The idea of making a game about the birds of the UFES (Federal University of Espírito Santo, in southeast Brazil) campus was a sum of long-brewing factors. I have always been interested in the souvenirs offered to people at natural parks, zoos, aquariums, shrines and other similar spaces, especially when regarding the biodiversity and the landscapes of the place. It is beautiful? Funny? Cheap? Does it have educational value? I always asked myself these questions in search of a souvenir that pleased my biologist and traveler self.
In 2016 I was able to spend a few months in the USA, where I visited several natural parks and of course, brought back many souvenirs and ideas. With the end of my degree in Biology, my advisor Viviana Borges (who had some experience with natural parks in South Africa) and I put the ideas together and decided that I would turn a campus bird survey I had done at the beginning of my degree into a game of collectible cards. Then, SuperAves was born.
In the game, each card represents a species, containing its popular name, scientific name, and some features of the bird species it represents, such as: weight, size, year of description (“discovery”), number of eggs it usually lays, its geographic distribution in Brazil, and a bit of trivia. The cards are bilingual: in Portuguese and English.
The game starts with all the cards in a pile, and each round all players take one card and keep it to themselves. In each turn, a new player chooses one of the characteristics of the card that he believes to be superior to the card of other players. Whoever has the highest value for that trait wins the round and obtains the other players’ cards. In the next round, new cards are taken from the pile, and that’s how it goes until the end of the game, where the player who accumulated the most cards is the winner.
In addition to the common bird cards, there are two instructional cards (one of rules and one explaining what each bit of information on the cards represents) and one special card that beat the others, called SUPERAVE. Naturally, it is important that, as an educational tool, the teacher or mediator who applies the game clearly explains that one bird isn’t better than another.
In the Biology events where I presented the game, everyone asked how much it costs! – which makes me very happy, since it means that people liked it so much, they are willing to pay! At the moment, as the initial production demands a certain investment, I only produced a pilot deck, but I am looking for a partnership with the regional public power (so that the game could be distributed in public schools), and with the private sector too (like zoos , aquariums, etc.), proposing customized versions of the game for each of these locations, while I continue to improve the layout of the game.
We hope this game will increase students’ interest in science and biology, facilitate learning about biological diversity, zoology and even ecology, and bring back some interest in the natural world from the lay public, which seems to have decreased over time. The game can be easily played (and collected) by children from 10 years old, or when they become able to read well, as well as by teenagers and adults, students or not. The important thing is to want to have fun and to get to know a little more about nature (in this case, birds).
About the author
Luis F. Gonzaga is a recently graduated Brazilian biologist who enjoys birds, teaches, photographs, organizes events, pies, and more recently, science outreach events. He believes in the power of partnerships to get further and better!
Dr. Viviana B. Corte is a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at UFES and supervised the SuperAves project.
 “Aves” is not only a general term for “birds” in Portuguese, but also the scientific Latin name of the group: Class Aves contains all avian dinosaurs.
To begin this article in the most honest way I can think of, I must state that as a biologist I’ve always complained about those absurdities in the Pokémon franchise that could have been solved if the designers had taken 10 minutes to Google them. And I’m not alone in this! – There are issues such as mistaken cephalopod anatomy (Salvador & Cavallari, 2019), using Japanese species on a setting that’s clearly France (Tomotani, 2014), the impossible water-holding capacity of Blastoise (dos Anjos, 2015), and the skewed biodiversity of the Pokémon world towards cats and dogs (Prado & Almeida, 2017; Kittel, 2018; Salvador & Cavallari, 2019).
Maybe that’s why one Pokémon in this new generation (Gen VIII) has caught me so off-guard. Given that the whole franchise is about making monsters beat other monsters, I was not expecting something with an ecological/conservationist edge out of it. I was particularly not expecting a new Pokémon to reflect one of the major environmental problems our planet is facing: coral bleaching. The Galarian form of Corsola was a slap to the face and a brilliant addition to the game, so hats off to Game Freak Inc. and The Pokémon Company in this regard.
CORSOLA AND CORALS
Corsola’s first appearance on the franchise was on Gen II, the famed Gold and Silver games (Fig. 1). It is a dual-type Pokémon (Water/Rock) based on a coral, likely the red corals, a moniker given to several species in the genus Corallium (Fig. 2).
Corals are animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria, which also includes jellyfish and anemones. Broadly speaking, there are two types of corals: soft corals (Alcyonacea) and stony corals (Scleractinia). The latter, as can be surmised by their name, have hard skeletons made of calcium carbonate (Fig. 2). That explains Corsola’s Rock type – or would, because the red corals that are the likely inspiration for Corsola, are not stony corals. Rather, they are soft corals (Alcyonacea) that – atypically for the group – have calcareous structures in their otherwise organic skeleton (Grillo et al., 1993; Debreuil et al., 2011).
The live polyps (Fig. 3), however, look very different from the dead coralline skeleton. But oddly enough, Corsola looks more like a dead coral colony skeleton (Fig. 2) than a living one. Also, Corsola looks like a single creature rather than a colony, as it would be expected of red corals.
Despite being colonial, red corals (and other soft corals) are not reef-building corals. Even though, to better explain the issue with coral bleaching and threats to ecosystems, I need to provide a brief explanation on reefs and reef-builders.
Stony corals are often colonial and a group of them known as “hermatypic corals” are reef-builders; that is, their skeletons fuse to become coral reefs (Fig. 4). These corals often have symbiotic zooxanthellae (single-celled photosynthetic algae) embedded in their soft tissues. Since they depend on photosynthesis to acquire nutrients, they are typically found in shallow and clear tropical waters.
Coral reefs are hotspots of marine biodiversity. They sustain and shelter a myriad of species: lobsters and shrimps, snails and squids, worms, fishes, turtles, and many others (Fig. 5). So, why does that matter? Simply put, the highest the biodiversity (number and types of different species), the more ‘ecosystem services’ we can benefit from (CORAL, 2019). Think of these services as everything nature can provide us if we could just take good care of it. To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being assigned economic values. It seems ridiculous that we have to assign an economic value to nature, but unfortunately that’s how our short-sighted governments work.
Inevitably, coral reefs are extremely threatened by overfishing and pollution (including the now pervasive microplastics) and by climate change, because the increased temperatures lead to coral bleaching and ocean acidification (McClanahan, 2002). But I will come back to this later; first, let’s take a look at the Galar region and its Corsola.
