The tragic tale of the Lonely Pokémon has persisted throughout the generations (of Pokémon) as one marred in sorrow and wild speculation over its true origins. Ever since its 8-bit debut in Pokémon Red and Blue Versions, Cubone has inspired plethora of fan theories regarding its true parentage which have circulated playgrounds and message boards alike for over two decades.
The basic story goes that Cubone was orphaned by the death of its mother and thus roams the Poké Earth mourning the loss of its mother whilst wearing her abandoned skull for comfort. The Pokédex entry of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire Versions aptly sums up Cubone’s melancholy existence:
Cubone pines for the mother it will never see again. Seeing a likeness of its mother in the full moon, it cries. The stains on the skull the Pokémon wears are made by the tears it sheds.
Indeed, the tale of Cubone is a sad one.
However, it leaves much to be answered. Who is Cubone’s mother? How did she die? How is it that an entire species can proliferate and be sustained with the repeated death of the maternal figure at these most crucial early stages of life?
Over the years, many theories have been cropped up to answer these questions, with two leading theories currently accepted by popular audiences within the fandom—the Orphaned Kangaskhan Theory and the more recent Unlit Charmander Theory.
On the surface, these theories seemingly offer solid evidence for their respective cases, and thus have gained popular acceptance among the community. However, a consensus has yet to be reached. Additionally, upon further scrutiny, the conclusions posited by these theories are not as sound as popularly thought, and though mainstream audiences have resolved that Cubone is the orphan of either a deceased Kangaskhan or Charizard, the available evidence suggests otherwise.
Major incongruities exist within the narratives posited by leading theories and the evidence often presented is, at best, superficial in nature. Moreover, these fan theories fail to answer basic questions of logistics—such as how a population of orphaned individuals is sustained when dependent on a chance and variable outcome such as the sudden death of the maternal figure.
In an analysis of the current evidence, as well as scientific literature from our own world which can serve as an analog to the Pokémon World, we propose a new theory to reconcile these discrepancies and offer an evaluation of current theories.
The Orphaned Kangaskhan Theory
The origins of this theory are difficult to trace as its conception aligns closely with that of the Pokémon franchise itself. The oldest and most persistent of Pokémon fan theories in general, the Orphaned Kangaskhan Theory posits that Cubone is the orphaned offspring of a Kangaskhan.
Aptly named the Parent Pokémon, Kangaskhan is notorious for its fierce protection of its young, this parental ferocity being a central theme in most of its recorded Pokédex entries:
To protect its young, it will never give up during battle, no matter how badly wounded it is. (Pokémon Silver Version)
Kangaskhan’s maternal love is so deep that it will brave death to protect its offspring. (Pokémon Sun)
Even its ability during so-called Mega Evolution is referred to as “Parental Bond”.
It is this unwavering devotion to the protection of its offspring that compels many to believe that the most likely candidate for Cubone’s mother is a Kangaskhan who perished defending its offspring, thus leaving the orphaned babe to fend for itself, finding comfort in its mother’s bones, particularly its skull, which it dons for added protection, eventually becoming a part of itself upon evolution into Marowak.
Supporters cite an abundance of evidence which, at first glance, seems convincing. First and foremost are the obvious superficial similarities in the sprites of Cubone and the infant Kangaskhan found in adult Kangaskhan’s pouch. An artist’s rendition depicts both sprites side by side removed of their respective covers (i.e. pouch and skull) and the similarities between the design of the two Pokémon become more conspicuous. The image has since circulated the web and has become a posterchild for this fan theory.
Proponents of this theory also claim the shape of Kangaskhan’s cranium matches with that of Cubone’s skull, attributing the “horns” on the skull to Kangaskhan’s ears.
Furthermore, Kangaskhan and Cubone share an egg group, the Monster group, and in the Generation V and VI games, the two Pokémon are found, exclusively, in the same areas—Route 15 and the Glittering Cave respectively.
However, the most convincing evidences for this theory occur in the earliest and latest Pokémon games.
In Pokémon Red and Blue Versions, under certain circumstances (see Old Man Glitch), players can encounter ‘M—a glitch Pokémon of similar vein to the notorious MissingNo. However, ‘M differs from its sister glitch Pokémon in its ability to evolve. And what does it evolve into but Kangaskhan, a Pokémon without any natural evolutions of its own, allegedly.
