Pokémollusca: the mollusk-inspired Pokémon

Rodrigo B. Salvador¹ & Daniel C. Cavallari²

¹ Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand.

² Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras de Ribeirão Preto, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil.

Emails: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com, dccavallari (at) gmail (dot) com

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The phylum Mollusca appeared during the Cambrian Period, over 500 million years ago, alongside most other animal groups (including the Chordata, the group we belong to). There are even some older fossils that could be mollusks, although their identity is still hotly debated among scientists.

Mollusks are a very biodiverse group. We do not yet know the precise number of species, since many are still unknown and being described every year. However, estimates go from 70,000 to 200,000 (Rosenberg, 2014). And that’s just for the living species. As such, mollusks have long been considered the second most diverse group of animals – the first place belongs to arthropods.

Mollusks can be found in almost all sorts of habitats: land, freshwater and marine, including the deep sea and hot vents. The only thing they can’t do is fly.

They are also a very unique group in terms of body shapes (morphology), including extremely disparate forms: snails, slugs, clams, mussels, squids, octopuses, nautiluses, chitons, tusk shells, and the odd worm-like aplacophorans. And there were other forms yet, which are now extinct: ammonoids, belemnites and rudists. Mollusks go from tiny snails less than a millimeter long to giant squids, almost 20 meters long and the largest known invertebrates.

The main groups of mollusks, however, are just three: Gastropoda, or gastropods, which include snails and slugs; Cephalopoda, or cephalopods, which include squids and octopuses; and Bivalvia, or bivalves, which include mussels and clams.

Curious creatures that they are, mollusks make nice “monsters” and are constantly being featured in video games (Cavallari, 2015; Salvador & Cunha, 2016; Salvador, 2017). One very famous game that features mollusks is Pokémon, a franchise that started with two games released by Nintendo for the Game Boy in 1996. More than 20 years later, the series is still strong, currently on the so-called seventh generation of core games, but counting with several other video games, an animated series, films, a card game, and tons of merchandise. Also, there’s an eight generation of games on the horizon.

Most monsters in Pokémon are based on real animals (see, for instance, Tomotani, 2014; Mendes et al., 2017; Kittel, 2018), so the goal of this article is to present those based on mollusks. Some of them were just broadly based on a larger group of mollusks, such as ‘octopuses’, while others seem to have been inspired by particular species. Thus, we indicate the real species or group that served as inspiration for the monsters and explain a little bit about their biology. Whenever possible, we outline specific features of the real animals that were transported to the games (such as types, moves, abilities, etc.).


We analyze each mollusk Pokémon below; they are listed in the same order as in the National Pokédex (this number is given with a “#” on each entry). All the illustrations of the Pokémon reproduced here are the official art by Ken Sugimori and were extracted from Bulbapedia (https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/). Likewise, all information on the Pokémon (size, weight, and description of abilities and moves) were taken from their entries in Bulbapedia, considering only the game’s current generation (Gen VII).

The systematic classification of the mollusks used here follows Bouchet et al. (2010, 2017) and WoRMS (World Register of Marine Species). Images of real mollusks were extracted from Wikimedia Commons, except where otherwise noted; credits are given in each figure’s caption.


(#090; Type: Water)

Class: Bivalvia (bivalves)

Order: Pectinida (scallops and oysters)

Family: Pectinidae (scallops)

With its googly eyes and what seems to be a hanging tongue, Shellder looks somewhat scared or mesmerized (or perhaps both). This small shell-bearing fellow is surely designed after a bivalve mollusk. And, curiously enough, the large eyes are actually not out of character: even though most bivalves have no eyes, the Pectinida, a.k.a. the scallops and their allies, are an amazing exception. These animals are found in all of the planet’s oceans and the family Pectinidae is in fact one of the largest marine bivalve families, including over 300 living species belonging to 60 genera (Waller, 2006). They do have incredible eyes with a very intricate structure that allows them to measure amounts and intensity of light coming from different directions (Morton, 2008). As far as we know, scallops can discriminate light from dark, spot surrounding algae, and perceive moving objects or obstacles (and react accordingly). Judging by its real-world counterparts, Shellder shouldn’t necessarily have a hard time aiming its “Clamp” or “Razor Shell” attacks, hiding from someone else’s attacks, or swimming away from menacing foes. And yes, scallops also have awesome swimming abilities, which are also not common among bivalves in general. Most bivalves are very good swimmers during their early days as planktonic larvae (known as veligers), but become sessile when adults, spending their lives burrowed in the sand or attached to a rock or other hard surface.

Top: Scallops on the seabed (CSIRO, 2001). Bottom: Close-up of the blue eyes (M. Krummins, 2014).

As for the shell itself, Shellder seems to belong to the family Pectinidae because of its overall shape. Even so, Shellder’s tongue, in particular, is a very interesting topic. It looks very similar to a bivalve’s foot, a bulky, muscular structure that allows it to burrow itself into the sand, among other things. However, though the foot is very conspicuous in most bivalve lineages, it is reduced in pectinids (Shumway & Parsons, 2011). At the same time, though they are never protruded, some of the animal’s organs such as the gonads are often visible from the outside in real world bivalves, and they can resemble a tongue hanging between open lips. We do, however, prefer to think of Shellder’s tongue as a foot for obvious reasons. Pectinids usually don’t grow up to the huge proportions of 0.3 m and 4 kg informed by the Pokédex, but other real-world clams can become even larger (see Cloyster below).


(#091; Type: Water / Ice)


Class: Bivalvia (bivalves)

Order: Pectinida (scallops and oysters)

Family: Spondylidae (thorny oysters)

Genus: Spondylus Linnaeus, 1758

A rather fierce-looking version of its pre-evolved state, Cloyster sports a larger, thicker and rougher shell, complete with spikes/thorns, which are typical features of the bivalve family Spondylidae. Commonly known as thorny or spiky oysters (they are not part of the so-called “true oysters”, which belong to the family Ostreidae), spondylids are close relatives of the common scallops (Matsumoto & Hayami, 2000). Among many other striking morphological characters, such as their many eyes spread along the animal’s mantle, pectinids and spondylids share an overall similar shell outline but the latter are usually bulkier and spikier.

As for being bulkier, Cloyster is many times larger and heavier than Shellder, spanning up to 1.5 m wide and weighing over 130 kg, a size unattainable for any real-world spondylid, but still not entirely fictional: some bivalves in the family Tridacnidae (a.k.a. giant clams) can weight over 200 kg (Knop, 1996). Nevertheless, even though spondylids certainly do not grow to such humongous proportions, the increased size and the prominent, more numerous spikes make up for a more menacing and stronger version of the childly-looking Shellder, with a malicious look as a bonus.

Top: Spondylus regius Linnaeus, 1758 (D. Descouens, 2009). Bottom: Spondylus sp. (F. Ducarme, 2018).

The attacks are all very similar to Shellder’s, with the addition of a “Spike Cannon” move (yet another reference to the thorny Spondylus shells). Likewise, if Shellder is based on pectinids and Cloyster on spondylids, the “close” relationship between the two Pokémon thus elegantly (though hardly intentionally) reflects their real-world kinship.

Of course, spondylids are not the only spiky bivalves out there. The Japanese spiky oyster, Saccostraea kegaki Torigo & Inaba, 1981 (family Ostreidae), for example, also has a spiky shell that seems quite uninviting to the touch. But spikes aside, it lacks some other traits observable in Cloyster that indicates it was probably inspired by real-world spondylids, e.g., the bulkier shell. Besides, true oysters have very variable shape, not very similar to Cloyster’s symmetrical, scallop-like profile. Its shell also includes wing-like or ear-like projections located at the rear (called auricles), which also appear in some spondylid species (Shumway & Parsons, 2011).


(#138; Type: Rock / Water)

Class: Cephalopoda (squid, octopuses and nautiluses)

Subclass: Ammonoidea (ammonoids)

Omanyte and its evolved form, Omastar (see below), are based on a generalized ammonoid. Ammonoids[1] are cephalopod mollusks who once crowded the seas, with an astounding diversity of species. Unfortunately, they went extinct together with non-avian dinosaurs during the great extinction event in the end of the Cretaceous period. True to its roots, Omanyte is not found alive in the game: it is found as a fossil (called “Helix Fossil”) on a rocky matrix. The player must then “resurrect” it in a very Jurassic Park manner. As all fossils in the Pokémon franchise, Omanyte and Omastar are Rock-type. On a side note, the Helix Fossil recently spun its own mythology on Twitch Plays Pokémon, where it acted as a sort of oracle to the players (for the whole story, see Salvador, 2014).

Despite being very similar to a real ammonoid fossil, Omanyte bears a huge flaw in its design. The soft body is positioned in an inverted manner in relation to the shell. That is, Omanyte’s body is positioned like the body of a snail (a gastropod), rather than like the body of a cephalopod (Salvador, 2014). Omanyte is depicted with 10 arms, but the real numbers an ammonoid would actually have is unknown because other living cephalopods have a variable number (Monks & Palmer, 2002): nautiluses have 50 to 90 arms, squids and cuttlefish have 10 (two of which are called tentacles) and octopuses have 8.

Top: Asteroceras sp. (Daderot, 2012). Bottom: Reconstruction of Asteroceras sp. (N. Tamura, 2009).

Omanyte can have the ability called “Shell Armor” (see above), which makes sense, and can learn the move “Withdraw”. Although no living ammonoid exists, they were thought to be able to withdraw into their shells for protection like their present-day “cousins”, the nautiluses (Monks & Palmer, 2002). It can also learn the move “Shell Smash”, which does not make sense: why would a mollusk break its only means of protection?


(#139; Type: Rock / Water)

Class: Cephalopoda (squids, octopuses and nautiluses)

Subclass: Ammonoidea (ammonoids)

Omastar is very similar in design to Omanyte (even retaining the gastropod-like position of the body), with a few important differences. (1) Beak: Omastar has a tetrapartite beak. Living cephalopods have a parrot-like beak made up of two interlocking jaws, and ammonoids thus probably also had a beak (Engeser, 1996; Monks & Palmer, 2002). We say “probably”, because features of the soft body hardly ever are preserved in the fossil record. In any case, a beak made up of four parts such as Omastar’s is a bit of an overkill.

(2) Spikes: Omastar’s shell is lined with spikes. It can learn the move “Spike Cannon”, which means it supposedly can shoot them as projectiles. Needless to say, ammonoids species that were ornamented with spikes (for instance, Apoderoceras spp. and Euhoplites spp.) would not be able to do that. Even so, the function of shell spikes in ammonoids is thought to be defensive, to discourage potential predators of taking a bite (Ward, 1981; Monks & Palmer, 2002).

(3) Size: while Omanyte measures 0.4 m and weighs 7.5 kg, Omastar reaches 100 cm and 35 kg. Of course, every player worth their salt knows that these Pokédex entries are just plain crazy, but it can serve here to illustrate how awesome ammonoids were. A 1 m high Omastar might seem too large to be possible, but one ammonoid species could reach up to 2 m in shell diameter (estimated 2.5 m or even 3.5 m if the largest known fossil was complete; Teichert & Kummel, 1960). This species is called Parapuzosia seppenradensis (Landois, 1895) and is known from the Cretaceous Period of Germany. Its shell is estimated to have weighed circa 750 kg in life and this value would increase to 1,400 kg with the animal’s soft body (Teichert & Kummel, 1960).

Euhoplites armatus Spath, 1928 (courtesy J.-S. David; http://www.jsdammonites.fr).

Curiously, Bulbapedia states that the shell of Omastar was too heavy to move and this led to the species extinction (they died out from starvation). This type of view about extinction, which supposes that the animals were somehow inept and unable to survive, is completely outdated – not to say completely ridiculous. The same story was told long ago about the extinction of the “slumbering dinosaurs”, but this is now known to be false. Extinction can have many causes, including environmental changes, competition with other species, predation, calamitous events, and, of course, irresponsible humans.


(#218; Type: Fire)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Superorder: Eupulmonata (pulmonate snails and slugs)

Order: Stylommatophora (terrestrial snails and slugs)

Slugma was clearly based on slugs, but not on any particular species: rather, its design is broadly generalized. The superorder Eupulmonata (earlier known as order Pulmonata) within the gastropods contain the highest diversity of terrestrial forms (over 20,000 species of land snails and slugs; Rosenberg, 2014). The “slug” body shape is a modification of the typical snail body in which the members of the lineage go through shell reduction, shell internalization (it becomes a small piece within the animal’s body) and sometimes the complete loss of the shell (Barker, 2001). This process, called “limacization” (or “transformation-into-a-slug”), happened separately several times within Eupulmonata, in many distinct families (Veronicellidae, Rathouisiidae, Arionidae, Limacidae, etc.). Is it though that losing its shell increases the mobility of the animal and capacity to explore and hide in smaller spaces (Cameron, 2016). However, the absence of the shell means that the animal is more vulnerable to predators and to the worst enemy of terrestrial gastropods: evaporation.

Terrestrial gastropods have soft moist bodies and are constantly losing water to the environment by evaporation. A very large portion of these animals’ evolutionary history is related to mechanisms and strategies to decrease or avoid losing precious water (Barker, 2001). Also, slugs cannot be too large, because of water loss and the lack of a skeletal structure to sustain the body. Of course, the 0.7 m tall Slugma is basically a Dungeons & Dragons fire elemental, so water loss is not even in question.

Top: Arion rufus (Linnaeus, 1758) (H. Hillewaert, 2008). Bottom: Limax cf. dacampi Menegazzi, 1854 (Hectonichus, 2005).

Slugs are worm-like creatures that craw horizontally, but Slugma has a somewhat upright posture, with its head permanently reared up. Although slugs can sometimes strike such a pose (when trying to climb something, for instance), they do not spend their whole time nor do they move around like this.


(#219; Type: Fire / Rock)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Superorder: Eupulmonata (pulmonate snails and slugs)

Order: Stylommatophora (terrestrial snails and slugs)

The evolved form of the slug Pokémon Slugma is Magcargo, a snail. As explained above, biological evolution has always worked the other way around, with slug species arising within snail lineages. In any event, it is evident that “evolution” in Pokémon has absolutely nothing to do with biological reality – and we hope we do not need to explain here that it is impossible for an animal to transform into another after it has gained enough XP. That’d be cool, though.

Like Slugma, Magcargo has a generalized design but this time around, based on a snail. In fact, its name is a combination of the words magma and escargot (French for snail). Curiously, Magcargo has a planispiral shell, meaning that its shell is coiled on a single plane, resulting in a flat appearance. Planispiral shells are very rare in land snails, presumably because carrying a shell shaped like this on land is rather clumsy. However, planispiral shells are very common in freshwater snails, where the water helps to sustain it; there is a whole family with planispiral shells, aptly named Planorbidae (from the Superorder Hygrophila, the sister-group of Eupulmonata). Typically, the shells of land snails are more globose or more elongated. In any event, land snails carry their shell a little tilted to the side, not upright as Magcargo.

Top: Planorbarius corneus (Linnaeus, 1758) (C. Ableiter, 2007); Mid: Cepaea nemoralis (Linnaeus, 1758) (D.G.E. Robertson, 2008); Bottom: Drymaues papyraceus (Mawe, 1823) (courtesy of L. Charles).

Magcargo is huge for a snail, measuring 0.8 m in height and weighing 55 kg. As explained above for Slugma, this size would pose problems regarding water loss, but a more pressing issue is body weight: a snail cannot sustain such a heavy body on land, nor hold up and carry around a rock-like shell. The largest land snail species is the fossil Pebasiconcha immanis Wesselingh & Gittenberger, 1999 (from the Miocene of Colombia and Peru), but its shell is “lightweight” in comparison to Magcargo, reaching up to “meager” 26 cm in length (Wesselingh & Gittenberger, 1999).

Bulbapedia states that Magcargo could be based on the Cherufe, a volcano-dwelling creature from Argentinean and Chilean folklore. However, this is extremely unlikely for two reasons: (1) Cherufe is typically a gigantic humanoid monster, albeit with some dragon-like features such as a predilection for meals including young girls (Lurker, 1987; Rose, 2001), with no mention of molluscan features. (2) More to the point, the people responsible for Pokémon only rarely look outside of Japan (or Japanese zoos) for influences; for instance, even Generation VI, which is supposedly based on France, has a very Japanese fauna (Tomotani, 2014).


(#224; Type: Water)

Class: Cephalopoda (squids, octopuses and nautiluses)

Subclass: Coleoidea (octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish)

Order: Octopoda (octopuses)

Octillery has a generalized cartoon-octopus look and, thus, not much can be said about its morphology. However, there is one feature that is clearly mistaken (as in numerous other cases in Japanese games and anime/manga): the structure that is depicted as Octillery’s mouth is actually the funnel. To breathe, cephalopods bring water into a chamber inside their body called the “mantle cavity”, where the gills are located. Then, the water is expelled through the funnel; this can be done quietly or in a more powerful gush of water, enabling the animals to move by jet propulsion. The mouth of a cephalopod is located where all the arms meet, facing “downwards” and hidden from view, and the funnel is located laterally (not in front, like in Octillery).

While most octopuses are not very large, Octillery can reach a respectable size: 0.9 m high, weighing 28 kg, according to its Pokédex entry. The largest octopus alive is the giant Pacific octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini (Wülker, 1910). Large adults can reach 6 m in radial “arm span” and weigh about 50 kg, but some records increase the span to somewhere between 9 and 10 m (High, 1976; Hartis, 2011).

Enteroctopus dofleini (Wülker, 1910) (Bachrach44, 2008).

One of Octillery’s in-game abilities is called “Suction Cups”; its description says: “This Pokémon uses suction cups to stay in one spot to negate all moves and items that force switching out.” This is a very pertinent ability, as the arms of octopuses (and squids and cuttlefish) are covered with suction cups (also called “suckers”) on their inner surface. These suction cups are used in locomotion and to manipulate objects and prey. The cups are astonishingly strong, and the animals can control each of them independently.

Octillery’s signature move is called “Octazooka”, the description of which says: “The user attacks by spraying ink at the target’s face or eyes. This may also lower the target’s accuracy.” This is likewise a very pertinent move, as cephalopods are famous for their ability to squirt dark ink. These animals have an organ called “ink sac” and can expel the ink lodged inside it – through the funnel – as a dark smoke-screen-like cloud. When cephalopods are attacked, this strategy confuses the predator and allows them to escape (Sato et al., 2016). Moreover, recent studies suggest that ink clouds may also be used to confuse prey, allowing a sneak attack bonus (Sato et al., 2016).

As a last note, Octillery is the evolution of Remoraid, which is a remora, a type of fish (Mendes et al., 2017). Again, we know that “evolution” in Pokémon bears no resemblance to biological reality, but this might be taking the craziness a tad bit too far.[2]


(#366; Type: Water)

Class: Bivalvia (bivalves)

Order: Heterodonta

Family: Tridacnidae (giant clams)

Genus: Tridacna Bruguière, 1797

Species: Tridacna gigas (Linnaeus, 1758) + fish egg of an unknown species

Appearances can often be deceiving in the Pokémon world. Though Clamperl may look like and is certainly named after a mollusk, the pinkish “pearl” inside its shell is actually a fish egg – or rather, roe. Roes are egg masses of fish and certain marine animals, such as urchins, shrimp, and even scallops. Even though some mollusks produce eggs, both of Clamperl’s evolved forms, Huntail and Gorebyss, are actually fish-like Pokémon (Mendes et al., 2017), which clarifies its true nature . This pink egg rests on what seems to be a soft, bluish pillow with stubby projections. It is as if a random giant clam is offering its body as protection for the fish egg – and so, Clamperl is actually composed of two different organisms in association – or symbiosis, if you may. In fact, this is not unheard of in the Pokémon franchise, and some cases also involve mollusk-inspired Pokémon (we’re looking at you, Slowbro and Slowking).

Nevertheless, its shell seems to be based on real-world giant clams, a.k.a. bivalves in the family Tridacnidae and genus Tridacna. Its overall size and weight (0.4 m and 52 kg) are also not out of this world: as we mentioned before, species such as Tridacna gigas (Linnaeus, 1758) are huge and can measure as much as 137 cm and weight 230 kg (Knop, 1996). Clamperl’s abilities and attacks also refer to and reinforce the relevance of its shell: Shell Armor, Shell Smash, and, of course, the signature attack Clamp.

Tridacna gigas (Linnaeus, 1758) (Liné1, 2008).

Curiously, getting a leg or arm clamped by a giant clam is actually the stuff of legend: giant clams were called “killer clams” and “man-eating clams” in the past due to having allegedly drowned divers that got stuck between their valves (each individual piece of a bivalve shell is a valve). This rumor probably originated in Wilburn Dowell Cobb’s romanticized article on the discovery of the “Pearl of Allah” (or Pearl of Lao Tzu) published on the Natural History magazine in 1939. One of the largest pearls ever found, with 24 cm in length and weighing ca. 6.4 kg, it was retrieved from a giant clam that, according to Cobb’s (1939) dramatic description, ended up “slaying a native diver trapped when its great jaws snapped shut”. And by jaws, he probably meant the valves. Cobb went as far as calling the clam a “deep sea murderer”.

Both things are strictly wrong: giant clams are not a deep-sea species, nor murderers of any kind: they have a symbiotic relationship with algae, which use sunlight (not present in the deep sea) to synthesize their food supply. Influenced by such dramatic descriptions, even scientific and technical manuals once claimed that clams had caused deaths, and even gave instructions on how to release yourself if you were stuck. Nowadays, we know this reputation is rather underserved: not a single human death by giant clam has ever been reported (scientifically, that is). Moreover, the adductor muscles in giant clams, which are responsible for closing their shells, move rather slowly (Fredericks, 2014). Hence real-world clams are, in fact, quite gentle giants.


