Totally pathetic, unreliable.
These are the first words used to describe the lowly Fish Pokémon in The Magikarp Song. And while the song is ultimately an ironic ode to the oft-mocked Pokémon peppered with tongue-in-cheek jabs at the fish, one only need take a cursory glance at Magikarp’s Pokédex history to gain a sense that the scientific community—or whoever authors these fantastical entries—does not particularly hold Magikarp in the highest esteem:
In the distant past, it was somewhat stronger than the horribly weak descendants that exist today. (Pokémon Red and Blue Versions)
An underpowered, pathetic Pokémon. It may jump high on rare occasions, but never more than seven feet. (Pokémon Gold Version)
This weak and pathetic Pokémon gets easily pushed along rivers when there are strong currents. (Pokémon Crystal Version)
Magikarp is a pathetic excuse for a Pokémon that is only capable of flopping and splashing. This behavior prompted scientists to undertake research into it. (Pokémon Ruby Version)
It is virtually worthless in terms of both power and speed. It is the most weak and pathetic Pokémon in the world. (Pokémon FireRed Version)
It is said to be the world’s weakest Pokémon. No one knows why it has managed to survive. (Pokémon Diamond Version)
Many of the lighthearted lyrics of The Magikarp Song are lifted directly from the Pokédex, but only when read alone without the catchy tune playing in the background can one truly taste the venom seeping from the belittling and, honestly, slanderous text.
The main ethos of this blog is that just as there is something to be learned from every organism, so too there is also something to be learned from every Pokémon. And The Pokémon Games seem to have a similar message at their core—that all Pokémon, big or small, strong or weak, have something to offer. The immortalized words of Elite Four Karen speak to this truth:
Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favorites. (Pokémon Silver, 2000)
Yet, the mockery of Magikarp throughout the Pokédex seems to contradict this central core message.
It was my original intent for this Pokémon Day, to write in defense of Magikarp. To extol its high fecundity and amazing osmoregulation, to applaud its persistence throughout the ages despite being “weak” and to explore the life history traits of Magikarp and the evolutionary trade-off that might have led to its current “weak” form—topics that I may cover in the future.
But, during my research, I came across several troubling traits in Magikarp that lead to a worrisome conclusion that might explain why the Pokédex displays such distain for the Fish Pokémon. Magikarp is an invasive species.
We’ve discussed invasive species previously regarding the Alolan forms of Rattata and Meowth (Alolan Rattata and The Feral Cat Problem), and it is now consensus opinion within the community that invasion is a key theme of the Generation VII games. Additionally, it could be argued that most, if not all Pokémon are invasive, or nonindigenous at the very least. However, I propose that Magikarp is not only invasive, but is having detrimental impacts on ecosystems all across the Pokémon World.
Is an Invasive by Any Other Name Just as Sweet?
You may have noticed I’ve been careful not to use invasive and nonindigenous interchangeably. Anyone whose been introduced to the topic before may be accustomed to one or both or any of the tens of terms used to describe nonindigenous species—alien, introduced, exotic, imported, naturalized, transient—the list continues for as long as there are papers written on the subject. This abundance of terms can lead and has led to much confusion about what exactly is being described. Is the discussion limited to only harmful organisms? Are benign organisms invasive? What counts as alien? Are humans the only vector by which these organisms can be introduced?
Even the most frequently used term “invasive” has found itself carrying differing definitions throughout the scientific literature where it has been used as:
- A synonym for nonindigenous
- An adjective for nonindigenous species that have invaded natural areas
- A term used to distinguish between nonindigenous species established in cultivated habitats (i.e. domesticated farm animals) and those established in natural ones (i.e. “the wild”)
- A term used to describe widespread nonindigenous species
- A term used to describe widespread and harmful nonindigenous species
If multiple, differing definitions can be derived from a single term, the compounding effect of having tens of terms in use can lead to even more confusion for scientists and especially the public. Additionally, even if we limit ourselves to “invasive” problems can arise when discussing nonindigenous species as generalizations could easily lump together organisms that do not have comparable effects on their habitat.
