Planet Earth

Photo Gallery: Ridiculously Good Photography of LIFE in All Its Glory

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandMar 26, 2010 12:05 PM

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Life: Ain't it grand? That seems to have been the starting point for the new nature documentary series LIFE, which spotlights some of the planet's most gloriously unusual critters. The series, which airs on Sunday evenings on the Discovery Channel, presents animals that belong in the evolution hall of fame. Many have developed remarkable tricks to survive in inhospitable environments, while others have developed fascinating mating rituals that ensure that the fittest individuals pass on their genes, generation after generation. Click through the gallery for some of our favorite hall-of-famers from the show.

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A Restless Trail-Runner

Size does matter, especially for the tiny rufous sengi, an "elephant shrew" whose small size and constant movement makes it hungry—all the time! But movement in a forest full of predators is dangerous, so the sengi devised a clever method to forage for food. The tiny mammal constructs a series of neatly cleared trails between its regular feeding spots and memorizes their details. Then it launches itself on a trail patrol at breakneck speed, stopping only to check for tasty insects and to clear the trail of any debris. A single twig can be fatal, so the sengi spends up to 40 percent of its time running the trails and clearing away obstacles.

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Wait, Watch, Wait, Watch – Attack!

The Komodo dragon, which lives only on five arid islands in Indonesia is a picky eater; it scans the landscape patiently for that perfect leg of meat. Because it's a cold-blooded reptile, it can survive on the inhospitable islands with only a dozen meals a year. These massive dragons, which measure about 7 feet in length and weigh around 170 pounds, adopt a watch-and-wait hunting approach. A dragon may spend days motionless beside a forest track waiting for prey like deer to pass. Then, it explodes. Reaching speeds of 11 miles per hour, the dragon snaps its jaw shut on its prey, often overpowering it and devouring it on the spot. However, if the prey manages to get away, it's only a matter of time before the dragon's bite takes its toll. The Komodo dragon is the world's largest venomous animal

; much like the snake, it produces poison that kills prey by preventing blood coagulation, leading to massive blood loss. While small prey stand no chance against the venom, larger prey like buffalos takes time. But patience is the dragon's virtue, and so is teamwork, as up to seven dragons may group up and spend days stalking the wounded prey and attacking it till it dies. Then the team feasts—with the largest dragon eating first and gobbling up to 80 percent of its body weight in one sitting.

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Survival in the Alkaline Cauldrons

For the lesser flamingos

that live in Africa's Great Rift Valley, the region's caustic alkaline pools are a tasty delight. Where regular folks see a hot cauldron of alkaline mineral salts, the pink-tinged birds see a delicious pea-green soup full of nutritious spirulina—a blue-green algae. To get to the algae however, the flamingos have to filter the water. This is where the 10,000 thin, sieving plates in the flamingo's highly evolved bill come into play. The birds first stir the water with their feet and then sway their heads to and fro in the water, using their tongues as pistons to filter 35 pints of water a day through the sieves. At the end of the day, a bird might have gathered two tasty ounces of nutrient-rich spirulina. When the feeding conditions are good, the birds set out to look for a mate and launch into an elaborately choreographed spectacle worthy of Broadway. With their wing flashes, head flicks, beak nibbles, neck moves, and very distinctive vocalizations, the seething mass of birds acts like a marching band--stepping in time, splitting, reuniting, and changing direction—in a mysterious display that ultimately results in pair bonding and mating.

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Life's Good at the Mega-Roost

It's one of the most spectacular mass migrations on Earth, but one that has largely remained hidden from human eyes. Each year, millions of straw-colored fruit bats

fly to Zambia's Kasanka region in October, drawn by the area's bounty of fruits like figs, loquat, and mango. Giant masses of bats roost in nearby trees, clinging to branches that sag or break under the collective tons of weight. As evening falls, 150,000 bats per minute will leave the roost to forage, flying as far as 37 miles and in the process pollinating flowers and dispersing millions of seeds from ecologically and economically important trees. Over the course of their stay, the bats will consume twice their collective body weight in food and devour the equivalent of several billion bananas. While predators routinely attack the mega-roost, the sheer size of the roost deters some birds of prey; those hunters that do succeed in picking off a few bats have a negligible impact on the group as a whole. Ten weeks into this mega-roost, just as mysteriously as the bats arrived, they depart—in some cases flying more than a thousand miles to the Congo rainforest.

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Starfish Domination

It's like a starry sky on the seafloor of Antarctica's icy Ross Sea, where starfish dominate the ecosystem. In these harsh conditions, where most of the sea is frozen over for months, the Odontaster starfish can't afford to be a picky eater. So it devours everything in sight, feasting on dead seals

, seal feces, sponges, and other starfish. With its food taken care of, the next item on the agenda is to make sure the kids survive. In late winter, when most other marine critters aren't active, the starfish releases floods of eggs and sperm into the water. The young feed off active bacteria as winter wanes, before moving to a summer diet of algae. The starfish's hardy eating habits coupled with its robust reproductive strategy help it thrive in a part of the planet where few species survive.