(#422: Type: Water)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Order: Nudibranchia (sea slugs)

Family: Chromodorididae

Genus: Chromodoris Alder & Hancock, 1855 and Hypselodoris Stimpson, 1855

Nudibranchia is a peculiar group within the Opisthobranchia, a.k.a. the sea slugs. Well-known because of their vivid colors and extravagant forms, nudibranchs (or nudis, if you wish) are among the most beautiful and popular sea creatures out there. They live pretty much everywhere, inhabiting the seas worldwide from arctic to temperate and tropical regions (but unlike Shellos, definitely not on land). Shellos’s design seems to be clearly based on nudis – it has a long and somewhat flat, colorful body, with flappy lateral expansions, and the head appendages are very similar to rhinophores, which are characteristic sensory structures of nudibranchs. The color patterns are very similar to nudibranchs belonging to the family Chromodorididae found in Japan such as Chromodoris lochi Rudman, 1982, Hypselodoris festiva (A. Adams, 1861), and Hypselodoris apolegma (Yonow, 2001). Moreover, Shellos’s proportions (0.3 m and 6.4 kg) are actually not exaggerated: nudibranch species such as Hexabranchus sanguineus (Ruppell & Leuckart, 1828) can grow as long as 52 cm (Double, 1992).

Top: Chromodoris lochi Rudman, 1982 (A.R. Jenner, 2009). Bottom: Hypselodoris apolegma (Yonow, 2001) (C. Ordelheide 2011).

Remarkably, Shellos was one of the first attempts of the franchise at introducing the concept of regional variants back in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl (Gen IV) in 2006–2007. This would become a central theme in Pokémon Sun and Moon (Gen VII), ten years later. Nevertheless, back then, Shellos presented two forms corresponding to two distinct regions: the blue form inhabits the East Sea, and its pink “cousin” lives in the West Sea. This is clearly a nod to the phenomenon of geographic (a.k.a. allopatric) speciation: it happens when populations of the same species become isolated due to geographical barriers, forming two or more new populations that evolve independently in different forms.

One curious thing about Shellos (and its evolution Gastrodon, see below) is the fact that it can learn some pretty nasty poison abilities, even though it is not a Poison-type Pokémon. In the real world, some nudibranchs store toxins and other unpleasant or harmful substances/structures they get from other organisms they feed on such as algae, anemones, and coral. They effectively use these substances as a defense mechanism. Sometimes, their striking colors, which may be especially vivid in the parts of the body where the harmful substances are stored, serve as a warning for visually oriented predators: a phenomenon known as aposematism (Aguado & Marin, 2007). As pretty as Shellos may look, its bright colors could signal danger.


(#423; Type: Water / Ground)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Order: Nudibranchia (sea slugs)

Family: Chromodorididae

Genus: Chromodoris Alder & Hancock, 1855 and Hypselodoris Stimpson, 1855 (and maybe Aplysia Linnaeus, 1767)

Much like its pre-evolution Shellos, Gastrodon’s design is largely based on nudibranchs or other related marine slugs. Our considerations about Shellos also apply to Gastrodon, with a few exceptions. Gastrodon is quite larger than Shellos, measuring as long as 90 cm and weighing up to 30 kg. This is way too large for real-world nudibranchs, but not entirely disproportionate: a species of sea hare, Aplysia vaccaria Winkler, 1955 can measure up to 99 cm long and attain a total weight of 14 kg (Behrens, 1992).

Top: Chromodoris willani Rudman, 1982 (J. Tanaka, 2006). Bottom: Aplysia californica (Cooper, 1863)(C. King, 2011).

In fact, Bulbapedia claims the East Sea variant of Gastrodon was designed after sea hares. Nevertheless, sea hares are not nudibranchs but belong to a group called Anaspidea, one of the many lineages within the Heterobranchia, a natural group of gastropods that also includes Nudibranchia. You could think of them as distantly related “cousins”. In any event, the design of East Sea Gastrodon is only remotely alike sea hares and much more closely resembles chromodoridid nudibranchs, being very similar to the species Chromodoris willani Rudman, 1982, from the Western Pacific.


(#489; Type: Water)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Order: Pteropoda (sea butterflies)

Suborder: Gymnosomata (sea angels)

Family: Clionidae

Genus: Clione Pallas, 1774

Species: Clione limacina (Phipps, 1774)

The so-called sea angels are actually free swimming (pelagic) sea slugs scientist collectively call Gymnosomata (from the Greek, meaning “naked body”, a direct reference to their shell-less bodies). They belong to a group called Pteropoda, the sea butterflies, which means “wing-foot”. Pteropods use their wing-like flaps, known as parapodia, to swim about searching for prey. Yes, prey: they are voracious predators of planktonic invertebrates, including other pteropods (Hermans & Satterlie, 1992). While most pteropods have shells, the lineage of the Gymnosomata lost it during its evolution.

Elegant and somehow intimidating (if you’re just small enough), sea angels in the genus Clione, especially Clione limacina found in Hokkaido, are quite popular in Japan (Hutcheon, 2010). The in-game region Sinnoh is reportedly based on Hokkaido, which makes Clione limacina the obvious inspiration for Phione. Even their names are almost the same.

Clione limacina (Phipps, 1774) (NOAA, 2005).

It is no surprise that Phione, the single mythical[3] molluscan Pokémon alongside Manaphy, was based on sea angels, whose name is already kind of mythical. Measuring 40 cm long (weight ~4 kg) according to the Pokédex, it is a little too large for a sea angel: they never grow past a few centimeters. However, even though it is somewhat stylized, Phione’s (as much as Manaphy’s) appearance is that of a sea angel with the signature wing-like parapodia, a well-marked head, and tail-like body. We can see some attention to detail has been paid, as the red gem on Phione’s “chest” resembles the large, reddish-orange digestive gland seen in sea angels, which is roughly located at the same place in the real-world slug bodies (although internally, of course).


(#490; Type: Water)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Order: Pteropoda (sea butterflies)

Suborder: Gymnosomata (sea angels)

Family: Clionidae

Genus: Clione Pallas, 1774

Species: Clione limacina (Phipps, 1774)

Manaphy is very similar in appearance to Phione and should also have been inspired by Clione limacina. So pretty much everything that was said about Phione also applies to Manaphy.

One thing tough, is the “Tail Glow” move: “The user stares at flashing lights to focus its mind, drastically raising its Sp. Atk stat.” This move is a possible nod to the phenomenon of bioluminescence, which consists on the production and emission of light by living organisms. Although widespread among marine invertebrates, like jellyfish, bioluminescence is known from very few nudibranchs: just the genus Plocamopherus Rüppell & Leuckart, 1831 and the species Phylliroe bucephalum Peron & Lesueur, 1810 (Herring, 1987; Lalli & Gilmer 1989; Haddock et al., 2010). Bioluminescence has never been documented in Clione.


(#616; Type: Bug)

Class: Cephalopoda (squid, octopuses and nautiluses)

Order: Nautilida (nautiluses)

Family: Nautilidae

Genus: Nautilus Linnaeus, 1758 or Allonautilus Ward & Saunders, 1997

With a very characteristic spiral shell-like armor, Shelmet is at least partly based on cephalopods, more specifically those in the family Nautilidae, like the living genera Nautilus and Allonautilus. As tragic as it may sound, the three living nautilus species are the only survivors of a once thriving group (Dunstan et al., 2011). The fossil record shows us that nautiluses were much more diverse and a multitude of genera existed a few hundred million years ago. This diversity suffered its ups and downs, with a strong decline in the Miocene (roughly 23 to 5 million years ago) and Pliocene (5 to 2.5 million years ago), and most lineages did not survive to this day.

Nautilus sp. (J. Baecker, 2007).

Nevertheless, Shelmet is very akin to living nautiluses, starting with the shell: it is tubular and coiled in a single horizontal plane (planispiral), and bears a triangular knight’s helmet visor that is very similar to the hood nautilids have (also called aptychus). The position of the body in relation to the shell is correct in Shelmet, contrary to Omanyte/Omastar seen above (nautiloids and ammonoids are closely related, sharing a basic body plan).

The angry cartoonish eyes with vertical pupils also appear to have been inspired by real-world nautilid eyes. The vertical pupils are, in fact, holes: nautiluses have pinhole eyes which lack the solid lens that squid and octopuses (as well as humans) have. Shellmet’s funny looking puckered-up mouth is also reminiscent of the real animal’s funnel (hyponome), even though the real-world structure is used for propulsion, and not for kissing. On the other hand, Shelmet lacks the numerous small, smooth tentacles (called cirri) that are very striking in the real-world nautilids – our guess is that they would probably make the design messy or simply too hard to draw/animate.

At 0.4 m length and 7.7 kg, Shelmet is also way larger than any living nautilid species, which reach up to 0.25 m in width at most (Pisor, 2008). Extinct species of the family Endoceratidae (of uncoiled nautiloids) though, might have reached more than 3 m in shell length (Flower, 1955; Teichert & Kummel, 1960; Teichert, 1964; Frey, 1995).

Naturally, Shelmet has the ability “Shell Armor” and this is rather literal for this Pokémon: its shell was clearly inspired by the armors of medieval knights, as can be seen by its visor and its evolution. Shelmet’s evolution is very complicated in-game: when traded with Karrablast, Shelmet evolves into Escavalier, which looks like a bug wearing Shelmet’s shell and “visor” (or perhaps a hermit crab?). Meanwhile, Karrablast evolves into Accelgor, which looks like an insect pupa with a slightly coiled (shell-like) head. This mix-up of insectoid features explains why Shelmet is a Bug type. In any case, any mollusk resemblance is (sadly) lost in the evolutions, so we won’t consider them here.


(#686; Type: Dark /Psychic)

Class: Cephalopoda (squid, octopuses and nautiluses)

Subclass: Coleoidea (octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish)

Order: Teuthida (squids) or Sepiida (cuttlefish)

Inkay seems to be a very stylized teuthid or sepiid cephalopod: respectively a squid or a cuttlefish. We do believe it is more of a squid than a cuttlefish, however: Inkay has a very characteristic squid-like figure, with a triangular body (mantle), a somewhat discernible head, arms and stylized tentacles. Moreover, the tentacles of real-world cuttlefish, are “hidden” inside the 8 arms, which is not the case of Inkay – like real-world squids, the tentacles are showing, though their lateral position is odd (they are centralized in real-world squids).

The size informed by the Pokédex is well within the real-world range at 0.4 m length and weighing up to 3.5 kg. Squids can go from millimeters to several meters long: the giant squid, Architeuthis dux Steenstrup, 1857, can reach 18 m (Clarke, 1966; Roeleveld & Lipinski, 1991; Salvador & Tomotani, 2014), while the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni Robson, 1925, can weigh whopping 500 kg (Salvador, 2019).

The designers deserve some praise for actually making the mouth look like a beak for this Pokémon, like in real-world cephalopods. Unfortunately, they put it on the wrong place. Real-world cephalopods have their mouth (and beak) sheltered in the middle of the arms and tentacles.

Top: Loligo vulgaris Lamarck, 1798 (H. Hillewaert, 2005). Bottom: Sepia officinalis Linnaeus, 1758 (J. Carvalho, 2006).

Inkay’s abilities and moves were also clearly inspired by cephalopod biology. The “Suction Cups” ability is a nod to cephalopod suckers (see Octillery above), which are normally arranged in rows along their arms and at the tip of their tentacles (for differences between arms and tentacles, see Salvador & Cunha, 2016). Though the move “Constrict” may seem logical at first sight, it is actually erroneous: contrary to popular myth, cephalopods cannot constrict something with their tentacles as if they were snakes (Roper & Boss, 1982). The move “Peck” is a reference to a cephalopod beak, although they cannot peck their prey like birds would. Rather, they use the beak to tear small chunks of their prey.

The move “Hypnosis” employs hypnotic suggestion to make the target fall into a deep sleep. This is a reference to real-world cuttlefish. Coleoid cephalopods can change their body color and color patterns using specialized skin cells called cromatophores. They can change color almost instantly and can produce patterns as if their skin were a TV screen.[4] The animals use this ability to camouflage[5] themselves (either to evade predators or to ambush prey), to communicate with their kin, or to scare off predators (Hanlon & Messenger, 1996; Hanlon, 2007; Mäthger et al., 2012). However, some scientists suggest a fourth kind of use for the color-changing ability: the patterns produced would mesmerize prey and make them easier to catch, which could be interpreted as a kind of hypnosis (Mauris, 1989; Mather & Mather, 2006; Thomas & MacDonald, 2016). This ability in real cephalopods, however, remain far from proven.


(#687; Type: Dark / Psychic)

Class: Cephalopoda (squid, octopuses and nautiluses)

Subclass: Coleoidea (octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish)

Order: Teuthida (squids)

More so than Inkay, Malamar’s design is clearly based on a squid, with an elongated body with triangular wing-like fins, and two long well-defined tentacles. The fierce, evil look is just a bonus. Oddly though, Malamar is basically upside down. Real-world squids do not swim in this position; they are usually horizontally or vertically oriented with the arms and tentacles pointing downward. However, some squids (e.g., family Cranchiidae) do remain on this upside-down position with the arms held upwards: this is known to scientists as the “cockatoo position.” This inversion in position is linked to the way Inkay evolves into Malamar: the player must hold the Nintendo 3DS system upside-down for Inkay to evolve.

In any case, everything else that was said about Inkay applies to Malamar, including the moves/abilities (which are identical), the beak-like mouth (and its odd placement), and the size range (1.5 m, 47 kg; respectable, but much smaller than some real-world squids).


(#704; Type: Dragon)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Order: Nudibranchia (sea slugs)

Family: Chromodorididae

Genus: Goniobranchus Pease, 1866

Goomy is yet another Pokémon probably designed after sea slugs[6] (most likely Nudibranchia), though it is neither a Water-type nor marine. Goomy’s “antennae” are very similar to structures of sea slugs called rhinophores, which are scent or taste receptors (chemosensory structures) situated on the dorsal surface of the animal’s head (Wertz et al., 2007; Cummins et al., 2009). The overall shape of its body is a very generic design of a sluggish creature, and the color pattern is somewhat reminiscent of species such as Goniobranchus kuniei (Pruvot-Fol, 1930) or Goniobranchus geminus (Rudman, 1987).

Interestingly, Goomy (and its evolved forms) are Dragon-type Pokémon. This is a possible reference to the so-called blue dragon sea slug, Glaucus atlanticus Forster, 1777, though the design is not even vaguely similar to it. Goomy’s size (0.3 m, 2.8 kg) is well within that of real-world sea slugs (see Gastrodon’s entry above).

Goniobranchus kuniei (Pruvot-Fol, 1930) (S. Childs, 2006).

Goomy’s abilities are clearly inspired by mollusk physiology. The “Gooey” ability lowers the attacker’s Speed stat upon contact, a nod to the mucus production that is typical of snails and slugs, but usually more conspicuous in terrestrial species (Cameron, 2016). Despite being based on sea slugs, Goomy is fully terrestrial and accordingly gooey. “Hydration” is an ability that heals status conditions when it’s raining. Conserving water in terrestrial environments is hard for moist-bodied creatures like snails and slugs and a good deal of their evolutionary history has to do with this (Barker, 2001). The relationship between snails/slugs and the rain is very clear, as they will be found out and about after a good rain.


(#705; Type: Dragon)

Class: Gastropoda (snails and slugs)

Superorder: Eupulmonata (pulmonate snails and slugs)

Order: Stylommatophora or Ellobiida

Contrary to Goomy, Sliggoo seems fully based on a terrestrial snail, though it retains some of the characteristics of sea slugs (e.g., the “rhinophores” on the dorsal surface of the head) and is thus, kind of a gestalt. These rhinophores, however, can now also be interpreted as the sensory tentacles of land snails. If that is the case, we can see that Sliggoo’s eyes are positioned on the base of the tentacles. Most eupulmonates have the eyes on top of the eyestalks (order Stylommatophora), with only a few (order Ellobiida) having eyes on the base of the stalks. However, no ellobiid is known to be semi-slug or slug-like, as Sliggoo is (see below). Once again, this Pokémon seems to be a mixture of forms.

Top: Eucobresia diaphana (Draparnaud, 1805) (J. Grego, 2004; http://www.animalbase.uni-goettingen.de). Bottom: Omalonyx convexus (Heynemann, 1868) (courtesy of L. Charles).

Sliggoo has a spiral “hump” of sorts, which resembles a vestigial shell found in the so-called semi-slugs. These gastropods are, so to speak, halfway through the process of limacization.

The name seems to be derived from words such as slippery, slimy and goo, which is yet another reference to the mucus produced by mollusks in general. In any case, compared to real-world snails and slugs, its erect posture is wrong (see Slugma above). Likewise, its large size (0.8 m, 17.5 kg) is problematic (see Magcargo and Goomy above). Sadly, Sliggoo does not become a slug or a snail later on: it evolves into Goodra, which completely loses its resemblance to mollusks, looking more like a cartoonish dragon/dinosaur creature. It is still slimy, though.


There is one Pokémon that is not a mollusk, but which deserves a brief mention here: Dwebble (#557; Type Bug / Rock). This Pokémon is based on a hermit crab. This group of crustaceans, the superfamily Paguroidea, is typically marine, although there are some terrestrial forms (Dwebble itself is terrestrial). Hermit crabs are remarkable for using the empty shells of gastropods as protection: they choose their shell carefully, carry them around and change shells when they grow and/or when they find a better one.

Dwebble, however, does not use a gastropod shell; it uses a piece of rock. Curiously, some terrestrial hermit crabs use fossilized gastropod shells (Haas, 1950) and that is as close to a rock as one can get. Dwebble, though, does not have that many options: the only gastropod shell available to it would be that of a Magcargo, which is way too large. Other options would be the shells of the ammonoid-Pokémon Omanyte/Omastar, but they are fossils that need to be “resurrected”, which would make Dwebble’s life much more difficult. Although hermit crabs using ammonoid shells may sound strange, there is evidence that fossil hermit crabs from the early Cretaceous period (circa 130 million years ago) actually used them (Fraaije, 2003).

On a similar case, there is a report of a hermit crab, called Diogenes heteropsammicola Igawa & Kato, 2017, using a coral instead of a shell. This species lives in southern Japan (Igawa & Kato, 2017) and it actually looks rather similar to Dweeble. That, however, would be a large coincidence, as this species was only discovered after Gen V had been released.

Diogenes heteropsammicola (Igawa & Kato, 2017).

Awkwardly, Dweeble is called “Rock Inn Pokémon” and that’s likely because the official “Hermit Crab Pokémon” is Slowbro (#080; Type Water / Psychic), from Gen I.

The problem is, Slowbro is not a crab: its design is clearly based on a mammal. It does have a shell-like structure attached to its tail, though, which is (according to lore) a living Shellder. There are some further problems with this: first, that “Shellder” is still alive, so it would be a case of symbiosis, not of a crab using an empty shell. Secondly, the “Shellder” is now arranged spirally, like if he transformed from a bivalve into a gastropod. However, if one looks closely, the shell is not actually a spiral, but just a hollowed-out structure that looks like a chocolate cornet. In fact, the cornet-thing has a pair of angry eyes, so it is definitely neither a shell nor a mollusk. Thus, Slowbro is just a pile up of mistakes: a crab that’s a mammal carrying a mollusk that’s at best a sentient pastry.[7]

Cornet (Ayy753771, 2017; Cooking Mama Wiki).


There is one notable rea-life mollusk whose name was inspired by Pokémon – its popular name, at least. The “Pikachu slug” is a nudibranch from the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific that got the attention of the Japanese public on the Internet. It is a tiny yellow/orange-ish creature with black tips on its rhinophores and gills. It is virtually impossible not to think of Pikachu when looking at it. Even though its popularity is quite recent, the species was discovered and described in the late 19th century; its scientific name is Thecacera pacifica Bergh, 1883 (family Polyceridae).

Thecacera pacifica (Olakhalaf, 2017).


Most of the Pokémon designs are in line with real-world mollusks, although there are some cringeworthy mistakes, like Omanyte/Omastar’s body position, Octillery’s mouth/funnel controversy, and Inkay/Malamar’s beak position. The moves and abilities nicely reflect some mollusk features and, well, abilities, but there is also some crazy stuff added on the mix, like “Shell Smash” and “Spike Cannon”.

As we highlighted in the beginning of this article, there are between 70,000 and 200,000 species of mollusks (Rosenberg, 2014). In comparison, there are only circa 6,000 species of mammals (Burgin et al., 2018). Overall, there are 17 molluscan Pokémon among the current 809 monsters. This number clearly does not reflect true animal biodiversity, similar to other misrepresented invertebrates in the franchise, such as arthropods (Prado & Almeida, 2017; Kittel, 2018). Obviously, people prefer to see cats and doggos so there are plenty of Pokémon based on them, domestic or otherwise. Even so, there are some animal groups, mollusks or otherwise, that deserve better representation in Pokémon, such as velvet worms (Onychophora) and bristle worms (Polychaeta). They would make much more interesting monsters than yet another lion.


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Mather, J.A. & Mather, D.L. (2006) Apparent movement in a visual display: the ‘passing cloud’ of Octopus cyanea (Mollusca: Cephalopoda). Journal of Zoology 263: 89–94.

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Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist and paleontologist who specializes in mollusks. Land snails are his favorites, but when it comes to Pokémon, he sticks with a sea slug instead: the West Sea Gastrodon. Even so, he walked 45 km with his Fire-type buddy Slugma in Pokémon Go (when it was still rare) so it could evolve.

