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Review of David Attenborough's "Secret World of Sound" - the roar of the lions resembles Chewbacca passing gas.
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Review of David Attenborough’s “Secret World of Sound” – the roar of the lions resembles Chewbacca passing gas.

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What is the noise of the Earth’s environment? For many of us, it is the voice of David Attenborough, with its gentle intonation rising for charm and falling for the excitement of the chase – or in more recent times, carrying a sense of sadness as it encourages us to protect the remaining wildlife. With Attenborough’s narration and the best footage captured by cameras of the era, this is how we have perceived nature for years.

There can only be one narrator for Sky Nature’s new series, Secret World of Sound. This natural history show focuses on the importance of audio over visuals. In between the narrator’s words, viewers are invited to listen more closely and with the use of advanced sound equipment, experience the various noises made by animals to survive. This concept is well executed in the first episode which centers on foraging and hunting. However, some of the world’s most obscure sounds are difficult to capture and present to the audience.

Immediately upon arrival on an African savannah, we encounter difficulty as we attempt to listen to the sounds of lions. A male lion, with its mane swaying in the morning breeze, greets us with a rough hello; a female lion, snuggled among a group of other lionesses and their young, responds in kind. Attenborough, providing commentary in the background, describes this as one of the most impressive demonstrations of strength in the natural world, noting that the lion’s roar can be heard up to five miles away. However, the perceived loudness of their roars at home will depend on the volume at which you have set your television; at a normal level, the roars and growls are rather inadequate and almost comedic, reminiscent of Chewbacca’s flatulence in a bathtub. Somewhere along the way from the lion’s vocal cords to the microphone to the speakers to the human ear, the grandeur is diminished.

We can distinguish it, however. In the depths of the ocean near the Bahamas, garden eels and razor fish take cover under the sand when they detect noisy bottlenose dolphins approaching. However, the dolphins then switch to a rapid, Geiger-counter click, allowing them to use their own form of sonar to locate their prey on the ocean floor. This may seem like an unfair advantage for the dolphins, as the razor fish’s last thought before being caught is likely that it is not fair. Furthermore, the process of pinpointing the location of the buried fish involves sounds at a frequency that is too high for humans to hear. Therefore, we are unable to perceive them.

However, modern nature programs are a testament to human innovation, and the Secret World of Sound has found ways to overcome this challenge. In the snowy plains of Manitoba, Canada, the magnificent great grey owl is hunting for delicious voles hidden under the snow. We are treated to a stunning view of the owl’s flat, bright yellow eyes that almost look like fake glasses from a novelty shop. But the owl’s most deadly weapons are its ears, aided by a circular ruff of feathers around its face that act as a natural loudspeaker, directing and amplifying sound. The owl’s hearing is so precise that it is equivalent to sight when it comes to locating voles. To replicate this, the show’s experts use a camera mounted on a board with 60 incredibly sensitive microphones surrounding it. Together, they track the vole as it moves and represent its inaudible shuffling with a moving blue dot on the screen.

The owl flies down towards the blue dot, but is unable to catch its prey due to the refraction caused by the snow. So, it tries again by positioning itself directly above the prey and then swooping down to catch it. This technique is explained by a conservationist in the final minutes of the show, and it is truly fascinating. One impressive aspect that the show accurately captures is the owl’s silent approach. It is truly amazing to witness.

Some interesting tales involve a bee utilizing the vibrations of its buzzing to access a closed nightshade flower, receiving a supply of adhesive white pollen as a reward; dehydrated elephants detecting distant rain due to their ability to “hear” it through the earth; and the Arizona kangaroo rat, at risk of being consumed by a snake in the complete darkness of night when its hearing is impacted by wind. With David Attenborough narrating them, they all sound more appealing.

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David Attenborough’s Secret World of Sound was broadcasted on Sky Nature and can now be accessed on Now.

Source: theguardian.com