Documentary: Monkeys revealed


Bill Condie reviews the latest BBC Earth documentary series, now available on DVD.


The monkeys of Varanasi, India, form their own distinctive community by the river Ganges. – Roadshow Entertainment

Monkeys revealed, BBC Earth (2015), run time: 148 mins

It’s time to meet the family in this, the latest in the BBC Earth series. And what a strange and large family are the apes, monkeys and lemurs that make up the primates.

With the customary BBC natural history unit production values, this three-episode series begins by introducing us to some of the 400 bizarre and colourful animals that make up the order. All share the big brains, binocular vision and opposable thumbs that make us us.

And they are quite a bunch – from imposing great apes like the orangutan, which has learnt to imitate the humans it meets, to the tennis ball-sized tarsier – a fearsome predator with almost supernatural powers. Its hearing is ultrasonic and its eyes, so large they cannot move in their sockets, are focused by the animal turning its head through nearly 360 degrees.

Then there’s the tiny lemur, the Aye Aye, more ET than primate, so strange are its hunting skills. It taps branches to create a sort of sonar to find grubs, which it then captures with a specially adapted hypersensitive, long, skinny feeding finger.

The next two episodes take a closer look at two of the primates’ unique characteristics – their love of family and their intelligence. There’s the physical contact and play that is vital to their survival and the highly developed social status that has developed in almost every group of primates.

But it is the massive ability to learn – and pass on that learning that really sets this order apart. These family traits, a settled way of doing things among a certain group of primates that differs from the way another group may behave, can only be described as the beginnings of culture. It was something that until recently we humans thought we had all
on our own.

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