Born to Move – a review of Great Migrations, part 1

Of all the fascinating areas of natural history and animal behavior, perhaps the one closest to my heart (even if my current research isn’t exactly focused on it) is Migration: the systematic movement of populations of animals from one location to another, one habitat to another, there and back again! And I mean it in this narrower sense of migration, which is not just a moving away from one place to another, but a pulsing rhythm of the life history of many species where individuals and entire populations move back and forth between locations in a predictable pattern. I studied migration in a group of tiny little birds, the Phylloscopus leaf warblers (you wonder where this blog’s name comes from?) of the Old World for my Ph.D. thesis during the early 1990s. I was drawn in by the uncanny way in which millions of these little birds – each weighing in at 7-15 grams depending on which of the several score species it belongs to – flood the tropical forests and woodlands of India, and ended up studying what influences their survival on the wintering grounds, and what ecological forces may guide their movements. But more on that in my published papers, or a future blog post or two. In hindsight (and psychoanalytic goggles, if you will), it should come as no surprise that someone living with a deep-rooted sense of displacement should be fascinated by the lives of those evolved to migrate!

Fascinating as I think the leaf warblers’ migration is, perhaps it isn’t as visually spectacular as the examples you will see in National Geographic Television’s new series, Great Migrations, of which I wrote briefly yesterday. There is also an accompanying coffee table book, which I will also refer to as I review the films. The series kicks off this evening (in less than 3 hours from now for those on the US east coast), and features some truly spectacular images of migrating animals, sharing with us the little and big dramas of their lives, from around the world. But visual spectacle is surely the least one expects from National Geographic, especially given the several years spent filming the stories, and the clever technologies employed to track the migrants, large and small, along their journeys.

In the first episode “Born to Move“, we follow four stories of migration, ranging in scale from a small island to entire continents and oceans, and involving the elements of earth, air, and water. Two of these stories, I suspect, are likely to be familiar to most wildlife enthusiasts. I’m sure you’re acquainted (if you watch any wildlife shows about Africa at all) with the story of the the Wildebeest, migrating in an endless loop around the Serengeti, chasing rainfall driven forage across the savanna, often running the gauntlet through rivers filled with hungry crocodiles congregating (in their own migration) to feast on the moving smorgasbord of meat on thundering hooves. How can you forget scenes like these?

You are likely also to have heard about the incredible multi-generational migration of the Monarch butterflies (see video clip in my previous post) between Canada and Mexico, surely one of the most remarkable and bizarre (if you think about it!) examples of migration in the animal world. The other two stories are perhaps less familiar (they were to me): the Sperm Whales moving through the oceans chasing food supplies, and the Christmas Island Red Crabs migrating between land and sea to complete their breeding cycles.

My favorite story is that of the crabs: perhaps because of the haunting image of the gravid females holding their claws aloft to maintain balance while being buffeted by the waves of the ocean into which they must release their loads of hundreds of eggs. Or perhaps it is their tenacity against the near inevitable futility of it all: given the dangers facing them at every stage of their lives, the odds of survival for any one individual from egghood in the shallow ocean to adulthood on land are really low! Add to that the misery we have wrought by introducing a new terrestrial predator, the yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes, which has disrupted the entire ecosystem of Christmas Island, and one has to shake one’s head and wonder how long the crazy crabs will last!

As illustrated by the yellow crazy ants, no story of contemporary animal migrations is complete without a sad chapter about how our actions have pushed so many migrant species to the brink of extinction if not over it. Migrants are particularly vulnerable because they are critically dependent upon multiple areas of habitat, which only adds to the challenge given how our ravenous species is reluctant to share even single bits of land or ocean with other species. The impacts of humans on these migration systems is addressed more in subsequent episodes of Great Migrations, with the first one focusing mainly on the spectacle.

While the spectacle is visually engaging, I am not as thrilled with this episode (and series) as I had hoped to be. The four stories are told in overlapping threads weaving us back and forth throughout the episode – and I don’t mind that intercutting technique for it is mercifully not as bad as some of the sequences in the recent hit series Planet Earth which seemed to suffer from a more acute case of ADD. Here they have taken the time to develop the story a little bit and the transition between story-lines is also smoother. Why then did I find my attention wandering while watching this? I blame the narration (by Alec Baldwin) which follows a rather too overwrought script suffering from an excess of adjectives and bombast, but surprisingly lacking in scientific depth. The dramatic orchestral music doesn’t help either. Have we reached such a cultural low that even National Geographic deems it necessary to dumb down the science and ratchet up the bombast to attract sufficient distracted eyeballs to maintain their ratings? Even the official companion book shies away from giving us much science – you won’t even find the scientific names of any species in there, although the images are obviously incredibly beautiful. Are they really afraid that anyone who picks up the glossy coffee-table book enticed by its striking silver-and-black jacket featuring thundering herds of zebra and wildebeest is going to recoil if they find a few words of italicized Latin in parentheses following the common names of animals? Really?!

I suppose those question answer themselves if you make it a habit to watch nature / wildlife shows nowadays – even the BBC now hypes its shows as seen in the recent series about tigers in Bhutan. Even if the writers are afraid of losing the audience by putting in too much scientific detail, why can’t they trust the inherent drama of these tales of migration, enhanced by their own fantastic footage? Where do these writers get schooled to come up with such juicy overripe prose for nature documentaries anyway? Did no one sit them down in school to watch – and listen to – David Attenborough, to see how it should be done? Apparently not, at least here in the US, where the TV networks felt compelled to replace his voice (and script) with the much less weighty celebrity voices for such recent series as Planet Earth and Life. But I’m probably in the minority, complaining about this. OK – I’ll quit whining if you show me that this communication strategy really works to grab distracted viewers and turn them into genuine enthusiasts and students of nature, and that more of them will then want to support (and fund!) the endless hours of tedious research that has helped us understand these fascinating stories uncovered from the ongoing evolutionary struggles of countless animals, not the imagination of some scriptwriters.

A subsequent extra episode, following the series, shares more of the real science and technology behind the stories, so look forward to that. In the meantime, you might want to turn down the volume as you settle down to enjoy the spectacle on your telly tonight.

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