Bird biodiversity in heavy metal songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MATERIAL AND METHODS

Data collection

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

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

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

Data pre-processing

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

Language

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

Und der Wald er steht so schwarz und leer,

Weh mir oh weh,

Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr.

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

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

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

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

Homonyms

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

Song: White Synthetic Noise Lyrics

Band: … And Oceans

Song: Hourglass

Band: A Perfect Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plurals

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

Song: For the birds

Band: 8 Foot Sativa

Song: Scavenger

Band: A Static Lullaby

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data aggregation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word

Occurrence count

Song count

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

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

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

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

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

 

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Popular birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected birds

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

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

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

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

Battle of the genres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biodiversity

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

 

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


About the authors

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Inspiration for the character design of Squids Odyssey

Audrey Leprince¹

¹The Game Bakers, Montpellier, France.

Email: audrey (at) thegamebakers (dot) com

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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”[1]. 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.

Clint was inspired on the vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), a very unique deep-sea species. Source: Wikimedia Commons (C. Chun, 1910: Die Cephalopoden, II. Teil).

 

Baron was inspired on a more classic octopus, such as the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) – yes, the name says it all. Source: Wikimedia Commons (A. Salo, 2007).

We also looked at shrimps and crabs[2] 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.

Design variations on the crustacean enemies.

 

Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) live on coastal areas around the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They are the largest land-dwelling arthropods and may weigh up to 4 kg. Despite their name, coconuts are not a significant portion of their diet. Source: Wikimedia Commons (fearlessRich, 2006).
Hermit crabs belong to the family Paguroidea, which counts with over 1,000 species. They typically inhabit a snail shell, using it for protection. This one is called blueband hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) and lives along the Pacific coast of North America. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Stemonitis, 2011).

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.

Cooperation (mutualism) between squids and turtle. Although uncommon, some sea turtles are known to eat squids!

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.


[1] Squids and cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 tentacles. Octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles.

[2] 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.


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Terrestrial Mollusca in The Legend of Luo Xiaohei

Guoyi E. Zhang¹

¹College of Life Sciences, Shandong Normal University, Jinan, China.

Email: starsareintherose (at) 163 (dot) com

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Since the beginning of 2019, the web cartoon and flash animation “The Legend of Luo Xiaohei[1] (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.

TERRESTRIAL MOLLUSCA

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.

Figure 1. Screen capture from Episode 9, 06:28; extracted from Bilibili.

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.

Figure 2. Screen capture from Episode 10, 01:07; extracted from Bilibili.
Figure 3. Amphidromus roseolabiatus on a tree trunk; extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons (Inkhavilay et al., 2017).

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.

Figure 4. Screen capture from Episode 10, 03:38; extracted from Bilibili.
Figure 5. Holotype of Platyrhaphe demangei; extracted from Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (www.naturalsciences.be).

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.

Figure 6. Screen capture from Episode 15, 02:05; extracted from Bilibili.
Figure 7. Camaena cicatricosa; extracted from Wikimedia Commons (Llez, 2013).

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.

lu-xiaohei-figure-08.jpg
Figure 8. Screen capture from Episode 15, 04:29; extracted from Bilibili.
Figure 9. Meghimatium bilineatum from Rizhao, Shandong, China; photo by the author.

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.

Figure 10. Screen capture from Episode 16, 07:55; extracted from Bilibili.
Figure 11. Achatina fulica; extracted from Wikimedia Commons (Eric Guinther, 2004).

CONCLUSION

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.

REFERENCES

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.

Chen, D.N. & Gao, J.X. (1987) Economic Fauna Sinica of China, Terrestria Mollusca. Science Press, Beijing.

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.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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.


[1] By MTJJ, China (2011–present). Original title: 罗小黑战记


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

Rodrigo B. Salvador

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

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

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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.

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

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

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


BOX 1. The discovery and naming of New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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


BOX 2. Sir Richard Owen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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

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


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Wingspan: how birds colonized board games

Interview with Elizabeth Hargrave

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

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

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

Interview

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

A: Yes, I’m an amateur birder.

Q: When did your interest in birds began?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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

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

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

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


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Valleys Between: bringing environmental issues to games

Niamh Fitzgerald

Little Lost Fox. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: niamh (at) littlelostfox (dot) com

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

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

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

The beautiful hexagonal environments of Valleys Between.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals are the protectors of your world.

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.


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


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Cephalopods of the Multiverse

Mark A. Carnall

Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Oxford, UK.

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

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

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

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

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.

CREATURES: NAUTILOIDEA

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

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

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

— Flavour text from Chambered Nautilus card.

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

Figure 1. The nautiluses. Source: Gatherer.

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

CREATURES: ‘SQUID’

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

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

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

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

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

CREATURES: OCTOPODA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 5. Lorthos. Source: Gatherer.

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).

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

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

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

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.

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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.


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Moa v Superman

Rodrigo B. Salvador

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

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

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

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

THE LAST MOA ON EARTH

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

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

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

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

Elementary, my dear Halaway.

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

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

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

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

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


Box 1. What’s a moa anyway?

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

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

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


 

SECOND-LAST, ACTUALLY

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

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

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

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

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

These “clawed terrors” were actually fluffy herbivores.

