What does a newly hatched crocodile see while it is being transported to water between its mother’s 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 BBC’s 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 Attenborough’s 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.
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 didn’t 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.
The series has been made for the BBC by Downer’s 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.
“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 BBC’s natural history unit, “but that’s been the great change over the past decade or so”.
“You can’t spend any time with animals without realising that in so much of what they do, they are so like us,” he said. “That’s inevitable – we are animals, so why make that big distinction? To deny it is to fly in the face of what you are seeing.”