Life Story (2014) s01e01 Episode Script

First Steps

There's a story that unites each of us with every animal on the planet.
It's the story of the greatest of all adventures, the journey through life.
Animals have just one goal at the end of this journey, to leave offspring.
And every one begins its life with an irrepressible instinct to survive and overcome the odds.
The drive and inventiveness of animals is breathtaking.
Every aspect of their behaviour, whether it's spectacular or beautiful or simply extraordinary is their way of meeting a particular challenge.
In this series, we will see animals of all kinds striving to overcome the obstacles that face them at each stage in their lives.
They will be strong.
And ingenious.
They will fight battles.
And will do whatever it takes to win a mate.
Each success leaves each individual one step closer to leaving offspring - the next best thing to immortality.
The journey through life begins afresh with every new generation, as it has for countless millions of years.
It is life's great story.
I'm in South Africa, sitting beside a colony of meerkats, waiting for this year's youngsters to emerge and start exploring their world.
Here they come.
That's the adult.
They must check the coast is clear.
There's another one.
Ah, there's a baby.
Hello, little one.
We can't know what the future's going to hold for this little creature.
Just as every one of our histories is unique to ourselves, so this animal too will have its own story.
If one of these little creatures, indeed, if any animal is to become one of life's winners by leaving behind offspring, then a long and difficult journey lies ahead.
This is the story of life, and for these little creatures, it's just beginning.
Good luck to you.
Many animals face their greatest challenge within days or even hours of entering the world.
This is when they are smallest and most vulnerable.
The remote Orsted Dal Valley in Greenland, scene of one of the most extraordinary trials that any animal must face at the beginning of its life.
Newly hatched barnacle geese.
Their parents chose to nest on top of a huge tower of rock.
Such extreme isolation was the only way to protect their brood from predators on the ground.
But now there is a price to pay.
Up here, the five goslings may be safe and warm, but they have nothing to eat and they're getting hungry.
Like their parents, they only eat grass, and to find it the goslings must first get down there, 400 feet below.
But they won't be able to fly for another eight weeks.
So they'll have to jump.
The father is restless.
He decides it's time for the family to leave.
He calls to encourage them.
But they are so tightly bonded to their mother that they will only follow her.
The parents both survived the descent as youngsters.
They're living proof that their chicks can make it.
The fluffy goslings are certainly light and well-padded.
But luck will play its part.
At the bottom of the cliff, their mother calls for them to join her, and instinct compels them to follow.
The gosling spreads its body and flaps its tiny wings to slow its descent and lessen the impact of inevitable crashes.
If the first collision is belly-first, it should survive the fall.
This chick jumps off the back of the cliff.
It's less of a drop, but there's far more risk of getting lost in the crevices below.
The third makes another good jump.
But the fourth slips.
Plummeting down headfirst, too close to the cliff, could bring disaster.
The third gosling is doing better.
Hitting the rock belly-first should prove a life-saver.
But still the tumble goes on.
There is nothing its mother can do but follow it down.
One last chick.
The perfect launch.
And a controlled drop.
This is as good a descent as it's possible to make.
Its parents are there to meet it.
A little dazed perhaps, but all in one piece.
One gosling, at least, hasn't made it.
And this chick appears to be in a bad way.
At last, it responds to its mother's calls.
The resilience of a barnacle goose chick is extraordinary.
But there are still chicks unaccounted for, somewhere amongst the rubble.
The parents can't risk searching because they need to lead their two survivors away quickly, before predators arrive.
A third one has made it.
But it needs to catch up.
Three out of five chicks have made it.
Without such a dramatic start in life, it's unlikely any of them would have even got this far.
These chicks will face more dangers in the future, but only two days old they've already survived the greatest challenge of their lives.
A young animal significantly improves its chances of surviving if it can grow fast, and few babies have more growing to do in their first weeks than a humpback whale.
In just six weeks, this new-born calf must leave these nursery waters off Hawaii and start on a 3,000-mile migration to its feeding grounds in the Arctic.
For that, it will need to be strong.
Twirling at the surface rapidly develops muscle strength and diving ability.
Before then, this one-tonne calf must double its weight by drinking over 3,500 pints of its mother's fat-rich milk.
But the milk supply is limited.