Here’s an example. The common goldfish is considered invasive under two of the above definition as it is (1) nonindigenous to the United States, and (2) widespread through its invaded habitat since its introduced into American waterways thanks to neglectful fish owners. However, goldfish rarely achieve high enough densities to cause significant harm to their habitats. Contrast this with the zebra mussel, a textbook invasive species from Eurasia which has cleared waterways and clogged pipes throughout North America. The zebra mussel is both widespread and found at high enough densities to have adverse effects on its habitat. Both organisms are considered invasive, yet in a generalized discussion of invasive species they do not appear to be exhibiting the same phenomenon.
Furthermore, use of invasive terminology can lead to misleading conclusions about the organisms themselves. As Colautti and MacIsaac (2014), authors of the paper from which this article draws heavily from, point out, the use of this language reinforces the mistaken idea that invasive species are some type of taxonomic group, that their invasive qualities are intrinsic to their being, forgetting that all nonnative species are native somewhere.
“Indeed the very terms used to describe NIS are misnomers in that nonindigenous species are actually nonindigenous populations of species. In other words, the same ‘species’ that are nonindigenous, naturalized, or invasive in one area are native somewhere else.” (Colautti and MacIsaac 2014)
Thus, Colautti and MacIsaac devised a framework to better classify nonindigenous species using a more neutral terminology. This the framework from which I will work within for the duration of this article.
Colautti and MacIsaac conceptualize nonindigenous species, referred to as “propagules” (a piece of a plant that can be snipped and planted elsewhere to form a new plant), as advancing through five stages.
First is Stage 0—the potential propagules still reside in their native “donor” habitat. The propagules enter Stage I when they are first “snipped” from their native habitat and transported elsewhere. If the propagules survive transport and release into their new environment they enter Stage II. Once introduced, propagules may achieve Stage III where they are “numerically rare” but have the potential to further establish themselves. From here, propagules can enter two diverge paths into Stage IV—become widespread (Stage IVa) or become dominant (Stage IVb). Once an organism has become both widespread and dominant, they have entered Stage V—what most people and conservation organizations would consider “invasive”.
This new framework allows for distinction between nonindigenous species of varying ecological influence. Let’s return to our previous example. Under this framework, the goldfish would be classified as Stage IVa (widespread), while the zebra mussel would be Stage V (widespread and dominant).
So where does Magikarp fit into this framework?
Magikarp—the Invasive Pokémon
There are currently no hard-and-solid predictors of whether any given species will become invasive if introduced into a novel environment, but there are a few general traits that most successful invaders tend to have. Firstly, successful invaders typically mature early and reproduce rapidly. In essence, they adopt the reproductive strategy of freaking a lot, freaking early (censored for your children’s viewing). Additionally, good invasive species have high dispersal rates—are good at getting their offspring out into the further reaches of their habitat to become widespread and check off one box towards becoming a Stage V species.
Another good trait to have is being able to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions. They are often tolerant of adverse conditions that other organisms would typically not thrive in, such as anoxic (low oxygen) or heavily polluted habitats. This adaptability can be achieved sometimes through phenotypic plasticity, when outward expression of certain traits changes depending on the environment (we talked more about this in Eeveelution Epigenetics). Successful invaders are also usually generalist, being able to consume a wide range of food sources and adapt to whatever happens to be lying around in their environment.
Lastly, most invasive species have an association with one species in particular—homo sapiens.
Humans introduce a lot of nonindigenous species to foreign environments. A review of nonindigenous species in the United States estimates 50,000 nonindigenous species in the US costing $137 billion annually in damages and loss of recreational value (Pimentel et al. 2000). Most are benign and are intentionally brought over, such as domesticated farm animals like dairy cows and chickens. Many are imported as pets, like the Burmese python which now infamously ravages the Florida Everglades. Others hitch a ride unintentionally, such as the zebra mussel which stowed away in the ballasts of cargo ships. As a rule of thumb, only 10% of introduced organisms will become invasive—only 4,500 of the 50,000-nonindigenous species in the US are considered invasive. This may explain why in regions abundant with nonindigenous Pokémon, only a few become invasive like Magikarp.
