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New National Geographic series takes viewers on a thrilling ride through ‘Untamed Americas’

Andean flamingos are among 43 species featured National Geographic's 'Untamed Americas.' | Phocourtesy Pedro Szekely

Andean flamingos are among the 43 species featured in National Geographic's "Untamed Americas." | Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely

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Four-part series airs 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday on National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Mundo.

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Updated: July 8, 2012 6:32PM

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Karen Bass peers through a pair of binoculars, scanning the horizon for a grizzly bear.

Not just any grizzly. Bass is looking for a special sow known around these parts as “Quad Mom.” Last year, this mama bear came out of hibernation, charged down a hill and nabbed an elk calf for her hungry cubs.

Bass’ cameraman caught the action on film. It’s now one of many gripping scenes in National Geographic network’s “Untamed Americas.” The series covers both well-known and obscure species’ struggles to survive in some of the hemisphere’s harshest environments. It’s divided into four hourlong episodes, kicking off with “Mountains” and “Deserts” Sunday followed by “Coasts” and “Forests” Monday.

“There’s never been a series about all of the Americas,” said Bass, a Brit who’s been making natural history documentaries for 28 years. “It really is a land of superlatives.”

The Americas boast the world’s driest desert (Atacama), longest mountain range (Andes) and largest rainforest (Amazon) — spectacular settings for the dramas that take place in nature, from forest fires and flash floods to the animal kingdom’s brutal battles.

Catching these phenomena on film is no easy feat, which is what makes “Untamed Americas” so special. Nearly 30 cameramen canvassed 20 countries for more than a year, capturing 600-plus hours of painstaking footage. All of that was distilled down to the final product, narrated by actor Josh Brolin.

Some of what was shot has never been shown on TV. Take the tube-lipped nectar bats, which weren’t discovered until 2005. They’re the sole pollinator of a flower that blossoms for a brief six days a year. Cameramen filmed these diminutive bats in Ecuador as they set about pollinating with their freakishly long tongues. (If these bats were the size of an average man, their tongues would measure 9 feet long.)

In high-definition, you see a regal horned lizard squirt blood out of its eye socket — in slow motion — into the unsuspecting face of a bobcat, who’s so disgusted by the taste he walks away from his prey.

In what is arguably the series’ most spectacular kill scene, an elusive jaguar jumps out of the bushes and into a river, chomping onto the head of a caiman crocodile. The camera zooms in close enough to see the look of determination in the jaguar’s eyes as it uses its mighty bite force to penetrate its victim’s skull.

Throughout the series, up-close-and-personal scenes like this mesh with grander shots for just the right balance of the intimate and the epic.

Aerial footage of a massive school of mobula rays (aka devil rays) in Mexico is nothing short of stunning. It shows thousands of these fish with massive wingspans as they leap out of the water before belly flopping into the Sea of Cortez.

“It’s the biggest concentration anyone has ever seen,” said Bass, who remembers the excitement in the voice of her cameraman when he called to tell her what he’d just witnessed.

In her quest for content, Bass orchestrated an elaborate network of experts from Alaska all the way to down to Patagonia. In the Southwest alone, six pages were filled with contacts who acted as weather spotters, letting her know if a flash flood was on the way.

Bass had Alaskan bush pilots on the lookout for beached whales — an all-you-can-eat buffet for bears. She’d given up on capturing that feast on film when she got a call late last year that a humpback had washed ashore. Even though the project was well into the editing process, she made room for the footage of half a dozen grizzlies gorging on the carcass before passing out in a food coma.

Producing something as grand as “Untamed Americas” takes tenacity, technology and, most of all, good timing. Producer/cinematographer Andy Mitchell camped out for weeks in the Sonoran Desert, hoping to document the infrequent mating ritual of the spadefoot toad. These creatures live in the soil, briefly surfacing after the year’s first major storm to do their thing. Fertilized eggs hatch in shallow pools of water, where tadpoles race to develop before the water dries up.

“We happened to nail it,” Mitchell said. “They’re underground 360 days a year, but we were there the night they came out.”

Timing wasn’t on Mitchell’s side while diving off the coast of Brazil, taking underwater shots of spinner dolphins. As the veteran cameraman went to get back on the boat, a wave slammed the dive ladder against the side of the vessel, lopping off part of his pinky finger.

The timing wasn’t right for Bass either, as she searched for Quad Mom during her visit last month to Yellowstone. She didn’t find the bear that made it into her film. If she had: “It’s almost like you want to go up and shake her paw and say, ‘Thanks for the great footage,’ ” Bass said.

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