The Galar region is the setting of the newly released games Pokémon Sword and PokémonShield, the franchise’s Gen VIII. Galar is based in the United Kingdom and several locations in the game were inspired by real-world places. Part of the new fauna (but not all of it) is also appropriate to the UK, such as ravens (Corviknight) and cormorants (Cramorant). However, as the game says, Galar is heavily industrialized and this has influenced some Pokémon living there, like Weezing, whose Galarian variant manages to look even more noxious than the original form from Kanto (but see Box 1).
The Galarian variant of Corsola is a Ghost-type Pokémon, clearly indicating it’s already dead. It is entirely white (bleached) and has a sad face (Fig. 6). Its Pokédex entry in Pokémon Shield bluntly states: “Sudden climate change wiped out this ancient kind of Corsola.” In Galar, Corsola also have an evolution, named Cursola (Fig. 6), which is likewise Ghost-type. It is a larger and more branched coral.
However, contrary to regular Corsola, the Galarian Pokémon are not based on the red coral. Instead, given the shape of their branches, they seem to be based on actual reef-building corals such as Acropora spp. (Fig. 7). That is fitting, because Acropora are major components of reefs and are one of the most sensitive corals to climate change (Loya et al., 2001). Also, Acropora corals are what you usually find when googling for “bleached coral”. So it seems Sword and Shield developers are finally using Google, after all.
Box 1. Galar/UK and Kanto/Japan
Galar is badly industrialized and that is true for its real-life counterpart too. Great Britain is famous as the starting point of the Industrial Revolution and infamous for social problems associated with it, such as poor working conditions and child labor. But a fact that is often overlooked is the collapse of the English Channel’s ecosystem. The Channel separates southern England from France and is one of the busiest fishing areas in the world. The place has been overfished to a scary extent and the habitats on the bottom of the Channel has been destroyed by trawling (Southward et al., 2004; Roberts, 2007). As is, the Channel’s ecosystem cannot recovery and the biodiversity in the area has plummeted (Molfese et al., 2014).
Even so, Japan is not truly in a position to point fingers about this topic. The country has one of the most destructive fishing practices in the word, including harvesting shark fins and being one of the only nations that still hunt whales (Clover, 2004; Sekiguchi, 2007; McCurry, 2011). Japan has overfished several, if not most, edible animal species in their EEZ, from the famous bluefin tuna to squids and crabs; as a result, the country’s fisheries have witnessed a sharp decline in the past decades (Popescu & Ogushi, 2013; Katsukawa, 2019). Researchers within Japan are now arguing for a change to sustainable and scientifically informed fishing practices (Katsukawa, 2019). We can only hope they will.
When ocean temperatures increase, the symbiotic zooxanthellae leave the corals. This makes the corals become white (Fig. 7); they “bleach”, so to speak. Also, without their photosynthetic “buddies”, corals are under more stress, start to starve, and overall have a serious decrease in their chances of survival (Fig. 8). Decline in coral ecosystems have been reported from all over the world: from the Caribbean to the Indo-Pacific, most famously including the Great Barrier Reef (Bruno & Selig, 2007; Edmunds & Elahi, 2007; De’ath et al., 2012). Reports from the Galar region are yet to come.
Decline in coral reefs will start a cascading effect and most other species dependent on them (lobsters, squid, fish, etc.) will decline as well (Jones et al., 2004). This might lead to ecosystems collapses and, needless to say, it will affect all those ecosystems services (including food) we derive from the sea. When corals die, the dead rocky reefs become dominated by low-productivity and non-commercial invertebrate species such as sea urchins, starfish, and small snails (McClanahan, 2002).
Bleaching, however, is not the only threat to corals. Our oceans are acidifying due to increased CO2 concentrations in the air since the Industrial Revolution. When CO2 is absorbed into the water, it reacts to become bicarbonate ions, making the water more acidic. This effect is, of course, amplified by higher temperatures (Humphreys, 2017). Acidified waters make it more difficult for corals to produce and deposit calcium carbonate (Albright et al., 2017), which is the substance that makes up their skeleton, as we’ve seen above.
Unfortunately, corals are not the only animals threatened by rising temperatures in the ocean. Mollusks have shells made of calcium carbonate and are thus vulnerable to more acidic waters, especially during their larval or juvenile phase. Mollusks such as planktonic sea-butterflies (pteropod snails; Fig. 9) and bottom-dwelling bivalves are as important as corals for ecosystems, and several other animals depend on them, from other mollusks to crustaceans and fish (Manno et al., 2017). Here, the situation might be even worse than with corals: while reefs are restricted to tropical regions, ocean acidification will affect mollusks in temperate regions as well (Soon & Zheng, 2019).
As much as we can protect the natural world by creating nature reserves (including marine ones), unfortunately they will not work in this case (Allison et al., 1998; Jameson et al., 2002). Reserves can protect the reef ecosystem against overfishing and trawling, but it cannot stop ocean acidification. That is linked to climate change and we are already passing the tipping point in which the change could be turned back (Aengenheyster et al., 2018); soon, all we’ll be able to do is damage control.
Aengenheyster, M.; Feng, Q.Y.; van der Ploeg, F.; Dijkstra, H.A. (2018) The point of no return for climate action: effects of climate uncertainty and risk tolerance. Earth System Dynamics 9: 1085–1095.
Albright, R.; Mason, B.; Miller, M.; Langdon, C. (2010) Ocean acidification compromises recruitment success of the threatened Caribbean coral Acropora palmata. PNAS 107(47): 20400–20404.
Allison, G.W.; Lubchenco, J.; Carr, M.H. (1998) Marine reserves are necessary but not sufficient for marine conservation. Ecological Applications 8(sp1): S79–S92.
dos Anjos, J.P.P. (2015) Turtles with cannons: an analysis of the dynamics of a Blastoise’s Hydro Pump. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 23–27.
Bruno, J.F. & Selig, E.R. (2007) Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE 2(8): e711.
Clover, C. (2004) The End of the Line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat. Ebury Press, London.
I am very grateful to Alexander Semenov for giving me permission to use his fantastic Limacina photograph. I am also grateful for Farfetch’d finally having an evolution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who specializes in mollusks; fittingly, his favorite Pokémon is the West Sea Gastrodon. Part of his research is on marine snails and slugs, but he’s also interested in other marine animals – except fish maybe, which are mostly boring. He has played Pokémon since Gen I, but never really cared about Corsola – until now.
 Not in other regards, though. We did not need a new Mr. Mime or a Pokémon who’s a walking dollop of whipped cream. Not to mention that the ice cream Pokémon were included in the game, but Abra, Starly and Lord Helix were not.
 Also known as ‘precious corals’ because people like to use its red/pink/orange skeleton for making jewelry.
 Ecosystem services are split into four categories: provisioning (e.g., food production); regulating (e.g., climate buffering); supporting (e.g., oxygen production); and cultural (e.g., recreational and spiritual benefits).