SUPERMOA

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

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

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

Box 2. The moa’s archnemesis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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


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

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

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


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

Rodrigo B. Salvador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This bird is called kakapo.

THE KAKAPO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIOLOGY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box 1. Kakapo names

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

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


HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT DON’T PANIC

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe just panic a little bit…

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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


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

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

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

[4] The Māori name for New Zealand.

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


Check other articles from this volume

 

The entomological diversity of Pokémon

Rebecca N. Kittel

Museum Wiesbaden, Hessisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Natur, Wiesbaden, Germany.

Email: rebecca.n.kittel (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Pocket Monsters or as they are better known, Pokémon, are playable monsters which first appeared in the 1990’s as a video game in Japan, but soon expanded worldwide. They are still very successful with numerous games, a TV series, comic books, movies, toys and collectibles, additionally to the trading card game and video games. Most recently the release of Pokémon GO, an augmented reality game for smartphones, meant that Pokémon became as popular as never before. The game launched in 2016 and almost 21 million users downloaded it in the very first week in the United States alone (Dorwald et al., 2017).

The games and TV series take place in regions inhabited by humans and Pokémon. Each Pokémon lives in a specific environment (forests, caves, deserts, mountains, fields, seas, beaches, mangroves, rivers, and marshes). The humans try to catch Pokémons with Pokéballs, a device that fits even the largest Pokémon but that is still small enough to be placed into a pocket, hence the name Pocket Monster (Whitehill et al., 2016). After Pokémon have been caught, they are put to fight against each other, just like in the real world, in which humans (unfortunately) let cockerels, crickets, or dogs fight (Marrow, 1995; Jacobs, 2011; Gibson, 2005). The origin of Pokémon goes back to the role-playing game created by Satoshi Tajiri and released by Nintendo for the Game Boy (Kent, 2001). Tajiri was not only a game developer, but like many Japanese adults, grew up catching insects as a child. He wanted to design a game so that every child in Japan could play and let their critters fight, even if they lived in areas which are too densely populated to find insects in the wild. This resulted in the 151 Pokémon in the first versions of the game (“first generation”), with each version adding more Pokémon.

Today, there are 807 Pokémon (seventh generation). Almost all are based on real organisms (mostly animals, but many plants as well), while some depict mythological creatures or objects (e.g., stones, keys). Each Pokémon belongs to one or two of the following 18 types: Normal, Fire, Fighting, Water, Flying, Grass, Poison, Electric, Ground, Psychic, Rock, Ice, Bug, Dragon, Ghost, Dark, Steel, and Fairy (Bulbapedia, 2018). All Pokémon in the game are oviparous, which means they all lay eggs; probably because the creator was fond of insects or just for practical reasons.

Certain Pokémon also evolve; however, this kind of evolution is not the same as the biological concept of evolution. In Pokémon evolution is largely synonymous to metamorphosis, such as when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. As this is the core concept of the game, almost all Pokémon evolve, not only the insects, but also mammals, rocks, and mythological creatures. Usually, they evolve with a complete or incomplete metamorphosis: either they just grow larger, or their look differs significantly between the adult and the young stages.

Insects are the largest group of organisms on earth (Zhang, 2011). There are more than one million described species of insects, of a total of 1.8 million known organisms (Zhang, 2011). They occupy all terrestrial environments (forests, fields, under the soil surface, and in the air) and freshwater; some are even found in the ocean. Additionally, they show a wide range of morphological and behavioral adaptations. This biodiversity is not reflected in the Pokémon world. In the present Generation VII, only 77 of the 807 Pokémon are “Bug type”: about 9.5% of all Pokémon. The aim of this work is to describe the entomological diversity of Pokémon based on taxonomic criteria of the classification of real insects.

METHODOLOGY

The Pokédex was the source of primary information on Pokémon (Pokémon Website, 2018). The criteria to identify insects are either based on the type (Bug type) or morphology (resembles a real insect). Afterwards, the insect Pokémon were classified to the lowest possible taxonomic level (family, genus, or species) according to their real world counterparts. This classification of the Pokémon allowed the comparison of their biological data (such as ecological or morphological traits; Bulbapedia, 2018) with the current knowledge of real insects. The information of the biology of real insects is largely based on Borror et al. (1981).

RESULTS

Not all Bug types are insects; many of them represent other arthropods, like spiders, while some are from other invertebrate groups (Table 1). Also, five insect Pokémon do not belong to the Bug type (e.g., Trapinch (#328) is a Ground type; Table 2). In total, insects represent only 62 of the 807 Pokémon. In comparison, the vertebrate groups are overly well-represented by birds (61), mammals (232), reptiles (57), amphibians (23), and fishes (39) (Table 3).

Eleven insect orders are represented in the Pokémon world, namely Blattodea (with 1 Pokémon), Coleoptera (11), Diptera (3), Hemiptera (7), Hymenoptera (6), Lepidoptera (22), Mantodea (4), Neuroptera (3), Odonata (2), Orthoptera (2), Phasmatodea (1). They are listed below in systematic order.

