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Walking with Beasts

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Walking with Beasts is a 2001 six-part television documentary produced by the BBC in the United Kingdom, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. In North America it has been retitled Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, and the original Discovery Channel broadcast was narrated by Stockard Channing. Like its predecessor, Walking with Dinosaurs, it recreates life in the Cenozoic by using a combination of both computer-generated imagery and animatronics. However, the Miocene epoch and Palaeocene epoch are not included. Also like its predecessor, it was re-edited and re-narrated as a second "season" of Prehistoric Planet for the Discovery Kids lineup. Some of the concepts it illustrates are the evolution of whales, the evolution of the horse, and the evolution of humans.


Episode One: "New Dawn"

49 million years ago - Early Eocene - Germany

The first episode focuses on the warm and tropical world of the early Eocene which was 16 million years after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. (The setting is near the Messel Pit in Germany.)

During this time, the mammals still have remained small, for there is little space for them to get back in the crampled conditions of the jungle, and birds - who were already large in the Mesozoic - dominate the world as shown by Gastornis, the first of such flightless giants. It, however, is fated to die out soon after the episode's end, as the mammals are getting steadily larger (as shown by crocodile-like Ambulocetus), and other animals such as the giant ants eat the flightless birds' vulnerable eggs and young.

Regardless of the Gastornis' rise and fall, the episode centers around a Leptictidium family foraging for food. The Leptictidium was a small leaping shrew-like mammal, typical of the early Eocene time period. Its evolutionary relationship to modern mammals is not fully discerned yet, and Leptictidium had died out without leaving any direct descendants either.

While the Leptictidum family is foraging, a female Gastornis successfully hunts down a Propalaeotherium and defends her territory from another Gastornis. (The scene with Propalaeotherium is a classic example of Eocene "inversion", when birds ate horses and was included in the episode for the shock value alone.) Unfortunately, while the Gastornis is out hunting or abandoning the nest, a horde of Formicium ambush its egg, just starting to hatch and kill the hatchling, as mentioned above. The Leptictidum family narrowly avoids this fate by sleeping away from the path of the ants; also, the mother of that family is present much more often to help and protect its offspring.

When the night arrives, we see a band of lemur-like Godinotia, socializing in the dark. These early primates are little known and are closely related to prosimians than to modern monkeys and apes. However, alongside a similar-looking Darwinius, they were some of the first primates, a group of mammals that one day would include humans.

Finally, this episode shows the Ambulocetus, or the "walking whale", lying in ambush for its prey, both on land and underneath the water. Although it looks like a mammalian crocodile, the episode explains that from the Ambulocetus, all the whales would eventually evolve (such as Basilosaurus and Dorudon from the next episode). It tries to attack the Leptictidium and Propalaeotherium, but fails. finally, Ambulocetus manages to catch a small carnivore in the dark of the night.

The episode ends with an earth tremor unleashing trapped carbon dioxide out from underneath the lake, suffocating most of the surrounding life and creating the Messel fossil depisit. The Leptictidium family gets lucky (while the Ambulocetus and one of the primitive horses do not), but they are destinied to dissappear with the Eocene jungles, just as the giant ants, who came to feed upon the Ambulocetus' corpse will, but the descendants of the Ambulocetus will be whales, "the most magnificent dynasty of mammals", which will be shown in the next episode.

Episode Two: "Whale Killer"

36 million years ago - Late Eocene - Pakistan, Egypt

The second episode is set in late Eocene, when the polar caps froze over and drastically changed the Earth's ocean currents and climate. The first part of the episode explains how an early whale, Basilosaurus mates and how the world is changing into an ocean famine. On land there is an Andrewsarchus driven to the beach to feed on turtles. the narrator explains that Andrewsarchus, the largest land mammal predator ever to walk the earth, has hooves and is related to sheep, so it is, in a sense, a "sheep in wolf's clothing".

Back in the ocean, a starving mother Basilosaurus is forced to hunt in the mangrove swamps. Unable to catch the Apidium, she is then hunting a Moeritherium. The Moeritherium crawls on to land, but in the mangroves, land does not last long. However the Moeritherium escapes and the Basilosaurus returns to the sea.

The cast moves on to land where a herd of Embolotherium struggle to survive: one of their calves dies and two Andrewsarchus feast on it but the mother Embolotherium drives them away because she has a strong bond with her offspring, even if it is dead.