 For instance, one of the starters is a monkey.
 Curiously, Pokémon Moon (Gen VII) had the following Pokedéx entry for Sharpedo, a shark Pokémon: “It has a sad history. In the past, its dorsal fin was a treasured foodstuff, so this Pokémon became a victim of overfishing.” So, the absence of Sharpedo in Sword and Shield could be explained by an extinction event.
 Water pollution can also be a cause for bleaching in some cases.
 Just using this footnote to point out that this person has a PhD and is thus known as Dr. De’ath. That is one of the coolest Marvel-esque names I’ve ever seen in academia.
 Phione and Manaphy are Pokémon based on the pteropod species Clione limacina (Salvador & Cavallari, 2019). Their absence in Sword and Shield could be explained by an extinction event due to climate change.
Mondo Museum is an upcoming simulation game developed by Viewport Games where you can build your dream museum. Equipped with dinosaurs, Books of the Dead, classical paintings, and space-age stuff, Mondo Museum has something for everyone. The game will be soon published by Kitfox Games and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed designer/programmer Michel McBride-Charpentier to understand how such a wonderful game like Mondo Museum came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: There are lots of sim games around, but as far as we know, there has never been one about curating and running a museum. So how did you get that idea?
A: After the announcement, a few people have said they’d also had the idea of a “SimMuseum”, so I don’t think it’s a wholly original concept. I’m actually really surprised nobody else has made a game like this since the idea first popped into my head over a decade ago and I’ve spent the last 5 years really expecting one to drop on Steam at any moment.
The idea, like most good ones, came to me through synthesizing a lot of different interests I’ve developed over my life: visiting a wide variety of museums in school and later as an adult, a love for Maxis and Bullfrog management games, and a personal desire to create work that is educational and engages players with systems thinking without being a dry capital-letters Serious Game.
Q: Do you have any particular type of museum you enjoy the most? Or an all-time favourite museum?
A: Museums that contain a wide variety of exhibits that have no apparent relation to each other are always the most fun for me to visit. For example, The Met in NYC which has collections ranging from Ancient Egypt to medieval European armour to Rembrandt paintings. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is also in this vein, with dinosaur skeletons and fossils next to Chinese sculpture.
Asking for my favourite is an impossible question, but I’ll use this opportunity to shout out the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NYC. It’s entirely focused on the life and work of Japanese-American sculptor/designer/landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. Walking through those galleries and the sculpture garden for the first time sparked a real appreciation for abstract sculpture I never had before, and he instantly became my favourite artist of the 20th century.
Q: Did you bring into Mondo Museum some of your personal experience or preferences?
A: Choosing which collections to include at launch was definitely driven by my personal preferences. When I was a kid I wanted to be an Egyptologist and archaeologist, so including an Ancient Egypt collection was an obvious choice. Many of the things that invoke a sense of wonder in kids but are often lost as we become older are represented, such as dinosaurs, space exploration, and the geology of the Earth.
Q: Have you or anyone in the team worked in a museum before?
A: C.J. Kershner is writing the exhibit item descriptions and the few characters who are directors/curators of other museums, and has many years of experience volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History as an info desk attendant (so obviously had to know a lot about the workings of the museum from the visitor’s perspective), and as an explainer for a live exhibits team.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Mondo Museum? Are there different scenarios and objectives to be met?
A: There’s a sandbox mode where the end goal, or how to achieve the highest prestige ranking, is mostly up to the player to define. There is a task/objective system that provides short-to-medium term goals, such as unlocking new items or receiving more funding.
As for scenarios, the current plan is to have those, though what exactly they will look like is still undecided. A campaign where you move between different museums with unique challenges and constraints is the goal, but will likely only come in an Early Access update.
Q: From what we’ve seen, the game includes all types of museums: natural history, technology, archaeology, anthropology, art, etc. How did you manage to gather all these different areas of study and interest into a single package?
A: As I mentioned above in what my favourite types of museums to visit are, it’s not uncommon for real museums to display a wide variety of collections under one roof. But we go one step further, and let players mix and match items from any collection. The challenge was in selecting items that complement one another and allow players to discover these relationships between items. One example is how in the Ancient Egypt collection there’s an astronomical chart, and tools for observing the stars, that can be combined with items from the Space Exploration collection to create a kind of “Astronomy through the Ages” combo. Right now I’m explicitly defining these combos, but might try out a more free-form tagging system, where for example any item tagged “Tool” could be placed in an exhibit hall with others that share that tag.
Q: And now perhaps the most important question of all: does Mondo Museum include exhibits of the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) or the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)?
A: “The Ocean” is on a shortlist for collections to include in a future content update, but if you’re really desperate to see some horrors of the deep, mod support means if a player can make a 3D model of one then it will be very easy to put in the game.
Q: Did you bring in any museum staff as consultants while making the game?
A: No real consultants other than C.J., but if anyone is brought in will likely be to review specific collections for cultural sensitivity issues we might have been oblivious to. For example, someone recently brought up the debates museums have around the subject of human remains when making exhibits about ancient burial practices and so on, which I hadn’t considered before. That kind of insight is really helpful (in our case, this helped me decide to only have mummified animals because a) they’re actually pretty cute while human mummies are pretty gross and b) a human mummy is kind of unnecessary since the real interesting artefact/art is the coffin and sarcophagus).
Q: There is a lot of discussion today around ownership and repatriation of artefacts, especially in archaeology and anthropology. It is a tough subject, but does Mondo Museum tackle it in some sense?
A: Absolutely, and it’s core to the politics of the game. I didn’t want to recreate the systems of colonialism and looting that resulted in many museums in the West originally acquiring their collections. Mondo Museum takes place in a more just and utopian world, where all items have been repatriated (or never left in the first place). The way you unlock new exhibit items is by satisfying the conditions of visiting directors/curators from these museums around the world, who will then effectively give you permission to display parts of their collections.
Q: The game focuses on the exhibitions, which are the public face of museums. Will there be any mention to the vast collections of objects and specimens museums have and of all the research (scientific and otherwise) that is done based on these collections?
A: The research and archive aspect of the game is still a work in progress (there are researcher staff you hire who can improve the quality of your items/the understanding visitors get from it in a sort of abstract way), but I like the idea of the item we have created that is on display representing a lot of associated items that don’t have 3D models but you need to manage to some extent. I’m trying to keep the scope achievable for the moment, but big updates are planned throughout Early Access.
Q: Do you hope the players will learn something with Mondo Museum or maybe spark their interest to visit a museum?
