Mammals review – David Attenborough delivers one of wildlife TV’s greatest pleasures

by 24britishtvMarch 31, 2024, 9 p.m. 21
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The Etruscan shrew is a tiny, furry time machine. Earth’s smallest mammal weighs less than a ping-pong ball and finds food by feeling for it at night, mimicking the very first mammals 200m years ago. They lived in darkness for one simple reason: during the day, dinosaurs roamed.

Two-thirds of mammals are still nocturnal now, so Mammals – the latest David Attenborough nature extravaganza – begins with an episode dedicated to lives lived in the dark. The Etruscan shrew is joined by mole rats, coyotes and a host of others, all hunting under black skies, most of them requiring the latest film-making technology to be seen.

The night-vision aesthetics of the first instalment help to dispel, or at least delay, the obvious criticism you might make of the series. Natural history programmes always try to present themselves as having a particular goal or theme, but having started out as shrewish underdogs, mammals are dominant on Earth today. This study of them feels like a rather non-specific premise. It could lead to a show that’s just some cool stuff about animals generally.

A thrilling, macabre battle between predator and prey is, however, always enough to draw us in, and Mammals kicks off with a corker in Zambia. (The sound of Attenborough introducing a new segment by simply intoning a placename is, incidentally, one of wildlife telly’s abiding pleasures. “Zambia.” Say it to yourself now in your best Sir David whisper. “Zambia.” Lovely.) A leopard, armed with its tapetum lucidum – reflective tissue behind its retinas so it can see superbly in the dim light of a crescent moon – has a go at chasing some impala, before homing in instead on baboons sleeping in a tree.

The baboons can’t see, but they can hear, so as soon as the leopard snaps a twig, the screeching primates are on the run. We hold our breath as a mother and baby get stranded on the end of a branch. Will it take the leopard’s weight? When the big cat does get its teeth into an unlucky baboon, we see blood coursing out and dripping from a bough, something included here in inverted monochrome when it might be left out of a conventional colour sequence. But blood is, if anything, creepier in night vision, as is the sight of paw marks on one of the impalas’ hind quarters.

Equally harrowing is the tragic tale of a lone cape buffalo in the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. It can fight off a spotted hyena. It can fight off 10 spotted hyena. But then 20, 30 and 40 of them turn up, glowing an eerie light grey through the night lens. The buffalo is slowly ripped apart.

For at least half the time, however, Mammals finds ways to film in colour, in low light. The greatest technical achievement in the hour happens in the Sahara, where the fennec fox – rarely seen, because if humans come anywhere near, it disappears between the dunes – is captured crisply on night-time adventures that, thanks to supersensitive cameras, look as if they’ve been floodlit. Its enormously cute ears enable it to listen out for the beetles and lizards it likes to snack on – and to pick up the distant call of a potential mate.

Learning that it’s still possible to make new friends, even when one is the size of a guinea pig and wandering across endless sands in the small hours, is a comfort. Meanwhile in Argentina, a large hairy armadillo is also having a night to remember, chasing then fornicating with a female in an abandoned farm building. The shot of it up on its stubby hind legs, sniffing appreciatively having picked up the thick scent of a large hairy lady armadillo, is the single best image of the episode, ahead of some strong rivals.

One-fifth of mammal species are bats, so the show takes time to find batty wonders such as the greater bulldog bats of coastal Trinidad. Again, the night-vision filming lends the section set inside their cave a disturbing, alien quality, as if the creatures’ moist wing membranes and flappy jowls weren’t repellent enough. Out at sea, though, we’re back to conventional filming by moonlight for the deeply impressive sight of the bats catching fish they cannot see: just a fin above the water is enough for them to use echolocation to guess where it is going. A swoop, and a scrape across the surface with hooked claws does the rest. Mammals might be wide in its scope but so far it is unerringly hunting down marvels.

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