Many fans speculate that early in development, ‘M was in fact a legitimate Pokémon, a pre-evolution to Kangaskhan. Extrapolating further, they theorize Kangaskhan was originally planned to be part of a much larger, more complex, evolution line, one that might have involved an evolutionary divergence such as the one found in the Slowpoke and Tyrogue lines, where the hypothetical Kangaskhan pre-evolution would either evolve into Kangaskhan (possibly requiring a Kangaskhan present in the party upon leveling up), or Cubone (possibly if no Kangaskhan was present in the party) who would then evolve into Marowak. This is further supported, by ‘M’s typing, that of a dual Flying/Normal-Type, the latter of which ‘M shares with Kangaskhan.
Twenty years later, SOS battles are unveiled in the latest main series games—Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon—in which certain wild Pokémon can call upon ally Pokémon to assist them in battle once their HP falls below 50%. Most of the time, the ally called is either an identical Pokémon, or a later stage or pre-evolution. However, in some cases the Pokémon called is not of the evolution line but bears some association or tangential relation to the caller Pokémon, typically in relation to established lore within the canon. For example, Mareanie can only be encountered as an ally to Corsola, its canonical prey according to the Pokédex, or Sableye who is mentioned in the Pokédex to steal gemstones from Carbink and will attack it if called as an ally.
Cubone also can call upon ally Pokémon, and most of the time a fellow Cubone will spawn. However, on rare occasion, another Pokémon will make an appearance, and oddly enough it’s not Marowak, but Kangaskhan. Unlike the previous two examples, there is no established lore of a predatory relationship between the two Pokémon, however, the prominence of this theory has likely garnered the attention of Game Freak who, as of late, have been paying attention to the greater ecology of the Pokémon World with is most contemporary games and Pokédex entries. And when this feature was reviled, many fan theorists clapped their hands and hailed this encounter as definitive proof of Cubone’s true parentage.
Could this be the case? Is Cubone the orphan of a deceased Kangaskhan?
The evidence for the Orphaned Kangaskhan Theory has an illusionary conclusiveness which appeals to lay fans and popular audiences, however, under further scrutiny a number of issues arise with this proposed theory.
Firstly, the oft-cited sprite art depicting a pouchless Kangaskhan and helmetless Cubone is a non-canonical fan creation, and cannot be admitted as valid evidence no more than images of Haunter’s eyes photoshopped onto a Poké Ball prove Voltorb is a possessed Poké Ball. Even if such evidence were admissible, the Kangaskhan babe, in all of its depictions, is clearly purple, not brown like Cubone. Proponents may argue that the brown coloring is acquired post-abandonment, but have yet to propose a mechanism for this sudden phenotypic departure.
Additionally, the skull Cubone wears bears little resemblance to the cranium of Kangaskhan when examined beyond mere superficial similarities. The Kangaskhan skull appears more rounded and dome-like in shape, like Pachycephalosaurs, the inspiration for Pokémon like Cranidos and Rampardos. The “ears” found in Cubone’s skull are likely not ears at all, as most ears are mostly comprised of cartilage, with only a few, if any, ossified structures in the middle ear. These features are most likely horns of some kind, which are noticeably absent on adult Kangaskhan.
In fact, virtually any similarity between the two Pokémon vanish upon Mega Evolution, in which we have, the only canonical instance of Baby Kangaskhan leaving its pouch (aside from the anime, see below image). In both cases, the Kangaskhan bears little resemblance to what we know Cubone to look like (although, a counter to this would be that the Pokédex clearly states no one knows what its face looks like, but this does not explain the purple coloring the baby bears, as well as a conspicuous absence of plating on Cubone).
The case of ‘M being the “lost” pre-evolution to Kangaskhan is weakened by its own typing, Flying/Normal, in addition to the fact that it weighs an entire 704.2 lb. more than the Pokémon it supposedly evolves into.