A: I really do hope it encourages players to go to museums if they haven’t been in a while, or maybe since a school field trip. Hopefully the game will give everyone a deeper appreciation of the work behind creating an exhibit that makes sense to the public, or consider what curation decisions they might have done differently to tell a different story.
Q: Do you hope museums worldwide might learn something from Mondo Museum?
A: The people running modern museums are generally doing a really good job in engaging visitors these days, so I’m not expecting to reveal anything they don’t already know. Maybe there could be more museum activities for adults, and not just kids or currently enrolled students. I’m targeting an audience of all ages, and there’s been a lot of interest from adults intrigued by the game. Curator talks, seminars, group tours, opening parties, etc., are fairly common, but I’d love to see more creative activities and workshops designed with adults in mind, since there’s clearly an adult audience for “playing” with museums.
ABOUT THE TEAM
Michel McBride-Charpentier is Mondo Museum’s designer and programmer; the other team members are Genevieve Bachand (artist), Farah Khalaf (producer), C.J. Kershner (writer), and Rhys Becker (artist). Viewport Games is a small studio based on Montréal, Canada. Kitfox Games, also from Montréal, is an independent games studio focused on creating intriguing worlds to explore.
Birds have fascinated humankind since forever. Their ability to fly, besides being a constant reminder of our own limitations, was a clear starting point to link birds to deities and the divine realm (Bailleul-LeSuer, 2012). Inevitably, these animals became very pervasive in all human cultures, myths and folklore (Armstrong, 1970). In fact, they are so pervasive that they have found their way to perhaps the most unlikely cultural niche: Heavy Metal.
With some exceptions, such as raptors (Accipitriformes) and ravens/crows (Fig. 1), birds are not typically seen as badass enough to feature on heavy metal album covers and songs, even though sometimes they already have the right makeup for it (Fig. 2).
As we highlighted above, the birds’ power of flight is their main feature, but they have another power up their feathery sleeves. And this feat is one that people tend to consider one of the most human endeavors of all: music. Most birds are deemed melodious creatures, like the slate-colored solitaire (Myadestes unicolor) from Central America and the celebrated nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), although some might seem almost tone-deaf (Fig. 3).
Birds (class Aves) can be largely divided in two groups: the order Passeriformes (with circa 6,000 known species) and “the rest” (several orders, totaling around 5,000 species). Members of the order Passeriformes are commonly called “passerines” or “perching birds” and include most of the species that typically comes to mind when we think of birds: sparrows, robins, starlings, blackbirds and crows. Inside Passeriformes, there is a suborder called Passeri, the “songbirds”, a group with roughly 5,000 species of animals. The vocal organ (called syrinx) of songbirds is modified in comparison to that of other birds and can produce complex sounds (Raikow & Bledsoe, 2000). Typically, these sounds result in bird song, but crows have their own way of communicating.
With all these bird species, some are bound to appear in heavy metal songs, right? We mean, besides eagles and ravens, of course. So, we decided to analyze the lyrics of thousands of metal songs in order to find ‘em birds (Fig. 4).
Here, we show how many songs talk about birds and which specific birds they mention. We also investigate how each bird groups is represented in the genre and in each subgenre. We will also talk a little bit about the biology of some of these animals to make you, our dear headbanging reader, more acquainted with this fantastic slice of Earth’s biodiversity.
MATERIAL AND METHODS
All lyrics used in this project were collected from Metal Kingdom (www.metalkingdom.net), a web compendium on metal music of diverse genres. To collect this data, we built a custom web crawler that navigated all music pages on the website. This collection yielded us three main datasets:
Bands: CSV file listing all bands found on the website.
Genre: CSV file mapping bands to their respective metal genre.
Lyrics: CSV file which contains the actual lyrics, as well a reference to the artist.
On 07/August/2018, we collected a total of 145,716 songs from 6,359 bands, spanning 368 different metal (sub)genres.
When we started going through the data we obviously ran into some problems. (If you’re not finding any problems in your data, you’re not looking hard enough!) In this section, we present some of the hurdles we had to overcome when working with this dataset.
A quick look into the data showed us a problem for our study: not all lyrics were in English. For example, below are the verses of “Ohne Dich” by German band Rammstein (2004):
“Und der Wald er steht so schwarz und leer,
Weh mir oh weh,
Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr.”
We may have some additional language skills to identify ‘die Vögel’, but we certainly won’t know every language in the dataset. Because of this, we decided to restrict our study only to songs in English. However, this posed another problem: we have no structured data about the language of each song, and this information would need to be inferred from the lyrics themselves.
Fortunately, this was also a problem for Google when deciding in which language you’re searching in during your queries, and they were kind enough to opensource their implementation. They used a Naïve Bayes approach, which achieved 99.77% accuracy when classifying news articles in over 49 languages (Nakatani, 2010). Using this approach, we managed to label almost all lyrics by language, identifying 43 different ones in the corpus. The distribution of the languages can be seen in Table 1.
This method, however, is not without its own problems. We were curious, for instance, as to why there were so many lyrics in Romanian (ro). A more in-depth investigation revealed that instrumental songs would have only the text “(instrumental)” listed as their lyrics –the algorithm struggles when classifying such short words. However, since this problem affected only songs without lyrics (that is, songs that won’t mention any birds at all) we opted to just remove them from the dataset.
Another problem we identified was homonyms: words that sound and are written the same, but have different meanings depending on the context. Consider, for example, the following excerpts:
Song: White Synthetic Noise Lyrics
Band: … And Oceans
Band: A Perfect Circle
Sorrow sings of everything but survival doesn’t seem to ring
Isolate, contain your pain to outlast the taste of misery
Show the stars and I can clear the air and love the end
Red flag red, all the sentinels are damned
The Tokyo kitty, swallow, rose, and canary
Tick tick tick, do you recognize the sounds as the grains count down
Trickle down right in front of you?
The word ‘swallow’ has clearly different meanings in these songs. In the former, it is a verb, that is, the act of causing or allowing something to pass down the throat. In the latter, however, we have a reference to a Hirundinidae bird that may or may not be able to carry a coconut.
To address this problem, we must distinguish between the different uses of homonyms. One way of doing this is classifying each word in a text by its Part of Speech. A part of speech is a category in which a word falls given its syntactic function in a sentence. In the first example above, ‘swallow’ is classified as a verb, while in the second example it is classified as a noun. Since we are interested in identifying mentions of birds in lyrics, knowing that a word function as a noun in the sentence can help us reduce the homonym problem. (Unless, of course, they are nouns for both their meanings. In this case, this approach won’t help much.)
