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The nocturnal life of animals

Night on Earth is a documentary that investigates what nature gets up to after dark

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Published: 3 Apr 2020
In six episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes special, Night On Earth is a Netflix docuseries that reveals what animals do after sunset. Made by Plimsoll Productions and produced by Bill Markham, the series explores numerous nocturnal ecosystems for the first time ever. This was possible thanks to ultra- sensitive film cameras that amplify moonlight, and thermal-imaging cameras that detect heat instead of light, a combination that allows any form of warm- blooded life to be filmed even in total darkness.

The Trailer

When human beings go to bed, many species become active. Up until now the nocturnal life of wild animals has remained an inaccessible mystery, and naturalists, biologists and researchers have only been able to guess at what they do when the sun goes down. In the behind-the-scenes episode of Night On Earth – Shot in the Dark (also on Netflix), the biologist Femke Broekhuis, who runs the Mara Cheetah Project in the Masai Mara nature reserve in Kenya and has been studying and monitoring cheetahs for over ten years, says that up until now she had only been able to deduce what these felines got up to at night by tracking the movements mapped by the GPS collars put around their necks. When she took part in the film project, however, she was able to see what they did with her own eyes.

Making Night On Earth was a unique experience for all the crew and the researchers involved in the project. For any of the latter, who accompanied Bill Markham’s crew, night-filming was often an eye-opener for their research.

Alexander Dzib, for example, who is seen in Shot in the Dark observing a colony of flamingos nesting in a lagoon reserve in Yucatán, explains that thanks to a drone used to film the area from above, he was able to count the number of birds who were living there and ascertain that the population had, in fact, grown. This suggests that if the film and thermal-imaging cameras used by the crew were available to researchers, they would be able to map the behaviour of all the various species under observation and help safeguard these ecosystems even further.

The nocturnal life of animals

Flamingos in a wildlife reserve in Yucatán

Making Night On Earth was a unique experience for all the crew and the researchers involved in the project. For any of the latter, who accompanied Bill Markham’s crew, night-filming was often an eye-opener for their research.
The documentary also casts light on another interesting issue: the effect that human intervention has on ecosystems. One example of this is the story of how crab-eating macaques have adapted since colonising the city of Lopburi in Thailand and turning it into an urban jungle. Thousands and thousands of these monkeys now cohabit reasonably peacefully with the human population. When night falls, however, it would normally be time for these animals to sleep, but as the city is so brightly lit, they don’t register the alternation of light and darkness, and this has affected their natural sleep/wake cycle.

The nocturnal life of animals

Crab-eating macaques in Lopburi

Narrated in the original version by Samira Wiley and in the Italian version by Alessandra Mastronardi, Night On Earth is an extraordinary immersive experience for the viewer. In addition to the footage, which is enough on its own to arouse a sense of wonder, there are two other ingredients that mark this series out as a particularly high-quality entertainment product. These are the editing and the narrative structure of each episode that transform the animals into characters in a story. This approach keeps the viewer glued to the screen in the same way that works of fiction do.

From tropical forests to polar ice caps and from vampire bats in southern Peru to blind moles in the dunes of Namibia, the animal world unwittingly tells endless tales that our visual story-sensitive subconscious locates midway between fairy tale and reality. Previously, a significant part of these stories was always denied to us. But now, thanks to the huge steps forward taken by technology, we can non-invasively illuminate this darker half of animal life. This means that these ecosystems can be studied and understood in greater detail and hopefully, telling stories such as these will help raise awareness of just how precious and fragile our world is.