On the Origin of Species – Volbeat and Illumise

Valentine’s Day: a holiday dedicated to the celebration of love between people, a day where romantics shower their significant other with gifts of flowers and chocolate, or take them out to a fancy restaurant for a delicious meal. Then there’s people like me, who spend Valentine’s Day hastily photoshopping celebrities or video game characters on to pink backgrounds before adding a bad pun and sending them to my friends over Facebook. In celebration, I’m going to talk about Pokemon’s official lovebugs, Volbeat and Illumise.

Feel free to send this to your friends. Especially the ones who don’t play Pokemon.

Volbeat and Illumise are based off fireflies, a family of beetles (not flies) most known for their ability to flash a specialized organ found at the end of their abdomen. Fireflies flash their bioluminescent rump by mixing oxygen with an enzyme called luciferase, which breaks down luciferin and releases light. This flashing has a few uses, but the most common one is finding a mate. Males flash their rear ends in set rhythmic patterns that differ between species. Females of the same species are able to recognize these patterns, and will respond to a potential mate with a flash of their own.

A firefly mid-flight (Source: Terry Priest)

Interestingly, the male fireflies greatly outnumber the females, meaning that most of the males flashing their behinds are never going to get a chance to mate. Females are incredibly selective about which males they respond to, choosing only to respond to males that either flash faster or longer than other males, depending on the species. In the Pokemon world, male Volbeat take this rhythmic flashing a few steps above and beyond fireflies, working together with other Volbeat to create geometric patterns in the sky as directed by female Illumise.

To direct their Volbeat suitors, Illumise use pheromones, specialized chemicals that are used for communicating. Pheromones can be found in a wide range of animals, and are typically used to communicate through an animal’s sense of smell. One well-known example of animals that use pheromones are dogs, which urinate on objects such as trees or fire hydrants to mark their territory. Other animals, such as ants, will use pheromones to mark trails for other members of their colony to follow to food sources. In the case of Illumise, the pheromones are being used to attract potential mates, a common tactic for many insects, including some fireflies.

Crazy antennae like these are used to detect tiny amounts of pheromones in the air  (Source: Bernardo Segura)

While fireflies may not make as intricate patterns in the sky as their Pokemon counterparts, firefly bioluminescence is pretty spectacular. Fireflies are very efficient when it comes to producing light, with 96% of the energy produced by the breakdown of luciferin being emitted as light. For comparison, fluorescent lights are about 40% efficient, with the rest of the energy being wasted as heat.

One of the major factors that allow fireflies to be so efficient is the structure of the exoskeleton covering their light-emitting organ. Light moves at different speeds depending on what it is travelling through, which causes the light to bend slightly. This property is called refraction, and is the reason the sky is blue, rainbows exist, and glasses work. For fireflies, however, refraction is a problem, as light passing through the abdomen of the firefly can bend and become trapped inside the exoskeleton (and ultimately converted to heat) rather than passing through and reaching a potential mate. To counter this, fireflies have evolved complex microscopic structures that reduce the effect of refraction, ensuring that the maximum amount of light possible can escape their bodies. Scientists are even replicating the structures in OLEDs, resulting in a 55% increase in thee light’s efficiency.

Shingle-like structures that help reduce refraction (Source: Bay et al. 2013)

While I typically equate fireflies with warm summer evenings, watching them flicker across a field after the sun goes down, I find that Volbeat and Illumise are better fit into Valentine’s Day than summer. Maybe it’s because of their Valentine themed colors, maybe it’s because they were intended to be a pair (they were introduced at the same time the idea of double-battles were added),  or maybe it’s because their main goal is to find each other and light up the night together. Have a good Valentine’s Day.


Bonus Info:

There are some species of fireflies where the females will respond to the flashes of males from other species so they can capture and devour them. They do this in order to steal defensive chemicals known as lucibufagins, which they are unable to produce themselves. These chemicals are useful for repelling potential predators such as spiders and birds, as well as protecting their eggs. This behavior isn’t found in Volbeat or Illumise, but it’s too interesting to leave out of the post.


On the Origin of Species – Inkay and Malamar

Determining what animals inspired a Pokemon can be difficult at times. For some, the inspiration is obvious: Ponyta is a horse, Ledyba is a ladybird, Beartic is a polar bear, and so on and so forth. Others can be quite tricky to nail down, either because they’re based off a fairly obscure animal, like the Sea Angel Manaphy is based on, or they’re an amalgamation of several different animals, like last week’s Eelektross. However, even fairly obvious Pokemon can have some hidden inspirations, something I realized while researching this week’s Pokemon: Inkay and Malamar.

As I’m sure you already know, Inkay and Malamar are based off cephalopods, specifically squids and cuttlefish. Cephalopods are nothing new to the Pokemon world (the first one, Omanyte, dates back to Red, Blue, and Green) but until Inkay and Malamar, none of them took advantage of the most interesting aspect of cephalopod biology: the ability to change the color and pattern of their skin.

