The Future is Wild (2003) s01e04 Episode Script

Prairies of Amazonia

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 PRAIRIES OF AMAZONIA In five million years time a huge, grassy plain stretches for 3000 kilometres across the South American landscape.
And, stalking through the grass, giant birds.
But compared to what used to live here, this landscape is very sparsely populated.
This vast prairie used to be a rainforest, the Amazon rainforest.
Where there is grass there were once trees, stretching from the Andes to the Atlantic.
The forests have gone, because in five million years' time, the Earth has been plunged into another ice age.
As the Earth's climate chilled, the ice caps expanded, spreading from the North and South Poles into lower latitudes.
The climate became colder, and drier and, starved of life-giving rain, the Amazon rainforest died out.
In the future, only the great river courses support any forests at all, the rest has been replaced by grasslands.
Today, the lush Amazon rainforests are teeming with life one of the richest habitats on the planet.
But most of the creatures that live here are far too specialised to survive the death of the rainforest.
Creatures such as macaws, sloths and peccaries are all dependent on the complex forest ecosystem.
Adapted to fit very particular niches.
They stand no chance of surviving when the forest is replaced by grassland.
And, to make matters worse, the change from forest to grassland happened incredibly quickly, only a few thousand years a mere blink-of-an-eye in the timescale of evolution.
This Amazon prairie is very different from the rain forest.
But there was a forest monkey adaptable enough to survive the change.
These strange creatures are babookaris.
At home on the prairie, babookaris live in big, loose troupes, scattered through the dense grass.
But what kind of present-day Amazonian monkey could adapt to life on the grasslands? In five million years, most of the Amazonian rainforest will have disappeared.
At the moment there is a huge variety of monkeys that live in these forests, some of them, at least, would evolve into species that now colonise the grassland, perhaps something like the wakari.
It is an adaptable animal, it lives in the trees, but it is also omnivore, it spends time on the ground, it has got a highly evolved social system.
And you need a social system if you are going to go out onto the grasslands, because you need lots of monkeys with you to help protect you from predators.
As the trees thinned out, wakaris could adapt their social system to live in bigger and bigger groups.
Behaviour like this can change quite quickly, in evolutionary terms, so the wakaris' social system could keep up with the rapidly changing habitat.
In the future, the babookaris have also inherited the wakaris' bright coloured heads, but have gone even further.
Their faces and bottoms are both bright blue, to help the widely scattered troupe stay in contact, and so, watch out for trouble.
Babookaris spread out through the grass as they move, searching a wide area for anything to eat.
A large troupe means lots of eyes looking out for food.
But more important, it also means lots of sentries.
Keeping a lookout for predators like the giant killer birds that stalk through the long grass.
Like the babookaris, they live in groups.
These are hunting parties.
Carakillas are fast, but they don't just run down their victims.
Some of the birds split off from the main group.
The babookaris are heading into an ambush.
Once a babookari is killed, the other carakillas join the feast.
These long legged monkeys could easily outmanoeuvre a single carakilla, so carakillas have to hunt in groups.
Some stalk around the monkey troupe unseen in the long grass and wait.
Using their colourful crests as signals to each other, the rest of the pack drive the monkeys into the trap.
Most of the troupe will escape, but one or two will be caught.
The ancestor of these giant birds is a grassland predator that is around today.
Carakillas are one of the characteristic birds of this grassland.
But they are big much bigger than most modern birds, and certainly much bigger than their ancestors.
They are about three metres tall, but they evolved from these small, terrestrial falcons.
Karakaras are common in South American grasslands today.
They are fairly primitive falcons, but they are quite closely related to the peregrins and kestrels many people are familiar with.
But they live on the ground and they find their prey on the ground, not in the air.
Though karakaras can still fly, their long legs help them forage on the ground.
But as the grasslands spread, they became even more efficient ground predators.
The main way that carakillas have become a really efficient terrestrial predator on the ground, is by giving up flight.
Flight is expensive, not only in the energy used to get around, but in the fact that you have gone to develop wings and muscles and all the systems that drive them.
If you drop that, it then becomes much easier to invest the energy, evolutionarily, in becoming faster, and the best way of becoming faster is to be bigger.
And that's exactly what happened to the karakara, the ancestor of the mighty carakilla.
Size change can happen quickly in evolutionary terms and five million years is plenty of time for the karakara to evolve into a three metre tall carakilla.
It is also enough time for this bird to evolve some impressive ways of killing its prey.
We know that, by manipulating the genetics, you can very easily trigger a modern bird to develop a claw.
The claw goes right back to their dinosaur ancestors.
Same morphology, same position on the wings.
This has been re-evolved in the carakilla.
It has developed this large sickle-shaped claw, just like the claws of dinosaurs, it is using it in exactly the same way.
It can catch and grab the prey and it can disembowel it, and tear the prey up before it eats it.
Carakillas are fearsome enough on their own, but in groups they are lethal.
Babookaris's social behaviour has evolved in response to such predators.
But surviving in the grasslands has taken much more than just a change in behaviour.
Life on the grassland involves travelling long distances.
Your food is widely scattered and you have got to be able to move fast if a predator approaches, so these animals have developed long subtle limbs to cover long distances, and it also helps them forage more effectively, they can put their hands into crevices, they can dig, they can look for food.
Babookaris have a primate's dexterous hands and a primate's intelligence and they use both to find food.
There are small, shallow lake scattered all across the grasslands.
And around the edges of the lakes, are strange, woven baskets that look almost manmade.
These baskets are woven from grass and twigs, and provide shelter from predators for hoards of small fish.