The process of classifying words like this is known as Part-of-Speech tagging, or POS tagging in short. POS tagging can be seen as a supervised learning problem, as we can train a classifier to identify these tags given a pre-labeled dataset of token sequences and tags. For this project, we opted to use a pre-trained model available in NLTK. This default English POS-tagger consists of a Greedy Averaged Perceptron implemented by Honnibal (2013).
Let’s see how this works for our examples. POS tagging on the first one yields the following result:
The tags are represented by abbreviations from the Penn Treebank Tagset. In this case, we can see that ‘swallow’ was assigned the POS tag ‘VB’ (Verb, Base Form) and as such, should not be counted as a bird. Let’s see how this works out with our second example:
Here, ‘swallow’ was assigned the POS tag ‘NN’ (Noun, singular or mass) and as such, should be counted as a bird. However, this example also shows that this method is not perfect, as ‘canary’ received a ‘JJ’ tag (Adjective). However, since the alternative would be to manually annotate POS tags for the whole corpus, we decided to proceed with this alternative.
With both language and homonyms out of the way (well, sort of), we can finally tackle our last problem: plurals. Consider the following two examples:
Song: For the birds
Band: 8 Foot Sativa
Band: A Static Lullaby
To close my eyes
Reduce you to black
Nothing more than an insignificant shadow among the vultures
I will walk away
Scavenger, where does the vulturesleep?
And when you speak to him
Will you bring him to me, bring him to me
Scavenger, bring forth the jackals teeth
We can see that both songs mention the bird ‘vulture’: the first one uses the plural form while the second uses the singular. We wanted to count both references as the same bird, so how could we achieve that?
One solution would be to increment our list of “bird terms” to include all plurals of bird name, as well as a mapping to a root form of the word. This, however, would be a lot of work. This looks like a common problem when doing natural language processing, so we searched for what we could do to address it.
Lemmatization is the process of removing inflectional forms, finding the root word, that is, the lemma, so that they can be analyzed as a single group. It is widely used when running searches for terms in documents as a way to correctly match-related terms. Fortunately, there are various lemmatizers implementations for different languages. For this problem, we will use the WordNet lemmatizer available in the NLTK library.
Lemmatizer usually requires the POS tag of the word, but fortunately, we got that covered. Running the WordNet Lemmatizer in our first example yields the following: “Nothing more than an insignificant shadow among the vulture.”
You might be thinking: “Wait. That much work just to take out an ‘s’ from the end of the word?”. However, remember that grammatical number can be way more complex than that (e.g., goose and geese), and using a proper lemmatizer takes all that complexity into account.
OK. We detected the language of our metal songs and filtered only those in English. We tagged the part-of-speech of all our words, and we even lemmatized them to ensure consistency. What is then left to do?
Well, we need to count our birds! For this project, we decided to use a static list of bird names commonly used in cultural works. The list can be seen in Table 2.
We only counted the term in our dataset if the POS tag of it corresponded to a noun. This reduced the likelihood of homonyms such as ‘swallow’ bird and ‘swallow’ verb, but unfortunately will do nothing for homonyms such as ‘tyrant’ flycatcher (Tyrannidae) and ‘tyrant’ Cersei Lannister. The count was done in two different ways:
Occurrence counts: This method counts the number of times a word appears, counting multiple repetitions in the same song as distinct occurrences. For example, when counting the word “bird” in the classic song “Surfin’ Bird”, by The Trashmen, this counting method would yield 82 occurrences.
Song counts: This method counts the number of songs in which a word appear, counting multiple repetitions in the same song as a single occurrence. Keeping with our previous example, “Surfin’ Bird” would only wield 1 as the count of the word “bird”.
To validate our methods, let’s take a look at the top 5 most metal birds:
That corresponded with our expectations, even though we probably are suffering from a homonym problem with all those tyrants showing up. The tyrant flycatchers are not actually that metal (Fig. 5).
We also grouped our bird count by each metal genre. In this way, we will be able to run an analysis on how different birds relate to different types of metal. Given that we had 368 different metal subgenres, we had to summarize this if we wanted to run any meaningful statistical analyses. We summarized them using the definitions from Wikipedia into “just” 37 categories, listed in Table 3.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The word ‘bird’ appears in 2,222 songs, as we’ve seen above. It seems quite a lot, but on a closer look, it’s not quite: that number represents only about 1.5% of all the songs in the database. We honestly didn’t know what to expect when we started this project, so it is hard to decide if that’s a lot of birds or too few of them. We are more inclined to the latter, given that birds are such prominent symbols in most worldwide cultures.
But more specific mentions of popular bird names also appear in several songs. Some likely refer to a single species, like ‘nightingale’ (Luscinia megarhynchos) and ‘blackbird’ (Turdus merula). Most common names, however, refer to a whole group of species, like ‘eagle’ and ‘penguin’, and not to a particular species in each group. Finally, some common names, like ‘dove’ and ‘swan’, while being representatives of larger groups, in this context probably refer to the most common European forms, the rock dove (Columba livia) and the mute swan (Cygnus olor).
We present below the number of times each type of bird is mentioned in a metal song and we do this in two ways. Table 4 shows the total count (the “occurrence count” from the example above), which includes all the times a particular word pops up in the lyrics. As explained above, this includes repetitions within the same song, such as in chorus sections. For instance, ‘eagle’ appears several times in Helloween’s “Eagle Fly Free” (1988). Table 5 shows the counts ignoring all the repetitions (the “song count” from the example above). This way, ‘eagle’ is counted only once in Helloween’s song.
We think the second type of counting (Table 5) is a better representation of bird abundance in metal songs, so we will only refer to this one in our discussion below. However, if should be noted that eagles are the most used bird according to Table 4, but they come in second in Table 5, having switched places with ravens. Even though we knew from simple life experience that these two were the most metal birds, we expected eagles to get the crown in both types of count.
So now we can say with certainty that the most metal bird is the raven (Fig. 6). The word can refer to several species worldwide, but it is logical to assume that people usually think of the common raven (Corvus corax; Fig. 9) when using the word. This species is distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is one of the largest passerines alive. Ravens are omnivorous animals, extremely opportunistic and versatile, and their intelligence is well-known to biologists.
Ravens are undoubtedly one of the most common birds in folklore and pop culture but are generally regarded as birds of ill-omen and related to “evil stuff”. Thus, they are well-represented in Black and Death Metal, with respectively, 328 and 152 occurrences. However, they are sometimes associated with nicer things, like the ravens from the Tower of London (Kennedy, 2004) and Nordic mythology. The relationship with the latter is very clear given the 114 times this bird appears in Pagan Metal songs.
