Fossil Pokémon and the foibles of Paleontology

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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Paleontology is the scientific study of life in the geologic past, which is visible to us today in the form of fossils. It studies the evolution and diversity of life throughout the entire history of our planet up to the beginning of the Holocene Epoch (roughly 12,000 years ago). That is not restricted to just naming extinct species; we can discover all sorts of stuff by analyzing the fossil record, from parental care in dinosaurs to the great extinction events that happened on our planet. I’m giving these examples because dinosaurs are the very first thing everyone thinks about when they hear the word fossil. Or almost everyone; if you’re a Pokémon trainer, you might instantly recall some of the fossil monsters in the game, most likely those from Gen I, Omanyte, Kabuto, and Aerodactyl.

From the first game in the series onwards, there are fossil Pokémon that you can find in rocks (including amber) and then revive in a Jurassic Park-esque style. The player would find such rock (for instance, a Helix Fossil) and then take it to the Pokémon Lab, where the scientists would revive it. In our example, the Helix Fossil would become an Omanyte, which is arguably the best Pokéfossil ever.[1]  Every new generation of Pokémon had new fossils, with the exception of Gen VII (Sun & Moon).

After the break in Gen VII, Gen VIII (Sword & Shield) brought the fossils back, albeit in a nightmarish form. There are four types of fossils to find in the Galar region of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield: Fossilized Bird, Fossilized Drake, Fossilized Dino and Fossilized Fish. However, you do not use them straightforward to get a Pokémon; a Fossilized Bird will not grant you a cool extinct bird like Confuciusornis from the Cretaceous Period of China. Rather, you take two different fossils to a self-entitled Pokémon professor and she will mix them both to create a horrid chimera (Fig. 1).[2] The resulting Pokémon are horrid mixes that will in all likelihood have a miserable existence – just look at them, it’s almost as horrible as Nina’s story in Full Metal Alchemist.

Figure 1. The fossil Pokémon chimeras from Sword & Shield. From top to bottom: Dracozolt, Arctozolt, Dracovish, Arctovish. Artwork from the games; images retrieved from Bulbapedia (https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/).

I find it difficult to decide whether this was just some game developers running wild during character creation brainstorming sessions or if said developers knew enough about Paleontology to make a bold statement against the mistakes and the forgeries that pop up in this field every now and then. Given other biological nonsense in the series (for instance, see Tomotani, 2014; Salvador & Cavallari, 2019), I am more inclined towards the first hypothesis. Even so, I would like to explore the second one here.

Below I will delve into mistakes in fossil interpretation, from centuries-old scientific works to the present-day, and will also scrutinize the insidious fakes that people have fabricated for various reasons. But first, let us take a closer look into the fossil record.

THE FOSSIL RECORD

Paleontological science is entirely dependent on the fossil record. In broad terms, a fossil is formed when a living organism dies, get buried in the sediment and, over time, becomes petrified as the sediment turns into a rock. As you can imagine, not every organism will be “lucky” enough to get buried in appropriate sediment. For instance, carcasses might get torn apart and be eaten, plants will be decomposed and “vanish”, or the weather and environmental conditions might erode and destroy an organism’s remains.

Besides, not all organisms will fossilize. If they have hard parts like bones, teeth or shells, they will more likely become fossils. Mollusk shells and shark teeth are among the most common fossils to find. However, soft-bodied organisms only fossilize when conditions are extremely favorable; think about jellyfish and squid, for example. Thus, only a small fraction of all past life got fossilized. And of that small fraction, we have only found a small portion; we haven’t searched all the rocks on the planet – there are several areas out there still to be explored.

As such, in Paleontology we work with very incomplete data. And to add insult to injury, sometimes the conditions of the fossils we find are less than optimal, which will make any research difficult. Just compare the fossils in Figure 2: one is neatly preserved, where all structures can be seen and studied; the other is a complete mess and barely recognizable as a snail.

Figure 2. Top: shell of a Vertigo land snail from the European Pliocene (33–28 Ma), showing amazing preservation (the shell measures about 1.8 mm); specimen RGM 550.111, from Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Bottom: shell of an Eoborus land snail from the Paleocene of Brazil (roughly 58–55 Ma), showing very poor preservation (the fossil measures 44 mm); specimen AMNH 24241, from the American Museum of Natural History.

Figure 2. Top: shell of a Vertigo land snail from the European Pliocene (33–28 Ma), showing amazing preservation (the shell measures about 1.8 mm); specimen RGM 550.111, from Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Bottom: shell of an Eoborus land snail from the Paleocene of Brazil (roughly 58–55 Ma), showing very poor preservation (the fossil measures 44 mm); specimen AMNH 24241, from the American Museum of Natural History.

All of this makes research in Paleontology heavily dependent on the specimens one has available. Sometimes, poorly-preserved fossils will result in erroneous interpretations. These are honest mistakes that will eventually be corrected when new fossils, new data or new tools come into play. Getting it wrong the first time around is not lame or shameful – careful re-analysis and correction of mistakes is an important way in which scientific knowledge advances. So, let us take a look in some famous examples of honest mistakes.

The reversal of Hallucigenia[3]

Hallucigenia is a genus of weird marine worm-like creatures, full of spikes and soft appendages. The first species was discovered from the Burgess Shale, a now-famous fossil deposit in British Columbia, Canada, which dates back to the Cambrian Period (roughly 508 Ma[4]). That is the time known as Cambrian Explosion, when all animal groups were rapidly[5] diversifying into all the different branches that we know today.

At first, Hallucigenia was thought to be a kind of polychaete worm, but it was later interpreted as something different. Morris (1977) proposed it was a distinct branch of the animal evolutionary tree[6], and reconstructed the animal walking on its spikes, with the soft appendages floating in the water (Fig. 3). In retrospect, it is rather silly to suppose an animal would walk on stiff legs and some researchers even pointed that out at the time (Gould, 1989), but it was the only interpretation available.

Figure 3. Morris’ reconstruction of Hallucigenia sparsa from the Burgess Shale. Image extracted from Morris (1977: text-fig. 2A). Abbreviations: An. = anus; S. = spine; St. Tt. = short tentacle; Hd. = head; Tt. = tentacle.

Only later, researchers working on Hallucigenia species from Chinese Cambrian rocks were able to figure out that the spines were protective structures on the animal’s back and that it walked with soft legs (Ramsköld & Xianguang, 1991). They basically flipped the animal. Also, those researchers proposed that Hallucigenia actually belonged to the phylum Onychophora. Nowadays, we known onychophorans as velvet worms and there are only terrestrial species remaining. The entire marine branch of this phylum (which included Hallucigenia) became extinct.

But the story did not end there. Smith & Caron (2015), working with better preserved material from the Burgess Shale, realized that what people thought it was the animal’s tail was actually its head (Fig. 4). So Hallucigenia was reversed once again, only this time rotated on a different plane. This shows how difficult it is to work with fossils when they are not well-preserved or belong to groups that are entirely extinct.

Figure 4. Artistic reconstruction of Hallucigenia sparsa. Illustration by Danielle Dufault (https://www.ddufault.com/), extracted from Smith & Caron (2015: fig. 3f).

The terror shrimp

The Burgess Shale was the home of a myriad of weird and wonderful creatures. My personal favorite is Anomalocaris. When it was first discovered (Whiteaves, 1892), the species Anomalocaris canadensis was described based on a fossil like the one shown in Figure 5. The genus name means “anomalous shrimp”, because the fossil was deemed to be a weird sort of shrimp (it was thought to be lacking its head).

Figure 5. Anomalocaris canadensis (circa 8.5 cm long); specimen YPM 35138 from Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons (James St. John, 2014).

Well, you might be thinking “that’s a pretty lame fossil to have as favorite”, but please bear with me for a moment. Meanwhile, two other fossils were discovered in the Burgess Shale: the jellyfish Peytoia nathorsti (Fig. 6) and the sea cucumber Laggania cambria, both described in the same paper (Walcott, 1911).

Figure 6. Peytoia nathorsti (circa 5.2 x 4.2 cm); specimen YPM 5825 from Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons (James St. John, 2014).

It took several decades and new fossils (Fig. 7) for paleontologists to realize that Anomalocaris, Peytoia and Laggania were actually just parts of a single animal (Whittington & Briggs, 1985). The bit called Anomalocaris corresponds to the frontal appendages of the animal; Peytoia is the mouth; and Laggania the body.[7]  Because Anomalocaris was the oldest name (the first one described), it is the one that remains used.

Figure 7. The first complete Anomalocaris canadensis ever found; specimen from the Royal Ontario Museum. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons (Keith Schengili-Roberts, 2007).

This is an honest mistake, even more than that of Hallucigenia above; it is still related to problems of fossil preservation, but in this case, it is an issue of only partial information (and partial fossils) being available.

Anomalocaris was then reinterpreted as the topmost predator of the Cambrian fauna. It was massive for its time, about 1 meter long, and possessed nasty-looking grasping-&-crunching appendages (Fig. 8) to deal with hard-shelled mollusks and trilobites. As a proficient hunter, Anomalocaris had dichromatic color vision and eyes composed of 16,000 lenses, rivalled only by modern dragonflies (Paterson et al., 2011; Fleming et al., 2018). They belong to a branch of the tree of life named Dinocaridida (“terror shrimps”), which is an ancestral group of phylum Arthropoda.

Figure 8. Artistic reconstruction of Anomalocaris canadensis. Image extracted from Wikimedia Commons (PaleoEquii, 2019).

Finally, if you are thinking the reconstruction from Figure 8 looks familiar, that’s because the Pokémon Anorith (Fig. 9) from Gen III is obviously an Anomalocaris.

Figure 9. The fossil Pokémon Anorith from Gen III. Artwork from the game; image retrieved from Bulbapedia (https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/).

Figure 9. The fossil Pokémon Anorith from Gen III. Artwork from the game; image retrieved from Bulbapedia (https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/).

A falsely accused dinosaur

Oviraptor is a genus of small theropod dinosaurs, of the kind that already looked very bird-like. They lived in Mongolia during the Late Cretaceous (90 to 70 Ma) and received their name means “egg seizer”. Osborn (1924) gave them such name because the fossil skull was found lying directly on top of a nest of dinosaur eggs, which “immediately put the animal under suspicion of having been overtaken by a sandstorm in the very act of robbing the dinosaur egg nest” Osborn (1924: 9). Back then, Osborn thought the eggs belonged to another dinosaur, Protoceratops andrewsi.

It took a long time for people to realize the skull belonged to a parent sitting on its nest (Barsbold et al., 1990; Norell et at., 1995; Clark et al., 1999, 2001). Contrary to the examples above, the interpretation of Oviraptor as a thief was not due to poor fossil preservation or to the fossil belonging to a completely “alien” group. This time the interpretation hinged on a thieving raptor versus a caring parent. So how could Osborn and a whole bunch of early 20th century paleontologists get it so wrong?

In short, it was an obsolete paradigm that prevented them from seeing what is now obvious to us. Back then, dinosaurs were seen as dumb cold-blooded beasts. Only in the 1960’s the so-called dinosaur renaissance began, where the paradigm started to shift.[8] A new wave of paleontologists started to understand dinosaurs as warm-blooded and active animals, with complex behavior and social structures. The work of Horner & Makela (1979), showing that Maiasaura peeblesorum cared for its young, was a complete breakthrough and changed the way we understand dinosaurs and how they are related to their present-day survivors, the birds.

Cope’s Elasmosaurus

I will only touch very lightly on this example, because it is so well-know. If you’re interested to know more, the book Dinosaur Bone War by Kimmel (2006) is a great start.

The first specimen of the giant marine reptile Elasmosaurus platyurus was described by paleontologist Edward D. Cope in 1868. When he reconstructed the skeleton, though, Cope thought the animal had a long tail and a short neck, where he obviously attached the skull. Paleontologists soon realized that the animal actually had a short tail and a very long neck and Cope’s skeleton had its head on its ass, so to speak. This caused quite a stir and Cope soon became the butt of jokes by his arch-nemesis Othniel C. Marsh. This fact kickstarted what later became known as Bone Wars.

FORGERIES

All the examples above were honest mistakes. A series of erroneous interpretations were made, but in the end, they were identified and corrected. That’s how things work – our scientific literature is only temporary, representing the objective truth we have at a given point in time. But eventually, everything will (or at least should) be checked and corrected or refined as necessary.

Next, we will take a look at the dark side of Paleontology. These are not fossils mistakenly interpreted; rather, these are actual fakes and forgeries made for a series of typically-human reasons.

The Lügensteine

The Würzburger Lügensteinen[9] (German for Lying Stones of Würzburg) is one of the most curious stories in Paleontology, back from a time this whole scientific field was not quite yet formed. In 1725, Johann Beringer, a professor from the University of Würzburg, found several amazing fossils on a mountain near the city: lizards, frogs, arthropods, all extremely detailed and apparently well-preserved. He also found “fossils” of other stuff, like comets and letters spelling out the Tetragrammaton (the Hebrew name of the biblical god).

Do keep in mind that this was a time when the mechanisms of fossilization and evolution were not yet understood, so we should avoid judging it by our modern standards (Gould, 2000). Beringer took these fossils seriously and published a book entitled Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis in 1726, describing his finds. Beringer interpreted the animal fossils as, well, fossilized animals, and considered the other stuff as “capricious fabrications of God” (Jahn & Woolf, 1963).

It turns out the “fossils” were sculpted and planted there by two of his colleagues, Ignatz Roderick and Johann von Eckhart, who wanted to discredit Beringer. The duo started to plant fakes that were progressively more absurd, but it went on for so long that they eventually decided that the prank was getting way out of hand. They tried to convince Beringer that the fossils were fake (without implicating themselves, of course), but he dismissed them, feeling he and his work were under attack.

Because of that, Beringer took Roderick and Eckert to court to “save his honor”. The duo confessed they were the perpetrators of the hoax and wanted to discredit Beringer because “he was so arrogant and despised us all” (Jahn & Woolf, 1963). The whole deal ended up discrediting Beringer and ruining the reputations of the other two. The fossils became known as Lügensteine, or Lying Stones, and some are still around (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Three Lügensteinen on display in the Senckenberg Naturmuseum (Frankfurt). Image extracted (and cropped) from Wikimedia Commons (MBq, 2018).

This is a story where everyone was wrong. The duo of forgers, obviously, no matter how much of an “insufferable pedant” (Gould, 2000: 21) Beringer was. And Beringer himself, who even by the scientific standards of his day, should have done a better job instead of falling prey to an easy road to fame (Gould, 2000).

But that’s all in the past, isn’t it? Paleontologists nowadays are great scientists who won’t be fooled, right? Well…

Spider-Lobster and the Invisible Hand

In 2019, a group of paleontologists described a giant spider species from the Early Cretaceous of China (Cheng et al., 2009). It was named Mongolarachne chaoyangensis (Fig. 11) and was unlike any other spider we knew about. It turns out that was due to quite an obvious reason: it was not a spider. Instead, the fossil was a crayfish with two extra legs painted on it!

Figure 11. Fossil of Mongolarachne chaoyangensis. Image extracted from Cheng et al. (2009: fig. 1).

Other paleontologists discovered the mistake and corrected it very quickly (Selden, 2019). But why would someone paint those legs to create a fake spider in the first place? According to Paul Selden, who spotted the issue, in China these fossils are “dug up by local farmers mostly, and they see what money they can get for them” (Lynch, 2019).

There is a huge market for embellished fossils and complete fake fossils out there. China, Morocco[10] and Brazil are especially infamous for this (Gould, 2000; Pickrell, 2015; Lynch, 2019). Typically, the fakes are restricted to dinosaurs and other large vertebrates, because that’s where the big money is. Most of these “fossils” end up bought by private collectors, but sometimes a “specimen” finds its way to a museum or university and becomes part of the scientific discussion (Lynch, 2019), like the “spider” above.