Table 1. List of the 20 Pokémon that are Bug type, but are not insects. Mostly, they belong to other groups within the phylum Arthropoda.
Table 2. Taxonomic classification of the insect Pokémon (Arthropoda: Hexapoda: Insecta). All images are official artwork from Pokémon games (obtained from Bulbapedia, 2018). An asterisk (*) denotes Pokémon that are not Bug type.
Table 3. Comparison between the diversity of Pokémon “species” and their respective representatives in the natural world (Zhang, 2011).

Order: Odonata

Families: Libellulidae and Aeshnidae

Genera: Erythrodiplax and Anax

Yanma (#193) evolves to Yanmega (#469).

Yanma is a large, red dragonfly Pokémon. Like all dragonflies and damselflies, it lives near the water and hunts other insects for food. Yanma is territorial and prefers wooded and swampy areas. Based on its appearance, it belongs to the dragonfly family Libellulidae, and further to the genus Erythrodiplax Brauer, 1868.

Yanmega on the other hand is a large, dark green Pokémon. It is actually a different real-world species. Not only the colors are different, but also the morphology, like the appendages on the tip of the tail. Based on this, it belongs to the dragonfly family Aeshnidae, and to the genus Anax Leach, 1815. One could argue that it is based on Meganeura Martynov, 1932, a very large (wingspan up to 70 cm) but extinct dragonfly genus from the Carboniferous Period. However, the size alone should not be the indicator to classify the species, as many insectoid species are larger in the Pokémon world compared to the real world.

Order: Mantodea

Family: Mantidae

Scyther (#123) evolves to Scizor (#212, incl. Mega-Scizor).

Scyther is a bipedal, insectoid Pokémon. It is green with cream joints between its three body segments, one pair of wings and two large, white scythes as forearms. Scyther camouflages itself by its green color. Based on its appearance, it is classified as a praying mantis (or possible a mantidfly).

Scizor is also a bipedal, insectoid Pokémon. It is primarily red with grey, retractable forewings. Scizor’s arms end in large, round pincers. It appears to be based on a praying mantis, maybe with some references to flying red ants and wasp-mimicking mantidflies.

Although Scizor evolves from Scyther, they are very different and would actually be two different real-world species. Not only are the colors different, but also the morphology: the arms end in either scythes or pincers; Scyther has one pair of wings, Scizor has two.

Fomantis (#753) evolves to Lurantis (#754).

Fomantis is a plant-like and, at the same time, an insect-like Pokémon. Its main body is pink, with green hair, green tufts on the head, and green leaves as a collar. Fomantis is somewhat bipedal and is likely based on the orchid mantis Hymenopus coronatus Olivier, 1792 (Fig. 1), which is known for being able to mimic the orchid flower, along with the orchid itself.

Figure 1. Adult male of Hymenopus coronatus. Credit: Sander van der Wel (2010), Wikimedia Commons.

Lurantis is also plant- and insect-like. It is pink, white, and green. Lurantis looks and smells like a flower, to attract and then attack foes (and prey). It also disguises itself as a Bug Pokémon for self-defense. Lurantis is likely based on the orchid mantis as well as the orchid flower itself, as it is impossible to say where the flower ends and the insect starts. Orchid mantises mimic parts of a flower, by making their legs look like flower petals. Well camouflaged, they can wait for their prey, which will visit the flower for nectar.

Order: Blattodea

Pheromosa (#795).

Pheromosa is a bipedal anthropomorphic Pokémon. It has a rather slender build and is mostly white. Pheromosa originates from the Ultra Desert dimension in Ultra Space. Pheromosa is based on generic cockroaches just after they have molted (Fig. 2); during this stage, the animals are pale and vulnerable until their exoskeleton hardens and darken.

Figure 2. A freshly-molted cockroach (family Blattidae), leaving its exuvia behind. Credit: Donald Hobern (2010), Wikimedia Commons.

Order: Orthoptera

Family: Gryllidae

Kricketot (#401) evolves to Kricketune (#402).

Kricketot is a bipedal, bug-like Pokémon. It has a red body with some black and white markings. By shaking its head and rubbing its antennae together, it can create a sound that it uses to communicate. Based on its appearance, it is a cricket.

Kricketune is also a bipedal Pokémon with an insectoid appearance, also primarily red with some black and tan colored markings. It can produce sound by rubbing its arms on the abdomen. Kricketune appears to be based on crickets due to their sound-producing ability, but it somewhat resembles a violin beetle.

Both Kricketot and Kricketune are depicted with only 4 limbs, whereas insects are largely defined by having exactly six legs.

Order: Hemiptera

Families: Gerridae and Fulgoridae

Surskit (#283) evolves to Masquerain (#284).

Surskit is a blue insectoid Pokémon with some pink markings. It produces some sort of syrup, which is exuded as a defense mechanism or to attract prey. This Pokémon can also secrete oil from the tips of its feet, which enables it to walk on water as though skating. Surskit usually inhabits ponds, rivers, and similar wetlands, where it feeds on microscopic, aquatic organisms. This Pokémon is based on water striders. However, a water strider does not ooze syrup and neither does it need oil to walk on water; it can walk on water due to the natural surface tension.

Masquerain is a light blue Pokémon with two pairs of wings. On either side of its head is a large antenna that resembles an angry eye. These eyespots are used by many real-life moths and lantern-flies to confuse and intimidate would-be predators. Masquerain is in fact based on a lantern-fly.

