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Secret World of Sound With David Attenborough review – the lions sound like Chewbacca breaking wind

<span>‘The roars and growls are comically inadequate’ … a lion in Secret World of Sound with David Attenborough.</span><span>Photograph: Humble Bee Sounds/Sky UK</span>
‘The roars and growls are comically inadequate’ … a lion in Secret World of Sound with David Attenborough.Photograph: Humble Bee Sounds/Sky UK

What is the sound of the natural world? For several generations of us, the answer is David Attenborough’s voice, its whispering lilt sing-songing upwards for cuteness and swooping down again for the drama of the hunt – or in more recent years, taking on a grain of anguish as it urges us to conserve what wildlife we have left. The best pictures that the cameras of the time can muster, backed by the sound of Attenborough: this is nature as we have known it for decades.

So there can be only one narrator for Sky Nature’s new series Secret World of Sound, a natural history show in which the audio is more important than the pictures. In between Attenborough’s words, we are invited to listen more closely than we have before, and with the benefit of better sound equipment than has previously existed, to the roars, buzzes, clicks and paw-steps that sharp-eared animals use to find their way and to stay alive. This intriguing idea is, more often than not, successfully executed in an opening episode that concentrates on foraging and hunting – although the task of packaging up some of the world’s most obscure noises and delivering them to us sometimes proves impossible.

Straight away we are in trouble as we land on an African savannah to listen to lions. A male, its mane rippling in the dawn breeze, lets out a rasping hello; a female, nestling with a gang of other lionesses and their cubs, answers back. “It’s one of the greatest acoustic displays of power in nature,” purrs Attenborough on the voiceover, adding that the lion “can be heard five miles away”. But how loud they seem at home will depend on how high you’ve turned your telly up; at a regular volume, the roars and growls are comically inadequate, like Chewbacca farting in a bathtub. Somewhere on the journey from the lion’s throat to the microphone to the speaker to the human ear, the majesty is lost.

At least we can discern it, though. On the sea bed off the Bahamas, garden eels and razor fish hide beneath the sand when they hear noisy bottlenose dolphins approaching. But then the dolphins switch from a grating buzz to a rapid, Geiger-counter click, which allows them to scan the ocean floor with their own form of sonar and echolocate their prey. As well as this seeming like cheating – the last thought of the razor fish, as dolphin teeth lift it out of its safe place, must be that this isn’t very fair – the act of pinpointing where the fish are buried involves sounds that are at too high a frequency for the human ear to hear. Which means we … can’t hear them.

Modern nature shows are, however, testaments to human ingenuity, and Secret World of Sound has ways around the problem. On the crisp white plains of Manitoba, Canada, the great grey owl is on the prowl for tasty voles burrowing under the snow. We get a great shot of the bird’s eyes, so flat and bright yellow they look painted on, like joke-shop spectacles; but the owl’s deadliest weapons are its ears, helped by a circular ruff of feathers around the face that form a soft loudspeaker, funnelling and amplifying sound. The owl’s hearing is so precise, it’s as good as seeing the vole. To mimic that, the show’s boffins use a camera mounted to a board, surrounded by 60 super-sensitive mics: together, they track the vole, representing its inaudible (to us) shuffling with a moving blue dot on the screen.

The owl swoops towards the blue dot, breaks through the snow, and comes up empty-beaked because snow is water, and water bends sound waves: that vole is not where it seemed to be. So the owl tries again, hovering directly above its prey to eliminate the refraction problem before diving vertically and securing a furry lunch. In the now-customary making-of feature that takes up the last five minutes of the show, all this is explained by a conservationist with ice in his moustache, and it’s fascinating – plus, one impressive sound-based feat the programme does capture with absolute veracity is the owl’s approach, which is silent. Here he comes … listen to that! Nothing. Amazing.

Other cool stories include a bee using the vibrations of its buzz to open up a tightly petalled nightshade flower, its reward being a payload of sticky white pollen; thirsty elephants knowing where far-off rain is because their feet can “hear” it through the ground; and the Arizona kangaroo rat, in danger of being eaten by a snake in the pitch dark of night when the wind affects its ability to listen out for predators. With David Attenborough describing them, they all sound better.

Secret World of Sound With David Attenborough aired on Sky Nature and is available on Now.