Reptiles and Amphibians Life


Reptiles and Amphibians

David Attenborough reveals the strategies used by reptiles and amphibians to conquer their shortcomings, whether for safety, breeding or capturing prey.


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Transcript


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The island of Komodo in Indonesia.

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Remote and barren.

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Few people live here.

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It's ruled by a giant reptile.

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It looks like a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs.

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The Komodo dragon.

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9 feet long.

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A top predator.

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Only one thing can challenge a dragon's dominance.

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Another dragon.

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In the breeding season, males are drawn into savage conflict.

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Huge claws and 60 serrated teeth can inflict terrible damage.

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The Komodo dragon is the only reptile that still rules the land...

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as the dinosaurs once did.

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It can dominate here because it has no competition.

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But for the rest of the world's reptiles and amphibians,

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survival is a much tougher struggle.

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Like the dragon, reptiles and amphibians seem primitive,

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better suited to an earlier age.

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Yet they have a surprising repertoire of extraordinary strategies.

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And they still thrive in many parts of the planet.

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This is the story of how they do so.

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South America, the remote jungle where Brazil and Venezuela meet.

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Sheer-sided mountains rise up from the jungle.

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Few places on Earth are wetter.

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It's the home of some ancient and very peculiar amphibians.

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The waterfall toad is just an inch long, the size of a postage stamp.

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Its special gripping hands enable it to clamber safely, high in the tree tops.

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But it's not alone up here.

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Most frogs and toads avoid predators by hopping out of danger.

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But this toad never evolved the ability to hop for more than an inch

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and that's nowhere near enough.

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One way it gets eaten.

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The other way is thin air.

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Not much of a choice.

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But this isn't suicide.

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It's a deliberate strategy,

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and one that depends on the size and strength

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of those extraordinary hands.

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Free-falling like this is a very effective way of escaping.

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However, another toad on this same mountain has elaborated this strategy.

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It lives a mile above the forest, on this plateau,

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cut off from the world below.

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This is a pebble toad.

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It too is only an inch long.

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These rocks may seem a paradise for a toad.

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It's even wetter than the forest below and there are no snakes.

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But there is a hunter here.

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A toad-eating tarantula.

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It ambushes its prey.

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Like the waterfall toad, the pebble toad can't hop.

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But it has a different defence.

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It tenses its muscles, becomes rigid and turns itself into a rubber ball.

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It's so tiny and weighs so little

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that bouncing doesn't hurt it at all.

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Bizarre innovations like these are one of the reasons why

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amphibians and reptiles are still so successful.

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Some of them, however,

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have hardly changed for tens of millions of years.

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Brazil's Pantanal.

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Over 50,000 square miles of swamp.

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In the dry season, the water is reduced to isolated pools

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and then they contain the greatest concentration of crocodiles on Earth.

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These caiman crocodiles

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are trapped and fast running out of food.

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It will be a long time before the rains return and the rivers rise

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bringing with them the caiman's prey...fish.

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Being cold blooded they can go without food for months

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and stay inactive except when they squabble.

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At last, the rains return and rivers swell.

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All reptiles are experts at saving energy.

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The caiman simply line up and wait for the fish to come to them.

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Reptiles and amphibians must warm their bodies

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before they can become active and until then

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they are slow-moving and vulnerable.

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The quickest way to gain heat is to bask in the sun,

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as this basilisk lizard from Central America is doing.

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The trouble is that exposing yourself

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inevitably makes you easily seen.

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But a conspicuous perch over a river like this

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seems to be making yourself unnecessarily prominent.

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This basilisk's greatest threat comes from the sky.

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Dark shapes overhead make it nervous.

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A hunting bird might expect it to flee to the trees.

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In fact, it does the opposite.

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This skitter across the surface of the water earns it precious seconds

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and the nickname, Jesus Christ lizard.

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It drives its feet down so hard and so fast

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that it never sinks deeper than a few inches.

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A human would need to run at 65mph to do this.

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Reptiles are certainly expert at avoiding trouble

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but they are also very good at finding a way to live in places

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that don't seem to suit them at all.

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They once included the largest animals that have ever walked the Earth...

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the dinosaurs.

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And some living ones are a million times smaller than T Rex.