Daniel Cavallari is a taxonomist and marine biologist who loves mollusks and their shells. He’s been collecting seashells and playing Pokémon games since he was a small boy. Though he prefers Pokémon of the older generations (I–III), he finds the newest mollusk-based Pokémon really amazing.

[1] In common parlance, they are knows as “ammonites”, but from a more strict scientific perspective, ammonites (order Ammonitida) is a smaller group inside the ammonoids (subclass Ammonoidea).

[2] Recently, some of the preliminary sprites for Gen II were found by dataminers (https://mobilesyrup.com/2018/05/31/unreleased-pokemon-sprites-gold-silver/), showing that proto-Remoraid was a gun-shaped Pokémon and proto-Octillery was a tank-shaped Pokémon. We had a really hard time deciding which option makes less sense and ended up abandoning this question.

[3] The mythical status of Phione is highly debated within the community – yes, those are debates that actually happen – since official sources are ambiguous and contraditory (see Bulbapedia for more info). Manaphy, on the other hand (or should we say foot?), is indeed mythical.

[4] Shamefully, neither Inkay/Malamar nor Octillery have the ability “Color Change”. The only Pokémon with this ability is Kecleon, which is based on a chameleon. Just for the record, a chameleons’ ability to change color is laughable when compared to cephalopods.

[5] Even though octopuses are the masters of camouflage, Octillery does not learn the move “Camouflage”. Inkay, however, can learn it through the intricate (and rather annoying) process of Pokémon breeding.

[6] Bulbapedia indicates the fossil Wiwaxia Walcott, 1911 as a possible inspiration. However, there are very strong arguments against this: (1) These fossils are widely unknown. If Pokémon designers can’t even place the mouth of an octopus in the right place (see Octillery, Inkay and Malamar), they likely didn’t know about this animal. (2) Wiwaxiids might not actually be mollusks; their position in the tree of life is still hotly debated by scientists. All of Goomy’s abilities, Pokédex entries, moves, etc. point towards a mollusk. (3) The morphology is completely different: wiwaxiids were covered by hard plates and spines, like a medieval-looking tank. Likely no soft portion of their body was visible from the outside. Goomy is all soft and cute.

[7] If you think sentient desserts are to wacky, even for Pokémon, please refer to Vanillite, Vanillish, Vanilluxe, Swirlix, and Slurpuff.

Check other articles from this volume



Through the Darkest of Times: life as the resistance during the Third Reich

Interview with Jörg Friedrich

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Through the Darkest of Times is a historical strategy video game taking place in Berlin during the Third Reich, from Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 to Germany’s surrender in 1945. The player leads a civilian resistance group fighting off the new regime how they can. The resistance is made up of common people, from all walks of life, so it’s the leader’s job to win hearts and minds and hold the group together. The player will be responsible for planning the group’s activity and survive by avoiding the Gestapo. All of this while actual history unfolds outside: the game follows the actual historical time-line, which influence the player’s options. The game is under development by Berlin-based studio Paintbucket Games[1], made up by the duo Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian Schulz. It will be published by HandyGames in the near future and is already listed on Steam.

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Jörg Friedrich to understand how such a unique game like Through the Darkest of Times came to be. You can read the full interview below.

Q: On your website, you mention that a game focusing on the civil resistance during Third Reich Germany just had to be made. We agree, of course, but would you care to elaborate a little more on this?

A: The story of civilian resistance fighters in Germany is a story that people must learn about – these normal people with families, with normal jobs, saw what was going on the world and decided they had to do something against it. They went underground and risked their lives to stop an inhumane regime.

We think this is a story that must be told.

As political people, certain developments in the world, the fact that we see fascists rise again, here in Germany but also in many more countries in Europe and in the US, worries us a lot. In 2017 we wondered what we could do about this and the only thing we are good at is making games, so we thought “hey let’s make a game that takes an anti-fascist stance and maybe it will make the world a better place!”

As game developers and artists, we like to push the boundaries of the medium. Sebastian and I met when we were working for YAGER, where we made a game called Spec Ops: The Line – an AAA shooter that asked players to shoot people and blamed them when they did. It was supposed to make players feel bad.

Back in 2012 this was special. It felt like a game that needed to be made. We felt like pioneers, we felt like we tried something new by taking a new stance on war and on war in games.
Making Through the Darkest of Times feels similar – we try to find a new way on how games treat Nazism.

Q: Do you believe game developers have a responsibility when representing History? Should this come before artistic freedom?

A: We learn history not only at school, but also from the stories told to us by movies, books and well – video games.

But if someone would learn everything he knows about Nazism from games, he might conclude that Nazis are villains like the Empire in Star Wars: somewhat evil, but they have cool uniforms and tanks and are in the end just a faction like any other.

I find it problematic, that most games with Nazis don’t even mention the murderous anti-Semitism, the slow rise of Fascism or the Shoa.

I know that these games usually have no bad intention by omitting these facts, they often do it to avoid controversy. But honestly: if you think mentioning the historical crimes of the Nazis is inappropriate for your game, maybe picking Nazis as a faction or theme for your game is what is inappropriate here.

Q: Nazism seems to have become just another Hollywood trope nowadays. Are you concerned about how Nazi Germany is depicted in current games?

A: Here is the problem: if your game is about Nazis, but in your game, they do not commit any war crimes, there is no Auschwitz, no Shoa, then you create a historical narrative in which the Nazis didn’t commit these crimes.

And that’s the narrative that is told by Neo-Nazis who try to white-wash historical Nazism, so people are less hesitant to open for far-right ideologies.

Video games is the most important narrative medium of our time – as developers we must take responsibility and tell things the way they happened just as movies did a couple of decades ago.

Q: Current gaming culture is often referred to as toxic, where sexist, racist, homophobic behavior unfortunately abound. Do you believe that might be related to the ideals that games historically presented? Can game developers help change this culture?

A: Yes, I think so. The way games were marketed since the 1990’s until recently, towards young men, featuring the ideal of tough white guys who like hot girls and solve problems with their guns, appealed to a specific type. And this type feels now entitled to games. They think it is their medium and that developers need to create games for them and only for them.
This was never true, because of course there were always all kinds of people playing video games, but we now have this extremely entitled, extremely loud and toxic bunch of guys who yell the loudest and think they can dominate the Internet and our medium.

We must not let them. We must not listen to their demands; leave them stew in their own juice and just ignore them. Let’s make games that are open and inclusive, for an open and diverse audience instead of making games for the Christchurch killer[2].

Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What exactly is the players’ goal in Through the Darkest of Times?

A: You play a leader of a civilian resistance group in Berlin in 1933 when Hitler becomes chancellor. You try to fight the regime with acts of sabotage and later attacks, educate people and let them know the truth about the Nazis’ plans and their doings, and help the persecuted, by hiding them or getting them out of the country.

Your goal is to persist as a group until the end of the war and do as much of the three things mentioned as possible without being caught by the Gestapo.

In order to achieve this you need to send your members on missions and organize resources necessary for your fight.

The group members are civilians, who are suddenly thrown into a situation where they must do something illegal and risk their life to resist the regime. Members have different biographies and political views, which can lead to conflicts within the group and keeping up morale and members from simply giving up can be tough.

So you try to do as much good as you can and lead you and your group through the darkest of times.

Q: There are some games out there with a healthy dose of historical backgrounds, such as Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts and Assassin’s Creed. How does Through the Darkest of Times approach History?

A: Every turn in the game is one historical week. At the beginning of each turn you get the news with what happened in that week – based on the historical events of that week. But history influences the game mechanics too: at the beginning you don’t need to be too worried, there are even public protests against the regime happening in the streets where you and your group can join. But over time, the repression increases; after the Reichstag fire, the city is full of SA and things are dangerous; and once the Gestapo is founded and the first concentration camp is built, things are dangerous.

There are also big historical events that you witness through narrative sequences to give you more a feeling of being there, than just in the strategy mode.

History also influenced the looks of the game. Sebastian was inspired by German expressionists of the 1920’s who were later banned by the Nazis as un-German art. He tried to create a look that the Nazis would have banned.

So I would say, history plays a very important role in Through the Darkest of Times.

Q: What kind of source material did you use while building the game? Books, historical documents, interviews?

A: All of this. We read a lot, we went to places and museums – luckily, as we are in Berlin and the game takes place in Berlin, there are a lot of memorial sites and local annalists we got in touch with. We read interviews of course and we talked to descendants of civilian resistance fighters.

Q: How faithfully does the game follow real-life events of the Third Reich? Can the players expect to “change the course of history”?

A: In the main game, the historical events and what you read in the news all follow the actual historical timeline. Your character, the members of the group and your supporters are fictional though, and so are their actions against the regime.

But characters and actions are inspired by real civilian resistance groups that were active in Berlin at that time, such as the Schulze-Boyssen/Harnack group or the Jochen-Baum group.
Most of the missions wouldn’t have an impact on grand politics – if this is what you mean by “changing history”. However, the way we see it, history is not only changed by generals and leaders but by all of us.

Who saves people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea today is changing history – more than most politicians and in a better way if you ask me.

But since we have all these rogue-like elements in the game and since we like the idea, we are thinking about a second mode – a “New Game+” if you want – in which events happen less predictably and you might be able to stop the regime before the end of the war.

Q: Do you hope players will learn something about German and World History by playing Through the Darkest of Times?

A: When I talk to people about the Nazi time they often have the idea that it started with war and holocaust right away. But it didn’t. Hitler got elected. He became chancellor in a legal way, because we had conservatives who thought that they could handle a fascist in power and that this would still be better than the left – 12 years later half of Europe was destroyed and millions of people had died.

I hope people might be able to recognize the patterns when playing Through the Darkest of Times when they look at what is going on in the real world.

Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from your game?

A: It would be great if our players took away the same message that we took away when we started to learn about civilian resistance fighters: some developments are so wrong, they are so evil, that we have to overcome our day to day disputes, unite and fight for the fundamental human rights even if it means taking a risk.

About the Team

Paintbucket Games is a Berlin-based indie game studio founded by two ex-AAA developers. Jörg Friedrich does design and code and Sebastian Schulz does art and design. They have been making games for more than 13 years each and worked on 10 of those together. Among the several titles they worked on are: Spec Ops: The Line, Dead Island 2, Albion Online, and Desperados 2.

[1] Be sure to check out their website (http://paintbucket.de/).

[2] The Christchurch mosque shootings were two terrorist attacks conducted by an Australian alt-right white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March 2019. Over 50 people were killed and another 50 were injured. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the event as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.” (Gelineau & Gambrell, 2019: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-mosque-killer-white-supremacy-20190315-story.html)

Check other articles from this volume


Playing with the past: history and video games (and why it might matter)

Jeremiah McCall

Cincinnati Country Day School. Cincinnati, OH, USA.

Email: jmc.hst (at) gmail (dot) com

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While traditional history, as a discipline, is important, that should not obscure the fact that doing history, sometimes called “historying,” is something everyone does. For history is fundamentally just the communication of the past through a medium (Dening, 2006; Chapman, 2016). That is certainly the case when the most traditional forms of history are crafted by academic historians: books and textbooks. The dominance of text and speech in history classes should not mislead us: they are not the only media for communicating the past and certainly not the only legitimate media (McCall, 2012b). There are many more, and once we leave the realm of academic historians, it’s easy to find pretty much everyone doing history in some form. They do this when they tell a story about their day, draw a picture about their vacation, or debate something that happened in their peer group. Film, painting, theater, sculpture, toys, music, even social media can and often do communicate aspects of the past and, when they do, they are history.[1]

Figure 1. Historying. Collage of several images; sources: Revolution (cravengames.com); Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple (Wikimedia Commons); Metropolitan Museum of Art (screen capture from their website: metmuseum.org); East India Company (screen capture from their website: theeastindiacompany.com); Clan Fabius, book cover (amazon.com); Cincinnatus Statue (S Kaya: flickr.com); Cincinnatus Pig Statue (waymarking.com); Hamilton (broadway.org); Assassin’s Creed Origins (screen capture from the game, Ubisoft); Playmobil History set (toptoyusa.com); Evil Empire, album cover (Rage Against the Machine); Dirt, album cover (Alice in Chains).

So, historical video games certainly qualify as a medium that can do history, that can communicate aspects of the past. To use a more formal term, historical video games are a form of public history. Because the term’s meaning varies widely, for purposes of this article, let’s define public history as any communication of the past crafted outside traditional academia with little or no involvement of academic historians. This includes games whose designers read published histories and even games where an academic historian was on board as a consultant but did not make the driving decisions in the design process (McCall, 2018).

So, what makes a video game count as historical? This is another area of debate, but a useful broad definition runs like this: a historical game “has to begin at a clear point in real world history, and that history has to have a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart & Parsler, 2007). This definition works for most commercial games set in the past: the big budget titles Call of Duty: World War II, Total War: Rome 2, and Battlefield One; Sid Meier’s Civilization series (now for almost three decades with III,  IV , and V still sold and VI released in late 2016); Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey (and many earlier entries in the series); the favorite games of last decade like Stronghold,  Sid Meier’s Pirates, and even Age of Empires; and hosts of recent games by independent developers such as Field of Glory II, Egypt: Old Kingdom, Bomber Crew, Nantucket, and The Curious Expedition.

Some games that connect to the past, however, are more difficult to categorize. Wolfenstein: New Order, for example, imagines a counterfactual history where Nazi Germany conquers the United States in 1948. The game begins in 1960. Not a historically documented world of 1960, but a counterfactual United States ruled by Nazis. Though Wolfenstein deals with important historical topics like the Holocaust, it does not neatly fit the definition of a historical game noted above (McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018).

Figure 2. Wolfenstein: The New Order, screen capture from the game (Bethesda Softworks, 2014).

Games in Assassin’s Creed series, on the other hand, do begin at a clear point in real world history but focus on player characters that did not exist (Altair, Ezio, Bayek, Kassandra) occupying roles (Assassins and Templars in cabals) that did not exist historically – at least not according to the best evidence and analysis. It’s best to remember that, ultimately, categories like “historical games” are useful not for their rigid application but only insofar as they help us focus on what is essential. Accordingly, this article is concerned primarily – but not exclusively – with exploring those games that fit the narrower definition of historical games most neatly: large-budget games like Civilization, Total War, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and countless independent games like Field of Glory II and Bomber Crew. Despite their many differences, these games have real-world historical settings and have player agents that – generally speaking – either existed historically or take on roles that existed historically (McCall, 2019).

Figure 3. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, screen capture from the game (Ubisoft, 2018).


There are a great many kinds of these historical games: shooters, strategy games, adventure games, city builders, management sims, and so on. These games take two main approaches to representing the past: realist and conceptual (Chapman, 2016). Three-dimensional first- and third-person shooter games like Call of Duty, Battlefield One, and the Assassin’s Creed series take the realist approach to representing the past. Their designers present a visually verisimilitudinous environment, the past as it arguably appeared and as a world the player can navigate through the game’s protagonist. Much like historical novels, these games center on fictitious characters who act in historically documented setting but do not alter conventionally accepted larger historical narratives. So, for example, the Assassin protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed series do not alter the outcome of the French Revolutions in AC Unity or negate Cleopatra’s alliance with Julius Caesar in AC Origins as they have their adventures. Protagonist Red Daniels’ actions in Call of Duty World War 2 do not spawn an alternate history without the Allied Push through western France. Rather, the player character develops their own fictitious narrative within the backdrop of the more-or-less documented historical setting. Players decide some of the in-game protagonist’s actions but do not change the larger historical narrative.

Figure 4. Call of Duty: WWII, screen capture from the game (Activision, 2017).

The other main approach to historical games is the conceptual simulation approach. Games like those in the Civilization series, Total War series, and Paradox’s grand strategy games like Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II, and Hearts of Iron IV focus not on showing how the past looked but telling how the systems and processes of the past functioned. They do this, not through immersive visually realistic environments, but through underlying rule sets and systems, communicated to the player through stylized and sometimes abstract symbols and graphics (Chapman, 2016). So, Civilization, for example, does not show what ancient civilizations looked like so much as tell, among other things, how geography shapes the development of civilizations. Crusader Kings II does not show how medieval barons lived but tells about the political fragmentation of medieval Europe. In these games, players can make choices that have a grand impact on historical outcomes: managing ancient Egypt to become the dominant world power by the time of the Renaissance, preventing Rome from falling, fending off the Crusaders, etc.  These are approaches are not mutually exclusive, however, and many games have elements of both, such as the Total War games that combine the conceptual-style large-scale grand strategy of campaign maps and city-management screens with the more realist verisimilitudinous representations of individual soldiers and battlefields rendered in 3D.

Figure 5. Europa Universalis IV, screen capture from the game (Paradox Interactive, 2013).

What kind of histories are these historical video games? The vast majority whether their approaches to the past are realist, conceptual, or some combination, present that past as one or more historical problem spaces (McCall, 2012a, 2012b, 2016a, 2018). That is, they present the past in terms of:

  • A primary agent, the player character of the game, with one or more roles and goals, operating within
  • a physical space, a virtual world with an environment and geography that includes
  • any number of elements, including other agents modeled by the AI as non-player characters, that can afford and assist player actions, constrain player actions, or both depending on the situation; and so, the player crafts
  • strategies and makes decisions to take advantage of available affordances, work within or around constraints, and achieve their goal.

This certainly can be a problematic way to approach the past: It can over-emphasize agents’ conscious goal-oriented behavior and cause humans other than the primary agent to be cast as instruments (McCall, 2012b: 16–19). When applied specifically to the study of agents making decisions in systems like politics, trade, management, construction, battle and so on, however, the historical problem space approach of video games works reasonably well. For in these and other spheres, there was a great deal of conscious goal-oriented behavior, taking place in a physical geography containing elements and agents that could afford and constrain actions – terrain, weather, the physical condition of agents, their morale, and so on. Merchants and revolutionaries, soldiers and farmers, all formed strategies and made choices to reach their short- and long-term goals within their environment, their space.

Historical games model historical problem spaces in significantly different ways from narrative historical texts (McCall, 2012b: 13–21, 2016a: 8–10). The basic distinction is that games are interactive where text-narrative histories are fixed. Texts are fixed by the author and though, of course they can be interpreted in many ways by readers, the reality of the actual letters on the actual pages is objective and fixed and the narrative outcome of the text is fixed. For example, every reader that reads the book as designed will experience the same words in the same order. To that extent, the narrative outcomes of the text are fixed. Videogames (and boardgames for that matter) are interactive. The player is faced with meaningful choices and a variety of possible narrative outcomes based on those choices. Different players playing the game as designed will experience different scenes and episodes in different orders, a different narrative overall. In practice, this means historical games will necessarily include counterfactual history, events and outcomes that did not happen, but might have.

Figure 6. Diagram of a Historical Problem Space.
Figure 7. History media.

Crusader Kings II, for example, allows a player to start their games at various times in the 9th to 15th centuries CE. At any given date, the world map is divided into territories under the control of historical local rulers according to the historical evidence the game developers have been able to find. So, to use the European Middle Ages as an example, starting the game in late 1066, the player finds William of Normandy as the new king of England. The game designers did not stop with historical monarchs; lesser nobles generally correspond to historically documentable agents when that information is known, and the political boundaries of the world map change to match the history of the time and place. Thus, to a certain extent, Crusader Kings II accurately simulates the political geography of the time period in its various starting points. Once the player selects a dynasty to control and starts to play, however, the game simulates the actions of all the lords great and small in the game that the player does not control. Each lord operates according to the rules and priorities established in the game code. The player’s freedom of choice and the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) agents’ choices are coded as probabilities, not certainties, means that the narrative of gameplay will bear similarities to the broader historical context of the period and place but almost certainly not match the specific historical chronology. So, one can centralize eleventh-century England under King Harold instead of William the Conqueror, lead a Mongol king to conquer all of Eurasia, and so on (McCall, 2012b: 12–16, 2016a: 8–10, 2018: 408–409).

Figure 8. A counterfactual history: Norwegian control of England in Crusader Kings II (screen capture from the game; Paradox Interactive, 2012).

This key feature of historical games, interactivity and, as a result, counterfactual outcomes, makes games potentially a very powerful medium for exploring the past. Historical games, in short, can do a very good job presenting the past in terms of systems and interactions, the causal connections that made past societies and people act the way they did. They can also represent the past, to a certain extent, as it seemed to agents at the time, as a contextualized world of possibilities where agents make choices in the hopes of achieving or avoiding certain outcomes, without any certainty how everything will come out in the end. Indeed, this is how life is experienced for most of us, past and present. Interestingly, however, as Copplestone (2017) noted, the standard form of representing the past, textual history, tends to present the past as anything but open-ended, as simply a linear set of events destined to turn out the way they did. Games offer a sense of exploration, of control, of possibility, possibly a sense of sober consideration, not just passive determinism. As such they can helpfully move history education beyond the archetypal monotony of “one damned thing after another.”

Historical games generally make two kinds of claims to being historical, to conforming with evidence and scholarship about the past: implicit and explicit. Essentially, all historical games make implicit claims to having at least some accurate historical detail. Consider this:  When designers craft a historical game, they can choose to make it about a historical topic and world – Civilization or Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed – or not – Scrabble, Super Mario Odyssey, and so on. By opting to connect the game to a historical world with historical names, visuals, symbols, and rules, the designers implicitly suggest the game is historical to some extent and has some level of accurate portrayal of the past – though of course that level can vary widely within and between games.

Figure 9. Implicit claims to historical accuracy: Scrabble and Super Mario Odyssey vs Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. Sources: Scrabble (boardgamegeek.com); Super Mario Odyssey (screen capture from the game; Nintendo, 2017); Call of Duty: WWII (screen capture from the game; Activision, 2017); Assassin’s Creed Origins (screen capture from the game; Ubisoft, 2017).

