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?