Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures

Friday 23 February, 20.00–21.00 on FIVE

Ending its run this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series in which naturalist Nick Baker scours the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this final programme, Nick is on the trail of the fastest – and strangest – nose in natural history.

The creature in question is the star-nosed mole and, as ever, Nick first heads to the Natural History Museum to find out more about its background and lifestyle. He learns that its strange ‘nose’ actually has more to do with touch than with smell, allowing it to assess and devour a small food item in less than quarter of a second. The mole eats many thousands of such morsels a day, fuelling a rapacious metabolism.

To see the creature in its natural habitat, however, Nick must travel to Manitoba, Canada – one of the world’s greatest wildernesses. The first step of his trip entails stocking up on mosquito repellent, mesh ‘bug jackets’, anti-bear pepper spray, and waders – purchases that hint at the unpleasantness of the environment he will be working in. He also picks up 500 earthworms to use as bait.

Then it’s off to his final destination: Bird Lake, Nopiming, around 150 km northeast of Winnipeg. “This is the Canada you see in the movies,” he says of the stunning landscape. “It’s the land of the moose, the elk, the loon and the bear.” But the animal he is looking for is more elusive, living entirely beyond human view. Its specific habitat requirements – marshy land with good cover – mean that filming one will involve catching it in a trap. Nick is given a quick lesson in the art of the mole trap by University of Manitoba zoologists Kevin Campbell and Roman Gusztak, and the three spend a sweaty afternoon in waders and rubber gloves, digging holes for the 40–50 traps they plan to set. Nick, while complaining of the hot, mosquito-ridden conditions, is briefly cheered when he notices “a really sexy spider”.

After a punishing day’s digging, all that remains is to wait until nightfall, when the team return to see if their traps are full. Unfortunately, the rainy conditions seem to have put off the star-nosed moles, and a couple of shrews are all the team has to show for its efforts. They plan to give it another go next day, although Nick heads for bed in the grim knowledge that this will mean another few hours of digging.

Determined to make the most of the next day, the crew don’t restrict themselves to trap-setting, but also look out for some of the bigger icons of the Northern Forest – bears and beavers. In fact, there is so much wildlife here that Nick doesn’t know where to look next.“I could sit here for ages,” he grins while surveying a nearby toad. “I’m having biodiversity meltdown!”

But once night falls, he is in a more sober mood as he heads back to check the traps again. The team has done all it can and now, in a dank, bugridden swamp, Nick could be about to meet the creature he has described as ‘Wind in the Willows’ meets ‘Alien’…

Friday 16 February: 20.00–21.00

Continuing this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series in which naturalist Nick Baker scours the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this programme, Nick is on home territory on the trail of the basking shark, the second-largest fish in the world.

Statistically, the best place to spot a basking shark in the UK is off the coast of Cornwall, so it is from the Lizard peninsula that Nick sets off, along with local shark expert John Nightingale and boat captain Barry Mundy. Although initially promising, the weather soon takes a typically British turn, and the hunt is called off. Not only does such rough weather limit visibility, but it churns and disperses the plankton, prompting the basking shark to head for deeper water in its relentless search for food. The day is not a complete washout, however – at a secluded inlet, Nick has a chance to swim with a grey seal. At up to three metres long and three hundred kilos, the grey seal is Britain’s largest native mammal – not a bad substitute for the recalcitrant shark… for now.

Nick’s next stop is the laboratory of Dr David Sims, one of the only scientists to have successfully tracked basking sharks. Will Dr Sims’s knowledge and experience lead Nick to the gigantic beast he is seeking? Certainly the team’s next trip starts off well – within a few hundred metres of the harbour, they spot a sunfish, the largest species of bony fish in the world. As they proceed along the Cornish coast, a pod of more than 20 dolphins swims alongside, leaping in and out of the boat’s bow wave. The sharks, however, remain elusive.

Back at the lab, Nick and Dr Sims analyse charts of the sea temperature. Where areas of cold and warm water meet, a ‘tidal front’ or convection current is created, bringing clouds of plankton to the surface. With their keen senses, the basking sharks can detect subtle changes in water temperature, and Dr Sims has tracked sharks following these ‘feeding corridors’ with unerring precision. As the warm water moves north over the summer, Nick decides to follow it, hoping to encounter a bloom in plankton – and shark activity.

The Isle of Mull is known to be a seasonal shark hot spot, and with the right conditions the chances of a sighting are high. The weather is not playing ball, however, and Nick and his team are subjected to a series of bumpy rides off the coast of western Scotland. But just as they are giving up hope, the team meet local shark expert Colin Speedie – and get a tantalising glimpse of a six-metre shark. They follow the animal in a small inflatable, but the high winds and rain lower visibility and they are forced to give up. It’s a sighting, but it’s not the close-up Nick was looking for.

