Pokébiology: Where Science and Pokémon Meet

Nintendo
Nintendo

Connie Wall presented a panel on Pokébiology 101 at this year’s ConnectiCon convention. She is currently research staff at Cedar Island Marina Research Lab in Clinton, CT and runs a blog/website called Whimsical Science

GeekMom: Hi Connie! Thank you for talking with me. My daughters and I really enjoyed your presentation at ConnectiCon. Can you tell me a little about yourself and your research?

Connie Wall: Sure! Thank you so much for coming! I’m glad you and your daughters liked it! So, I work at Cedar Island Marina Research Lab in Clinton, Connecticut as research staff; mostly I do educational programs that involve Long Island Sound and the animals within it. I also help with research projects such as species tracking and identification as well as population studies (such as determining the presence of flounder within the marina). I have done research on the strength of Blue Mussel Shells and I’ve recently become interested in the claw structure of Green Crabs.

I try and aim my research towards a subject called biomimicry, which aims to produce a product or solution that uses the natural world as a basis. I’m currently getting a second degree in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Hartford, because during my B.S. in Biology at the University of Scranton I ran far away from math. After one year of what was essentially a math bootcamp, math and I are on much better terms. I am now trying to figure out how to teach math in a way that doesn’t seem like math, mostly so I can review what I missed in high school.

As for the rest of my life, I’m very interested in Pokémon (of course!) and other series as well. I LOVE Star Trek, Doctor Who, various anime, and I’m slowly playing my way through Stardew Valley. I live with my grandmother and my parents at the same time–I commute to both houses, so fandom and games are a good way to unwind after the commute.

On the left, Paras, on the right, a crab in the Meigs Point Nature Center Touch Tank (Madison, CT; photos, Anika Dane)
On the left, Paras, on the right, a crab in the Meigs Point Nature Center Touch Tank (Madison, CT; photos, Anika Dane)

GM: How long have you been interested in Pokémon? Did it play any part in your academic or career aspirations?

CW: I’ve been interested in Pokémon pretty much from the first minute it was on television. It came out a few days after my fifth birthday, right as I was starting kindergarten. Of course, once the anime was on TV it became a gigantic hit–my mom would sit with me and collect the stickers, she bought me the books, etc. I still have the Pikachu pillow I got at Ames (replaced by Walmart). After my brother was born I got the Gameboy Color and  Pokémon Crystal, and I played through Johto probably about 100 times. Since then, I’ve gotten the games the day they come out, I collect the plushies, etc.

It wasn’t until I was procrastinating in lab on my mussel project with a classmate that we started to seriously think about Pokémon as actual organisms. Of course, we’re talking 1 AM caffeine fueled discussions about Bellsprout and the ability to be animal plants, nothing too serious. I came up with a few study guides and rationales that helped me through my Plant Physiology class, I joked around that I was going to be “The Pokémon Professor!” It wasn’t until I had graduated from Scranton that I seized the opportunity to use Pokémon to teach Biology. As much as my side blog will be a hobby, it definitely is a fun playground for my structural physiology interests.

GM: So how can we tell Pokémon are “alive”?

CW: The four easiest ways to identify life are growth (if it grows physically), reproduction (it makes more), use of energy, and response to the environment. So, we know that cats are alive because they grow from kitten to adult, they are capable of reproducing in a natural environment, they require food and water, and they respond to their environment. In the real world, we have a few more “qualities” of life that include having cells, having biological structures correspond to function, and evolution.

Magikarp, the fish out of water (Middletown, CT; Anika Dane)
Magikarp, the fish out of water (Middletown, CT; photo, Anika Dane)

If we wanted to apply these qualities to say, a Magikarp, we could! Magikarp can grow–we see this especially in Pokémon GO with different sizes of Magikarp. Magikarp are capable of reproducing, they use energy (Poffins!), and they respond to their environment (as seen in battle). Magikarp, along with all Pokémon, have cells, have features that they use to swim (fins), hard armored scales for protection, and have adapted to freshwater, brackish, and saltwater environments within the Pokémon world.

GM: How else does the world of Pokémon mimic real world science?

CW: There’s a lot–you could talk about technology with the storage PC, Pokéballs, and Pokédex. Porygon and Rotom introduce a potential for coding and computer-aided design, and because biology is very much inclusive with chemistry and physics, there’s a lot of opportunity for understanding Muk at a chemical level, or even calculating various values for Pokémon attacks and the use of energy.

