Episodes

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01Deceit2019080620190812 (R4)

Lucy Cooke sets out to discover why honesty is almost certainly not the best policy, be you chicken, chimp or human being. It turns out that underhand behaviour is rife throughout the animal kingdom, and can be a winning evolutionary strategy. From sneaky squid, to cheating cuckoos, some species will resort to truly incredible levels of deception and deviousness to win that mate, or get more food. And when it comes to social animals like we humans, it turns out that lying, or at least those little white lies, may be the social glue that binds us all together.

Lucy heads to the RSPB cliffs at Bempton, with Professor Tim Birkhead to discover why so many bird species appear to be such proficient deceivers, as well as visiting the very crafty ravens at The Tower of London. She speaks to psychologist Richard Wiseman about how to spot when someone is lying, and finds out whether she is any good at it. In fact, can we trust any of what she says in this documentary at all?

Presenter Lucy Cooke
Producer Alexandra Feachem

Lucy Cooke discovers why being a bit sneaky may be an excellent evolutionary strategy.

Lucy Cooke examines what gives some animal species the evolutionary edge over their rivals

02Petite2019081320190819 (R4)

Bigger is better, right? An ancient lore in biology, Cope’s rule, states that animals have a tendency to get bigger as they evolve. Evolution has cranked out some absolutely huge animals. But most of these giants are long gone. And those that remain are amongst the most threatened with extinction. Scientists now believe that while evolution favours larger creatures, extinction seems to favour the small.
If you look at mammals, at the time of the dinosaurs, they were confined to rodent-sized scavengers living on the periphery. But 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs went and allowed the mammals to evolve into some really big creatures - 30 metre long blue whales, the ten tonne steppe mammoth and a giant ground sloth that looked a bit like a hamster but was the size of an elephant with enormous hooks for hands. Now, only the blue whale remains and these have been shown to have shrunk to half the size of their Pleistocene ancestors. So is it better to be small? Smaller animals need fewer resources and smaller territories. With the planet in such peril – are more animals going to start shrinking? Well, perhaps…new research shows that in 200 years’ time, the largest mammal might be the domestic cow. And of course the most successful organisms, in terms of biomass, on the planet are the smallest. Zoologist, Lucy Cooke examines the science of being small, and why size matters.

Lucy Cooke discovers why being small can give you a step up on the evolutionary ladder.

Lucy Cooke examines what gives some animal species the evolutionary edge over their rivals

03Peace2019082020190826 (R4)

“Nature red in tooth and claw”. “Dog eat dog”. “Fighting for survival". You may well think that the natural world is one dangerous, violent, lawless place, with every creature out for itself. And it can be, but it can also be peaceful, democratic and compassionate.

Lucy Cooke seeks out the animal communities that adopt a more peaceful and democratic way of life and asks why it works for them. Despite being fierce predators, African wild dogs are cooperative and compassionate within their packs, and they actually hold democratic votes on hunting decisions – one sneeze for yes, two sneezes for no! They are among the most effective predators in the world. They use extraordinary cooperation and teamwork to pursue, overhaul and bring down their prey. As a result 80% of their hunts end successfully, compared to lions' at 10%. This is nearly all a result of their pack coordination. They are also surprisingly non-aggressive; they don’t fight over food but instead beg to indicate their wish to eat. Adults will allow younger pack members to eat before them. And the African wild dogs are not alone: such societies are also common in insects, other mammals, and birds, but exist even in simple species like amoebas.

But what is the evolutionary advantage of this group cohesion? Why when nature selects for not just the individual but for the selfish gene, does it pay to be part of a complex social group? Lucy discovers that when the benefits of group-living outweigh the costs, it’s very much advantageous – when 10 pairs of eyes are better at spotting predators and pack strategies mean far more successful kills in a hunt, or when grooming not only strengthens bonds, but it also gets rid of your ticks and fleas. She also explores the different strategies of the highly complex social animals – the Great Apes – and asks whether Bonobos are truly the lovers and Chimpanzees the fighters?

This all touches on the complex social interactions we have as humans. We can be peaceful and we can be violent and war-like, and like every species, individual variation and circumstances can tip the balance of our behaviour. But anthropologist Agustin Fuentes questions the belief that humans are at their core violent, aggressive, and oversexed. Are these behaviours part of our genetic heritage? What can biology, evolution, and behaviour tell us about peace and aggression in everyday life?

Lucy Cooke discovers whether it's better to fight or make peace in the animal kingdom

Lucy Cooke examines what gives some animal species the evolutionary edge over their rivals