Nick Baker’s Wierd Creatures

nick baker’s weird creatures
the hellbender (4/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another strange beast from a far-flung corner of the globe. In tonight’s edition, Nick is in the Appalachian mountains in the USA on the hunt for the hellbender –an extremely rare giant salamander with a sinister reputation and an uncertain future.

The hellbender is a form of giant salamander –an amphibian similar to the common newt found in Britain. However, the hellbender is a water-dwelling creature that is only found in two niche areas –the fast-flowing Davidson river in Appalachian North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, further west in the mountainous Ozark region of Missouri.

Salamanders are not regarded as the most beautiful creatures on the planet, due to their folds of pock-marked slimy skin and flat, broad heads with wide, cavernous mouths. The hellbender is considered the least attractive species of the salamander family –hence the terrifying name. Locally, these fascinating amphibians have even more derogatory colloquial monikers, such as ‘devil dogs’ and ‘snot otters’. Historically the hellbender has been thought of as a poisonous menace that jeopardises the local fishing industry and may well have crawled straight out of Satan’s lair. But, as Nick discovers, they do not deserve the bad press they have received over the years.

Nick takes to the waters of the Davidson river, where the eastern variation of hellbender is found. He finds baby hellbenders quite quickly, but it is not until the end of the day that he gets his hands on a prized adult male. “That has got to be one of the most beautifully ugly creatures I’ve ever set eyes on,” marvels Nick. The hellbender writhes in Nick’s gloves, its slimy body covered in pimples and saggy folds of skin, with two tiny, piercing eyes on its mallet-shaped head. It reminds Nick of the earliest amphibians ever to crawl out of the water. “This is 200 million years in the making,” says an awestruck Nick.

However, there is an invisible menace at work which is threatening the existence of the hellbender. In the rapids of the Davidson it is not quite as grave an issue, but further west, in the Ozark region of Missouri, it is two minutes to midnight in the hellbender world. Nick, joined by Jeff Brigger of the Missouri Department of Conservation, takes a look in the calmer waters of the Ozarks to see for himself. Not only has the hellbender population dwindled by 80 per cent in the last 30 years, but those remaining have severe deformities –missing toes, limbs and open sores. Nick and Jeff are surprised to find as many as 12 hellbenders in the river –but, sadly, only 30 years ago that number would have been closer to 300. “Ten of the 12 animals have some kind of abnormality,” says Jeff. “There is a 95 per cent chance of extinction of this animal over the next 75 years,”

There are several prime suspects at work: one is that it is hellbenders themselves causing harm to others of their species; another is that the seemingly innocuous brown trout is to blame. One theory is that the water is being polluted, thus affecting the sperm count of the hellbenders. Or it could be that the mutilation is being caused by a mysterious fungus carried by an African frog that was introduced into the area some time ago. “It is a sobering thought,” muses Nick on the plight of the hellbender. Whatever is to blame for the demise of this wonderfully grotesque animal, all those with a vested interest in the protection of the area’s richly diverse ecosystem need to act quickly –or else this oft-misunderstood amphibian will be no more.

nick baker’s weird creatures
the swamp thing (3/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another strange beast from a far-flung corner of the globe. In tonight’s edition, Nick heads to the USA in search of a creature with the claws of a bear, the jaws of a griffin and the biggest bite in the animal kingdom –the alligator snapping turtle.

The search for Nick’s weird creature this week takes him to New Orleans in America’s Deep South –the home of blues, jazz and a remarkable turtle. Beginning his quest on the Mississippi river, Nick hopes to locate an animal that has spent 13 million years evolving into the perfect swamp survivor. As Hurricane Katrina was tearing the heart out of New Orleans, the alligator snapping turtle would have been sat in the mud at the bottom of the river, totally oblivious to the goings-on all around. The creature’s future, however, is being chipped away by a number of man-made threats.