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Where the Bee Suitors Wait

When you live in a territory as way out as Western Australia's harsh dry lands, mating rituals are as punishing as the environment. In this arid rocky area, Dawson's bees

go through an intensely competitive rite that leaves many males dead. The bees make their home in dried up shallow pools called the red-clay pans. Each year, females use their jaws to chew out pieces of this rock-hard soil, then burrow into it and lay their eggs underground before expiring. The males that hatch and emerge first literally stand guard over the other tunnels, waiting for a newly-hatched female to poke her head out. The minute she does, it's a free-for-all as all the males try to lay claim to her. The males use their stingers and strong jaws to attack, and unlike most animal species, they have no compunction about killing their rivals. The melee can get so chaotic that females are sometimes dragged into the fight and accidentally killed. But if a male does manage to ward off the other suitors and grab the lady, the two of them fly to the nearby bushes and make babies.

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Cold Monkeys—Hot Springs!

No one pulls rank better than the Japanese macaques

, or "snow monkeys," which live in the mountainous regions of Japan's Honshu Island. The region is racked with heavy snowfall every winter and freezing temperatures that can drop below -4 degrees Fahrenheit, so the monkeys have devised a clever way to stay warm. They have a layer of fat to serve as insulation and a thick coat to help keep warm, but that's just the start. When the cold gets unbearable, they head to the hot springs peppering the volcanic island, and this is where the monkeys pull rank. An inbuilt caste system from the mother's side determines who has dibs on the pool. The high-ranking youngsters get to swim, play, and suckle from their moms in the pool, as the lower ranking monkeys look on dejectedly. When the monkeys emerge from the hot springs, the lack of sweat glands on the monkey's body seals the heat in.

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How to Win a Date With a Female Humpback

Apparently, female humpback whales are tough to impress. To find the right mate in the vast seas, the females go to great distances—2,485 miles to be exact, to their tropical mating grounds. The 40-ton males waiting in the waters know exactly what's on the ladies' mind and serenade them

, repeating a 10- to 20-minute song for hours. Each year, the males' tunes change and evolve slightly, as if reflecting what's hot on the "whale pop chart." When the female is ready for action she releases a scent into the water, after which the males clamor to be her escort—with the largest male often taking the place next to her. But the other males aren't dissuaded easily. As the rivalry escalates, huge male whales breach the surface, slam their lower jaws on the water, and blow bubbles. They charge each other for hours, trying to push each other underwater as the female looks on--judging them, and eventually picking her mate based on his stamina. The contest is so intense that divers attempting to film this "heat run"

said being in the midst of the charging whales was like driving the wrong way on a highway.

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Extreme Motherhood

If you thought your mother was fussy, meet mama orangutan. The friendly giant apes that live in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo bear an uncanny resemblance to humans—"orangutan" even means "person of the forest" in Malay. The females become sexually mature around the same age as human girls and have a pregnancy that lasts 8.5 months. Not just that, but mama orangutans spends the next 8 to 9 years teaching her baby the ways of the forest before having another offspring—giving the orangutan the longest birth interval of any land mammal, and giving her young the longest childhood for any non-human animal. The mother teaches her baby to find the right kind of food for a balanced diet, which includes fruit from almost 200 tree and vine species as well as honey, termites, and small mammals. She also teaches him to build sunshades, umbrellas, and how to fashion gloves out of leaves when feeding in a spiny tree. Unfortunately, these intelligent apes are highly endangered. Due largely to the logging of their forest habitat, fewer than 6,600 orangutans

remain on the island of Sumatra.

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The Vital Force of Dragon's Blood

The Socotra dragon's blood tree is one of the most resilient tree species on Earth. Standing in thin, sandy, stony soil in the Socotra archipelago

, off the coast of Yemen, this tree has perfectly adapted to thrive in a harsh environment that sees no rain except for mountain mists and brief monsoon drizzles. The tree is designed to make the most of its scant water resources. Shaped like a giant funnel, the tree spreads a wide canopy to catch every drop of water. Its spiky leaves are shaped like gutters, angled up and densely packed—they direct rainwater along branches and down the tree's trunk to the roots. The leaves are also waxy, to reduce water loss and keep the drops flowing swiftly. Once the sun returns to its full fury, the dense canopy of leaves serve as a parasol--shading the roots from the brutal rays. Although the tree is well adapted to its environment, its growth is understandably slow. The dragon's blood tree, which gets its name from the thick blood-red sap that oozes from its scaly bark when the tree is damaged, takes about 200 years to reach maturity.

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