Tag Archives: evolution

Dewgong is NOT a Seal (or a Sea Lion)

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A common complaint among certain segments of the Pokémon fandom is that the quality of Pokémon designs has declined since the premier entries of Red and Blue. These folks, dubbed “Genwunners” lament the likes of Vanillish and Honedge for their laziness in concept and uphold the First Generation as the pinnacle of Pokémon design.

Rebuttals have been made against this argument ad nauseum over the years and you can surely find them elsewhere for they are in no short supply. But perhaps no better example of First Generation oversights can be found than the Seal Lion Pokémon, Seel and Dewgong.

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From the offset, Seel demonstrates the lack of thought given toward it conception, as its English name literally changes only one letter from that of the animal it quite generously borrows its design from. Its category name in the Pokédex—the Sea Lion Pokémon—is a misnomer too.. Despite having close relatedness and sharing many anatomical features, seals and sea lions are not the same creature. You can easily spot the difference by taking a look at its ears. If you can’t find them, you’re probably looking at a seal, as most “true” seals lack external ear flaps. Ear flaps present? You got yourself a sea lion. From a single glance at Seel it lacks the conspicuous ear flaps of a sea lion. Thus, however lazy its name may be, Seel is indeed a seal.

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But at least seals and sea lions are in the same clade, a group organisms who share a single common ancestor. Along with the mighty walrus, seals and sea lions are grouped together in the clade Pinnipedia, pinnipeds for short. Seel would fit in nicely with other “poképinnipeds” such as Spheal (a slightly better name than Seel), Walrein, and the ever lovable Popplio. However, the same cannot be said for Seel’s evolved form, Dewgong, also erroneously categorized as the Sea Lion Pokémon when it is neither seal nor sea lion nor pinniped at all.

Dewgong is a dugong.

Again, such creative names from the First Generation.

If you’ve never heard of a dugong you’re probably more familiar with its close cousin, the manatee. Like manatees, dugongs are marine mammals that spend their entire lives in the water save when they need to breathe. Dugongs are typically found in the coastal waters of the Indian and West Pacific Oceans and graze on seed grasses, earning them and their manatee cousins the name “sea cows”.

These sea cows also have another name, sirenians, derived from stories of early sailors mistaking them for beautiful mermaids after months at sea without women. And who could blame them? Sirenians are majestic creatures.

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Basically the same.

But they are not pinnipeds. Not even close.

To understand why, you must learn the history of your mammalian ancestors and how they have made many returns to sea.

Throughout the history of tetrapods (four-footed animals), the return to the water from whence they came is a bit of a “recurrent theme” in their evolution. Ever since Tiktaalik pulled itself onland some 375 million years ago, the water has called us back home (like in Moana!) and many times we have answered the call.

The amphibians never truly cut their ties with the water, but the amniotes—birds, reptiles, and mammals—all have made treks back to the ocean in one form or another. Regarding us mammals, seven groups have transitioned back to water—cetaceans (whales and porpoises), sirenians, pinnipeds, an extinct branch of aquatic mammals known as Desmostylia, as well as polar bears, sea otters, and aquatic sloths.

While the the later lineages still retain most of their terrestrial features, cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sirenians are or are almost entirely aquatic in their lifestyle. Additionally, the rather astute student of biology may recognize many seeming homologies between these three groups such as modification of the forelimbs into flips. And considering that at one point all these animals were once fully terrestrial, one might assume that such a massive evolutionary shift could have only evolved once in the mammalian line. That these marine mammals form a single clade and share a single common ancestor from which they all descended from.

Except, they didn’t.

As best as we can decipher from the fossil record and modern genetics, marine mammals evolved the adaptations for marine life and made the return to water seven separate times.

The three most aquatic groups—Cetacea, Sirenia, and Pinnipedia—are themselves scattered across the mammalian evolutionary tree. Pinnipeds are nested within Carnivora, more closely related to cats and canines than they are sirenians, themselves closer to elephants and aardvarks.

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An extremely simplified phylogeny of marine mammals. Blue lines indicate points at which the marine transition evolved. Marsupials are used as the outgroup (represented by Kangaskhan).

For a better perspective of the evolutionary distance between Seel the Seal and Dewgong the Dugong, seals are more related to us than they are to dugongs (specifically, we share a more recent common ancestor with Carnivora as primates than Carnivora does with Afrotheria, the clade which sirenians are nested in).

In essence, when Seel evolves into Dewgong, it jumps branches on the evolutionary tree to an entirely different clade. It would be like if Pikachu evolved into Platypus.

That said, I have no enmity toward Dewgong. In fact, I have a soft spot for the Pokémon even if its name is stupid. We bonded during a playthrough of Pokémon LeafGreen. I traded a Ponyta for him on Cinnabar Island. Seelor was his given name. We swept through the Elite Four and he’s been with me ever since. We now explore the Alola region together. And sure he may not have the most original name or creative design, but those things don’t make me like a Pokémon. It’s the experiences we’ve shared that have solidified Dewgong as one of my personal favorites.

So love your Pokémon, regardless of whether they’re based on keys or cats or clones of previous Pokémon. For aren’t the experiences we share with them more important?

But for the record, Seel and Dewgong are still incredibly lazy names.