Both “species”, water striders and lantern-flies, are only distantly related, belonging to two different families within the “true bugs” (Hemiptera).

Family: Cicadidae

Nincada (#290) evolves to Ninjask (#291) and then to Shedinja (#292).

Nincada is a small, whitish, insectoid Pokémon. The claws are used to carve the roots of tree and absorb water and nutrients. Nincada builds underground nests by the roots of trees. It is based on a cicada nymph, which lives underneath the soil surface. However, a cicada nymph usually does not have fully developed wings. Instead, they have short wing stubs which eventually will become fully functional wings – as usual amongst hemimetabolous insects.

Ninjask is a small, cicada-like Pokémon with two pairs of wings. Its body is mostly black with some yellow and grey markings. Ninjask is a very fast Pokémon and it can seem invisible due to its high speed. It is based on an adult cicada, with the colors somewhat resembling Neotibicen dorsatus (Say, 1825) (Fig. 3).

Shedinja is a brown and grey insectoid Pokémon. A hole between its wings reveals that its body is completely hollow and dark, as it possesses no internal organs. It is based on the shed husk (exuvia) that cicadas and other hemimetabolous insects leave behind when they molt.

Figure 3. Adult female of Neotibicen dorsatus, the bush cicada. Credit: Yakkam255 (2015), Wikimedia Commons.

Paras (#046) evolves to Parasect (#047).

Paras is an orange insectoid Pokémon with an ovoid body. On the top it has two little red and yellow mushrooms known as tōchūkasō. The mushrooms can be removed at any time, and grow from spores that are doused on this Pokémon’s back at its birth by the mushroom on its mother’s back. Tōchūkasō is an endoparasitoid that replaces the host tissue and can affect the behavior of its insect host. The base insect is based on a cicada nymph. The real-world tōchūkasō live on hepialid caterpillars in Tibet. However, there are many more species of entomopathogenic fungi in the world, most notable the genus Cordyceps (L.) Fr. (1818).

Parasect is an orange, insectoid Pokémon that has been completely overtaken by the tōchūkasō mushroom. The adult insect has been drained of nutrients and is now under the control of the fully-grown tōchūkasō. Parasect can thrive in dank forests with a suitable amount of humidity for growing fungi. The base insect is a deformed version of what is probably a cicada nymph, the parasitic mushroom having caused a form of neoteny, when the adults look like a juvenile form.

Order: Neuroptera

Family: Myrmeleontidae

Trapinch (#328) evolves to Vibrava (#329) and then to Flygon (#330).

Trapinch is an orange, insectoid Pokémon. This Pokémon lives in arid deserts, where it builds its nest in a bowl-shaped pit dug in sand. It sits in its nest and waits for prey to stumble inside. Once inside, the prey cannot climb back out. It is based on the larval stage of the antlion, which lives in conical sandy pits before maturing into winged adults.

Vibrava is a dragonfly-like Pokémon. Vibrava’s wings are not fully developed, so it is unable to fly very far. However, it is able to create vibrations and ultrasonic waves with its wings, causing its prey to faint. Vibrava is a saprotroph – it spits stomach acid to melt its prey before consumption. Vibrava is based on the adult stage of an antlion. Adult antlions and dragonflies look from a distance quite similar and are therefore often mistaken for each other.

Flygon is a desert-dwelling insectoid dragon with a green body and one pair of wings. Its wings make a “singing” sound when they are flapped. It uses this unique ability to attract prey, stranding them before it attacks. It is based on the winged, adult stage of the antlion.

Order: Coleoptera

Family: Lucanidae

Pinsir (#127, incl. Mega-Pinsir).

Pinsir is a bipedal beetle-like Pokémon with a brown body and a large pair of grey, spiky pincers on top of its head. Pinsir is based on a stag beetle.

Grubbin (#736) evolves to Charjabug (#737) and then to Vikavolt (#738).

Grubbin is a small insectoid Pokémon. It has a white body with three nubs on either side resembling simple legs. Grubbin typically lives underground. It uses its jaw as a weapon, a tool for burrowing, and for extracting sap from trees. Grubbin appears to be based on a larval beetle, also known as “grubs”.

Charjabug is a small cubic Pokémon resembling an insect-like battery. Its body consists of three square segments with two brown stubs on each side. It generates and stores electricity in its body by digesting food. This energy is stored in an electric sac. Charjabug appears to be based on a cocooned bug and a battery. It may also be based on the denkimushi (Monema flavescens Walker, 1855), a caterpillar in Japan that, when touched, can give a sting that is said to feel like an electric shock (Fig. 4).

Vikavolt is a beetle-like Pokémon with a large pair of mandibles. It produces electricity with an organ in its abdomen, and fires powerful electric beams from its huge jaws. Vikavolt appears to be based on a stag beetle. Its straight, scissor-like mandibles resemble those of Lucanus hayashii Nagai, 2000.

Figure 4. Larva of Monema flavescens. Credit: Pan et al. (2013), Wikimedia Commons.

Family: Coccinellidae

Ledyba (#165) evolves to Ledian (#166).

