The Future is Wild (2003) s01e03 Episode Script

The Vanished Sea

Imagine a world, millions of years in the future.
A world where evolution has written a new chapter in the story of life.
The world is inhabited by very strange creatures, like nothing the Earth has ever seen.
the FUTURE is WILD 5 million years from now THE VANISHED SEA Five million years in the future and the planet is in the grip of another ice age.
Yet this isn't ice or snow, it's salt, covering a hot, parched desert.
But there is life here.
Cryptiles: half metre long lizards that sprint over the burning salt.
These harsh, salt flats are 2000 metres below sea level, they are all that is left of the sparkling clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
But how can a whole sea just disappear? What happened to turn the holiday paradise of the Mediterranean into a salt desert? An ice age climate is very dry, which makes water evaporate and sea levels fall.
But it takes more than a change in climate to make the Mediterranean dry out.
In five million years' time, the geography of the Earth will have changed when Africa will have pushed up against Europe and closed the Straits of Gibraltar.
As the continents collide, the Mediterranean is cut off from the Atlantic and it becomes a closed, land-locked sea.
The water evaporated in the dry climate, and with no water flowing in from the Atlantic to replace it, the Mediterranean simply vanished, leaving just a few deep basins.
The Mediterranean will dry out until it becomes one vast salt pan.
There will be small lakes of hypersaline water left behind, the only water in the Mediterranean.
But the old holiday islands of Cyprus and Malta and Crete will stand up as small mountains in the middle of this sea of salt.
No shelter and no water, just the relentless Sun.
But if anything can survive out here, lizards can.
These cryptiles, like many lizards, are tough and drought resistant.
So they are already suited to life on the salt flats.
Well in five million years the Mediterranean will be a very different environment than it is today and very few animals will have actually adapted purely for that new environment.
The cryptiles is a great example one animal that is testing the water.
It is part of way there, but it is not all of the way there yet.
Lizards in general are good surviving in hot, dry places.
Today, the Lake Eyre dragon lives on the vast salt flats of Australia's Lake Eyre, a dry salt pan covering 10,000 square kilometres.
Lake Eyre dragons eat ants.
Insects are the only other creatures that can survive in a salt desert like this.
The lizards stand on their heels, keeping their toes of the hot surface.
At over 2 million square kilometres, the Mediterranean salt flats are some 200 times as big as Lake Eyre.
But cryptiles don't just live here, they also carry out their courtship on the old Mediterranean sea bed.
The males compete to show off the biggest and brightest crest and the female invites the best looking male to follow her in a courtship dash over the salt.
If he keeps up with her, she will let him mate, but for the female her problems are only just beginning.
Now one of the biggest problems about living in this environment that it is very, very salty environment, is that if you are a lizard there is nowhere to lay your eggs.
If you dig a hole in the salt and lay them, they will just shrivel up, all the water will be taken out of them and they will be dead very quickly.
So the females had to move away to find places where there is soil in order to deposit their eggs.
This is a time when they are in the greatest danger because they are very well adapted for living on the open salt plain: their colour, their shape everything is for salt plain life.
When they go on to the soil this is when they stand out like a sore thumb.
This is when they are open to be eaten by predators.
So a female has to leaving the safety of the salt flats to lay her eggs.
She heads for the old Mediterranean islands that rise out of the salt.
These are mountains of bare rock worn into a broken, cracked pavement known as cast.
Running across the cast there are deep cracks and crevasses called grykes.
Although many of the cracks are only a few centimetres wide, some of them go down two or three metres.
Ideal places to lay eggs.
The narrowest cracks are far too tight for a predator.
And there is a predator here that uses the bigger cracks as secret highways across the cast.
The cryptile's eggs are safe in the bottom of the narrow gryke.
It is not the eggs that are in danger, but the cryptiles herself.
From a grychen.
The cryptiles has the advantage of speed, so the grychen will go hungry.
Grychens live only on these isolated bare mountains and rocky plateaus.
