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TV Review: Life – “Reptiles and Amphibians” on Discovery Channel

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March 21 marked the debut of the Discovery Channel’s Life episode  "Reptiles and Amphibians." It is a visual love song to cold-blooded creatures around the world. Viewers are introduced to beasts that range in size from the one-inch pygmy gecko of the Brazilian rainforest to the 150-pound Komodo dragon. We also learn the simple rules of the wild: "find something to eat, pass along your genes, and — above all — don’t get eaten."

Do you know the difference between reptiles and amphibians? I never gave it much thought, but learned that reptiles have scaly skin and claws, while amphibians have smooth skin and no claws. Most amphibians lay soft eggs in water; most snakes lay hard eggs on dry land.

"Reptiles and Amphibians" takes us to Central and South America, Madagascar, southwest Africa, Manitoba, Arizona, and Komodo. In this world tour we meet a remarkable variety of animals, evolutionary marvels engineered to survive. It is unlikely that many of us will have the chance to view these animals in any habitat, exhibiting their survival skills. Here we can appreciate their beauty in tight close-ups.

Narrator Oprah Winfrey notes, "It isn’t easy to love an amphibian or a reptile." Perhaps this is so, but it is incredibly easy to be amazed by them. The cinematography techniques used to capture them and their world have produced breathtaking results here. Anyone who has forgotten how beautiful our planet is will be reminded by acres of lush, green forests, dazzling underwater shots, frozen landscapes, and shifting desert sands. "Reptiles and amphibians have made an art form of surviving in the most extreme habitats on earth."

These animals display an assortment of survival techniques that are nearly unbelievable. In Central America, the basilisk lizard skitters across water, earning itself the nickname "the Jesus Christ Lizard." It can sprint up to 100 feet across the surface, an excellent method of escape from predators.

Among the animals featured in this episode of Life are waterfall toads that are the size of a postage stamp and have "hands;" a pebble toad only one inch long, weighing less than a paperclip, that can throw itself down a mountainside bouncing like a ball to escape a threatening tarantula; and panther chameleons that harpoon their victims’ heads with their tongues.

Also explored are caimans that gather at rapids with their jaws open, waiting for fish to come to them; snakes, fresh from hibernation, swirling in a large mass; the surprising engineering skills of the South African giant bullfrog (that make it such a good parent); and a horned lizard that goes "belly up" to save herself from a coachwhip snake. These and other small lizards and amphibians are presented in "some of the most compelling natural history images ever seen."

The star of the episode, though, is the Komodo dragon. For the first time on television, we see a Komodo dragon hunt down a water buffalo, then wait three weeks for it to die from venomous bites. During its last three weeks, the water buffalo draws nine more Komodo dragons who are attracted by its blood. When the water buffalo finally succumbs, the dragons strip its bones bare in four hours. "In desperate times meals like these are the only way for these giant reptiles to survive."

In the end we learn that although it isn’t easy to love amphibians and reptiles (even though some of us do), they are much like all other living creatures (e.g., us) in that they need to eat, pass on their genes, and defend themselves. Amphibians and reptiles are hard to kill, tenacious, supremely adaptable "improbable geniuses of survival." Life's "Reptiles and Amphibians" makes them accessible and admirable.

Life is a co-production of BBC and Discovery Channel. The 11-part natural history series can be seen on Sunday evenings from March 21 through April 18, and will then be available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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