Revealing the extraordinary wildlife stories and unseen wilderness of our seven unique continents.
Antarctica – a land of survivors enduring the most hostile conditions on earth. 98 per cent of the mainland is covered by ice on which virtually nothing can live. Even the sea freezes over, but the Weddell seal manages to survive here by keeping its breathing holes open by using its teeth to grind away the ice.
Below the sea ice, conditions have been stable for millennia. Life has flourished and diversified. Starfish, sea spiders and three million predatory worms carpet the ocean floor, and sea anemones feast on ocean giants. Islands on the fringes of the continent are free of sea ice, far more hospitable and crowded. Huge colonies of king penguins cover the land, and four-tonne elephant seals fight for territories on the beach.
The abundance of life found here is down to the incredibly rich ocean surrounding the continent. The strongest currents in the world whip up nutrients to the surface that feed Antarctic krill. Numbering an estimated 400 trillion, their combined weight is greater than any other species in the world. Humpback whales round them up using sophisticated feeding techniques, and gentoo penguins escape the jaws of leopard seals and orcas to reach the open ocean and feed on them. On rare occasions krill swarm in baitballs measuring kilometres across, where they are feasted on by thousands of penguins, seals, albatross and fin whales.
Antarctica was only discovered 200 years ago, but humans have had an enormous impact in that time. The whaling industry killed over 1.5 million whales here, taking many species to the brink of extinction. But since the ban on commercial hunting in 1986, whales are making a remarkable comeback. In addition, the Antarctic treaty is exemplary in demonstrating that countries from around the world can unite to protect wildlife. However, due to climate change, the Southern Ocean is warming and sea levels are rising. Perhaps more worrying is that a warming of the coldest region on earth will have profound effects on global weather patterns. Although Antarctica is far away, what happens here will affect all of us.
Asia is the largest and most extreme continent on our planet, stretching from the Arctic Circle in the north to the tropical forests on the equator. The animals here face the hottest deserts, tallest jungles and highest mountains found anywhere on Earth. But the continent has not always looked like this. These extreme worlds were created when India collided with the rest of Asia 30 million years ago, shaping the continent as we know it today. Animals here have adapted to the extreme environments in almost unbelievable ways.
In the frozen lands of the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, bears seek out active volcanoes – despite the dangers. And on the Siberian coast, a remarkable spectacle appears for a few weeks during the summer – tens of thousands of walruses haul themselves on to a beach in one of the largest gatherings of mammals seen anywhere in the world. In China, mysterious blue-faced monkeys walk upright through some of the least-explored forests on Earth, whilst the baking deserts of Iran are home to what has to be the world’s most bizarre snake. On the barren plateaus of India, garishly coloured lizards fight like miniature kung fu masters as they try to find a mate before they die.
The south of the continent couldn’t be more different. When India collided with Asia, the Himalayas were formed. These mountains blocked clouds, helping to create the monsoon. Heavy rains fell and tropical forests, full of life, developed to the south. Here, baby orangutans learn to climb the tallest jungle trees on the planet and a female Sumatran rhino – one of the rainforest’s rarest inhabitants – sings a mournful and haunting song. Will anyone return her call? These forests – home to thousands of incredible species – are in danger of being lost forever. Under threat from deforestation and human development, today the largest continent on Earth is running out of space for its wildlife. But there’s hope in Asia’s tropical waters, where endangered whale sharks gather to find food and get a helping hand from a surprising source.
South America – the most species-rich continent on earth. From the bone-dry deserts of the Atacama, where penguins weave their way through a minefield of snapping sea lions, to the lush cloud forests of the Andes, where Andean bears scale 30-metre trees in search of elusive fruits, South America is full of the unusual and ingenious.
In the far south of the continent, predators prowl the jagged Patagonian landscape. Underneath vertical spires of rock, a mother puma must draw on all her experience and strength to bring down a formidable prey. Guanaco, a relative of the camel, are three times her weight and able to fling a puma in the air.