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Smaller indeed, than some insects.

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The Brazilian pygmy gecko could sit comfortably on a finger tip.

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It's so exceptionally small that no other reptiles compete with it.

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But it's so nimble

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it can escape from the hunting monsters of the undergrowth.

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It is so small that it has special problems with, for example, rain.

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It could drown in a drop

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but its skin is hydrophobic.

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Rain cannot wet it.

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A tumble into a puddle, you might think,

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would risk death by drowning.

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But the gecko is unsinkable.

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It's so light and its skin so water-repellent

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that it can literally stand on water.

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Such miniaturisation is certainly very impressive

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but the reptile body can be transformed even more dramatically.

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One of the most bizarre of all reptiles

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hunts insects here in Madagascar.

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The praying mantis has 360 degree vision

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but it hasn't seen the danger that is now approaching.

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A panther chameleon.

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Every part of its body

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has become specialised for a life of stealth among the branches.

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Its toes have become grasping pincers.

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Its eyes rotate so it can look in all directions.

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Its skin can change colour for camouflage or to signal emotions.

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The chameleon body is concealed from both predator and prey,

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so it can launch a surprise attack.

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The tongue is a like a missile,

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aimed at its prey's head to neutralise its defences.

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Chameleons, in short, are so perfectly adapted

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to a life spent hunting in trees

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that it's hard to imagine how they could live anywhere else.

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The Namib Desert.

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There are no trees for hundreds of miles.

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Yet these are, undoubtedly, chameleon foot prints.

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This female Namaqua chameleon is searching for a mate.

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No part of her body seems suited to such an environment.

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Her feet, that could give her such a good grip on twigs,

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should surely be useless on soft sand.

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But she's able to spread them like snow shoes.

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She needs to get warm and active while the desert is still cool

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so she exploits the chameleon's versatile skin.

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The side facing the sun goes dark to absorb the sun's heat,

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while the other remains light

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and minimises the heat escaping from her body.

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She's hungry and food is scarce.

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But she's still not quick enough to grab these desert beetles.

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Her solution is simple.

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She finds, at last, a little vegetation

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and waits for a shade-seeking beetle to come to her.

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On she goes, in her search for a mate.

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At last, a wandering male.

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But he may not treat her as she might wish.

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The courtship of most chameleons is gentle.

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But in this desert,

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a male meets a female so rarely he can't risk being rejected.

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She marches on, now carrying a new generation.

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A six-month freeze,

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when temperatures may drop to minus 40 degrees centigrade,

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should surely make things impossible for a reptile.

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But here in Canada, beneath the thawing snow, something stirs.

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A male red-sided garter snake.

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He survived the winter by hibernating underground

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where the temperature never dropped below zero.

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The weak sun persuades more males to emerge.

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They are cold and can't move fast, yet they are in an urgent race.

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The first males to warm up will have a head start,

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when the first females appear.

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Melt water provides the first drink they've had for six months.

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At last, a female has emerged.

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The warmest males will inevitably be the first to react to her smell.

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She will only mate once, so competition between them is intense.

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This male has overslept.

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He will need hours to warm up.

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At the moment he stands no chance of mating.

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Most of the other males are ready to chase females but, curiously,

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some leave the race and go to join the cold male.

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They slide their warm bodies over him,

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just as they would if they were courting a female.

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More and more males crowd round him. Why?

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Their relative temperatures show what's going on.

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His cool body, showing as blue,

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is quickly warming as it absorbs heat from the other males.

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He's a trickster, he's fooled the others by giving off a scent

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just like a female's and they are trying to mate with him.

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He only needs a few minutes of this to steal enough heat from his rivals

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to catch up and join the chase.

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Every spring, tens of thousands of garter snakes

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fight it out in this mating frenzy.

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It is, in numbers, the greatest gathering of reptiles in the world.

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Getting a mate is just the first challenge a reptile faces

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when it's ready to breed.

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This collared iguana in Madagascar

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will only lay one batch of eggs this year,

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so she needs somewhere safe to hide them.

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Her eggs are much sought after by predators,

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they're excellent pre-packaged meals.

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She appears to have the answer.

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She covers all traces of where she buried them.

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It's a good strategy.

