Easter Eggs Live

This documentary was focusing on the egg, and it was timed to coincide with Easter which has often been associated with eggs, both the chocolate sort and with the egg as a symbol of spring and new life. The week leading up to Easter saw updates every day before Channel 4 news and live online streaming of the hatchery. Most people think of birds when we think of eggs, but they are far from the only animal that hatches from an egg. Reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates also do. The big event of all this was the two live shows screened over the Easter holidays, part one on Easter Sunday and part two on Bank Holiday Monday. Although the bit of promo I loved was the really kind of creepy advert featuring a baby crocodile coming out of a chocolate egg on a supermarket shelf.

The main presenter was veterinary surgeon Mark Evans, who is also the main presenter of Inside Nature’s Giants. I really like him, he seems like a very nice guy and he has a clear interest in nature and from reading up on him animal welfare is very important to him. Throughout the programme he wanted to make it clear that the show had thought very hard about the welfare of the animals used, that the animals used weren’t taken from the wild but from farms and breeding centres.

For all that they’ve called this show a “TV event”, the problem with this is that eggs are not to going hatch live on cue. Mark Evans himself made this point. Indeed later on in the show he noted that emu eggs can take four or five hours to hatch properly and when we were shown footage of earlier hatchings it had been speeded up.

The programme made use of technology in the studio to examine the eggs. A candling lamp was used to shine on top of an egg which meant we saw some of the inside, the air sac which the chick will need to take its first breath, and only develops in the egg after incubation. They also used an MRI scanner to scan a live egg, and from those images they created a computer graphic of a chick inside an egg. A sound recordist allowed us to hear ducklings ready to hatch chipping away inside their eggs.

We later saw an X-ray of what happens when a snake eats an egg. The snake swallows the egg whole and its spine bursts the egg allowing it to digest the insides, and it regurgitates the shell, and it comes back looking fairly neatly folded up oddly enough. Mark Evans noted “That’s put a lot of people off their chocolate Easter eggs”. For me it reminded me a bit of that old Garfield comic strip where he eats a fish, an apple and a doughnut, and spits out the fish skeleton, the apple core and the “hole” of the doughnut.

The embryo in the egg of a smalleyed ray has a tail which it uses to pump water in (so it can get oxygen from it)  and out (excess water) and it can detect electrical charges from predators. Using a machine to stimulate a similar charge we see what happens. The tail stops instantly so as to avoid detection, and starts again just as quickly once the charge has gone. There was also an attempt to make a manmade eggshell using chemicals and a Lego robot, but there never really seemed to be much made of this on either one of the live shows.

Reptiles are becoming an increasingly popular pet, according to a reptile breeder on this show it is not as recent a development as you may think, and their popularity has been growing for 20 years. We got to see a contrast with birds and reptiles. Birds eggs are the hard ones which we are familiar with which leave the shell behind after the chick has hatched, but dragons, for example, have leathery eggs which collapse after the dragon has hatched. Chicks, goslings and ducklings tend to all want to be together, even if some are still eggs, but gecko lizards ignore the fact that there are other eggs there. The programme explains the reason for this. Birds tend to be more social creatures, whereas gecko lizards are more individual. Crocodiles and birds share a surprising similarity though. Baby crocodiles chirp like birds! The mother crocodile buries her eggs underground, and when she hears the chirping noise she comes to dig them up and take them to a “nursery pool”. On the Sunday show they did a live experiment by playing baby crocodile calls via a live link up in Australia to see if a female crocodile who hadn’t laid any eggs for a couple of years would respond. She did, but I wasn’t keen on that segment as I couldn’t help wondering if that would have been upsetting for the crocodile. I noticed Mark Evans was aware that it might come across that way and got the scientists to clarify, to which they said it had simply woken her up and she’d go back to what she was doing before after the sounds had stopped playing.

The other segment I wasn’t keen on, for entirely different reasons, was a video presented by Jimmy Doherty. He went to poultry show in Reading, describing it as “the Oscars of the chicken world”, and a rather joyless looking judge Mervin as “the Simon Cowell of the egg world”.  Apparently the ‘best’ egg is one which is the right shape, length and size, the shade of colour, the quality of the inside egg itself and several contestants said that the eggs can’t be “too pointy”. The trophy was about the size of an egg cup. “You could have splashed out on a bigger trophy” Jimmy Doherty commented, as well as fitting in plenty of cringey bird and egg related puns. “People flock here” for instance. From what we saw of the poultry show I found it all a bit dull and didn’t really get the appeal of it. But either way, as a segment for the programme it was the most pointless and most like filler material.