These forgeries are very skillfully done, often starting with fragmentary fossils and carving out the missing parts from the stone (Pickrell, 2015). So yes, even scientists can be fooled by them, just like art curators and archaeologists are every now and then fooled by “Renaissance” paintings, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, or a bunch of “Dead Sea Scrolls” (Gould, 2000; Subramanian, 2018; Burk, 2020).

Because of that, several fossil species have been put in check since their description and sadly the field of Paleontology has been marred by an initial feeling of mistrust whenever a new fossil (for instance, a feathered Chinese dino-bird) is discovered (Pickerell, 2015).

In all cases above (the lying stones and the “embellished” fossils), the fakes were unknown to the scientists involved. But what about forgeries purposefully-built by a researcher? Are there any of those in Paleontology? The answer is, unfortunately, yes.

The Piltdown Man

The next example is strictly speaking paleontological, although many would argue that hominin fossils fall into a particular subset of Paleontology or even into a separate field altogether: Paleoanthropology. The following story, like Cope’s Elasmosaurus, is very well known, so I’ll just touch upon it briefly. There are several books published about the Piltdown Hoax, so if you’re interested, a quick search online will give you plenty of options.

To make a long story short, in 1912, a British amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson claimed that he had discovered a hominin fossil in Piltdown, England, which was the “missing link” between large apes and humans. The species was named Eoanthropus dawsoni (popularly known as the Piltdown Man) and the fossils included skull fragments, a jawbone, and a canine tooth. The fossils were a forgery created by Dawson and planted on the “archaeological site” (De Groote, 2016). The jawbone and tooth belonged to an orangutan and were physically and chemically altered and prepared by Dawson. The skull fragments belonged to two humans.

Dawson and his colleagues never let other scientists analyze the actual fossils, just handing out casts of the fossils – like that was not suspicious! Only in 1953, almost 4 decades after Dawson’s death, the forgery was discovered (Weiner et al., 1953). And only in 2016 researchers were able to confirm Dawson as the forger (De Groote et al., 2016).[11]

Why did he do it? Clearly for the fame (was he expecting a knighthood, maybe?) and the attention that his “discovery” garnered – it put the UK at the forefront of Paleoanthropology, attracting interest from both scientists and the general public (De Groote, 2016).

BACK TO POKÉMON

All the new fossil Pokémon from the Galar region fall into the second category explored above, that is, of fakes and forgeries. It’s not their fault, of course. The fossils could be reconstructed properly; you’d just need two bits from the same species: two Fossilized Drake items, for instance, would result in a complete dinosaur, probably Stegosaurus-like. In fact, several fans have recreated what the actual fossil species would look like (e.g., Fig. 12; but you can find more examples online).

Figure 12. Reconstruction of the complete fossils from Galar region. Artwork by JWNutz (https://www.deviantart.com/jwnutz); used with permission.

The Pokémon “scientist” from Galar is a self-entitled expert, creating fake fossils for her own ends, just like Charles Dawson. The chimeric “species” even have spurious Pokédex entries[12], just like the “facts” about the Piltdown Man were once published in actual scientific literature. The Galarian poser “professor” is a dark stain to the honorable profession of Pokémon Professor – and of paleontologists, of course. However, she is surprisingly appropriate for our times, being well in tune with all those “Fox News experts”: flat-Earthers, climate change deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers. Dark times call for dark Pokémon NPCs, I suppose.

REFERENCES

Barsbold, R.; Maryanska, T.; Osmolska, H. (1990) Oviraptorosauria. In: Weishampel, D.B.; Dodson, P.; Osmolska, H. (Eds.) The Dinosauria. University of California Press, Berkeley. Pp. 249-258.

Burke, D. (2020) How forgers fooled the Bible Museum with fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments. CNN 16/Mar/2020.

Cheng, X.; Liu, S.; Huang, W.; Liu, L.; Li, H.; Li, Y. (2019) A new species of Mongolarachnidae from the Yixian Formation of western Liaoning, China. Acta Geologica Sinica 93(1): 227–228.

Clark, J.M.; Norell, M.A.; Barsbold, R. (2001) Two new oviraptorids (Theropoda: Oviraptorosauria), Upper Cretaceous Djadokhta Formation, Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 21(2): 209–213.

Clark, J.M.; Norell, M.A.; Chiappe, L.M. (1999) An oviraptorid skeleton from the Late Cretaceous of Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, preserved in an avianlike brooding position over an oviraptorid nest. American Museum Novitates 3265: 1–36.

De Groote, I.; Flink, L.G.; Abbas, R.; Bello, S.M.; Burgia, L.; Buck, L.T.; Dean, C.; Freyne, A.; Higham, T.; Jones, C.G.; Kruszynski, R.; Lister, A.; Parfitt, S.A.; Skinner, M.M.; Shindler, K.; Stringer, C.B. (2016) New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdown man’. Royal Society Open Science 3(8): 160328.

Fleming, J.F.; Kristensen, R.M.; Sørensen, M.V.; Park, T.-Y.S.; Arakawa, K.; Blaxter, M.; Rebecchi, L.; Guidetti, R.; Williams, T.A.; Roberts, N.W.; Vinther, J.; Pisani, D. (2018) Molecular palaeontology illuminates the evolution of ecdysozoan vision. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285(1892): 20182180.

Gould, S.J. (1989) Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Gould, S.J. (1992) The reversal of Hallucigenia. Natural History 101(1): 12–20.

Gould, S.J. (2000) The Lying Stones of Marrakech. Harmony Books, New York.

Horner, J.R. & Makela, R. (1979) Nest of juveniles provides evidence of family-structure among dinosaurs. Nature 282(5736): 296–298.

Jahn, M.E. & Woolf, D.J. (1963). The lying stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer: being his Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis translated and annotated. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kimmel, E.C. (2006) Dinosaur Bone War: Cope and Marsh’s Fossil Feud. Random House, New York.

Liptak, A. (2018) How Jurassic Park led to the modernization of dinosaur paleontology. The Verge. Available from: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/23/17483340/jurassic-park-world-steve-brusatte-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-dinosaurs-book-interview-paleontology (Date of access: 17/Mar/2020).

Lynch, B.M. (2019) A ‘Jackalope’ of an ancient spider fossil deemed a hoax, unmasked as a crayfish. University of Kansas. Available from https://today.ku.edu/2019/12/17/%E2%80%98jackalope%E2%80%99-ancient-spider-fossils-deemed-hoax-unmasked-crayfish (Date of access: 18/Mar/2020).

Morris, S.C. (1977) A new metazoan from the Cambrian Burgess Shale of British Columbia. Palaeontology 20: 623–640.

Norell, M.A.; Clark, J.M.; Chiappe, L.M.; Dashzeveg, D. (1995) A nesting dinosaur. Nature 378: 774– 776.

Osborn, H.F. (1924) Three new Theropoda, Protoceratops zone, central Mongolia. American Museum Novitates 144: 1–12.

Paterson, J.R.; García-Bellido, D.C.; Lee, M.S.; Brock, G.A.; Jago, J.B.; Edgecombe, G.D. (2011). Acute vision in the giant Cambrian predator Anomalocaris and the origin of compound eyes. Nature 480(7376): 237–240.

Pickerell, J. (2015) The great dinosaur fossil hoax. Cosmos 27/Jul/2015.

Ramsköld, L. & Xianguang, H. (1991) New early Cambrian animal and onychophoran affinities of enigmatic metazoans. Nature 351(6323): 225–228.

Russell, M. (2013) The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed. The History Press, Cheltenham.

Salvador, R.B. (2014) Praise Helix! Journal of Geek Studies 1(1–2): 9–12.

Salvador, R.B. & Cavallari, D.C. (2019) Pokémollusca: the mollusk-inspired Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 6(1): 55–75.

Selden, P.A.; Olcott, A.N.; Downen, M.R.; Ren, D.; Shih, C.; Cheng, X. (2019) The supposed giant spider Mongolarachne chaoyangensis, from the Cretaceous Yixian Formation of China, is a crayfish. Palaeoentomology 2(5): 515–522.

Smith, M. & Caron, J. (2015) Hallucigenia’s head and the pharyngeal armature of early ecdysozoans. Nature 523: 75–78.

Subramanian, S. (2018) How to spot a perfect fake: the world’s top art forgery detective. The Guardian 15/Jun/2018.

Thomas, H.N. (2020) A paleontological outlook on the Super Mario Bros. movie. Journal of Geek Studies 7(1): 1–6.

Tomotani, B.M. (2014) Robins, robins, robins. Journal of Geek Studies 1(1–2): 13–15.

Walcott, C.D. (1911) Cambrian geology and paleontology II. No. 3. – Middle Cambrian holothurians and medusæ. Smithsonian miscellaneous collections 57 [1914]: 41–68.

Walsh, E.J. (1996) Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and its Solution. Random House, New York.

Weiner, J.S.; Oakley, K.P.; Clark, W.G. (1953) The solution of the Piltdown problem. Bulletin of the British Museum, Geology 2(3): 139–146.

Whiteaves, J.F. (1892) Description of a new genus and species of phyllocarid Crustacea from the Middle Cambrian of Mount Stephen, B.C. Canadian Record of Science, 5, 205–208.

Whittington, H.B. & Briggs, D.E. (1985) The largest Cambrian animal, Anomalocaris, Burgess Shale, British Columbia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 309 1141): 569–609.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Many thanks to my paleo-colleagues Alan Tennyson and Felix Marx for pointing out some examples and references I had overlooked; and to Jean-Claude Stahl for the beautiful photo of Vertigo.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist who studies snails, although he has dabbled a little in dinos and fossil birbs too. His long-time favorite Pokéfossil is none other than Lord Helix, despite the anatomical flaws in comparison with real ammonoids. Rodrigo was eager for the new fossils in Sword & Shield but ended up massively disappointed. On the bright side, at least the new horrible Pokéfossils served as a backdrop and excuse to write this article.


[1] And the only one to ascend to godhood. Read the story of Lord Helix in the article by Salvador (2014).

[2] A Fossilized Bird plus a Fossilized Drake will give you Dracozolt; Bird + Dino = Arctozolt; Fish + Drake = Dracovish; Fish + Dino = Arctovish.

[3] Yes, I borrowed the title from Steve Gould (1992).

[4] Ma = megaannum, or millions of years.

[5] Rapidly in geological terms, of course. What are 15 to 25 millions of years for a planet that is 4.5 billions of years old?

[6] He was also the one who named it Hallucigenia, because it is such a weird-looking beast.

[7] Actually the mouthpart of Anomalocaris is different an the fossil known as Peytoia belongs to a second species of anomalocaridid.

[8] This renaissance ultimately led to a shift in how the public perceived dinosaurs too, largely due to the film version of Jurassic Park (Litpak, 2018; Thomas, 2020).

[9] Also known as Beringersche Lügensteine, or Beringer’s Lying Stones, after their infamous “discoverer”.

[10] See Gould’s 2000 book The Lying Stones of Marrakech for an essay linking the big forgery industry of Morocco with Beringer’s Lying Stones.

[11] The Piltdown Man was not Dawson’s only forgery, though; he has tens of others on his portfolio (Walsh, 1996; Russel, 2013).

[12] Granted, several other Pokédex entries seem to have been written by an 8-year-old child. Just look for Ponyta’s, Alakazam’s and Magcargo’s entries, for instance.

Project Hospital: a realistic take on hospital simulation

Interview with Jan Beneš

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Project Hospital[1] is a game developed by indie studio Oxymoron games (Prague, Czech Republic). In it, you build and manage every single detail of your own hospital – and you can diagnose and treat patients as well! Launched in 2018 on Steam, the game features a wealth of real-world-based medical expertise, equipment and diseases and injuries, counting with an in-depth diagnosis process.

To understand how all of this is possible in a game, the Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Jan Beneš, lead programmer at Oxymoron games. We uncovered the story behind Project Hospital, which you can read below.

Q: There are a few hospital and “medical” sim games around, but Project Hospital is a fresh and more down-to-Earth example of this subgenre. How the idea for this game came to be?

A: The story began like this: a small group of developers met in early 2016 to discuss starting a new studio and hopefully agree on the first project. Most of us are now team members or co-founders of Oxymoron games and as it turned out, Project Hospital was definitely a good choice of a game that we’d be both able to create with a team of 2–4 people and which would find its place on the market thanks to the combination of theme and realistic settings. The original pitch itself came from Roman, who then took the role of lead designer and main artist on the project.

Q: Have you or anyone in the team worked in a hospital before?

A: Actually yes, one of our designers has some experience from medical school combined with an internship in a hospital, and while he took a different career path later, his familiarity with the field was essential when choosing and creating content for the game.

Q: Did you contact staff from hospitals (admins, nurses, physicians, etc.) for advice when developing the game?

A: When we announced that the project was in development, quite a few real-life doctors and professionals in the medical field got in touch and we spent a lot of time discussing different topics in a private section of our forums. This really helped, for example, with choosing the best terminology for different aspects of the game and to some extent to see if we can get away with some of the necessary steps needed when transforming a very complex topic into a game, while advertising the realistic settings.

Q: How much realism did you set out to include in Project Hospital and how this realism was balanced with gameplay and entertainment?

A: The foundations based on real-world medicine gave us clear boundaries, but to create an engaging game, gameplay must come first. To be more specific, this means choosing a correct level of simplification and turning complex material into rules like “examinations uncover symptoms”, “uncovering enough symptoms leads to a clear diagnosis”. In the next step, it was necessary to adjust a lot of values to create interesting cases for the players to solve — for example, the occurrence rate of certain symptoms in different diagnoses was needed to be set in such a way that would limit cases where it’s immediately clear what the patients are suffering from after first examination.

The process was a bit easier on the side of hospital management — and while this wasn’t the actual goal and we carefully balanced the economy aiming for a challenging experience — it turns out that the simulation is actually very close to the American healthcare system[2], which is both fascinating and pretty scary.

Q: So, let’s delve into some of that gameplay now, shall we? What is the players’ actual goal in Project Hospital?

A: In our elevator pitch for Project Hospital we always mentioned that the game would allow players to focus on different aspects, whether it is the building part with all the little details, managing a huge hospital and making it as efficient as possible, or taking care of individual patients. The latest version of the game still follows these rules as far as possible and on top of that, for players looking for more structure, we added a short campaign with some interesting tasks to undertake.

Q: Does the game allow specialization in particular subfields of medicine? Like making your hospital a reference in ophthalmology‎ or oncology, for instance.

A: The content is indeed structured into individual departments and you can focus on any of them in any particular build, as well as running only a clinic. The five main fields available in the base game include for example cardiology, neurology and orthopaedics, with more planned for future DLCs and more also getting added by the community thanks to mod support. Oncology would be an example of a field we didn’t select ourselves, but has been already added to Steam Workshop.

Q: From what we’ve seen, there are different objectives to be met, like solving complex cases, keeping staff and patients happy, and make profit with your hospital business. Is there a trade-off between these objectives in the game?

A: The game generally rewards you for taking good care of your employees and patients alike, so there should be no conflict between being a good manager and helping your staff with complicated cases when needed. For the players who want to focus on one specific goal, the game tries to help by making almost every aspect automated to some extent. Not interested in building? Try one of the pre-built hospitals or place whole rooms using the collection of prefabs. Not up to dealing with individual patients? Hire experienced staff and let them do their job.

Q: One cool thing in Project Hospital is to solve difficult cases. When doing so, the player is unknowingly making use of decades of real medical research. Is there a nod in the game towards scientific research and how medical knowledge evolves?

A: From this point of view we use one snapshot in the development of modern medicine — the systems are already pretty complex and quite demanding for new players, so for example researching new and more effective types of medicine didn’t become a priority. There’s definitely enough challenge already in finding the correct diagnosis, uncovering all potentially dangerous hidden symptoms and treating the patients on time.

Q: Unfortunately, there is a current trend of once-eradicated diseases making a resurgence. So, when you’re dealing with an infectious disease in the game, is there any discussion or statement about prevention, vaccination, etc.?

A: This is definitely an interesting topic, but has mostly fallen out of scope of the main release — that said, we’ll still have opportunities to tackle some of these aspects in the future and it’s true that with the recent news regarding the coronavirus outbreak[3], we’ve been even getting similar requests from the player community.