They are about 20 centimetres tall at the shoulder, with a sinewy body, small enough to wriggle through crevasses in the rock.
But it's ancestor had a very different lifestyle, living in the tops of trees.
Today, Europe's natural vegetation is forest and it is said if humans hadn't cleared the trees, a squirrel could run from Spain to Greece without ever touching the ground, but it would be followed all the way by a pine martin, the ancestor of the grychen.
Pine martins are fast, agile predators that spend most of their time in the branches.
Their bodies are flexible and subtle and they have a superb sense of balance.
But five million years in the future in the ice age climate, trees will be a rare sight in Europe.
Grychen have evolved in only five million years.
It's not that different from the pine martin it evolved from but the climate has dried, the trees have gone.
Pine martins had long back legs to help them leap through the trees and tails they would use to help them maintain balance.
But grychens are different, they have longer legs so they can run along the grykes, and as grychens no longer climb trees, they don't need their ancestors long tail for balance.
Their bodies have elongated, so they can squeeze through the narrow crevasses in the rocks.
Grychens also have dagger-like teeth.
They need them to bring down their favourite prey.
Small, delicate looking pigs: scrophers.
Scrophers can't run as fast as cryptiles so they are easier for the grychen to catch.
Especially the tender, young pigs.
But the big adult males are aggressive.
Too aggressive for the grychen.
We are five million years in the future, and scrophers are descendents of the wild boar that used to roam over much of Europe and Asia.
Today, wild boars live in rich forests that still cover much of Europe and they are found in many of the countries surrounding today's Mediterranean.
The adults are big, heavyset animals that can weigh more than 100 kg.
They have sturdy, strong legs for moving across the soft forest floor.
And they root around in the deep woodland soil for insects, worms, tubers, funghi.
Their sensitive, flexible snouts unearth anything that is edible.
They live in tight-knit family groups of a few adult females with their young and a few juveniles.
Despite being at home in the forest, wild boar are just the kind of animals that would survive when their forest home disappears.
In the future they have had to adapt to living on bare limestone, and they had to do it relatively quickly, as the climate changed.
The landscapes the scropher lives in has been created very rapidly perhaps in a few tens of thousands of years.
But the scropher has managed to adapt to live in this landscape because pigs are highly adaptable, are generalists, they eat a wide variety of food types, they can live in a lot of habitats and so the scropher is one of the species that has managed to adapt to this new landscape.
Walking over rugged limestone is very different from trundling through a forest.
Scropher legs had become thinner and the bones, elongated.
They walk on the tips of their toes, giving them a strange, stiff legged gait.
But this is the most efficient way to move over hard surfaces like the cast.
The whole animal is only half the height of its bulky, wild boar ancestor.
The scropher is a small pig because it is living in a habitat where there is not a great amount of food.
It's got sharp, pointed hooves to help it move across the rocky surface, long thin legs because it needs to move quite long distances but also it has got to leap across the grykes in the rocks.
A pig that walks like a ballerina may seem unlikely.
But there is a creature around today that has a similar design, the clipspringer.
ClipSpringer are antelopes that live on rocky outcrops in Africa.
And they have also evolved the same tiptoe stiff legged gait to scramble over bare rock.
The clipspringer and scropher are totally unrelated, but have evolved the same solution to the same problem.
And so, they look very similar.
In the future, scrophers have solved the problem of moving over rock, but there is another problem to solve.
There is not a great amount of food in this landscape, and the scrophers has a very long, pointed snout that it can actually poke down into the grykes in the rocks to find the bits of a plant that are growing there, it is particularly after the roots, the tubers, the bulb: any food that is edible.
And that includes cryptile eggs, if they are not laid deep enough.
But sticking a long snout down a gryke can be dangerous.
Although a grychen won't attack an adult scropher, it will sneak up on any youngsters that wander away from the family.
And it uses the cover of the grykes to creep closer and closer.
An isolated young scropher has no defence out in the open.
The scropher family scatters and the grychen finally makes a kill.
