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Planet Earth II (2016): Season 1, Episode 5 - Grasslands - full transcript

Grasslands cover one quarter of all land and support the vast gatherings of wildlife, but to survive here animals must endure the most hostile seasonal changes on the planet. From Asia's ...


One quarter of all the land on Earth

is covered by a single,
remarkable type of plant.

Almost indestructible,
it can grow half a metre a day...

...and be tall enough to hide a giant.

That plant is grass,

and the world it creates
is truly unique.

The grass in northern India
is the tallest on the planet,

home to some of the most
impressive creatures to tread the Earth.

These are the good times,

but in just a few months,
all this fresh growth will be gone,

and the animals
will be forced to move on.

That is the way things are
on grasslands across the planet.

A cycle of abundance,
destruction and rebirth

that affects every creature
that lives here.

The largest grassland on Earth,
the vast Eurasian Steppe,

stretches one third of the way
around our planet.

Spring rain has brought fresh grass,
and with it, new life.

A relic from the Ice Age,
a baby Saiga antelope,

just three hours old.

His only company, his twin.

Until they can stand, their mother
has left them hidden in the grass.

They should be safe,
as long as they remain quiet.

For these calves,
the clock is already ticking.

Their herd will soon be moving on,
seeking the freshest new grass.

Their lanky legs are a sure sign that
they're built for a life on the move.

Saiga always give birth to twins,

so their numbers grow rapidly
just when grass is plentiful.

Their bizarrely shaped nose
can detect fresh growth

from hundreds of kilometres away.

The young twins will now
begin the nomadic life

they share with most animals
on the world's open plains.

Grasslands occur where rain is
too sporadic for forests to exist.

The rain that a grassland
needs to survive for a year

might arrive all at once.

Storms like these can release
30 centimetres of rain in 24 hours.

Not much fun if you're out in it.

Eventually the earth
can't soak up any more,

and the grassland undergoes
a radical change.

Many plants would drown here,
but grasses thrive.

They grow so fast,

their leaves quickly rise above
the water and into the sunlight.

Here in southern Africa,

water transforms one of the most
remarkable grasslands on Earth,

the Okavango.

Every year, 8,000 square kilometres
of grassland are flooded.

For one pride of lions,
this poses a major problem.

There may be plenty of prey around,

but lions struggle
to run it down in water.

The pride has three-month-old cubs.
They've never seen water before.

If their mothers
don't make a kill soon,

the cubs might not survive the week.

But fuelled by the flood, the eruption
of grass attracts new possible prey.

Buffalo arrive in herds 2,000 strong.

Powerful, aggressive and united,

they're the most dangerous animal
a lion can face.

The biggest bulls don't run.

They're simply too huge
to be scared of lions.

At 900 kilos, he weighs more
than all five lionesses combined.

The pride do have numbers on their side,

but one sweep of his horns
could be deadly.

One distracts the bull up front,
while her sisters attack from behind.

The cats must somehow
topple the buffalo,

but with swamp under foot,
they can't get any traction.

The bull is weakening,

but the lions are tiring, too.

It's now a battle of will
as much as strength.

To live, the bull must somehow
shake off the lioness.

The bull is wounded,

but thanks to his thick hide,
he will recover.

For the pride, these are hungry times.

But, ultimately, once the water recedes,
there will be new life,

and new food to benefit all.

In the right conditions,
grasses have the extraordinary ability

to grow from first shoots to flower
in a matter of only days.

Grasses become the miniature equivalents
of fruiting trees.

And for creatures living
within the grass,

this is a landscape as vast
and towering as any rainforest.

An excellent place
to build a tiny tree house

for a harvest mouse.

During summer,
European meadowlands are full of food,

but only for those that can reach it.

Climbing grass is harder
than climbing trees,

not least because their stems
just won't stay still.

Her prehensile tail
acts like a fifth limb,

so she's as agile as a monkey
clambering around in a tree.

And just as well,

for the best food in this tiny forest
is at the very top of its canopy.

Feeding up here, she's exposed.

A barn owl.

Not her finest move...

But it did the trick.

Harvest mice seldom go
all the way down to the ground.