Accurate Pokédex Entries

Seel, the Sea Lion Pokémon: Despite being categorized as the “Sea Lion Pokémon” it is actually a seal as its name would suggest.

Dewgong, the Sea Lion Pokémon: Millions of years ago, its ancestors walked on land. Now, Dewgong can be found in oceans everywhere though they prefer colder waters.

 

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Sources Cited

Uhen, Mark D. 2007. Evolution of Marine Mammals: Back to Sea After 300 Million Years. The Anatomical Record 290:514-522.

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Alola Form Exeggutor: Island Gigantism at its finest (Pokémon Sun and Moon)

I have a soft spot for Exeggutor. Despite being an unsettling freak of nature, Exeggutor in all its three-headed glory has managed to creep its way into my personal pantheon of favorite Pokémon. One of my first posts on The Biology of Pokémon focused specifically on Exeggutor, and surprisingly there is a lot to unpack just from a biological perspective. My analytical mind has always been perplexed by the anomalous existence of this strange creature. While others mocked and scoffed at its design, I always felt that there was more to the story of Exeggutor, that it wasn’t just another freak Pokémon, that there was a meaning to the madness.

Earlier this week, the Pokémon Company dropped a literally game changing trailer, revealing several new additions including new Pokémon, Z-moves, the apparent departure from the traditional 8-gym system, Totem Pokémon, and of course, Alola Forms.

And guess who was the first Pokémon to get an Alola Form.

Within minutes, the Internet was abuzz with memes mocking Exeggutor’s Alola Form. While I find a few of the memes worthy of a laugh, I can’t help but feel pity for my dear Exeggutor, finally having gotten its long overdue day in the sun, only to be mocked by a merciless fan base.

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But fear not Exeggutor, I will defend your honor.

For starters, Exeggutor having different forms depending on its environment is not a new concept. As early as Pokémon Crystal, the PokéDex mentions how Exeggutor will often grow many heads if it is living in a good environment.

  • Living in a good environment makes it grow lots of heads. A head that drops off becomes an Exeggcute.

The PokéDex entries from the Third Generation build on this, directly citing exposure to sunlight as conducive to head growth in Exeggutor.

  • Exeggutor originally came from the tropics. Its heads steadily grow larger from exposure to strong sunlight. It is said that when the heads fall off, they group together to form Exeggcute.
  • Originally from the tropics, Exeggutor’s heads grow larger from exposure to strong sunlight. It is said that when the heads fall, they group to form an Exeggcute.

The Alolan Islands provide the perfect environment for Exeggutor to thrive in, the tropical climate allows for year-round sunlight to fuel Exeggutor’s photosynthesis. Uninhibited by the winters that likely stunt its growth in more temperate regions, in the tropics of Alola, Exeggutor is able to achieve what the Alolan people refer to as its “true form”.

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In biology, there is a phenomenon called island gigantism, in which animals grow to larger lengths than their mainland counterparts once they are isolated on an island. This is often coupled with another island phenomenon called island dwarfism which is the exact opposite, the island animals become smaller than their mainland counterparts.

Island gigantism usually takes place in smaller animals, often herbivores. When a population of organisms colonize an island, the ecosystem is usually still developing and has many niches unfilled. Additionally, most of these new ecosystems lack the huge predators that many organisms faced on the mainland, as the physical distant and separation by water often make it difficult for such animals to colonize islands. Without the selective pressure of predators, in addition to a wealth of resources and abundance of ecological niches to be filled, many organisms will thrive in these environments and evolve larger bodies since they are no longer inhibited by the selective pressures of their former ecosystem.

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A great example of island gigantism is the Giant Tortoise, found in the Galapagos Islands. These massive creatures have no natural predators and can live upwards of one hundred years, with the longest recorded in captivity having lived to be 170 years old. They can weight up to 880 lbs. (400 kg to the rest of the world) and reach lengths of more than 6 ft. (1.87 m).  It is thought that they had evolved larger bodies in order to go longer periods without food and travel distances to obtain it.

Exeggutor is a classic case of island gigantism. Fewer predators reside on the Alola islands, and with an excess of sunlight, Exeggutor is free to push the limits of its evolution.

In fact, if you look at Alolan Exeggutor from an evolutionary perspective, its design starts to make more sense. Take, for example, its outrageously long neck. While at first it may seem out of place, if not, a major weakness, it also serves a very important purpose—photosynthesis. Exeggutor, being a plant, requires sunlight in order to complete the redox reactions that produce its food, glucose. With a longer neck, Exeggutor is able to reach above the treetops of the canopy and capture all the sunlight it needs. Additionally, Exeggutor has few, if any predators, while on these islands, so the selective pressures that would normally act against such a trait are not present, and thus, Exeggutor can evolve its neck to as far as its physical limitations allow it.

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Another interesting aspect of Alolan Exeggutor is its tail, which is said to contain a fourth head that independently controls the tail. This is important because its three main heads are too high to reach the lower sections of its bodies, so in battle, the tail head can defend its base when the top heads are unable to. Another perk of having a fourth head close to the ground is that it can also keep an eye out for potential dangers while the top half of Exeggutor is busy basking above the treetops.