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But not good enough.

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Hog-nosed snakes have learned to keep watch on iguana nesting sites

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and to note the precise place where the eggs lie buried.

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She has been completely outwitted.

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She can only stand by and watch as her precious eggs are eaten.

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Next year she'll have to find a nesting site

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without a hog-nosed snake.

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On the other side of the world, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona,

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a similar drama has a very different outcome.

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A female horned lizard guards her buried eggs

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and is keeping a lookout for anything

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that might interfere with them.

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A western patch-nosed snake.

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It is an egg-eater.

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And she won't stand for it.

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The patch-nose is no match for this kind of aggression.

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Her eggs are safe, for now.

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Another predator, a coachwhip snake.

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And this species is a lizard eater.

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And she can tell the difference.

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The snake is too fast for her to outrun it.

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So she makes herself look larger and taller.

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The snake is wary of swallowing anything

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that looks as big and as spiky as this.

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And now the lizard plays her trump card.

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The snake isn't accustomed to prey that does this.

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One very confused snake.

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Now she can return to guard duty,

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and several months later she's rewarded with her first baby.

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Looking after your eggs is an even greater challenge for reptiles

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that have left land to live in the sea.

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The Pacific island of Niue is home to the world's entire population

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of one particular type of sea krait.

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This snake is superbly adapted to life underwater

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except when it's time to breed.

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After a few minutes in a mating coil, the female is fertilised.

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But now she has a problem.

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Reptile eggs can't survive underwater,

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the developing young would drown.

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They have to be able to breathe air.

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She and her eggs are both vulnerable to predators,

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if they return to land.

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But she has an extraordinary solution.

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She dives beneath the island.

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To find the entrance to a long underwater tunnel.

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At the far end is a cave with an air pocket.

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This is the dry land her eggs need.

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There are no predators here.

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The cavern is sealed by a roof above and the water below.

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She searches for a crevice where she can deposit her eggs.

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The eggs will be completely safe here

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and she can return to the open sea.

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Six months later, a baby snake takes its first breath.

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Somehow, the young snakes must find their own way to water.

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Then down the tunnel and out to sea.

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A male giant bullfrog.

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Reptiles and amphibians rarely care for their young after they hatch

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but this South African bruiser is an exception.

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The males sort out their dominance through combat.

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The strongest will mate with the most females.

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You might not expect such an aggressive male

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to be a caring father.

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Yet one male stays behind to watch over, not just his own,

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but everyone else's offspring.

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The females laid their eggs in the shallows

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around the margins of the pool.

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But the sun is intense

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and the shallows have shrunk to a single pool.

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There's a real danger that the tadpoles will be stranded.

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The guardian male recognises the problem.

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They will be dead within an hour unless he can do something to help.

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There is only one thing he can do to save them.

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Dig a channel to the main pool.

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They're safe.

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Remarkable innovations have made amphibians and reptiles

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a modern success story.

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What is more, among their ranks is one reptile

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that is still an undisputed top land predator.

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The Komodo dragon.

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They mostly hunt deer, which they ambush and easily overpower.

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But in hard times the dragons risk hunting something much bigger.

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Water buffalo, an animal ten times their size.

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Until now, a dragon hunt has never been filmed.

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It's the dry season.

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A buffalo sleeps through the heat of the day

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in one of the last waterholes.

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Dragons lurk around the margins.

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The buffalo seems to view them as just an irritation,

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not a danger.

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A serious mistake.

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The dragon is wary a jab or a kick could injure it fatally.

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The bites are just flesh wounds but other dragons are alert now.

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Like sharks, they're excited by blood.

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The buffalo leaves with just a limp.

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The dragons appear to have failed.

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Yet they show a peculiar interest in the buffalo

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and follow it wherever it goes.

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As the days pass, the buffalo's wounds don't heal.

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It starts to weaken.

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The dragons' hunting method begins to come clear.

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A brand new discovery reveals that the dragon has venom, like a snake.

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The bite will eventually prove fatal

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but it's going to take several weeks.

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The dragons, however, can afford to wait for a meal of this size.

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They simply stick close to their victim and conserve their energy.

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Thousands of years ago, dwarf elephants lived here.

