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Night on Earth: Series Review

“We have always been strangers to the night.”

This nature series' new technology lifts night's veil to reveal the hidden lives of the world's creatures, from lions on the hunt to bats on wings, to how animals adjust to the new moon or the full moon or the constant light of cities.

If you watch nature shows, you may feel as if you have seen it all, as there were limits to what could be filmed. Night on Earth, however, treads new ground, by showing us what animals do during the night, revealing a busy world to which most of us were blind. The crew documented many behaviors humans have never witnessed – or at least had never captured on film – and treats viewers to some species most of us have never seen before. Furthermore, Night on Earth lets us perceive far more than our unassisted eyes can see, by illuminated changes based on heat or on colors that human vision cannot perceive. The series also shows, in amazing detail, the lives of the very tiny.

Night on Earth is narrated by Samira Wiley in a crisp, matter-of-fact manner. I admit nearly every nature show I have listened to was narrated by a guy, so it took a while to get used to the change in gender.

Although the animals are always concerned about the possibility of being snatched by someone higher on the food chain – and it does happen – Night on Earth spares us any grisly scenes. For example, an elephant is apparently killed by lions, but we don’t watch it happen, even though it was probably witnessed by the camera crew.

Here are the episodes:

Moonlit Plains. From the African savanna to be Peruvian desert, lives of predators and prey are closely linked to the moon's cycles and the opportunities they bring.
This shows the impact moonlight has on what is happening on the plains. Some animals, such as lions, see very well in the dark, so they do well when the moon is new, when their vision gives them an advantage over other animals who need more light. Still, other animals' abilities to hear and to smell are much better than the lions', so not all the luck is with the big cats. We also visit other locations such as the Sonoran desert, which is where scorpions mate.

Frozen Nights. Mothers with cubs fight to survive and a lonely monkey finds safety in numbers as animals navigate cold landscape to socialize, hunt, climb and crawl.
Night brings not just darkness, but cooler temperatures. This can be a relief, but in many parts of the world, animals need other methods to cope. Monkeys huddle together for warmth; an arctic wood frog lets itself freeze – something it can do thanks to the strange composition of its blood.

Jungle Nights. Beneath the jungle's canopy, the night is alive with beasts -- large and small -- that use the darkness to socialize, hunt, climb, and crawl.
It turns out that in the jungles more is going on at night than during the day; 70% of jungle animals are nocturnal. Still, some creatures have much better night vision than others, giving them an advantage on moonless nights, while others adapt by using scent and heat sensors. Owl monkeys cover their feet and hands with their own urine so they can sniff out where they’ve been and back track in the dark.

Dark Seas. The oceans' tides ebb and flow in concert with the moon, and so do lives of the creatures below from the largest whale shark to the smallest prawn.
I really liked the prawn, who got stuck in a tide pool for a night. When the sun goes down, kelp stops putting oxygen into the water, so the prawn – and everyone else in the tide pool – was only active during the first part of the night. When the O2 levels drop, they become quiet, conserving their energy. The prawn actually creeps up to the surface and drags itself out in order to breathe. Also amazing: the starfish that grabs a limpet from a rock and then eats it. The episode has plenty of other scenes outside the tide pool.

Sleepless Cities After dark, the natural world appears in unnatural places: Migrating elephants stroll through town and urbanized otters romp in the city.
We see humans strolling along after dark in Mumbai, unaware they are being followed by leopards. The large cats have the sense not to attack the humans, but everything else is fair game. There is a disturbing scene in which a leopard enters a house and grabs a dog (but it's not gory; no blood is visible).

Dusk to Dawn. The night unfolds to reveal magic in the air, drama in the deep and danger on the ground as animals across the planet rise with the sunset.
This episode serves to catch the bits that might have fallen through the cracks.

Shot in the Dark. This look behind the scenes shows how worldwide camera crews climbed, dived, sweated and froze, using cutting edge technology to capture the documentary series' groundbreaking night footage.
They filmed in circumstances never filmed in before, using new technologies but having to supplement their efforts with lenses sensitive to heat or capable of filming in the full moon (the colors of the flamingos are real!). Furthermore, they had to use devices and techniques to get to the places where they wanted to film. This meant lowering camera-folk into the ocean in a shark cage, driving for hours in the freezing, freezing cold on the sea ice in search of polar bears, or sitting on a platform way up in a tree, night after night after night.

Bits and Pieces

My version of Netflix – offerings are different in different countries – had only six episodes automatically appearing in the series. The seventh episode, “Shot in the Dark,” was not included, but when I entered “Shot in the Dark” into the search function, I found the episode readily enough.

Females of many species are very choosy about which males get to mate: fish, birds, scorpions and even hamsters.

Another source of film for the crew are the surveillance cameras in so many cities. If your dumpster is in a different place in the morning, there's a good chance it was moved by a black bear looking for a midnight meal.

The crew filming in the jungles complained about the many mosquitos munching on them; for every scene, they lost a thimbleful of blood.

Moose usually stay out of cities, but on Hallowe'en they stroll into Anchorage, Alaska, to eat the carved pumpkins.

Corals are surprisingly competitive, even combative, fighting each other for space.

Three quarters (!) of marine animals bioluminesce – they make their own light! This includes light that we don’t see because the wavelengths are beyond our visual range. It also makes me wonder if some humans can see auras.

Overall rating

This show was a delight to watch. I was left with the impression that life is extraordinarily persistent and far more versatile than I ever imagined. I have also concluded our ancestors were wise when they built houses where we can be safe for the night. Four out four thimblefuls of blood.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms. And for this review I’m going to direct your attention to the Crow Nickels, my series about crows who want to save the planet.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review Victoria, thanks. Another excellent show to check out is "Life at the Waterhole" - a three part series on PBS that first aired in late May and early June 2021. It's the best presentation of the SCIENCE of animal behavior observation in the wild that I've ever seen on TV (but it's far from dry, the photography is stunning). The on-camera host is more than a pleasant voice, he actually has legit credentials for this type of show: a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

One suggestion: The first minute or so of each episode contains a preview of what you're going to see in that episode. Try to avoid viewing/listening to those previews, they do spoil some of the actual surprises.

Anonymous said...

CLARIFICATION: My previous comment about avoiding the previews has to do with "Life at the Waterhole", not "Night on Earth"

Victoria Grossack said...

Thanks, Anonymous; it sounds interesting! I am out of the US at the moment, so I may not be able to access the show until I return.

The title "Life at the Waterhole" reminds me of a waterhole I once saw on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The water was green, and all around the waterhole were skeletons, presumably of animals who tried to quench their thirst and then died. That waterhole must have contained some powerful poison.