Back in the sea the mother Basilosaurus preys on a group of Dorudon and is successful. The episode ends with the mother Basilosaurus swimming with her newborn calf.

Episode Three: "Land of Giants"

25 million years ago - Late Oligocene - Mongolia

The third episode takes place during the late Oligocene, in Mongolia, where there were seasonal rains followed by a long drought. It tells the story of a mother Indricotherium, a massive hornless cousin of the modern rhinoceroses that was the largest land mammal to have ever lived.

The episode first shows the mother Indricotherium giving birth, and then tending to the male calf as it matures. A few minutes after giving birth, the mother defends the helpless calf from several Hyaenodon. (Also, the mother's old calf tries to come back, but is chased away. It gives a snapshot into the future of the calf.)

The mother raises her calf for three years, but eventually chases him away after she mates with another male. The episode then chronicles the young Indricotherium travels until it reaches adulthood, including encounters with Cynodictis, and large aggressive Entelodon.

Episode Four: "Next of Kin"

3,2 million years ago - Late Pliocene - Ethiopia

The fourth episode takes place in the Great Rift Valley in northeastern Africa. The climate has changed, and now

Next of Kin

great grasslands have replaced trees. The episode focuses around a tribe of small hominids known as Australopithecus, one of the first apes able to walk upright and a close ancestor to humans. The Australopithecus has evolved to walk upright so as to better maneuver the plains as well as the climb the trees. (However, it notes that although the Australopithecus looks human, it still only has the mind the size of a chimpanzee's.)

Some of the topics explored in the episode are the close social bonds among the tribe, how they use grooming as a means of communication, and how they work together to forage for food and to defend one another from attacks from such animals as an angry male Deinotherium, an ancestor of the modern elephant which they have to run from to avoid being crushed, and the feline predator Dinofelis.

It touches upon how competing tribes of Australopithecus war among one another, although most of fighting is for show. It also explains the hierarchy in the tribe among the males (who are much larger than the females) and tells a story of how the dominating male is eventually overcome by another male, who wins the right to feed first at a carrion and to mate with the females.

Another story line tells of a young Australopithecus (nicknamed "Blue") who tries to fit into the tribe after he is orphaned.

Episode Five: "Sabre Tooth"

1 million years ago - Early Pleistocene - Paraguay

The fifth episode shows the strange fauna of the isolated continent of South America and explores the effects of the Great American Interchange, which had happened 1.5 million years earlier. Since South America had drifted apart from Antarctica 30 million years ago, many unique mammals had evolved, including Doedicurus, an armored armadillo-like mammal with a cannon ball-sized spiked club on its tail; Macrauchenia, a camel-like mammal with a long trunk; and Megatherium, a massive ground-dwelling sloth.

Before the continents of South America and North America collided, a 10-foot-tall predatory bird called Phorusrhacos, had reigned as top predator. However, the great cats, migrating from the north, soon displaced them as top predators.

The episode focuses on a male Smilodon, a sabre-toothed cat, called Half Tooth, whose leadership of a pride is threatened by two males who are brothers and work together against him. The rival males ultimately chase off Half Tooth (actually Half Tooth backs off wisely without any serious injuries, feeling that the two males would be too strong for him), kill his cubs, and take over his pride.

Next, the episode shows Smilodons hunting down Macrauchenia and trying to protect the young from the two brothers (in vain) . In the background, "Terror Birds" still hunt, but give way to the Smilodon. However, a Megatherium, who wanted to eat meat as diet supplement, charges the pride of Smilodon, in order to eat some of the carrion. In the process, the Megatherium kills the dominant rival male, enabling Half Tooth to return, kill the other male and reclaim his territory. Then he had another litter of cubs.

Episode Six: "Mammoth Journey"

30 000 years ago - Late Pleistocene - North Sea, Belgium, Swiss Alps

The sixth episode takes place during the last Ice Age. It starts in the peak of the summer. The North Sea has become a grassy plain because the ice at the polar caps has caused the sea levels to drop significantly. Grazing on the plain are herds of woolly mammoths, wild horses, and bison. A clan of Cro-Magnons is also there spending the summer. The central focus of the episode is the migration of the herd of mammoth as they travel 400 kilometers from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps for the winter and then back again in the spring.