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The dragons probably hunted them in exactly the same way.

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But the process is a long, drawn out one.

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Three weeks later and the buffalo is very weak.

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The dragons sense that the end is near.

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They must remain wary, the buffalo could still lash out.

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Gradually they close in to try and finish it off.

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The dragons' strategy is certainly merciless

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but it is the only way that they can get a meal like this

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and in hard times they need it if they're to survive.

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The buffalo died in the night.

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Ten big dragons have gathered to feed.

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They strip the buffalo to the bone in just four hours.

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This is the biggest venomous animal on the planet.

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We don't need tales of Jurassic Park and Velociraptors

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to see a reptile dominated world.

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It's all here.

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No-one has ever before followed the whole process

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of a Komodo dragon hunting a buffalo.

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So cameraman Kevin Flay and researcher Matt Swarbrick

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didn't know what to expect.

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They thought it would be a physical challenge

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but they hadn't bargained for emotional turmoil as well.

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They reached Komodo after a four day journey.

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Kevin, an expert at filming reptiles,

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knows they're in dragon territory.

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Look how wide that is.

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-Look at that.

-Yes.

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Their only protection is these rangers, armed with sticks.

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These big ones look really scary, actually.

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And not until you get, till they come really in close

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and when they're by the camera, then you tend to question your faith

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in our friends with the sticks.

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But this dragon isn't a big one.

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At five foot, this dragon is just over half grown.

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The really big ones live in land,

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which is exactly where Kevin and Matt must go

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to find a place where dragons and buffalo might meet.

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We could spend five weeks walking around all over the island

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just trying to find dragons randomly coming across buffalos

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but fortunately for us it is the dry season

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and there's only one decent waterhole left on the island

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and both the dragons and the buffalo require water, obviously,

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which brings them together.

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Kevin decides to wait here,

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but after a few days with no sign of dragons,

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it looks like the wrong decision.

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Oh, here comes a buffalo.

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You know this is about as, as exciting as the day gets.

0:50:400:50:44

Look.

0:50:440:50:45

See that.

0:50:490:50:52

Hello, mate.

0:50:520:50:54

After almost a week something changes

0:50:540:50:57

and a couple of dragons appear.

0:50:570:51:00

Have we got a ranger here?

0:51:060:51:09

Guys, can we have a ranger?

0:51:090:51:11

Always know how dangerous a situation is,

0:51:140:51:17

but it does seem a bit concerning

0:51:170:51:19

that one of our rangers is sat up in a tree.

0:51:190:51:21

But the dragons show no interest in the buffalo or the crew

0:51:280:51:32

and the frustration continues.

0:51:320:51:35

Yet their task seems so simple.

0:51:350:51:38

So all we need

0:51:380:51:40

is for him to film him attacking him.

0:51:400:51:45

But it looks like he is about to attack him.

0:51:480:51:52

Just cut myself, that's not good in dragon country.

0:51:580:52:02

I better be careful.

0:52:020:52:03

Now we've gotta start our walk home, it takes just over an hour

0:52:030:52:07

but the thing is, if stuff's happened and you've got,

0:52:070:52:10

you've managed to film good stuff then it, it's really easy,

0:52:100:52:13

you just trot on home and find some dinner

0:52:130:52:15

and find out what the rats have done to your room.

0:52:150:52:18

But it's still really hot at this time of day

0:52:180:52:20

and so, if you've not filmed a lot

0:52:200:52:22

and you've just sat here all day long,

0:52:220:52:24

then it's a hell of a long walk home.

0:52:240:52:26

They have a lot of long walks home but finally a new dragon appears,

0:52:260:52:31

something about its attitude seems different.

0:52:310:52:35

Maybe we could be onto something but I've now lost that other dragon,

0:52:350:52:40

which makes me a bit nervous.

0:52:400:52:42

At first it's wary,

0:52:460:52:49

unwilling to get too close to the buffalo.

0:52:490:52:52

Big dragons involved here.

0:53:020:53:04

That came from absolutely nowhere.

0:53:090:53:13

That guy has got some real attitude.

0:53:130:53:18

That first bite and the smell of blood set off a chain reaction.

0:53:360:53:42

All the dragons seem to come to life.