Jimmy Doherty did better live in the studio when we were shown some live animals. One was a fruit beetle grub and we got a “here’s one I made earlier” moment showing a fully formed fruit beetle, which had beautiful green and yellow colours. He also showed us a tarantula and her giant egg sac that on the outside resembled a discarded bag of rubbish, but inside are hundreds of tiny spiderlings and eggs. Then there are video clips of a wolf spider, which uses two different types of silk to make her egg sac and another to secure it to herself. Then after the spiderlings have hatched she carries them on her abdomen.  The black lace-weaver spider goes even further with this, as she apparently sacrifices herself to her young by allowing them to eat her alive. The programme described it as their way of “Investing in the future”.

Even though those clips were probably stock footage from other nature documentaries, I think I found the clips of animals in the wild the most interesting part of the programme. We saw clips of midwife toads, where as the male fertilises the eggs he puts them on his back and carries them to protect them. Then there was the surinam toad, where after the eggs are fertilised the female grows skin over them, and they develop into full frogs underneath and when ready the baby toads will emerge through their mother’s back. There was also footage of quail eggs hatching in a rocket in outer space, and the quail chicks floating in zero-G. A praying mantis makes a very sophisticated nest, and when the grubs come out they transform into the nymph stage of their life cycle almost instantly. A lacewing puts a sting of silk on the end of plants and lays her eggs at the end of the strand, which looks quite pretty, but the practical reason for this is so ants can’t reach the eggs. A female pignose turtle lays her eggs in sand on a beach in dry season, then when it rains the water triggers the baby turtles to hatch and go straight to the river. There is also footage of the cuckoo and its infamous reproduction technique. The female finds a bird’s nest with eggs that look similar to her own, takes one egg and lays one of her own in its place. When the cuckoo hatches it pushes an egg, and we even see it pushing one of the hatched chicks out. Some other birds have become wise to this though, and we see footage of one mother bird grabbing the cuckoo chick from the nest and throwing it out, then continuing to feed her own chicks. As the programme explains it’s an example of an evolutionary arms race.

One of the guests who appeared was Sean Wilson, who had a highly viewed YouTube video after one his hens, Rosie, who was also live in the studio, laid a big egg that looked like and was about the size of a potato. The reason the video was such a big hit on YouTube was that when he went to crack the egg to see how many yolks were in it he found that there was one yolk… and another egg! The programme explained that the process of a hen making an egg is rather like a factory, with the albumen and shell being added further down the line. What sometimes happens is if one egg is sent back for some reason and it collides with another egg both the eggs will be wrapped up together in one package.

We get to see a lot of baby animals hatching. The goslings are very yellow and fluffy, and the baby dragon still in his egg with his head sticking out was very cute. But most of the time I felt sorry for them. It’s all a normal part of nature, but the poor things look exhausted after they’ve finished hatching from their egg.

Online viewers were asked to guess which animal would have made the largest egg and which made the smallest eggs from a selection of model eggs on the table. The large egg was a reproduction of one which an elephant bird would have laid. Elephant birds are now extinct and the egg is the equivalent of 140 chicken eggs, and apparently was bigger than any dinosaur egg. The revelation of what laid the small eggs was a surprise. They are very small, but look about the size of birds eggs. They were actually laid by a Giant African land snail, which we were shown one sitting on a lettuce leaf.

Some of the animals were named by online viewers. A gosling was named Ryan Gosling. A yet-to-hatch bamboo shark egg, which was one of the most popular of the online streams, was named Nirvana. In the two TV episodes the emus ended up having a lot of focus. Emus lay their eggs in winter, which no other bird does, and their eggs were one of main images used in the title sequence, perhaps because their eggs are a very nice dark colour. But it was the fact that a couple of them had some difficulties in hatching while the two programmes were broadcast which meant focus was given to them.  An emu chick was named April  (although Mark Evans noted we don’t actually know the gender of any of them at this stage and they usually wait three months to test it for sure).  In the second episode another emu was two days overdue to hatch and they had to decide while the programme was filming whether to intervene or not. Apparently it is normal practice in hatcheries to intervene if something is wrong, and in nature an emu father usually intervenes in such events. They decided they had to help the emu chick out by peeling away the shell, and it turned out to be the right decision as the chick was in the egg upside down, so would have been unable to breathe and may not have survived. This chick was named Lucky by the viewers and at the time of writing he is apparently doing well after his initial scare.

The programme was a little wobbly in places, as live TV can be, and it probably didn’t live up to the “live TV event” hype, but it was very interesting, and it seems to have been one of the cases were cross media coverage has actually worked well. I also think it may have been taking a bit of a chance, with educational TV no less, and I think that should be encouraged.

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