Fearing the shark season will end and leave them high and dry, the team return to Cornwall and are greeted by good news – a large shark has been seen that morning. Although a basking shark’s cruising speed is only three miles per hour, they can disappear in a flash, so the team rush to meet their long-anticipated visitor. Will their persistence be rewarded with a proper sighting of this magnificent animal in clear water?

Friday 9 February: 20.00–21.00

Continuing this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series that sees naturalist Nick Baker scour the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this programme, he travels to India to meet Romulus Whitaker, an American expatriate who is a world authority on crocodiles, and where he comes face to face with some 2,500 crocs.

Despite having been on the planet for many millions of years, relatively little is known about the gharial, and its numbers are dwindling. There are possible references to the creature in Hindu mythology and Roman writing, and it was first officially described by science in 1789. As recently as the 1970s, however, a scientist suggested that such a beast existed only in the human imagination. The gharial has made it onto Nick’s list because of its relative rarity and because it stands out among all other crocodiles. While it is still very large – adults can grow up to six metres in length – the gharial has developed very long, narrow, and highly specialised jaws. Weirdest of all, however, is the fleshy growth – named the ‘ghara’, after an Indian water pot – which sits on the end of the snout in adult males.

The gharial is now only to be found on the Indian subcontinent, but before he flies out, Nick begins his research at his childhood haunt – the Natural History Museum in London. It is at this museum that Nick first fell in love with the diverse world of animals, but now he visits to breathe life into the dried bones and pickled skin of the strangest creatures he can find. Dr Angela Milner of the museum’s palaeontology department explains that while crocodiles may look like dinosaurs, they are only a very distant relative. The gharial, however, may be more closely related to the baryonyx, a dinosaur whose skull also featured the elongated jaw. The gharial, like the baryonyx millions of years before it, has evolved to eat solely fish.

Once out in southern India, Nick meets up with croc expert Romulus Whitaker. Romulus runs a crocodile bank, set up to preserve India’s reptiles, and is in charge of some 2,500 mugger crocs. Along with these more common animals, however, he also keeps gharials, and Nick soon gets his first glimpse of one of the strangest faces in India.

Wanting to get close to the animals but conscious of the fact that they are large predators, Nick is guided to some youngsters which he can examine at length. Pulling one out of the water, Nick remarks that “a gharial in the hand is worth several in the river,” and begins to describe what makes them special. With a very muscular rear end, a wide tail base, and semi-webbed back feet, the animals are designed to propel themselves through water at high speeds. They are also relatively smooth, enabling them to flow through the water without resistance. In fact, the whole design of the animal is geared towards an aquatic life, unlike its cousins.

To learn more about the gharials’ odd jaws, Nick joins Romulus for feeding time. As they throw fish over the side of the adult enclosure, it becomes obvious what the animals are designed to do. With swift, almost untrackable movements, the gharials snap their heads sideways and catch their prey before it hits the water. While in the wild they would not be “catching fish from the sky,” as Nick puts it, the same principles apply. The jaws of the gharials may be thin, but they are lethal.

So now Nick knows why the gharials’ snouts are long, but what of the ghara? After millions of years of evolution had produced such a sleek animal, such an odd protrusion seems to ruin the design. Some theories suggest that the ghara has some sort of feeding application; others lean towards a communicative function. One other suggestion is that the ghara could be a display of male sexual dominance. Could such a bizarre characteristic be the reptilian equivalent of a medallion? Whatever the reason, Nick reflects, nothing in nature lasts unless it has a use.

Friday 2 February: 20.00–21.00

Continuing this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series in which naturalist Nick Baker scours the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this programme, Nick embarks on an expedition to the roof of the world to find the giant saggy-skinned frog of Lake Titicaca.

Nick begins his research at London’s Natural History Museum, where director of science Richard Lane looks after a veritable “treasure trove of oddity”. Among the huge range of animals in the museum are some 80,000 amphibians. It is to these creatures that Nick looks today, hoping to find one that can breathe in high-altitude conditions. But while locating this animal in the museum is relatively easy, spotting one in its natural habitat will be more of a challenge. Lake Titicaca, the setting for the real adventure, is situated some 7,500 miles away from London, two miles high in the Bolivian Andes.

Following in the footsteps of explorer and ecologist Jacques Cousteau, who visited the area in the early 1960s, Nick and his crew travel to La Paz in South America. Here the air is so thin that just walking proves exhausting for Nick. With the whole crew seemingly suffering from altitude sickness, Nick suspects that this may be something of a ‘go-slow’ mission. As the team head out onto the water for the first time, the true extent of their suffering becomes apparent and they are forced to abandon their search early and return to the hotel.

