On the Origin of Species – Shuckle

In honor of the recent announcement of a re-release of the original Pokemon Gold and Silver, I thought now would be a good time to talk about Second Generation’s most unique addition to the Pokemon roster and one of the most bizarre Pokemon to ever be created. Some of its strange features include acid-secreting feet that can dissolve solid rock, the ability to store and ferment berries in its shell, and for you Pokemon pros out there, the most extreme range of base stats out of all 802 Pokemon. That’s right, this week we’re looking at the Mold Pokemon: Shuckle.

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I can’t tell if Shuckle is happy or angry about being compared to mold (Source: Pokemon Company)

Shuckle can only be described as “really, really weird”. At first glance, it appears to be some kind of turtle, just replace the legs and head with yellow worms and paint the shell a bright red color. While not too out of the ordinary in the Pokemon world, things get a little weirder once you start looking into Shuckle’s biology and realize that the shell it resides in isn’t even part of the Pokemon. It’s actually a rock that’s been carved into a home using secretions from Shuckle’s feet. Now, the ability to break down solid rock is no small feat: not only would Shuckle have to be producing acids strong enough to dissolve the rock, but it’d also need to avoid dissolving itself in the process. This isn’t some made up fantasy ability, however, because there are plenty of organisms in the real world that are able to do just that.

These organisms, called lithotrophs (literally “rock-eaters”), have evolved to use inorganic substances such as sulfides, ammonia, and even certain metals such as iron and manganese. These substances are then used to fuel growth, converting CO2 into more useable forms, much like plants do during photosynthesis. Most lithotrophs are either bacteria, archaea, or fungi, and while they are easily overlooked, many species are an important part of weathering, the process of transforming rocks into soil that can be used by plants. Shuckle is based on one of the most interesting groups of lithotrophs: the endoliths. Unlike most lithotrophs, which can live practically anywhere on earth, endoliths live their entire lives inside of rocks and stone.

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Left: Green and blue endolithic lichens growing in antarctic sandstone (Source: NASA) Right: Endolithic bacteria found in rock samples almost 3 km below the earth’s surface (Source: US Department of Energy – Subsurface Microbe Collection)

Now, life inside a rock is far from easy. For example, rocks are notoriously hard to penetrate, meaning that resources typically required for life are incredibly scarce. For endoliths found close to the surface, cracks in the rocks can allow small amounts of water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide to reach them. Species found in deeper areas, such as bedrock or in rock below the ocean floor, these resources are almost impossible to acquire, which leads to incredibly slow growth. In fact, one species grows so slowly that it can only reproduce once every 10,000 years*.

Shuckle, however, overcomes some of these issues. You see, rather than gathering minerals from the rocks it bores into, the rock is only used for protection while it chows down on its main food source: berries and berry juice. Berries that are stored in Shuckle’s rocky shell mix with the same fluids used to burrow through rock, fermenting into an apparently delicious juice. Unsurprisingly, fermentation is most common in fungi and bacteria**, with the most obvious example being yeast, which is used to make beer, wine, whiskey, vodka, and pretty much any other alcoholic drink.

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Cracking open a cold one with the boys (Source: Pokemon Company)

Believe it or not, alcohol isn’t a vice unique to humans, as many animals have been shown to consume alcohol (usually in the form of rotting fruit) and even get drunk. For example, in places such as Sweden and Alaska, moose commonly eat rotting apples during the fall and end up causing quite a ruckus. In fact, the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe had a pet moose that he would give beer to during parties. Sadly, the moose died one night after having a bit too much to drink and tumbling down a flight of stairs.

Other common animal alcoholics include monkeys and chimpanzees, which are actually used to study a wide range of behaviors related to alcohol consumption. Fruit flies have also been shown to enjoy a bit of drinking, especially male flies that haven’t yet had a chance to mate. For some species, such as fruit bats and tree shrews, alcohol exposure is so common that they’ve evolved incredibly high tolerances to alcohol, to the point where they could easily drink the main cast of Animal House under the table.

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The face of a true party animal (Source: Hement Kumar)

Before I finish, I’d like to touch on one last interesting detail in Shuckle’s design. I believe that Shuckle’s meteor-like shell, combined with its bacterial origin, is a subtle reference to Panspermia, a hypothesis that attempts to explain how life on Earth began. Essentially, Panspermia says that life came to Earth in the form of bacterial spores (a dormant form of bacteria that can survive in extreme conditions), which were carried on or inside meteorites that broke off of planets already inhabited by life.

There are a few potential origins of life in the Pokemon world, including Mew, which is described as being the ancestor of all other Pokemon, and Arceus, which is described as making the universe with its 1,000 hands. While Panspermia may not be an explanation for the origin of life (the bacteria still have to come from somewhere), it’s fun to imagine a very confused Shuckle floating through space on its way to spread life across the stars.

 

Footnotes

* For comparison, the average time between bouts of reproduction for E. coli is about 30 minutes, and the invention of agriculture (one of the key inventions that allowed for the rise of human civilization) is believed to have occurred about 12,000 to 14,500 years ago.

**I’m specifically referring to ethanol fermentation, where sugars are broken down into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Another form, called lactic acid fermentation, occurs in human and animal muscles when they are worked for long periods of time and run out of oxygen.