And Magikarp does appear to possess quite a few invasive qualities.
For starters, Magikarp seems to have fully adopted the freak-a-lot-freaking-early lifestyle. In game, Magikarp and Gyarados require the fewest egg cycles to hatch—indicative of a fast and early maturity. Additionally, the Pokédex entry for Pokémon Sun suggests Magikarp is also a rapid reproducer:
Although weak and helpless, this Pokémon is incredibly fertile. They exist in such multitudes, you’ll soon grow tired of seeing them. (Pokémon Sun)
Pokémon Ultra Moon states that Magikarp can be found in “waters all over the world!” and this mostly rings true as Magikarp is present in every regional Pokédex except for Unova—possibly due to stricter regulations on introducing nonindigenous species since it is a US-based region. All of this would suggest high dispersal capabilities in reproducing Magikarp.
Furthermore, Magikarp displays a high tolerance across a wide range of environmental conditions. From the cold lakes of Sinnoh, to the polluted waters of Celadon City in Kanto, and the sunny shores of Alola, Magikarp thrives. Its entry from Ultra Moon speaks to this:
Thanks to their strong hold on life, dirty water doesn’t bother them at all. They live in waters all over the world! (Pokémon Ultra Moon)
Magikarp even exhibits some form of phenotypic plasticity in its ability to switch from fresh to saltwater, as Pokémon Yellow states, “It can be found swimming in seas, lakes, rivers, and shallow puddles.”
Most importantly, Magikarp has a close association with humans in the Pokémon World. In Kanto, and even strictly regulated Unova, Magikarp are sold as pets, similar to goldfish, a species of Asian carp which serves as the inspiration for Magikarp. In fact, this is a likely scenario for its introduction through the waters of the world. Tourists bought these Pokémon as pets while on vacation in Kanto and release them upon their return to their native region, as is the case with many exotic pets. Another possibility is that Magikarp was exported from its assumed native habitat of Kanto for the purposes of aquaculture else, just as several species of Asian carp were introduced into the US and Europe as foodfishes.
So where does this leave Magikarp under the framework established earlier by Colautti and MacIsaac? Well, by the evidence presented thus far, Magikarp is at least in Stage IV. Specifically, we know Magikarp is widespread (IVa). But is it dominant?
Dominance, in ecology, refers to how much biomass an organism constitutes in comparison to its competitors. In simplest terms, dominance depends on who is most numerous.
We obviously lack population data on Pokémon, so we’ll have to make do with what information we do possess—where each Pokémon can be found. I’ve taken all the fish Pokémon of each region where Magikarp can be found and compared the percent of the total region’s locations (routes, cities/towns, landmarks) that each Pokémon could be found in. And the results are not hopeful.
In Kanto, the presumed home range of Magikarp, there are only five “fish” Pokémon—Magikarp, Goldeen, Seaking, Horsea, and Seadra (yes, seahorses are fish). Of these five, two display dominance—Goldeen who can be found in 45% of locations, and Magikarp who covers 50% of Kanto. This shared dominance is to be expected in its native habitat, and further supports Kanto as being its native region
But in foreign regions, Magikarp truly makes a Splash.
In Hoenn, Magikarp competes with thirteen other fishes yet is present in 43% of locations. The closest competitor is Sharpedo at 15%, almost three times less than that of Magikarp. This trend holds for Sinnoh too, with Magikarp in 46% of locations. Native fishes like Finneon and Lumineon only have 10% coverage each. Kalos is a bit of an outlier, as it’s the only region with a pretty even distribution of fishes. There is no dominant fish and the fish with the greatest coverage is Luvdisc at 10%, greater than Magikarp in this region. This may be due in part to the massive richness found in Kalos—home to 24 different fish Pokémon, the most of any region. The greater competitions could perhaps damper the effects of Magikarp encroachment onto foreign territory.
