Planet Earth II – ‘Grasslands’

planetearthiigrasslands

CONTAINS SPOILERS

The fifth episode of this series was on Grasslands.

A quarter of all land on Earth is covered in grass, and some areas are dominated by grass. Grasslands can happen in areas where the rain falls rarely, but when it does it comes out
it’s a torrential downpour. Forests can’t survive in such areas, as the rain doesn’t fall often enough to sustain them. Grass has more advantages over other plants in these areas too. Rain can flood so much that a lot of plants will drown, but grass can grow very fast out of water and reach the sunlight.

In some grasslands the heat from the sun becomes so hot that it caused fires which burn through the dry grass, leaving only ash and dust. But the grass is still alive underground, it is just waiting for rain to come, then it will grow again. In other places, grass has to survive against ice and snow. It can be resilient against many contrasting threats, heat, cold, water, fire and ice.

Some grass in northern India grows tall enough to hide elephants. I did think the footage of elephants and tigers among this grass made them look a little like they were tiny and insect sized, but the programme made the point that the world among grass for insects is very like a miniature rainforest, with flowering grass being similar to fruiting trees.

There is a harvest mouse we see climbing up grass stems like a monkey up a tree. She even uses her tail to climb with. She is spotted by a barn owl, but manages to unhook her tail from the grass and fall all the way to the ground before it can get her. From there the harvest mouse finds her way home, a nest high up among some grass blades. It’s only here we discover that she is a mother with mouths to feed.

Saiga antelope have a nose which looks a bit strange on an antelope, it appears more like that of a male elephant seal. But superficial appearance aside, the saiga’s nose is very useful. It can detect fresh grass has grown hundreds of miles away!

In the Okavango in Southern Africa we see an intense fight for survival between a buffalo and five lionesses. The buffalo bull weighs more than the five lionesses put together and his horns could kill them. The lionesses have numbers on their side, and strategy. One distracts him, while the others attack him. In the goriest scene in the episode, there is blood from the buffalo all over a lioness who is biting into him, but his hide is two inch thick. Eventually, he manages escape.

In the African savanna, carmine bee-eaters need a way to drive their insect prey out of grass, so they sometimes hitch rides on larger birds. One we see lands on a kori bustard and eats insects that fly up after being disturbed by the larger bird. Another carmine sees this and tries to muscle in itself. This all begins to annoy the bustard, who shakes them both off. Ostriches are even bigger than bustards, and it’s not long before every ostrich has a carmine riding them. The ostriches aren’t too keen on this though, and drive the carmines off.

Elephants, however, are so big they barely notice carmines at all, when the carmines tend to fly in front of the elephant to get the insects.

The male Jackson’s widowbird has a grand, elaborate black plumage, and creates a nesting site to impress females. The females are much smaller and have a less eye-catching yellow and brown plumage. The males have to get the females attention, and they do so by leaping in the air from the ground. They have to keep at it for a long time too, and most eventually get tired and drop out, leaving one who will be the female’s choice to mate with.

Grass-cutter ants take more grass than all the grazers on Earth combined. But the ants themselves don’t, and indeed can’t, eat it. What they do is place it among some fungus. The fungus ‘eats’ the grass, and the ants then eat the fungus. Essentially, the ants are farmers.

In North America when it is winter the falling temperatures, ice and snow bring difficulties for some of the animals. Bison have to plough through the snow to find grass. The grass is withered, dry and there’s not much of it, but it’s all they have.

A fox in the exact same area has different food to find. He has to be precise, tread carefully, listen for it underneath and strike with pinpoint accuracy and at the exact right time. He sort of dives down into the snow. He succeeds eventually, catching a vole.

Similarly there’s a serval cat, found in Africa. She has long legs to see over grass and large ears which can detect the slightest movement of her prey. Like the fox, she also have to be stealthy. She is quite graceful in her hunting too, almost balletic in a way.

A caribou calf that is just a few weeks old is pursued by an Arctic wolf. The caribou calf is fast, the narration mentioned that even when they are only a day old caribou calves are “faster than an Olympic sprinter”. The Arctic wolf is even faster than the calf though. However, the advantage the calf has over the wolf is stamina, and it gets away.

There was some amazing shots in ‘Grasslands’. Cobwebs growing among blades of grass, tall grass blowing in the wind the skies going from orange to blue, rainclouds moving looking a bit like a tidal wave, antelope leaping in the flood water.

The scene with the harvest mouse in particular looked really nice! The summer sunshine, yellow and purple flowers, caterpillars and moths. It looked idyllic and peaceful, even though for the harvest mouse the stakes were very high at that point.

I think perhaps it was a bit much to add some of the “woosh” and “boing” sound effects on though. Fair enough, it’s one thing to compare a blade of grass to a tree on a smaller scale, but I’m not sure about them adding a creaking sound effect as if it was a tree.

The cute, plucky harvest mouse seems to have been popular with viewers, I think a lot of people were rooting for her. The fox diving into the snow has become a bit of a meme too.

That might seem a bit contradictory, seeing as how the fox was after a similar animal to the mouse. But it’s easy to see why people liked the harvest mouse and the fox. Look, they’re cute animals, of course people like them. They were also both protagonists in the scenes we saw. It’s also possible for people to feel some sympathy for both the predator and the prey at the same time, which somewhat happened in this episode with the buffalo and the lionesses.

‘Grasslands’ was a good episode, it had some of the most stunning visuals and some of the best shots in the series. The episode also had a theme of survival and resilience.

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