Many historical game publishers go beyond these implicit claims to claim explicitly that their games are historically accurate. “Historical accuracy” is a problematic term in-and-of itself and means different things to different people. Copplestone (2017) found in her research that many video game designers understood “accuracy” in terms of verisimilitude, correctly portraying architecture and material culture. Many players, on the other hand, considered accuracy to be judged in the degree to which a game matched something they had read (Copplestone, 2017). Gilbert (2019), however, found some players judged games to be more accurate than history texts to the extent that the games seem to espouse more diverse points of view than standard historical textbooks or teachings. Those investigating the connections between video games and history have their different definitions too and some advocate distinguishing between accuracy, defined as exact capturing of historical factual details, and authenticity, a more systems-based general feel that may err on details but gets an overall valid impression (Chapman, 2016; McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018). Still, many would recognize historically accurate or even historically authentic representations of the past must conform to some debatable extent to sound historical evidence. In other words, they are consistent with at least some of the evidence. And this is what some game developers explicitly claim.  The manual for Civilization IV, for example, boldly proclaims:

Civilization IV is the latest iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, first released in the early 1990’s. From its inception the Civilization series has been acknowledged as the first and best world history simulation, lauded for its incredible depth of play and its extraordinary addictive nature.” – (2K Games, 2005)

And Paradox Interactive claims its game, Europa Universalis IV allows one to “Rule [their] nation through the centuries, with unparalleled freedom, depth and historical accuracy” (in store.steampowered.com; accessed on 04/Apr/2019). Activision, publishers of the 2017 World War II shooter, Call of Duty: WWII, crowed, “our teams at Sledgehammer and Raven (…) captured the epic scale and authentic atmosphere of the most brutal war ever fought” (Jones, 2017). Creative Assembly, makers of the historical Total War series, play with definitions some, but still claimed their historical games conform to historical evidence when a spokesperson noted, “Authenticity is probably a better word than accuracy, and that’s what we aim for” (Brown, 2013).

Figure 10. Total War: Rome 2, screen capture from the game (Sega, 2013).

Historical games not only promise to connect players to a real past, however; they promise all the traditional appeals of video games, elements that shape the type of history these games deliver. Beyond the tendency to cast players as goal-oriented agents within a problem space, video games often seek to indulge power fantasies where players have not just choices, but interesting and important choices that determine the fate of the game world. And because games try to satisfy this desire to make important decisions, they tend to be made about topics that seem more readily cast in heroic terms. This is at least part of the reason why there are very few peasant agriculture history games or games about herding flocks – despite the importance of these activities in human history – but there are myriad games about battles and politics.

Several other common biases of the medium are worth noting. Beyond presenting agents as empowered goal-seekers who face interesting choices, historical games also tend to simplify and streamline the topics they cover to make them more readily graspable, and, as a result, more appealing to consumers. Converting the health of soldiers into hit-points, calculating the experience of a player agent in terms of levels, treating all the nutritional requirements of humans as a simple all-purpose food commodity, expressing diplomatic relationships as positive or negative numbers. These are all examples of simplification and abstraction (McCall, 2012b).

On top of designers’ goals to craft engaging gameplay, and the historical problem space framework, game histories – like indeed all historical media – are also shaped by their designers’ understandings of the past. At a basic level, when a designer attempts to model the past, the elements in a game function according to that designer’s understanding of the past. To give some recent examples, the Civilization series continues to emphasize the designers’ understandings that advantageous geography and the development of Western arcs of technology are primary determinants in a civilization’s success, a quantifiable success often expressed in militaristic terms. The Roman city-builder game from last decade, CivCity: Rome, has a happiness level, that is essentially a material comfort level, and this measures the success of the player. In other words, the game promotes the “bread and circuses” approach to government – give the people material gifts and entertainment, and they will be happy. The popular Total War series suggests that morale is a critical part of battles, because soldiers fight not until they die, not always anyway, but until their morale dips too low and they flee in fear. None of these understandings are necessarily in conflict with historical evidence. They simply illustrate that designer’s understandings of the past shape their games (McCall, 2010; McCall, 2014).

Figure 11. CivCity: Rome, screen capture from the game (2K Games, 2006).


Designers do a considerable amount of historying when crafting their historical games, and this alone suffices to make them an interesting manifestation of public history for historians to explore. These games also have great potential to inspire and enhance all sorts of historical inquiries in and outside of the classroom. Since 2005, I have advocated that historical games’ ability to:

  • immerse and engage through choice and multi-modal channels,
  • provide systems-based interpretations that emphasize causal connections,


  • offer historical problem space approaches to understanding the past,

makes them useful tools for formal history education. Treating games as historical interpretations to critique, not as factual accounts, is critical to this approach. In other words, teachers and students should approach historical video games critically, study historical evidence, discuss ways the games simulate the past effectively and ways that they misrepresent it. This approach integrates reading historical sources, having discussions, direct instruction segments, and gameplay in class, and engaging in activities ranging from discussion to critical analytical writing, all designed to get students thinking about the historical claims of game models, and thereby, hopefully, developing a greater understanding of the past by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the game versions. At the same time, I have explored the flip side of the coin, students crafting historical simulations as a way to practice the craft of historians, think carefully about cause and effect, and explore the choices of historical agents in the past. Most recently that has manifested itself in research and work on Twine, the choice-based interactive text tool, that allows students to research and craft interactive historical texts, allows them, in short, to do interactive digital history (McCall, 2016b, 2016c). The powerful potential of historical video games as pedagogical tools for history education is just starting to be realized.[2]

Even when not used in class as part of well-crafted learning environments, however, historical video games are an important medium of participatory public history. Players do history just by playing, for they interact with the game and engage in play that leads to historical narratives. Theorists about public history talk about the idea of shared authority, that non-academic historians, the public, can share authority for reconstructing and interpreting the past with academic historians. Game players and designers also share authority for reconstructing the past in video games. The game does nothing without a player, and so the act of playing is, in a very real sense, a dialogue between player and designer about what the past was like and how it functioned (McCall, 2018).

There is some research in this area, trying to understand what players think about as they play and reflect upon a historical game, though more is needed (Gilbert, 2019). Internet game forum discussions offer an important and largely untapped resource for investigating the historical reasoning and journeys of game players. True, most game players likely never post on game forums. So, one can rightly question how representative forum posts are of game-players’ thoughts in general. Still, they are an important resource for understanding some of the possibilities for players’ historical thinking: since the forums allow essentially any gamer to participate in them, they publicize players’ ideas ranging from support to analysis and criticism of their games. Forum threads, therefore, illustrate some of the types of experiences and understandings players can have interacting with these games. This is a critical point: the forums show a range of possible interactions with games available to anyone who wants to share their thoughts, and these interactions are no less possible for those who choose never to post. In short, the forums tell us what kind of reasoning can happen, a critical data point for those investigating historical games as media for learning history (McCall, 2018).

Forum posts suggest that some players engage in considerable amounts of historical reasoning as they reflect upon and discuss their gameplay. Discussion topics include:

  • the difference between a fixed representation of the past and a simulation;
  • the tensions that often exist between historical accuracy and engaging gameplay;
  • the role of counterfactual history in games;
  • how accurately games simulate elements of world history ranging from a historical state’s political and military power, to the role of women in the politics of a period, a religion’s characteristics, and to institutions of slavery.

Sometimes posters just assume the truth of their historical claims. Other times they provide reasonable historical statements (“facts”) to back their assertions. Occasionally, they refer to a historian’s work or text to back up their claims. In these ways, posters clearly engage in significant historical thinking on varied important topics and also think about the accuracy of the games (McCall, 2018)

In short, historical video games have an impact on how players approach and understand the past (McCall, 2018; Gilbert, 2019). Indeed, they can serve as foils for important arguments about past and present.  It’s time to consider this final point in our exploration of historical video games as means of encountering, learning, and thinking about the past.


Far from desiccated topics of debate only of interest to antiquarians, video games histories inspire intense, sometimes inflammatory debates about past, how it is portrayed, whether those portrayals are historically accurate, and how those portrayals affect the present. This final section will examine a few cases where contemporary controversies have arisen about how accurately certain video games represent the past.[3]

Some video games have proven to be politically charged in how they represent military and political powers in the past, causing some to challenge their historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014), for example, places the player in control of a fictional Assassin based in Paris during the French Revolution. The game, developed by French company Ubisoft, sparked criticism from some French politicians, most notably former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. He challenged the seemingly bourgeois depictions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as honorable victims of revolution, the radical Maximilien Robespierre, author of the Terror, as a vicious despot, and the Parisian working class as a bloodthirsty mob. Debates about these and other actors in the Revolution have existed since the time of the Revolution itself and continue to take place, now around video games (Chibber, 2014).

Figure 12. Assassin’s Creed Unity, screen capture from the game (Ubisfot, 2014).

Company of Heroes 2, a real-time strategy game about the Eastern Front in World War 2, was released in 2013, causing an uproar among some in Eastern Europe and Russia. Some of those upset signed a digital petition, hoping to block the sale of the game in the Russian Commonwealth. Critics “review-bombed” the game, flooding a videogame review site, in this case Metacritic, with negative reviews to lower dramatically its overall review scores. At issue was the depiction of the Soviet Army and war effort in the Second World War. At different times in the game, the Soviet army is depicted as sending soldiers into battle without rifles, ordering officers to shoot any soldiers who retreated, and fielding battalions of convicted criminals. Critics suggested that these elements caricature Eastern Europeans as violent and obedient to the point of self-destruction and the Soviet state as evil. Relic defended its history and noted that there is enough evidence to suggest that two totalitarian states were brutal in their clashes on the Eastern Front and soldiers there were often caught between a rock and a hard place, between their enemies on the battlefield and their own states (Campbell, 2013).

Figure 13. Company of Heroes 2, screen capture from the game (Sega, 2013).

The Civilization series, created by Sid Meier back in 1991 and now in its sixth iteration, has received significant criticism not only for its questionably accurate portrayals of the past but also the problematic messages those portrayals send to players. In this extremely popular strategy game franchise, players take on the role of leader of a “civilization.” These are ostensibly historical national leaders, but functionally deities, the guiding intelligence for their civilizations. Starting with the foundation of their first city in about 4000 BCE on a world map of earth-like or random geographic features, players navigate geography, and compete, collaborate, and fight with rival civilizations in a race to create the best civilization. Some have objected to the game’s caricature of historical figures and cultures. Other have criticized that the surest path to victory, to having the “best” civilization, is following the historical imperialist trajectory of technological and military development found in Western Civilization (Poblocki, 2002). Still others have pointed to the game’s problematic presentation of technological and industrial growth. In most playthroughs, a civilization can truly expand without to all the corners of the world, exploiting ever more land and resources, without any problematic effects on the environment. Interestingly enough, anthropogenic global warming and its effect on sea levels were built into the earliest games of the series, Civilization I (1991) and Civilization II (1996), and not seen as particularly controversial. The phenomenon disappeared from Civilizations III through V (Tharoor, 2016). Most recently the developers of Civilization VI (2016) have released an expansion, “Gathering Storm” (2019), that adds, among other human made crises, anthropogenic climate change.

Figure 14. A 10-year (real world years!) game of Civilization II, screen capture from the game (MicroProse, 1996). Image extracted from Biessener (2012).

Still others have questioned how Civilization portrays certain historical leaders and cultures.  Recently the Cree Nation criticized Civilization VI for including the Cree, without their consultation, as a historical civilization along with their historical chief Poundmaker. Said Cree Head Milton Tootoosis, “It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land” (Chalk, 2018). Tootoosis further opined, “That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view (…) It’s a little dangerous for a company to perpetuate that ideology that is at odds with what we know. [Chief Poundmaker] was certainly not in the same frame of mind as the colonial powers” (Chalk, 2018).

Figure 15. Chief Poundmaker, from Civilization VI, screen capture from the game (2K Games, 2005).

This concern about historical accuracy takes a grim turn when some argue, even against the historical evidence, that a game obscures the reality of the past in order to be “politically correct” and inclusive of diversity. Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017), for example, since its unveiling, has sparked debate and a considerable amount of racist rant and memes on Steam forums and elsewhere about the skin tones of ancient Egyptians, ancient Mediterranean peoples, and so on. Much of this discussion focused on whether Ubisoft was historically accurate in its racial portrayals of ancient Egyptians. Though not always, much of this discussion reeked of blatant efforts to promote racist ideology in the present by attempting to apply it to the past (as a search in the Steam forums under Assassin’s Creed Origins will illustrate) (Tamburro, 2017).

Figure 16. Assassin’s Creed Origins screenshots (top; Ubisoft, 2017), compared to some Roman Period Fayum mummy portraits (bottom; Wikimedia Commons).

Similar debates about including women as protagonists in historical video games have surfaced in recent years. Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome 2, a strategy game in which players command an ancient state and its armies, received an update in March of 2018 that increased slightly the chances of certain states to receive female generals as potential recruits. These adjustments corresponded with Creative Assembly’s release of the Desert Kingdoms Culture Pack that added Kush and Nabataea, among other new playable states (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).

Figure 17. Total War: Rome 2, Desert Kingdoms Culture Pack, screen capture from the game (Sega, 2013).

Ultimately, the changes assigned some ancient states in the game a 10–15% chance to receive female generals as potential recruits. A few received greater chances. The ancient Nubian state of Kush, for example, received a 50% chance to reflect the greater frequency of women in political and military roles there. The most historically patriarchal societies – Rome, Greece, and Carthage – had no chance of recruitable female generals appearing.

Several months later, in September 2018, Creative Assembly released a tweet to respond to forum posters[4] who did not condone the inclusion of women. The developers spoke in terms that demonstrated their interest in history and in representing the past in fairly viable, broad strokes. They stood by the changes.

Figure 18. Creative Assembly’s tweet from 25/Sep/2018.

Almost immediately after the tweet, negative reviewers review-bombed Total War: Rome 2 in the Steam reviews section for the game.[5] Many of the protests claimed that the game was historically inaccurate in its inclusion of women in the game. Much of the criticism also suggested that Creative Assembly was pandering to the so-called “SJWs”, or Social Justice Warriors, a label of derision often applied in forums to designate those who are too interested in supporting diversity and inclusion (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).

Figure 19. Steam customer-review graph for Total War: Rome 2.

Battlefield V, a popular first-person shooter game focused on World War 2, became the topic for a similar debate. A trailer[6] launched for the game in May 2018 included a female sniper with a prosthetic arm engaged in a pitched skirmish. Critics, often in volatile misogynistic terms, protested the game’s inclusion of playable women characters as historically inaccurate (Plunkett, 2018).

Figure 20: Cover art for Battlefield 5 (EA DICE, 2018).

The striking feature of the Total War: Rome 2 and Battlefield 5 controversies is not so much that the critics of these aspects of the game – the inclusion of more women characters in political and militaristic historical contexts – often use inflammatory language calling out “the politically correct” and “Social Justice Warriors,” as interesting as that is. What is truly striking is that these critics levy the at-first-glance-more-objective claim that Creative Assembly and EA DICE are in the wrong because these features make their games “historically inaccurate.” In reality, however, there are any number of basic features of these games and indeed the larger Total War and Battlefield series that fail the test of historical accuracy, if that means consistency with the critically researched available historical evidence. This was pointed out by Lukomski (2018) in an insightful essay titled: “Accuracy” vs Inclusivity: Women in Historical Games. And, in fact, there is ancient evidence that in some cultures women indeed participated in the political and military conflicts of their states as rulers, generals, and even just combatants. The same is true for World War 2 where women did play combat roles, especially in the Soviet forces, legendary for lethal women snipers and an air unit, the Night Witches, composed entirely of women pilots (Arbuckle, 2016; Holland, 2017). In short, it appears a number of posters have appealed to historical accuracy to support what essentially are racist and sexist arguments to limit diversity and representation in games.

The case of Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018, henceforth KC:D) is a particularly interesting one to end this exploration with, because of a role reversal: instead of a game developer, as in the case of Ubisoft, Creative Assembly, and EA DICE including diverse people, increasing representations of diversity, and sparking cries of historical inaccuracy, the developers of KC:D presented a largely monolithically white, patriarchal, Catholic vision of Medieval Bohemia that pushed some to question how historically accurate this un-diverse vision of the Middle Ages was. In response to a query from a reader, the blogger at People of Color in European Art History investigated the game’s Kickstarter and raised questions about the game’s very un-diverse portrayal of medieval folk in Bohemia.[7] Angry Internet sparring followed, and ultimately KC:D lead designer, Daniel Vávra, tweeted, “would you please explain to me whats [sic] racist about telling the truth? There were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period,” a problematically binary and ill-defined statement.[8] In response to this doubling down, considerable debate has spawned on the Internet over whether indeed there were people of color in this small section of Medieval Bohemia.

In response to the ensuing flame war, blogger Robert Guthrie noted Vávra’s claims were misleadingly selective. There are many elements in KC:D, Guthrie (2015) notes, that are not historically accurate, but ignored in the game designers’ claims to accuracy. And so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion captured in Guthrie’s title: “When historical accuracy is used to deny agency” (Guthrie, 2015). By insisting this exclusion of people of color and women in anything other than stock subordinate roles is required of a historically accurate game, KC:D essentially erases these groups from history, at least from the audiences of their game.

All of this raises interesting questions for historians and history teachers who hope to leverage historical video games that are, like all historical sources, limited in their scope and representation of issues and people. Historical accuracy certainly seems to be a reasonable value for history educators, and reasonably accurate historying by game designers seems to be a positive goal. But what happens if the claim of historical accuracy is used, not as the basis for civil discussion about the past and how it is represented but as a way to exclude others? There is, indeed, a critical point here. When whole groups of people are left out of historical narratives and analysis, whether in a history book, class lecture, or video game, the effect is to almost erase those peoples from the record. This is not a problem that is unique to historical video games, of course. Even the best historians must be selective in their treatments and topics and will have their own biases. Thoughtful and reasoned debate and discussion are critical to navigating the often-muddy waters of historical accuracy in video games.

And those thoughtful and reasoned debates can certainly take place in the classroom. When it comes to use in history classes, the learning experience enhanced by games will be successful to the extent educators and students ground their discussion and analysis in historical evidence. After all, a game that is largely historically inaccurate – however one wants to measure that – can still be useful for learning history because the flaws in the game provide grist for the mill of critique (McCall, 2010, 2011).

Historical games, accurate or loose, exclusive or inclusive, problematic or purposeful, are history. They communicate their designers’ understandings of the past, not only in terms of what the designers think about the past, but also in terms of what they think is important to know, engage, and remember. They offer the possibility to game the past, to immerse oneself in historical problem spaces, seek out goals, make choices, and see the impact of those choices in a causally-connected systems. Accordingly, they offer significant possibilities for learning history whether it comes to students honing their abilities to critique modern media or developing their appreciation of systems and problem spaces. Regardless of whether they are leveraged in formal history education, they communicate messages about the past that reach considerable numbers of people. They should not be ignored by anyone concerned with how the past is perceived, portrayed, and played.


2K Games. (2005) Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. Available from: https://steamcdn-a.akamaihd.net/steam/apps/3900/manuals/manual.pdf?t=1545236003 (Date of access: 04/Apr/2019).

Arbuckle, A.Q. (2016) 1942-1945, soviet female snipers: the female terrors of the eastern front. Mashable. Available from: https://mashable.com/2016/07/30/soviet-women-snipers/#6BHiu.izQaql (Date of access: 02/Feb/2018).

Biessenger, A. (2012) The ten-year Civilization II game. Game Informer. Available from: www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2012/06/12/the-ten-year-civilization-ii-game.aspx (Date of access: 04/Apr/2019).

Brown, F. (2013) Placing authenticity over accuracy in Total War: Rome II. PCGamesN. Available from: https://www.pcgamesn.com/totalwar/placing-authenticity-over-accuracy-total-war-rome-ii (Date of access: 04/Apr/2019).

Campbell, C. (2013) Why gaming’s latest take is so offensive to Russians. Polygon. Available from: https://www.polygon.com/2013/7/25/4553536/is-company-of-heroes-2-anti-russian (Date of access: 08/Mar/2019).

Chapman, A. (2016) Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. Routledge, London.

Chalk, A. (2018) Poundmaker Cree Nation leader criticizes Cree portrayal in Civilization 6. PC Gamer. Available from: https://www.pcgamer.com/poundmaker-cree-nation-leader-criticizes-cree-portrayal-in-civilization-6/ (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

Chibber, K. (2014) Let them play Assassin’s Creed. The Atlantic. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/let-them-play-assassins-creed/382818/ (Date of access: 06/Mar/2019).

Copplestone, T. (2017) But that’s not accurate: the differing perceptions of accuracy in cultural-heritage videogames between creators, consumers and critics. Rethinking History 21: 415–438.

Dening, G. (2006) Performing cross-culturally. Australasian Journal of American Studies 25: 1–11.

Gilbert, L. (2019) Assassin’s Creed reminds us that history is human experience: students’ senses of empathy while playing a narrative video game. Theory and Research in Social Education 47(1): 108–137.

Grayson, N. (2018) Total War game gets review bombed on Steam over women generals. Kotaku. Available from: https://kotaku.com/total-war-game-gets-review-bombed-on-steam-over-women-g-1829283785 (Date of access: 08/Mar/2019).