On day two, Nick and the crew seem to be adjusting to the conditions and set off with renewed enthusiasm. Armed with a large cast-iron net and some expert help in the form of Don Ramon, a local Aymaran Indian who served as a guide to Cousteau 40 years ago, Nick heads for the shallow waters between two islands. The water here is crystal clear, but a thick carpet of weeds makes it very difficult to spot any frogs. Nick also finds that because of the lack of oxygen in the air, even the smallest of manoeuvres takes a great effort and operating a simple net becomes a real struggle. But eventually, Nick has some success and nets a small male frog.

Dragging it into the boat with some difficulty, Nick examines the animal and explains that everything about it is geared towards high-altitude life – including its saggy skin, designed to create as big a surface area as possible for the absorption of oxygen. So unusual is the frog’s appearance that when the species was discovered by Garman and Agassiz during an expedition in 1876, it was given the name Telmatobius culeus – ‘aquatic scrotum’ in Latin. But this animal is only a baby. What Nick really wants to find is a giant female which, according to Cousteau, can grow up to two feet in length and weigh two pounds. For this, Nick must get into the water.

After a mammoth struggle to put on his wetsuit, Nick plunges into the freezing water and begins his search in earnest. Unlike the teeming waters described by Cousteau, life in the lake seems surprisingly sparse: in fact, the first frogs Nick spots are dead. One reason for the scarcity of life could be the increased levels of UV radiation resulting from the depletion of the ozone layer; another may be over-fishing of the area by locals keen to exploit demand for rare creatures in popular folk medicines.

Either way, Nick realises that the only hope he has to find a true giant saggy-skinned frog is to become a frogman himself and swim to the murky depths of one of the highest lakes in the world. But since diving in such high altitude is so difficult and with succumbing to ‘the bends’ a very serious danger, will Nick find the monster before both his air and energy run out?

Friday 26 January: 20.00–21.00
Naturalist Nick Baker continues to scour the globe for the strangest creatures on the planet. Tonight he is on the trail of an elusive armour-plated mammal that gets its name from its pale rose colour.

Nick first heard about the pink fairy armadillo as a young boy visiting London’s Natural History Museum. Now, before setting out on his quest, he returns to the museum to find out what little is known about the creature. Director of science Richard Lane tells Nick that armadillos are descendants of glyptodons, tank-like creatures that became extinct thousands of years ago. Like glyptodons, armadillos have an armour of bone but this is arranged in bands rather than the hexagon formations of the glyptodon. Another key difference is size: while glyptodons were the size of small cars, the pink fairy armadillo is just a few inches long.

The rarely seen animal is found in parts of Argentina, where it inhabits dry grasslands and sandy plains. Nick and his crew travel to Mendoza province in western Argentina in the hope of glimpsing one. In a whistle-stop off-road tour of Mendoza’s furthest reaches, they follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who came here on an inland leg of his Beagle voyage 172 years ago. Even locally there are few people with knowledge of pink fairy armadillos, but Mendoza resident and armadillo researcher Mariella Superina is among those who lend their expertise to Nick’s search.

Hours into their expedition, Nick and the crew have still seen no sign of any type of armadillo. When they finally spot one – the large hairy variety – it is too quick for them and disappears into a burrow. Nick begins to wonder how much luck they will have finding the even more elusive pink fairy.

But when night falls they get a proper glimpse of a mammal at last. Armed with Darwin’s diary and a thermal-imaging camera, Nick identifies some viscacha, small creatures with rabbit-like features and long tails. “These are the most charismatic little fluffy things I’ve ever seen!” he says, stepping over the piles of sticks the viscacha have diligently assembled, in keeping with their reputation as hoarders.

Once the sun is up the team take their arsenal of armadillo-finding technology and locate some hotspots where locals have reported seeing pink fairy armadillos a handful of times. When they find a dwarf armadillo – known locally as a ‘pichi’ – they begin to feel they are finally on the right track. To maximise their chances with the pink fairy they seek guidance from the Rojas family, four generations of gauchos living on an isolated farm. Grandma Rojas mentions that Nick’s target creature seems to appear more frequently after rainfall, perhaps because its insect and worm prey is more readily found then.

With natural rainfall in short supply in these parts, Nick enlists the help of the local fire department to drench the dunes. He has set up 20 simple pitfall traps – buckets buried in the ground – in the hope that a pink fairy armadillo will wander into one. As night falls, Nick and the firemen enjoy a drink around the camp fire. All they can do is wait until the next day and hope that they get lucky. But with so few sightings ever reported, could the pink fairy armadillo be the one that got away?

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