Cephalopods, like this Reef Squid, are able to alter their skin to create brilliant colors and patterns (Source: Betty Wills, Wikimedia Commons)

Cephalopods use several specialized organs on the surface of their skin to control the color of their skin. The first type are called chromatophores, and are essentially sacs of red, yellow, brown, or black pigments that can be expanded or contracted to change the color of the surface of the skin. The next type are called iridophores, and are used to reflect light. When used alongside chromatophores, iridophores are able to produce blues, greens, silvers, and golds. The third type are called leucophores, and can be used to reflect any colors found in the environment. Leucophores are especially useful for camouflage, a common tactic used by cephalopods to hide in plain sight while waiting for potential prey.

Although Inkay and Malamar are never described as using camouflage to hide from their prey (their tactics are far more devious), this behavior was vaguely referenced in the Pokemon TV show. In the episode Heroes – Friends and Faux Alike, Team Rocket comes up with the genius plan to disguise themselves as the main characters of the show, Ash, Serena, and Bonnie. They also decide to dress up their Inkay as Ash’s Pikachu, which is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in Pokemon.

There’s no such thing as perfect Pokemo- (Source: Pokemon Company)

Besides camouflage, cephalopods have evolved many different ways to use their color-changing abilities. For example, the Humboldt Squid is believed to communicate with other squid by rapidly switching the color of its skin between red and white (warning: the start of the linked video is kinda terrifying, skip to about 1:10 to see the flashing behavior). While scientists have yet to figure out what these squid are communicating while flashing at each other, the flashing patterns can be sped up or slowed down, suggesting that it may communicate a number of different messages.

Another use for color-changing skin is for hypnotizing prey, a tactic used by the Broadclub Cuttlefish. Upon locating a potential meal, the Broadclub Cuttlefish will spread out and begin flashing a strobe pattern across its body. This pattern seems to dazzle their prey, causing them to stand motionless while the cuttlefish moves in for a quick meal. This nefarious tactic is employed by Inkay to “drain its opponent’s will to fight” and by Malamar, who is described as wielding “the most hypnotic powers of any Pokemon” and “forces others to do whatever it wants”. This ability isn’t to be taken lightly, either, as not one but TWO episodes of the Pokemon TV show revolve around a Malamar trying to conquer the world with its powers.

“Just keep staring at my tentacles. Now, sleeeep” (Source: PBS Nova)

Interestingly, Inkay and Malamar’s ability to change color seems to be restricted to a series of spots along their body, a design choice that may be functional (much easier to just have flashing lights than to have the entire body change colors) or could be a reference to a number of undersea creatures, such as the Bioluminescent Octopus, which uses modified suckers to produce flashes of light in order to attract prey.

Personally, I believe the rows of lights are based off the comb jelly, a group of very primitive animals in the phylum Ctenophora. Despite the name, comb jellies are not in the same group as jellyfish, but share many of the same characteristics. Both are fairly simple creatures, riding the currents of the oceans and catching any prey that happen to swim into their tentacles. In jellyfish, these tentacles are lined with stinging cells called nematocysts which paralyze their prey, while comb jelly tentacles use sticky cells called colloblasts to tangle up their prey.

NGS Picture ID:474059
The comb jelly, shown here flashing the camera (Source: George Grall, National Geographic)

One major difference between jellyfish and comb jellies is  their life cycle. Comb jellies have a fairly simple life cycle: the males and females release their sperm and eggs into the water where they mix and form zygotes which turn into baby comb jellies that are just smaller versions of their parents. Jellyfish, on the other hand, have a life cycle with two separate stages: a free-floating medusa stage (e.g. a typical jellyfish) and a non-moving polyp stage (e.g., a sea anemone, a close relative of jellyfish). Polyps, essentially baby jellyfish, will attach to rocks and collect anything that happens to drift nearby. After the polyp has grown, it will produce several “buds” called strobila which break away from the polyp and grow into the typical jellyfish shape we know and love.

The polyp of a Moon Jellyfish and three of its Pokemon cousins (Source Left: Hans De Blauwe, Right: Pokemon Company)

This brings me to another aspect of Inkay and Malamar’s biology that I haven’t talked about yet: their method of evolving. In the games, Inkay can only evolve into Malamar when you hold your 3DS upside down (how this translates in-universe is unclear, as it isn’t shown in the TV show). This method of flipping Inkay upside down in order to evolve it seems like a clever reference to the life cycle of a jellyfish, albeit in reverse, as the polyp stage (Malamar) should be evolve into the medusa stage (Inkay) if they were following the life cycle precisely.

So why does the polyp stage come after the medusa in Inkay and Malamar? There could be a number of reasons. Maybe it’s easier to have a cute Pokemon evolve into a sinister-looking Pokemon if the second stage is upside down. Or, maybe they aren’t taking this behavior from jellyfish at all, and there’s a type of squid or cuttlefish out there that walks around on their heads that I didn’t find when I was researching. If it’s the second one, let me know, OK?