East of the Andes lies the world’s largest rainforest – the Amazon. To stand out from the crowd here, male blue manakins have developed elaborate and comical dance routines. Poison dart frogs have unique ways to protect their young. Fathers carry their tadpoles piggy-back style to individual pockets of water throughout the forest, but must remember where they hid each one. Precious clay-licks attract rainbow-coloured flocks of macaws and butterflies, all desperate to lap up the precious salts.
In southern Brazil, freshwater springs bubble up crystal clear. Piraputanga fish cruise through the turquoise waters following capuchin monkeys feeding overhead. Fruit dropped by the primates makes an easy meal for the fish until giant anacondas send the monkeys scrambling for safety. The hungry fish resort to leaping athletically from the water, snatching fruit directly from the branches.
The rainforests of South America are under threat. A few small patches of Colombian forest are the last remaining refuge of one of the world’s rarest monkeys. Cotton-top tamarins flit through the treetops hunting down insects, a wild shock of white hair on the top of their heads.
Great dusky swifts fly dangerously close to the spectacular Iguazu falls – then mysteriously disappear. They nest behind the mighty wall of water, safe from predators, but this leaves the chicks in a precarious position. To survive their maiden flight they must somehow punch through the world’s most powerful waterfalls.
Australia, a land cast adrift at the time of the dinosaurs. Isolated for millions of years, the weird and wonderful animals marooned here are like nowhere else on Earth. In the north of this island continent is the Daintree, one of the world’s oldest tropical forests. It’s home to the most dangerous bird on earth – the cassowary. A dinosaur-like bird standing 6 feet tall, they are formidable but their success is down to how well a father cassowary can carefully protect his tiny stripy chicks. Inland the continent is full of more surprises. The wombat, a tough short-legged marsupial, roams Australia’s mountain ranges surviving freezing snowstorms. In the hot gum tree forests is a newly discovered predator with a bizarre courtship ritual. And on the wide, open grasslands the dingo, Australia’s elusive and much persecuted wild dog, hunts kangaroos to provide food for its pups. Chases can cover many miles and are often unsuccessful. Life in Australia is tough and it’s getting tougher. Since its isolation the continent has been rapidly drifting north, getting hotter and drier – turning the forests and grasslands to dust. Over 70% of Australia is now arid land. In the sun scorched red centre, reptiles rule the desert. Giant perentie lizards patrol the dusty land in search of smaller lizards to eat and weird thorny devils drink using only their skin. At watering holes, huge flocks of wild budgerigars bring a splash of bright colour. This Island continent now lies so far north it is surrounded by warm, clear tropical waters – and here coral reefs thrive. They are home to a kaleidoscope of tiny colourful fish and the largest number of shark species in the world. Once every 10 years or more, thousands of sharks gather creating an amazing spectacle. But Australia’s animals face a challenge as a result of humans. More species of mammals have been lost here than anywhere else on the planet. An extensive site containing thousands of extraordinary ancient carvings is all that remains of some.
But on a secret offshore island, the enigmatic and rare Tasmaian devil, a pugnacious marsupial predator, has one of its last strongholds.
Europe, a crowded continent transformed by mankind where extraordinary animals are found in surprising places.
High above the city of Gibraltar, Barbary macaques – Europe’s only primate, live a life full of kidnappings and high drama whilst in the cemeteries of Vienna ‘grave robbing’ European hamsters do battle with each other for food. Come nightfall, the forests surrounding ancient Italian mountain villages become the hunting grounds for rarely seen wolves whilst deep underground in Slovenia’s caves, and living for up to a hundred years, ‘baby dragons’ or olms can be found lurking in the pitch black.
But in this crowded world there is still wilderness. On the far eastern edge of the continent, hidden in the vast forests of Finland, is the perfect place for mother brown bears to raise their youngsters. To the North, on the fringes of the Arctic Circle, the open tundra echoes with the sound of titanic battles as head-banging musk ox bulls fight for the right to breed.