It's a tangled and
dangerous world down here.

But she can read the pattern
of the stems overhead like a map,

and so find her way home.

And not a minute too soon.

There are mouths to feed.

Her babies must fatten up quickly.

They need to harvest the summer grasses
while they're still rich with food.

On the African savannah, too,
seasonal grasses are filled with life,

but it won't last long.

Carmine bee-eaters
are superb aerial hunters,

experts at catching insects in mid-air.

But they have no way of
flushing their prey out of the grass.

Once alarmed, most insects stay put.

The bee-eaters need someone
to stir things up a bit.

A kori bustard.

It's the world's heaviest flying bird,

so it should be bulky enough
to kick up some insects.

Bingo!

Until someone else comes along
and cramps your style.

Never mind, perhaps there are
bigger opportunities ahead.

What about an ostrich?

The heaviest bird of all.

This time there's more than enough
transport to go around.

Soon, almost every ostrich
has its own passenger.

But free riders are only
tolerated for so long.

What the bee-eaters really need

is a creature so big
it won't even notice them.

Nothing cuts a swathe through grass
like an African bull elephant.

The trick is to fly as close to
the front of the giant as possible.

They only have a split second
to grab the prize.

As more insects are stirred up,
the competition intensifies.

With summer drawing to a close,
the race to stock up is on.

Soon, the grass will wither,
and this opportunity will have gone.

As the dry season takes hold,

food becomes increasingly thin
on the ground.

Now, only the most specialised predators
on the plains can make a living.

She may be spotted like a cheetah,
but this cat is no sprinter.

Instead, she has extra-long legs
which give her a high vantage point.

But a serval cat's main weapon
are enormous radar ears.

They help her pinpoint prey
hiding in the grass.

But the prey she seeks are canny.

Southern vlei rats.

They know that any sustained movement
can give them away.

So they move in short bursts.

But even the slightest rustle
will give her a clue.

Warm.

Warmer.

Missed.

In better times,
she could catch 70 a day,

but now, with so few rodents around,
she will have to go hungry.

As drought intensifies,
life gets tougher for all.

Predators with permanent territories
must tough it out,

while most of their prey
disappear over the horizon.

To avoid starvation, many grassland
animals follow a nomadic way of life.

Over 2,000,000 wildebeests wander
the East African savannahs

chasing the rains.

And they are not alone.

Arriving on the wing,

Jackson's Widowbirds
also seek fresh grass.

Although, it's not just
food that they're after.

This male wants a mate.

He's grown elaborate breeding plumage
for this moment,

but he needs a stage
on which to show it off.

By carefully selecting grass blades,
each trimmed to the correct length,

he's creating something very special.

He needs an even surface,

and a centre-piece.

The stage is set.

His bachelor pad is sufficiently
neat and tidy to attract a female.

The problem is,

can she see it?

He has competition.

It might take more than a little
gardening to impress the ladies.

jumping is the right idea,

but he's misjudged
the height of the grass.

His rival makes it look easy.

Time to raise his game.

It's not only who jumps the highest,
but who can keep doing so the longest.

Unable to go the distance,
his rivals drop out one by one.

Stamina has won him admirers,

now he can show off
his courtship arena...

And engage in a little
romantic hide-and-seek.

Finally, he's done enough.

The East African savannahs
support millions of grazers.

Each year they devour
millions of tonnes of grass,

and yet there's one creature here

whose impact is far greater
than all these animals combined.

They're found wherever
grass grows on the planet,

yet their labours go
almost entirely unnoticed.

One of the most remarkable is found here
on the grasslands of South America.

These blades are so tough that virtually
no large grass eaters can stomach them.

Yet they're harvested
on an industrial scale...

...by tiny grass cutter ants.

But they themselves
can't digest one bit of it.

So, why bother?

The answer is underground,

and it's very ingenious.

Each blade is cut to length
and placed into a garden of fungus.

The rotting grass feeds the fungus,
and in turn the fungus feeds the ants.

But feeding 5,000,000 workers
requires intensive agriculture.

Luckily, they are an industrious lot.

This colony alone will collect
over half a tonne of grass every year.

