Channel Hop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am

'Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war,' pontificated American writer Mark Twain in his essay What is Man? Perhaps the Twainster should have reserved judgment until he had had the chance to research the subject more thoroughly, however.

It would seem that mankind, despite our obvious flair for it, does not have a monopoly on war, as demonstrated by not one, but two startling nature documentaries showing this week.

Proving that creepy-crawlies are even more unpleasant than they look is Insect Wars (National Geographic, Monday at 9pm). This fascinating documentary reveals the epic battles fought, sieges endured and conquests celebrated by armies that march on six legs apiece. Using tiny cameras

and slow-motion techniques, Insect Wars gets a soldier's-eye view of the crusades fought out of human sight amid the undergrowth.

Matabele ants, for example, have marauding forces that make the Vikings and the Mongols look like rank amateurs. Protected by tough body armour and armed with a poisonous sting and powerful jaws, these diminutive commandos are every termite's worst nightmare. As this show demonstrates in microscopic detail, when the ants locate a termite mound, they storm it with an army of up to 600 soldiers and massacre the inhabitants with brutal ease. The bloodthirsty blighters only stop killing when they have as much food as they can carry back to their nest - which can be as many as 4,000 slain termites.

Also featured in this excellent documentary are: army ants, which can build bridges, perform incredible feats of strength and overwhelm much larger creatures with sweeping attacks; 'gestapo' bees, which ensure no bee but the queen can successfully lay eggs; and the incredible polyergus ants, which raid the colonies of the smaller formica ants to steal their larvae so they can 'enslave' them.

Most visually stunning of all, however, are the astounding battles between giant hornets and honey bees. Insect Wars reveals how an attack squad of just 30 hornets, captured in spectacular footage, can wipe out a hive of 30,000 bees in under an hour. (Incidentally, can insect genocide be called insecticide?) The bees fight valiantly against their intruders - which are five times their size - and, to a bee, they go down fighting to protect their hive. Bleak, but for the bees, I guess it's a case of 'they can take our honey, but they'll never take our bee-dom!'

Also shedding light on the darker side of the animal kingdom is The Demonic Ape (Animal Planet, today at 9pm), which aims to explain why a chimpanzee murdered a human baby in Tanzania. The chimp in question was Frodo, probably the most famous ape on the planet, having been studied for 27 years by trailblazing primatologist Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park. Goodall made many pioneering discoveries in Gombe, such as the fact chimpanzees use tools, hunt and eat meat, but none caused greater shockwaves than the 2002 incident, in which alpha male Frodo attacked a woman walking through the jungle, stole her baby and ripped it to pieces.

The main thrust of The Demonic Ape is an attempt to determine whether Frodo's actions can be considered 'murder' or whether, as a wild animal, the chimp can't be held responsible for its actions. Evidence for the former comes in the form of research that shows chimpanzees have 'theory of mind' (a concept of the results of their actions), while a study by Ohio State University's Professor Sarah Boysen (above) suggests they may even have their own 'language'.

Further shocking revelations include the discovery Gombe chimps waged a bloody civil war - which left half the group dead - and they demonstrate a sadistic pleasure in the infliction of pain on other members of their species. Apparently, it's all to do with something called 'the demonic male hypothesis'. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with forgetting anniversaries, leaving the toilet seat up

or hogging the remote control during the World Cup, but instead relates to the idea that violent behaviour in male primates may be largely instinctive - although drinking copious amounts of beer and losing at football also play their part.

More evidence that the male of the species' needs to engage in violence is put forward by The Ultimate Fighter (AXN, Mondays at 9pm; two-hour special today at 8pm). This reality-television series

pits 16 martial artists against each other in a series of bouts, with the eventual victor winning a contract for the prestigious Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Putting the competitors through their paces and pushing them to their mental and physical limits are UFC luminaries Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, who urge contenders to shed blood, sweat and tears for their cause.

This show may well appeal to fans of martial arts and the fights inside the UFC Octagon, an eight-sided caged ring, are often exciting and always full-blooded, but while watching this, it occurred to me that Twain got it almost right: man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities ... reality television.