BBC series stars Montana biologist who studies animal weapons

Biologist Doug Emlen in a scene from “Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers.” (Photo by Stuart Dunn)

Missoula Current

The research and discoveries of University of Montana biology professor Doug Emlen are the focus of a new hourlong BBC documentary, “Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers.”

The program is part of BBC’s longest-running wildlife series, “Natural World,” and was inspired by Emlen’s 2014 book “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle.”

The UM researcher has spent 30 years investigating how weapon-bearing species developed extreme ways to gouge and gore one another using their natural weapons. The documentary explores how animal arms races may relate to their human equivalents – all the way up to nuclear warheads.

Featured subjects in the film include Darwin’s and Rhinoceros beetles, which have pitchfork-like horns that measure one-third the length of their bodies; American elk, who deplete their skeletons to grow enormous antlers; and the U.S. Air Force’s development of the long-range Minuteman III nuclear missile, Earth’s most lethal weapon to date.

Emlen takes viewers to various locations in Montana and Washington, including a ranch with elk overlooking Flathead Lake and a building crammed with 17,000 shed antlers called Jim’s Horn House in Three Forks.

The film is directed by Peter Fison and narrated by actress Nina Sosanya.

“What makes Doug’s work fascinating is that he asks us to look at the animal kingdom from a fresh perspective,” Fison states. “We’ve all seen horned, tusked and antlered animals before, but I suspect few of us have considered what it is like to carry around an appendage weighing nearly as much as the rest of you everywhere you go, or why it’s worth it.

“Doug’s radical theory is that all weapons – animal or human – develop under the same conditions and are produced for the same reasons,” Fison continues. “If Doug is right, the existence and function of nuclear warheads and elk antlers is the same and, potentially, just as vulnerable to cheats.”

The BBC and the PBS program “NOVA” collaborated to fund production, and that NOVA will air an American version of the documentary later this year.

“I know it’s a challenge for many people in our area to get BBC2, but they should be able to watch it online,” Emlen said.