Guthrie, R. (2015) ‘What’s racist about telling the truth?’ – When ‘historical accuracy’ is used to deny agency. Available from: http://robertwguthrie.com/whats-racist-about-telling-the-truth-when-historical-accuracy-is-used-to-deny-agency/ (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

Holland, B. (2017) Meet the Night Witches, the daring female pilots who bombed nazis by night. History. Available from: https://www.history.com/news/meet-the-night-witches-the-daring-female-pilots-who-bombed-nazis-by-night (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

Jones, D. (2017) Call of Duty WWII kicks off holiday season with a bang. TechNewsWorld. Available from: https://www.technewsworld.com/story/84933.html (Date of access: 04/Apr/2019).

Lukomski, J. (2018) ‘Accuracy’ vs inclusivity: women in historical games. NYMG: Feminist Game Studies. Available from: https://www.nymgamer.com/?p=17807  (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

MacCallum-Stewart, E. & Parsler, J. (2007) Controversies: historicizing the computer game. Situated Play, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference: 203–210.

McCall, J. (2010) The unexamined game is not worth playing? Play the Past. Available from: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=302 (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

McCall, J. (2011) Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History. Routledge, London.

McCall, J. (2012a) Historical simulations as problem spaces: criticism and classroom use. Journal of Digital Humanities 1(2).

McCall, J. (2012b) Navigating the problem space: the medium of simulation games in the teaching of History. The History Teacher 45: 9–28.

McCall, J. (2014) Simulation games and the study of the past: classroom guidelines. In:  Kee, K. (Ed.) PastPlay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Pp. 228–254.

McCall, J. (2016a) Teaching history with digital historical games: an introduction to the field and best practices. Simulation & Gaming 47: 517–542.

McCall, J. (2016b) Twine, inform, and designing interactive history texts. Play the Past. Available from: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=5739 (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

McCall, J. (2016c) Creating interactive histories in history class. Play the Past. Available from: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=5752 (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

McCall, J. (2018) Video games as participatory public history. In: Dean, D. (Ed.) The Companion to Public History. John Wiley & Sons, New York. Pp. 405–416.

McCall, J. (2019) Who am I? What am I doing here? Player agents in historical games. Gaming the Past. Available from: https://gamingthepast.net/2018/12/30/who-am-i-what-am-i-doing-here-player-agents-in-historical-games/ (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

McCall, J. & Chapman, A. (2017) Discussion: historical accuracy and historical video games (Part 1). Gaming the Past. Available from: https://gamingthepast.net/2017/12/26/discussion-what-is-historical-accuracy-in-an-historical-video-game-part-1/ (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

McCall, J. & Chapman, A. (2018) The debate is on: historical accuracy and historical video games (Part 2). Gaming the Past. Available from: https://gamingthepast.net/2018/04/08/discussion-authenticity-the-characteristics-of-a-historical-game/ (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).

Plunkett, L. (2018) Oh no, there are women in Battlefield V. Kotaku. Available from: https://kotaku.com/oh-no-there-are-women-in-battlefield-v-1826275455 (Date of access: 08/Mar/2019).

Poblocki, K. (2002) Becoming-state: the bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization. Focaal – European Journal of Anthropology 39: 163–177.

Scott-Jones, R. (2018) Total War: Rome 2’s female general controversy is fake. PCGamesN. Available from: https://www.pcgamesn.com/total-war-rome-ii/rome-ii-female-generals (Date of access: 11/Mar/2019).

Tamburro, P. (2017) Assassin’s Creed Origins racist backlash forces Ubisoft to take action. GameRevolution. Available from: https://www.gamerevolution.com/news/347075-assassins-creed-origins-racist-backlash-forces-ubisoft-take-action (Date of access: 09/Mar/2019).

Tharoor, K. (2016) Playing with History: what Sid Meier’s video game empire got right and wrong about ‘Civilization’. Kill Screen. Available from: https://www.citylab.com/life/2016/10/what-civilization-vi-gets-wrong-about-civilization/504653/ (Date of access: 09/Mar/2019).

About the author

Dr. Jeremiah McCall is an historian who writes about the political and military culture of the Roman Republic and about videogames as a form of history. He teaches high school history, quite likely his true calling, at Cincinnati Country Day School, where he has been for most of the past two decades. For more details on his work, please visit Gamingthepast.net.

[1] History and accurate/authentic history are not the same, and a work that qualifies as history can still be a very flawed communication of the past, whether a monograph, a lecture, a visual artwork, a film, a game, etc.

[2] For my work in the field, see McCall, 2011: Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History (Routledge) and visit my work page on Gaming the Past (https://gamingthepast.net/theory-practice/my-work/).

[3] I gave a talk on this at Cincinnati Country Day School in October 2018, available on the school’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CincinnatiCountryDaySchool/videos/280069235998930/).

[4] To read reviews, go to: https://store.steampowered.com/app/792520/Total_War_ROME_II__Desert_Kingdoms_Culture_Pack/

[5] Search for reviews from September 2018 on Steam (https://store.steampowered.com/app/214950/Total_War_ROME_II__Emperor_Edition/ and https://store.steampowered.com/app/792520/Total_War_ROME_II__Desert_Kingdoms_Culture_Pack/).

[6] You can find it on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7ZpQadiyqs).

[7] You can see it on their website (http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/post/75252294049/hi-ive-been-looking-at-a-kickstarter-for-a).

[8] To see Vávra’s tweet, go to: https://twitter.com/DanielVavra/status/569686445344079872

Check other articles from this volume


The scientists of Assassin’s Creed Part 1: James Cook and Charles Darwin

Rodrigo B. Salvador

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

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

Download PDF

It feels like a long time since Altair first adventured through the Holy Land. Now Assassin’s Creed, by Ubisoft, became one of the highest selling video game franchises of all time. It is even bigger if you consider the novels, comic books, animations, and well… that movie-thing. It is also one my top 3 favorite game series, so no wonder it would pop up on one of my articles eventually.

Besides the nice action and beautiful historical settings of Assassin’s Creed games, my favorite moments are when I suddenly stumble upon one of my real-life heroes. I enjoy talking to their in-game reconstructions and to see how they match both my expectations and the historical accounts of their real-world counterparts. Most of these people are, of course, scientists, even though some lived in a time where the word “scientist” was yet to be coined.

So, my goal here will be to show how these people are portrayed in Assassin’s Creed and how this matches reality. I will also explain their major achievements and their importance to science. But with so many games in the franchise, it would be a monumental task to write a single article with every scientist; thus, I decided to present this in parts. The first one, as you might have surmised from the title, will be about James Cook and Charles Darwin.

At first sight, this might seem a strange pairing, but it has its reasons. I’ve chosen to start with them because this year marks some anniversaries – and us humans just can’t help but be attracted to round numbers and meaningful dates. The year of 2019 marks 250 years from Cook’s historical first visit to New Zealand and 240 years from his death. It is also Darwin’s 210th would-be-birthday and the 160th birthday of the most groundbreaking book ever written: On the Origin of Species.


James Cook was born on 7 November 1728 in Marton, in North-East England. He attended local school, apprenticed as a shop boy, and in his late teens became a merchant navy apprentice. During that time, he learned navigation skills and a healthy dose of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy. In 1755, he joined the Royal Navy, just when Britain was preparing for the Seven Years’ War.

Portrait of James Cook, oil on canvas, 1775–1776, by William Hodges (extracted from Wikimedia Commons).
Captain James Cook, oil on canvas, 1775–1776, by Nathaniel Dance-Holland (extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

Cook served aboard several ships; most remarkably, he was part of the HMS Pembroke crew when the British captured the Fortress of Louisbourg from the French in 1758, during the Seven Years’ War. Due to his talent as a cartographer, he was put to good use during that time, mapping several parts of Canada in the late 1750’s and early 1760’s (then aboard the HMS Grenville). This is the part of his life seen in Assassin’s Creed, but he is most famous for what came afterwards; so let us take a look at that before turning to the game.

In 1768, the Admiralty made Cook lieutenant and put him in command of the HMS Endeavour on a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. His main goal was to observe the transit of Venus[1] in Tahiti in 1769, which would help to determine the distance of the Earth to the Sun (the solar parallax). After that was out of the way, Cook opened an envelope with further orders: to navigate the South Pacific in search of the hypothetical continent Terra Australis and to find New Zealand’s eastern shores. He set off to the south and then westwards, reaching New Zealand and precisely mapping its entire coast. He also took the opportunity to record the transit of Mercury. Cook also needed to document the flora and fauna and establish a relationship with native people; in the long term, the goal was to acquire their consent to take the land for His Majesty. That was the beginning of the British history of New Zealand.

BOX 1. The discovery and naming of New Zealand

Despite what might be assumed, Cook did not discover New Zealand. Polynesian settlers arrived there between 1200 and 1300 CE and became known as the Māori. They called their new home Aotearoa.

The first non-Polynesian person to arrive in New Zealand was Dutch explorer Abel J. Tasman, who first sighted the shores of South Island in December 1642. Tasman’s crew would have landed there, but were driven off by the Māori. They assumed that land could be the western shore of the imaginary continent Terra Australis. In any event, Tasman named the “new” land Staten Landt, which is a straightforward horrible choice. Dutch cartographers recognized this and renamed the place Nova Zeelandia in 1645, after the province Zeeland in the Netherlands. This name stuck, even under later British control.

Even though he did not stay long, Tasman literally put New Zealand on the map and right under the radar of European colonial efforts. His name lives on today in the Tasman Sea (separating Australia and New Zealand), in Tasmania (Australia’s southern island), and in the Abel Tasman National Park (in northwestern South Island, New Zealand).

Portrait of Abel J. Tasman, 1903, by J. M. Donald (extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

Once back in England, Cook was promoted to commander and sent on a second voyage in search of Terra Australis, which everyone now knew was not New Zealand. Cook took the HMS Resolution, with the HMS Adventure serving as its companion ship, and navigated the southern oceans. He almost reached Antarctica, but his “failure” to find land put an end to the Terra Australis myth.

Back in England once again, he was made captain and soon became involved in a third voyage, commanding the HMS Resolution once again (the companion ship this time was the HMS Discovery). His goal was to find a northern passage, through the Arctic, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He couldn’t do it, of course, and became frustrated with the voyage. During a prolonged stay in Hawaii to fix the ship, tensions began to rise with the locals. Cook tried to kidnap the Hawaiian king to put an end to it; the Hawaiians naturally didn’t like that and Cook was killed.

Map showing Cook’s three voyages: first voyage (1768–1771) in red, second (1772–1775) in green, third (1776–1780) in blue (becomes a dashed line after his death in 1779). Map by J. Platek (2008; extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

Captain Cook was responsible for mapping large parts of the world, as well as for several astronomical observations and for collecting dozens of ethnographic artifacts. He might not convey the impression of the typical scientist, but can and should be counted as one.

He was not the only scientifically-inclined person on his expeditions, though. During his voyages, Cook counted with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel C. Solander, astronomers Charles Green, William Wales and William Bayly, and naturalists Herman Spöring, Johann R. Forster, Georg A. Forster and David Nelson. There were also artists to illustrate the new lands, their people, flora and fauna.

Cook features in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (henceforth ACR), released in 2014 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (2015 for Microsoft Windows) and remastered for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2018. This game is different from the others in the series in that you play as a Templar instead of an Assassin. The game follows Shay Cormac in his convoluted journey from Assassin apprentice to senior Templar.

Cormac first encounters Cook towards the middle of the game’s story. By that time (June 1758) Cook was master of the HMS Pembroke. Even though he appears several times, his presence is not as well-marked as one would hope. Cormac and his crew go after him due to his “mathematical mind” and expertise in deciphering secret codes. They comment that Cook’s “seamanship is second-to-none” and that he had a self-policy of strict honesty. Cormac and his colleague Gist discuss how Cook would be a good addition to the Templars, but in the end decide that his total lack of guile would be bad for the Order: the man would not be able to keep the secret.

The presentation of Cook’s character and personality is in line with contemporary sources and his many later biographies, which paint him as intelligent, honest and driven. However, he faced many trials during his voyages and sometimes dealt with them using more brutality (towards his crew or the native people of the Pacific) than we can now accept. Furthermore, he seemed to have had a drastic change of personality on his third voyage. In any event, the depiction of young James Cook in ACR is very compelling.

Concept art from ACR, by D. Atanasov (©Ubisoft Entertainment; extracted from Assassin’s Creed Wiki).
Captain Cook (left) meeting ACR’s protagonist; screenshot from the game (©Ubisoft Entertainment; extracted from Assassin’s Creed Wiki).

The first mission in ACR involving Cook is very straightforward: to beat the French. Cormac takes the helm of the HMS Pembroke to aid Cook in turning the tide of the battle and finally, capturing the Fortress of Louisbourg. This aligns rather nicely with the historical record.

Cormac meets Cook again in Percé, in 1759, and asks him to decipher some encrypted maps. Cook also helps in tracking down a French-Canadian Assassin, after which he asks Cormac whether he belonged to a larger organization. After getting a reply in the lines of “we couldn’t say even if we were”, Cook then assumes Cormac and his crew were under direct orders of the King. The Templars seem satisfied with this and do not correct Cook. Instead, they say their group will contact him about sponsoring future voyages.

The last bit is a clear reference to Cook’s three exploration voyages to the Pacific. What interest the Templars might have there remains unknown for the moment, but it could definitely involve Terra Australis. In any event, real-life Cook indeed got the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society during his years in Canada, especially because of his incredible work mapping Newfoundland; indeed, this latter led to his appointment as commander of the first Pacific voyage.


Darwin (1809–1882) needs no introduction – but here’s one anyway. He is THE most important figure in Biology and of the most important scientists of all time. He is most famous for his book On the Origin of Species (henceforth Origin), first published in 1859, but his contributions to the natural sciences extend beyond that. As late American paleontologist Stephen J. Gould argued, Darwin’s ideas rank with Copernicus in the way they revolutionized not only science but also the very way our silly species sees itself.

Photograph of Charles Darwin, possibly from 1854 (extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

There is simply way too much to write about Darwin: his early life, his voyage, his books, his garden experiments, his immense legacy, etc. There are dozens of books written about him and, if I start writing all the things I find interesting here, I might just end up with a whole book. Since I do not want that, I will focus here on very small parts of his life that are related to what happened in the game.

Darwin features in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (henceforth ACS), released in 2015 for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows. The game takes place in London, starting in 1868, and revolves around the brother and sister pair of Assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye.

Charles Darwin, from ACR (©Ubisoft Entertainment; extracted from Assassin’s Creed Wiki).
Photograph of Charles Darwin from 1868, when ACS takes place (by J.M. Cameron; extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

In the game, you first meet Darwin investigating a factory that produced an opium-based drug called “Soothing Syrup”. It was made by the Templars, of course, and Jacob decided to help Darwin in his investigation. They find out that Richard Owen (see Box 2), who was responsible for an article defaming Darwin, knew something about the syrup. Jacob interrogates Owen and discovers the name of the doctor who was behind the new drug, confronting and killing him in an asylum.

BOX 2. Sir Richard Owen

Owen is clearly linked with the bad guys in ACS. He was a controversial figure indeed, hated by his adversaries, but maybe not quite the “video game villain” kind. Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) was a brilliant naturalist and authored outstanding works in animal anatomy and paleontology. In fact, he is the one who coined one of the most important words in our vocabulary, “dinosaur”. He is also responsible for the magnificent Natural History Museum in London, built as a cathedral of Nature.

Photograph of Richard Owen with a crocodile’s skull, 1856 (extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

However, Owen opposed Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection. Owen was well aware of the anatomical features that established lines of descent and relatedness among animals. Still, his belief in human uniqueness, immersed in what he saw as “natural order” arranged by a creative power, escalated his quarrel with Darwin and his followers, mainly Thomas H. Huxley and Joseph D. Hooker. He could not agree with humans being “just” a weirdly naked species of ape.

In ACS, Darwin even says to Owen: “Mr. Owen, you are truly the most insufferable fellow I have ever had the misfortune to count among my acquaintances!” In real life, after Owen’s involvement in an event that undermined one of his colleagues, Darwin wrote in a letter: “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life.”

Richard Owen, from ACS (©Ubisoft Entertainment; extracted from Assassin’s Creed Wiki).

Back to the real world, first I should point out that Darwin was somewhat of a hermit. He lived in the countryside near London since 1842 and his home was known as Down House. Darwin reportedly did not enjoy going into town that much, so you would be hard pressed to find him in London as the Frye twins did. But that is totally excusable, as a game set in Victorian London must include Darwin somehow. Also, by that time Darwin already had his share of adventures during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle around the world, so you would be even more unlikely to find him poking around criminal activities in London. Thus, the whole “Soothing Syrup” quests would be very unlikely, especially because they involve more medicine and chemistry than actual biology.

Later on in ACS, the Frye twins meet Darwin again, who says that his critics were threatening him and his colleagues with violence. He was waiting for a certain German colleague of his, identified in the game simply as Dr. Schwartz, who was bringing an important fossil to London. Darwin asks the Fryes to protect Schwartz, but they discover that the German scientist was intercepted and killed by Templars. Even so, they manage to recover the fossil and deliver it to Darwin.

This mission is simply perfect for the setting, even though it is slightly historically inaccurate. The mission is called “The Berlin Specimen”, which is a name that can only refer to one thing: the fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) of Berlin. This species is one of the most important in the world from a historical perspective: its first fossil was discovered in southeastern Germany just two years after Origin was published and was a major evidence in favor of Darwin’s work, showing that the origin of modern birds lays within the group of theropod dinosaurs.

The Berlin specimen is the most famous (and most complete) of all the fossils of Archaeopteryx lithographica; we typically see a replica of it in exhibition in museums worldwide. However, it was only discovered somewhere in 1874–1876, some years after the setting of ACS, but still reasonably close. Curiously, a man named Schwartz, from Nuremberg, tried to buy the actual fossil before it was bought by the Berlin museum (funded by Werner von Siemens, founder of Siemens AG).

The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica (photo by E. Willoughby, 2014; extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

There is in fact a “London specimen” of Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1861 and bought by none other than Richard Owen for the Natural History Museum in January 1863. Perhaps this fossil would have been more appropriate for ACS; especially given that Owen is already in the game.

Replica of the London specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica (photo by H. Zell, 2010; extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

Back to ACS, Darwin first asks the Fryes to investigate a plant that can make people delirious and then to secure him a copy of that day’s newspaper, which had a rebuttal to Owen’s defamation mentioned above. The Fryes then discover a Templar plot to spread newspaper articles with anti-Darwin propaganda, epitomized as a caricature.

This caricature, entitled “A Venerable Orang-outang” is seen in ACS and it was a real thing, published by The Hornet magazine in 1871, after Darwin published his book The Descent of Man (extracted from Wikimedia Commons).

In fact, Darwin was constantly under the radar of the Templars in ACS, who tried to buy him (and his research) out. Darwin answered that “[s]cientific knowledge cannot be bought, it belongs to everyone.” The Fryes, of course, would come to his aid. They discover who was behind the caricature (spread through London as posters) and sabotage the printer shop.

Darwin’s ideas of evolution[2] by natural and sexual selection and their implications for our own species were the cause of many heated debates during his lifetime. In fact, to this day many people are still in denial regarding his ideas (especially in religious countries like the US and Brazil), despite the massive amount of evidence in his favor. Darwin knew this would happen and that is basically why he took so long to publish his main book: he needed to amass as much supporting evidence as he possibly could. In ACS, Darwin says to Evie that “I am used to people challenging my ideas”.

The last mission involving Darwin in ACS is called “A Struggle for Existence” and alludes to the full title of his main book: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. But the mission is not as poetic as it sounds; rather it is very literal. It begins with Florence Nightingale telling the Fryes that Darwin had been arrested and that she feared that “Mr. Darwin is no longer the fit, young man who once traveled the world.” The Fryes then rescue him from a Templar base and Florence suggests that Darwin retired with his family to the Isle of Wight to recuperate in peace. Darwin, though, argues that “[t]he acquisition of knowledge is in itself sufficiently recuperative.” Real-world Darwin actually spent a holiday with his family on the Isle of Wight during 1868; the latter of the photos shown above was taken there.


As I said in the beginning, Cook and Darwin (and Owen, I suppose) are hopefully just the first on a series I intend to write exploring all the real-world scientists that feature in the many Assassin’s Creed games. (I’ll definitely include Florence Nightingale at some point, in case you were wondering.) Also, since several games take place before the establishment of modern science, you’ll also see some philosophers and historians around here. Until next time!


Assassin’s Creed Wiki. (2019) Assassin’s Creed Wiki. Available from https://assassinscreed.fandom.com/ (Date of access: 25/Feb/2019).

Barlow, N. (Ed.) 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. Collins, London.

Beaglehole, J.C. (1956) On the character of Captain James Cook. The Geographical Journal  122(4): 417–429.

Beaglehole, J.C. (1974) The Life of Captain James Cook. A. & C. Black, London.

Berkman M.B. & Plutzer E. (2010) Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Brooking, T. & Enright, P. (1988) Milestones. Turning Points in New Zealand History. Mills, Lower Hutt.

Browne, E.J. (2002) Charles Darwin. Vol. 2: The Power of Place. Jonathan Cape, London.

Brownsey, P.J. (2002) The Banks and Solander collections – a benchmark for understanding the New Zealand flora. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 42: 131–137.

Boulter, M. (2009) Darwin’s Garden: Down House and the Origin of Species. Counterpoint LLC, Berkeley.

Chiappe, L.M. (2007) Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. UNSW Press, Sydney.

Collingridge, V. (2003) Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer. Random House, New York.

Dames, R. (1927) Werner von Siemens und der Archaeopteryx. Nachrichten des Vereins der Siemens-Beamten Berlin E.V. 1927: 233–234.

Darwin, C. (1845) Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, R.N. Second ed. John Murray, London. [a.k.a. The Voyage of the Beagle]

Fisher, R. & Johnston, H. (1979) Captain James Cook and His Times. ANU, Canberra.