The first turtles that Nick finds are at a restaurant, where the Cajun menu reads like a field guide to the local wildlife. The turtles eaten here are red-eared sliders, but Nick wants to find the animal’s larger cousin. Local trapper Lewis has watched the turtles disappear from the swamps over the years. In his days hunting the animal, he claims to have caught a 140-pound specimen, but this turtle is nothing in comparison to the 350-pound, 400year-old animal once caught by an elderly man, according to local folklore. “I’m pretty sure he ate for several weeks,” says Lewis of the lucky trapper.

To help him on his quest, Nick enlists the help of Alan, Cliff and Butch of the Alligator Snapping Turtle Foundation (ASTF) –a group of conservationists dedicated to local wildlife. To tag the population of ‘alli-snappers’, the ASTF line the river with nets which they check twice a day. Nick joins them on one such check and has soon encountered the first wild turtles of his trip. All of the specimens in the first nets are red-necked and red-eared, these species now being the most common.

Spotting a green tree frog, Nick plunges into the river but is in for something of a shock. “What the hell’s that?” he yells, drawing his hand out of the water. “That is unbelievably painful!” Nick has been bitten by a water boatman, a small aquatic bug capable of a nasty bite. The pain soon abates, but the frog has long gone. More luck comes when Nick and his guides check the final net and find an alligator. The animal is five feet long, so is considered only a ‘tiddler’ by the locals. “We’ve got the alligator,” says Nick. “We just need the snapping turtle bit now!”

The next day, Alan takes Nick to the home of Ben Naquin –the founder of the ASTF. Today is a big day for Ben because he is about to release an old friend into the breeding pond –a 100-pound alligator snapping turtle. “This has got to be one of the most awesome animals on earth,” says Nick.

Nick takes a trip to the breeding pond to study the alli-snapper at close quarters. “You can see all the qualities that make an AST so fascinating,” he says, as he examines a small, three-year-old specimen. The turtle has a huge jaw with selfsharpening blades on either side, a long, thick tail and a series of ridges across its tough shell. It also has a curious appendage used to lure prey. Nick cannot resist measuring the turtle’s legendary bite power, so employs the use of his trusty bite gauge. However, the alligator snapping turtle lives up to its name when it bites clean through the machine. “That’s pretty impressive,” says Nick.

With his appetite whetted by the encounter in the pond, Nick sets off once more on the search for a giant specimen in the wild. His chances of success are increased when he teams up with Captain Tom –a man who knows the swamps of New Orleans better than anyone. Soon they have found plenty of Louisiana crawfish, but there is still no sign of the turtles that call the crawfish lunch. Will Nick manage to complete his quest, or will the giant alli-snapper remain the stuff of local legend?

nick baker’s weird creatures
the real gremlin (2/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another strange beast from a far-flung corner of the globe. In tonight’s edition, Nick travels to the remote jungles of South-East Asia to meet a very bizarre creature indeed: the tarsier, one of the tiniest primates on the planet, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the mythical gremlin.

Nick is in the Tangkoko nature reserve on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. A breathtaking array of species share this tropical paradise, which is enveloped in dense rainforest and surrounded by three vast volcanoes. The tarsier is a nocturnal treedwelling primate which Nick knows will prove very difficult to find. He begins his quest at dawn, when the tarsiers of the rainforest should be returning to their canopies after an evening spent foraging for food. Dawn is also the time when the forest is at its loudest, as both birds and mammals join forces to create a incredible cacophony. Above the din Nick can just make out the distinctive ‘dueting’ calls of the tarsier and spot a few tarsier-like shapes bounding through the gloom. “There are gremlins all around us!” Nick whispers in excitement.

The tarsier is rare amongst primates in that it is totally carnivorous. It is also well camouflaged and is only 10cm in stature. It also has the ability to leap a staggering 40 times its own body length. Nick knows he will need a local guide with plenty of experience if he is to meet his miniature quarry. Fortunately, he can call upon the assistance of guide and conservationist Yunnus. “Hopefully he’ll share with me some trade secrets of how to find a tarsier,” says Nick. Yunnus advises that they return at dawn to catch the tarsier, and begin by sniffing out its distinctive smell against the trees they inhabit. Smells are important territorial markers for the tarsier –a tree that carries a tarsier’s unique odour warns the other tarsiers that this tree is ‘taken’.