Until its mother reaches the feeding grounds, she's fasting.
Humpback calves make such demands of their mothers that females can only raise one every two or three years.
If the calf is to be ready for the migration, then what they both need now is to be left in peace.
But here, the birthing season and the mating season coincide, and that spells trouble.
Male humpbacks will pursue any females, even if they are still nursing and so can't get pregnant.
These 40-tonne males, fired-up with testosterone, pose a serious threat to any calf that gets caught up in the chase.
As the mother tries to outrun the males, the calf sensibly stays as close to her as possible, to avoid being separated and lost.
As more and more males join the chase, the mood becomes ever more aggressive.
Now there is a real danger of the calf being injured by flailing tails and crashing bodies.
Eventually, the males become so pre-occupied with fighting each other that the calf and her mother can escape.
Even if a calf gets away unharmed, the ordeal can leave it exhausted.
The dangers from the breeding season will only grow in intensity and some calves will become so weakened that they'll struggle to survive the coming migration.
Even the most formidable predators are surprisingly vulnerable in infancy.
Here in Kenya's Maasai Mara, a lion cub has, on average, only a one-in-five chance of surviving its first two years.
Which ones do so depends on the strength of the pride to which they belong.
For six weeks, this female cub has been hidden away by her mother in the long grass.
But today, with her brother and sister, she's going to join the creche at the heart of her pride.
Adult females provide the food and the first line of defence.
With at least four in her pride, this cub should be well looked after.
All the lionesses have their own cubs, who will be both playmates and future allies.
Under the females' watchful eyes, she can practice her stalking, pouncing and fighting skills.
But there is one more family member to meet, and perhaps the most important of all.
Her father.
Her ultimate defender.
Marauding rival male lions are a constant threat.
If they overthrew him, they would kill all his cubs and father their own.
The security of the whole pride, and this cub's future, rests on him remaining strong.
But the early days of an animal's life are a very different prospect if its parents do not support it.
This peculiar, almost alien scene is in fact the emergence of a brood of orchid mantids from their egg case.
Mantids, like the great majority of animals, play the numbers game.
Having over 60 hatchlings increases the chances that a few will make it to adulthood.
But during these first minutes, they are especially vulnerable.
They must quickly hide away and wait for their soft bodies to harden.
Within 20 minutes, they are transformed.
Now the immediate danger is from each other.
Mantids will eat anything that moves including other mantids.
Time to leave.
This tiny insect is now open to attack from predators lurking in the undergrowth.
Whether an individual mantis survives or not is partly a matter of chance.
Whether it's spotted by a predator Whether it turns right.
or left So far, its luck has held.
But this hungry jumping spider is still in pursuit.
A mantis is born with exceptional eyesight.
But the spider's is even better.
Although this young mantis can't yet fly, its long forelegs, evolved to catch prey, give it reach.
There seems to be no escape.
But this mantis has a surprising line in self-defence.
Kung fu, praying mantis style.
Of course, it's all bluff, trying to look bigger and confuse its enemy.
But it's got away with it.
Just staying alive for its first few hours is a significant accomplishment for a newly hatched insect.
But there's still a long way to go.
With a bit of luck, in two months' time, it will be as big and beautiful as this orchid mantid.
Or maybe not.
After all, mantids are cannibals.
However, there are plenty more where that one came from.
A young fur seal, just old enough to be left alone while its mother hunts out at sea.
It won't be long before the pup has to negotiate these treacherous waters for itself and learn to catch its own food, while avoiding predators.
But how can he take his first lesson without risking it being his last? Luckily, the fur seals on this beach in Kaikoura, New Zealand, have, in the last decade, discovered the perfect place to do that.
Surprisingly, the pup heads not towards the sea but inland, on one of the strangest journeys any seal makes.
A stream meets the beach and this pup swims up it.
Each seal pup only makes this journey once.
What drives it to travel deep into the forest is a mystery.
At last, this pup has arrived.
This secluded waterfall makes for a perfect learners' pool.
In this sanctuary, he can join the local pups to learn manoeuvres that will one day help them escape their enemies.
No-one knows how the first pups found this place, but each year, more and more young seals make the journey.
They're getting a crucial head start in life.
