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TV Preview: Life – “Mammals” on Discovery Channel

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Mammals have been around for 225 million years. On Sunday, March 28, they are the focus of Life: "Mammals" on Discovery Channel, which shows us a variety of mammals, most of which we already know. Familiarity with these animals, however, is no excuse to skip "Mammals," a beautifully rendered natural history documentary that takes us from Africa to Antarctica with stops in the Kalahari, the Congo, the Serengeti, Madagascar, and the Arctic tundra.

What separates mammals from the rest of the animal kingdom? Mammals are warm-blooded, have large brains and, as a class, exhibit "the most complex social behavior in the animal kingdom." "Mammals" concentrates on these relationships, particularly those of mother and child. There is a lot the casual viewer can learn from this episode of Life, it's both inspirational and affective.

Did you know that the first mammals only came out at night? They developed powerful smell and hearing to aid them in their nocturnal activities.  They got smarter, then finally emerged into the light.

Mammals also produce milk to feed their young (seal milk is the most nutritious). They stay with their young a long time and teach them survival skills. In this hour-long episode elephants, polar bears, reindeer, and others are shown caring for their offspring, protecting, and providing for them. Some of these scenes are heartwarming; some are heart-rending. Either way, they give us a look at how much we have in common with our mammalian sisters and brothers.

Polar bears terrify me (most bears do; I don’t even like teddy bears), as well they should. Polar bears are the largest land predators and can pick up the scent of food from twenty miles away. Viewers will enjoy watching a mother bear searching for food for her cubs, and observing the choice she has to make between food and safety since the bears are in Antarctica and we…well, we’re not.

For those made nervous by huge carnivores, not to worry, the episode doesn't only focus on them.  There is an introduction to the elephant shrew as well, it’s smaller than a field mouse yet eats ten times as much as a reptile its size because it is warm-blooded and extremely active. "Mammals" gives us a fascinating look at the workings of this little shrew’s fantastic memory.

One cannot help but be impressed by the segment on Congo straw-colored fruit bats. These bats have a three-foot wingspan and are nine inches long. They can travel 1,000 miles in a few nights. Ten million of them gather in one small Zambian swamp forest for a few weeks every year. This is when the mangoes and other wild fruit trees begin fruiting. The sight of layers upon layers of bats roosting in trees is extraordinary, but is surpassed when, after an amazing amount of fruit has been eaten, they take off en masse. Cinematographers have captured a dramatic, awe-inspiring scene. It’s interesting to note that large bats do not navigate by sonar; it’s not part of their evolution.

Watching young reindeer calves romping in the snow as we learn that reindeer are the only migrating deer and walk about 75,000 miles in their lifetime is diverting. But we sadly watch a mother, separated from her calf, searching.

There are many enjoyable moments in "Mammals" but there is an unsettling segment about lions and hyenas. A spotted hyena clan takes on a pride of lions after one of their members had been attacked and chased off by lionesses. Since the lions weigh three times as much as the hyenas, we expect them to win this battle. There are 10 to 20 lions in a pride and up to 50 hyenas in a clan. The hyenas are team workers and it doesn’t take them long to force the lions into submission. Superb action cinematography highlights these scenes.

Meerkats have lots of fans, and it’s easy to see why. "Mammals" visits a gang of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert. They entertain us as they learn to hunt, and I was not as dismayed by a scorpion being turned into a meal as I was to see the lionesses attack the single hyena. The highlight, though, is seeing meerkats literally falling asleep. The meerkats stand along a ridge, soaking up the sun, and we watch as they start to nod, doze, and finally fall to the ground, sound asleep.

There is a segment on the largest land mammals on earth today, elephants, and it spotlights mother-calf relationships, with a little grandmotherly guidance for good measure. The largest mammals on our planet are not elephants, of course, but humpback whales which weigh as much as 40 tons.

Narrator Oprah Winfrey tells us, “No one has ever seen two humpback males mate.” I don’t think that’s a bad thing. “Mammals” concentrates, instead, on the “heat run,” a frenzied, violent mating behavior that pits males against each other, and sometimes results in their injury or death. As a half dozen males fight over one female, we learn the purpose of the battle: the strongest male has the best chance of siring strong offspring. Once the battle is won, the victor and the female submerge. No one knows where they go, no one has seen them mate, and I, for one, am better because of it.

With the wide variety of mammals on earth, this entry into Life makes us hungry for more. Although I am looking forward to encountering other forms of life on the series, I would enjoy meeting a lot more of my fellow mammals. Say 10 or 20 episodes worth…

Life is a co-production of BBC and Discovery Channel. The 11-part natural history series can be seen on Sunday evenings through April 18, and will then be available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is beautifully filmed and appropriate for most viewers.

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