Tag Archives: Kanto

Slowbro and Shellder – Mutualism, Commensalism, or Parasitism (Symbiotic Relationships)

One day you’re walking along a beach  and you stumble across a docile Slowpoke fishing with its tail, a common method of hunting as it allows slowpoke to sit around lazily will its food comes to it. The sweet juices found in its tail is a tasty treat to other Pokémon (as well as humans according to the events of Generation II). Suddenly the Slowpoke flinches, you watch as it hauls its tail to find not a fish but a bivalve locked into its flesh – a Shellder. The Slowpoke gives you a blank look of surprise before its body disappears in a glow and before your eyes it evolves into Slowbro, who now stands upright and appears more aware than before. The Shellder too has also undergone physiological transformation, its color has changed to a dull grey and its shell resembles that of a mollusk more than a bivalve, outfitted with spikes for added protection.

You, the astute Pokébiologist, recall that many Pokémon group together in order to evolve – Magnemite form groups of three in order to become a Magneton, two Beldum fuse together to form a Metang, and two Metang combine to form a Metagross. But those instances only involved Pokémon of the same species, here we have one Pokémon interacting with a completely different Pokémon to trigger a dramatic transformation for both creatures. Moreover, each Pokémon retains its own consciousness as far as you can tell, they remain separate entities that are merely working in unison. The geneticist side of you suspects the work of epigenetics (see Eevee Epigenetics), but you are an ecologist at heart and recognize immediately the symbiotic relationship between the two organisms.

In nature, organisms will often interact with each other, as it is difficult to avoid contact with other living things even if you tried. Something as seemingly innocuous as stepping on a blade of grass is a interacting with another organism. We often classify these various interactions by how the organisms involved are affected. Predation, for example, involves the consumption of one organism by another organism, providing nourishment to one while ending the life of the other. However, not all interactions are as grim. In some circumstances, organisms will interact to the benefit of one or more parties, usually. This close and long-term relationship between two organisms is referred to as symbiosis, and can come in three forms, in which the organisms in questions either work harmoniously together (mutualism), harmlessly mooch off the other (commensalism), or completely exploit one to its detriment (parasitism).

In regards to Slowbro and Shellder, defining their relationship is a matter of determining which parties benefit, and which are harmed. This may seem a simple task but when dealing with the world of Pokémon things can become complicated quickly. In our own world, nature has a bad habit of not falling into the cookie-cutter labels we create in order to organize its chaos, and that is perhaps even more true for the Pokémon World.

 

An Honorable Mention: Amensalism

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No organism is an island, even an act as simple as walking across a field counts as an interspecies interaction.

Amensalistic relationships are present throughout the natural world, and it is perhaps because of its prevalence that it is often left out of most textbook discussions on symbiosis. Amensalism can be defined as a relationship in which one party is unaffected while the other is harmed and somethings straight up obliterated. In truth, its classification is merely a technicality of the relatively broad definition used for symbiosis, which at one point was strictly limited to mutualistic relationships. Essentially, every organism is involved in an amensalistic relationship, and thereby kind of negates any purpose in highlighting it as its own relationship. Refer back to my previous example of you stepping on a blade of grass. That is an amensalistic relationship, the grass you crush is greatly inhibited, perhaps even killed, while you continue unaffected and unaware of the interaction you’ve just had. Obviously, Slowpoke and Shellder are both greatly affected, which immediately rules out amensalism, but I thought it warranted mentioning.

 

Commensalism: The Boring One

Commensalistic relationships are basically a step up from amensalism, one party benefits while the other remains relatively unaffected, neither helped nor harmed. These relationships are rather uneventful (hence the title), and are usually limited to interactions where one organism use another for transportation or housing. For example, mites will often occupy different organisms such as flies for transport, never feeding off of them or causing bodily harm. Some organisms will even use the body of another postmortem for housing, such as when hermits use the shells of deceased gastropods for homes.

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Free rides are hard to find, both in life and in nature.