Ledyba is a red ladybird-like Pokémon with five black spots on its back. Female Ledyba have shorter antennae than male Ledyba. Ledyba is a very social Pokémon, e.g. in the winter they gather together to keep each other warm. Ledyba is probably based on the five-point ladybird Coccinella quinquepunctata Linnaeus, 1758 due to its color and/or on the harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis (Pallas, 1773), which clusters together in the winter.

Ledian is a large red bipedal ladybird-like Pokémon. Female Ledians’ antennae are shorter than the males’. Ledian sleeps in forests during daytime inside a big leaf.

Family: Scarabaeidae

Heracross (#214, incl. Mega-Heracross).

Heracross is a bipedal beetle-like Pokémon with a blue exoskeleton. The prolonged horn on its forehead ends in a cross-shaped (males) or heart-shape (females) structure. Heracross is most likely based on the Japanese rhinoceros beetle Allomyrina dichotoma Linneaus, 1771 (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Adult male of Allomyrina dichotoma. Credit: Lsadonkey (2016), Wikimedia Commons.

Family: Lampyridae

Volbeat (#313) and Illumise (#314).

Volbeat is a bipedal firefly-like Pokémon. Its body is black with some blue, yellow, and red portions. It has a spherical yellow tail, which glows to communicate and draws geometric patterns in the sky while in a swarm. This is a male only Pokémon “species”; Illumise is its female counterpart. Volbeat lives in forests near clean ponds and is attracted by the sweet aroma given off by Illumise. It is based on a firefly like its counterpart Illumise. Its appearance may be based on a greaser, a subculture from the 1950’s.

Illumise is a bipedal firefly-like Pokémon. It is black and blue with some yellow markings. This is a female only Pokémon “species”; Volbeat is its male counterpart. It is a nocturnal Pokémon that lives in forests.  Illumise does not seem to share its coloring with any particular species. Illumise may be based on flappers, a 1920’s women’s style. Its mating behavior only slightly resembles the behavior of real-world fireflies, in which females use light signals to attract mates.

Family: Elateridae

Karrablast (#588) evolves to Escavalier (#589).

Karrablast is a round bipedal Pokémon with a yellow and blue body. When it senses danger, it spews an acidic liquid from its mouth. It targets another Pokémon, Shelmet, so it can evolve. It resides in forests and fields, and it often hides in trees or grass if threatened. Karrablast may be based on a Japanese snail-eating beetle due to its preference for attacking Shelmet, a snail-like Pokémon.

Escavalier is an insectoid Pokémon wearing a knight’s helmet. Its tough armor protects its entire body. It flies around at high speed, jabbing foes with its lances. Escavalier is probably based on the Drilus Olivier, 1790 genus, with references to a jousting knight. Drilus larvae are known for eating snails and stealing their shells, explaining why it attacks Shelmet and takes its shell to evolve into Karrablast.

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Tenthredinidae

Weedle (#013) evolves to Kakuna (#014) and then to Beedrill (#015, incl. Mega-Bedrill).

Weedle is a small larval Pokémon with a body ranging in color from yellow to reddish-brown. It has a conical venomous stinger on its head and a barbed one on its tail to fend off enemies. Weedle can be found in forests and usually hides in grass, bushes, and under the leaves it eats. Weedle appears to be based on the larva of a wasp or hornet, although these real-world larvae usually don’t have defense strategies. The only larvae which feed directly off leaves are those of sawflies.

Kakuna is a yellow cocoon-like Pokémon. Kakuna remains virtually immobile and waits for its “evolution” to happen, often hanging from tree branches by long strands of silk. Although Kakuna is the pupa stage of a Hymenoptera, it showcases a silky cocoon, a feature usually found in Lepidoptera and only some Hymenoptera, like sawflies.

Beedrill is a bipedal, wasp-like Pokémon. Its forelegs are tipped with long, conical stingers. It stands on its other two legs, which are long, segmented, and insectoid in shape. Beedrill has two pairs of rounded, veined wings, and another stinger on its yellow-and-black striped abdomen. By its color pattern, Beedrill looks like a vespid wasp, but due to the previous stages of this Pokémon species, it must be based on Tenthredo scrophulariae Linneaus, 1758, the figwort sawfly.

Family: Apidae

Combee (#415) evolves to Vespiquen (#416, female).

Combee is a small insectoid Pokémon that resembles three social bees inside three hexagonal pieces of honeycomb stuck together; the top two have wings. Female Combee have a red spot on the forehead. Male Combee are not known to evolve into or from any other Pokémon. The sex ratio of Combee is 87.5% male and 12.5% female. Combee can fly with its two wings as long as the top two bees coordinate their flapping. They gather honey, sleep, or protect the queen. Combee is based on a mix of bees and their larvae living in honeycombs. (Bees arrange their honeycombs in a vertical manner, whereas wasps arrange them horizontally.)

In the hive of the real-world honey bee (Apis mellifera Linneaus, 1758), there is usually one queen bee and up to 40.000 female workers. So, the sex ratio of Combee does not reflect the ratio of female (workers) and male (drones) honey bees, but of the reproductive bees, the drones and the fertile queens. The larger number of drones is needed, since each queen will often mate with 10–15 males before she starts a new hive. Usually, drones can make up to 5% of the bees in a hive.