As the mammoth herd migrates south, the episode shows two large deer, the Megaloceros, fighting for rights to a harem of females. As the male Megaloceros fight, a group of humans ambushes them and kills one . A mother mammoth and her baby are separated from the herd, but survive an encounter with a European lion. When the herd of mammoths reaches the Swiss Alps, the mother and baby mammoth reunite with their herd.

The episode also depicts a clan of Neanderthals, who have especially evolved to survive in the cold climate. One is charged by a woolly rhinoceros, but escapes, in part because of his stocky constitution. The climax of the episode is when the clan of Neanderthals attack the herd of mammoth as they turn back to the north. The Neanderthals are gifted hunters who are able to chase two of the young mammoths off a cliff by using fire and axes.

The episode ends in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with people looking at various skeletons of some of the animals featured in the series. The camera then pulls back through the roof of the museum until the whole world is visible.

Companion book

A companion book was written by Tim Haines to accompany the first screening of the series in 2001. Unlike Walking with Dinosaurs, this book is more accurate in describing each episode, and there are no interesting setting changes. On the other hand, as with Walking with Dinosaurs, the written version of Walking With Beasts elaborated on the background for each story, went further in explaining the science on which much of the program as based, and included descriptions of several animals not identified or featured in the series.

Deviations from the series

  • In the beginning of the episode "New Dawn", the female Gastornis tries to capture a Leptictidium after the small animal confronted another one of its kind; in the book, the Gastornis attack comes later during the day, when the Leptictidium is out with its young instead - there's no confrontation between the two Leptictidium.
  • In the book, the Ambulocetus co-exists more or less peacefully with the crocodiles, even getting into a tug-of-war over an animal it had killed. In the tv program, there is no confrontation with the crocodiles; in fact, the crocodile that the Ambulocetus swam up to got quickly away from the animal.
  • In the tv program, the ant attack does not bother the grazing Propalaeotherium. In the book, the Propalaeotherium are some of the first creatures to escape from the ant swarm; also, unlike the TV program, some ants do bite a young Leptictidium in the book, only to be eaten by the Leptictidium mother.
  • In the book, after the Gastornis captured and ate one of the Propalaeotherium, it returns to its nest and gets bitten by the ants as well, unlike the program, where it doesn't occur. Also, some of the flying ants (absent from the tv program) get eaten by the Godinotia during the night, and the animal captured by the Ambulocetus during the night is a creodont, rather than a Cynodictis.
  • In the episode "Whale Killer", the Dorudon mob the female Basilosaurus near the end of the episode, while in the book, they do it in the beginning of the chapter. Consequently, the Basilosaurus mating takes place not in the beginning of the book chapter, as it took place in the program, but later on, after the Dorudon encounter.
  • In the book, the Andrewsarchus manage to successfully steal the dead Embolotherium calf, while in the program, the mother manages to keep them away from its' dead offspring. Also, it takes place before the Basilosaurus comes to the mangroves, rather than later, as in the TV program. Plus, the encounter of a solitary Andrewsarchus with the sea turtles comes after the encounter with the Embolotherium, while in the TV program, it was in reverse.
  • In the book, before coming to the mangroves, the Basilosaurus encounters some Isurus sharks, but gives them a wide berth. It also encounters some sea cows. Neither encounter takes place in the TV program.
  • In the program, a shark jumps out of the water to catch an Apidium. In the book, the Apidium falls in the water first.
  • In the book, the "Land of the Giants" chapter opens with an old Hyaenodon chasing some Cynodictis away from its kill. In the tv program, it begins with the Indricotherium female giving birth.
  • In the TV program, the Chalicotherium is killed by a single Hyaenodon, who is later driven off by several Entelodon. In the book, the Chalicotherium is killed by two Hyaenodon, and they drive off a lone Entelodon instead.
  • In the book, the whole Cynodictis family drowns, while in the TV program the mother survives. Also, in the TV program, the episode ends with the Indricotherium calf driving off an Entelodon, while in the book it is a Hyaenodon instead.
  • In the book's chapter "The Prey's Revenge" ("Next of Kin" episode) the old male is called Greybeard rather than Grey, and the younger male is named Bruiser, not Hercules. Also, the fight for dominance is won by Bruiser (Hercules) without any use of a stick, unlike in the TV program; also, in the book, the Australopithecus are much more aggressive and promiscuous than on TV.