As absurd as Exeggutor’s Alola Form may appear at first glance, it is perfectly evolved for the Alolan ecosystem and serves as yet another example of how well the Pokémon World can reflect our own at times. So the next time you see a derogatory comment or a meme mocking the Coconut Pokémon, remember how amazing this freak of nature truly is.

#ExeggutorLivesMatter

For more on Exeggutor, check out the original post, Exeggutor: A True Freak of Nature.

Mew vs. Arceus: Why Evolution is a Fact in Our World and the Pokémon World (10th Post Special)

“It is said to have emerged from an egg in a place where there was nothing, then shaped the world.” – Arceus entry, Pokémon Platinum Version

“Because it can learn any move, some people began research to see if it is the ancestor of all Pokémon.” – Mew entry, Pokémon Crystal Version

In the beginning, the explanation for the great diversity of life in the Pokémon World was answered upon the discovery of Mew, a rare Psychic-type once thought to be extinct that was found inhabiting the rainforests of South American. Research on the Pokémon, including several attempts at cloning, revealed that Mew contained the genetic code for all Pokémon and could learn every move. This evidence led many researchers and players to believe that Mew was the ancestor of all Pokémon and therefore the first Pokémon. While larger questions still went unanswered, such as the origin of life on the Pokémon World, as well as the Universe itself, descent from the common ancestor of Mew prevailed as the dominant theory in the scientific community (of Pokémon).

Fast forward to Generation IV, where the reason and rationalism of the previous generations is replaced by myth and legend. It is in these games we encounter the Foreign Building in Hearthome City, for all intents and purposes a church, the first we’ve seen in the Pokémon franchise. Moreover, there are whispers of a Pokémon that shaped the universe with its thousand arms, a creature that existed before time and space. Local legend refers to him as the Original One, most know him by his other name—Arceus.

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A great debate ensued. This new revelation contradicted the current scientific understanding of the origin of Pokémon. Whereas genetics suggested that all Pokémon descended from Mew, Sinnoh myths claimed that Arceus existed before the Universe, subsequently making it impossible for it to have descended from Mew. How was it possible that a Pokémon created the Universe yet escaped the necessity of creation itself? Was Mew really the ancestor of all Pokémon, and if so, did that rule out the existence of the Original One?

Similar questions were asked in our own world when Charles Darwin unleashed The Origin of Species to a deeply religious public in 1859. Even today, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, the Theory of Evolution is still challenged by major segments of the population and is frequently the subject of many pointless debates. I call them pointless because they often operate on the faulty premise that both sides are of equal consideration. They are not. Comparing evolution to creationism/intelligence design/ [insert whatever new creationism euphemism is currently in use] is akin to comparing the heliocentric model to geocentricism. There simply is no debate to be had. The very idea of the Sun revolving around the earth is daft and should not be entertained, lest you give the two geocentrist still left the validation they need to spread this false idea.

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However, being a person who derives strange pleasure from applying biological concepts to the fictional universe of Pokémon, I was always destined (or rather, obligated) to cover the topic of Pokémon Evolution and explain the subject that’s been explained ad nauseum since its inception—that Pokémon Evolution is not evolution.

Now, I could repeat what you’ve surely heard a thousand times. Pokémon evolution is not representative of real life evolution and is more akin to metamorphosis than anything else and actual evolution takes place over the course of millions of years, etcetera. But there is so much more to the discussion. Where does Arceus fit into all of this? Is there a scientific explanation for Pokémon evolution? And does Darwinian evolution have its place in the Pokémon World after all?

These are the questions we will seek to answer in this tenth post special. Brace yourself, a whole lot of knowledge is coming your way.

 

Arceus, God, and Creation Myths

Warning: There is a disturbing lack of biology in the following section. Reader discretion is advised.

One of the first questions a child asks their parents is “Where do babies come from?”. It is also one of the first questions that a child doesn’t always receive a direct or clear answer to. Our parents will often hand us a dumbed down version of the true story if we are lucky, if not that, the origin of infants is chalked up to storks, secret supermarket aisles, or divine gifts from above.

Earlier peoples were infantile in that they also asked similar questions but on a much grander scale. Where did I come from? What is my purpose? How should I live my life? Many men have cried out to the heavens only to receive silence, and in that silence they often made best with the information they had and constructed narratives that could offer explanations to these burning questions.

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The Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions defines a creation myth as a “symbolic narrative of the beginning of the world as understood in a particular tradition and community.” It continues, “Creation myths are of central importance for the valuation of the world, for the orientation of humans in the universe, and for basic patterns of life and culture.”

In essence, creation myths provide the answers that the Universe—indifferent to our existence­­­—does not. In that sense, the purpose of creation myths does that differ much from that of science in that they both try to make order out of the chaos of this world we’ve been thrust into. Granted, science does it considerably better.

In the Western World, the prevailing creation myth of our day and age comes from the biblical account of creation found in the Book of Genesis. These scriptures make up the foundations on which modern creationism stands upon, yet nearly every word conflicts directly with our current understanding of biology. The Bible claims that Adam and Eve were the first humans and the ancestors of our entire species, yet modern science tells us that not only did various other hominids exist at the same time as anatomically modern humans, but a single male and female couple does not contain enough genetic diversity to sustain a stable healthy population. For Christians in particular, this conflict has great ramifications. If there was no Adam and Eve then there was no Original Sin, and if there was no Original Sin then there was no need for Jesus of Nazareth to die on the cross, thus effectively rendering the entirety of Christianity pointless in one fell swoop.