Q: Do you think there is an educational potential for Project Hospital?

A: In a way, Project Hospital contains a pretty extensive encyclopedia of medical conditions, symptoms and diagnostic methods. While, for example, a lot of the probabilities in the background are balanced more towards generating interesting cases than strictly following reality, there’s a lot to learn from the game.

And while we can’t really share more details at this moment, a couple of institutions have been evaluating the game for the use in training (I guess more for managers than doctors, but still…).

Q: So far, have you received feedback from the medical community? What has that been like and how does it differ from regular player feedback?

A: We’re amazed how big a part of the player base are actual doctors or people with doctors or nurses in their family — and an obvious observation, their real-world experience indeed makes it much easier for them to get into the game.


About the Team

Oxymoron games is an indie game studio based in Prague, founded by a small group of Czech industry veterans. They have experience both at home and abroad, having worked on various game genres and interesting titles like Mafia II & III, Quantum Break, Top Spin 4 or Euro Truck Simulator. In 2016, they finally found themselves at the right place in the right time to have a shot at becoming independent. After the successful release of their first game, Project Hospital, they’re currently working on more content and supporting their player base, while preparing for future adventures.


[1] You can find it at http://www.oxymoron.games/

[2] See also Boudreau, I. 2009. ‘Project Hospital’ is a great way to understand our broken healthcare system. Available from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wjvxk5/project-hospital-is-a-great-way-to-understand-our-broken-healthcare-system (Date of access: 19/Feb/2020).

[3] The virus has now been named COVID-19. See more at: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

A paleontological outlook on the Super Mario Bros. movie

Henry N. Thomas

University of California, Berkeley, USA.

Email: h.thomas (at) berkeley (dot) edu

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Among the many unique choices made while making the 1993 movie Super Mario Bros. was the large focus on dinosaurs. Much of the movie takes place in Dinohattan, an alternate New York in a universe where humans evolved from dinosaurs instead of mammals. This was undoubtedly inspired by various reptilian species within the Mario games. That dinosaurs were extremely popular in the 90’s certainly helped. New discoveries from the Dinosaur Renaissance of the 70’s and 80’s inspired new dinosaur media such as The Land Before Time, Jurassic Park, and of course, Super Mario Bros. Jurassic Park in particular ushered in a huge wave of dinosaur media, with many since bearing at least one reference to the film. Super Mario Bros. was the last major piece of dinosaur media to be released before the Jurassic Park wave, predating that film’s release by only a few weeks.

NEW YORK AND THE END OF THE CRETACEOUS

The movie’s infamous introduction details the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs via meteorite impact. At the time we knew a meteorite was to blame, thanks to iridium. Iridium is an element very rare on earth, but common in asteroids, and there’s a global layer of iridium in the rock record right at the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene (Alvarez et al., 1980). This even got a shout-out in Super Mario Bros. In the early 90’s, the location of the impact site wasn’t certain – but we would soon find out it wasn’t Brooklyn (Fig. 1). The Chicxulub crater, buried underneath Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, has been dated to just under 66 million years ago – right at the K-Pg boundary (Hildebrand et al., 1991). This crater is estimated to be 150 km wide and 20 km deep, created by an impactor roughly the size of Mount Everest. It would have obliterated everything within the vicinity in a fraction of a second, leaving nothing behind to fossilize.

Figure 1: Brooklyn 65 million years ago, according to Super Mario Bros. It didn’t look like this in real life – at the time, the area that is now New York City was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The notion of digging up tyrannosaurs in Brooklyn is also doubtful. Long Island is very recent geologically, being formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age – the same glaciers that ground away most of New York state’s Cretaceous rocks (Charles Marshall, pers. comm.). But we can make inferences about what lived there based on fossils found in nearby states like New Jersey. During the Cretaceous, there was an inland seaway that split North America into two continents, Laurentia in the west and Appalachia in the east. The two continents had different faunas – Appalachia didn’t have any of the famous Late Cretaceous dinosaurs Laurentia did. At the end of the Cretaceous, New York state would have been on the coast of a much narrower Atlantic Ocean, and the city was underwater.

Dinosaurs that lived on the eastern seaboard included ostrich-like ornithomimids (Brownstein, 2017), armored nodosaurids (Burns, 2016), duckbilled hadrosaurs (Prieto-Marquez et al., 2006), and Dryptosaurus. Dryptosaurus (Fig. 2) was a relative of Tyrannosaurus, around half the size but leaner and with larger arms (Brusatte et al., 2011). If T. rex was a tiger, Dryptosaurus would have been a leopard. In the skies flew early seabirds (Weishampel et al., 2004), and out at sea lived a variety of marine reptiles, such as sea turtles and plesiosaurs. The most famous marine reptiles, however, would be mosasaurs – large ocean-going lizards whose limbs had evolved into dolphin-like flippers. These ranged in size from the three-meter long Halisaurus to the fifteen-meter long Mosasaurus (Gallagher, 2005). Although the fossils Daisy finds may not line up with real life, Anthony Scapelli’s interference with the dig is unnervingly close to reality, as many field paleontologists will tell you.

Figure 2: A life-sized model of Dryptosaurus, built by Tyler Keillor and on display at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville, Illinois.

DINOSAURS

Jurassic Park closely followed the science of the time, bringing an updated image of dinosaurs to the public. Heavily inspired by the Dinosaur Renaissance, and the growing body of evidence that birds are a clade of dinosaurs, that movie’s dinosaurs were energetic, warm-blooded, awe-inspiring, dangerous, and in some cases intelligent. As the previous public perception of dinosaurs was that of slow, lumbering, cold-blooded evolutionary failures, this brought a paradigm shift in popular culture, and a renewed interest in the science of paleontology (Liptak, 2018). Super Mario Bros. was not part of this paradigm shift. It’s clear the filmmakers were still in the mindset that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and reptilian. The Goombas (Fig. 3) – de-evolved Dinohattanites – are dumb and lumbering. They resemble the synapsid Cotylorhynchus (Fig. 4) more than any actual dinosaur. Yoshi (Fig. 3) is a little more active, but he’s still highly caricaturized and clearly a relic from the 80’s, paleontologically speaking. Not to mention, many dinosaurs are now known to have had feathers alongside or instead of scales (e.g., Godefroit et al., 2014), and it’s likely that ancestrally, all dinosaurs had feathers of some sort, and only larger forms lost theirs (Yang et al., 2019).

Figure 3: Some of the dinosaurian residents of Dinohattan: Daisy, a normal dinosaur-descended relative of Dinohattan (upper left); Yoshi, a more dinosaur-y dinosaur (upper right); and a Goomba, a de-evolved Dinohattanite (below). None of these closely resemble real dinosaurs, and suffice it to say, they don’t resemble their video game counterparts either.

Figure 4: Cotylorhynchus. Despite how it may look, this is a very early relative of mammals. By sheer coincidence, it happens to resemble Super Mario Bros.’ Goombas. Restoration by Dmitry Bogdanov.

President Koopa – who proudly brags about being descended from Tyrannosaurus rex – shows reptilian features such as a long, forked, flicking tongue and (sometimes) slit-like eyes. Both of these are common in living squamates (lizards and snakes), but not dinosaurs. Squamates that flick their tongues use it to gather scent particles, which is then processed by an organ in the roof of the mouth, called the Jacobson’s organ. No dinosaurs had this organ (Naish, 2016). Many dinosaurs had immobile tongues, like alligators, or non-forked birdlike tongues (Li et al., 2018). The way a vertical pupil scatters light is good for predators that have their heads low to the ground – up to about the height of a cat’s head (Banks et al., 2015). The vast majority of dinosaurs probably had round pupils like those of birds.

EVOLUTION AND DE-EVOLUTION

Super Mario Bros. was not the first nor the last project to speculate on what might have happened had the dinosaurs not all been destroyed. Perhaps the two cornerstone works on this topic are Dougal Dixon’s The New Dinosaurs and the collaborative online Speculative Dinosaur Project, both of which detail creatures that could have evolved 65 million years after an asteroid impact that never happened. Indeed, Super Mario Bros. wasn’t even the first to feature dinosaurs evolving into intelligent (…to a degree) life. The first to pose the question was none other than Carl Sagan, inspired by then-new research on the brain size of a family of dinosaurs called troodontids (Sagan, 1977). These dinosaurs, including the likes of Stenonychosaurus (Fig. 5) and Saurornithoides, were small-to-medium-sized omnivores with a very large brain relative to body size. In these ways they’re a lot like the ancestors of humans, and thus are good candidate for evolving into sapient beings. Paleontologist Dale Russell took this a step further in 1982, with the “dinosauroid” – a human-shaped descendant of Stenonychosaurus (Russell & Séguin, 1982). He even commissioned a life-sized model (Fig. 5), which looks a bit more like an alien than a dinosaur. The dinosauroid isn’t human to the same degree as the residents of Dinohattan, but it may have provided some inspiration for the filmmakers.

Figure 5: Dale Russell’s Dinosauroid statue, next to a contemporary reconstruction of Stenonychosaurus. Compare and contrast to the residents of Dinohattan.

The film’s idea of evolution has also not exactly held up. “You may think of evolution as an upward process,” muses President Koopa right before he de-evolves Toad into a Goomba. It isn’t. Evolution isn’t about levels, with “basic” life progressively evolving towards a more advanced endpoint. Dale Russell certainly thought it was, which is why the dinosauroid looks so human-like (Darren Naish, pers. comm.). But evolution isn’t a constant progression towards a form that’s intrinsically “more advanced”. An entire rundown of the theory of evolution is out of the scope of this paper, but in short, it is simply change over time (Darwin, 1859). This is often in response to environmental change, where features that help the organism better survive and reproduce are selected for (but sometimes things evolve solely because they help the organism reproduce, for example the tail of the peacock). If a certain set of features works, there may not be reason to change much. Fossil horseshoe crabs and lungfish dating to the Jurassic are effectively identical to those around today, for example.

The “linear” idea of evolution forms the basis of Super Mario Bros.’ de-evolution. De-evolution isn’t a thing. Evolution acts with no foreknowledge or back-knowledge. An organism can theoretically evolve to superficially resemble one of its ancestors, but the mechanism behind this is no different than it evolving into something that looks completely different. This is a principle called Dollo’s Law – an organism can never return exactly to the evolutionary state its ancestors had (Gould, 1970). You can’t de-evolve something to what it’d be like in the Cretaceous. And since evolution acts on populations, not individuals (Darwin, 1859), the notion of de-evolving someone in particular is impossible.

CONCLUSION

Between the movie’s bombing among critics and audiences upon release and Jurassic Park being released a few weeks later, Super Mario Bros. never got an opportunity to leave a mark upon dinosaur media. It does leave a legacy technologically, though: the digital visual effects techniques, many of which were invented for the film, have since become industry standards, and the Yoshi animatronics set a standard for later dinosaur movies to live up to (they even impressed the producers of Jurassic Park). Super Mario Bros. was also the beginning of John Leguizamo’s inexplicable connection to prehistoric life – he would later lend his voice to the Ice Age franchise and the movie adaptation of Walking with Dinosaurs in 2013. And it left us with a few choice words of wisdom: trust the fungus.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank Luigi Gaskell, Matthew Mitchell, and the Super Mario Bros. Movie Archive for their encouragement in writing this manuscript, and I give the latter permission to include this article on their website.

REFERENCES

Alvarez, L.W.; Alvarez, W.; Asaro, F.; Michel, H.V. (1980) Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. Science 208(4448): 1095–1108.

Banks, M.S.; Sprague, W.W.; Schmoll, J.; Parnell, J.A.Q.; Love, G.D. (2015) Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes? Science Advances 1(7): e1500391.

Brownstein, C.D. (2017) Theropod specimens from the Navesink Formation and their implications for the diversity and biogeography of ornithomimosaurs and tyrannosauroids on Appalachia. PeerJ Preprints 5: e3105v1.

Brusatte, S.L.; Benson, R.B.J.; Norell, M.A. (2011) The anatomy of Dryptosaurus aquilunguis (Dinosauria: Theropoda) and a review of its tyrannosauroid affinities. American Museum Novitates 3717: 1–53.

Burns, M.E. (2016). New Appalachian armored dinosaur material (Nodosauridae, Ankylosauria) from the Maastrichtian Ripley Formation of Alabama. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 48(3).

Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London.

Gallagher, W.B. (2005) Recent mosasaur discoveries from New Jersey and Delaware, USA: stratigraphy, taxonomy and implications for mosasaur extinction. Netherlands Journal of Geosciences 84(3): 241–245.

Godefroit, P.; Sinitsa, S.M.; Dhouailly, D.; Bolotsky, Y.L.; Sizov, A.V.; McNamara, M.E.; Benton, M.J.; Spagna, P. (2014) A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales. Science 345(6195): 451–455.

Gould, S.J. (1970) Dollo on Dollo’s law: irreversibility and the status of evolutionary laws. Journal of the History of Biology 3(2): 189–212.

Hildebrand, A.R.; Penfield, G.T.; Kring, D.A.; Pilkington, M.; Camargo Z., A.; Jacobsen, S.B.; Boynton, W.V. (1991) Chicxulub Crater: a possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact crater on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Geology 19(9): 867–871.

Li, Z.; Zhou, Z.; Clarke, J.A. (2018) Convergent evolution of a mobile bony tongue in flighted dinosaurs and pterosaurs. PLoS ONE 13(6): e0198078.

Liptak, A. (2018) How Jurassic Park led to the modernization of dinosaur paleontology. The Verge. Available from: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/23/17483340/jurassic-park-world-steve-brusatte-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-dinosaurs-book-interview-paleontology (Date of access: 31/Jan/2020).

Naish, D. (2016) The ridiculous nasal anatomy of giant horned dinosaurs. Tetrapod Zoology. Available from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/the-ridiculous-nasal-anatomy-of-giant-horned-dinosaurs/ (Date of access: 31/Jan/2020).

Ostrom, J.H. (1969) Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an unusual theropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana. Peabody Museum of Natural History Bulletin 30: 1–165.

Prieto-Marquez, A.; Weishampel, D.B.; Horner, J.R. (2006) The dinosaur Hadrosaurus foulkii, from the Campanian of the East Coast of North America, with a reevaluation of the genus. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 51(1): 77–98.

Russell, D.A. & Seguin, R. (1982) Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid. Syllogeus 37: 1–43.

Sagan, C. (1977) The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. Random House, New York.

Weishampel, D.B.; Barrett, P.M.; Coria, R.A.; Le Loeuff, J.; Xu, X.; Zhao, X.; Sahni, A.; Gomani, E.M.P.; Noto, C.R. (2004) Dinosaur distribution. In: Weishampel, D.B.; Dodson, P.; Osmólska, H. (Eds.) The Dinosauria, Second Edition. University of California Press, Berkeley. Pp. 517–606.

Yang, Z.; Jiang, B.; McNamara, M.E.; Kearns, S.L.; Pittman, M.; Kaye, T.G.; Orr, P.J.; Xu, X.; Benton, M.J. (2019) Pterosaur integumentary structures with complex feather-like branching. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3: 24–30.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Henry Thomas is a paleontology student at the University of California, Berkeley. His main research interest is pterosaurs, which the Super Mario Bros. movie unfortunately lacks.


SuperAves: a collectible card game about bird biodiversity

Luis Francisco Gonzaga & Viviana Borges Corte

Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo. Vitória, ES, Brazil.

Emails: luispof (at) gmail (dot) com; viviana.borges (at) gmail (dot) com

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The idea of making a game about the birds of the UFES (Federal University of Espírito Santo, in southeast Brazil) campus was a sum of long-brewing factors. I have always been interested in the souvenirs offered to people at natural parks, zoos, aquariums, shrines and other similar spaces, especially when regarding the biodiversity and the landscapes of the place. It is beautiful? Funny? Cheap? Does it have educational value? I always asked myself these questions in search of a souvenir that pleased my biologist and traveler self.

