The Ebro is the Mecca of the catfishing world, thanks to a German fisherman who introduced a handful of wels catfish back in 1974. Like the carp, another introduced species, the wels catfish is hardy and can survive in low-oxygen environments like the polluted Ebro. However, the local people are not so happy about the river’s abundant catfish population, as it has reduced the stock of native fish dramatically – and Nick shares their concerns.

Continuing his quest for a monster wels catfish, Nick meets some ex-pat fishermen and women at a British pub near the river. He is regaled with more stories, including the tale of a 90-pounder caught by one proud Scottish lady. The anglers join Nick and his dad for a fishing contest – and soon beat them by landing a 31-pounder.

The next day, the group heads to a nearby hydroelectric dam – a prime catfishing location because of the way the churned-up water creates what Nick calls a “seafood bisque” for the giant fish to hoover up. Suddenly, Nick’s dad gets a bite – and is fighting the fish on the end of his line for over ten minutes. “I’ve never had to depend on my father for an animal to end a film with,” says Nick. “No pressure, Dad!” Could this be the monster for which Nick has been waiting?

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