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Here lies the main dilemma—believe in the godless scientist and their big Satanic words, or believe in God. It should be no surprise that when faced with this dilemma, many choose to cling to their faith rather than facts.

Similarly, in the case of Mew vs. Arceus, both claims cannot be true. Arceus cannot be the creator of the Universe if Mew is the ancestor of all Pokémon, as Mew would by definition have to exist prior to Arceus who we have already mentioned, hatched from an egg before the universe even existed.

However, there is a solution to both of these dilemmas.

It is true that a literal interpretation of Genesis cannot be reconciled with the Theory of Evolution, in fact I’ll even be bold and flat out say that the Book of Genesis is completely incorrect in regards to anything remotely scientific. From God removing a rib from Adam to create woman, to the Great Flood leaving no geological evidence of its occurrence, to Jacob’s version of “artificial selection”, the entirety of Genesis offers nothing but ludicrous claims with little to no evidence backing them up and no rational person should even consider using it as a guide for anything near the realm of science.

Bad Genetics

But that was never the intended purpose of the creation accounts.

As I mentioned earlier, creation myths not only served to explain what could not be explained at the time, but they also played a central role in providing purpose for humans. What the Book of Genesis lacks in actual science it makes up for in its humanity. Within its pages are examples of how humans should and should not live, what their place in the world is, and a comprehensible explanation for the chaos they find themselves surrounded by.

The Bible

Likewise, in the case of Arceus and the Sinnoh myths they provide explanations for the relationship between humans and Pokémon, as well as the origins of human emotions from the Lake Trio.

Additionally, upon closer examination of the Sinnoh Creation Myth, we’ll find that it shares many of the basic themes of other creation myths. For starters, there is an aspect of primordiality, in which the ingredients of creation are present in some form of undifferentiated matter. In the case of Arceus, the primordial matter can be interpreted as the Unown, which many theorize are what the PokéDex entries described as the “thousand arms” that Arceus used to shape the universe.

Also present in many creation myths is an aspect of dualism, usually presented as a form of antagonism between two forces. This conflict can be found between Arceus, an analog for God in this universe, and Giratina, who is often thought to represent Satan, as it was banished by Arceus for being too destructive.

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Lastly, there is often an element of sacrifice involved. This can sometimes include the dismemberment of a primordial being, such is the case with China’s P’an Ku, who by the way, hatched from an 18,000-year old egg, much like a certain other Pokémon who hatched from a primordial egg. After P’an Ku hatched, his shell and body became parts of the world. His limbs became the mountains, his blood formed the rivers. While there is no information from the games of this sacrifice from Arceus, in the anime movie Arceus and the Jewel of Life, Arceus gives up the Splash, Meadow, Earth, Zap, and Draco Plates (which grant him immunity to these respective types) in order to create the Jewel of Life and bring life to the world.

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Furthermore, if we compare the PokéDex entries of Arceus and Mew, we’ll find that Arceus is described in a more mythical sense:

  • It is described in mythology as the Pokémon that shaped the universe with its 1,000 arms.
  • It is told in mythology that this Pokémon was born before the universe even existed.
  • It is said to have emerged from an egg in a place where there was nothing, then shaped the world.

Meanwhile, Mew’s entries, while referring to its mythical status, is written in a more scientific fashion, including evidence which the scientific community has used to hypothesize that Mew is the ancestor of all Pokémon:

  • Its DNA is said to contain the genetic codes of all Pokémon, so it can use all kinds of techniques.
  • Because it can learn any move, some people began research to see if it is the ancestor of all Pokémon.
  • A mythical Pokémon of South America which had been thought extinct. A growing number of people have seen it recently.

It is abundantly clear that the Sinnoh Creation Myths, much like the Biblical Accounts of Creation found in Genesis, are not intended to be interpreted as a literal step-by-step process for how the universe came into existence. These creation myths are just that—myths. They are not to be taken literally, nor do they necessarily conflict with current scientific understanding.

Whether or not you believe in the existence of a god (or Arceus) does not negate the fact of the evolution, both in our world and in the Pokémon World. In that way, the title is a bit misleading because this is not a matter of one being correct or a better explanation, but rather they answer two very different questions. Science answers how, while creation myths answer why.

 

Pokémon Evolution ≠ Darwinian Evolution (or any evolution at all)

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As mentioned in the introduction, the process of evolution as depicted in the main-series games is not an accurate portrayal of Darwinian evolution. The Pokémon Company is not entirely at fault. Over the years, evolution, much like theory, has become a part of everyday vernacular and as a result of its colloquial use has gained additional definitions beyond its intended scientific use.

Quite simply, evolution is the process through which organisms change over time. When I say organisms, I’m referring to a population, not an individual. Individuals do not evolve. A chicken will remain a chicken until the day it dies. Yes, it may grow from a chick into a chicken but it is still a chicken. Nothing the chicken does in its life will affect its offspring*.