In 2016 I was able to spend a few months in the USA, where I visited several natural parks and of course, brought back many souvenirs and ideas. With the end of my degree in Biology, my advisor Viviana Borges (who had some experience with natural parks in South Africa) and I put the ideas together and decided that I would turn a campus bird survey I had done at the beginning of my degree into a game of collectible cards. Then, SuperAves[1] was born.

In the game, each card represents a species, containing its popular name, scientific name, and some features of the bird species it represents, such as: weight, size, year of description (“discovery”), number of eggs it usually lays, its geographic distribution in Brazil, and a bit of trivia. The cards are bilingual: in Portuguese and English.

The game starts with all the cards in a pile, and each round all players take one card and keep it to themselves. In each turn, a new player chooses one of the characteristics of the card that he believes to be superior to the card of other players. Whoever has the highest value for that trait wins the round and obtains the other players’ cards. In the next round, new cards are taken from the pile, and that’s how it goes until the end of the game, where the player who accumulated the most cards is the winner.

In addition to the common bird cards, there are two instructional cards (one of rules and one explaining what each bit of information on the cards represents) and one special card that beat the others, called SUPERAVE. Naturally, it is important that, as an educational tool, the teacher or mediator who applies the game clearly explains that one bird isn’t better than another.

In the Biology events where I presented the game, everyone asked how much it costs! – which makes me very happy, since it means that people liked it so much, they are willing to pay! At the moment, as the initial production demands a certain investment, I only produced a pilot deck, but I am looking for a partnership with the regional public power (so that the game could be distributed in public schools), and with the private sector too (like zoos , aquariums, etc.), proposing customized versions of the game for each of these locations, while I continue to improve the layout of the game.

We hope this game will increase students’ interest in science and biology, facilitate learning about biological diversity, zoology and even ecology, and bring back some interest in the natural world from the lay public, which seems to have decreased over time. The game can be easily played (and collected) by children from 10 years old, or when they become able to read well, as well as by teenagers and adults, students or not. The important thing is to want to have fun and to get to know a little more about nature (in this case, birds).


About the author

Luis F. Gonzaga is a recently graduated Brazilian biologist who enjoys birds, teaches, photographs, organizes events, pies, and more recently, science outreach events. He believes in the power of partnerships to get further and better!

Dr. Viviana B. Corte is a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at UFES and supervised the SuperAves project.

The author L.F. Gonzaga presenting his work during the IV Colloquium of Cultural Zoology. Photo by Vinícius M. E. Santiago.

[1] “Aves” is not only a general term for “birds” in Portuguese, but also the scientific Latin name of the group: Class Aves contains all avian dinosaurs.


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Corsola ecosystems in the Galar region

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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To begin this article in the most honest way I can think of, I must state that as a biologist I’ve always complained about those absurdities in the Pokémon franchise that could have been solved if the designers had taken 10 minutes to Google them. And I’m not alone in this! – There are issues such as mistaken cephalopod anatomy (Salvador & Cavallari, 2019), using Japanese species on a setting that’s clearly France (Tomotani, 2014), the impossible water-holding capacity of Blastoise (dos Anjos, 2015), and the skewed biodiversity of the Pokémon world towards cats and dogs (Prado & Almeida, 2017; Kittel, 2018; Salvador & Cavallari, 2019).

Maybe that’s why one Pokémon in this new generation (Gen VIII) has caught me so off-guard. Given that the whole franchise is about making monsters beat other monsters, I was not expecting something with an ecological/conservationist edge out of it. I was particularly not expecting a new Pokémon to reflect one of the major environmental problems our planet is facing: coral bleaching. The Galarian form of Corsola was a slap to the face and a brilliant addition to the game, so hats off to Game Freak Inc. and The Pokémon Company in this regard[1].

CORSOLA AND CORALS

Corsola’s first appearance on the franchise was on Gen II, the famed Gold and Silver games (Fig. 1). It is a dual-type Pokémon (Water/Rock) based on a coral, likely the red corals[2], a moniker given to several species in the genus Corallium (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Corsola. Original artwork from the game; extracted from Bulbapedia.
Figure 2. The skeletal remains of a Corallium rubrum (Linnaeus, 1758). Extracted from Wikimedia Commons (P. Géry, 2010).

Corals are animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria, which also includes jellyfish and anemones. Broadly speaking, there are two types of corals: soft corals (Alcyonacea) and stony corals (Scleractinia). The latter, as can be surmised by their name, have hard skeletons made of calcium carbonate (Fig. 2). That explains Corsola’s Rock type – or would, because the red corals that are the likely inspiration for Corsola, are not stony corals. Rather, they are soft corals (Alcyonacea) that – atypically for the group – have calcareous structures in their otherwise organic skeleton (Grillo et al., 1993; Debreuil et al., 2011).

The live polyps (Fig. 3), however, look very different from the dead coralline skeleton. But oddly enough, Corsola looks more like a dead coral colony skeleton (Fig. 2) than a living one. Also, Corsola looks like a single creature rather than a colony, as it would be expected of red corals.

Figure 3. Live Corallium rubrum (Linnaeus, 1758). Extracted from Wikimedia Commons (P. Géry, 2010).

Despite being colonial, red corals (and other soft corals) are not reef-building corals. Even though, to better explain the issue with coral bleaching and threats to ecosystems, I need to provide a brief explanation on reefs and reef-builders.

Stony corals are often colonial and a group of them known as “hermatypic corals” are reef-builders; that is, their skeletons fuse to become coral reefs (Fig. 4). These corals often have symbiotic zooxanthellae (single-celled photosynthetic algae) embedded in their soft tissues. Since they depend on photosynthesis to acquire nutrients, they are typically found in shallow and clear tropical waters.

Figure 4. Coral reef, Israel. Extracted from Wikimedia Commons (Mark A. Wilson “Wilson44691”, 2007).

Coral reefs are hotspots of marine biodiversity. They sustain and shelter a myriad of species: lobsters and shrimps, snails and squids, worms, fishes, turtles, and many others (Fig. 5). So, why does that matter? Simply put, the highest the biodiversity (number and types of different species), the more ‘ecosystem services’ we can benefit from (CORAL, 2019). Think of these services[3] as everything nature can provide us if we could just take good care of it. To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being assigned economic values. It seems ridiculous that we have to assign an economic value to nature, but unfortunately that’s how our short-sighted governments work.

Figure 5. The typical example of coral reef biodiversity is a bunch of colorful fishes. Extracted from Wikimedia Commons (Fascinating Universe, 2011).

Inevitably, coral reefs are extremely threatened by overfishing and pollution (including the now pervasive microplastics) and by climate change, because the increased temperatures lead to coral bleaching and ocean acidification (McClanahan, 2002). But I will come back to this later; first, let’s take a look at the Galar region and its Corsola.

GALAR

The Galar region is the setting of the newly released games Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, the franchise’s Gen VIII. Galar is based in the United Kingdom and several locations in the game were inspired by real-world places. Part of the new fauna (but not all of it[4]) is also appropriate to the UK, such as ravens (Corviknight) and cormorants (Cramorant). However, as the game says, Galar is heavily industrialized and this has influenced some Pokémon living there, like Weezing, whose Galarian variant manages to look even more noxious than the original form from Kanto (but see Box 1).

The Galarian variant of Corsola is a Ghost-type Pokémon, clearly indicating it’s already dead. It is entirely white (bleached) and has a sad face (Fig. 6). Its Pokédex entry in Pokémon Shield bluntly states: “Sudden climate change wiped out this ancient kind of Corsola.” In Galar, Corsola also have an evolution, named Cursola (Fig. 6), which is likewise Ghost-type. It is a larger and more branched coral.

Figure 6. Top: Galarian Corsola. Bottom: Cursola. Original models from the game; extracted from Serebii.net.

However, contrary to regular Corsola, the Galarian Pokémon are not based on the red coral. Instead, given the shape of their branches, they seem to be based on actual reef-building corals such as Acropora spp. (Fig. 7). That is fitting, because Acropora are major components of reefs and are one of the most sensitive corals to climate change (Loya et al., 2001). Also, Acropora corals are what you usually find when googling for “bleached coral”. So it seems Sword and Shield developers are finally using Google, after all.


Box 1. Galar/UK and Kanto/Japan

Galar is badly industrialized and that is true for its real-life counterpart too. Great Britain is famous as the starting point of the Industrial Revolution and infamous for social problems associated with it, such as poor working conditions and child labor. But a fact that is often overlooked is the collapse of the English Channel’s ecosystem. The Channel separates southern England from France and is one of the busiest fishing areas in the world. The place has been overfished to a scary extent and the habitats on the bottom of the Channel has been destroyed by trawling (Southward et al., 2004; Roberts, 2007). As is, the Channel’s ecosystem cannot recovery and the biodiversity in the area has plummeted (Molfese et al., 2014).

Even so, Japan is not truly in a position to point fingers about this topic. The country has one of the most destructive fishing practices in the word, including harvesting shark fins[5] and being one of the only nations that still hunt whales (Clover, 2004; Sekiguchi, 2007; McCurry, 2011). Japan has overfished several, if not most, edible animal species in their EEZ, from the famous bluefin tuna to squids and crabs; as a result, the country’s fisheries have witnessed a sharp decline in the past decades (Popescu & Ogushi, 2013; Katsukawa, 2019). Researchers within Japan are now arguing for a change to sustainable and scientifically informed fishing practices (Katsukawa, 2019). We can only hope they will.


CORAL BLEACHING

When ocean temperatures increase[6], the symbiotic zooxanthellae leave the corals. This makes the corals become white (Fig. 7); they “bleach”, so to speak. Also, without their photosynthetic “buddies”, corals are under more stress, start to starve, and overall have a serious decrease in their chances of survival (Fig. 8). Decline in coral ecosystems have been reported from all over the world: from the Caribbean to the Indo-Pacific, most famously including the Great Barrier Reef (Bruno & Selig, 2007; Edmunds & Elahi, 2007; De’ath[7] et al., 2012). Reports from the Galar region are yet to come.

Figure 7. Bleached coral (Acropora sp.), Andaman Islands. Extracted from Wikimedia Commons (Vardhanjp, 2016).
Figure 8. Coral bleaching. Extracted from NOAA (https://coralreef.noaa.gov/); used under NOAA’s general usage permission for educational/informational purposes.

Decline in coral reefs will start a cascading effect and most other species dependent on them (lobsters, squid, fish, etc.) will decline as well (Jones et al., 2004). This might lead to ecosystems collapses and, needless to say, it will affect all those ecosystems services (including food) we derive from the sea. When corals die, the dead rocky reefs become dominated by low-productivity and non-commercial invertebrate species such as sea urchins, starfish, and small snails (McClanahan, 2002).

OCEAN ACIDIFICATION

Bleaching, however, is not the only threat to corals. Our oceans are acidifying due to increased CO2 concentrations in the air since the Industrial Revolution. When CO2 is absorbed into the water, it reacts to become bicarbonate ions, making the water more acidic. This effect is, of course, amplified by higher temperatures (Humphreys, 2017). Acidified waters make it more difficult for corals to produce and deposit calcium carbonate (Albright et al., 2017), which is the substance that makes up their skeleton, as we’ve seen above.

Unfortunately, corals are not the only animals threatened by rising temperatures in the ocean. Mollusks have shells made of calcium carbonate and are thus vulnerable to more acidic waters, especially during their larval or juvenile phase. Mollusks such as planktonic sea-butterflies (pteropod snails; Fig. 9) and bottom-dwelling bivalves are as important as corals for ecosystems, and several other animals depend on them, from other mollusks to crustaceans and fish (Manno et al., 2017). Here, the situation might be even worse than with corals: while reefs are restricted to tropical regions, ocean acidification will affect mollusks in temperate regions as well (Soon & Zheng, 2019).

Figure 9. Limacina sea butterfly. Because of their diaphanous shells, pteropods are amongst the most threatened animals by ocean acidification[8]. Extracted from Coldwater.Science (http://coldwater.science/), © Alexander Semenov, used with permission.

As much as we can protect the natural world by creating nature reserves (including marine ones), unfortunately they will not work in this case (Allison et al., 1998; Jameson et al., 2002). Reserves can protect the reef ecosystem against overfishing and trawling, but it cannot stop ocean acidification. That is linked to climate change and we are already passing the tipping point in which the change could be turned back (Aengenheyster et al., 2018); soon, all we’ll be able to do is damage control.

REFERENCES

Aengenheyster, M.; Feng, Q.Y.; van der Ploeg, F.; Dijkstra, H.A. (2018) The point of no return for climate action: effects of climate uncertainty and risk tolerance. Earth System Dynamics 9: 1085–1095.

Albright, R.; Mason, B.; Miller, M.; Langdon, C. (2010) Ocean acidification compromises recruitment success of the threatened Caribbean coral Acropora palmata. PNAS 107(47): 20400–20404.

Allison, G.W.; Lubchenco, J.; Carr, M.H. (1998) Marine reserves are necessary but not sufficient for marine conservation. Ecological Applications 8(sp1): S79–S92.

dos Anjos, J.P.P. (2015) Turtles with cannons: an analysis of the dynamics of a Blastoise’s Hydro Pump. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 23–27.

Bruno, J.F. & Selig, E.R. (2007) Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE 2(8): e711.

Clover, C. (2004) The End of the Line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat. Ebury Press, London.

CORAL, Coral Reef Alliance. (2019) Coral Reefs 101. Available from: https://coral.org/coral-reefs-101/coral-reef-ecology/ (Date of access: 10/Nov/2019).

De’ath, G.; Fabricius, K.E.; Sweatman, H.; Puotinen, M. (2012) The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. PNAS 109(44): 17995–17999.

Debreuil, J.; Tambutté, S.; Zoccola, D.; Segonds, N.; Techer, N.; Marschal, C.; Allemand, D.; Kosuge, S.; Tambutté, É. (2011) Specific organic matrix characteristics in skeletons of Corallium species. Marine Biology 158(12): 2765–2774.

Edmunds, P.J. & Elahi, R. (2007) The demographics of a 15-year decline in cover of the Caribbean reef coral Montastraea annularis. Ecological Monographs 77(1): 3–18.

Grillo, M.-C.; Goldberg, W.M.; Allemand, D. (1993) Skeleton and sclerite formation in the precious red coral Corallium rubrum. Marine Biology 117(1): 119–128.

Humphreys, M.P. (2016) Climate sensitivity and the rate of ocean acidification: future impacts, and implications for experimental design. ICES Journal of Marine Science 74(4): 934–940.

Jameson, S.C.; Tupper, M.H.; Ridley, J.M. (2002) The three screen doors: can marine “protected” areas be effective? Marine Pollution Bulletin 44(11): 1177–1183.

Jones, G.P.; McCormick, M.I.; Srinivasan, M.; Eagle, J.V. (2004) Coral decline threatens fish biodiversity in marine reserves. PNAS 101(21): 8251–8253.

Katsukawa, T. (2019) Building a future for Japan’s fisheries industry. Nippon.com. Available from: https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/d00455/building-a-future-for-japan%E2%80%99s-fisheries-industry.html (Date of access: 10/Nov/2019).

Kittel, R.N. (2018) The entomological diversity of Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 5(2): 19–40.

Loya, Y.; Sakai, K.; Yamazato, K.; Nakano, Y.; Sambali, H.; van Woesik, R. (2001). Coral bleaching: the winners and the losers. Ecology Letters 4: 122–131.

MA, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Manno, C.; Bednaršek, C.; Tarling, G.A.; Peck, V.L.; Comeau, S.; Adhikari, D.; Bakker, D.C.E.; Bauer, E.; Bergan, A.J.; Berning, M.I.; Buitenhuis, E.; Burridge, A.K.; Chierici, M.; Flöter, S.; Fransson, A.; Gardner, J.; Howeso, E.L.; Keul, N.; Kimoto, K.; Kohnert, P.; Lawson, G.L.; Lischka, S.; Maas, A; Mekkes, L.; Oakes, R.L.; Pebody, C.; Peijnenburg, K.T.C.A.; Seifert, M. Skinner, J.; Thibodeau, P.S.; Wall-Palmer, D.; Ziveriza, P. (2017) Shelled pteropods in peril: assessing vulnerability in a high CO2 ocean. Earth-Science Reviews 169: 132–145.