Returning back to the Slowbro-Shellder Interaction, it’s fairly clear that Slowbro is indeed being harmed by Shellder biting down and remaining attached to its tail. Although, one could argue that Slowbro isn’t being harmed since, according to the Pokémon Silver Version PokéDex, “Naturally dull to begin with, it lost its ability to feel pain due to Shellder’s seeping poison.” However, just because an organism cannot feel the harm being inflicted upon it, does not mean it is not being harmed. Leeches release an anesthetic when they feed, allowing them to feed unnoticed by the host for hours until full. If I were to inject my sleeping roommate with an anesthetic, then stab him repeatedly in the gut as I tried to remove his kidney to sell on the black market, you would say I was harming even if he didn’t feel a thing. Not that I would ever do such a thing…

So case closed then. Slowpoke is very clearly being harmed. Shellder is a parasite. So we can completely rule out mutualism as well, right? Well, things are more complicated than that.

 

Parasitism: Violent Exploitation in the Natural World

Contrary to popular belief, parasites do not kill their host, or at least they do not intend to kill their host. You see, the parasites are locked in a special kind of symbiotic relationship, in which they derive sustenance from their host and thus will do everything in their power to keep them alive. If the host dies, the parasite will die most likely unless they can find a new body to mooch off of. That’s not to say that parasites won’t give the host a rough time, often the presence of a parasite can be debilitating to the host, perhaps killing them slowly rather than right then and there. This can be done through a number of methods – depriving the host of nutriments to feed itself, releasing waste products that can have deleterious effects to the host’s body, physically burrowing into and altering the structure of organs and tissues. In short, the fitness (survivability) of the host is sacrificed in order to advance the fitness of the parasite. The host could be on the brink of death but as long as the parasite can continue to survive, the relationship will continue.

Often when a parasite does kill its host it is either to fulfill a reproductive need, such as the lancet liver fluke which infects ants and compels them to hang to the ends of grass to be eaten by rabbits so to continue their life cycle, or it has accidently infected the wrong organism, one that has not evolved the immune defenses to keep it alive and functioning, as is the case with most fatal diseases that make the jump from animals to humans.

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Ants are not the only victims of mind control, liver flukes influence the behavior of other organisms, including snails.

As we determined earlier, Slowbro is indeed harmed by the presence of Shellder, and Shellder does increase its fitness significantly attaching itself to Slowpoke, not only giving it free transportation, but also free food from feeding off of Slowbro’s scrapes, as well as the juices that run from its tail. Even the Bulbapedia page that I’ve pulled the PokéDex entries from states in the origins that “Its parasitic relationship to Slowpoke may be inspired by leeches.” So there you have it, confirmation from the top source of Pokémon information.

However, I have come to a different conclusion.

We must recognize that nature will not always fit so easily into the boxes we’ve constructed for it. Scientist often find trouble correctly labeling symbiotic relationships, perhaps at first seeing one as purely commensalistic only to later find that the other organism is being helped in some way. This gets even messier when trying to apply real-world logic to a videogame, a videogame that isn’t even consistent with its own rules and logic, as despite its various PokéDex entries, Slowpoke’s in-game evolution into Slowbro is completely independent of any interaction with Shellder.

Yes, Slowbro is harmed by Shellder, but I would argue that it is also helped, that Slowbro’s fitness increases when “infected” by Shellder.

 

If Ticks Gave Us Superpowers: Mutualism

The faint glimmer of hope that the natural world isn’t all doom and gloom is mutualistic symbiosis, an interaction between two organisms in which both parties benefit from the relationship. This reciprocal altruism often increases the overall fitness of both individuals, a great example can be found with the mutualistic relationship of sea anemones and hermit crabs – which are also an inspiration for Slowbro’s design. In the wild, certain species of hermit crabs attach sea anemones to their shells. In this relationship, hermit crab’s fitness increases by having an additional defense against predators – an array of stinging tentacles protruding from its back. Likewise, the sea anemone’s fitness also increases, as it is not only mobile (a great advantage for a normally sedentary species), but can also feed off the scraps if the hermit crab’s food (much like a certain grey-shelled Pokémon we know).