In second place, we have the eagle, a staple of Power Metal and original Heavy Metal (Fig. 1), with 197 and 193 counts, respectively. Eagles are very likely the most prominent bird symbol of all in Western culture (Armstrong, 1970): Zeus, the Roman Empire, European heraldry (especially Germany and Austria), and of course, ‘Murica. As the “king of birds”, the eagle is almost always a symbol of power or leadership. The ‘eagle’, however, will not be the same bird species for every headbanger: American bands and fans will always think of their national symbol, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), while others will possibly think of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) or other more regional species. Eagles are part of the Accipitridae, family together with hawks, kites and Old world vultures (see below); however, the name ‘eagle’ is given to several large species that are not actually too closely related to each other (e.g., booted eagles, snake eagles, sea eagles, harpy eagles; Lerner & Mindell, 2005).
The third most used bird is the vulture. This term does not refer to any specific vulture species, but most likely to a sort of over-generalized stereotypical representation of a vulture in popular imagination. Vultures suffer from a bad press, being often mindlessly associated with corpses, death and decay due to their scavenging diet. Unsurprisingly, it is a prevalent bird in Death and Black Metal songs, with 228 and 143 counts respectively. Trash Metal also has a good number of counts (117), but given this genre’s more political lyrics, ‘vulture’ is here often related to bad people or practices.
The popular name vulture actually refers to 23 species worldwide, distributed in two distinct yet closely related biological groups (Buechley & Sekercioglu, 2016): the Old World vultures (Fig. 7) and the New World vultures (Fig. 8). Old World vultures belong to the family Accipitridae, the same as eagles and hawks, while the New World ones (which include condors) comprise the family Cathartidae. The scavenging habits of vultures evolved independently in these two lineages and in both cases has led to some common adaptations to this way of life: large bodies and wings, powerful beaks and featherless heads (Buechley & Sekercioglu, 2016).
The fourth bird on our list are the crows. Again, ‘crow’ can refer to any out of 30-something species. The typical European black crow is called carrion crow (Corvus corone; Fig. 10); the hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is also very common in the continent, but it is not entirely black and so possibly unsuitable for metal songs. North American headbangers will be typically more familiar with the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos).
Note that all these species belong to the genus Corvus and, in fact, so does the raven (see above). People get confused about these birds all the time and often use the words ‘raven’ and ‘crow’ interchangeably. While neither word has any true biological meaning (that’s what scientific names are for, after all!), we will give you some pointers as how to differentiate the common raven from those crows. Also, after reading this, try checking all those raven and crow illustrations on heavy metal albums – you’ll be surprised how many of them are just plain wrong.
There are several differences to keep an eye out for when trying to identify crows and ravens (BTO, 2013). First off, ravens are huge, with a wingspan similar to a buzzard’s and an even larger body. If you’re uncertain about the identity of the bird you’re seeing, it’s probably a crow. When you finally encounter a raven, you’ll immediately know it. But there are other features that might help you out if the animals are seen far off, flying or just through photos.
Crows have a rounded head, with the plumage arranged neatly on the body; their beak is deeply curved and stout (Fig. 10). Ravens have very long and heavy beaks, ruffled throat feathers, a barrel-like chest and a long neck, which together gives them a heavy-headed impression (Fig. 9). In flight, crows beat their wings more heavily and their fan-shaped tail is clearly seen (Fig. 10). Ravens, however, tend to soar more; the feathers on their wing tips looks more like a raptor’s when flying and they have a long and wedge-shaped tail (Fig. 9). Finally, crows have a far-carrying “caw” vocalization, while the ravens’ calls are a deep and hoarse croak.
There are some unexpected results. For starters, we imagined hawks and falcons would rank higher on the list, as well the nightingale, which is typically associated with song and poetry. We also have lots of mentions to ducks, geese and chicken, but a good portion of them refer to expressions (e.g., sitting ducks) or, metaphorically, to people.
However, there were some actual surprises. From the list of bird “species” we initially came up with (Table 2), we had included some oddballs just to be thorough and have all avian orders represented. To our surprise, however, our search came up with some occurrences for them, like penguins, ostriches, macaws and toucans.
The song Ostrich, by American band Gloomy Grim (2000), focuses on the fallacious idea that ostriches (Struthio camelus) bury their head in the sand to hide. They do not. What they are doing is inspecting and caring for their eggs; they dig shallow nests and from a distance, it might look like an ostrich has its head buried in the sand (American Ostrich Association, 2019). In fact, ostriches have no need to hide; besides being the largest living dinosaur and having a mean kick, they are the fastest animals on two legs (Donegan, 2002; Stewart, 2006).
All mentions of penguins come from a single Swedish Black metal band called Satan’s Penguins. Several of their songs stick to the theme, such as “Antarctic Winterstorm”, “Behind Mountains of Ice”, and “Night of the Penguins”. Despite being thought of as birds from the icy wastes of our planet, most penguin species live in sub-Antarctic or temperate areas (Davis & Renner, 2003). Actually, the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands, very close to the equator.
Battle of the genres
One curious thing to see was how each genre has its own favorite bird (Table 6). However, when we looked more closely at these results, they are entirely expected. Eagles are the stars in genres such as Heavy, melodic, Power and Speed Metal, while ravens dominate the Gothic, Folk and Pagan genres. The preference of owls in Electronic, however, is a mystery to us.
We could also check which genre is the most biodiverse, that is, which genre cites the largest number of bird “species” in its songs (Table 7). The undisputed crown goes to Death metal, with 46 species; after it, we have Power, Black and Heavy Metal all clustered together with 41, 40 and 39 species, respectively. However, this might just be an artifact of the sheer number of Death Metal songs: this genre has twice more songs in the database (a total of circa 46,000 songs) than the second genre (Black Metal, with circa 23,000). So the change of a bird popping up in a Death Metal song is just higher because of this. (Also, several species are mentioned just once and birds are not mentioned that much in their songs; see also Table 8.) The other three genres we mentioned are better balanced: Black Metal has 23,000 songs total, as shown above, while Power Metal has circa 17,000 and Heavy Metal 22,000.
The least ornithological genre is Grunge, but one could rightfully argue that “grunge’s not metal” or “who cares about grunge anyway?” So the least ornithological true genres are Dark Metal and Christian Metal (Table 7).
However, if you take into account the proportion of songs that mention birds (Table 8), Pagan Metal is the true bird-loving (or should we say raven-loving?) genre. Around 13.5% of Pagan Metal songs mention some sort of bird. The second place goes to Folk Metal/Rock, with 11.2% of songs mentioning birds. The least bird-friendly genres are Alternative Metal (1.7%) and Glam (1.9%).