McClanahan, T.R. (2002) The near future of coral reefs. Environmental Conservation 29(4): 460–483.

McCurry, J. (2011) Shark fishing in Japan – a messy, blood-spattered business. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/feb/11/shark-fishing-in-japan (Date of access: 10/Nov/2019).

Molfese, C.; Beare, D.; Hall-Spencer, J.M. (2014) Overfishing and the replacement of demersal finfish by shellfish: an example from the English Channel. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101506.

Popescu, I. & Ogushi, T. (2013) Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department B: Structural and Cohesion Policies. Fisheries: Fisheries in Japan. European Parliament, EU.

Prado, A.W. & Almeida, T.F.A. (2017) Arthropod diversity in Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 4(2): 41–52.

Roberts, C. (2007) The Unnatural History of the Sea. Shearwater, Washington, D.C.

Salvador, R.B. & Cavallari, D.C. (2019). Pokémollusca: the mollusk-inspired Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 6(1): 55–75.

Sekiguchi, T. (2007) Why Japan’s whale hunt continues. Time. Available from: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1686486,00.html (Date of access: 10/Nov/2019).

Soon, T.K. & Zheng, H. (2019) Climate change and bivalve mass mortality in temperate regions. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 251: 109–129.

Southward, A.J.; Langmead, O.; Hardman-Mountford, N.J.; Aiken, J.; Boalch, G.T.; Dando, P.R.; Genner, M.J.; Joint, I.; Kendall, M.A.; Halliday, N.C.; Harris, R.P.; Leaper, R.; Mieszkowska, N.; Pingree, R.D.; Richardson, A.J.; Sims, D.W.; Smith, T.; Walne, A.W.; Hawkins, S.J. (2004) Long-term oceanographic and ecological research in the western English Channel. Advances in Marine Biology 47: 1–105.

Tomotani, B.M. (2014) Robins, robins, robins. Journal of Geek Studies 1(1–2): 13–15.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am very grateful to Alexander Semenov for giving me permission to use his fantastic Limacina photograph. I am also grateful for Farfetch’d finally having an evolution.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who specializes in mollusks; fittingly, his favorite Pokémon is the West Sea Gastrodon. Part of his research is on marine snails and slugs, but he’s also interested in other marine animals – except fish maybe, which are mostly boring. He has played Pokémon since Gen I, but never really cared about Corsola – until now.


[1] Not in other regards, though. We did not need a new Mr. Mime or a Pokémon who’s a walking dollop of whipped cream. Not to mention that the ice cream Pokémon were included in the game, but Abra, Starly and Lord Helix were not.

[2] Also known as ‘precious corals’ because people like to use its red/pink/orange skeleton for making jewelry.

[3] Ecosystem services are split into four categories: provisioning (e.g., food production); regulating (e.g., climate buffering); supporting (e.g., oxygen production); and cultural (e.g., recreational and spiritual benefits).

[4] For instance, one of the starters is a monkey.

[5] Curiously, Pokémon Moon (Gen VII) had the following Pokedéx entry for Sharpedo, a shark Pokémon: “It has a sad history. In the past, its dorsal fin was a treasured foodstuff, so this Pokémon became a victim of overfishing.” So, the absence of Sharpedo in Sword and Shield could be explained by an extinction event.

[6] Water pollution can also be a cause for bleaching in some cases.

[7] Just using this footnote to point out that this person has a PhD and is thus known as Dr. De’ath. That is one of the coolest Marvel-esque names I’ve ever seen in academia.

[8] Phione and Manaphy are Pokémon based on the pteropod species Clione limacina (Salvador & Cavallari, 2019). Their absence in Sword and Shield could be explained by an extinction event due to climate change.


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The Climate Trail: how to survive the climate apocalypse

Interview with William D. Volk

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The Climate Trail[1] is a new and totally free game for PC and mobiles developed by Willian D. Volk. The game takes place in the in future, when our inaction regarding the climate crisis has rendered much of the world uninhabitable. The player leads climate refugees as they flee from ever worsening conditions, combining adventure, survival and visual novel elements. The Climate Trail follows the footsteps of the famous series The Oregon Trail (MECC, 1971–2011).

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Willian D. Volk to understand how The Climate Trail came to be. You can read the full interview below.

Q: Firstly, thank you for making The Climate Trail; the world desperately needed it. Being such a hot topic (no pun intended), it’s amazing no one in the video game industry has faced it heads on yet. So how did you become the first one to step up to this task?

A: The mainstream video game industry is risk-adverse because unlike film, there is no secondary markets (cable, etc.) for their games. With high budgets, they don’t take big risks and rely on franchises (i.e., Call of Duty, Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto) for most of the revenue. There’s also an aversion to tackling controversial topics. There are some indie games that have addressed the climate issue, but The Climate Trail may be the first to put players into a post climate-apocalypse world.

Q: Before The Climate Trail, did you have any experience in communicating about climate change? Or maybe even joining up some marches and protests?

A: I have degrees in Physics, a wife who used to work for the EPA and a brother who is a meteorologist. I’ve done way too much online debating on the issue, which was one of the motivations for making this game. I have participated in some climate events as well.

Q: As the game’s title and website make clear, it has drawn inspiration from The Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail series is classified as ‘educational games’. Do you see The Climate Trail equally as an educational game or more as a call to action?

A: My goal is to add more educational content into the game so it can be a resource for climate information, but I also want it to be a call to action. Both are important.

Q: Would you like to see The Climate Trail being used in classrooms?

A: I do. This is why there’s no “roving band of cannibals” or other violence in the game. I present information about climate change in the title and expect to have the game serve as a resource for climate education.

Q: To create The Climate Trail, did you use models and predictions made by climate scientists? If so, which studies and reports have you used?

A: Yes, here are some studies and information about feedback loops.[2]

  • What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk[3]
  • Existential Climate-Related Security Risk [foreword by C. Barrie][4]
  • Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided[5]
  • Scientific articles by Farquharson et al. (2019)[6] and Schneider et al. (2019)[7]
  • Opinion articles by Hewett (2019)[8] and Kristof (2019)[9]

Q: To many (if not most) people, science alone is not enough reason to take action. The emotional impact of a game might be more crucial, and art might play a bigger role here. The Climate Trail has all of that, so how did you approach the mix and balance of science and emotion?

A: I’ve always believed that games can have social value. Chris Crawford’s 1985 classic game of geopolitical brinkmanship, Balance of Power, showed the futility of nuclear war. There are other examples, the 1997 PlayStation game Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee covered the exploration of workers in a moving way. For me the example that best represents a creative effort that moved me to tears is the 1959 film On the Beach.

On the Beach scared me and I’m sure many other “cold war” children (and adults). The ending scene of the film shows a deserted world with banners expressing futile hope in a dramatic image. I want to invoke the same feelings about our ever more likely climate apocalypse as On the Beach did for nuclear war. As the scientist in that film says: “Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?”

I simply can’t believe we’re stupid enough to cook ourselves off the face of the Earth. If I can achieve 1/10th of the emotional impact of Oddworld or On the Beach I will be happy with the effort.[10]

Q: In The Climate Trail, players must survive a journey from Atlanta, USA, to Canada, across a climate-wrecked landscape. Did you choose this area for any particular reason?

A: Single highway route made design easier, all the locations are far enough above sea level to still be passable even if all land ice melts. I’ve been to that Canadian town as well.

Q: The USA in The Climate Trail looks terrible. In what year exactly does the game take place?

A: I’m deliberately not specific. Kate (the scientist) mentions Greenland Ice Melt when she was in college (dog sled picture) so the idea is it could be anywhere from 30 to 50 years or more.

Q: We love that the game’s difficulty levels are represented by greater increases in global temperature. How do the different temperature increase scenarios change the gameplay?

A: They effect heat wave and storm frequency, how many seeds you have at the start and the odds of finding supplies and capturing rain.

Q: You funded the game yourself and made it available to the public for free. Why did you opt for that approach?

A: It’s easier for climate organizations to support a game if it’s not a commercial venture. Also want to get it into schools.[11]

Q: Ultimately, what is your hope for The Climate Trail?

A: Have it become an educational resource (as we add more climate info) and as with On the Beach create emotional impact that moves people to action. I want to see millions playing it.


About the Team

William D. Volk is a game developer, founder of Deep State Games, and environmental advocate. He began his career in 1979 helping to launch the computer game division of Avalon Hill. He has worked at Activision and Lightspan and produced over 100 educational adventures. George Sanger, also known as “The Fat Man”, is a musician who has composed music for several video games, including Wing Commander and SimCity 2000.


[1] You can find it at https://www.theclimatetrail.com/

[2] You can also check Wikipedia’s entry on the clathrate gun hypothesis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis

[3] Spratt, D. & Dunlop, I. (2018) Available from: https://climateextremes.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/What-Lies-Beneath-V3-LR-Blank5b15d.pdf

[4] Spratt, D. & Dunlop, I. (2019) Available from: https://52a87f3e-7945-4bb1-abbf-9aa66cd4e93e.filesusr.com/ugd/148cb0_90dc2a2637f348edae45943a88da04d4.pdf

[5] World Bank, The. (2012) Available from: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/865571468149107611/pdf/NonAsciiFileName0.pdf

[6] Farquharson, L.M.; Romanovsky, V.E.; Cable, W.L.; Walker, D.A.; Kokelj, S.V.; Nicolsky, D. (2019) Climate change drives widespread and rapid thermokarst development in very cold permafrost in the Canadian High Arctic. Geophysical Research Letters 46: 6681–6689.

[7] Schneider, T.; Kaul, C.M.; Pressel, K.G. (2019) Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming. Nature Geoscience 12: 163–167.

[8] Hewett, F. (2019) The Scariest Thing About Climate Change: What Happens to Our Food Supply. Available from: https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/05/climate-change-food-frederick-hewett

[9] Kristof. N. (2019) ‘Food doesn’t grow here anymore. That’s why I would send my son north.’ Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/opinion/guatemala-migrants-climate-change.html

[10] Read more at: https://www.theclimatetrail.com/development-blog/why-am-i-giving-this-game-away-or-can-a-game-make-you-cry and https://www.theclimatetrail.com/development-blog/the-games-the-thing-wherein-ill-catch-the-conscience-of-my-kin-

[11] See also: https://www.theclimatetrail.com/development-blog/why-am-i-giving-this-game-away-or-can-a-game-make-you-cry


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Vampire Apocalypse Calculator

Dominik Czernia

Institute of Nuclear Physics, Polish Academy of Sciences, Kraków, Poland.

Email: dominik.czernia (at) gmail (dot) com

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Welcome to the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator[1], you lovely, tasty human. This sophisticated tool is based on the predator-prey model, a model that successfully describes the dynamics of ecosystems, chemical reactions, and even economics. Now it’s time to use it to answer the question: “what if vampires were among us?” You might think we’re joking, but the facts are clear. If we compare the actual world’s population[2] (Fig. 1: red points) to the exponential growth model[3], it reveals there are some hidden causes preventing the expansion of humanity.

We could theorise all day why this is, but there’s one idea we’d like to check and discuss: vampires. Are you ready to unveil the ancient mysteries of vampirism?

Figure 1. Earth’s population growth: expected logarithmic scale vs actual data. Extracted from Strielkowski et al. (2013).

What is vampirism?

Nearly every culture around the world has its blood-drinking creature. The ancient world had the female demons Lilith (Fig. 2; Babylonia) and Lamia (Greece). In Africa, the Ewe folklore believes in Adze, a vampiric being that can take the form of a firefly. Chilean Peuchen was a gigantic flying snake that could paralyse, and in Asia Penanggal was a woman who broke a pact with the devil and has been forever cursed to be a bloodsucking demon. So, why is it that vampires are known around the globe? Isn’t it suspicious?

Figure 2. Lilith, by John M. Collier (1892), oil on canvas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What about the vampires themselves? Today, they are usually believed to be undead creatures with supernatural powers: they don’t age, can fly, and can fully regenerate from almost any wound. They have a taste for human blood (Fig. 3), but are afraid of sunlight, silver, religious symbols, and garlic. Vampires can be killed by decapitation or a wooden stake through the heart. The last but most important thing is that vampires can’t reproduce; they can only turn a human into a vampire.

Figure 3. The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones (1897). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Calculator

What if vampires were among us? The Vampire Apocalypse Calculator allows you to check how humanity would fair in some selected scenarios from popular books and movies, as well as creating your own story from scratch. It’s your decision!

We present the result in the form of a graph that plots how three populations change: humans (blue points), vampires (red points), and vampire slayers (yellow points). You can adjust the graph if needed by setting an appropriate time scale (days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries) and type of chart (linear or logarithmic[4]).

The vampire apocalypse calculator performs real-time numerical calculations that might sometimes be a little demanding, depending on your machine specifications. But, please, be understanding! The algorithm can receive up 13 parameters from the three populations:

  • Humans: if not interrupted by vampires, their population size will grow exponentially. The available settings are the initial population, the probability of turning into a vampire when attacked, and annual population growth. Humans’ unique ability is to grow faster when their population becomes smaller than its starting value.
  • Vampires: bloodthirsty humanoids that hunt people and turn them into new vampires. The available parameters are their initial population and their aggression level towards humans and slayers. You can make vampires smarter with their special ability. When activated, vampires will refrain from killing too many humans, so they do not lose their only source of blood.
  • Vampire slayers: an organization of brave people with one objective: save the world from vampiric domination. The available parameters are their initial population, annual recruitment speed, aggression level towards vampires, and vampire transformation probability. They cannot afford their members’ salaries if the entire world population is made up of vampire slayers, so you can turn on the vampire slayers special ability to limit the maximum size of the organization.

So, go ahead and test the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator. It’s freely available online: https://www.omnicalculator.com/other/humans-vs-vampires. If you find a set of parameters that creates an incredible story, don’t hesitate and share it with your friends and us (there is a ‘Send this result’ on the website). See also the Box 1 below for more information on how the calculator came to be.


Box 1. How the Calculator came to be

The Vampire Apocalypse Calculator combines two things that I find fascinating: fiction and science. I love it when we can apply mathematical models to even the most surprising things and describing a vampire apocalypse using differential equations definitely makes the top of my list. I got inspired when I found an interesting paper regarding vampires, where the authors subtly suggested the existence of vampires based on real-life data.

That drew my attention and I decided to test it out in a scientific way with the well-known theory of the predator–prey model, based on game theory. Secondly, I needed to prepare an algorithm itself with adequate populations (humans, vampires, vampire slayers) and to create proper relationships between them. Lastly, the implemented calculations are numerical, so I needed to make them stable, no matter the set-up. That required, for example, setting a time step that on one hand, wasn’t too small (to avoid the calculations taking literally forever) and that on the other hand, wasn’t large enough to make the algorithm unstable. All of this was challenging and because I focused on the Calculator in my free time, it took me about a month to finish everything.

The last part was the hardest. I wanted my calculator to work with various input parameters so everyone could create their own scenarios. The problem with numerical calculations is their stability and the time required to compute them. A stable algorithm requires more time, but it has to be executed within a finite time, even on mobiles. So, depending on the user’s input, I needed to predict the appropriate time-step of consecutive calculations to make sure that everything will be estimated in a reasonable period. Choosing sensible parameters was a challenging task too! I had to give meaning to raw numbers to build the atmosphere of a vampire apocalypse. I’m happy that I built a tool that people find interesting and fun.


Predator–prey model: Lotka–Volterra equations

Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (known for his experiments with falling bodies and inclined planes) once said that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe”. Indeed, scientists all around the world try to find suitable mathematical equations that describe the natural world properly.