Gould, S.J. (1987) Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Herdendorf, C.E. (1986) Captain James Cook and the transits of Mercury and Venus. Journal of Pacific History 21: 39–55.

Holmes, R. (2008) The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. HarperCollins, New York.

Hough, R. (1994). Captain James Cook. W.W. Norton, New York.

Jones, S. (2009) Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England. Little Brown and Company, Boston.

McCalman, I. (2009) Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution. W. W. Norton, New York.

McLynn, F. (2011) Captain Cook: Master of the Seas. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Newell, J. (2010) Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans, and Ecological Exchange. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu.

Reel, M. (2013) Between Man and Beast. Doubleday, New York.

Rupke, N.A. (1994) Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Salmond, A. (2003) The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. Allen Lane, London.

Shipman, P. (1998) Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Tischlinder, H.E. (2005) Neue Informationen zum Berliner Exemplar von Archaeopteryx lithographica H. v. Meyer 1861. Archaeopteryx 23: 33–50.

Tomotani, J.V. & Salvador, R.B. (2017) Análise do conteúdo de Evolução em livros didáticos do Ensino Fundamental brasileiro. Pesquisa e Ensino em Ciências Exatas e da Natureza 1: 05–18.

Wellnhofer, P. (2009) Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. Friedrich Pfeil, Munich.

Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108: 1815–1820.


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who studies mollusks or, to put it shortly, a malacologist. He loves reading about the scientists of old and can’t help but share this sometimes. He is hyped by Assassin’s Creed games ever since the very first images of Altair came out. His favorite entry in the series is Origins, because… Egypt, but his favorite Assassins are still Ezio and Evie.

[1] Herdendorf (1986) argued that the Transit of Venus, first in 1761 and then in 1769, was the first international collaborative effort in science, including dozens of observers in tens of stations spread worldwide. He considered it as the establishment of the modern scientific international community.

[2] Actually, while Darwin was working on his book another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), independently conceived the idea of evolution through natural selection. His work on the subject was jointly presented with Darwin’s in 1858 to the Linnean Society of London.

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You’re an oegopsid now: the phylogeny of squid kids from the future

Henry N. Thomas

University of California, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.

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

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The main characters of Nintendo’s 2015 video game Splatoon and its 2017 sequel Splatoon 2 are Inklings, a species of sapient cephalopod with the ability to transform between a humanoid form and a more traditional coleoid form. Also present are the Octarians: octopus descendants that take the role of enemies. Since the release of the Octo Expansion for Splatoon 2, the Octoling, a subspecies of Octarian with similar appearance and abilities to Inklings, has become playable. Both Inklings and Octolings are hyper-evolved descendants of modern cephalopods, having evolved after sea level rise drives humanity to extinction 12,000 years in the future.

Figure 1. Comparison between the cephalopods of Splatoon and real cephalopods. Clockwise from top left: an Inkling in squid form; a female Inkling in humanoid form; a male Octoling in humanoid form; an Octoling in octopus form; Ommastrephes bartramii; Todarodes pacificus; Octopus vulgaris; Abralia veranyi; Thysanoteuthis rhombus. (Inklings’ and Octolings’ official renders are a courtesy of Nintendo; other images are public domain, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.)

Exactly which cephalopods Inklings and Octolings descended from is unknown. In-game lore posits that Inklings are descended from squids and Octolings are descended from octopuses. A previous article covering the cephalopods of Splatoon has suggested links to Ommastrephidae or Thysanoteuthidae for Inklings (Salvador & Cunha, 2016). Here, I set out to resolve the relationships of these cephalopods with phylogenetic analysis.

Usually, scientists would use molecular data, i.e., DNA or protein sequences, to determine relationships among recent taxa. There have been numerous recent studies on the relationships of coleoid cephalopods based on molecular data (e.g., Sanchez et al., 2018). However, since video game characters have no DNA, this cannot be applied here. Thus, only morphological and behavioral data can be used. Luckily, there have been morphological phylogenies of cephalopods in the past to build off of.


To answer this question that nobody was really asking, I constructed a morphological dataset of cephalopods. This combines four previously-published morphological datasets (Young & Vechione, 1996; Voight, 1997; Lindgren et al., 2004; Sutton et al., 2016), as well as additional characters. I also added Inklings, Octolings, and nine extant squid genera to the dataset (Table 1): Dosidicus, Eucleoteuthis, Hyaloteuthis, Lampdioteuthis, Lycoteuthis, Mesonychoteuthis, Todarodes, Todaropsis, and Watasenia. “Palaeoctopus pelagicus” was removed because it isn’t a cephalopod at all, but fragments of a fossil coelacanth (Schultze et al., 2010).

Table 1: List of OTUs and sources of data. Extinct taxa are denoted by the symbol (†) before the species name. New data is marked in bold. Note that inklings and octolings are fictional taxa.

A few species in the same genera were lumped due to either having identical codings or in the name of having more complete Operational Taxonomic Units, or OTUs (several were coded in one dataset and not the others). Most Octarians have highly unorthodox morphology compared to Inklings or Octolings, and were excluded because how do you code a tentacle with a face? The resulting dataset has 283 characters and 139 OTUs.

I ran analyses in TNT (Goboloff & Catalano, 2016) using equal weighting methodology for 2000 replicates, producing 10 trees each. I ran one analysis with no constraints and one with a “molecular backbone” – forcing the analysis to fit a certain topology corresponding to what molecular phylogenies tell us. The framework of Sanchez et al. (2018) was used for the backbone analysis. This way, the trees can be built around how certain taxa are related, while the morphological data plots where those without molecular data would be. The outgroup taxon was Nautilus pompilius.


Surprisingly, contra in-game lore, Inklings and Octolings are consistently recovered as sister taxa. The two species are united by numerous features, mostly having to do with living on land and shooting ink everywhere. Feasibly, these could have evolved independently, but compared to other NPC species in the game, the similarities between these two are striking. If this is true, this may make their rivalry analogous to that which may have occurred between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans in the Pleistocene (Finlayson & Carrión, 2007) in response to environmental change (changing sea levels and climate change, respectively). This may also explain why most Octarians are so different from Octolings – they may have actually descended from octopuses, and gone down a completely different evolutionary path towards sapience and land-living. It is canon that Octolings were brainwashed into serving the Octarian army, so this might imply that the Octarian-Octoling link is largely fabricated. Of course, that adds a layer of in-game cultural implications that is out of the scope of this paper.

In all analyses, both species ended up well inside Ommastrephidae, the flying squids. This fits with what we know of Inkling biology. As previously noted by Salvador & Cunha (2016), the leaping ability of Inklings in squid form (“super jump”), demonstrated in Splatoon, Splatoon 2, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, may be exapted from the tendency of flying squids to jump above the surface of water. Inklings are also bioluminescent, a trait shared with certain members of Ommastrephidae, including Ommastrephes itself. The unusual octopus-like form of the Octoling may be convergent evolution with Octopoda; Octolings display the same “super jump”, not known in any octopods, and similar awkward terrestrial locomotion in coleoid form (in contrast to the Octarians).

But aside from being a fun and way too time-consuming exercise in phylogenetics, what does this tell us? Our results echo the suggestions of Salvador & Cunha (2016) that the design of Inklings was likely heavily influenced by ommastrephid squids that live in Japanese waters, such as Todarodes pacificus and Ommastrephes bartramii. This shows that the designers of the Splatoon franchise likely deliberately modeled this game’s characters after specific cephalopod species (echoed in the fact that the Japanese names of several characters reference specific real-world species). Nintendo certainly knows their squids.

Figure 2. Strict consensus tree of the “spineless” analysis, with Pohlsepia removed a posteriori because it was unstable.
Figure 3. Strict consensus tree of the analysis with a molecular backbone constraint applied.


Finlayson, C. & Carrión, J.S. (2007) Rapid ecological turnover and its impact on Neanderthal and other human populations. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22(4): 213–222.

Goloboff, P.A. & Catalano, S.A. (2016) TNT version 1.5, including a full implementation of phylogenetic morphometrics. Cladistics 32(3): 221–238.

Lindgren, A.R.; Giribet, G.; Nishiguchi, M.K. (2004) A combined approach to the phylogeny of Cephalopoda (Mollusca). Cladistics 20(5): 454–486.

Salvador, R.B. & Cunha, C.M. (2016) Squids, octopuses, and lots of ink. Journal of Geek Studies 3(1): 12–26.

Sanchez, G.; Setiamarga, D.H.E.; Tuanapaya, S.; Tongtherm, K.; Winkelmann, I.E.; Schmidbaur, H.; Umino, T.; Albertin, C.; Allcock, L.; Perales-Raya, C.; Gleadall, I.; Strugnell, J.M.; Simakov, O.; Nabhitabhata, J. (2018) Genus-level phylogeny of cephalopods using molecular markers: current status and problematic areas. PeerJ 6: e4331.

Schultze, H.P.; Fuchs, D.; Giersch, S.; Ifrim, C.; Stinnesbeck, W. (2010) Palaeoctopus pelagicus from the Turonian of Mexico reinterpreted as a coelacanth (Sarcopterygian) gular plate. Palaeontology 53(3): 689–694.

Sutton, M.; Preales-Raya, C.; Gilbert, I. (2015) A phylogeny of fossil and living neocoleoid cephalopods. Cladistics 32(3): 297–307.

Voight, J.R. (1997) Cladistic analysis of the octopods based on anatomical characters. Journal of Molluscan Studies 63(3): 311–325.

Young, R.E. & Vecchione, M. (1996) Analysis of morphology to determine primary sister-taxon relationships within coleoid cephalopods. American Malacological Bulletin 12(1/2): 91–112.


Because the author lives approximately 10,000 years before the evolution of either Inklings or Octolings, he was unable to access any for study. However, he was able to access relevant game models and amiibos in private collections for the collection of morphological data. He also adopted a Sanei Inkling boy plush during the preparation of this manuscript.


Props to Nintendo for making this awesome franchise in the first place, and to an anonymous friend/reviewer for trying to dissuade me from doing this silly project.


Henry Thomas is a biology student at the University of California, Berkeley. He mostly studies pterosaurs, but also dabbles in the phylogeny of other creatures, regardless of whether they exist or not.

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Wingspan: how birds colonized board games

Interview with Elizabeth Hargrave

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Wingspan is a game entirely about birds and it has been a wonderful surprise, being considered one of the hottest titles for 2019[1]. This is the first game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave, published by Stonemaier Games, and will be available in March this year.

In this game, the players take the role of bird enthusiasts (researchers, birdwatchers, and ornithologists) and must discover and attract birds to their wildlife preserves. In board game terms, Wingspan is an engine-building game, that is, a game in which you have to establish an effective system to generate and accumulate points. There are 170 unique bird cards in the game and, as you add them to your nature preserve, they help you do more and more on each subsequent turn. In general, forest birds make you better at getting food, wetland birds help you get more cards, and grassland birds make you better at laying eggs.

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Elizabeth Hargrave to understand how ornithology and ecology made their way into a board game. You can read the full interview below.


Q: To come up with a game based on birds, you must be a birdwatcher or an ornithologist, is that right?

A: Yes, I’m an amateur birder.

Q: When did your interest in birds began?

A: I’ve always been a nature lover and appreciated birds in general when I saw them, the same way I appreciated any other wildlife. I’ve always had a bird field guide and a pair of binoculars around. But I didn’t really start intentionally birding – like, going out with birds as my primary purpose – until maybe 6 or 7 years ago.

Q: What gave you the idea for a bird ecology game?

A: I felt like there were too many games about castles and space, and not enough games about things I’m interested in. So I decided to make a game about something I cared about.

Q: Did you bring into Wingspan some of your experience with birds? Your favorite species, maybe?

A: I tried to get a diverse set of birds from North America into the game, and a lot of the common ones. But some species definitely got a push just because I like them. Roseate spoonbills[2] are only in a tiny corner of North America, but it’s the corner of North America that I grew up in, and I love them, so they’re in. There’s a lot of room with 170 cards – but it’s still only a fraction of all of the species that live in North America[3].

Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Wingspan? How does one win in a bird game?

A: You win by having the most points. A lot of your points will come from playing the birds themselves, but you can also get points by laying eggs or by using certain bird powers. And then there are specific goals and bonuses that change from game to game. You might have the “photographer” card that will give you bonus points for birds with colors in their name, or the “falconer” that gives points for predator birds. And then there are shared goals that you can compete for, like having the preserve with the most eggs in it at the end of a round.

To win, you usually have to choose to focus on some of those things over others. And you need to think about how the different powers on the bird cards could help you get there.

Q: The game’s strategy is spun around a lot of ecology. What sort of information have you brought from the real world into Wingspan? Or, better put, how much scientific data have you included in the game?

A: There is a ton of real-world information on each card. Birds get played into certain habitats on your player mat, based on their real-world habitat. And each card’s cost is food, based on some very simplified categories of the food that the birds actually eat. And each bird’s nest type could play into the end-of-round goals.

When I could, I tried to work in real-life bird behavior for the powers on each bird. For example, predator birds go hunting by looking at the top card in the deck: if the bird has a small enough wingspan that the predator could eat it, you get to keep that card and score a point for it. Nest parasites like brown-headed cowbirds get to a lay an egg on another bird’s nest when another player lays eggs. That kind of thing.

And finally, each card has a little factoid on it about the bird, and a very simplified map of which continents it is native to. Those don’t actually come into play on the game, but sometimes they might explain why a bird’s power is what it is.

Q: Do you hope the players will learn something about the birds by playing Wingspan?

A: I hope that it’s a game that you can play primarily as a game, without feeling like you’re supposed to be learning anything… and then maybe accidentally pick some things up along the way. A lot of educational games feel very preachy to me, and that’s not my intention. But I do hope that as players interact with the birds in the game, some of the real-world information that’s there is interesting to them.

Q: Suppose a player is inspired by Wingspan to do some birdwatching of their own. Would you have some tips to offer to this fledgling birder?

A: Find a list of common birds for your area, and look for them right around where you live. Once you have a few birds that you can reliably identify, things get easier.

A pair of binoculars makes a huge difference. You don’t have to spring for a super-expensive pair right away – there are decent starter pairs for the cost of a board game. But it’s incredibly frustrating to try to ID birds without being able to see all their markings.

Find a local birding club, or hit up a birder friend – most people are happy to share their knowledge, and to have you along as an extra pair of eyes. I once caused a major freak-out in a group of more-knowledgeable birders by saying “hey, what’s that one?” – it turned out to be a golden-winged warbler, a beautiful bird that very rarely visits our area.

Download the eBird[4] app and keep lists of the birds you see. If you’re anything like me, growing your personal list will be addictive – but you’ll also be contributing to a worldwide database that ornithologists use to track trends in bird populations.

Q: Do you think ultimately Wingspan can help with bird conservation efforts?

A: As much as the industry is growing, board games are still a pretty niche hobby. But every little bit helps! I have definitely heard from gamers who have started paying attention to birds in real life because of Wingspan.

Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from Wingspan?

A: I always set out to make it a fun game first, about something that I love. If you have fun playing Wingspan, my mission is accomplished. If you can see why people love birds – or get interested in them yourself – after playing, even better.


This is the first published game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave. Bird art is by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, while art for the player mats and birdhouse dice tower is by Beth Sobel. Christine Santana did the graphic design. David Studley designed the solo version of the game, with help from the Automa team. Jamey Stegmaier managed the whole team, and worked with Elizabeth to develop the gameplay.

[1] McLaughlin, S. 2019. Birds star in one of this year’s hottest board games. National Audubon Society. Available from: https://www.audubon.org/news/birds-star-one-years-hottest-board-games (Date of access: 19/Feb/2019).

[2] Platalea ajaja Linnaeus, 1758 (family Threskiornithidae).

[3] There are circa 760 bird species that breed in the USA and Canada, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/home).

[4] eBird (https://ebird.org/home) is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Valleys Between: bringing environmental issues to games

Niamh Fitzgerald

Little Lost Fox. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: niamh (at) littlelostfox (dot) com

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Valleys Between[1] is an environmental puzzle game, where your goal is to grow your world for as long as you can while protecting it from threats that will damage its health.

When we started designing Valleys Between we wanted to explore ways to get people thinking about environmental issues, and while the game has evolved during the game development cycle, the core themes of the game are still there. While we considered real world ecology and nature, we realised early on that to create a fun and engaging game we would need to take inspiration from them without being too literal.

One of our goals is to create a strong bond between the player and the world they’ve created, and one of the ways we do this is by allowing you to literally shape the world with your fingertips. Players only have the ability to swipe up or down to interact with the world, but small actions such as pulling a tree up out of the ground can actually have a big impact. Much like the real world, one action isn’t always enough to solve larger problems but a group of small actions can result in a big change.

The beautiful hexagonal environments of Valleys Between.

Many of the games mechanics are inspired by nature, though in a simplified or abstract way. This allows us to craft gameplay that’s enjoyable and relatable without ever straying too far into something that feels completely at odds with reality (at least in most cases). With that in mind we had two important rules that guided our design:

  1. The game is inspired by nature, so the environmental theme should always be present while never overpowering or distracting the player from the gameplay.
  2. We won’t sacrifice enjoyable gameplay for the sake of keeping something too realistic or similar to how our real world works.

These rules allowed us to find a balance between fun and relatable mechanics that are easy for the player to understand. When designing mechanics we often started from an ecological concept and explored how we could distill it down to base elements to see how they could work well within the game. The best way to illustrate this is to look at the primary mechanics in Valleys Between.

At its core, Valleys Between is about creating a thriving world. The first step to doing this is to create an environment where things can grow, so the first move a player makes is to create water tiles in their new world. Water makes all dirt tiles around it turn into grass, and trees can only be planted on grass. To plant a tree, the player pulls up on a grass tile and essentially plucks a fully-grown tree out of the ground. While this is clearly a few steps removed from reality, it feels close enough, and this familiarity helps create a stronger connection between the nature presented in the game and what the player expects from nature in the real world.

Trees that are next to each other can be combined to make a forest, which grows your world by adding a new row of land. In this way, the base relationship between water and trees are shown as being critical to growing a world. Groups of forests can be further combined to make a house, which introduces humans as part of the ecosystem in Valleys Between. While this is an incredibly simplified representation of nature to a few small mechanics in Valleys Between, it’s part of what makes it feel environmentally rich.

Grow a thriving world and find the balance to sustain it.

The game wouldn’t be very fun without something challenging you, so we decided to introduce the two sides of human influence on the environment. The first is a positive influence of creating a house by combining trees which helps your world grow and expand. However, as your world grows, we also introduce a negative influence in the form of factories and other man-made objects. Factories threaten the health of your world and they can spill oil to surrounding tiles if you leave them for too long. While there isn’t necessarily an easy action to fix things these things in our world, we wanted players to want to protect their world from these threats even if they can’t stop them from occurring. We also found in early playtests that people became very attached to the animals that wander their world, and this helped them feel connected to it, so we decided to tie these concepts together and have animals act as the primary protectors of your world. Animals wander throughout your world, and while you can influence their path, you aren’t able to control them directly. You can choose to use them to nurture and enhance a specific area, or use them to convert a factory to something that won’t damage the health of your world. Once you’ve used an animal, they fall asleep for a period of time so the player has to choose when to nurture and when to protect their world.

While these mechanics may seem to be quite a stretch from the real world, we’ve found that by taking inspirations from nature rather than literal representations, we’ve been able to craft an enjoyable game.

Animals are the protectors of your world.


Niamh Fitzgerald is a producer and game designer at indie studio Little Lost Fox, based in Wellington, New Zealand. She organised the New Zealand Game Developer Conference in 2017 and 2018, and likes to combine her love of travel with game development by getting involved in game developer events around New Zealand and internationally.

[1] Released in 2018 by Little Lost Fox. Currently available for iPhone/iPad and coming soon to Android. Learn more at http://littlelostfox.com/

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Cephalopods of the Multiverse

Mark A. Carnall

Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Oxford, UK.

Email: mark.carnall (at) oum.ox.ac (dot) uk

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Magic the Gathering (MTG) is a popular trading and collectible card game, first published by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. Although the game now spans many formats and game types, the core concept pits two players “Planes-walkers” against each other, drawing power (mana) from plains, swamps, mountains, forests and islands to summon creatures and cast spells to battle and defeat opponents. The game has a complex and ever evolving set of rules. Wizards of the Coast regularly release new sets and blocks introducing new cards, mechanics and lore to the rich Multiverse, the planes of existence that Planeswalkers can travel between, that makes the games setting.

One aspect of the game which arguably underpins the continued success of MTG is the vibrancy and colour which gives flavour to the complex ruleset of the game. Storylines featuring several recurring characters, normally Planeswalkers, are told across novelisations, through flavour text and the beautiful artwork of the cards. The designers and artists liberally take inspiration for the denizens of the Multiverse from wider science-fiction, fantasy and of course the natural world.

Although your average game of MTG may feature battles between Inexorable Blobshammer wielding cat wizards and goblin bombers, more zoologically minded Planeswalkers may summon an AllosaurusHammerhead Shark or a Grizzly Bear or two to the fray. Of course, as numerous Journal of Geek Studies papers have highlighted (Salvador, 2014, 2018; Cavallari, 2015; Salvador & Cunha, 2016), cephalopod molluscs have also inspired the designers of MTG and this paper will look at known cephalopods from the Multiverse with some comments on differences between their biology and the cephalopods we’re more familiar with on our humble plane.