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*However, recent research into genetics suggest that this may not be entirely true. The budding field of epigenetics is starting to reshape the way we think about how traits are passed and expressed from parent to offspring. The more we research into this issue, the more it appears that parents can influence their offspring through the choices they make in their life. For more check out this TED-Ed video on the matter, as well as my own take on Epigenetics and Eeveelutions.

This is just one of the many misconceptions about evolution being perpetuated by the opposed and ignorant alike. Here are a few more:

Evolution is a belief/faith/religion/cult/worldview/ “just a theory”.

Evolution is a fact. Despite what many opponents will claim we can observe evolution in real time under controlled laboratory conditions just like any other science. That is in addition to the mountains of evidence from genetics, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, geographic distribution and much, much more. Theory when used in a scientific sense is not synonymous with hypothesis, which is what most people mean when they use theory casually. A scientific theory is essentially an explanation drawn from repeated testing and observation through the scientific method. It is a conclusion that uses current knowledge and is open to change when further knowledge is acquired.

Evolution is concerned with the origins of life and the Universe.

The Theory of Evolution gives an explanation for the vast diversity of life on Earth. Nothing more. That is all it ever sought to explain. The origin of life is a nonissue. The explanation could be God, aliens, abiogenesis, or even panspermia, but evolution would still be true. As for the origin of the Universe, that’s not even biology. If you want to dispute the Big Bang go find an astrophysicist.

Evolution happens to individuals.

If you ever sat in a biology class and looked to the wall and saw a poster of a fish walking out of water or a diagram of an ape transforming into a man and thought that was how evolution worked, then you have been grossly misinformed. Not only are these depictions inaccurate, they are comical in their inaccuracy. Unless that fish is a mudskipper or lungfish it will never see terra firma in its life. An ape will remain never start walking upright permanently nor suffer extreme hair loss. As stated earlier, individuals do not evolve. For a better visual representation look at a phylogenetic tree, however even those can be misleading if one does not know how to properly interpret one.

And lastly…

Evolution is guided or goal-oriented toward progress.

This one is mostly likely due to our tendency toward anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics, personalities, and desires to nonhumans). Organisms do not choose to evolve. There is no endgame of evolution. Humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. Matt Ridley put it nicely in his book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, “Evolution is something that happens to organisms. It is a directionless process that sometimes makes an animal’s descendants more complicated, sometimes simpler, and sometimes changes them not at all.”

Another misconception that opponents of evolution like to throw around is claiming that while microevolution is possible, macroevolution is just ludicrous. What they fail to understand is that there is no difference between the two other than time. To set the record straight, microevolution is evolution that happens in a short time scale which usually yields small changes. Macroevolution occurs over long periods of time and usually, but not always, results in major changes. Again, there is no difference except for time.

What probably throws most people off about macroevolution is the concept of speciation, when one species branches off into a new one. For some reason, certain people cannot fathom the idea of an organism accumulating many small changes over millions of years to gradually become something entirely different. To better understand, imagine that you have a pile of Legos in various shapes, sizes, and colors. You begin with a single red brick. Let’s say a hundred years pass, not very long in evolutionary terms, and you add another brick. Its slightly different but still similar to what it was. Another century passes and you add a third brick. Still different but still similar to the previous model. You continue to add a single brick every hundred years for, let’s say, ten million years. At the end of this ten million-year process the structure that you have is unrecognizable when compared to the starting brick, or any of the earlier permutations. The changes at the time may seem trivial but in the long run they add up.

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Granted, my Lego example is a simplified (and somewhat inaccurate) version of what actually takes place. Moreover, it does not take into account the four main evolutionary forces which drive these changes—mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection.

To understand these mechanisms of change, let us construct a scenario using Pokémon. For the following scenarios, my Pokémon of choice will be one of my favorites—Shuckle.

Mutation

Mutations are simply random changes in an organism’s DNA. These changes can be caused by mistakes in DNA replication or by external factors such as exposure to radiation or certain chemicals. Most mutations are harmless, a few are deleterious, but on occasion they can turn out to be beneficial. In our scenario, a mutation arises in an individual that causes its shell to be blue instead of red.

Mutation

Natural Selection

Now suppose that in this instance, the Shuckle with a blue shell is able to hide from predators better because its new color provides camouflage in the blue mountains it inhabits. That individual is able to survive until it reaches an age where it can reproduce and pass on its mutation to its offspring. This is called natural selection. After a few successive generations, selective forces of the environment cause the mutation to become fixed in the population since those blue-shelled individuals have an increased chance at reproducing. This increased survivability is called fitness.

Natural Selection

Genetic Drift

However, selective forces are not the only factors in play. Life is full of unexpected events that happen by chance. In this instance, suppose that a horde of ravenous Pokémon trainers sweep through the area and randomly capture a decent portion of the Shuckle population. By pure chance, the catching spree disproportionally affects the blue-shelled individuals. For that generation, those blue-shelled Shuckle are not able to reproduce and therefore the following generation will have fewer individuals with this particular genotype. These random changes that vary from generation to generation are referred to as genetic drift.

Genetic Drift

Gene Flow

Lastly, suppose that the current population of Shuckle contains mostly red-shelled individuals, when suddenly there is an influx of Shuckle migrating from the forests at the base of the mountain where blue-shelled individuals are dominant. This influx of blue-shelled individuals increases the frequency of the blue shell gene in this population. This moving of populations is referred to as gene flow.