GM: In your presentation you identified some Pokémon as invasive species; how did you determine that? Why is it important to know which species are native versus invasive here in Connecticut?

CW: So I spent a fair amount of time on Bulbapedia while developing my panel; I wish I could go through every game myself, but my life doesn’t allot for that much time. While I was going through the Kanto routes looking for good examples of diverse environments, I noticed that the pages actually separated the kinds of Pokémon within the route by generation. So, knowing that there was a canonical passing of time, I went through and marked down which Pokémon were in each route (the spreadsheet was pretty busy). I then highlighted which Pokémon were not “native” to Kanto–those outside the original 151–and sorted the list by the number of routes each “species” was present in. I found that Hoothoot, Shinx, and Buizel had “moved in” by the time we got to play generation 4 in Kanto, and used the example to easily illustrate the problems each invasive species would have on it’s environment.

In Connecticut, there are a number of invasive species. This weekend (July 16-17, 2016) was actually used by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as an aquatic invasive species awareness weekend, where they educated lake boaters about invasive plants and the importance of cleaning your boat from trip to trip, as the plants can move between lakes and ponds and totally take over those environments. In fact, invasive aquatic plants can severely lower the diversity of species, plant and animal alike, in a very short time. If an environment changes too quickly, and one species becomes dominant, it brings a host of challenges. Plants especially can harbor bacteria and “tie up” lakes so that you can’t swim, boat, or fish. I mainly deal with Green Crabs and Asian Shore crabs as a marine biologist, and these crabs are more invasive on a population setting in Long Island Sound. Although there were fears of an economic impact on oysters and other shellfish, Green Crabs are now used as bait, and there are some restaurants serving Shore Crab. In Connecticut, we got relatively lucky especially with the Green Crab, which has had a huge impact everywhere else in the world.

GM: I understand Pokémon “evolution” is actually metamorphosis; can you explain?

CW: Yeah! So, in our world’s biology, evolution is a process of change that occurs over generations–so, change that occurs from a grandparent to a parent to a juvenile. When there is a certain physical attribute that’s more advantageous, like a feature needed to defend itself, it’s more likely that organism will be able to reproduce. A quick example would be a species of beetle that are either brown or white; if a group of these beetles live on a bright, light surface, the white beetles would have an advantage over the brown beetles, who may be targeted by predators. Those white beetles would be able to reproduce, and result in further generations of white beetles. However, if a group of these beetles lived on darker dirt, the brown beetles would have the advantage and their young would be brown.

Metamorphosis of Caterpie to Butterfree; http://pokemondb.net/
Metamorphosis of Caterpie to Butterfree; http://pokemondb.net/

Metamorphosis, on the other hand, occurs to each individual of a species. It is the actual physical change of an animal from a juvenile form to an adult form. A currently relevant example would be mosquitos–they lay eggs in still water (which is why you should make sure that there’s no standing water around your house!), and after the eggs hatch they swim around as larvae before metamorphosing into the blood-harvesting adults we all know and dislike. I used blue crabs in my presentation, which go through a similar egg-juvenile-adult metamorphosis. I’m also fairly certain most people studied the butterfly cycle in school, where you had the eggs and the caterpillar and the cocoon and then the butterfly. All the same organism, just in vastly different forms.

GM: Are you playing Pokémon GO?

CW: YES. I love it. I’m going running tomorrow through my town to get more Pokéballs. I ran out in the grocery store and I’m actually kind of upset. However, I am of the firm opinion that driving and GO don’t mix, and that you should PAY ATTENTION to your surroundings and to the people around you before you go catch a Pidgey.

GM: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us; this is all so fun and interesting! How could someone get in touch if they want to know more?

CW: If anyone has any questions or would like to contact me, there’s a contact form on my website, Whimsical Science. My twitter is @mech_phoenix for those of you interested in my day-to-day observations; I also retweet a lot of the science community along with any current events. Thanks for having me! I hope you all learned something fun and memorable!

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If Anika had a million dollars – she’d go back to school for marine biology, sell her house and pack her daughter on to an (internet ready!) boat, and sail the world saving marine life and writing a truly wonderful memoir about being a whale-saving-mommy-on-a-boat. Or she’d get her master's in Clinical Social Work and work as a children’s therapist with an office that features quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland colorfully painted on the wall. Or she’d start her own production company to put out fandom inspired albums, comic book musicals, and fund her Star Wars ballet. But if Anika had a billion dollars, she’d be Batman.