Europe’s warm, stable climate and the long warm summer days help trigger the continent’s most spectacular wildlife spectacle. In Hungary, for just a few days in June, millions of giant mayflies emerge from the Tisza River. They all now compete, desperate to find a mate – within just a few hours they will all be dead and the spectacle will be over for another year. Romania’s mighty Danube delta attracts birds from around the globe. Here, great white pelican gather in their thousands but instead of finding their own fish, these bully birds rob their cormorant victims of their hard won catch.
Today just 4% of Europe is protected wilderness. Many of Europe’s animals have suffered at the hands of man for thousands of years. However, recently dedicated conservation efforts have thrown a lifeline to a lucky few. Once on the brink of extinction, the Iberian lynx is returning to the hills of Spain. Numbers have increased from under 100 to 700 in a matter of decades. Only by protecting the wilderness that remains, and creating new wild spaces, can a future for Europe’s precious wildlife be ensured.
More than any other continent, North America is defined by extreme weather and seasonal change. For animals that live here this poses great challenges, but for those with a pioneering spirit it can also offer great rewards.
In Canada’s Yukon, winter can be brutal – up to six feet of snow can fall in a single day. But lynx have found a way to survive where others cannot, pushing farther north than any other cat species on earth. To catch a meal, they must outsmart quicker and more nimble prey, the aptly named snowshoe hair.
With no east-west mountain range crossing North America, Arctic air can flow unimpeded as far south as the southern swamps, locking alligators into a blanket of ice and forcing manatees to flee in search of warmer water.
Spring arrives rapidly, covering the Rocky Mountains in a riot of wildflowers and turning frozen creeks into raging torrents. In the streams of Tennessee, male chub fish go to great lengths to attract a mate, moving thousands of stones to build rock pyramids over a metre high. When temperatures are just right, the forests of Mississippi come alive with the spectacular glow of millions of fireflies illuminating the night.
On the central prairies, summer brings formidable weather. Warm air from the Gulf of Mexico meets Arctic air head-on, resulting in tornados. Spinning across the Great Plains at speeds of 300 miles per hour, these are the fastest winds on earth. Prairie dogs take evasive action, and it’s not just tornados they’re avoiding. American badgers slink through the long summer grass on the hunt for burrowing owls and unsuspecting prairie dog pups.
Africa – home to the greatest wildlife gatherings on earth. But even in this land of plenty, wildlife faces huge challenges. At its heart is a vast tropical rainforest full of life. Here young chimpanzees learn how to use tools to make the most of the jungles riches. With knowledge passed down from generation to generation, they can access the best forest foods.
Rivalling the jungle for it sheer abundance of life is Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It formed 30 million years ago when a mass of molten rock forced the land upwards, eventually tearing the planet’s crust apart. As the valley deepened, rivers flooded the valley floor creating stunning lakes. These are the richest freshwater habitats on the planet.
Africa’s rich Serengeti grasslands are home to the greatest herds of antelopes, wildebeest and zebras. Close behind them are their predators. To increase their chances of a successful kill a group of five cheetahs team up to form one of the largest cheetah coalitions ever seen. But numbers aren’t always enough.
Covering one third of the continent, Africa’s deserts are tough environments for wildlife. In the Namib, the oldest desert on Earth, brown hyenas make epic journeys in search of food for their families and seek shelter in long-abandoned ghost towns. Meanwhile, in the Kalahari the bizarre-looking aardvark digs deep to find a meal.
For millennia, Africa’s unique wildlife has managed to thrive, even in its most hostile corners, but today its greatest threat comes from human activity. In the last century, millions of elephants have been killed by hunters and poachers, and the desire for northern white rhino horn has brought the sub-species to the brink of extinction.
But with help, wildlife populations can recover. In the Virunga mountains, dedicated conservation efforts have meant mountain gorilla numbers have increased above 1000 for the first time since records began. The decisions we make now will decide the future of animals, humanity and all life on earth.