Gene Flow

Together, these forces over time can result in many possibilities. Selective forces could continue to favor blue-shelled Shuckle until the mutation becomes fixed in the population, a natural disaster could strike causing a bottleneck effect in which a few remaining individuals determine the look of future generations, additional mutations could arise and in a few thousand years, a speciation event could occur.

This is how true evolution would take place in the Pokémon World. That is not to discount the process depicted in the games, in fact, there are a few possible scientific explanations for the in-game process of evolution.

The first is that Pokémon, upon leveling up, undergo metamorphosis, a process in which an organism undergoes a transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.

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There are two types of metamorphosis–complete and incomplete. Complete metamorphosis is perhaps one most are familiar with, a prime example often used is the life cycle of a butterfly. During complete metamorphosis, the organism, usually an insect, goes through the distinct stages of egg, larvae, pupa, and adult or imago. Three-stage evolution lines could in fact be the process of complete metamorphosis, especially in cases where the Pokémon in question go through these said stages. All Pokémon hatch from eggs after all, and most Bug-Types follow a similar life cycle. This is not exclusive to Bug-Types either, the Larvitar line for example is also based around a cycle of complete metamorphosis, as is the Bagon line.

Tyranitar

Likewise, incomplete metamorphosis could be represented in the games as two-stage evolutions. During incomplete metamorphosis, the individual goes through several immature stages as nymphs, essentially smaller forms of their adult selves. They continue to molt until they reach adult size. Pokémon such as Krabby or Kricketot would most likely “evolve” in this manner, as their real-life counterparts are also prone to molting.

However, not all Pokémon evolution can be explained by metamorphosis. In our own world, few creatures besides insects undergo metamorphosis, and there are additional ways Pokémon can “evolve” besides through leveling up. Elemental stones also play a huge role in transforming Pokémon, as do a number of other factors.

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Enter epigenetics.

As stated in Mew’s PokéDex entries, Pokémon do in fact have DNA and it is reasonable to assume that it operates in the same manner as it does on earth. Quite simply, current genetic material can be modified by external sources, i.e. elemental stones, friendless, time of day, other Pokémon in their party, etc., resulting in a changed organism. This is the case with Eevee who exhibits a special type of phenotypic plasticity called polyphenism. (For more, check out Eevee Epigenetics)

Despite being an inaccurate representation of the process it seeks to imitate, Pokémon “Evolution” is fascinating nonetheless. But even though this in-game process can be explained away by other processes, there is still an abundance of evidence supporting evolution does take place in the Pokémon World, as it does in our own.

The Evidence for Pokémon Evolution

Genetics

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of common descent is that found through comparative sequence analysis. Through this process, DNA of different organisms is compared. Essentially, the greater the similarity in DNA, the closer two organisms are phylogenetically. If there are fewer similarities, they are phylogenetically distant.

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Similarly, through DNA evidence it can be concluded that Mew is indeed the common ancestor of all Pokémon because:

  1. Mew contains the genetic code of every Pokémon.
  2. Mew is one of a small handful of Pokémon that can learn every move, the only others being Arceus (whom we’ve established is part of a larger mythos) and Ditto (whom for there is significant evidence suggesting that it is a botched attempt at cloning Mew).
  3. Through Pokémon breeding we know that moves have a genetic component and thus can be passed down to offspring as egg moves.

Additionally, all Pokémon share a key aspect in their development—they all hatch from eggs. Even the myth of Arceus cites the Original One hatching from an egg that existed before the Universe. The fact that all Pokémon enter the world through the same means suggests that at one point their original common ancestor also hatched from an egg, and thus all its descendants hatch from eggs. And that common ancestor is most likely Mew.

Artificial Selection and Experimental Evolution

While forming his Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin derived his idea of natural selection from recognizing how breeders selected certain traits and allowed those individuals to breed and pass on those selected traits to their offspring. This was essentially the same principle he hypothesized occurred in nature, only guided by human will and desire instead of what best allowed for the dog to survive.

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Without knowledge of the genetics behind it, Darwin realized that dynamic diversity could spawn from a common ancestor.

Animal breeders of all kinds have been artificially selecting certain traits over others. Domestication is probably the pinnacle of artificial selection, completely transforming a wild animal to suit our own needs.

Many opponents of evolution love to cry out that evolution is not “real science” because you can’t observe it taking place, but we do. Everyday scientist study and observe the evolution of populations in real time. Thanks to advancements in genetics, we can sequence DNA and track the evolution of populations under laboratory conditions just like any supposed “real science”.

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Some of the largest breakthroughs in these fields have been through studying creatures such as drosophila (fruit flies), guppies, microbes, and typically other small organisms with short lifespans and that reproduce quickly.

Likewise, the Pokémon World has its own form of artificial selection in which tens of thousands of trainers conduct their own experiments in everyday—Pokémon Breeding.