Vespiquen is a bipedal bee-like Pokémon with a yellow and black striped abdomen resembling an elegant ballroom gown. Underneath the expansive abdomen are honeycomb-like cells that serve as a nest for baby Combee. Vespiquen is a female-only Pokémon “species”. Vespiquen is the queen of a Combee hive, controlling it and protecting it, as well as giving birth to young Combee. The horizontal honeycombs hints that this “species” is a wasp rather than a bee.

Family: Formicidae

Durant (#632).

Durant is an ant-like Pokémon with a grey body and six black legs. It is territorial, lives in colonies and digs underground mazes. Durant grows steel armor to protect itself from predators. Durant is based on an ant, possibly the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile Mayr, 1868), due to the jaw and their invasive behavior.

Order: Lepidoptera

Family: Papilionidae

Caterpie (#010) evolves to Metapod (#011) and then to Butterfree (#012).

Caterpie is a green caterpillar-like Pokémon. It has yellow ring-shaped markings down the sides of its body and bright red “antenna” (osmeterium) on its head, which releases a foul odor to repel predators. The appearance of Caterpie helps to startle predators; Caterpie is probably based on Papilio xuthus Linnaeus, 1767, the Asian swallowtail (Fig. 6). The osmeterium is a unique feature of swallowtails. Caterpie will shed its skin many times before finally cocooning itself in thick silk. Its primary diet are plants.

Metapod is a green chrysalis Pokémon. Its crescent shape is based upon a Swallowtail chrysalis with a large nose-like protrusion and side protrusions resembling a Polydamas Swallowtail or Pipevine Swallowtail chrysalis (genus Battus Scopoli, 1777).

Butterfree is a butterfly Pokémon with a purple body and large, white wings, somewhat resembling a black-veined white Aporia crataegi (Linneaus, 1758). Although it is supposed to be a butterfly, it lacks the proboscis, which is typical of Lepidoptera, and presents teeth instead. Additionally, the body does not consist of the typical three segments of insects. Therefore, each stage seems to be based on a different species.

Figure 6. Larva of Papilio xuthus, with everted orange osmeterium. Credit: Alpsdake (2011), Wikimedia Commons.

Families: Geometridae and Arctiidae

Venonat (#048) evolves to Venomoth (#049).

Venonat has a round body covered in purple fur, which can release poison. It feeds on small insects, the only Lepidoptera caterpillar which is known to feed on prey instead of leaves belong the genus Eupethecia Grote, 1882 (Geometridae). However, Venonat does not resemble a caterpillar in general body shape or numbers of legs.

Venomoth is a moth-like Pokémon with a light purple body and interestingly two small mandibles. It has two pairs of wings, which are covered in dust-like, purple scales, although the color varies depending on their toxic capability. Dark scales are poisonous, while lighter scales can cause paralysis. These scales are released when Venomoth flutters its wings. The general appearance resembles species belonging to the Actiidae.

There is no cocoon stage for this species it is doubtful whether both stages were based on the same real-life species.

Family: Riodinidae

Scatterbug (#664) evolves to Spewpa (#665) and then to Vivillon (#666).

Scatterbug is a small caterpillar Pokémon with a grey body. If threatened by a bird Pokémon, it can spew a powder that paralyzes on contact. Similarly, the large white butterfly Pieris brassicae (Linneaus, 1758) is known to throw up a fluid of semi-digested cabbage, which contains compounds that smell and taste unpleasant to predators, such as birds.

Spewpa is a small insectoid Pokémon with a grey body covered by white furry material. In order to defend itself, Spewpa will bristle its “fur” to threaten predators or spray powder at them. Spewpa is based on a generic pupa of a moth or butterfly, probably a silkworm cocoon.

Vivillon is a butterfly-like Pokémon with wings that come in a large variety of patterns, depending in which climate it lives or rather, in which real-world region the player is. There is a total of 20 patterns known. It would be interesting to know whether they evolved due to allopatric speciation or if it is a case of mimicry.

Family: Psychidae

Pineco (#204) evolves to Forretress (#205).

Pineco is a pine cone-like Pokémon without visible limbs. It is based on a bagworm, the caterpillar stage of psychid Lepidoptera. Bagworms cover themselves with a case (the bag) made of surrounding material. This Pokémon uses tree bark and thus resembles a pine cone.

Forretress is a large spherical Pokémon, also without any visible limbs. It lives in forests, attaching itself immovably to tree trunks. Forretrees is also based on a bagworm.

Different bagworm species are adapted to their environment, to the plants they eat, and to the materials available for producing their case. Therefore, Pineco and Forretress are actually based on two different species, as they both are caterpillars. There is no adult stage for this Pokémon.

Burmy (#412) evolves to Wormadam (#413, female) or Mothim (#414, male).

Burmy is a small pupa-shaped Pokémon with a black body and six stubby legs. It is based on a bagworm pupa, which will metamorphose into a winged moth if male, or wingless moth if female. Burmy can change its “cloak” (case) depending on the environment it last battled.

Wormadam is a black bagworm-like Pokémon with a cloak of leaves, sand, or building insulation. Its cloak depends on Burmy’s cloak when it evolved, and so does it type (Grass, Ground or Steel). It is a female-only “species”, with Mothim as its male counterpart. Female psychid moth either don’t have wings at all or have only small wing stubs that don’t develop fully.

