Extraordinary Animals In The Womb


Well-known member
  • Apr 2, 2008

    As this little fellow's countryman Rolf Harris might say, 'Can you see what it is yet?'

    No? Well, that's not surprising. How many times have you seen a baby kangaroo (joey) photographed this early in his mother's pouch? He's still at the embryonic stage, and about the size of a jellybean, but has been captured on camera for a remarkable documentary called Extraordinary Animals In The Womb.


    A baby kangaroo in its mother's pouch, where it will stay for six months before it hops into the world

    But the cameras for this joint National Geographic Channel and Channel 4 series - from the same people who brought us last year's unforgettable images of baby elephants seemingly dancing in the womb - have traced his incredible journey, from conception to birth, using revolutionary film-making processes.

    Ground-breaking photographic techniques, plus state-of-the-art graphics, 4-D scanning techniques and the most sophisticated natural history models ever, have all been used to provide an unparalleled glimpse into a world that few of us would ever expect to see.

    For the first time ever, we can follow the embryonic journey of four different animals: our kangaroo, the lemon shark, the Emperor penguin, and the parasitic wasp. And one of the most jaw-dropping sequences is a glimpse of the joey just before he is born - a mass of kicking legs and punching arms, raring to go.


    An Emperor penguin chick embryo inside its egg after about one week's gestation

    It is a staggeringly ambitious project, and one that has taken several years to make. As Jeremy Dear, head of development at Pioneer Productions, puts it, 'Illustrating what goes on inside a living creature involves the very latest digital technology and innovative filming, combined with anatomically accurate models, to create the impression of really being in the womb.'

    It's fair to say that, apart from little joey, the series is a much less cuddly piece of TV than its predecessor, but, if anything, it's more gripping. And it's not one for the faint-hearted either, as it turns on its head whatever assumptions you might have about life in utero being akin to a nice calming waft around a flotation tank.

    'One of the most exciting journeys in the series that we look at is that of the lemon shark,' explains the show's producer Peter Chinn. 'We see that this animal's embryos are cannibalistic - they eat their own siblings in order to survive. What goes on inside that particular womb is astonishingly brutal.' With a mixture of high definition (HD) scanning and intricate modelmaking, the fight is recreated for the cameras.

    'We've kept it as accurate as possible, and it is really gruesome in places. It happens just as their teeth have begun to form. The embryo is blind, but can sense that it has rivals in the womb, so starts eating its brothers and sisters.' So not one for teatime viewing then.

    Fledgling life isn't a barrel of laughs for the cute penguin chicks either. They must battle the coldest weather on the planet, where it really is a case of only the strongest surviving. And as for the parasitic wasp, Peter explains that its larvae must first hijack and exploit the body of another creature, such as a caterpillar. 'By using incredibly detailed scans, we were able to see what was actually going on, and the torment this caterpillar was subjected to. It gives some sense of what remarkable fights for life go on.'


    After about five weeks in the womb, this lemon shark embyo has started growing gills

    Peter and his team travelled across three continents to obtain the footage involved, and were lucky enough to witness the birth - within a one-hour time frame - of an incredible 14 shark pups. 'It's hard enough to film sharks, never mind trying to capture them mating or giving birth, but we spent five days in a boat in the Bahamas, hoping to find pregnant sharks.'

    So how does one spot a pregnant shark? 'There is a specific time of year that pregnant sharks gather, and the local experts we working with knew roughly where to find them,' says Peter. 'But, as is so often the case, it is largely down to patience - and luck.'

    Once they had identified their mummy-to-be, the divers were dispatched with special HD cameras, the size of a hand. 'Shark births had been filmed before, but not with the quality of these images. That's the remarkable thing about working in this field - the technology is improving all the time, so the boundaries are always being pushed back.'

    In terms of scanning the pregnant animals, medical advances have now made this much more straightforward. 'There was a lot of collaboration with the medical world.

    We used a special medical endoscope with an integrated camera. This gave us much better access, so that we could film inside such places as a kangaroo pouch.' But there is only so far that cameras can go. 'You can't just stick a camera into an animal's womb because you'd end up killing the embryo,' says Peter.


    This baby kitten is just a week away from being born


    A Chihuahua foetus in the womb during the final week of pregnancy

    Where the photographic and scanning efforts ended, computer imagery took over. A team of model-makers was enlisted to recreate the embryos at various stages. 'These guys had an incredibly difficult job to do,' says Peter. 'Their background is in creating gremlins and the like for movies, but for us they had to produce incredibly accurate representations of embryonic animals.

    'Every tiny detail had to be perfect, and everything was checked and double-checked with a team of experts and against scan images. With the shark, for instance, every gill had to be in exactly the right position. It was quite a tortuous procedure.'

    Not least when it came to the Emperor penguin. It is virtually impossible to examine the eggs up close in order to make models of them, because they are protected by law. 'We worked with old samples belonging to the Natural History Museum, which dated from about 1910.'

    The end result, however, is a programme so slick that you genuinely cannot tell where the real footage ends and computer-generated images begin. 'There is no intention to deceive, and we are clear about just how far our cameras can go,' says Peter. 'But the picture we've been able to build up goes further than my wildest dreams.'

    Those viewers who like their baby animals to look like cute little furballs will be relieved to know that other episodes in the series offer a more conventional peek inside animal wombs.


    A cocooned parasitic wasp larva beginning to morph into adult form

    One looks at cats, offering glimpses of the foetal development of the domestic cat, and also that of the lion, with 4-D ultrasound technology showing our feline friends stretching in the womb, while infra-red cameras capture a lion cub being born. And dogs, too - from the grey wolf to the miniature Chihuahua; the cameras even capture the tiny unborns panting.

    By happy coincidence, Peter's wife became pregnant during the series' production process. Did his professional expertise help his wife much? 'I kept coming up with useful facts about what would be happening to a kangaroo foetus at the particular stage that our baby was also at. I'm not entirely sure she found that helpful. Actually, I think she got a bit annoyed. She'd say, "Would you stop with the stories about cannibalistic sharks. It isn't helping."'

    Watching his own little boy's limbs flailing around on the ultrasound screen provided, perhaps, the most powerful reminder possible of how diverse the journey to life really is. 'I was struck by how calm the human process is in comparison,' admits Peter. 'It really makes you appreciate what a straightforward ride evolution has given us human beings. We have it pretty easy, really, all things considered.'

    Extraordinary Animals In The Womb is on Channel 4 on 20 October at 9pm.