And what about the songs that have the most birds? Well, we have two worth mentioning, one from a big name in metal and the other from, well, a rather obscure band. First is “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” by Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish, from the album Imaginaerum (Nuclear Blast, 2011), later also released as a single (Fig. 11). As expected from the title, there is a good avian diversity in this song: besides the three titular birds, there is also mention of the swan. The second song is “Proverbs of Hell Plates 7-10” by Norwegian black metal and avant-garde metal band Ulver, from the album Themes from William Blake’s the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Jester Records, 1998). This song mentions the peacock, eagle, crow and owl.
We have certainly been surprised by some of our findings: from ravens overtaking eagles to the odd penguin and ostrich popping up in some lyrics. As we’ve argued, birds are very diverse group of animals, and several species are deep-seated symbols in cultures worldwide. So maybe it’s about time heavy metal left the tropes of ravens, eagles and vultures on the bench for a while and let other avian stars shine (Fig. 12).
Raikow, R.J. & Bledsoe, A.H. (2000) Phylogeny and evolution of the passerine birds: independent methods of phylogenetic analysis have produced a well-supported hypothesis of passerine phylogeny, one that has proved particularly useful in ecological and evolutionary studies. BioScience 50(6): 487–499.
Henrique Soares is an engineer and machine learning enthusiast, not particularly knowledgeable in either birds or metal. When he is not working on unconventional applications of machine learning, Henrique spends his time wondering how could there be people that don’t know about the bird, because everyone knows that the bird is a word! A-well-a-bird, bird, b-bird’s a word, a-well-a…
João Tomotani is a mechanical engineer currently working with Supply Chain. Though he is more of a power/melodic metal enthusiast, he agreed to focus on birds instead of dragons in this research.
Dr. Barbara Tomotani is a biologist and the only one in this group whose work actually focuses on birds. She is not a big heavy metal fan and does not work with heavy metal birds, preferring the tiny flycatchers. But she has certainly liked the new metal bird Corviknight.
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist who lately has found himself working with a lot of bird-related stuff. One of the first songs he remembers ever hearing as a child was Walk of Life, by Dire Straits – his sister’s “fault” and an influence that eventually led him down the road to metal. He’ll quickly tell you his favorite bands are Queen and Avantasia, but he’s hard pressed to decide his favorite bird.
 We excluded ‘tyrants’ from the analysis due to the homonym problem presented above. Likewise, we excluded ‘roller’, which is typically used in the term ‘rock n’ roller’ rather than referring to the members of family Coraciidae.
 We confess none of us had the slightest idea Ulver even existed.
Squids Odyssey is a role-playing game by French studio The Game Bakers. It is the latest entry in the Squids franchise, released in 2014 for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU, and more recently, in 2018 for PC and Nintendo Switch.
The fun fact about our Squids games is that we were actually all fascinated by octopuses and cephalopods in general long before we created the game. We even almost named our game studio “Happy Squids”… It was when we were working on the game mechanics and looking for some characters that could be “stretchable” on an iPhone screen that we thought about “tentacles”. Then we knew it was a perfect fit! We started designing our little heroes inspired by real octopuses, squids and other cephalopods.
We did a lot of research to get inspiration on shapes and colors, but of course there is also a lot of redesign in cartoon style so sometimes it might be hard to see the direct reference. But you can still recognize a few: for instance, Clint was inspired on the vampire squid. Baron, the bad guy in the story, is inspired by a more regular octopus.
We also looked at shrimps and crabs for the enemies. The big boss of the first game is a coconut crab, while a basic enemy you meet in the game is a hermit crab. You can tell the influences directly from the designs.
We took inspiration from other real underwater fauna and flora for the environment design. Even their habitations or their helmets are inspired by things you can find on the bottom of the sea. And in the comic book, we extended the character design to fish; for instance, one of the characters was inspired on a swordfish. In our game, squids and turtles actually cooperate, even though this might not be the case in real life.
For simplification, our little characters only have 4 arms. It’s funny that we’ve been told by some members of our Japanese audience – experts in octopuses and squids – that our little heroes did not look enough like these animals!
ABOUT THE TEAM
The Game Bakers are an indie game studio founded by Emeric Thoa and Audrey Leprince, and based in Montpellier, France. Besides the Squids franchise, they are also responsible for the acclaimed Furi and the upcoming Haven.
 Squids and cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 tentacles. Octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles.
 Shrimps, crabs and lobsters are crustaceans and belong to the Phylum Arthropoda, alongside insects and arachnids. They are not related to cephalopods, which belong in the Phylum Mollusca alongside snails and clams.
Since the beginning of 2019, the web cartoon and flash animation “The Legend of Luo Xiaohei” (in short, Luo Xiaohei) has been viewed more than 72 million times on barrage video website Bilibili (https://www.bilibili.com/). It premiered on March 17, 2011, and has since been updated at a very slow pace. Currently, there are only 27 episodes, each lasting a little over five minutes, counting the ending and opening themes.
The low-updating cartoon has wonderful backgrounds and depicts many creatures, some of which are terrestrial Mollusca. The creators of Luo Xiaohei are Chinese, so the inspirations for the Mollusca in the cartoon are all from East Asia. The depictions are either directly based on a particular species, or freely created based on a wider group of species. Here I discuss the taxonomic and ecological characteristics of the mollusk species depicted in Luo Xiaohei.
Episode 9, 06:28 / Episode 10, 01:07
Taxonomy: Genus Amphidromus Albers, 1850.
In Episode 9, two snails can be seen on a tree covered with moss. Based on a recent study by Lok & Tan (2008), the diet of Amphidromus is similar to other tree snails such as Achatinella Swainson, 1828 and Partula Férussac, 1821 (Kobayashi & Hadfield, 1996). These snails are known to live among moss, their favorite food, and the enviroment depicted in the cartoon is indeed quite realistic.
In fact, the environment shown in this episode seems to be humid, and Amphidromus occurs in Northeast Asia (Sutcharit & Panha, 2006), a warm and humid region. Also, since this is a Chinese cartoon, it is worth mentioning that species in this genus are also known to occur in South China (Benson, 1851). These snails are usually found in tree holes (Inkhavilay et al., 2017) and when predators like birds are about, they won’t move, which strongly fits the depiction in the cartoon. We can also see the same kind of shell in the background of Episode 10 (01:07 min). The cartoonist is probably hooked on these wonderful snails.
Episode 10, 03:38
Taxonomy: Family Cyclophoridae Gray, 1847.
A juvenile shell can be seen on a leaf. Based on the shape of its expanded aperture, it may have an operculum. This is probably an extrapolation by the creator, because terrestrial snails actually do not expand and thicken their aperture when they are young. By the time they expand the shell’s outer lip, they should have more whorls. The inspiration for this one may come from the genus Platyrhaphe Möllendorff, 1890.