Mothim is a moth-like Pokémon with two pairs of legs and two pairs of wings, one larger than the other. Mothim is a nomadic nocturnal Pokémon, searching for honey and nectar. Instead of gathering honey on its own, it raids the hives of Combee. It is a male-only “species”, with Wormadam as its female counterpart.

Family: Nymphalidae

Wurmple (#265) evolves to Silcoon (#266) and then to Beautifly (#267).

Wurmple is a small caterpillar-like Pokémon with a mostly red body and many spikes on the top of its body. It can spit a white silk that turns gooey when exposed to air. Spikes or hairy appendages are common amongst nymphalid caterpillars. Also, it has five pairs of legs, whereas insects are known to have only three pairs of legs. However, many lepidopteran caterpillars have additionally “prolegs” (small fleshy stub-like structures) to help them move.

Silcoon is a cocoon-like Pokémon which is completely covered by white silk. Silcoon also uses the silk to attach itself to tree branches. Nymphalid cocoons are usually not woolly or hairy, but smooth.

Beautifly is a butterfly-like Pokémon with two pairs of wings. Beautifly has a long and curled black proboscis that it uses to drain body fluids from its prey. In the real world, Lepidoptera usually drink the nectar of flowers. One of the few exceptions are the species of the genus Calyptra Ochsenheimer, 1816, which pierce skin of animals and drink blood.

Family: Saturniidae

Wurmple (#265) evolves to Cascoon (#268) and then to Dustox (#269).

The caterpillar stage of this species is morphologically identical to the caterpillar stage of the “species” above: Wurmple. It appears that Wurmple can evolve in two forms: due to mimicry, sympatric speciation or are there morphological or biological characters, which have not been notices yet?

Cascoon is a round cocoon-like Pokémon covered in purple silk. Saturniid cocoons are usually covered in silk.

Dustox is a moth-like Pokémon. It has a purple body, two pairs of tattered green wings, and – just like Beautifly – two pairs of legs. Dustox is nocturnal and is instinctively drawn to light. Clearly, this is a moth. Some of the markings on its wings resemble typical markings of noctuid moths, but the big “fake eye” is typical of saturniids.

Larvesta (#636) evolves to Volcarona (#367).

Larvesta is a fuzzy caterpillar-like Pokémon. It has five red horns on the sides of its head, which it can use to spit fire as a defensive tactic to deter predators. Larvesta is based on a saturniid caterpillar.

Volcarona is a large moth-like Pokémon with four small feet and three pairs of wings. It releases fiery scales from its wings. Just like Larvesta, Volcarona is based on a saturniid moth, likely the Atlas moth Attacus atlas (Linneaus, 1758).

Order: Diptera

Family: Bombyliidae

Cutiefly (#742) evolves to Ribombee (#743).

Cutiefly is a tiny Pokémon with large wings. Cutiefly appears to be based on the bee fly, specifically the species Anastoechus nitidulus (Fabricius, 1794) (Fig. 7).

Ribombee is a tiny insectoid Pokémon with a large head, slightly smaller body, and thin arms and legs. It is covered in fluffy yellow hair. Two wings nearly as large as its body sprout from its back. The wings are clear with three brown loop designs near the base. Its four thin limbs have bulbous hands or feet. Ribombee uses its fluffy hair to hold the pollen it collects from flowers. It is based on a bee fly.

Figure 7. Adult of Anastoechus nitidulus. Credit: karakotokako (2007), image retrieved from https:// karakoto.exblog.jp/.

Family: Culicidae

Buzzwole (#794).

Buzzwole is a bipedal anthropomorphic Pokémon. It has four legs and two pairs of orange translucent wings. It uses its proboscis to stab and then drink “energy” off its enemies/prey. Buzzwole originates from the Ultra Desert dimension in Ultra Space. It is based on a mosquito and may specifically derive inspiration from Aedes albopictus (Skuse, 1894), which is an invasive species worldwide.

Mixed Orders: Lepidoptera and Phasmatodea

Families: Tortricidae, Hesperiidae, and Phylliidae

Sewaddle (#540) evolves to Swadloon (#541) and then to Leavanny (#542).

Sewaddle is a caterpillar-like Pokémon with a green body with three pairs of legs. It makes leafy “clothes” using chewed-up leaves and a thread-like substance it produces from its mouth. The leafy hood helps Sewaddle to hide from enemies. Sewaddle appears to be based on the caterpillar of the silver-spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus (Cramer, 1775), which produce silk and fold leaves over themselves for shelter (Fig. 8).

Swadloon is a round yellow Pokémon inside of a cloak of leaves. It lives on the forest ground and feeds on fallen leaves. Swadloon appears to be based on the chrysalis of Epargyreus clarus. Epargyreus clarus fold leaves over themselves for shelter as they age and, when cocooning, eventually use silk to stick the leaves together and form its chrysalis.