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The sea anemone gets a free ride, the hermit gets added protection. Everybody wins!

In the previous section we have already accepted that Shellder is harming Slowbro, that part is indisputable. But I would argue that Slowbro is helped more than it is harmed in its relationship with Shellder.

Firstly, Slowbro’s stats improve significantly upon evolution via Shellder, even more so when Mega-Evolved. Now, one could chalk thus up to simple game mechanics and claim that this increase in stats is not unique to Slowbro, and they would be right. However, Slowbro does undergo additional changes in its physiology and behavior. As Slowpoke, it walked on all fours, but now with Shellder attached it can stand upright. Additionally, it receive additional powers from Shellder’s attachment, as the Black and White PokéDex states, “Though usually dim witted, it seems to become inspired if the Shellder on its tail bites down.”

Lastly, I point to my final piece of evidence – Slowking. This often forgotten secondary evolution of this docile Pokémon also falls victim to Shellder’s parasitism. However, Slowpoke only evolves into Slowking when Shellder bites down on its head, giving the once seemingly senile Pokémon an ability few Pokémon outside of legendries have – speech. In fact, Slowking gains full human-levels of intelligence by simply donning a Shellder cap.

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“Slowking undertakes research every day in an effort to solve the mysteries of the world. However, this Pokémon apparently forgets everything it has learned if the Shellder on its head comes off.” – Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire Versions

Slowking undertakes research every day in an effort to solve the mysteries of the world. However, this Pokémon apparently forgets everything it has learned if the Shellder on its head comes off.

Classified as the Royal Pokémon, Slowking also stands upright, and has intelligence comparable to award-winning scientist, even conducting scientific research. Think about it, a Pokémon is doing scientific research and publishing papers. A small reminder that moments ago this same Pokémon was sitting by a body of water, too lazy to hunt for prey and merely fishing with its tail hoping that it something will bite.

The secret seems to lie within Shellder’s venom, whose effects increase the mental abilities of Slowpoke, producing a moderately more adept yet still docile organism in Slowbro when just attached to the tail, and an intelligent being when latched directly above the brain as is the case with Slowking. Either way, the overall fitness of Slowpoke is increased significantly, ranging from just being able to obtain food more easily to literally becoming self-aware.

Thus, while Shellder may harm Slowbro initially, the perhaps unintentional effects of its venom on its host indeed brings a plethora of benefits to Slowbro and Slowking. It is neither strictly a mutualistic nor parasitic relationship, but an odd hybrid of the two. In our world, it would be like if ticks gave us superpowers when they feed on you, instead of Lyme disease.

The Slowpoke line is a fascinating line to study, and provides great insight on the various interactions between Pokémon species that the games don’t often shed much light into. But with a little over analysis and speculation, we can make some sense of this, at times often, senseless world.

Cinnabar Island: Rebuilding the Ruins – Ecological Succession

Two years after the events of Generation I, our young protagonist returns to the esteemed island of Cinnabar only to find the place in ruins. A volcanic eruption has all but destroyed any sign of life or civilization on the island. People and Pokémon have fled for the Seafoam Islands, and the only sign of mankind’s reconstruction is a lone Pokémon Center. But when will Nature reclaim her territory and begins its own reconstruction. Chances are that she already has, the very literal seeds of her conquest were sown long before any human broke ground on the Pokémon Center. Although we may not witness it in the games, rest assured that the powers of ecological succession will restore Cinnabar to a flourishing paradise. Give or take a few decades.

At the risk of personifying Nature, ecological succession the process through which she reclaims lost territory or settles on new. There are two types succession, primary and secondary. In primary succession, Mother Nature is on the offensive, colonizing new territories that often devoid of vegetation and soil, just bare rocks and maybe cooled lava flows. Primary succession commonly occurs after a volcanic eruption, such as the one that took place on Cinnabar Island, as well as in areas where a glacier has just retreated, revealing what is often a bare lifeless layer of rock and stone.