And learning is always easier when you're enjoying yourself.
Each seal spends three days in intense training.
Then, after this rite of passage, they head back to the beach.
It won't be long now before they will leave their mothers for good and put their new skills to the test.
It's now late in the meerkat pupping season in South Africa and the pups born two months ago are growing well.
This pup has been well cared for and fed, but now it's time she learned to catch her own food.
One of the great benefits of being raised in meerkat society is that adults without young of their own help with childcare and will spend hours teaching the youngsters.
Today's first lesson is ant-hunting.
Being shown the right approach is one thing.
But when the food bites back, all technique goes out of the window.
Not exactly a resounding success.
However this helper now has a different kind of lesson in mind, one designed to bring a pup face to face with danger for the first time.
It will be her biggest test so far.
A scorpion.
An excellent source of protein and a meerkat's favourite food.
But their sting is very painful, much worse than an ant.
The tutor weakens it with a bite before handing it over.
But the pup still has a fight on her hands.
The idea is to nip off the sting on its tail, but its pincers are almost as formidable.
The pup's helper keeps a watchful eye on her.
She has disarmed the sting, but those pincers are still giving her trouble.
A pause, perhaps for encouragement, before the helper gives her the nod to finish the job.
At last, a small but significant success.
It's a test that every member of her family will have to go through.
And this youngster has passed in triumph.
Back in Hawaii, six weeks have passed.
This humpback whale calf has fallen behind on the annual migration to the Arctic.
It struggled to grow strong enough and now it's fighting for its life.
Exhausted and weak, it has already been targeted by sharks.
Its mother helps it to the surface to breathe, which takes its toll on her, too.
This is now a huge test of the strength of their bond.
But suddenly the calf is alone.
Its mother appears to have abandoned it, perhaps to save herself.
Sharks move in.
With a shark on its tail, the end for this calf now seems inevitable.
But bursting from the deep, the mother is back.
And she's brought help.
A male.
Although he's unlikely to be the calf's father, he does something to help it that has never been witnessed before.
He blows a wall of bubbles, creating a protective screen around the calf.
The sharks are held back.
But not for long.
A shark is soon trailing the whales again.
A bolder strategy.
The aggression the male whales were using against each other in the breeding season now appears to be aimed at the shark.
As long as there is a chance of the calf surviving, the bond between mother and young remains extraordinarily strong.
The compulsion of the young to survive and of adults to protect, burns bright, even against heavy odds.
For many young animals, taking their first steps away from the protection of parents can be daunting.
Long-eared jerboa live in the remote Gobi Desert of Mongolia.
After six weeks of being cosseted underground with their families, young jerboa finally emerge to spend their first night alone, learning to catch food.
Infra-red cameras can reveal their lives, but to this jerboa, the night is completely dark.
Luckily, his hearing more than compensates.
His ears are longer, compared to his body, than those of any other animal.
In fact, his ears are so sensitive that every new sound tends to give him a fright.
The call of a little owl, a jerboa's main predator and something worth being nervous about.
The youngster's challenge is to distinguish danger from dinner.
An aggressive gecko is definitely not on the menu.
A jerboa's hearing is so acute he can even detect sleeping insects.
But it's hard to grab them when you can't see them.
At last, food.
Confidence grows with success.
Learning to take care of yourself is a tiring business.
Rather than return to the family burrow, he naps in the open.
But with his immense ears, it must be hard to tune out.
There comes a time when every animal must finally leave youth behind and enter the adult world for good.
A black-footed albatross on the brink of adulthood and learning to fly.
Her maiden flight will take her away from this tiny Pacific island and out to sea.
She will not touch ground again for three years.
But she's not quite ready yet.
Learning to control a six-foot wingspan in a gusty sea breeze takes practice.
These fledglings have not been fed since their parents left a few weeks ago.
To find food, they must leave, too.
And eventually one of them takes to the wing.
But maiden flights often prove to be a bit of a false start.
Tiger sharks.
They congregate here every year, precisely when albatross chicks fledge.
If a shark doesn't strike exactly on target, a lucky albatross may escape.
There can be few animals that have to face such danger at the very moment they leave home.
It's a remarkable escape, but a water take-off is even harder than from land.
This albatross has left youth behind.