If you consider a simple ecosystem with two species, e.g., foxes and rabbits, the Lotka–Volterra equations[5] generally work just fine. They are also called the predatorprey model. Why? Let’s stick with our example. The population of rabbits can peacefully live and reproduce if we assume that they have access to an unlimited source of food in the forest. On the other hand, foxes are carnivorous, so their population size depends on the accessibility of food, i.e., rabbits. Can you see where the problem is? More rabbits mean more foxes, but more foxes mean fewer rabbits.

A similar situation exists with humans (prey) and vampires (predators). Our calculator makes use of the Lotka–Volterra equations, with a few modifications. First of all, we created some vampire slayers that control the population of vampires. Secondly, we gave each group a special ability that is implemented indirectly in the algorithm. Eventually, we came up with the following differential equations:

dx/dt = x(k1 – a1y)

dy/dt = y(b1a1x + b2a2y – cz)

dz/dt = z(k2 – a2y)

where:

  • xy, and z are the sizes of the human, vampire, and vampire slayers populations, respectively;
  • k1 and k2 are the growth rates of the human and vampire slayer populations;
  • b1 and b2 are the probabilities that a human and a vampire slayer will turn into a vampire;
  • coefficients a1a2, and c describe the aggression levels: vampires towards humans, vampires towards vampire slayers, and vampire slayers towards vampires, respectively.

For more explanations, please refer to Strielkowski et al. (2013). We based this calculator on the fourth-order Runge–Kutta method to solve the problem of differential equations.

Bloodsuckers – are vampires among us?

There are species in the animal kingdom that suck and feed on their preys’ blood. This practice is called hematophagy, and many small animals adopt it because blood is basically a fluid tissue rich in nutrients.

So, what’s the main difference between animal bloodsuckers and fictitious vampires? The former can’t turn their prey into something else by biting it or killing it. Lucky for us![6]

Some known bloodsucking animals are (Fig. 4):

  • Vampire bats: they mainly hunt birds and reptiles, but they occasionally turn their fangs on humans. Interestingly, vampire bats often share the blood that they have sucked with their hungry compatriots. That’s a real friendship!
  • Leeches: bloodsucking annelid worms that live in water. They can be used medicinally, as they can restore blood flow to damaged veins.
  • Mosquitoes: flying insects that you’re probably familiar with. They can be dangerous to humans, since mosquitoes can carry many diseases. An interesting fact is that only female mosquitoes suck blood from their victims (they need it to fuel egg production).
  • Vampire finches:  don’t let these lovely looking birds deceive you! When other food sources are scarce, they sometimes feed by drinking the blood of other birds.
Figure 4. Top left: vampire bat Desmodus rotundus, from Peru; source: Wikimedia Commons (Acatenazzi, 2005). Top right: medicinal leech Hirudo medicinalis; source: Wikimedia Commons (GlebK, 2011). Bottom left: Aedes (Ochlerotatus) sp.; source: Wikimedia Commons. Bottom right: vampire finch Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis; source: Wikimedia Commons (P. Wilton, 2009; cropped).

Humans also practice hematophagy! There are meals that contain animal blood. For example, many people around the world eat blood sausages – sausages filled with blood that has been cooked or dried. With that, we can conclude that vampires are actually among us! Of course, that’s only a half-truth; real bloodsuckers can’t turn people into vampires.

References

Strielkowski, W.; Lisin, E.; Welkins, E. (2013) Mathematical models of interactions between species: peaceful co-existence of vampires and humans based on the models derived from fiction literature and films. Applied Mathematical Sciences 7(10): 453–470.

Yorke, J.A. & Anderson, W.N. Jr. (1973). Predator-prey patterns (Volterra–Lotka equations). PNAS 70(7): 2069–2071.


About the author

Dominik Czernia is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences. When he was a child, he really liked mysterious and bloody stories. As an adult, he realized that blood doesn’t give you immortality in the literal sense, but it can save someone’s life! Since he turned 18, he has been donating blood regularly: 16 liters so far and feeling the need to donate more. One could say he’s the perfect prey for vampires! 😉

As part of his involvement with The Omni Calculator Project, Dominik has built a few interesting tools such as The Hot Car Calculator (https://www.omnicalculator.com/health/car-heat), which helps people understand the lethal consequences of leaving kids unattended in cars, and The Coffee Kick Calculator (https://www.omnicalculator.com/food/coffee-kick), in collaboration, which allows you to maximize your caffeinated efficiency. He’s also created many more super scientific ones that may not be as fun but are still worth a mention, such as the Space Travel Calculator, the Acceleration Calculator, and a few Velocity tools.


[1] You can find it at: https://www.omnicalculator.com/other/humans-vs-vampires

[2] World Population Clock, available from: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

[3] Exponential Growth Prediction Calculator, by M. Mucha, available from: https://www.omnicalculator.com/statistics/exponential-growth-prediction

[4] See also Log Calculator, by Haponiuk & Pal, available from: https://www.omnicalculator.com/math/log

[5] See also Yorke & Anderson (1973).

[6] Although some can transmit diseases.


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Mondo Museum: a sim game to build your own world-class dream museum

Interview with Michel McBride-Charpentier

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Mondo Museum is an upcoming simulation game developed by Viewport Games[1] where you can build your dream museum. Equipped with dinosaurs, Books of the Dead, classical paintings, and space-age stuff, Mondo Museum has something for everyone. The game will be soon published by Kitfox Games and is already listed on Steam.

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed designer/programmer Michel McBride-Charpentier to understand how such a wonderful game like Mondo Museum came to be. You can read the full interview below.

Interview

Q: There are lots of sim games around, but as far as we know, there has never been one about curating and running a museum. So how did you get that idea?

A: After the announcement, a few people have said they’d also had the idea of a “SimMuseum”, so I don’t think it’s a wholly original concept. I’m actually really surprised nobody else has made a game like this since the idea first popped into my head over a decade ago and I’ve spent the last 5 years really expecting one to drop on Steam at any moment.

The idea, like most good ones, came to me through synthesizing a lot of different interests I’ve developed over my life: visiting a wide variety of museums in school and later as an adult, a love for Maxis and Bullfrog management games, and a personal desire to create work that is educational and engages players with systems thinking without being a dry capital-letters Serious Game.

Q: Do you have any particular type of museum you enjoy the most? Or an all-time favourite museum?

A: Museums that contain a wide variety of exhibits that have no apparent relation to each other are always the most fun for me to visit. For example, The Met in NYC which has collections ranging from Ancient Egypt to medieval European armour to Rembrandt paintings. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is also in this vein, with dinosaur skeletons and fossils next to Chinese sculpture.

Asking for my favourite is an impossible question, but I’ll use this opportunity to shout out the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NYC. It’s entirely focused on the life and work of Japanese-American sculptor/designer/landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. Walking through those galleries and the sculpture garden for the first time sparked a real appreciation for abstract sculpture I never had before, and he instantly became my favourite artist of the 20th century.

Q: Did you bring into Mondo Museum some of your personal experience or preferences?

A: Choosing which collections to include at launch was definitely driven by my personal preferences. When I was a kid I wanted to be an Egyptologist and archaeologist, so including an Ancient Egypt collection was an obvious choice. Many of the things that invoke a sense of wonder in kids but are often lost as we become older are represented, such as dinosaurs, space exploration, and the geology of the Earth.

Q: Have you or anyone in the team worked in a museum before?

A: C.J. Kershner is writing the exhibit item descriptions and the few characters who are directors/curators of other museums, and has many years of experience volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History as an info desk attendant (so obviously had to know a lot about the workings of the museum from the visitor’s perspective), and as an explainer for a live exhibits team.

Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Mondo Museum? Are there different scenarios and objectives to be met?

A: There’s a sandbox mode where the end goal, or how to achieve the highest prestige ranking, is mostly up to the player to define. There is a task/objective system that provides short-to-medium term goals, such as unlocking new items or receiving more funding.

As for scenarios, the current plan is to have those, though what exactly they will look like is still undecided. A campaign where you move between different museums with unique challenges and constraints is the goal, but will likely only come in an Early Access update.

Q: From what we’ve seen, the game includes all types of museums: natural history, technology, archaeology, anthropology, art, etc. How did you manage to gather all these different areas of study and interest into a single package?

A: As I mentioned above in what my favourite types of museums to visit are, it’s not uncommon for real museums to display a wide variety of collections under one roof. But we go one step further, and let players mix and match items from any collection. The challenge was in selecting items that complement one another and allow players to discover these relationships between items. One example is how in the Ancient Egypt collection there’s an astronomical chart, and tools for observing the stars, that can be combined with items from the Space Exploration collection to create a kind of “Astronomy through the Ages” combo. Right now I’m explicitly defining these combos, but might try out a more free-form tagging system, where for example any item tagged “Tool” could be placed in an exhibit hall with others that share that tag.

Q: And now perhaps the most important question of all: does Mondo Museum include exhibits of the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) or the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)?

A: “The Ocean” is on a shortlist for collections to include in a future content update, but if you’re really desperate to see some horrors of the deep, mod support means if a player can make a 3D model of one then it will be very easy to put in the game.

Q: Did you bring in any museum staff as consultants while making the game?

A: No real consultants other than C.J., but if anyone is brought in will likely be to review specific collections for cultural sensitivity issues we might have been oblivious to. For example, someone recently brought up the debates museums have around the subject of human remains when making exhibits about ancient burial practices and so on, which I hadn’t considered before. That kind of insight is really helpful (in our case, this helped me decide to only have mummified animals because a) they’re actually pretty cute while human mummies are pretty gross and b) a human mummy is kind of unnecessary since the real interesting artefact/art is the coffin and sarcophagus).

Q: There is a lot of discussion today around ownership and repatriation of artefacts, especially in archaeology and anthropology[2]. It is a tough subject, but does Mondo Museum tackle it in some sense?

A: Absolutely, and it’s core to the politics of the game. I didn’t want to recreate the systems of colonialism and looting that resulted in many museums in the West originally acquiring their collections. Mondo Museum takes place in a more just and utopian world, where all items have been repatriated (or never left in the first place). The way you unlock new exhibit items is by satisfying the conditions of visiting directors/curators from these museums around the world, who will then effectively give you permission to display parts of their collections.

Q: The game focuses on the exhibitions, which are the public face of museums. Will there be any mention to the vast collections of objects and specimens museums have and of all the research (scientific and otherwise) that is done based on these collections?

A: The research and archive aspect of the game is still a work in progress (there are researcher staff you hire who can improve the quality of your items/the understanding visitors get from it in a sort of abstract way), but I like the idea of the item we have created that is on display representing a lot of associated items that don’t have 3D models but you need to manage to some extent. I’m trying to keep the scope achievable for the moment, but big updates are planned throughout Early Access.

Q: Do you hope the players will learn something with Mondo Museum or maybe spark their interest to visit a museum?

A: I really do hope it encourages players to go to museums if they haven’t been in a while, or maybe since a school field trip. Hopefully the game will give everyone a deeper appreciation of the work behind creating an exhibit that makes sense to the public, or consider what curation decisions they might have done differently to tell a different story.

Q: Do you hope museums worldwide might learn something from Mondo Museum?

A: The people running modern museums are generally doing a really good job in engaging visitors these days, so I’m not expecting to reveal anything they don’t already know. Maybe there could be more museum activities for adults, and not just kids or currently enrolled students. I’m targeting an audience of all ages, and there’s been a lot of interest from adults intrigued by the game. Curator talks, seminars, group tours, opening parties, etc., are fairly common, but I’d love to see more creative activities and workshops designed with adults in mind, since there’s clearly an adult audience for “playing” with museums.


ABOUT THE TEAM

Michel McBride-Charpentier is Mondo Museum’s designer and programmer; the other team members are Genevieve Bachand (artist), Farah Khalaf (producer), C.J. Kershner (writer), and Rhys Becker (artist). Viewport Games is a small studio based on Montréal, Canada. Kitfox Games, also from Montréal, is an independent games studio focused on creating intriguing worlds to explore.


[1] Be sure to visit their website [https://mondomuseum.com/].

[2] See, for instance: Woldeyes, Y.G. 2019. Repatriation: why Western museums should return African artefacts. The Conversation, 15/May/2019. Available from: https://theconversation.com/repatriation-why-western-museums-should-return-african-artefacts-117061


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Perceiving the emotions of Pokémon

Ben J. Jennings1

1 Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Brunel University London, London, U.K. E-mail: ben.jennings (at) brunel.ac (dot) uk

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The ability to reliably perceive the emotions of other people is vital for normal social functioning, and the human face is perhaps the strongest non-verbal cue that can be utilized when judging the emotional state of others (Ekman, 1965). The advantages of possessing this ability to recognise emotions, i.e., having emotional intelligence, include being able to respond to other people in an informed and appropriate manor, assisting in the accurate prediction of another individual’s future actions and additionally to facilitate efficient interpersonal behavior (Ekman, 1982; Izard, 1972; McArthur & Baron, 1983). In the current experiment the consistency with which emotions display by a human female face and a Pokémon character are investigated.

General Methods

The current study employed 30 hand drawings of Pikachu, a first generation electric-type Pokémon character, depicting a range of emotions (images used with permission from the illustrator,  bluekomadori [https://www.deviantart.com/bluekomadori]; based on the video game characters belonging to The Pokémon Company); see Fig. 1a for examples. Also, 30 photo-quality stimuli displaying a range of emotions, expressed by the same female model, were taken from the McGill Face Database (Schmidtmann et al., 2016); see Fig. 1b for examples. Ratings of arousal (i.e., the excitement level, ranging from high to low) and valence (i.e., pleasantness or unpleasantness) were obtained for each image using a similar method to Jennings et al. (2017).  This method involved the participants viewing each image in turn in a random order (60 in total: 30 Pikachu and 30 of the human female from the McGill database). After each image was viewed (presentation time 500 ms) the participants’ task was to classify the emotion being displayed (i.e., not their internal emotional response elicited by the stimuli, but the emotion they perceived the figure to be displaying).

The classification was achieved via “pointing-and-clicking” the corresponding location, with a computer mouse, within the subsequently displayed 2-dimensional Arousal-Valence emotion space (Russell, 1980). The emotion space is depicted in Fig. 1c; note that the red words are for illustration only and were not visible during testing, they are supplied here for the reader to obtain the gist of the types of emotion different areas of the space represent. Data for 20 observers (14 females) was collected, aged 23±5 years (Mean±SD), using a MacBook Pro (Apple Inc.). The stimuli presentation and participant responses were obtained via the use of the PsychToolbox software (Brainard, 1997).

Figure 1.  Panels (a) and (b) illustrate 3 exemplars of the Pokémon and human stimuli, respectively. Panel (b) shows the response grid displayed on each trial for classifications to be made within (note: the red wording was not visible during testing). Panels (d) and (e) show locations of perceived emotion in the human and Pokémon stimuli, respectively. Error bars present one standard error.

Results

The calculated standard errors (SEs) serve as a measure of the classification agreement between observers for a given stimuli and were determined in both the arousal (vertical) and valence (horizontal) directions for both the Pokémon and human stimuli. These are presented as the error bars in Fig. 1d and 1e. The SEs were compared between the two stimulus types using independent t-tests for both the arousal and valence directions; no significant differences were revealed (Arousal: t(58)=-0.97, p=.34; and Valence: t(58)= 1.46, p=.15).

Effect sizes, i.e., Cohen’s d, were also determined; Arousal: d=0.06, and Valence: d=0.32, i.e., effect sizes were within the very small to small, and small to medium ranges, respectively (Cohen, 1988; Sawilowsky, 2009), again indicating a high degree of similarity in precision between the two stimuli classes. It is important to note that the analysis relied on comparing the variation (SEs) for each classified image (reflecting the agreement between participants) and not the absolute (x, y) coordinates within the space.

