BBC series uses robot creatures to document secret lives of animals

Spy in the Wild uses camouflaged cameras to capture unprecedented footage of wildlife in five-part show

What does a newly hatched crocodile see while it is being transported to water between its mothers jaws? How should a wild dog pup behave if it wants to be accepted by an approaching pack of adults?

These and other questions will be answered in a new BBC wildlife series screening this week, in which the stars of the show are not only the animals being filmed, but the animatronic spy creatures used to film them.

Spy in the Wild is the BBCs first major natural history series since Planet Earth II, but the footage that makes up the five-part series was captured in a very different way to Sir David Attenboroughs wildlife spectacular.

Using 30 remote-controlled robotic animals, each concealing miniature cameras, programme-makers captured footage they say is among some of the most intimate and revealing to date, showing a range of animal behaviours that appear to demonstrate grief, friendship and even empathy with other species.

Polar bears approach the snowball camera. Photograph: BBC/John Downer Productions

As well as allowing unprecedented access to the animals including a trip between the jaws of a Ugandan Nile crocodile the animatronic creatures were designed to interact with real-life animals in ways that at times astonished the film-makers, according to John Downer, the executive producer.

We began to see that the cameras were not only recording, they were sometimes eliciting behaviour in a way that made you think, he said. You were having that connection between the spy creature and the animal that you never get with any kind of filming, and so things would develop that you didnt expect.

The first episode, themed around the subject of love, includes one example. In a scene filmed with a troop of langurs living on a temple complex in Rajasthan, a robotic camera, modelled to resemble a young monkey, is believed by the troop to be a baby that has died.

The langurs are seen gathering en masse to surround the motionless baby, hushing their chatter and hugging each other as if collectively grieving.

Adlie penguins in Antarctica. Photograph: John Downer Productions

The series has been made for the BBC by Downers eponymous production company, which has made previous spy series, including one featuring an early robotic camera concealed in a fake rock, nicknamed bouldercam.

The animals in the new series, developed over months by international teams of roboticists, programmers and artists, have benefitted from huge technological advances since the lumbering boulder.

A camera disguised as a prairie dog, which captures the animals habit of kissing each other, was programmed with the ability to jump-yip, a leaping motion that reinforces family bonds.

Similarly, spy-pup, the wild dog camera, had to be given the ability to make a range of submissive gestures including wagging its tail, twitching its ears and performing the respectful play bow in order to win the trust of suspicious adults in the pack. The scientists who study the animals had predicted it would be ripped apart in minutes.

Downer would not disclose the cost of the animatronic creatures, which include a walking crocodile, several mobile tortoises and a female orangutan, but said they are all obviously pretty expensive, because they require a massive amount of work. In the case of the more sophisticated animals, he said, this could take up to nine months of development per creature.

A crocodile with young in her mouth. Photograph: Richard Jones/John Downer Productions/BBC

In the last episode, which is about misbehaviour, you will see quite a few of our spy creatures destroyed, he said, including a tortoise trampled by a herd of elephants. Their greatest worry was that the creatures were not destroyed when first introduced to the animals, because after that they are generally accepted, he added.

Ascribing human emotions to animals used to be frowned upon, said Downer, who began his career with the BBCs natural history unit, but thats been the great change over the past decade or so.

You cant spend any time with animals without realising that in so much of what they do, they are so like us, he said. Thats inevitable we are animals, so why make that big distinction? To deny it is to fly in the face of what you are seeing.

  • Spy in the Wild is on BBC1 on 12 January at 8pm

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/dec/31/bbc-robot-creatures-spy-secret-lives-animals-wildlife-series

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