‘Squid’, octopuses and nautiluses have all featured in MTG so far on creature, other spell and even Planeswalkers cards. Krakens are also a creature type within the Multiverse but differ from the Kraken of historical and contemporary mythology, normally associated with giant squid or squid-like creatures. In MTG krakens are giant, island destroying, beasts which show a diversity of cetacean, arthropod and molluscan features amongst others. For this reason, krakens get an honourable mention here but won’t be examined as the mutating magical powers of the deep sea defy current systematic reasoning.

Mirroring trends in scientific research and literature on cephalopods, although they are culturally important organisms they make up a small niche of known creatures in the Multiverse. Unlike other creature types which have been a mainstay in MTG sets, cephalopod cards are comparatively rare. Cephalopod-themed cards were published as early as 1997 but it’s only comparatively recently that enough cards have been produced to attempt an all-cephalopod themed standard 60-card deck.

The different cards will be examined in a hybrid taxonomic and card type order starting with creature cards then moving onto enchantments, Planeswalkers and sorcery types. In total, excluding reprinted cards and art variants, there are 21 cephalopod-themed cards currently published for MTG: 14 creatures, 2 sorceries, 2 enchantments, 2 tokens and 1 Planeswalker.


In MTG the comparative power, strength and endurance of different creatures is expressed as a number on the bottom right hand of creature cards. The numerator represents the power of a creature (the amount of damage it can do by punching, slicing, psychically tormenting or oozing on a defending creature) and the denominator represents toughness (the amount of punching etc. it can take).

The power levels of various creatures of the Multiverse is the subject of much debate and mirth amongst players but for this paper the Grizzly Bear with the power/toughness 2/2 will be used as a baseline to make inferences about analogies between cephalopods from other planes and our own.


Perhaps unfairly maligned as hangers-on or ‘living fossils’ on our plane, today’s diversity of living species of nautiluses, the only externally shelled cephalopods, have inspired philosophers, artisans and scientists for centuries. The exact species diversity and relationships between them is still in flux, compounded by the difficulty in accessing and studying these organisms.

There are just two nautiluses in MTG, the Chambered Nautilus, which shares its name with a generic name used to refer to the whole living group, or sometimes, specifically Nautilus pompilius, and the Crystalline Nautilus (Fig. 1). Much like living nautiluses, which are nationally and internationally protected by law, the flavour text for chambered nautilus suggests that their shells are also exploited by jewellers on some planes at least:

“What’s merely a home for the nautilus can become exquisite jewelry in the hands of Saprazzan artisans.”

— Flavour text from Chambered Nautilus card.

Chambered nautiluses are 2/2 creatures in MTG and the card art shows one giving a merfolk an unwanted cuddle. The art and power level suggests that Magic’s nautiluses are significantly larger than living ones. Interestingly, they share a fleshy hood, numerous tentacles and a lenseless eye complete with iris groove for channelling mucus (Muntz, 1987).

Figure 1. The nautiluses. Source: Gatherer.

By contrast the crystalline nautilus, masterfully depicted by artist Brad Rigney, suggests extreme adaptation unlike that of known nautiloid species. In the first instance, the crystalline nautilus is both a creature and enchantment and is shown with a vivid pearlescent shell similar to polished shells of nautiluses. The soft tissue anatomy is consistent with known species of Nautilus and Allonautilus; however, the crystalline nautilus is shown moving at speed over the surface of the water. This has never been documented in known species and furthermore, from the depiction, the hyponome plays no part in this high speed aquaplaning mode of locomotion. A power and toughness of 4/4 suggests that crystalline nautilus is significantly more durable and powerful than Magic’s chambered nautilus too.


As a general term, squid is often used for decapodiform cephalopods excluding cuttlefish which is not a natural grouping of these soft-bodied cephalopods. There are three squid creatures in MTG and two squid producing creatures. With the exception of Gulf Squid, the squid appear to have corneal membranes and are classified, albeit tentatively, here as myopsid squid.

The three squid creatures in MTG are the FylamaridSand Squid and the intriguing Gulf Squid (Fig. 2). Sand Squid appear the most similar to known myopsid species albeit significantly larger than any known decapodiform cephalopod, depicted embracing a human-sized creature with thick, flat arms. Fylamarids are flying squid which appear to have evolved true sustained flight beyond the shorter bursts of flight in species of flying squid (Muramatsu et al., 2013) with adaptations of large wing like projections underneath the siphon region, huge lateral fins and vampire squid-like filament arms alongside usual arm array. The tentacles appear to have been lost, but they can squirt ink.

Figure 2. MTG’s ‘squid’ cards including the presumably misclassified Omastar Gulf Squid. Source: Gatherer.

Although the Gulf Squid has been categorised as a squid by MTG (presumably informed by scholars from across the Multiverse), the gulf squid possesses a large ornamented spiral shell suggesting an ammonoid affinity or convergence. The direction of shell coiling with relation to the position of the aperture as well as the skin colour, suggests a close resemblance to another well-known fictitious cephalopod (Salvador, 2014). Further study of this group is required to confirm relationship with other known cephalopods from the Multiverse.

Likewise, Chasm Skulkers, categorised by MTG as a ‘squid horror’ also defies known relationships within Cephalopoda. Upon the death of a Chasm Skulker, a number of 1/1 squid creatures are created. It is unknown if these are symbiotic or parasitic cephalopods, who attack on the death of their ‘host’, or spontaneously created with magical forces. The last ‘squid’ card gives some insight into ecology in the oceans of different planes, summoning a Coral Barrier also brings with it a 1/1 squid creature consistent with reef species in our plane.


In terms of types of octopuses in MTG, which in some cases seems to be analogous to species, octopuses are the most speciose of known cephalopods from the Multiverse. There are six octopus creatures. Like cephalopods in our plane, the Multiverse also seems to be plagued with problematic naming conventions when it comes to octopus types.

In order of power, Crafty Octopus (Fig. 3) is the weakest octopus card, but like living species, makes up for it in terms of brain power. In addition to showing an advanced range of tool use, Crafty Octopus is also wearing glasses, steadfast evidence of intelligence in ethological studies.

Figure 3. The octopuses, with fourth wall breaking Jules Verne quote on this printing of the card. Source: Gatherer.

The next octopus in terms of power is the Giant Octopus (Fig. 3), depicted at a size larger than buildings and capable of destroying ships with their arms. Although certainly giant by comparison to the largest known species of octopuses in our plane, the name may be a misnomer as they are the second smallest type of octopus in MTG, and therefore not biologically giant as defined by Klug et al. (2015). The flavour text for the various reprints of this card tell us many things. Firstly, that calamari is appreciated across the Multiverses and secondly with a quote from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, that this influential volume has somehow also made its way across the Multiverse (or perhaps Verne walked the planes?).

Tied at 5/5 power and toughness are the ship-crushing Sealock Monster and multi-mouthed Godhunter Octopus (Fig. 4). Studying specimens of this size would have huge implications for understanding the evolution of colossal size in coleoid cephalopods. From a restricted glimpse of Godhunter octopuses, it appears they possess numerous toothed mouth-like openings, superficially similar to toothed sucker rings.

Moving up the power scale, the Elder Deep-Fiend (Fig. 4) is next, literally bursting from inside another creature which is handy in a pinch. The Elder Deep-Fiend shows some interesting anatomy similar to Godhunter Octopus with a toothed maw on the surface of the mantle rather than in the centre of arms. However, it’s important to note that this octopus is a physical manifestation formed from the ceaseless hunger of titans from the Blind Eternities so adherence to biological principles is not necessarily a given.

Figure 4. The octopod monsters, depicted destroying people, boats and mountains? Source: Gatherer.

The last of the octopus creatures is Lorthos, the Tidemaker (Fig. 5) a whopping and cephalopod-theme pleasing 8/8 legendary creature. Unfortunately, last seen being dismembered by an Eldrazi titan, this unique specimen is presumed lost to science (Digges, 2015).

Figure 5. Lorthos. Source: Gatherer.


In addition to summoning creatures to go head to head with each other in magical conflicts, Planeswalkers can also use a variety of spells to tip the table in their favour and control the field of play. They can also summon other Planeswalkers to assist in battles. There are a number of cephalopod spells in MTG but unfortunately, their magical and ethereal nature defies existing classification systems and biological concepts.

Crush of Tentacles (Fig. 6; although crush of cephalopod arms appears to be more accurate) is a powerful sorcery spell that makes all other creatures disappear and, if you’ve got the mana to spare, summons an 8/8 octopus to boot. Octopus Umbra (Fig. 6) is an enchantment aura that can be used to give other creatures ‘the power of Octopus’ boosting them to 8/8 power and toughness with the ability to shut down creatures with a power less than 8 (see what they did there?).

Then there are two spells and one creature which cause pause for thought on cephalopod taxonomy. Quest for Ula’s Temple (Fig. 6), Whelming Wave and summoning Slinn Voda all affect creature types. Quest for Ula’s Temple becomes a tidal wave of creatures and the other two remove certain creatures from play. Interestingly, octopuses are the only cephalopods affected by these alongside aforementioned Krakens, Leviathans and Serpents. Quite why it’s only octopuses and not all cephalopods which are affected is currently unknown. Interestingly, Whelming Wave summons a… err… whelming wave, but octopuses are spared from its destructive power. This then allows them to take over the land presumably as happened recently in Wales (Ward, 2017).

Figure 6. Cephalopod flavoured spells: Quest for Ula’s Temple, Octopus Umbra, Crush of Tentacles [sic]. Source: Gatherer.

The last cephalopod-themed card worth mentioning is Planeswalker Kiora. A merfolk Planeswalker, she has the power to summon 8/8 octopuses into battle and is depicted in both her Master of the Depths and Crashing Wave (Fig. 7) as keeping a suckered beast or two on hand at all times. A must-have ally for those wanting to literally bring more arms to the fight.

Figure 7. Both depictions of Planeswalker Kiora A.K.A. ‘The one with all the fan art’. Source: Gatherer.


As of the time of writing, these are all the known cephalopod and cephalopod-related creatures, spells and Planeswalkers from the MTG Multiverse. In this examination there is some biological conservatism across planes of existence when it comes to cephalopod biology, anatomy and ecology. There are also some marked differences, which although may be biologically questionable, implausible or indeed impossible, they make for a fun game. There are still plenty of cephalopods yet to draw inspiration from including early fossil forms, cuttlefish, ram’s horn squid and bobtail squid. Here’s hoping that many more cephalopods will be making their way to a card table soon.


Cavallari, D.C. (2015) Shells and bytes: mollusks in the 16-bit era. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 28–43.

Digges, K. (2015) The Rise of Kozilek. Wizards of the Coast. Available from: https://magic.wizards. com/en/articles/archive/uncharted-realms/rise-kozilek-2015-12-09 (Date of access 12/10/2018).

Gatherer. (2018) Wizards of the Coast. Available from: http://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/De fault.aspx (Date of access 12/10/2018).

Klug, C.; De Baets, K.; Kreoger, B.; Bell, M.A.; Korn, D.; Payne, J.L. (2015) Normal giants? Temporal and latitudinal shifts of Palaeozoicmarine invertebrate gigantism and global change. Lethaia 48: 267–288.

Magic: The Gathering. (2018) Wizards of the Coast. Available from: https://magic.wizards.com/en/ new-to-magic (Date of access 12/10/2018).

Muntz, W.R.A. (1987) A Possible function of the iris groove of Nautilus. In: Saunders, W.B. & Landman, N.H. (Eds.) Nautilus: The Biology and Palaeobiology of a Living Fossil. Plenum Press, New York. Pp. 245–247.

Muramatsu, K.; Yamamoto, J.; Abe, T.; Seikiguchi, K.; Hoshi, N.; Sakurai, Y. (2013) Oceanic squid do fly. Marine Biology 160(5): 1171–1175.

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

Salvador, R.B. (2018) One squid to rule them all. Journal of Geek Studies 5(1): 23–32.

Salvador, R.B. & Cunha, C.M. (2016) Squids, octopuses and lots of ink. Journal of Geek Studies 3(1): 12–26.

Verne, J. (1872) Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas: A Tour of the Underwater World. Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Paris.

Ward, V. (2017) Octopus invasion on Welsh beach blamed on effects of recent storms. The Telegraph: 29/Oct/2017. Available from: https:// http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/29/octopus-invasion-welsh-beach-blamed-effects-recent -storms/ (Date of access 01/12/2018). 


I’d like to thank ‘Worm Tongue’ Murphy, ‘Tap to Block’ Nick, ‘Read the Cards’ Andy and ‘Bobby’ Big Balls for hours of field testing these ideas and concepts. Special thanks go to the staff of Dark Sphere London for their patience in cephalopod card hunting. 


Mark Carnall is a natural history curator specialising in all living things across time which isn’t really a specialism. As a museum curator he knows better than most that there is no prying apart popular culture and science as they both feed on and into each other. All animals are the best but cephalopods are more best.

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Moa v Superman

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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During his heroic career Superman fought several foes. Some of these stories are truly memorable, like The Death of Superman (1992–1993), when he faced Doomsday. But many stories just ended up completely forgotten. Granted, there are some stories that most fans prefer to forget, like the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but some are curious or weird enough to eventually deserve a fresh look. The story I’m about to tell you is one of the latter kind.

This one happened during the first years of the so-called Bronze Age of Comics (1970–1985). Comic books from the Bronze Age retained lots of elements and conventions from the preceding Silver Age, but started to introduce stories more in tune with social issues, like racism and drugs. Likewise, comics also began including environmental issues and this is the topic I will focus on here. More specifically, on extinction.


It is the first story on Action Comics no. 425 (July 1973), written by Cary Bates, illustrated by Curt Swan and Frank Giacoia. It is called “The Last Moa on Earth!” and by the title alone, you can see it is about a giant extinct bird.

It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Super– no, wait, it is actually a bird this time!

My goal here is to guide you through the story and offer some Biology inputs every now and then, explaining some things and “correcting” the bits the comics got wrong. I do know that writers should be free to invent and I wholeheartedly agree with that – it is science fiction after all! However, there are some sciency bits and pieces that are so simple to get right that there can be no excuse for giving the public wrong information.

The story starts off with hunter Jon Halaway in a New Zealand forest, being attacked by a giant flightless bird. He shoots and kills it, and decides to visit a local scientist (in Hawera, a town on the west coast of the North Island) to confirm his suspicions of the bird’s identity.

Elementary, my dear Halaway.

The scientist tells Halaway that he shot a bird thought to be extinct for 500 years and that there were once thousands of these animals in New Zealand. Both pieces of information are correct. Scientists estimated that there were circa 160,000 moa in New Zealand when Polynesian settlers arrived between 1,200 and 1,300 CE (Holdaway & Jacomb, 2000; Wilmshurst et al., 2010). There were nine species of moa in total and the Polynesians (who later became known as the Māori) had already extinguished them all by the early 1,400’s CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007; Perry et al., 2014).

The scientist then says that the bird was the largest of the moa species, Dinornis[1] maximus. While indeed this species was likely the largest[2], it inhabited only the South Island of New Zealand. The species from the North Island, where Halaway was hunting, is called Dinornis novaezealandiae. So the writer got the species wrong, but we cannot truly blame him: tens of moa “species” were described throughout the years, mostly because of the huge difference in size between the sexes of some species confused early researchers. Thus, the classification of moa species was really messed up until genetic studies started to be conducted from the late 1990’s onwards.

The skull of a North Island giant moa, Dinornis novaezealandiae. Source: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (specimen MNZ S.242); ©Te Papa, all rights reserved.

On a similar note, D. maximus is actually an invalid name; the valid name for the South Island giant moa is D. robustus (Gill et al., 2010). That is because “D. maximus” was a second name given to describe the same species; to avoid confusion, only the first name ever used (D. robustus) is valid in these cases.

Halaway estimated the size of the slain moa at 12 feet (approximately 3.6 m), which is quite reasonable. The largest known specimens would have been 2 meters high at their backs or 3 meters high with their necks held straight up (something that they did not do; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). Moreover, Halaway’s dead bird was a female, which are typically much larger than males in the two Dinornis species (Bunce et al., 2003; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).

Box 1. What’s a moa anyway?

The moa belong to a group of birds called “ratites”, which also includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi, rheas, and the extinct elephant birds. Recent research has shown that moa are not closely related to the other notable New Zealand ratites, the kiwi. Rather, they are closer to the charismatic South America tinamous[3] (Mitchell et al., 2014; Yonezawa et al., 2017). Since tinamous still retain some ability to fly, the moa’s ancestor was actually a flying bird (Gibbs, 2016).

The elegant crested tinamou, Eudromia elegans. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Evanphoto, 2009).

The loss of flight (alongside attaining a large body size) is a common occurrence on island environments where no mammalian predator is present. Other New Zealand species have also lost this ability; besides the kiwi (the typical example of a flightless bird), there are parrots (kakapo), rails (takahē) and wrens.



Halaway realizes that what he did was plain wrong. As mentioned above, during the Bronze Age comics became conscious of social and environmental problems – and extinction is a major problem, since it is usually our fault. This is important because, even though more than 350 years have elapsed after the last dodo was killed, most people still do not really grasp the idea that a species can disappear forever (Adams & Carwardine, 1900).

The “good” Mr. Halaway than devoted all his energy and resources into finding the slain moa’s egg. He succeeds and notes that the egg was being incubated in a hot spring with “strange fumes”. The egg was really big and appear egg-shaped in one panel and spherical in the other. Moa’s eggs were not spherical and not that large. Nevertheless, they were quite big and the largest known intact eggs are 20 and 25 cm tall (respectively, for the North Island and South Island Dinornis).

Of course the strange chemicals will grant the baby moa superpowers; otherwise this wouldn’t be a comic book.

Halaway finally arrives in Metropolis, where he is interviewed by none other than Clark Kent. On the highway, Halaway tells Clark that he wants to redeem himself of his “unforgivable deed” and hope that scientists will figure a way to use the egg to produce more moa. The repented hunter then faints, just as the baby moa hatches and escapes, throwing the car off-balance and into a river.

Clark takes off his suit and glasses and, after he’s more comfortable in his supersuit, saves Halaway and takes him to a hospital. Now I will cut the whole weird plot short and just say that the moa created an “organic link” (whatever that is) with Halaway via a microorganism, and was draining his energy. Typical crazy comic book stuff, but that’s not the point here. So let’s get back to the baby moa.

These “clawed terrors” were actually fluffy herbivores.


Superman starts searching Metropolis for the runaway moa and eventually finds it flying. Yes, flying – without wings, the comic-book moa flies by “thrashing its feet at super-speed”. In fact, Superman notices that the moa can fly faster than a super-sonic jet.

Also, even though just a few hours had passed since the moa escaped, when Superman found it, the bird had already doubled in size. And these were not the only superpowers granted to the moa by the mysterious fumes.

Yep, you read it right – that moa is flying with its feet.

Box 2. The moa’s archnemesis

The moa were herbivores, browsing on several types of leafy herbs, shrubs and trees (Wood et al., 2008). They were so abundant that it is thought their presence in New Zealand resulted in the evolution of a set of counter-measures in some plant lineages, which have small and hardened leaves, and sometimes also spines (Greenwood & Atkinson, 1977; Cooper et al., 1993; Worthy & Holdaway, 2002). But who ate the moa? Well, they were were so large that one would think they had no natural predators before the hungry Polynesians arrived. But that would be wrong – moa were hunted by giant eagles.

Naturally one would think of this – it is New Zealand after all! Source: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012), screen capture.

They are known as Haast’s eagles, after the naturalist who first described them, Sir Johann von Haast. They are the largest known true raptors, in both size and weight. They could reach a 2.6 m wingspan (somewhat smallish for their bulk) and 16 kg in weight, with females being larger (Brathwaite, 1992; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). To hunt and eat their massive prey, Haast’s eagles had strong legs and feet, with huge claws. Unfortunately, these amazing birds could not survive after the moa became extinct and likely did not last much longer than 1,400 CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).

The skull of a Haast’s eagle, Aquila moorei. Source: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (specimen MNZ S. 22473); ©Te Papa, all rights reserved.


The moa also gained the ability to use its feathers as projectiles that could even pierce an elephant’s hide (according to Superman). Needless to say, birds cannot do that unless they are also Pokémon. Finally, the moa could instantly regrow lost limbs, a feat that few heroes (and absolutely no birds) can achieve.

Giant Moa uses Feather Barrage. It’s not very effective…
Holy regeneration, Batman!

After some more fighting, Superman understands that the bird just wants to go back home – to that place with the fumes and the lonely pink flower. Superman realizes that the flower is a “Quixa blossom”, as he calls it, and says it is a rare plant found only in northwest New Zealand.

Since my knowledge of plants is fairly limited, I asked a New Zealand botanist for help with this one. I was told that there is no flower with that name in the country and actually nothing that even remotely looks like it.

The “Quixa blossom” is actually the least believable thing in this whole story.

In any event, Superman finds the moa’s home and takes it back there, thus stopping the energy draining effect and saving Halaway. Superman then proclaims the area a “moa preserve” and sets up a fence around it. A thoughtful move, but one that completely overlooks the fact that the supermoa could fly.


The story ends with Halaway saying that “the world owns the moa another chance for survival”. Unfortunately, reality is not so kind: our species has wiped the moa off the face of the Earth and there is no second chance.

Overall, if you ignore the superpowers and the “organic link” stuff, this Superman story is actually a nice portrayal of an extinct species and its tragic fate on the hands of humankind. If nothing else, I hope it has inspired a reader somewhere to become a scientist or to fight to preserve other endangered animals.


Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London.

Brathwaite, D.H. (1992) Notes on the weight, flying ability, habitat, and prey of Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Notornis 39: 239–247.

Bunce, M.; Worthy, T.H.; Ford, T.; Hoppitt, W.; Willerslev, E.; et al. (2003) Extreme reversed sexual size dimorphism in the extinct New Zealand moa Dinornis. Nature 425: 172–175.