It's time to embark on the next step of life's story, independence in the adult world.
It's been over 30 years since anyone climbed these cliffs.
Producer Tom Hugh-Jones and cameramen Mateo Willis and Mark Payne-Gill are in Greenland, to film newly-hatched goslings leap from these towering spires.
They can only convey the scale of what these tiny animals must go through by showing it from their perspective.
I'm not one for vertigo, but just can't imagine what a chick would feel like having to do this.
We're not going to have much time once they jump, eh? No.
Lot of waiting and then suddenly it all happens.
It's just that moment, isn't it? And you've got 20 seconds to get everything.
Tom spots his first pair of barnacle geese, and he has good news.
'Yeah, copy, Tom.
' She's still brooding the eggs, so we're here in plenty of time, which is good.
The team has some time on its hands to prepare for the big moment.
Three, two, one, go.
Tom helps Mark to get his eye in.
'I don't think a chick will be quite the same.
' Tom checks on the nests every few hours.
All the mothers are still on the nests, but no signs of chicks.
Just have to sit and wait, which is what we do.
The only thing that seems to be hatching round here are mosquitoes.
Have you got mozzie repellent? I haven't, no.
Sorry, I just swallowed a tonne of mosquitoes.
But it's the birds that are constantly on their minds.
I dreamt about ducks last night.
Ducks? Yeah.
Actually, I had a dream about birds as well.
Mark dreamt about chicks.
The wait is over.
I've just spied our first chick.
These chicks may jump any time.
Where are the chicks? Mateo concentrates on trying to film the leaps.
While Mark focuses on the front of the cliff for the fall.
The nest is just there above my fingertip.
They've got to go down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, till they hit the scree slope below.
That's an incredible fall for anything, let alone a gosling.
It's almost 48 hours since the chicks hatched, so they're really getting to the limit of how long they can go before they start getting too hungry.
So we should be on for a big jump.
Just saw the female.
Come on, what you going to do? 'The female is pointing towards the back side of the rocks.
' No, no, not the back side.
'I'm going to follow her.
' Come on.
He comes forward again.
Come on, Mum and Dad! 'OK, I see the chick now with the dad.
' They might be about to go.
'It's going to jump on the far corner.
' I've got two chicks.
There it goes, there it goes, there it goes, there it goes! 'All the way down, all the way down.
Wow!' OK, I didn't see that.
That was hidden from my view.
Did you see the last one jump, Mateo? 'I did until it was flying through the air and I didn't catch it.
' OK, got the chick, got the chick, got the chick.
That was a shock for it, but it survived.
All the chicks jumped where the cliff obscured Mark and Mateo's view.
What happens next comes as a shock.
'A fox coming up the stream, he's now about to 'Follow the fox.
' 'Mark, did you see that?' 'Oh, it's heart-breaking.
' I know, I know.
I think it's got them all.
That's really sad.
There's nothing you can do.
The fox has its own young to feed.
Life in this barren landscape is desperately tough for all its inhabitants.
The team has to move on and try to film another nest.
And I'm going to head off up round here Yeah.
and try and find a good position.
So, this nest here is our last great hope, probably the only remaining one that we can get a good viewpoint on.
The parents appear eager for their chicks to go.
'Stand by, Mark.
It looks like it's going to jump.
' 'By the male's feet.
' Come on! Oh, where are you going to go? Here it goes, here it goes.
Chick's going.
Wow! Oh, my goodness.
Here it comes.
'They're all falling exactly the same way, all at once.
' Here we go, here we go, here we go.
'Chick's just tumbling down.
'Can you see it?' Tumble, tumble.
Whoa! Down the scree slope.
Crikey! 'How many chicks can you see?' 'Um, I count three.
' 'No visual yet on any foxes.
' So far so good, and they seem to be moving through.
The team is able to film the family all the way down to the river and safety.
They've witnessed the triumph of one of the most extreme survival strategies in nature.
I mean, think how far they've had to come and this is only, what, their third day in the world? Yeah, it's just great to see them doing what they should be doing now.
Next week on Life Story, animals grow up in the adult world.
They will master complex skills.
And learn how to stand up for themselves.
For a free Open University interactive poster exploring animal life journeys, call: Or go to: and follow the links to the Open University.