Inside Nature’s Giants: The Giraffe

Last night was the fourth and final episode of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants series. On this show they dissected an adolescent giraffe. It was just as interesting as the previous shows.

They showed the incredible muscles of a giraffe’s neck, and the massive ligament that holds their head aloft (its natural position: it’s actually an effort for them to lower it).

They showed how evolutionary legacies like the laryngeal nerve are clear evidence that we are certainly not intelligently designed.

They showed how massively muscled a giraffe’s heart is to pump blood all the way up that neck (and how there are valves in its jugular vein to prevent too much blood pressure in the head when it lowers it to drink).

Well done, Channel 4. This was a great nature series.

Inside Nature’s Giants: The Crocodile

I watched the third episode of  excellent TV series Inside Nature’s Giants last night (recorded from earlier in the week). Week 1 was an elephant; week 2 was a whale; this week was a Nile crocodile.

I love crocodilians. I think they’re fascinating animals. Like sharks, they’re well-adapted predators whose suitability for their environment means they haven’t evolved much in millions of years. You’ve gotta respect that. And this show, like the others, laid bare all the interior structures that make this animal what it is.

They showed how the massive underjaw muscles are made for swift, powerful bites, while the muscles that lift the upper jaw are tiny but have great endurance (waiting for the right moment to use the underjaw ones).

They showed how the complicated aortic arrangement of the crocodile’s heart can pump extra blood to its stomach so that it can digest the things – bones, skin, and hooves – it must swallow whole since it has no chewing teeth.

They showed how a crocodile can not only inflate but also move its lungs, changing not only its buoyancy but also its centre of gravity.

And they showed what caused this relatively young crocodile to die prematurely.


Inside Nature’s Giants: The Whale

Last week I blogged about the first show of Channel 4 series looking at large animal anatomy, Inside Nature’s Giants, wherein they dissected an elephant.

I recorded the second show – about a whale – this week and just got around to watching it. It was equally fascinating. They opened up a fin whale that had beached and died off the coast of Ireland; they did this on the beach, the only episode not taking place at the Royal Veterinary College. The show was therefore as much about the difficulties of the dissection – using diggers, fighting the rain and tide – as about the 60-ton animal itself.

They showed the skeletal structures that prove that whales used to be land mammals – they have vestigal hind legs – that evolved for the ocean.

They showed that the structure that allows the whale to make sounds is also the structure that lets it initiate its gallop-like swimming motion.

They showed the structure of baleen, the chitinous mesh that lets the whale filter its food from seawater.

There were points at which people were totally enclosed by squelching pools of whale innards. It was soooooo cool.

Inside an elephant


Inside Nature’s Giants, the Channel 4 TV show I blogged about yesterday, was amazing. It really was a natural science show that went places no other has: this wasn’t just about great photography and animations, this was get-in-up-to-your-elbows gross anatomy. They didn’t explain, they showed.

They showed why an elephant’s digestive system needs to be so incredibly massive (it’s a slow and somewhat inefficient fermentation and absorption chamber).

They showed how elephants – which can’t sweat – keep cool (by pumping blood through their ears).

They showed how elephants can run (big fleshy pads under their heels, like they’re wearing running shoes).

They showed how female elephants actually have tiny tusks (that don’t emerge from their bodies).

They showed how elephants are the only land mammals that have lungs that adhere to their ribs, possibly because they evolved from sea-going mammals who needed to keep their lungs inflated against water pressure.

I cannot wait to see future shows on the whale, giraffe, and crocodile.

TV tonight: Inside Nature’s Giants – Elephant

At 9pm UK time on Channel 4 tonight is the first show in a science series called Inside Nature’s Giants. They’re doing detailed, on-camera dissections of large animals. In this first show they’re pulling the guts out of an elephant. In future shows they’re dissecting a giraffe, a crocodile, and a whale.

At first the ads made me wonder if it was just going to be a bizarre TV freakfeast. But then I noticed that Richard Dawkins makes a couple of appearances and figured it must have some scientific cred.

It looks like Charlie Brooker thought the same as I did, but changed his mind dramatically during his preview screening.

This is a rare thing – a hardcore biological science documentary that will both entertain and enlighten almost anyone who watches.

It’s also strangely moving. Because they chop that elephant to pieces all right – but they do so with palpable love. Watch it. It’s amazing.