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Pokémon Breeders go to extreme lengths to obtain desired individual values (IVs), natures, and egg moves. Serious breeders can go through hundreds of eggs until they hatch a desired outcome, only to continue the process through further inbreeding until they have the perfect Pokémon. Furthermore, the species of the offspring is matrilineal, passed on by the mother. This is similar to mitochondrial DNA which replicates separately from the nucleus and is only passed onto offspring through the mother. Because of this, we are able to trace all our ancestry back to a Mitochondrial Eve. Similarly, a Pokémon’s ancestry can be traced through analyzing its maternal side, which we know to always be the same species as itself.

Every time a trainer pedals down their respective egg hatching route, they are unknowingly participating in the act of artificial selection, and therefore furthering the evidence of evolution in their world.

Geographic Distribution

How certain species are distributed across continents and islands can offer valuable insight into their origins. One of the clearest examples in our world is found in the similarity between organisms in South America and Africa.

As any child knows from studying a globe, the eastern half of South America seems to perfectly fit in with the western part of Africa, as if were part of a grand puzzle. We now know from plate tectonics that this childhood hypothesis is correct, however, there is more evidence suggesting these two landmasses were once connected which can be found by studying the organisms of past and present. South America has monkeys, Africa also has monkeys. South America has big cats such as cougars and jaguars, Africa has big cats such as leopards and lions. South America has toucans, Africa has hornbills. South America as caimans, Africa has crocodiles. At one point in its history, South America (and the Americas in general) were home to huge megafauna such as giant sloths, while Africa still retains most of its megafauna such as elephants and giraffes.

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The similarities suggest that at one point when the two continents were connected, these species probably shared a common ancestor that underwent speciation once the landmasses separated and there was a physical block between populations, resulting in species that mirror each other across the ocean.

Likewise, a similar phenomenon can be found through the various regions of the Pokémon World. Every region has its own bird Pokémon, fish Pokémon, rodent Pokémon, dragon Pokémon, and perhaps most notoriously, its own Pikaclone. Additionally, each reiteration is specifically suited for its region’s environment.

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Take for example, the starting bird Pokémon for each region. Kanto is a temperate region with a mostly urban environment. As such, it is only natural that small sparrow-like birds such as Pidgey and Sparrow evolve there. Johto shares these bird Pokémon with Kanto, as well as a number of Pokémon, will still having its own native bird, Hoothoot, which would thrive in the more rural region of Johto. Tailow of Hoenn is equipped with a massive wingspan in proportion to its body length and is clearly built for lengthy flights, which makes sense since the majority of Hoenn is made up of islands separated by great lengths of ocean. Over in Sinnoh, a colder more northern region, Starly has evolved bulkier down for colder weather. Pidove lives in the urban center of Unova, so its feathers match the grey of the city. Lastly, Fletchinder of the Kalos region has evolved with a Fire-Typing in order to better resist the attacks of the Fairies that run rampant throughout the region.

The Fossil Record

When an organism dies, most of the time its body decomposes and becomes part of the earth once again leaving no trace of its existence. However, under certain circumstances, a process known as fossilization will occur in which the bones of an organism are replaced with rock and preserved over a long period of time. Today, we can use the fossil record to track the evolution of a particular group of species.

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Fossils are found in sedimentary rock which is often arranged in layers of silt and other sediments from the time it first settled. These layers are referred to as strata and can be used to decipher the chronological order of fossils. The lowest strata contain the oldest rock and hence the earliest fossils, while the highest strata contain the youngest rock and therefore the most recent fossils. To determine a more specific age, scientists use a process known as radiometric dating. Specifically, the amount of naturally occurring isotopes, variations of an element with a different number of neutrons, is compared to its decay products, resulting in a constant rate of decay which can be used to date a wide variety of materials.

Surprisingly, paleontology is one field that the Pokémon World has us beat on. Despite the fact that Pokémon scientist have yet to crack the elusive mystery of where Pokémon Eggs come from, they have achieved the technology possible to revive fossils back to their past selves, allowing for a level of unprecedented study that modern-day paleontologist and evolutionary biologist have wet dreams about. There is no ambiguity on what color their dinosaurs were or what their behavior patterns were like, they can observe them all in real time.

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Furthermore, when compared to their modern-day contemporaries, it is clear that some fossil Pokémon are perhaps the direct ancestors of the Pokémon we see today. Take for example Kabutops and Scyther. They both have razors for hands, similar body design, and while they may not share any typing, it is certainly not unprecedented for an aquatic species to evolve into a terrestrial one. In our own world, arthropods which both of these Pokémon take inspiration from, were some of the first pioneers of the land as their lungs easily adapted to receiving oxygen from the air rather than diffusing it in its dissolved form through the water.

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Another example is Archeops, a proto-bird Pokémon based off the real life Archaeopteryx which is thought to be one of the earliest birds. The PokéDex even refers to Archeops as the “First Bird” Pokémon. It is highly possible that most, if not all, Bird Pokémon are descended from Archeops or are at least close on the phylogenetic tree.

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There are many more possible lineages. It is a popular fan theory that Aerodactyl is an ancestor of Crobat due to similar coloring, while it is more probable that Aerodactyl is more closely related to dragons. Carracosta and Blastoise certainly share characteristics, their water typing being just one of them. And who’s to say that Omastar isn’t a distant predecessor to Gastrodon?