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To carry a weary metaphor, the first wave involves a hardy group of organisms called pioneer species which pave (or rather, un-pave) the way for later organisms by breaking down the rocky layer and establishing a thin layer of soil for which other more needy plants can use to dig their roots in and further the process. Abiotic factors (non-living components of an ecosystem) also play a part in eroding the solid exterior. Most pioneer species are organisms that require little or no soil to grow and are usually extremely resilient and adaptive, organisms such as lichens, fungi, algae, whose seeds can be carried by the wind easily and land in these decimated areas moments after the surface is exposed. Microorganisms begin cycling nutrients in the ecosystem to provide a basis for important biogeochemical processes, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria which kick start the nitrogen cycle.

Over time, an ecosystem will form with increasing complexity. Larger organisms will move in and fill empty niches. Trees will take to the skies with a thick layer of soil to support them. This process can take as little as a few decades to up to millions of years depending of the severity of the disaster.

Secondary succession is often the quicker process, taking place in an area that has suffered a less catastrophic disaster in which substrate is left intact, such as a forest fire or human activity like deforestation. In these scenarios, soil and most of the other necessary components are still in place and thus the ecosystem can more easily recover.

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Whether primary or secondary, ecological succession showcases the resiliency of life. Plethora of natural disasters and mass extinction events have tried to extinguish Earth of this unique phenomenon we call life, and yet every time Nature rebuilds itself and flourishes. Even if we are a blink in the evolutionary annals, there is something comforting in knowing that life itself will continue long after humanity has moved on, perhaps until the Earth itself is consumed by the Sun. In the end, life always finds a way.

Kangaskhan – Parental Bond and Parthenogenesis

Ever since its introduction in the Second Generation, the concept of Pokémon breeding, while greatly appreciated, has spawned a plethora of questions, including, but by no means limited to – how can completely different species successfully copulate? How can they produce fertile offspring that are functional and not riddled with genetic malfunctions? Why is a tiny little cat able to have sex with literally the largest Pokémon known to us thus far? Perhaps one of the largest contributors to this pool of questions is Kangaskhan, a species that is 100% female and is born already equipped with a baby in pouch.

There is much to be said about the Parental Pokémon, aptly named since it literally enters the world a mother. It comes as no surprise that its design is inspired by the kangaroo, yet there is so much more to learn from her. Indeed, Kangaskhan is more than a magical marsupial, she is a shining example of the remarkable process that we in our world know as parthenogenesis.

 

A World Without Men

Time to have a talk. The Talk to be precise.

Excuse me if my heteronormative bias shows here but typically speaking, a man will encounter a woman and either through coercion or brute force insert his penis into her vagina and deposit his half of the reproductive materials via ejaculation. His materials, commonly known as sperm, enter the vagina, with a few lucky individuals making it past the cervix to – if this woman he has taken is ovulating – join with a nice plump egg waiting to be fertilized. The first sperm to penetrate its outer membrane wins the prize of fusing with the ovum to form a zygote and nine months later a baby is born.

We call this process sexual reproduction and it requires the existence of two sexes at minimum (though there can be more in some cases) since its main selling point is the promotion of diversity. Like a college admissions department, diversity is the name of the game when it comes to genes. More variation means more unique individuals with traits that may or may not prove advantageous in life. However, sexual reproduction is not the only way to make a baby.

If diversity is not really your interest and you’re just looking to pass on your legacy without the energy and drama that comes with sex, asexual reproduction may just be what you’re looking for.

In asexual reproduction, no new genetic material is added. The next generation is genetically identical to that before it with no variations other than the random mutations that still occur during DNA replication. Naturally, this leads to severe lack of diversity with very few, if any, differences between individuals, but has the benefit of not needing to expend energy in courtship and actual mating. Additionally, asexual reproduction only requires one sex.

There are many forms of asexual reproduction – budding, binary fission, clonal fragmentation. But perhaps the most interesting form is parthenogenesis, essentially virgin birth. Offspring of parthenogenic organism develop from unfertilized eggs. Most organism that use parthenogenesis do have two sexes, as well as the ability to reproduce sexually, and often fall back to it when conditions become adverse and the diversity is needed1. However, there are some species, such as Kangaskhan, that have abandoned the entire male line in favor of an all-female feminist utopia.