  • In the TV program, Greybeard's (Grey's) group are forced off by a rival group of Australopithecus - in the book the rivals briefly retreated when charged by Greybeard, something that did not happen on TV.
  • In the book, the Deinotherium is spotted just in time, and the whole group is able to brachiate away from the animal, while in the program, the Deinotherium "trees" them instead; also, Babble (the Australopithecus female) is able to save her offspring, and not get chased into a tree.
  • The scene with Blue searching through Deinotherium dung is absent from the TV program, same for the scenes where Blue is playing with Babble's baby, and where Bruiser (Hercules) intervenes before Babble can hurt Blue too much.
  • In the program, Blackeye finds an ostrich egg, but Greybeard (Grey) steals it from her. In the book, Bruiser (Hercules) finds the egg first and breaks it (unlike the TV program) instead.
  • In the book, the two males finally fight because a new female comes to the group; in the TV program, the two males finally fight over the picking rights for a zebra carcass instead, apparently to appease feminists.
  • In the program, the Dinofelis manages to separate Blue from the rest of the Australopithecus - in the book, it actually pursues them up their tree, and the Australopithecus fight the cat off due to their mutual protection, not to protect Blue.
  • The episode "Saber Tooth" is named "Sabre-Tooth World" in the book. Also, in the beginning of the episode, it is Half Tooth who scares away the Phorusrhacos, while in the book it is a female Smilodon instead.
  • In the book the Doedicurus mating fight comes before Half Tooth is challenged by the brothers, while in the TV program it is afterwards. Consequently, Half Tooth's encountar with the Megatherium occurs after the fight, and there's only one Megatherium, while in the program there are two.
  • In the book, after the brothers take over the pride, the oldest female Smilodon also dies; plus a female's willingness to mate causes two brothers to fight.
  • In the TV program, a lone Phorusrhacos kills a young Macrauchenia; in the book, there are two Phorsrhacos, and they kill a Hippidion calf. Also, the encounter between Half Tooth and a male Macrauchenia does not occur in the book.
  • In the book, both Smilodon brothers confront the Megatherium, though only one gets killed; also, the attack of the Phorusrhacos on a young Doedicurus does not take place in the program.
  • In the program, the last brother dies shortly after Half Tooth defeats him. In the book, both he and Half Tooth survive.
  • The episode "Mammoth Journey" (named "A Mammoth's Journey" in the book) begins with a female mammoth falling into a lake through the ice. In the book, though, this occurs later, with a male mammoth, as the book's chapter describes the mammoths startling a group of humans instead.
  • In the book, humans kill a single Megaloceros, while in the program, they attack two (but one escapes). Also, one of them gets hurt by the Megaloceros in the process.
  • In the program, the Neanderthal manages to escape the Coelodonta without too much pain; in the book, the Coelodonta breaks his hip and leg. Also, the book does not have the scene where two Coelodonta confront each other in the spring.
  • In the book, at least one Neanderthal is killed by a mammoth, when they ambush the herd at a cliff's edge; also, only one mammoth is killed, when in the program there were two.
  • In the program, the confrontation between the two mammoth males comes in the beginning, in the book it is at the end of the chapter.

Artistic touch

The animals sometimes interact with the camera by breaking the fourth wall:

  • When the Formicium attack the Gastornis chick, some swarm over the camera.
  • In the second episode, several Apidium hastily climb down the camera during the shark attack.
  • Also in the second episode, the Basilosaurus' fluke occasionally hits the camera.
  • In the third episode, when the Entelodon are fighting, they kick dirt on the camera.
  • Also in the third episode, an Indricotherium sniffs at the camera.
  • Also in the third episode, Indricotherium aggressively rushes and knocks down the camera at the end of "Land of Giants" which it appeared in. To date, this is one of the largest interactions with the audience.
  • A troop of Australopithecus throw rocks, one rock splitting the camera.
  • A mammoth sprays mud on the camera.

See also

Walking with Beasts is part of a series of BBC documentaries that also include:

The following are Walking With... series specials:

The following are similar programs, produced by the BBC:

  • Prehistoric America (2003)
  • Monsters We Met (2004)
  • The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs (2005)

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