They are fish traps.
Made by the babookaris.
These lakes are full of fish, so it doesn't take long for the trap to fill up.
The lakes are a regular stop for the babookaris as they patrol their territory.
The older monkeys are the most skilful at making the traps.
The youngsters watch them and learn how it is done.
The monkeys need this fish protein to supplement their rather sparse diet from the Amazon prairies.
Food is not particularly abundant in these grasslands babookaris troupes have to travel long distances each day looking for food.
They are basically omnivores, they will eat plant material, they will eat roots, tubers, insects, any small mammals they can catch.
Basically, they have to exploit any food source they can find.
And one way they actually supplement their diet is by eating fish.
There is waters out there on the plain, streams and ponds, and these things have managed to weave small traps made out of bits of twig and grass.
They throw them into the streams, they leave them there and periodically as the troupe passes, they pull them out.
Fish will shelter in them and they will eat the fish.
It supplements their diet and it is a skill they need in this arid landscape.
Other primates do much the same.
Today, chimps use tools to help them find food.
Certain troupes have learned to strip down twigs, and poke them into termite nests to pull out the juicy insects.
This skill needs intelligence, as well as nimble fingers, to manipulate the primitive tools.
But using tools like this isn't instinctive, mothers have to teach their infants how it's done.
In the future, tool use, building elaborate fish traps, helps babookaris survive.
And being large gives the carakilla an edge.
But there are yet other ways of adapting to life, here.
This is a rattleback.
Rattlebacks are very territorial.
When two rattlebacks meet, they perform a noisy display by rattling large, heavy plates on their backs.
The loudest wins.
And the loser retires gracefully.
The rattleback is a rodent.
Rodents are highly successful animals about 40% of all the mammals alive today are rodents.
They are adaptable, they can live in a wide variety of habitats.
The rattleback probably evolved from some large, South American rodent that lived on the forest floor.
Something like a peccary or agouty.
Moved out onto the grasslands as they evolved, but life on the grassland is exposed to predators.
The agouties and the peccaries can rely on cover, they can hide in the forest.
The rattleback's got nowhere to hide, so as it moved onto the grassland, it had to develop some form of protection.
Hence the plates on its back.
The plates are used for territorial displays.
But they are mainly for defence.
As the rattleback's ancestors evolved to cope with the rapid loss of forest cover.
But evolving armour wasn't that difficult for those forest rodents.
The plates are only made from hair.
But it's become matted and fused like rhino horn.
There are creatures today with similar armour to rattlebacks, but they are not rodents.
These are pangolins, they look like animated pine cones.
And if threatened, curl into a tight ball, making themselves impregnable.
In the future, rattlebacks don't just curl up, they have another way to protect themselves a fringe of long tough spines along each side of the rattleback, stick into the earth as it hunkers down.
Muscles at the base of the spines, lock them in place.
It's almost impossible for anything to dislodge it.
They need this extra degree of protection because of what they eat eggs.
But not just any eggs.
This is a carakilla nest, containing a dozen large eggs.
Carakillas breed communally.
It is essential for them if they laid individual nests, distributed over a big area, those nests would all be vulnerable to predation, but by nesting in group, using a single nest, the animals have got much greater safety.
The females lay their eggs in a single nest, each one laying an egg or two in turn.
All the eggs are incubated by the male carakilla, who only leaves his duties briefly to find food.
But it is enough time for the rattleback the find the nest.
The nest isn't left unguarded for long.
Being caught red-handed doesn't worry a rattleback.
Those tough scales are strong enough to survive even an angry carakilla.
Although the earth is in the grip of an ice age, the tropical summer is still warm and brings massive thunderstorms.
Sometimes these storms bring rain to the parched landscape.
But at the end of the summer, the grass is tinder-dry.
Storms build up every afternoon, and everyone waits for some relief from the stifling heat.
But these storms don't always bring rain.
More often, they bring fire.
One of the features of savannah habitat is it burns.
Any number of events perhaps a glint of sunlight off something shiny, perhaps a thunder, lightning strike, will trigger a fire.
And fire is essential to the ecosystem, it is part of the lifecycle of the vegetation, with the next generation of plants, the grass or trees or whatever will only usually set seed after grass has burnt.
Fire is a crucial part of life in all grasslands.
It may look destructive, but it is good news for many creatures.
Today, storks are drawn to the fire edge to feed on insects, reptiles or mammals flushed into the open by the flames.
But, more important, fire turns dead, dry grass into a rich ash.
This fertilises the ground, creating a flush of new growth.
Which, in turn, feeds grazers.
So, fire brings new life to the grasslands.
Like storks do today, carakillas of the future feed on the fire edge: running down anything that escapes the flames.
Carakillas can use their speed to stay one step ahead of the wall of fire.
Babookaris use their speed to head in the opposite direction.
There is nothing for them amongst the flames, except of course, the carakillas their enemies.
But some creatures can't outrun the fire.
The rattleback has no chance of escaping.
As the flames pass, the rattleback seems doomed.
But the rattleback's scales are fireproof as well as carakilla proof.
As long as the fire moves quickly, the rattleback can survive.
Fire is not as destructive as it looks some animals survive it, others profit by it.
Colourful and smart, ground dwelling monkeys.
Huge, killer birds that hunt in deadly packs.
A bizarre, armoured fireproof rodent all living on a vast, open plain, where the Amazon rainforest once stood.
Life in these grasslands is very different from life in the forest, but evolution has shaped new creatures with new ways of surviving on these Amazon prairies.