However, in Alola, Magikarp is dominant once again with 30% coverage across these tony islands, outcompeting even Wishiwashi (17%). Furthermore, when compared with another widespread nonindigenous species who happens to be found all the same regions—Goldeen—Magikarp was found to have significantly greater coverage still.
So it does appear that Magikarp is at Stage V in at least three separate regions of the Pokémon World. But what impacts could Magikarp have on its invaded habitats.
Nonindigenous fishes in the US cost an estimated $1 billion annually in damages and losses. Introduced carp in particular have become a notable nuisance in American waterways. Asian carp have been known to leap up to 10 feet from the water when water motorists disturb their schools. In 2015, one man had his nose fractured and brow bones shattered by a leaping carp while inner tubbing on the Mississippi River.
An underpowered and pathetic Pokémon indeed.
Moreover, invasive carps can have devastating impacts on ecosystems. Asian carp decrease the amount of suspended vegetation in waterways and often deplete communities of benthic macroinvertebrates (Matsuzaki et al. 2009), organisms vital in the leaf breakdown process and export of organic materials and nutrients to downstream systems. Additionally, carp increases ammonium concentrations which can lead to algal blooms and subsequent anoxic conditions. Even in small numbers carp can be responsible for the deterioration of entire ecosystems. Bayer et al. (2009) found that when even carp biomass was 3-4 times lower than what is typically found in invaded systems, these fishes can reduce vegetation cover by 50%, halving waterfowl abundance in the process—all within the span of 7 years.
Further increases in carp left only 17% of the original surface vegetation and reduced waterfowl abundances to a slim 10% of original numbers.
If Magikarp is wreaking havoc anywhere near the scale of real-life carp, then the animus which Pokédex authors feel toward the Fish Pokémon is understandable—but ultimately misguided.
It is important in these discussions about invasive species to remember not to conflate the invasion of the species and the damage it does with the species itself. There are no “bad” animals just like there are no “bad” Pokémon, only bad humans who allow them to do bad things.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these organisms, they are just really good at doing what they do. Zebra mussels are really good at filtering water. Carp are really good at consuming vegetation. These traits would otherwise serve them well in the appropriate environment, and they serve really well in novel ones. It just happens that in these novel environments, their superb niche fulfillment happens to be detrimental to all other biota within the vicinity.
We must separate the damage from the organism and take a look in the mirror because you could say we are the most destructive invasive species—having conquered every continent and left our footprint on almost every habitat.
83% of terrestrial land is affected by human activity, and we’ve put to use 98% of Earth’s farmable land (Sanderson et al. 2002). Where oceans and mountains blocked the spread of potential invaders, humans provided a ferry, a bridge to novel worlds and novel niches. We were their vector into worlds unknown. And we are still reaping what we have sown.
So spare Magikarp your hate.
Because you’re totally pathetic, unreliable.
Happy Pokémon Day.
Accurate Pokédex Entry: A popular Kanto pet, Magikarp has since been introduced to waters all over the world! However, its rapid reproduction and high tolerance for polluted waters has allowed it to spread into almost every aquatic habitat and has become the dominant fish Pokémon in many regions, outcompeting even native species.
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Bajer, P., G. Sullivan, and P. Sorensen. 2009. Effects of a rapidly increasing population of common carp on vegetative cover and waterfowl in a recently restored Midwestern shallow lake. Hydrobiologia 632:235-245.
Colautti, R. I. and H. J. MacIsaac. 2014. A neutral terminology to define ‘invasive’ species. Diversity and Distributions 10:135-141.
Matsuzaki, S., N. Usio, N. Takamura, and I. Washitani. 2009. Contrasting impacts of invasive engineers on freshwater ecosystems: an experiment and meta-analysis. Oecologia 158:673-686.
Pimentel, D., L. Lach, R. Zuniga, and D. Morrison. 2000. Environmental and Economic Costs of Nonindigenous Species in the United States. BioScience 50:53-65.
Schankman, Paul. 31 Aug 2015. Pleasant Hill man injured by flying Asian carp. Fox 2 now St. Louis. http://fox2now.com/2015/08/31/pleasant-hill-man-injured-by-flying-asian-carp/. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.