Cooper, A.; Atkinson, I.A.E.; Lee, W.G.; Worthy, T.H. (1993) Evolution of the moa and their effect on the New Zealand flora. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 8: 433–437.

Mitchell, K.J.; Llamas, B.; Soubrier, J.; Rawlence, N.J.; Worthy, T.H.; et al. (2014) Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution. Science 344: 898–900.

Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.

Gill, B.J.; Bell, B.D.; Chambers, G.K.; Medway, D.G.; Palma, R.L.; et al. (2010) Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquairie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica. Te Papa Press, Wellington.

Greenwood, R.M. & Atkinson, I.A.E. (1977) Evolution of divaricating plants in New Zealand in relation to moa browsing. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 24: 21–33.

Holdaway, R.N. & Jacomb, C. (2000) Rapid extinction of the moas (Aves: Dinornithiformis): model, test, and implications. Science 287: 2250–2254.

Perry, G.L.W.; Wheeler, A.B.; Wood, J.R.; Wilmshurst, J.M. (2014) A high-precision chronology for the rapid extinction of New Zealand moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 105: 126–135.

Tennyson, A. & Martinson, P. (2007) Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington.

Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.

Worthy, T.H. & Holdaway, R.N. (2002) The Lost World of the Moa: Prehistoric Life of New Zealand. Canterbury University, Christchurch.

Wood, J.R.; Rawlence, N.J.; Rogers, G.M.; Austin, J.J.; Worthy, T.H.; Cooper, A. (2008) Coprolite deposits reveal the diet and ecology of the extinct New Zealand megaherbivore moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 27: 2593–2602.

Yonezawa, T.; Segawa, T.; Mori, H.; Campos, P.F.; Hongoh, Y.; et al. (2017) Phylogenomics and morphology of extinct paleognaths reveal the origin and evolution of the ratites. Current Biology 27: 68–77. 


I am very grateful to Dr. Carlos Lehnebach for the help with flower, to Alan Tennyson for helping me to correct some mistakes on moa/eagle biology, and to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of the photographs herein.


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist/ zoologist who studies mollusks, but just happens to have a soft spot for giant flightless birds. He is a diehard DC Comics fan, but to be honest, he never really liked Superman. Instead, he prefers to read the stories of the caped crusader and his extensive Gotham “family”.

[1] Dinornis means “terrible bird”, just like dinosaur means “terrible lizard”.

[2] The largest tibia (a leg bone) ever found belongs to this species, being 1 m long (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).

[3] Tinamous are not typically included in the ratites group, rather being historically considered a separate (basal) lineage and grouped together with ratites in the more inclusive “palaeognaths” group. However, the work of Mitchell and collaborators (2014) have placed the tinamous well inside the ratites.

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Douglas Adams and the world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot

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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The system of life on this planet is so astoundingly complex that it was a long time before man even realized that it was a system at all and that it wasn’t something that was just there.” ―Douglas Adams, 1990

Douglas Noel Adams was born on 11 March 1952 in Cambridge, UK, and grew up to become one of geekdom’s most revered icons. Adams is the author of… Well, that is pretty obvious and I should not have to write this down, but I will nonetheless, just because I won’t be able to sleep well otherwise. So bear with me for a moment – here goes: Adams is the author of the trilogy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the self-proclaimed world’s largest trilogy, with five books in total[1].

However, unbeknownst to many of his fans, Adams was also an environmental activist. He spearheaded or participated in several conservation initiatives, such as Save the Rhino International. His history with conservation started in 1985, when the World Wide Fund for Nature (better known as WWF) and British newspaper The Observer partnered up, sending writers to visit endangered species to raise public awareness (BBC, 2014). Adams travelled to Madagascar in search of a lemur species, the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). As he put it, “My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise” (LCtS: p. 1).

In Madagascar Adams met not only weird lemurs, but also British zoologist Mark Carwardine. They enjoyed the experience and decided to travel the world to see other endangered animals. I mean, Adams and Carwardine travelled the world, not the lemurs; the lemurs stayed in Madagascar as far as anyone can tell. According to Carwardine, “We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins” (BBC, 2014).

Their travels resulted in Last Chance to See, a BBC radio documentary series that aired in the end of 1989. The companion book (by Adams & Carwardine, 1990, henceforth abbreviated as “LCtS”) was published in the following year[2] (Fig. 1). As a matter of fact, Adams considered this book as his favorite work (Adams, 2005).

Figure 1. Cover art of the American edition of Last Chance to See (Harmony Books, New York, 1991).

Despite Adams’s calling himself an “ignorant non-zoologist”, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins politely disagreed, writing: “Douglas was not just knowledgeable about science. He didn’t just make jokes about science. He had the mind of a scientist, he mined science deeply and brought to the surface… humour, and a style of wit that was simultaneously literary and scientific, and uniquely his own” (Dawkins, 2009: p. xiii).

Last Chance to See describes Adam’s and Carwardine’s travels around the globe to see nearly-extinct species, such as the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) and the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). As one could expect, nearly all the species are mammals, since most of the public are primarily concerned with cuddly and relatable species. I, however, will focus here on the only bird on their list that got an entire chapter for itself. And I’ll do that for various reasons: (1) I am not very normal, so I am not that fond of smelly mammals; (2) it is a success story and people like success stories; and (3) this is a very funny-looking bird, I promise you.

This bird is called kakapo.


Mark Carwardine first described the kakapo to Douglas Adams as “the world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot” (LCtS: p. 7). His description might seem a little disparaging at first, but it was meant in an affectionate way – you cannot help but smile when you see a kakapo. Besides, Carwardine’s description is actually spot-on (Fig. 2).

According to Adams, “[the] kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right” (LCtS: p. 108).

Figure 2. Sirocco, a male kakapo, looking funny as kakapos usually do. Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/); credit: Dylan van Winkel.

The kakapo (or kākāpō, in Māori or Te Reo spelling) is a nocturnal flightless bird and its face resemble that of an owl, with the eyes positioned more to the front. For this reason, it is also known as owl-parrot or night parrot. Kakapos have green feathers, speckled with black and yellow (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. A kakapo looking unusually serious. Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/); credit: Colin Miskelly (2011).

Furthermore, kakapos are solitary birds, have a polygynous lek mating system (don’t panic, I’ll explain that later), lack male parental care, and breed in irregular intervals (with gaps of 2 to 7 years; Powlesland et al., 2006). Kakapos are so unique that ornithologists classified the species in its own family: Strigopidae. They are the very first lineage to have branched out of the parrot group (the Order Psittaciformes). Even their closest “relatives”, the kaka and the kea (also from New Zealand), are already considered to be very distinct from kakapos.

Being such an ancient lineage of parrots, researchers consider that it could have split off the rest of the parrot groups when New Zealand got separated from the what is now Australia and Antarctica around 80 million years ago (Gibbs, 2016). All the southern landmasses had been previously joined in the supercontinent Gondwana, which was made up of South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, Australia and Zealandia (Fig. 4) and was by that time finishing its separation.

Figure 4. The supercontinent Gondwana during the Triassic (circa 200 million years ago). Image modified from Wikimedia Commons; credit: LennyWikidata (2008).

This break up left Zealandia with no mammals and a bird “paradise” island started to take shape. It is considered that the kakapo followed the trend of oceanic island bird lineages (where nasty mammals are not present) to evolve larger and flightless forms (Powlesland et al., 2006). For instance, that happened with the lineages of the dodo, moa, and elephant bird.


I cannot overstate how weird kakapos are for a parrot – or for a bird, actually. Adams considered the kakapo the strangest and most intriguing of all the creatures he saw during his travels with Carwardine (LCtS: p. 105). So I’ll illustrate that by highlighting some aspects of its biology that are of broader interest or peculiar weirdness. If you, however, are looking for a complete guide to the species’ biology, do take a look at the work of Powlesland et al. (2006).

We already covered that kakapos are nocturnal and flightless, and thus have good hearing and sense of smell, alongside massive legs and feet to walk around and climb trees. Yes, they do not fly, but do climb trees to feed. Evolution works in mysterious ways, it seems. Elliot (2017) wrote: “They often leap from trees and flap their wings, but at best manage a controlled plummet.” I prefer, however, the way Douglas Adams put it: “it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground” (LCtS: p. 109)[3].

It seems kakapos are not able to follow the suggestion of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. (…) Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties” (Adams, 1982). Kakapos just constantly fail to miss the ground.

Overall, kakapos are quite large birds, weighing around 2 kg, but males may weigh up to 4 kg and be 40% larger than females (Eason et al., 2006; Elliot, 2017). Their life span is unknown, but is estimated at 60 to 90 years (Department of Conservation, 2018a, 2018b).

Kakapos are vegetarian and eat almost every possible parts of plants. In fact, they only breed in years with a good abundance of fruit (Cockrem, 2006; Elliot, 2017). In their current habitat, kakapo reproduction is tied with that of the rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), an evergreen coniferous tree of the podocarp family (Fig. 5). These plants bloom together every 2 to 4 years (sometimes it takes more); the kakapos must wait for the rimu because they depend on its “fruits” (Fig. 6) to feed the chicks (Cockrem, 2006; Ballance, 2010).

Figure 5. A rimu tree is really tall for a flightless bird to climb. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons; credit: Kahuroa (2008).
Figure 6. A ripe rimu “fruit”, or better put, a seed sitting on a fleshy cup. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons; credit: Department of Conservation (2002).

Unlike any other parrot, kakapos are lek breeders. This behavior is common for other groups of birds and even other animals, though. It consists in males gathering relatively close to each other and starting a competition to show off to females. Birds can do this mainly by song or dance (or both), but might also include somersaults and flying maneuvers. Each female will chose the best performer (in their opinion at least) and successful males typically mate with more than one female during a single season.

Male kakapos sing to attract females. Or rather, they do something akin to “Pink Floyd studio out-takes” (LCtS: p. 111). The most common type of call produced by kakapos is called booming. This is a low-frequency (<100 Hz) resonant call, which can be heard up to 5 km away (Merton et al., 1984; Higgins, 1999). To produce this sound, male kakapos fill up internal air sacs; they can inflate until they look like a fluffy watermelon (Figs. 7, 8). Adams described the sound as a heartbeat, a powerful throb you felt before actually hearing it; and this gave the title to the kakapo’s own chapter in LCtS: “Heartbeats in the Night”.

Figure 7. A male kakapo booming – and looking like a watermelon. Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/); credit: Department of Conservation (image ref 10027966, photo by Ralph Powlesland).
Figure 8. How to camouflage as a watermelon in four easy steps. OK, now serious caption: postures of a male kakapo booming. Figure reproduced from Merton et al. (1984: fig. 4). The original caption reads: “(1) Normal stance; (2) Alert static pose between booming sequences; (3) Commencement of booming: inflation of thorax while giving preliminary ‘grunts’; (4) Maximum thoracic inflation during loud booming.”

Booming also serves to indicate the male’s overall location to the female. Once they are close by, males can produce a sharp metallic “ching” call to enable females to pinpoint their exact location (Powlesland et al., 2006). A good place to hear kakapo booming and chinging is New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline. org.nz/).

The female nests on the ground, either on a spot covered by dense vegetation or in natural cavities (Elliot, 2017). Kakapos usually lay 2 to 4 eggs and the female raise the chicks alone (Fig. 9; Cockrem, 2006; Powlesland et al., 2006). Young birds leave the nest within 2 to 3 months, but remain close to their mother’s home range until they are 6.5 to 8.5 months old (Farrimond et al, 2006; Powlesland et al., 2006).

So how do we summarize kakapos? Adams gives us a nice idea: “The kakapo (…) pursues its own eccentricities rather industriously and modestly. If you ask anybody who has worked with kakapos to describe them, they tend to use words like ‘innocent’ and ‘solemn’, even when it’s leaping helplessly out of a tree. This I find immensely appealing” (LCtS: p. 121).

Figure 9. Alice, a female kakapo, on her nest with her two chicks (circa 45 days old). Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/); credit: Department of Conservation (image ref 10048384, photo by Don Merton, 2002).

Box 1. Kakapo names

Since there are so few kakapo left and the whole population is managed, each bird has its own name. When Adams and Carwardine visited Codfish Island, they met a kakapo named Ralph. Later on, Adams himself got to name a kakapo Jane, after his then-girlfriend (Balance, 2010). You can check this amazing infographic (by DeMartini et al.) with all the names and family trees of known kakapos: https://public.tableau.com/views/The Kakapo/Dashboard1?:embed=y&:display_count=yes&:toolbar=no&:showVizHome=no.

Presently, the most famous kakapo is Sirocco, who became a YouTube star after he tried to mate with Carwardine’s head during the filming of the Last Chance to See TV series (Carwardine, 2010). Today, Sirocco is 21 years old and is the official “spokesbird” for conservation in New Zealand (Department of Conservation, 2018b), a title given to him by then Prime Minister John Key.


Kakapos were present in New Zealand long before humans arrived there: some subfossil bones have been dated from 2500 years ago (Wood, 2006). They were very common and lived throughout both the North and South Islands (Tipa, 2006), with few natural enemies. They were successful in their pre-human environment, but that was soon to change.

Polynesian settlers arrived in Aotearoa[4] between 1200 and 1300 CE (Wilmshurst et al., 2010) and became known as the Māori. As typical of all humans, they brought domestic/pest species with them: dogs and rats.

As many island species, kakapos were only concerned with their known immediate predators; these mostly harmless birds were thus unprepared for a wave of invaders. Kakapos have the strategy of staying perfectly still when facing danger, which works fine against predators that rely on sight. However, this had little effect against dogs, which hunt by scent. The parrots were hunted for food and ornamentation (for instance, the Māori used the feathers in cloaks; Tipa, 2006) and the population declined. Polynesian rats also played a major role, preying upon defenseless kakapo eggs and chicks.

European settlers arrived on the 19th century and, as one might expect, colonization (and new mammalian predators, such as cats and mustelids) accelerated the species’ decline. The Europeans also brought naturalists, who collected specimens for study at museums (Fig. 10). British zoologist George Robert Gray officially named the kakapo Strigops habroptilus[5] in 1845. Later naturalists (some already born in New Zealand) went further, observing live parrots in the wild and studying their natural history.

Figure 10. Museum drawer full of preserved kakapo specimens, from the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Photo by the author (©Te Papa, all rights reserved).

Already in the 1890’s, naturalists became aware that the species was heading towards extinction, so the first efforts in conservation (transferring animals to islands in Fiordland; Fig. 11) were undertaken (Hill & Hill, 1987). They failed and eventually the species fade out from the thoughts of New Zealanders, being considered extinct or nearly so (Ballance, 2010).


That lasted until the work of Williams (1956), which summarized all knowledge about the kakapo and brought it back to the spotlight. With this renewed interest, expeditions were formed to find the species in the southernmost reaches of New Zealand.

A serious take on conservation efforts started again in the 1970’s, when a population of around 200 kakapos was found on Stewart Island (Fig. 11; Powlesland et al., 2006). A new process of translocation and monitoring then began. During the 1980s and 1990s, the animals were all moved to predator-free islands: Codfish, Maud and Little Barrier (Fig. 11; Elliot, 2017). When Adams and Carwardine visited Codfish Island in 1992, there were only around 40 kakapos left (Ballance, 2010; Carwardine, 2010).

Figure 11. Map of New Zealand showing the locations mentioned on the text. Image modified from Wikimedia Commons; credit: NordNordWest (2009).

However, things started to look brighter after a review in the management of the species (Elliot et al., 2001). A strong and focused policy and full support of the government were essential during the decades since (Jansen, 2006). The kakapo population started to recover and can now be considered one of the greatest successes among global conservation programs – and a good example of how our species can, in fact, clean up after its own mess.

The last report, from June 2017, counted a total of 154 birds (Elliot, 2017), a number exceeding previous population simulations (Elliot, 2005). Recovering the kakapo from the brink of extinction was a feat, but more challenges remain. Presently, the species is considered as “critically endangered” according to the IUCN’s Red List (BirdLife International, 2016). Although this seems better, it is good to remember that this is just one step away from the “extinct in the wild” status in this classification scheme (which the kakapo held during two issues of the Red List in the mid-1990s). Presently, kakapos only survives on offshore islands and there is still lot of work to be done until we have a viable, and self-sustaining population that does not need human management.

Maybe just panic a little bit…

The kakapo is not the only endangered species in the New Zealand – everyone has heard about kiwis, at least. So what about all the other threatened species, birds and otherwise, in the country? Jansen (2006: 190) ominously wrote: “While extinction of kakapo is now less likely than 10 years ago, the future of the 600+ New Zealand species listed as acutely and chronically threatened (…) and that presently do not receive any management is by no means secure.” So yes, there is still a lot of work to be done.

But why should we care if some species go extinct? Why should we strive so much to save them? Carwardine (LCtS: p. 205) gave what Dawkins (2009) considered to be the typical explanations for business-minded humans: (1) we mess with the environment, everything go haywire, and that ultimately affects our survival, and (2) living beings have their uses as food, drugs, etc. However, Carwardine then presented his preferred explanation, one more typical of scientists and that we say to each other over coffee: we try to save them because they are cool. Or, as Carwardine put it: “There is one last reason for caring, and I believe no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them” (LCtS: p. 206).

“Up until that point it hadn’t really clicked with man that an animal could just cease to exist. It was as if we hadn’t realised that if we kill something, it simply won’t be there anymore. Ever. As a result of the extinction of the dodo we are sadder and wiser.” ―Douglas Adams, 1990


Adams, D. (1982) Life, the Universe and Everything. Pan Books, London.

Adams, D. (2005) The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. William Heinemann, London.

Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London. [Edition used here: 2009, by Arrow Books, London.]

Ballance, A. (2010) Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction. Craig Potton, Nelson.

BBC. (2014) Background. Last Chance to See. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/last chancetosee/sites/about/last_chance_to_see.shtml [access date: 25 Sep 2018].

BirdLife International. (2016) Strigops habroptila.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/ IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22685245A93065234.en [access date: 25 Sep 2018].

Carwardine, M. (2010) Foreword. In: Ballance, A. Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction. Craig Potton, Nelson. Pp. 9–10.

Cockrem, J.F. (2006) The timing of breeding in the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). Notornis 53(1): 153–159.

Colfer, E. (2009) And Another Thing… Penguin Books, London.

Dawkins, R. (2009) Foreword to new edition of Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. In: Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. Last Chance to See. Arrow Books, London. Pp. xi–xvi.

Department of Conservation (DOC). (2018a) Kākāpō. Available from: https://www.doc.govt. nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kaka po/ [access date: 26 Sep 2018].

Department of Conservation (DOC). (2018b) Sirocco the kākāpō conservation superstar. Available from: https://www.doc.govt.nz/ sirocco [access date: 27 Sep 2018].

Eason, D.K.; Elliott, G.P.; Merton, D.V.; Jansen, P.W.; Harper, G.A.; Moorhouse, R.J. (2006) Breeding biology of kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) on offshore island sanctuaries, 1990–2002. Notornis 53(1): 27–36.

Elliott, G.P. (2006) A simulation of the future of kakapo. Notornis 53(1): 164–172.

Elliott, G.P. (2017) Kakapo. In: Miskelly, C.M. (Ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. Available from: http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/kakapo [access date: 26 Sep 2018].

Elliott, G.P.; Jansen, P.W.; Merton, D.M. (2001) Intensive management of a critically endangered species: the kakapo. Biological Conservation 99: 121–133.

Farrimond, M.; Elliott, G.P.; Clout, M.N. (2006) Growth and fledging of kakapo. Notornis 53: 112–115.

Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.

Jansen, P.W. (2006) Kakapo recovery: the basis of decision-making. Notornis 53: 184–190.

Higgins, P.J. (1999) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 4: Parrots to Dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Hill, S. & Hill, J. (1987) Richard Henry of Resolution Island: a Biography. John McIndoe, Dunedin.

Merton, D.V.; Morris, R.D.; Atkinson, I.A.E. (1984) Lek behaviour in a parrot: the Kakapo Strigops habroptilus of New Zealand. Ibis 126: 277–283.

Powlesland, R.G.; Cockrem, J.F.; Merton, D.V. (2006) A parrot apart: the natural history of the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) and the context of its conservation management. Notornis 53: 3–26.

Tipa, R. (2006) Kakapo in Maori lore. Notornis 53: 193–194.

Williams, G.R. (1956) The kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, Gray): a review and re-appraisal of a near-extinct species. Notornis 7: 29–56.

Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.

Wood, J.R. (2006) Subfossil kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) remains from near Gibraltar Rock, Cromwell Gorge, Central Otago, New Zealand. Notornis 53: 191–193. 


I am very grateful to Colin Miskelly, Dylan van Winkel, the Department of Conservation, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of their photographs herein. 


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist specializing in the classification and evolution of land snails. Yes, you might say, that has nothing to do with kakapos. But it so happens that the universe conspires to keep him entangled with bird work. As a scientist, he learned with Douglas Adams that knowing the right question is sometimes more important than knowing the answer.

[1] Or six, if you count And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer (2009).

[2] Later, in 1992, a CD-ROM set was published, with photos and audio of Douglas Adams reading the book. In 2009, BBC released a TV series of Last Chance to See, in which British comedian Stephen Fry took the place of the late Adams.

[3] However, he soon changed the tone to blame flying birds instead: “There is something gripping about the idea that this creature has actually given up doing something that virtually every human being has yearned to do since the very first of us looked upwards. I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing” (LCtS: p. 120).

[4] The Māori name for New Zealand.

[5] Strigops means “owl-faced”, while habroptilus means “soft feather”.

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