Discussion

What could observers be utilizing in the images that produce such a high degree of agreement on each emotion expressed by each stimulus class? Is all the emotional information contained within the eyes? Levy et al. (2012) demonstrated that when observers make an eye movement to either a human with eyes located, as expected, within the face or non-human (i.e., a ‘monster’) that has eyes located somewhere other than the face (for example, the mythical Japanese Tenome that has its eyes located on the palms of his hands; Sekien, 1776) the observers’ eye movements are nevertheless made in both cases towards the eyes, i.e., there is something special about the eyes that capture attention wherever they are positioned. Schmidtmann et al. (2016) additionally showed that accuracy for identifying an emotion was equal when either an entire face or a restricted stimulus showing just the eyes was employed. The eyes of the Pikachu stimuli are simply black circles with a white “pupil”, however they can convey emotional information, for example, based on the positions of the pupil, the orientation of the eye lid, and by how much the eye is closed. It is hence plausible that arousal-valence ratings are made on the information extracted from only the eyes.

However, for the Pokémon stimuli Pikachu’s entire body is displayed on each trail, and it has been previous shown when emotional information from the face and body are simultaneously available, they can interact. This has the result of intensifying the emotion expressed by the face (de Gelder et al., 2015), as perceived facial emotions are biased towards the emotion expressed by the body (Meeren et al., 2005). It is therefore likely that holistic processing of the facial expression coupled with signals from Pikachu’s body language, i.e., posture, provide an additional input into the observers’ final arousal-valence rating.

Conclusion    

Whatever the internal processes responsible for perceiving emotional content, the data points to a mechanism that allows the emotional states of human faces to be classified with a high precision across observers, consistent with previous emotion classification studies (e.g., Jennings et al., 2017). The data also reveals the possibility of a mechanism present in normal observers that can extract emotional information from the faces and/or bodies depicted in simple sketches, containing minimal fine detail, shading and colour variation, and use this information to facilitate the consistent classification of the emotional states expressed by characters from fantasy universes.

 

References

Brainard, D.H. (1997) The psychophysics toolbox. Spatial Vision 10: 433–436.

de Gelder, B.; de Borst, A.W.; Watson, R. (2015) The perception of emotion in body expressions. WIREs Cognitive Science 6: 149–158.

Ekman, P. (1965) Communication through nonverbal behavior: a source of information about an interpersonal relationship. In: Tomkins, S.S. & Izard, C.E. (Eds.) Affect, Cognition and Personality: Empirical Studies. Spinger, Oxford. Pp. 390–442.

Ekman, P. (1982) Emotion in the Human Face. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Izard, C.E. (1972) Patterns of Emotion: a new analysis of anxiety and depression. Academic Press, New York.

Jennings, B.J.; Yu, Y.; Kingdom, F.A.A. (2017) The role of spatial frequency in emotional face classification. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 79(6): 1573–1577.

Levy, J.; Foulsham, T.; Kingstone, A. (2013) Monsters are people too. Biology Letters 9(1): 20120850.

McArthur, L.Z. & Baron, R.M. (1983) Toward an ecological theory of social perception. Psychological Review 90(3): 215–238.

Meeren, H.K.; van Heijnsbergen, C.C.; de Gelder, B. (2005) Rapid perceptual integration of facial expression and emotional body language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102: 16518–16523.

Russel, J.A. (1980) A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(6): 1161–1178.

Schmidtmann, G.; Sleiman, D.; Pollack, J.; Gold, I. (2016) Reading the mind in the blink of an eye – a novel database for facial expressions. Perception 45: 238–239.

Sekien, T. (1776) 画図百鬼夜行 [Gazu Hyakki yagyō; The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons]. Maekawa Yahei, Japan.


About the Author

Dr. Ben Jennings is a vision scientist. His research psychophysically and electrophysiologically investigates colour and spatial vision, object recognition, emotions, and brain injury. His favourite Pokémon is Beldum.


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Bird biodiversity in heavy metal songs

Henrique M. Soares1, João V. Tomotani2, Barbara M. Tomotani3 & Rodrigo B. Salvador3

1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, MA, U.S.A.

2 Escola Politécnica, Universidade de São Paulo. São Paulo, SP, Brazil.

3 Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Emails: hemagso( at) gmail (dot) com; t.jvitor (at) gmail (dot) com; babi.mt (at) gmail (dot) com; salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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Birds have fascinated humankind since forever. Their ability to fly, besides being a constant reminder of our own limitations, was a clear starting point to link birds to deities and the divine realm (Bailleul-LeSuer, 2012). Inevitably, these animals became very pervasive in all human cultures, myths and folklore (Armstrong, 1970). In fact, they are so pervasive that they have found their way to perhaps the most unlikely cultural niche: Heavy Metal.

With some exceptions, such as raptors (Accipitriformes) and ravens/crows[1] (Fig. 1), birds are not typically seen as badass enough to feature on heavy metal album covers and songs, even though sometimes they already have the right makeup for it (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Examples of album covers with birds: Devil’s Ground, by Primal Fear (Nuclear Blast, 2004), and the fantastic Winter Wake, by Elvenking (AFM, 2006). Source: Caratulas (2019; http://www.caratulas.com).
Figure 2 Pied falconet, Microhierax melanoleucos, a species distributed from China to southeastern Asia; photo by Owen Chiang (2007; http://www.i-owen.com), used with permission. Gene Simmons, bassist and co-lead singer of KISS, with his Demon make up; source: Wikimedia Commons (Alberto Cabello, 2010).

As we highlighted above, the birds’ power of flight is their main feature, but they have another power up their feathery sleeves. And this feat is one that people tend to consider one of the most human endeavors of all: music. Most birds are deemed melodious creatures, like the slate-colored solitaire (Myadestes unicolor) from Central America and the celebrated nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), although some might seem almost tone-deaf[2] (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. The Crested Ibis, from Kemono Friends (Mine Yoshizaki, 2015), is made fun of in the series because of her awful singing. The character was based on the Japanese crested ibis, Nipponia nippon, a species once widespread through eastern Asia, but now severely endangered (BirdLife International, 2017). Sources: Japari Library (2018); Wikimedia Commons (Olyngo, 2017).

Birds (class Aves) can be largely divided in two groups: the order Passeriformes (with circa 6,000 known species) and “the rest” (several orders, totaling around 5,000 species). Members of the order Passeriformes are commonly called “passerines” or “perching birds” and include most of the species that typically comes to mind when we think of birds: sparrows, robins, starlings, blackbirds and crows. Inside Passeriformes, there is a suborder called Passeri[3], the “songbirds”, a group with roughly 5,000 species of animals. The vocal organ (called syrinx) of songbirds is modified in comparison to that of other birds and can produce complex sounds (Raikow & Bledsoe, 2000). Typically, these sounds result in bird song, but crows have their own way of communicating.

With all these bird species, some are bound to appear in heavy metal songs, right? We mean, besides eagles and ravens, of course. So, we decided to analyze the lyrics of thousands of metal songs in order to find ‘em birds (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Skarmory, one of the few examples of a literal metal bird; more specifically, a Steel/Flying type. Source: Bulbapedia (2019b; The Pokémon Company, 1998–2019).

Here, we show how many songs talk about birds and which specific birds they mention. We also investigate how each bird groups is represented in the genre and in each subgenre. We will also talk a little bit about the biology of some of these animals to make you, our dear headbanging reader, more acquainted with this fantastic slice of Earth’s biodiversity.

MATERIAL AND METHODS

Data collection

All lyrics used in this project were collected from Metal Kingdom (www.metalkingdom.net), a web compendium on metal music of diverse genres. To collect this data, we built a custom web crawler that navigated all music pages on the website. This collection yielded us three main datasets:

  • Bands: CSV file listing all bands found on the website.
  • Genre: CSV file mapping bands to their respective metal genre.
  • Lyrics: CSV file which contains the actual lyrics, as well a reference to the artist.

On 07/August/2018, we collected a total of 145,716 songs from 6,359 bands, spanning 368 different metal (sub)genres.

Data pre-processing

When we started going through the data we obviously ran into some problems. (If you’re not finding any problems in your data, you’re not looking hard enough!) In this section, we present some of the hurdles we had to overcome when working with this dataset.

Language

A quick look into the data showed us a problem for our study: not all lyrics were in English. For example, below are the verses of “Ohne Dich” by German band Rammstein (2004):

Und der Wald er steht so schwarz und leer,

Weh mir oh weh,

Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr.

We may have some additional language skills to identify ‘die Vögel’, but we certainly won’t know every language in the dataset. Because of this, we decided to restrict our study only to songs in English. However, this posed another problem: we have no structured data about the language of each song, and this information would need to be inferred from the lyrics themselves.

Fortunately, this was also a problem for Google when deciding in which language you’re searching in during your queries, and they were kind enough to opensource their implementation[4]. They used a Naïve Bayes approach, which achieved 99.77% accuracy when classifying news articles in over 49 languages (Nakatani, 2010). Using this approach, we managed to label almost all lyrics by language, identifying 43 different ones in the corpus. The distribution of the languages can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Frequency count of languages for lyrics. Languages are represented by their ISO 639-1 codes.[5]

This method, however, is not without its own problems. We were curious, for instance, as to why there were so many lyrics in Romanian (ro). A more in-depth investigation revealed that instrumental songs would have only the text “(instrumental)” listed as their lyrics –the algorithm struggles when classifying such short words. However, since this problem affected only songs without lyrics (that is, songs that won’t mention any birds at all) we opted to just remove them from the dataset.

Homonyms

Another problem we identified was homonyms: words that sound and are written the same, but have different meanings depending on the context. Consider, for example, the following excerpts:

Song: White Synthetic Noise Lyrics

Band: … And Oceans

Song: Hourglass

Band: A Perfect Circle

Sorrow sings of everything but survival doesn’t seem to ring
Isolate, contain your pain to outlast the taste of misery
I believe the curse will swallow it’s[6] teeth
Show the stars and I can clear the air and love the end
Red flag red, all the sentinels are damned
The Tokyo kitty, swallow, rose, and canary
Tick tick tick, do you recognize the sounds as the grains count down
Trickle down right in front of you?

The word ‘swallow’ has clearly different meanings in these songs. In the former, it is a verb, that is, the act of causing or allowing something to pass down the throat. In the latter, however, we have a reference to a Hirundinidae bird that may or may not be able to carry a coconut.

To address this problem, we must distinguish between the different uses of homonyms. One way of doing this is classifying each word in a text by its Part of Speech. A part of speech is a category in which a word falls given its syntactic function in a sentence. In the first example above, ‘swallow’ is classified as a verb, while in the second example it is classified as a noun. Since we are interested in identifying mentions of birds in lyrics, knowing that a word function as a noun in the sentence can help us reduce the homonym problem. (Unless, of course, they are nouns for both their meanings. In this case, this approach won’t help much.)

The process of classifying words like this is known as Part-of-Speech tagging, or POS tagging in short. POS tagging can be seen as a supervised learning problem, as we can train a classifier to identify these tags given a pre-labeled dataset of token sequences and tags. For this project, we opted to use a pre-trained model available in NLTK. This default English POS-tagger consists of a Greedy Averaged Perceptron implemented by Honnibal (2013).

Let’s see how this works for our examples. POS tagging on the first one yields the following result:

Word I believe the curse will swallow it ‘s teeth .
Tag PRP VBP DT NN MD VB PRP VBZ NNS .

The tags are represented by abbreviations from the Penn Treebank Tagset[7]. In this case, we can see that ‘swallow’ was assigned the POS tag ‘VB’ (Verb, Base Form) and as such, should not be counted as a bird. Let’s see how this works out with our second example:

Word The Tokyo kitty , swallow , rose , and canary .
Tag DT NNP NN , NN , VBD , CC JJ .

Here, ‘swallow’ was assigned the POS tag ‘NN’ (Noun, singular or mass) and as such, should be counted as a bird. However, this example also shows that this method is not perfect, as ‘canary’ received a ‘JJ’ tag (Adjective). However, since the alternative would be to manually annotate POS tags for the whole corpus, we decided to proceed with this alternative.

Plurals

With both language and homonyms out of the way (well, sort of), we can finally tackle our last problem: plurals. Consider the following two examples:

Song: For the birds

Band: 8 Foot Sativa

Song: Scavenger

Band: A Static Lullaby

To close my eyes
Reduce you to black
Nothing more than an insignificant shadow among the vultures
I will walk away
Scavenger, where does the vulture sleep?
And when you speak to him
Will you bring him to me, bring him to me
Scavenger, bring forth the jackals teeth

We can see that both songs mention the bird ‘vulture’: the first one uses the plural form while the second uses the singular. We wanted to count both references as the same bird, so how could we achieve that?

One solution would be to increment our list of “bird terms” to include all plurals of bird name, as well as a mapping to a root form of the word. This, however, would be a lot of work. This looks like a common problem when doing natural language processing, so we searched for what we could do to address it.

Lemmatization is the process of removing inflectional forms, finding the root word, that is, the lemma, so that they can be analyzed as a single group. It is widely used when running searches for terms in documents as a way to correctly match-related terms. Fortunately, there are various lemmatizers implementations for different languages. For this problem, we will use the WordNet lemmatizer available in the NLTK library.

Lemmatizer usually requires the POS tag of the word, but fortunately, we got that covered. Running the WordNet Lemmatizer in our first example yields the following: “Nothing more than an insignificant shadow among the vulture.”

You might be thinking: “Wait. That much work just to take out an ‘s’ from the end of the word?”. However, remember that grammatical number can be way more complex than that (e.g., goose and geese), and using a proper lemmatizer takes all that complexity into account.

Data aggregation

OK. We detected the language of our metal songs and filtered only those in English. We tagged the part-of-speech of all our words, and we even lemmatized them to ensure consistency. What is then left to do?

Well, we need to count our birds! For this project, we decided to use a static list of bird names commonly used in cultural works. The list can be seen in Table 2.

Table 2. Common bird names used in this work, arranged alphabetically.

We only counted the term in our dataset if the POS tag of it corresponded to a noun. This reduced the likelihood of homonyms such as ‘swallow’ bird and ‘swallow’ verb, but unfortunately will do nothing for homonyms such as ‘tyrant’ flycatcher (Tyrannidae) and ‘tyrant’ Cersei Lannister. The count was done in two different ways:

  • Occurrence counts: This method counts the number of times a word appears, counting multiple repetitions in the same song as distinct occurrences. For example, when counting the word “bird” in the classic song “Surfin’ Bird”, by The Trashmen, this counting method would yield 82 occurrences.
  • Song counts: This method counts the number of songs in which a word appear, counting multiple repetitions in the same song as a single occurrence. Keeping with our previous example, “Surfin’ Bird” would only wield 1 as the count of the word “bird”.

To validate our methods, let’s take a look at the top 5 most metal birds:

Word

Occurrence count

Song count

bird 2874 2222
eagle 1738 1036
tyrant 1737 1221
raven 1603 1205
vulture 1230 990

That corresponded with our expectations, even though we probably are suffering from a homonym problem with all those tyrants showing up. The tyrant flycatchers are not actually that metal (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Too cute for metal? Left: a tyrant flycatcher, known as western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), lives in North and Central America; source: Wikimedia Commons (MdF, 2010). Right: the grey-hooded Attila (Attila rufus), from southern Brazil, is actually named after a tyrant; source: Wikimedia Commons (D. Sanches, 2010).

We also grouped our bird count by each metal genre. In this way, we will be able to run an analysis on how different birds relate to different types of metal. Given that we had 368 different metal subgenres, we had to summarize this if we wanted to run any meaningful statistical analyses. We summarized them using the definitions from Wikipedia into “just” 37 categories, listed in Table 3.

Table 3. List of metal genres used in our analyses. Note that: (1) occasionally, a rock genre popped up in the database; (2) the category ‘Various’ include weird singletons we just could not classify elsewhere, such as “A Capella”.

 

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

The word ‘bird’ appears in 2,222 songs, as we’ve seen above. It seems quite a lot, but on a closer look, it’s not quite: that number represents only about 1.5% of all the songs in the database. We honestly didn’t know what to expect when we started this project, so it is hard to decide if that’s a lot of birds or too few of them. We are more inclined to the latter, given that birds are such prominent symbols in most worldwide cultures.