Like our own fossil record, there are limitations. We may never discover some organisms because their bodies were too soft to be fossilized or they lived in an environment not conducive to fossilization. Fossils that we might have discovered may have been lost to shifting tectonic plates or erosion. However, we continue to study the best we can using the knowledge that we do have, and when we uncover new information it only betters our understanding of the world.

In regards to Pokémon, every new generation is likely to bring with in new fossils that will also increase our understanding of this vast and complex world. Who knows what we will learn from this next generation. Time will only tell.

Sexual Dimorphism in the Pokémon World

First introduced with Nidoran in Generation I, and later expanded to other Pokémon in Generation IV, gender differences have greatly enriched the playing experience of both casual and hardcore players alike. Of The 720 Pokémon currently in existence, 109 exhibit some form of variation between the sexes, ranging from subtle differences in design such as female Pikachu’s heart-shaped tail, to more obvious differences like male and female Meowstic of the current generation.

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The inclusion of such differences is a nod to the real-life phenomenon of sexual dimorphism, which describes the differences in appearance between males and females of the same species. These differences can include color, shape, size, secondary sex characteristics, and even certain behaviors.

Perhaps the most well-known example of sexual dimorphism is of the peacock and peahen. Male peacocks exhibit spectacular coloration and ornamentation with their elaborate tails and colorful plumage, while female peahens are rather plain and inconspicuous. However, the astute biologist (or PokéBiologist) will point out an important detail, that while the male’s tail may be great for attracting a mate, from an evolutionary perspective, it appears to be of great hindrance, not only inhibiting its ability for flight but also making it a clear target for predators. So the question is, how did such a trait arise if it puts the male at a disadvantage and how does it remain fixated in the current gene pool?

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The answer, my friend, is sexual selection, the primary cause for sexual dimorphism. In a way, sexual dimorphism itself is a byproduct of these sexually selective pressures, which favor certain traits over others in the mating process. In his book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Matt Ridley remarks that, “Sexual selection theory suggests that much of the behavior and some of the appearance of an animal is adapted not to help it survive but to help it acquire the best or most mates.”

For birds and mammals, the burden of reproduction usually falls more heavily on the female than the male. For a female, reproducing comes with many upfront costs such as expending time and energy guarding an egg or carrying a developing organism for an entire gestation, in addition to the care that said offspring requires after birth/hatching. Males on the other hand, typically are not as involved and can indiscriminately disperse their seed without worry. Thus, females must be more selective with whom they mate with, resulting in a dynamic where it is often the males that are colorful and ornamented while the females remain plain, as this pressure does not apply to them.

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This principle even extends to the Pokémon World, such as with Unfezant of the Unova Region.

 

Returning back to the example of the peacock, while the tail may not aid in its survival, it does have the major benefit of attracting a mate. A male that wasn’t as flamboyant may be able to evade predators more easily, but it ultimately means nothing if they can’t reproduce. Ridley likens this to a student with testing anxiety, stating, “If a student is brilliant but terrible in examinations – if, say, she simply collapses with nervousness at the very thought of an exam – then her brilliance will count for nothing in a course that is tested by a single examination at the end of the term.”

But not all forms of sexual dimorphism follow these “traditional” gender norms. Females can often be larger than their male counterparts. This often pairs nicely with sexual cannibalism, common in arachnids such as spiders, in which the female eats her mate following copulation.

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Female and male black widow.

 

One particularly extreme example of this size disparity can be found in the anglerfish. For the longest time, scientist doubted the very existence of a male angler fish until it was discovered that the males they were looking for were most likely right in front of them the whole time. You see, male anglerfish are much smaller than their female counterparts. These little lads are destined to become no more than a sperm-filled wart on the side of a larger female angler fish, as they bite down on a prospective mate and gradually merge circulatory systems giving up all sense of bodily autonomy in the process.

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In the Pokémon World, most cases are nowhere near as extreme as the angler fish. In fact, most seem to be on the subtler side, at least in regards to the earlier generations of Pokémon. The later generations however, appear to show more obvious dimorphism than previous ones. Unfezant, much like the real-life pheasant it was based on, displays clear dimorphism from sexual selection, with the male bearing a pink mask and bright green plumage, while the female is simpler and has plain brown plumage instead. Pyroar also takes a hint from our world, copying the dimorphism displayed between male and female lions.

However, the Pokémon that displays the most differences is hands-down Meowstic, not only having different physical features but also learning different moves. In a reversal of traditional gender norms, the female is mainly for offensive purposes, learning more attack-based moves, while the male plays a more supportive role. This dimorphism even extends to their Hidden Abilities; females have the Competitive ability while males have the Prankster ability.

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“When in danger, it raises its ears and releases enough psychic power to grind a 10-ton truck to dust.” – Pokémon X Version PokéDex

 

The complexity of the Pokémon World never ceases to amaze me, and this added feature makes the biology of this fictional world seem all the more real. With a new generation of Pokémon on its way, there’s no telling what types of sexual dimorphism will be presented to us next.

What’s your favorite Pokémon that displays sexual dimorphism? Leave it in the comments, and if you’re interested in learning more about sexual selection and evolution in general, I highly recommend checking out Matt Ridley’s book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. It’s a great read if you’re a biology nerd like me, and even if you’re not it still has some fascinating insight on the evolution of human sexuality, and who doesn’t like sex?