Lastly, while the SOS encounter provides the greatest support for this theory, it to crumbles under critical analysis. Such inclusion could just as easily be chalked up as an Easter egg placed by the developers, who could have easily made Cubone’s parentage canon if so they chose to in the PokéDex entries for Sun and Moon if that were their true intent. Additionally, non-related Pokémon showing up during SOS battles is hardly unique to Cubone. Riolu can summon Chansey, Tentacruel can summon Lumineon, and Pichu can summon Happiny.
Kangaskhan appearing beside Cubone is at best fan service and at worse conincidence.
Furthermore, there is an incongruity between the gender ratios of Cubone/Marowak and their proposed mother—Cubone and Marowak each having a fifty-fifty split of male-female, while Kangaskhan is a 100% female species.
Now, it could be the case that Kangaskhan is parthenogenic—capable of producing fertilized eggs without male fertilization—but parthenogenic organisms typically do not produce male offspring, and on the occasion that they do, it is often part of a mictic cycle in which the males are there simply to mate with females to create additional female eggs, and as of the latest generation of games there are no male Kangaskhan to be encountered (For more on Kangakhan and Parthenogenesis, check out Kangaskhan—Parental Bond and Parthenogenesis. Be warned, it’s one of the earlier entries and needs an update).
Lastly, and most simply, the act of losing a mother does not a new species create.
The Unlit Charmander Theory
This theory has gained recent popularity as a competitor to the ever-persistent Orphaned Kangaskhan Theory. Popularized by Gnoggin/Lockstin and ProtoMario on their respective YouTube Channels (link here), the Unlit Charmander Theory attempts to reconcile the failings of the prevailing fan theory and argues Charizard as the better candidate for the mother of Cubone.
The theory posits a nest of Charizard eggs is abandoned following the death of the mother during a violent encounter. Proponents cite the tendency for aggression in animals when their young are threatened, as well as numerous circumstances in the anime where Charizards are shown to be particularly belligerent. Without their mother, most of the eggs perish, save for a lone survivor buried underneath the rest and thus insulated from the elements. The orphaned Charmander, upon hatching, dons the skull of its deceased mother—assumed to have died within reasonable proximity to the nest. As multiple Pokédex entries suggest, the flame on Charmander’s tail is heavily connected with its life force and health:
The flame on its tail shows the strength of its life force. If it is weak, the flame also burns weakly. (Pokémon Gold Version)
The flame on its tail indicates Charmander’s life force. If it is healthy, the flame burns brightly. (Pokémon Silver Version)
The Unlit Charmander Theory proposes that the flame is acquired post-hatching from the mother Charizard, whose fire organs ignite the initial life-giving flame which Charmander will carry for the duration of its lifetime.
However, the orphaned hatchling, lacking a mother to bestow that initial flame, subsequently fails to develop properly—fire-breathing organs never grow, its pigmentation never brightens to Charmander’s characteristic fiery orange, and the bones that would have grown into wings in later evolution stages stagnate and grow into abnormal spinal deformities along its back like the ridges found on Cubone.
Lacking fire-breathing organs, the orphaned and malformed Charmander defends itself with and procures prey using the only tools at its disposal—bones. Upon evolution, whereas normally it would evolve into Charmeleon, because its development was stunted from hatching, it retains most of its abnormalities and fuses with its mother’s skull to become Marowak. No further evolution occurs due to the accumulation of malformities.
Essentially, Cubone is the product of a corrupted infancy in which development is halted and its life destiny irreparably changed.
The cited evidence makes for a considerably stronger case than the Orphaned Kangaskhan Theory. For starters, the skull of Charizard is a much better match. Coloring is also similar between these two species, the difference being only a few shades rather than entire hues such as with the Baby Kangaskhan.
In addition to these superficial similarities, the reasoning has precedent in nature. The earliest stages of life are crucial to development and changes early on can have a cascading effect later in life. Also, it is not unheard of for an animal to require a, for lack of better words, catalyst to kickstart development.
For example, when needed, certain bee larvae are fed a special substance called royal jelly which triggers epigenetic changes in the larvae’s genome, causing it to develop sex organs, the beginnings of a new queen bee. Even more remarkable, experiments with royal jelly have shown to have effects not only on bee larvae, but with the larvae of entirely separate species as well. When scientists feed fruit fly larvae royal jelly, they found that the larvae displayed increased body size upon further development into adult flies similar to the increase in body size found in treated bees (Morgan et al. 2016).