Episode 15, 02:05
Taxonomy: Genus Camaena Albers, 1850.
A broken shell lies on the ground over some moss. We can see the umbilicus directly, which shows that this shell is sinistral (that is, it has a “left-handed” coiling direction). Also, the environment shown is consistent with South China. According to the plot, Luo Xiaohei (the titular character in the cartoon) becomes smaller due to magic, so this is why the shell seems so large. However, in fact, Camaena is quite large for a terrestrial snail (Ding et al., 2016).
In China (where the cartoon was produced), the color of the sinistral Camaena species is usually brownish and reddish (Ding et al., 2016). In the cartoon, the color is yellowish, but this may be caused by the shell being long exposed to the weather. Usually, shells found in the wild are often weathered and discolored, and the characteristic bands disappear.
Episode 15, 04:29
Taxonomy: Genus Meghimatium Hasselt, 1823.
Identification of slugs depends on the proportional relationship between the mantle and the entire body and the location of the breathing pore (called pneumostome). In the cartoon slug, there is no visible boundary between the mantle and the entire body. Because the slug must match the background color but not lose its color, its body will add a lot of green to integrate to the overall atmosphere and environment and thus, be inconspicuous.
The continuous mantle limits the range of identification options to two slug families: Veronicellidae Gray, 1840 and Philomycidae Gary, 1847 (Wiktor et al., 2000). The mantle of veronicellids does not look so humid (they are called “leatherleaf slugs”), so naturally, it can only be Philomycidae.
In China, a very common genus of slugs belonging to Philomycidae is Meghimatium. Some members of this genus vary a lot in color pattern, such as Meghimatium bilineatum (Benson, 1842). The common color pattern of M. bilineatum is grey with two longitudinal black lines, but also orange individuals without lines can be found (Chen & Gao, 1987; Wiktor et al., 2000). I have also found grey-colored individuals lacking the black lines.
Episode 16, 07:55
Taxonomy: Genus Achatina Lamarck, 1799.
A shell used as a flower pot seems to have been inspired by snails in the genus Achatina. Shells in this genus are very large and have a tall spire. The species kown as African giant snail, Achatina fulica (Férussac, 1821), has been introduced to South China before the 1930s (Jarrett, 1931). But the shell in the cartoon has a lower spire and more inflated whorls.
The terrestrial mollusks in Luo Xiaohei are accurately depicted regarding their real-world ecology, habitat, and diet (e.g., Episode 9, 06:28). Some of the depictions show real morphological features of the species they seem to be based on (e.g., Episode 15, 04:29). Nevertheless, terrestrial mollusks are an essential part of natural environments. Much like in nature, they also play an important role in Luo Xiaohei, especially in Episode 15, 02:05, when the shell indirectly reflects the fact that Luo Xiaohei has become smaller. In fact, the mollusks depicted in the cartoon may actually help in transmitting the atmosphere of the humid, lush environment where the story takes place.
Benson, W.H. (1842) Mollusca. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 1(9): 486–489.
Benson, W.H. (1851) Description of new land shells from St. Helens, Ceylon, and China. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2(7): 262–265.
Ding, H.L.; Wang, P.; Qian Z.X.; Lin, J.H.; Zhou W.C.; Hwang, C.C.; Ai, H.M. (2016) Revision of sinistral land snails of the genus Camaena (Stylommatophora, Camaenidae) from China based on morphological and molecular data, with description of a new species from Guangxi, China. Zookeys 584: 25–48.
Inkhavilay, K.;Sutcharit, C.; Panha, S. (2017) Taxonomic review of the tree snail genus Amphidromus Albers, 1850 (Pulmonata: Camaenidae) in Laos, with the description of two new species. European Journal of Taxonomy 330: 1–40.
Jarrett, V.H.C. (1931) The spread of the snail Achatina fulica to south China. Hong Kong Naturalist 2(4): 262–264.
Kobayashi, S.R. & Hadfield, M.G. (1996) An experimental study of growth and reproduction in the hawaiian tree snails Achatinella mustelina and Partulina redfieldii (Achatinellinae). Pacific Science 50(4): 339–354.
Lok, A.S.F.L. & Tan, S.K. (2008) A review of the Singapore status of the green tree snail, Amphidromus atricallosus perakensis Fulton, 1901 and its biology. Nature in Singapore 1: 225–230.
Sutcharit, C. & Panha, S. (2006) Taxonomic review of the tree snail Amphidromus Albers, 1850 (Pulmonata: Camaenidae) in Thailand and adjacent areas: subgenus Amphidromus. Journal of Molluscan Studies 72: 1–30.
Wiktor, A.; Chen, D.N.; Wu, M. (2000) Stylommatophoran slugs of China (Gastropoda: Pulmonata) – Prodromus. Folia Malacologica 8(1): 3–35.
Thanks go to Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences for their great specimen digitization work. And thanks also go to Wikipedia for their contribution to free knowledge. I express my heartfelt praise and respect to the Luo Xiaohei creative team and Bilibili. Especial thanks to Yifeng Lü, a member of Luo Xiaohei team, for helping me to find Mollusca in the cartoon. I also thank Mengmeng Wang, Jingjun Han and my family for their tolerance and help.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Guoyi Zhang is a student and taxonomist working on the Camaenidae of China. Land snails are Zhang’s favorites in life. Zhang also enjoys watching Luo Xiaohei and other cartoons on Bilibili as a hobby.
 By MTJJ, China (2011–present). Original title: 罗小黑战记
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.
CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
CHARLES R. DARWIN
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
ASSASSIN AND TEMPLAR SCIENTISTS
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!
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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.
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Chiappe, L.M. (2007) Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. UNSW Press, Sydney.
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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]
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
 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.
 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.
Wingspan is a game entirely about birds and it has been a wonderful surprise, being considered one of the hottest titles for 2019. 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 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.
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 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.
ABOUT THE TEAM
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.
Valleys Between 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.
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:
The game is inspired by nature, so the environmental theme should always be present while never overpowering or distracting the player from the gameplay.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
 Released in 2018 by Little Lost Fox. Currently available for iPhone/iPad and coming soon to Android. Learn more at http://littlelostfox.com/
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 Blobs, hammer wielding cat wizards and goblin bombers, more zoologically minded Planeswalkers may summon an Allosaurus, Hammerhead 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.
HERE WON’T BE KRAKENS
‘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.
A NOTE ON POWER LEVELS
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).
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 Fylamarid, Sand 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.
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.
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.
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).
SORCERIES, ENCHANTMENTS & PLANES-WALKER KIORA
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).
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.
SO LONG SUCKERS
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).
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.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.