Leavanny is a bipedal, insectoid Pokémon with a yellow and green body with leaf-like limbs. It lives in forests and uses its cutters and sticky silk it produces to create leafy “clothing”. It also warms its eggs with fermenting fallen leaves. Leavanny has the features of several insects. Primarily it appears to be a bipedal leaf-insect (Phylliidae). Its general body structure is also similar to that of Choeradodis Serville, 1831 mantises, which also have laterally expanded thoraxes and abdomens.

Figure 8. Larva of Epargyreus clarus. Credit: Seth Ausubel (2013), image retrieved from https://bugguide.net/.

DISCUSSION

Only 11 insect orders (out of 30) are represented in the Pokémon world. Possible more, as differentiation of insect Pokémon and non-insect Pokémon are sometimes difficult. The main reason is, that many insect Pokémon are not depicted as a typical insect with its segmented body, the six legs, and two pairs of wings[1]. Many are depicted as bipedal (e.g., #401 Kricketot) or even in an anthropomorphic way (e.g., #795 Pheromosa). Also, insectoid Pokémon typically have only four limbs (instead of six). Many insectoid Pokémon also have fewer wings than insects (except for #637 Volcarona, which has more). Therefore, the definition of what is an insect Pokémon is debatable.

One clue is to look at the types each Pokémon belongs to. However, from the circa 80 Bug-type Pokémon, only about 60 are insects. The others belong to other arthropods groups, like Chelicerata, Crustacea, and Myriapoda. This is not surprising, as often creepy crawlies (basically everything that is small with legs) are all addressed as “bugs”. In fact, only member of the insect order Hemiptera are called “true bugs”.

Interestingly, Prado & Almeida (2017) have included Pokémon on their insect list, which are doubtful: #251 Celebi, #247 Pupitar, and #206 Dunsparce. None of them are considered insects here. Celebi may resemble a bipedal somewhat anthropomorphic insectoid, but nothing of the lifestyle or beyond the vague appearance gives a clue to an insect. Similarly, #247 Pupitar, might look like a pupa of an insect. However, both its “larval” stage (#256 Larvitar) and its final stage (#248 Tyranitar) resemble a dinosaur or some sort of dragon. Only the hint of “pupa” in its name, links Pupitar to an insect. Lastly, #206 Dunsparce was classified as a Hymenoptera by Prado & Almeida (2017). Is may look somewhat like an insect, even showing two pairs of wings (and no legs at all). Dunsparce, however, is based on a mythical “snake-like animal” called Tsuchinoko, also known as “bachi hebi” (or “bee snake”). Finally, Prado & Almeida (2017) have classified #212 Scizor as “unknown”, but here it is treated as a praying mantis (Mantodea). Similarly, those authors have classified #284 Masquerain as a Lepidoptera, but here we treat is as a true bug (Hemiptera).

Lastly, #649 Genesect resembles somewhat an ant covered by steel. However, according to the Pokédex (Pokémon Website, 2018), it is a man-made machine.

Compared to the vertebrates (birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes), many more insects live on earth (66,000 described species to about 1 million, respectively; Zhang, 2011). This ratio is, however, not represented in the Pokémon world (Table 3), most likely due to the fact that the majority of people prefer (cute and cuddly) furry animals over creepy insects, even though butterflies and dragonflies are regarded as beautiful.

REFERENCES

Borror, D.J.; DeLong, D.M.; Triplehorn, C.A. (1981) An Introduction to the Study of Insects. Saunders College, Philadelphia.

Bulbapedia (2018) The community driven Pokémon encyclopedia. Available from: http://bulbaped ia.bulbagarden.net/ (Date of access: 10/Sep/ 2018).

Dorward, L.J.; Mittermeier, J.C.; Sandbrook, C.; Spooner, F. (2017) Pokémon GO: benefits, costs, and lessons for the conservation movement. Conservation Letters 10(1): 160–165.

Gibson, H. (2005) Detailed Discussion of Dog Fighting. Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Jacobs, A. (2011) Chirps and sheers: China’s srickets slash. The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/ world/asia/chirps-and-cheers-chinas-crickets-clash-and-bets-are-made.html (Date of access: 10/Oct/2018).

Kent, S.L. (2001) The Ultimate History of Video Games. Crown Publishing Group, New York.

Morrow, L. (1995) History they don’t teach you: a tradition of cockfighting. White River Valley Historical Quarterly 35(2): 5–15.

Official Pokémon Website, The. (2018) The Official Pokémon Website. Available from: http://poke mon.com/  (Date of access: 10/Sep/2018).

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

Whitehill, S.; Neves, L.; Fang, K.; Silvestri, C. (2016) Pokémon: Visual Companion. Pokémon Company International / Dorling Kindersley, London.

Zhang, Z.-Q. (2011) Animal biodiversity: an outline of higher-level classification and survey of taxonomic richness. Zootaxa 3703: 1–82.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am grateful to Seth Ausubel (https://www. flickr.com/photos/96697202@N07/collections) for kindly granting permission to use his photograph of Epargyreus clarus on this article. I would also like to thank Miles Zhang for valuable comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Rebecca Kittel is an entomologist working on parasitoid wasps. She is interested in all sorts of interactions of insects with human beings, regardless of whether they are real-life insects or purely fictional.


[1] Not all insects have two pairs of wings, though. For instance, the Diptera (flies) have only one, while the Siphonaptera (fleas) have none.


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