0:53:420:53:44

The peaceful watering hole is now a dangerous place to be.

0:53:500:53:54

Well, I've definitely got two heads at the moment,

0:54:020:54:05

one as a cameraman saying, "Yes, brilliant!"

0:54:050:54:07

And the other one's thinking, "That poor animal," you know,

0:54:070:54:11

"That's not nice, that's really not nice."

0:54:110:54:13

Quickly, quick,

0:54:210:54:23

quick, quick.

0:54:230:54:25

My heart's pumping a bit.

0:54:380:54:42

At least my heart still works. Good Lord, that was a bit hairy.

0:54:420:54:46

Now the crew must follow the buffalo everyday

0:54:480:54:51

to finish their filming job.

0:54:510:54:53

This begins to take a toll on their emotions.

0:54:530:54:58

He knows he's injured, he can't walk properly

0:54:580:55:01

and he's got these predators just gathering around him,

0:55:010:55:06

waiting for the opportunity.

0:55:060:55:08

It's gruesome.

0:55:080:55:09

Shadowing the buffalo means staying close to the dragons too.

0:55:090:55:14

This is mad we've, just, just followed a, the buffalo

0:55:140:55:18

and, I think, six dragons, I've lost track now,

0:55:180:55:22

I think it's six dragons, down into the riverbed

0:55:220:55:26

and, you know, it's, they're stalking it,

0:55:260:55:29

we're all a bit nervous,

0:55:290:55:31

this is actually quite frightening, I have to say.

0:55:310:55:34

They're so capable and so unafraid of us

0:55:420:55:45

and they would have no problems at all

0:55:450:55:49

of causing us major, major damage.

0:55:490:55:52

At the moment I feel about 5 to 10% confident that I'm safe here

0:55:530:55:59

but the truth is we just don't know.

0:55:590:56:02

As the days pass, Kevin and Matt

0:56:120:56:14

can't help but feel more deeply involved.

0:56:140:56:18

I'm sure they're starting to think of us as death,

0:56:200:56:23

you know, the camera team.

0:56:230:56:24

Because, although we, you know, we're not influencing it

0:56:240:56:27

in any way, really, we're always there when the dragon's there

0:56:270:56:30

and, you know, she's sick so we're following her

0:56:300:56:33

and you see her looking back at you

0:56:330:56:35

and I'm sure I feel like death and his scythe's coming in to kill.

0:56:350:56:39

I'm not really that sure how cut out I am for this.

0:56:390:56:44

If, if the game is spending all your time watching an animal die...

0:56:440:56:49

I don't know about that.

0:56:490:56:50

The dragons seem brutal,

0:56:540:56:57

yet this is the only way they can get large prey.

0:56:570:57:00

For the team, the event has become personal.

0:57:060:57:10

I think as we've got to know him and, you know,

0:57:120:57:15

we've seen him every morning, we've seen him every evening

0:57:150:57:19

and, you know, you build up a relationship with him

0:57:190:57:22

and, and today I think he, he kind of gave up.

0:57:220:57:25

The next day it is all over.

0:57:310:57:34

Now it's over, you sit back and reflect and you sort of feel,

0:57:420:57:46

that was just astonishing.

0:57:460:57:47

And it feels so primeval.

0:57:500:57:53

It feels we're watching something from a different era.

0:57:530:57:56

And they really are the most fantastic things to be with.

0:57:560:58:00

Scary....

0:58:000:58:02

awesome, you know, to look at

0:58:020:58:04

you just feel that you are looking at something from Jurassic Park.

0:58:040:58:09

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:310:58:34

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:340:58:37

Reptiles and amphibians look like hang-overs from the past. But they overcome their shortcomings through amazing innovation.

The pebble toad turns into a rubber ball to roll and bounce from its enemies. Extreme slow-motion shows how a Jesus Christ lizard runs on water, and how a chameleon fires an extendible tongue at its prey with unfailing accuracy. The camera dives with a Niuean sea snake, which must breed on land but avoids predators by swimming to an air bubble at the end of an underwater tunnel. In a TV first, komodo dragons hunt a huge water-buffalo, biting it to inject venom, then waiting for weeks until it dies. Ten dragons strip the carcass to the bone in four hours.


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