Rarely Seen Animal Behavior Captured in “Spy in the Wild,” A NATURE 5-part Miniseries

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29 January 2017
Spy in the Wild
Which is the real orangutan and which is the spy camera? Young orangutan looking at Spy Orangutan. Borneo.
Stephen J. Downer/© John Downer Productions
“Spy in the Wild”
Wednesdays, February 1 - March 1 at 8 PM ET on PBS
(Check your local listings)

          In the most innovative production Nature has ever presented, this five-part series employs more than 30 animatronic spy cameras disguised as animals to secretly record behavior in the wild. These "spycams" reveal animals as having emotions and behavior similar to humans: specifically, a capacity to love, grieve, deceive, and invent.

          Among the featured Spy Creatures are: Spy Orangutan, Spy Croc Hatchling, Spy Meerkat, Spy Egret, Spy Tortoise, Spy Prairie Dog, Spy Macaw, Spy Sloth, Spy Cobra, Spy Bushbaby, Spy Squirrel, Spy Adelie, and Spy Baby Hippo. These robotic, uncanny look-alikes infiltrate the natural world to film surprising behavior among wildlife from around the globe.

          “Spy in the Wild,” A NATURE Miniseries airs Wednesdays, February 1, 8, 15, 22, and March 1, 2017 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

          Miniseries producer and director John Downer, whose productions such as Earthflight and Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, were presented by Nature, says this was the first "spycam" series to be shot in ultra-high-definition (UHD) and is "the most ambitious and biggest Spy series yet." Downer explains that the series' aim "was to capture these elusive moments where animals do something so extraordinary that makes us consider our own connection with the natural world.
Inevitably those moments are rare, but by deploying a menagerie of lifelike Spy Creatures and other remote cameras over long periods of time and filming thousands of hours of footage, it was possible to capture many never-seen-before moments." "This series is a big step up from how we currently view and understand animals," says Nature executive producer Fred Kaufman. "It is surprising in every way."

The special sequences recorded by the Spy Creatures' built-in cameras are many:
Nature Spy• Spy Croc Hatchlings not only captured on film a female Nile crocodile gathering her babies in her mouth for the first time in the wild, but these robotic look-alikes were also picked up with the baby crocs showing what it was like as the mother croc carried them all underwater.
• Spy Tortoise caught the attention of a young chimpanzee who becomes uncharacteristically possessive of this new-found toy or pet, unwilling to share it with other chimps.
• Spy Langur, embedded with a group of 120 langur monkeys in India, is grabbed and dropped by a teenage langur, prompting a gathering of the monkeys around the motionless "spycam" in a sign of empathy and mourning.
• Spy Chick reveals life inside a tree nest, where a female red-billed hornbill is confined with her chicks and dependent on her mate to feed them for more than two months through a slit in the walled-up entrance before making her way out.
• Spy Bushbaby was present with other conventional cameras to help document a filming first as a young chimp befriends an abandoned genet kitten and tries to gently comfort it, showing compassion for another species.

         These realistic robotic cameras need to gain acceptance among their real-life counterparts, e.g., Spy Wild Dog Pup mimics the body language of the African savannah's wild dog pack. It utilizes submissive postures, tail wagging, and play bows to win them over.
          Likewise, Spy Prairie Dog was designed to perform a jump yip, a leap on two legs, which is a visual signal to unite the prairie dog colony in Colorado as well as a sign of vigilance. And it was clear Spy Tortoise fooled the male tortoises for a bit during mating season as the "spycam" unexpectedly found herself approached by a rather amorous male.

          Although 34 new Spy Creatures were created for the miniseries, most of them had to have backups, given mishaps in the wild. In total, around 60 different spy cameras, including the Spy Creatures, were deployed to film the production. Logistically, up to 10 Spy and conventional long lens cameras could be used at any one time. Filming the episodes in 21 countries took three years with more than 8,000 hours of footage shot.

Nature Spy
Photo by Richard Jones/John Downer Productions
Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries: Love
Episode 1 airs Wednesday, February 1 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS
Spy Creatures explore the rarely seen emotions of animals, revealing if they are as strong and complex as our own. Join the "spycams" as they are accepted into a wild dog pack, witness elephant love, and are mourned by a troop of monkeys.

Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries: Intelligence
Episode 2 airs Wednesday, February 8 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS
Spy Creatures infiltrate the world of animal intelligence, ingenuity, and creativity. Watch our spies disguised as animals observe a gray squirrel stealing Spy Nut, a sea otter cracking open a meal, and an orangutan washing with soap.

Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries: Friendship
Episode 3 airs Wednesday, February 15 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS
Spy Creatures and their new wild friends rely on each other to look out for predators. A Spy Meerkat babysits meerkat pups while a Spy Cobra pretends to attack the mob. Spy Crocs witness a convenient partnership between real crocodiles and birds.

Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries: Bad Behavior
Episode 4 airs Wednesday, February 22 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS
Spy Creatures infiltrate the underground world of animal mischief, crime, and retribution. Spy Monkey is caught between crossfires as real monkeys fight over beach bar alcohol. Spy Egret is also a waterhole victim when elephants throw mud everywhere.

Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries: Meet the Spies
Episode 5 airs Wednesday, March 1 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS
The final episode explains how the concept of the Spy Creatures evolved at John Downer Productions from the original Bouldercam to the Penguincams that inspired the next-generation "spycams" featured in this series. It shows the painstaking work that goes into building the lifelike models and how the team deploys and operates the robotic cameras on location all over the world. It contains funny and unexpected moments, much of which is experienced from the viewpoint of the "spycams" themselves.

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