As well as the many predators that hunt them, tarsiers must also evade the island’s poachers and trappers, which still exist despite the ever-growing tourist interest in these fascinating creatures. “Key conservationists, including Yunnus,” explains Nick, “are trying to persuade the hunters that the tarsiers are worth more to them if left in the trees than in their cooking pots.”

Another incredible facet to the tarsier is its massive, bulging eyes that it needs to see in the dark. Unlike many nocturnal animals, the tarsier is not equipped with a specialised layer of retinal cells which allow animals to capture light more effectively –due to the theory that tarsiers were once active in daylight. When they became nocturnal, they compensated for the lack of these cells by developing supple vertebrae in their necks that allowed them to rotate their heads nearly 360 degrees –not unlike the owl. “These characteristics have arisen independently in a bird and in a primate,” explains Nick.

Nick’s adventure takes a new direction when he receives a tip-off from a local conservationist that there may be a unique species of tarsier on the neighbouring island of Bunaken. However, he will need plenty of local guidance and a little bit of luck if he is to get up close and personal with this most fascinating of species.

nick baker’s weird creatures: the human fish

Nick Baker returns tonight with an even stranger collection of beasts for a second series of nature documentaries. In tonight’s opening edition, Nick encounters the bizarre, sightless salamander, also known as the ‘human fish’.

Once again, Nick Baker sets off to the most farflung parts of the globe on a mission to find some of the weirdest, ugliest, and downright bizarre animals that grace our planet. Over the course of the series, he encounters creatures like the 200lb monster snapping turtle; the giant hellbender salamander that oozes toxic slime; the super-intelligent mimic octopus and the enormous catfish that terrorises the waters of Britain and Spain.

Nick’s quest this week takes him to the fairy-tale world of Slovenia, a country steeped in folklore that centres around the existence of dragons. On the quest for such a creature, Nick descends deep into the mountains to find the proteus (Proteus anguinus) or olm –a blind, albino salamander with remarkable qualities, that resides deep in the 20km-long Postojna Caves. Also called the ‘human fish’, because its skin resembles human flesh, the olm has adapted to life in total darkness with atrophied eyes and a heightened sense of hearing and smell. According to local myth, this bizarre amphibian is a baby dragon –but truth turns out to be even stranger than fiction.

To find out more, Nick ventures 27km into the caves and dives into a crystal-clear underground lake. In the middle of this awe-inspiring location, he camps underground for 24 hours in an attempt to experience this light-deprived world and the effect it has had on the olm’s own evolution. Nick’s video diary of his disorientating experience in total darkness records him hearing strange noises in the caves and losing track of time. How will he cope in these eerie, largely unexplored cave systems –a subterranean universe of uniquely adapted creatures?

nick baker’s weird creatures –series 2

Nick Baker returns with an even stranger collection of creatures for a second series of nature documentaries. Once again, Nick sets off to the most far-flung parts of the globe on a mission to find some of the weirdest, ugliest, and downright bizarre animals that grace our planet.

Over the course of the series, Nick encounters creatures like the 200lb monster snapping turtle, famed for its awesome jaw power; the giant hellbender salamander that oozes toxic slime as a mechanism of defence; the super-intelligent mimic octopus; and the enormous catfish that terrorises the waters of Britain and Spain.

The series also joins Nick in the Indonesian rainforest as he searches for one of the tiniest and most ferocious primates in the world. In another episode, he looks for some of the deadliest rats, snakes and spiders in Madagascar. And on Nick’s final mission, he goes on a turbo-charged trek to find the king of colour, the Parsons chameleon. This is not one for the faint-hearted…

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