Lastly, a soft piece of evidence comes again from the most recent games, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, with the introduction of Alolan Forms, and in particular, Alolan Marowak, a dual Ghost-Fire Type whose Pokémon entry states:
The bones it possesses were once its mother’s. Its mother’s regrets have become like a vengeful spirit protecting this Pokémon. (Pokémon Sun)
Many fans speculate that the “spirit” which protects this Pokémon is that of Charizard, which is why it is a dual Ghost/Fire Type instead of a Ghost/Ground Type if its mother was Marowak, or, alternatively, Ghost/Normal if it were Kangaskhan.
So, how does the Unlit Charmander Theory hold under similar critical scrutiny?
While definitely more plausible than the prevailing fan theory, similar oversights and contradictions plague the Unlit Charmander theory as well.
Firstly, while embryonic development and the stages which immediately follow are crucial in determining an organism’s life projection, such drastic changes at so early of a time are often deleterious, if not fatal. The more likely outcome of Charmander failing to obtain its initial flame would be death rather than a drawn-out series of malformities. This is further supported by Pokédex entries:
From the time it is born, a flame burns at the tip of its tail. Its life would end if the flame were to go out. (Pokémon FireRed Version)
Even the newborns have flaming tails. Unfamiliar with fire, babies are said to accidentally burn themselves. (Pokémon Stadium)
Here, the tail flame is a trait Charmander is born with rather than one acquired later from its mother. Additionally, the necessity of this flame for life heavily implies a fatal outcome for any offspring unfortunate enough to fail to obtain this life-giving flame.
Incongruent gender ratios also remain an issue—Cubone and Marowak being 50:50 split male-female, while Charmander and its evolutions 87.5:12.5, skewing heavily towards male.
All in all, the Unlit Charmandder Theory suffers from the same issues and incongruities as its sister fan theory.
Assumptions and Hypothetical Restraints
Considering the myriad of conditions which would have to align to yield a single viable Cubone, nonetheless, multiple breeding Cubone individuals, it is unlikely that an entire population could be sustained by either of the leading fan theories. However, most of the aforementioned problems are resolved if we accept the following two assumptions:
- Only Marowak beget Cubone.
- Marowak and Cubone exist on their own as an entirely unique species.
To support the first assumption, we can apply Occam’s Razor—that among competing hypotheses, the one which makes the fewest assumptions should be accepted—to the question of Cubone’s maternal lineage. When we apply Occam’s Razor, the most parsimonious explanation results in a Marowak mother, as both the Kangaskhan and Charizard theories requires several extraordinary circumstances to be true. Additionally, Marowak maternity also resolves many of the issues that affect both leading theories, namely, the issues of skull structure and gender ratio. Marowak is a better fit for the Cubone skull helmet than Kangaskhan and involves fewer convoluted steps than Charizard, and the two Pokémon share the same gender ratio (50:50 split male: female).
Regarding our second assumption, Occam’s Razor can once again be applied to give us the explanation with the fewest leaps, namely that Marowak and Cubone existing as their own species requires fewer complications than the leading theories which rely on not only the chance tragedy of offspring being abandoned, but for this to happen so frequently as to sustain a stable population of Pokémon in addition to the population of the “base” species.
Furthermore, the majority of documented Pokémon, excluding Legendary Pokémon, abide by some variant of these two assumptions, as it typically assumed that each Pokémon exists entirely as its own species and begets its own kind.
Given what we do know for certain, we can define some criteria which are to be required of any future theory on the origins of Cubone. We define the criteria as follows:
- The mother of Cubone must perish prior to offspring hatching.
- The cranium of the mother must be in proximity of the site of hatching.
- The maternal cranium must be removed of all flesh within a relatively short time following the offspring’s hatching, if not immediately available.
Additionally, any such explanation must propose some adaptive advantage which would allow such frequent maternal death to persist generation to generation.
Thus, we propose a theory which accounts for the three criteria and gives a clear evolutionary advantage, which shall be known collectively as the Semelparous Marowak Theory.