This is a huge, featureless landscape and it is very easy to get lost.
And surrounding the rocky islands, the harsh, endless salt flats.
The worst place a young scropher can find itself.
But in all the confusion after the kill, one of the baby scrophers has lost its way.
It maybe an ice age, but out here in the blinding glare of the salt, 2000 metres below sea level, it gets hot, 6° hotter than the Mediterranean of today.
A young scropher won't find anything to eat out here, and even more critically, there is nothing to drink.
Dehydration is a serious danger for a small pig in this heat.
There is water here, but it is lethal: much too salty to drink.
As the sun evaporates the sea, it leaves behind lakes that are 10 times more salty than seawater.
So finding one of these brine lakes is worse than useless for the poor scropher.
These hypersaline (very, very salty) pools may seem the kind of habitat in which nothing can thrive, but there are animals that positively enjoy such conditions.
Like the brine flies that you can find today in Lake Mono, these sorts of creatures will live there in their millions, animals that have learned to cope with very hash conditions, sometimes profit by it.
In the future, just as today, nothing much can live in these salty lagoons, other than brine flies.
So they breed here in their billions.
Their only food are algae that can tolerate the salt and live in the water, so the flies have to crawl underwater to feed, surrounded by an aqualung, a silvery bubble of air.
This works so well that the air over the Mediterranean brine lakes is black with flies.
The flies themselves don't live more than a few days, but they breed of so quickly, they dominate the landscape.
But scrophers can't eat brine flies.
Evening brings some relief from the heat, but none from hunger or thirst.
Next morning, the fierce heat will return with the sun.
It is unlikely that any animal not adapted to these harsh conditions could survive more than a day here in this endless desert.
It seems like there is nothing here, just flies, salt and cryptiles.
So if the scropher has no chance of survival, how did the cryptiles do it? There is plenty of food around the lake, the problem is to catch it.
A cryptile trawls through the huge swarms of flies using it's large neck frill as a fishing net, and with it's long tongue, it licks the trapped flies off the net as it runs.
The most amazing thing about the cryptile is it's frill.
It has got this enormous great big frill which has evolved from the skin around it's neck, to enormous proportions and it has got cartilage inside so it can actually erect the frill so it looks about as big as a saucepan when it faces you.
This is the adaptation it has got ready for feeding because this frill is like a lattice structure, it is full of holes between the scales and there is as a waxy secretion.
This is a sticky, waxy secretion that covers the frill, so when it runs forward through all these flies and they are scattered in all directions, many of them get called on the sticky frill: it is a bit like a mobile flypaper if you like, and then it can turn around with it's long tongue and lick off all those flies which it has caught on its frill.
Well the frill itself has probably evolved, as I say, from loose skin from round its neck.
Things like the frill lizard living today in Australia has a big frill, so you can see how that would evolve from that.
Many other lizards also have a mouth fringe as well, where they can expand the skin on the side of the mouth, in order to frighten off predators, big red flash like this would frighten off a snake or another big lizard.
So you can see this sort of frill would have actually evolved over the course of time from extra loose skin around the neck.
The cryptile is unique, it doesn't drink, it gets all the moisture it needs from the insects, the flies that it feeds on.
Flies are full of moisture and it eats dozens and dozens every day and that provides it with enough water for it to survive.
So it never ever drinks water, it would be fatal if it had to drink some of this water, it is too salty.
So the cryptile survives by eating and drinking flies.
But a few lizards make no impact at all on these vast numbers of brine flies.
The flies and the lizards can live here because they are very specialised.
For anything else, life on the huge, salt flats is impossible.
The baby scropher has succumbed to the heat.
Life on the barren limestone cast is almost as hard.
But for the scrophers and grychens, it is the only home.
The ice age swept over this world at breathtaking speed, less than 10,000 years.
So only those creatures that were adaptable, like lizards, pigs, pine martens, could survive.
The ice age five million years in the future didn't just bring frozen wastes, it dried out the Mediterranean Sea to create a vast, unforgiving desert of salt.