With billions of ant colonies
across the world's grasslands

all doing exactly the same thing,
that's a mind-boggling amount of grass.

It's estimated that over one third
of the grass that grows on Earth

will be harvested by an insect.

In northern Australia, termites
memorialise their industry in sculpture.

These astonishing mounds
are three metres tall.

They're always built
on a north-south axis,

which is why their builders
are called compass termites.

These castles of clay

protect their builders
from extremes of heat

and seasonal floods
experienced on many grasslands.

Termites manage to do
what most grass eaters can't,

break down dead grass
and extract the nutrients.

But they themselves can be food
for those that can reach them.

A half-metre-long tongue

covered in microscopic hooks,

followed by claws longer
than those of a velociraptor.

A giant anteater
on the plains of South America.

It can devour 20,000 insects a day.

Powerful forelegs enable it to rip apart
a termite hill with ease.

And as the sun bakes the grass,
the termites face new danger.

In minutes, fire turns grassland to ash.

But the grasses are not dead.
Their underground stems are unharmed.

Weeks, months may pass,

but eventually the rains will return
and the grass will sprout again.

Some grasslands must endure
not only fire, but ice.

As winter approaches, the prairies
of North America begin to freeze.

In summer, bison roamed freely,

almost continuously cropping
the abundant green grass.

Now, that grass is not only withered
and frozen, it's about to be buried.

Sixty million tonnes of snow
now blanket this herd's territory.

Pushing through deep snow
is exhausting work,

and the bison are now slowly starving.

just keeping warm
saps huge amounts of energy.

Their thick coats can insulate them
down to minus 30 Celsius.

It's now minus 40.

The only thing that will keep them alive
is buried beneath a metre of snow.

And that's a problem shared
with a surprising neighbour.

The food the fox seeks
is also deep beneath the snow.

The survival of both creatures depends
on getting through to the ground.

For the bison, it will be
a matter of brute strength.

Massive neck muscles enable them
to shovel five tonnes of snow a day.

Their light-weight neighbour
needs more precision.

The bison have reached their goal,

a mouthful of withered grass.

And where the bison have dug,
the fox now spots an opportunity.

Every footstep counts,

but he mustn't break through...

Yet.

He listens carefully
to pinpoint his target.

It's moving.

A vole.

Small, but 100 times more nutritious
than a mouthful of dried grass.

To get through the winter on these
prairies, sometimes brain beats brawn.

Ultimately, life on all grasslands
depends on the turn of the seasons.

Eight hundred kilometres further north
than any tree can survive,

grass returns to life.

Caribou females have
journeyed to the far north

to calve.

Over 70, 000 caribou babies
will be born in the next few days.

As the calves appear, so too do the
leaves of the newly sprouting grass.

And the calves must strengthen quickly.

Within days they will have to
keep up with their parents

on a never-ending march.

At one day old, they're already faster
than an Olympic sprinter.

They're testing the legs that will
carry them thousands of kilometres,

better to learn their limitations now.

It may look playful, but there's
no harder life on the grasslands

than that facing these infants.

The caribou mothers now join together,

each with an infant
exactly the same age.

They're setting off on the greatest
overland trek made by any animal.

But wherever grass eaters travel,
predators lie in wait.

Here they are, Arctic wolves.

They must seize their chance

while the caribou
pass through their territory.

The wolf runs at the herd, trying to
flush out the weak or the slow.

A calf is separated.

At full tilt, 60 kilometres an hour,
the wolf is just faster.

But the calf has stamina.

Only a few weeks old, and this
calf's will to survive is remarkable.

And it needs to be,

for these young caribou
have now started a journey

that will last a lifetime.

Forever chasing the seasonal growth
of the grass on which they depend.

Like all grassland creatures,
they are at the mercy

of these unpredictable
but ultimately bountiful lands.

Grass can survive some of
the harshest conditions on Earth,

flood, fire and frost,
and still flourish.

So it is that grasslands
provide a stage

for the greatest gatherings of wildlife
on planet Earth.

Next time,

we venture to
the newest habitat on Earth,

our cities.

To reveal the extraordinary ways

that animals survive
in this man-made world.