The Semelparous Marowak Theory (or Sacrificial Birth Theory)
The tale of the Lonely Pokémon becomes considerably more macabre under the proposed Semelparous Marowak Theory, or, alternatively, the Sacrificial Birth Theory. However, we first must define a few terms of importance—semelparity and matriphagy.
Semelparity describes one of two possible reproduction strategies in which an organism experiences only one reproductive episode before succumbing to an impromptu death. This contrasts with iteroparity, where an organism reproduces multiple times throughout its lifetime*. Either mode of reproduction is used to the benefit of an organism’s offspring. Specifically, as a trade-off against other factors to provide the best chance of survival for the next generation. Essentially, organisms make a gamble when they reproduce and must decide which wager is worth their wild—to divvy up their reproductive resources throughout multiple reproductive cycles (as reproduction can be a costly endeavor) hoping that most offspring survival till a reproductive age, or, in the case of semelparity, reproduce once but invest all their resources into that single reproductive episode.
Matriphagy is another example of a reproductive strategy that, like semelparity, is used to maximize the overall survival of offspring. In the case of matriphagy, the mother sacrifices itself to be cannibalized by its offspring, or, as one paper so poignantly puts it, “an unusual self-sacrificial form in which young eat their mother at the end of the care period.” (Toyama 2001).
Coming from the perspective of iteroparous organisms who scoff at the general idea of cannibalism, one may ask what purpose these seemingly self-defeating strategies serve in the evolutionary arms race. However, both adaptations can yield great advantage in the reproductive arena.
For species in which females regulate sexually selective pressures (i.e. are the “gatekeepers” of sex), males often compete for the opportunity to spread their seed—a biological imperative so pressing that many organisms will perish pursuing this objective, often at the hands of another competing male. Additionally, reproducing is taxing—both energy and timewise—and from the male perspective, is a gamble where even if they secure a viable mate, they are betting that their chosen female will survive from the time of mating to siring offspring, or in some cases, even beyond that until the offspring are of an age where they can survive without maternal aid. What a pity it would be to invest so much time and energy in a female mate only for them to befall a tragic demise whilst carrying your progeny.
That is why, in species with high rates of female mortality, males will often implement semelparous strategies, as is the case with dasyurid marsupials such as Antechinus agilis, one of the few mammals which display semelparity. This strategy is meant to give the males the best possible chance at siring offspring, a sort of “hedge-betting” against the high mortality rates of their mates in contrast to their iteroparous cousins which have significantly lower rates of female mortality among their populations (Kraaijeveld et al. 2003). This behavior is also easily selected for:
Males are likely to face a trade-off between mating effort and post-reproductive survival. If high female mortality rates select for increased male promiscuity, as argued above, there might be a threshold beyond which males must invest all their mating effort in a single season. In other words, a male that invests resources into survival after the first mating season instead of in mating may fertilize insufficient females during his lifetime to ensure his genes are passed on to the next generation. This predicts that species with male semelparity should have higher levels of female mortality. (Kraaijeveld et al. 2003).
Essentially, rather than spread reproductive energies throughout a lifetime and risk not impregnating enough females to overcome the probability that his mates will befall an unfortunate fate, male A. agilis put all the cards on the table and forgo their own survival—nourishment, rest, hydration—to maximize their reproductive potential, or, in even fewer words, they play the numbers game.
Similarly, matriphagy is also a trade-off, one of post-reproductive survival and offspring survival. For example, for Chiracanthium japonicum—foliage spider—matriphagy increases the size of the spiderlings threefold, as well as delays their dispersal, allowing for increased survivability as solidary hunting predators. Additionally, matriphagy prevents sibling cannibalism, thus raising the overall survivability of the entire brood (Toyama 2001).
Here, the benefits of self-sacrifice outweigh the costs, and personal survival is secondary to the overall goal of propagating the species, and more specifically, the genes.