Take for example Aspidoscelis uniparens, the whiptail lizard, a species that contains no genetic males and reproduces completely through parthenogenesis. Oddly enough however, the females of this species do engage in mating rituals similar to that if they were reproducing sexually which enhances ovulation. Furthermore, despite being asexual, whiptails have managed to find a way to preserve some degree of genetic diversity through combining sister chromosomes instead of homologous chromosomes2.

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A conservative’s worst nightmare — a society of promiscuous female lesbians with no male supervision.

 

It appears that Kangaskhan has taken a similar evolutionary path to the whiptail lizard. Being a male-free species can have its benefits especially for a creature as devoted to its young as Kangaskhan. The PokéDex entry in Emerald appropriately states, “If you come across a young Kangaskhan playing by itself, never try to catch it. The baby’s parent is sure to be in the area, and it will become violently enraged.” With sexual reproduction comes competition between not only the sexes but between competing males, each vying for a womb to continue his genetic legacy, and children are often the first casualties in this war, as it is not rare for a male to kill the offspring of another male so to ensure his are the only ones that end up surviving. With Kangaskhan’s identity wrapped up in protecting its baby, a sexual society would prove troublesome, male Kangaskhan mutilating babies while forcing fertile females into copulation. A better situation could be created without the presence of males, one in which the young are protected and mothers rested easily without the threat of a male high on testosterone killing her child.

 

Parental Bond: More than an Ability

Perhaps more than any other class of animals, mammals have mastered the art of motherhood. Few other organisms take on the burden of reproduction to the extent that mammals do. From the moment of conception, the mammalian mother is dealt with the burden of having to carry and support what essentially boils down to a temporary parasite that drains off its energy over whatever period of gestation it takes. Then after the offspring has been born they are still tasked with the job of providing additional nourishment through a unique little gland named mammary (yes, that’s where mammal comes from), in doing so providing them with invaluable proteins, antibodies, and other goodies that’ll help them later in life.

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In humans, oxytocin is released in females during breastfeeding, further forging the bond between mother and child.

But for marsupials in particular, motherhood comes with some additional stakes. A joey (baby kangaroo) is born early in its development, with a gestation of only 30-36 days. The pink gooey bundle of joy resembles its distant cousin the gummy bear more than a kangaroo at this stage in its life, being no larger than a lima bean. Being basically a living fetus, the joey is especially vulnerable in these first months. However, it quickly climbs to the pouch with its barely formed forelimbs and latches on to its mother’s teat where it will reside for the next nine months, feeding on its mother’s milk from the safety of the pouch.

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You will never eat a gummy bear ever again.

 

 

One can imagine that it can get crowded quickly in a pouch. Thankfully, kangaroos have evolved a unique adaptation called diapause, in which a mother essentially freezes the development of an embryo while her pouch is occupied. Once the joey is old enough to leave the pouch for good, the embryo is allowed to continue its growth, thus allowing the kangaroo mother to allot all of her attention to the primary offspring on hand.

This being considered, I find it interesting that in Kangaskhan’s Mega Evolution, the vigilant mother finally lets her current joey from the safety of her pouch to fight side by side with her, herself unchanged by the actual Mega Evolution but her young larger and more plated, starting to resemble its adult form. Perhaps this particular event is more than just temporary battle effect, but the release of Kangaskhan’s current joey and the unpausing of diapause, in which the joey that resides in her pouch post-Mega Evolution is not the same joey that was in battle but the newly developed embryo grown into a joey after months of diapause.

 

 

Cited Sources

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. “parthenogenesis.The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. 15 Mar. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>

Lutes, A. A., Neaves, W.B., Baumann, D. P., Wiegraebe, W., Baumann, P. (2010). Sister chromosome pairing maintains heteroozygosity in parthenogenetic lizards. nature.com.