But more specific mentions of popular bird names also appear in several songs. Some likely refer to a single species, like ‘nightingale’ (Luscinia megarhynchos) and ‘blackbird’ (Turdus merula). Most common names, however, refer to a whole group of species, like ‘eagle’ and ‘penguin’, and not to a particular species in each group. Finally, some common names, like ‘dove’ and ‘swan’, while being representatives of larger groups, in this context probably refer to the most common European forms, the rock dove (Columba livia) and the mute swan (Cygnus olor).

We present below the number of times each type of bird is mentioned in a metal song and we do this in two ways. Table 4 shows the total count (the “occurrence count” from the example above), which includes all the times a particular word pops up in the lyrics. As explained above, this includes repetitions within the same song, such as in chorus sections. For instance, ‘eagle’ appears several times in Helloween’s “Eagle Fly Free” (1988). Table 5 shows the counts ignoring all the repetitions (the “song count” from the example above). This way, ‘eagle’ is counted only once in Helloween’s song.

Table 4. Total count of common bird names in heavy metal songs.

 

Table 5. Count of common bird names in heavy metal songs, avoiding repetitions within the same song (e.g., chorus sections).

We think the second type of counting (Table 5) is a better representation of bird abundance in metal songs, so we will only refer to this one in our discussion below[8]. However, if should be noted that eagles are the most used bird according to Table 4, but they come in second in Table 5, having switched places with ravens. Even though we knew from simple life experience that these two were the most metal birds, we expected eagles to get the crown in both types of count.

Popular birds

So now we can say with certainty that the most metal bird is the raven (Fig. 6). The word can refer to several species worldwide, but it is logical to assume that people usually think of the common raven (Corvus corax; Fig. 9) when using the word. This species is distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is one of the largest passerines alive. Ravens are omnivorous animals, extremely opportunistic and versatile, and their intelligence is well-known to biologists.

Figure 6. While we were writing this article, the Gen VIII Steel/Flying Pokémon Corviknight was aptly announced. Gen VIII’s Galar region is based in England, birthplace of heavy metal (Allsop, 2011). So thank you, Game Freak Inc.! Source: Bulbapedia (2019a; The Pokémon Company, 1998–2019).

Ravens are undoubtedly one of the most common birds in folklore and pop culture but are generally regarded as birds of ill-omen and related to “evil stuff”. Thus, they are well-represented in Black and Death Metal, with respectively, 328 and 152 occurrences.  However, they are sometimes associated with nicer things, like the ravens from the Tower of London (Kennedy, 2004) and Nordic mythology. The relationship with the latter is very clear given the 114 times this bird appears in Pagan Metal songs.

In second place, we have the eagle, a staple of Power Metal and original Heavy Metal (Fig. 1), with 197 and 193 counts, respectively. Eagles are very likely the most prominent bird symbol of all in Western culture (Armstrong, 1970): Zeus, the Roman Empire, European heraldry (especially Germany and Austria), and of course, ‘Murica. As the “king of birds”, the eagle is almost always a symbol of power or leadership. The ‘eagle’, however, will not be the same bird species for every headbanger: American bands and fans will always think of their national symbol, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), while others will possibly think of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) or other more regional species. Eagles are part of the Accipitridae, family together with hawks, kites and Old world vultures (see below); however, the name ‘eagle’ is given to several large species that are not actually too closely related to each other (e.g., booted eagles, snake eagles, sea eagles, harpy eagles; Lerner & Mindell, 2005).

The third most used bird is the vulture. This term does not refer to any specific vulture species, but most likely to a sort of over-generalized stereotypical representation of a vulture in popular imagination. Vultures suffer from a bad press, being often mindlessly associated with corpses, death and decay due to their scavenging diet. Unsurprisingly, it is a prevalent bird in Death and Black Metal songs, with 228 and 143 counts respectively. Trash Metal also has a good number of counts (117), but given this genre’s more political lyrics, ‘vulture’ is here often related to bad people or practices.

The popular name vulture actually refers to 23 species worldwide, distributed in two distinct yet closely related biological groups (Buechley & Sekercioglu, 2016): the Old World vultures (Fig. 7) and the New World vultures (Fig. 8). Old World vultures belong to the family Accipitridae, the same as eagles and hawks, while the New World ones (which include condors) comprise the family Cathartidae. The scavenging habits of vultures evolved independently in these two lineages and in both cases has led to some common adaptations to this way of life: large bodies and wings, powerful beaks and featherless heads (Buechley & Sekercioglu, 2016).

Figure 7. Examples of Old World vultures. Top: Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). Bottom: griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Source: Wikimedia Commons (D. Ash, 2013 and S. Krause, 2011, respectively).
Figure 8. Examples of New World vultures. Left: turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and Andean condor (Vultur gryphus). Source: Wikimedia Commons (respectively S. Blanc, 2007, and E. del Prado, 2007).

The fourth bird on our list are the crows. Again, ‘crow’ can refer to any out of 30-something species. The typical European black crow is called carrion crow (Corvus corone; Fig. 10); the hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is also very common in the continent, but it is not entirely black and so possibly unsuitable for metal songs. North American headbangers will be typically more familiar with the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

Note that all these species belong to the genus Corvus and, in fact, so does the raven (see above). People get confused about these birds all the time and often use the words ‘raven’ and ‘crow’ interchangeably. While neither word has any true biological meaning (that’s what scientific names are for, after all!), we will give you some pointers as how to differentiate the common raven from those crows. Also, after reading this, try checking all those raven and crow illustrations on heavy metal albums – you’ll be surprised how many of them are just plain wrong.

There are several differences to keep an eye out for when trying to identify crows and ravens (BTO, 2013). First off, ravens are huge, with a wingspan similar to a buzzard’s and an even larger body. If you’re uncertain about the identity of the bird you’re seeing, it’s probably a crow. When you finally encounter a raven, you’ll immediately know it. But there are other features that might help you out if the animals are seen far off, flying or just through photos.

Crows have a rounded head, with the plumage arranged neatly on the body; their beak is deeply curved and stout (Fig. 10). Ravens have very long and heavy beaks, ruffled throat feathers, a barrel-like chest and a long neck, which together gives them a heavy-headed impression (Fig. 9). In flight, crows beat their wings more heavily and their fan-shaped tail is clearly seen (Fig. 10). Ravens, however, tend to soar more; the feathers on their wing tips looks more like a raptor’s when flying and they have a long and wedge-shaped tail (Fig. 9). Finally, crows have a far-carrying “caw” vocalization, while the ravens’ calls are a deep and hoarse croak.

Figure 9. Common raven. Source: top: Wikimedia Commons (F. Veronesi, 2016); bottom: iNaturalist (A. Viduetsky, 2019).
Figure 10. Carrion crow. Source: top: Wikimedia Commons (‘Loz’ L.B. Tettenborn, 2007); bottom: iNaturalist (E. Bosquet, 2019).

Unexpected birds

There are some unexpected results. For starters, we imagined hawks and falcons would rank higher on the list, as well the nightingale, which is typically associated with song and poetry. We also have lots of mentions to ducks, geese and chicken, but a good portion of them refer to expressions (e.g., sitting ducks) or, metaphorically, to people.

However, there were some actual surprises. From the list of bird “species” we initially came up with (Table 2), we had included some oddballs just to be thorough and have all avian orders represented. To our surprise, however, our search came up with some occurrences for them, like penguins, ostriches, macaws and toucans.

The song Ostrich, by American band Gloomy Grim (2000), focuses on the fallacious idea that ostriches (Struthio camelus) bury their head in the sand to hide. They do not. What they are doing is inspecting and caring for their eggs; they dig shallow nests and from a distance, it might look like an ostrich has its head buried in the sand (American Ostrich Association, 2019). In fact, ostriches have no need to hide; besides being the largest living dinosaur and having a mean kick, they are the fastest animals on two legs (Donegan, 2002; Stewart, 2006).

All mentions of penguins come from a single Swedish Black metal band called Satan’s Penguins. Several of their songs stick to the theme, such as “Antarctic Winterstorm”, “Behind Mountains of Ice”, and “Night of the Penguins”. Despite being thought of as birds from the icy wastes of our planet, most penguin species live in sub-Antarctic or temperate areas (Davis & Renner, 2003). Actually, the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands, very close to the equator.

Battle of the genres

One curious thing to see was how each genre has its own favorite bird (Table 6). However, when we looked more closely at these results, they are entirely expected. Eagles are the stars in genres such as Heavy, melodic, Power and Speed Metal, while ravens dominate the Gothic, Folk and Pagan genres. The preference of owls in Electronic, however, is a mystery to us.

Table 6. List of metal genres and the most cited bird “species” in their songs.

We could also check which genre is the most biodiverse, that is, which genre cites the largest number of bird “species” in its songs (Table 7). The undisputed crown goes to Death metal, with 46 species; after it, we have Power, Black and Heavy Metal all clustered together with 41, 40 and 39 species, respectively. However, this might just be an artifact of the sheer number of Death Metal songs: this genre has twice more songs in the database (a total of circa 46,000 songs) than the second genre (Black Metal, with circa 23,000). So the change of a bird popping up in a Death Metal song is just higher because of this. (Also, several species are mentioned just once and birds are not mentioned that much in their songs; see also Table 8.) The other three genres we mentioned are better balanced: Black Metal has 23,000 songs total, as shown above, while Power Metal has circa 17,000 and Heavy Metal 22,000.

Table 7. List of metal genres and the total number of bird “species” featured in their songs.

The least ornithological genre is Grunge, but one could rightfully argue that “grunge’s not metal” or “who cares about grunge anyway?” So the least ornithological true genres are Dark Metal and Christian Metal (Table 7).

However, if you take into account the proportion of songs that mention birds (Table 8), Pagan Metal is the true bird-loving (or should we say raven-loving?) genre. Around 13.5% of Pagan Metal songs mention some sort of bird. The second place goes to Folk Metal/Rock, with 11.2% of songs mentioning birds. The least bird-friendly genres are Alternative Metal (1.7%) and Glam (1.9%).

Table 8. List of metal genres and the percentage of songs that mention birds.

Biodiversity

And what about the songs that have the most birds? Well, we have two worth mentioning, one from a big name in metal and the other from, well, a rather obscure band. First is “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” by Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish, from the album Imaginaerum (Nuclear Blast, 2011), later also released as a single (Fig. 11). As expected from the title, there is a good avian diversity in this song: besides the three titular birds, there is also mention of the swan. The second song is “Proverbs of Hell Plates 7-10” by Norwegian black metal and avant-garde metal band Ulver[9], from the album Themes from William Blake’s the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Jester Records, 1998). This song mentions the peacock, eagle, crow and owl.

Figure 11. Album cover of The Crow, the Owl and the Dove by Nightwish (Nuclear Blast, 2012). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

CONCLUSIONS

We have certainly been surprised by some of our findings: from ravens overtaking eagles to the odd penguin and ostrich popping up in some lyrics. As we’ve argued, birds are very diverse group of animals, and several species are deep-seated symbols in cultures worldwide. So maybe it’s about time heavy metal left the tropes of ravens, eagles and vultures on the bench for a while and let other avian stars shine (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Washimi, the secretarybird from Aggretsuko (2018) seems to enjoy some good old death metal in the karaoke scenes in Netflix’s animated series. Yes, secretarybird is an actual thing: the species is called Sagittarius serpentarius and it is a terrestrial bird of prey (Accipitriformes) that inhabits the savannah and open grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa.

 

REFERENCES

Allsop, L. (2011) Birmingham, England… the unlikely birthplace of heavy metal. CNN. Available from: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/07/01/birmingham.home.of.metal/index.html (Date of access: 25/Jun/2019).

American Ostrich Association. (2019) American Ostrich Association. Available from: https://www.ostriches.org/ (Date of access: 28/Jun/2019).

Armstrong, E.A. (1970) The Folklore of Birds. Second Edition. Dover, New York.

Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (2012) Introduction. In: Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (Ed.) Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. The Oriental Institute, Chicago. Pp. 15–18.

BirdLife International. (2017) Nipponia nippon. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T22697548A117871728.en (Date of access: 13/Aug/2018).

BTO, British Trust for Ornithology. (2013) Crow, Rook or Raven? Available from: https://www.bto.org/community/news/2013-06/crow-rook-or-raven (Date of access: 03/Jun/2019).

Buechley, E.R. & Sekercioglu, C.H. (2016) Vultures. Current Biology 26(13): R560–R561.

Bulbapedia. (2019a) Corviknight (Pokémon). Available from: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Corviknight_(Pokémon) (Date of access: 28/Jun/2019).

Bulbapedia. (2019b) Skarmory (Pokémon). Available from: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Skarmory_(Pokémon) (Date of access: 03/Jun/2019).

Davis, L. & Renner, M. (2003) Penguins. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Donegan, K. (2002) Struthio camelus. Animal Diversity Web. Available from: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Struthio_camelus/ (Date of access: 27/Jun/2019).

Honnibal, M. (2013) A good Part-of-Speech Tagger in about 200 lines of Python. Available from: https://explosion.ai/blog/part-of-speech-pos-tagger-in-python (Date of access: 27/May/2019).

Japari Library. (2018) Japari Library, the Kemono Friends Wiki. Available from: https://japari-library.com (Date of access: 14/Aug/2018).

Kennedy, M. (2004) Tower’s raven mythology may be a Victorian flight of fantasy. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/nov/15/britishidentity.artsandhumanities (Date of access: 03/Jun/2019).

Lerner, H.R. & Mindell, D.P. (2005) Phylogeny of eagles, Old World vultures, and other Accipitridae based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37(2): 327–346.

Nakatani, S. (2010) Language detection library for Java. Available from: https://www.slideshare.net/shuyo/language-detection-library-for-java (Date of access: 27/May/2019).

Raikow, R.J. & Bledsoe, A.H. (2000) Phylogeny and evolution of the passerine birds: independent methods of phylogenetic analysis have produced a well-supported hypothesis of passerine phylogeny, one that has proved particularly useful in ecological and evolutionary studies. BioScience 50(6): 487–499.

Stewart, D. (2006) A bird like no other. National Wildlife. Available from: https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2006/A-Bird-Like-No-Other (Date of access: 28/Jun/2019).


About the authors

Henrique Soares is an engineer and machine learning enthusiast, not particularly knowledgeable in either birds or metal. When he is not working on unconventional applications of machine learning, Henrique spends his time wondering how could there be people that don’t know about the bird, because everyone knows that the bird is a word! A-well-a-bird, bird, b-bird’s a word, a-well-a…

João Tomotani is a mechanical engineer currently working with Supply Chain. Though he is more of a power/melodic metal enthusiast, he agreed to focus on birds instead of dragons in this research.

Dr. Barbara Tomotani is a biologist and the only one in this group whose work actually focuses on birds. She is not a big heavy metal fan and does not work with heavy metal birds, preferring the tiny flycatchers. But she has certainly liked the new metal bird Corviknight.

Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist who lately has found himself working with a lot of bird-related stuff. One of the first songs he remembers ever hearing as a child was Walk of Life, by Dire Straits – his sister’s “fault” and an influence that eventually led him down the road to metal. He’ll quickly tell you his favorite bands are Queen and Avantasia, but he’s hard pressed to decide his favorite bird.


[1] We’ll solve the raven vs crow problem later.

[2] If we’re being completely honest, some lead singers out there also seem to be somewhat tone deaf, especially in some of the more peculiar subgenres of heavy metal.

[3] The name Oscines was also used for this group and can still be found in the literature.

[4] You can find it here: https://github.com/shuyo/language-detection

[5] Check the Library of Congress for the codes: https://www.loc.gov/standards/iso639-2/php/English_list.php

[6] This is not a typo on our part. The lyrics are like this in our source.

[7] You can find it here: https://www.clips.uantwerpen.be/pages/mbsp-tags

[8] We excluded ‘tyrants’ from the analysis due to the homonym problem presented above. Likewise, we excluded ‘roller’, which is typically used in the term ‘rock n’ roller’ rather than referring to the members of family Coraciidae.

[9] We confess none of us had the slightest idea Ulver even existed.


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