With precedent established in our world, we theorize that a combination of semelparity and matriphagy is responsible for the orphaned state for Cubone, and our ideas can be summed up in the following hypothetical scenario:
A mother Marowak lays a single egg and henceforth foregoes its own dietary needs and abandons all sense of self-preservation in an extreme act of self-sacrifice, fending off Mandibuzz and shielding its egg from the cold. Thanks to fat reserves built up prior to egg-laying, Marowak is able to sustain itself long enough to witness the first cracks of Cubone’s eggshell. However, with its fat reserves depleted, Marowak succumbs to starvation and expires. The young hatchling, a Cubone, emerges from its egg and proceeds to consume the fresh corpse of its mother. Even in death, its mother continues to provide for it. This first meal will sustain Cubone for an ample amount of time as it gets its bearings together in the safety of the nest, while also hastening its development for when it wanders into the greater Pokémon wilderness. When the skeleton has been picked clean, Cubone arms itself with its mother’s bones as primitive tools and dons Marowak’s skull which serves to insulate the tender cranium of newborn Cubone until its cranial plates fuse upon evolution into its final form, Marowak. Soon it finds a mate, copulates, and prepares to make the same sacrifice its own mother made so many years ago, for the sake of its offspring and the greater species.
Not only does Marowak’s death serve to provide reproductive advantage of Cubone, but this theory also aligns with much of the lore establish through the collection of Cubone and Marowak Pokédex entries, namely, references in which Cubone/Marowak utilizes its mother’s bones as defensive and offensive tools, as well as references to Cubone’s memories of its mother’s face, implying that it did at one point view its mother prior to decomposition:
A Marowak is the evolved form of a Cubone that has grown tough by overcoming the grief of losing its mother. Its tempered and hardened spirit is not easily broken. (Pokémon Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald Versions)
From its birth, this savage Pokémon constantly holds bones. It is skilled in using them as weapons. (Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, Platinum Versions)
Cubone pines for the mother it will never see again. Seeing a likeness of its mother in the full moon, it cries. The stains on the skull the Pokémon wears are made by the tears it sheds. (Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire Versions)
When it thinks of its deceased mother, it weeps loudly. Mandibuzz that hear its cries will attack it from the air. (Pokémon Sun)
However, like with previous theories, the Semelparous Marowak Theory is not free of problems. Firstly, the strategies of semelparity and matriphagy are used to maximize reproductive output, however, this theory postulates, or rather, requires, that Marowak only produce a single egg, a wasteful use of semelparity and matriphagy. These extreme strategies appear to serve no other advantage than to prop up a single offspring on which the genetic legacies of two individuals now depend upon (only children know that feeling all too well). Additionally, this theory, dependent on females having a high mortality rate, requires for males to be semelparous which we have no current evidence of yet.
While issues remain unresolved with fan theories regarding the origins of Cubone and its true parentage, and further inquiry on the subject should be encouraged, the Semelparous Marowak Theory explores the potential for a darker underbelly to the Pokémon World that goes beyond the occasional creepy Pokédex entry or mysterious ghost girl, one where evolutionary forces drive populations to extreme strategies for survival and where the interactions between Pokémon can result in life or death.
The enigma of Cubone will forever continue to resonate in the minds of the Pokémon fandom, as its tale evokes feelings mutually shared by most of humanity, those of longing for lost figures, of grief for those we once knew, and a clinging to things left behind. It is good to keep the tragic tale of Cubone close to our hearts, whatever the truth may be, as it serves as a reminder to not let the work and sacrifices of those before us to go to waste, that we should rise and arm ourselves with the tools they left behind and fortify ourselves for the tribulations of a world indifferent to our suffering, and, hopefully, come out on the other side, tougher and stronger than before.
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
– A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
Accurate Pokédex Entry: Cubone weeps for a mother it knew all too well, as she offered herself up as a first meal to her offspring to maximize its survivability. Cubone wears its mother’s skull to protect its soft cranium and arms itself with her bones so that no part of her carcass is wasted.
What do you think? Does the Semelparous Marowak Hypothesis hold up? Did we leave anything out about the two leading fan theories? Do you have a different theory about who the mother of Cubone is? Leave it down in the comments, and be sure to join us for more bits of Pokémon-inspired biology by hitting that GO POKEMON button! We post new blogs every week. To stay updated on all things Pokémon Biology related, follow The Biology of Pokémon on Twitter @PokeBiology and, while you’re at it, follow the author, @JaredIsAWriter.