On the Origin of Species – Starly and Staravia

This week’s Pokemon, Starly and Staravia*, were chosen because of something that I’ve been noticing for the past few weeks: there are a lot of birds chirping despite it being the dead of winter. Now, birds in winter is nothing new to me, but I don’t remember winter birds around my hometown being nearly as vocal as the birds I’ve been seeing around Camden. A few days ago I took some time to ID the birds, and was surprised to learn that they were European Starlings, an invasive bird which has some unusual behaviors and an even more unusual story behind their invasion.

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The winter plumage of the European Starling (Source: Seth Reams)

Before I dive in, I want to point out that the Starly family isn’t based off the European Starling in particular. The starling family Sturnidae (based off Sturnus, the Latin name for starlings) has about 120 different species. I chose the European Starling to focus on because it’s the one that I see almost every day and it’s a pretty interesting bird. Bulbapedia (the Pokemon Wiki I use when writing these posts) suggests that the main inspiration is the White-cheeked Starling, which is native to East Asia and looks a lot more like Starly than a European Starling. That being said, the behavior I’m going to be talking about is found in most if not all starlings, including the White-cheeked Starling.

The most interesting behavior that starlings display is their flocking behavior. Flocking is nothing new, especially in the world of birds, but the flocking in European Starlings is somewhat different. Starlings flock in what are called murmurations, with hundreds to thousands of individuals flying together in some of the most amazing patterns imaginable. Words can’t do murmurations justice, so instead, you should just watch some videos. Seriously, go watch some videos, I’ll wait.

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A murmuration, in case you didn’t click all those links (Source: Alpaca Media)

That’s incredible, right? For ornithologists, animal behaviorists, and bird watchers alike, murmurations bring up a lot of questions. Why do they all fly in unison like that? What causes the mesmerizing undulations of the flock? The first one is fairly easy. Many birds flock together in order to avoid predators**, with the basic idea being: more eyes, more chances to spot the predator, less likely to be eaten. In European Starlings, these predators are typically other birds, like hawks or falcons.

The other question baffled scientists for a long time. There were many hypotheses proposed, including one that suggested the birds were using a “biological radio” (i.e. telepathy) to communicate with one another. Ideas started changing with the rise of computers, which could model interactions between flocking birds. These models assumed a few key rules, namely that individuals will avoid colliding with each other, they will turn if nearby individuals turn, and they will remain in the flock. High speed video later helped to confirm these rules, with changes in direction moving through the flock like ripples from a stone dropped in a still pond.

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Even Staravia is amazed by how complex murmurations are (Source: Pokemon Company)

Sadly, Starly and Staravia flocks are nowhere near as impressive as European Starling murmurations. Both Starly and Staravia are described as being weak and flocking for protection, but only Staravia flocks ever become particularly large (Starly bicker amongst each other in large flocks) but neither seem to have this incredible aerial behavior. In fact, the only other notable description given to Starly and Staravia is that they are quite noisey, something that I can attest to being true in starlings. But even their calls are less interesting than that of European Starlings, which are able to mimic the songs of other birds.

Now, as I pointed out earlier, Starly and Staravia are not based on the European Starling. That being said, while researching the European Starling I learned how it first came to the US, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about it here. You see, you can blame their introduction on the most hated man in high school: William Shakespeare. OK, mabye that’s a bit harsh. The real villain here is Eugene Schieffelin, whose goal was to bring every bird ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to America.

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Don’t blame the man, blame the fan

In case you aren’t a scholar on the bard (I’m not going to pretend I am), the European Starling was mentioned in Henry IV Part 1, where a character suggests giving one to King Henry to drive him mad with its constant squawking. That’s right, Eugene decided to bring over the bird that Shakespeare describes as being annoying enough to drive someone insane. Thanks for that.

 

Footnotes

*I’m not including the final evolution, Staraptor, in this week’s post as it’s based off raptors rather than starlings and I want to keep the post a reasonable length.
*This explanation is a bit of a simplification. While it’s true that flocking behavior is useful for avoiding predators, some biologists, such as Frank Heppner, have argued that this added defense doesn’t fully explain murmuration behavior, pointing out that these large flocks are likely attracting predators and that the starlings would be more protected if they perched in nearby trees rather than flocking. Instead, Heppner argues that murmurations are the result of emergent properties, a fancy scientific term for “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Because flocking behaviors are genetically programmed into the individual birds, he argues, flocking becomes inevitable, especially when there are so many individuals in the same place.

On the Origin of Species – Yungoos and Gumshoos

Over the past few weeks, it has become increasingly obvious to me that biology (and science in general) is about to become a much more difficult career choice, and with the inauguration last week, I decided I should go back to blogging. Rather than going back to breaking down scientific papers, I’ve decided it would be way more fun to talk about biology as it relates to video games and pop culture, something no one has ever done before. In honor of our new president, I’m going to talk about Yungoos and Gumshoos, a line of invasive pests introduced in the latest Pokemon games, Sun and Moon.

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This one’s for you, Trumpy boy (Source: Pokemon Company)

For those of you who are unaware, Sun and Moon take place in the tropical Alola region, a close parallel to Hawaii. There are plenty of interesting new Pokemon from this region worth talking about, but Yungoos and Gumshoos are two of my favorites in terms of how they fit into island biology. You see, unlike most Pokemon from this region, the Yungoos family isn’t native to the Alola region. Yungoos are an invasive species, loosely based off the small Asian mongoose. Mongooses (mongeese?) are a family of predators in the feliform suborder, meaning they are closely related to cats, hyenas, and civets. Mongooses are typically found in Africa and Southern Asia, with the small Asian mongoose ranging from Indochina, across northern India and into Iran. Like other mongooses, the small Asian mongoose is a voracious predator that eats insects, birds, lizards, snakes, and rodents.

In their native habitats mongooses are useful for their ability to control the populations of fast-growing rodents, but in an ecosystem that isn’t adapted to the presence of a predator like the mongoose, such as Hawaii or any of the many Caribbean islands where the mongoose has invaded, they can be devastating to the local ecosystem. Mongooses are known to eat many endangered birds, amphibians, and reptiles, with some even eating the unguarded eggs of sea turtles. The worst part about mongooses in Hawaii though? They weren’t accidentally introduced to the environment, they were brought to the islands on purpose.

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Don’t let the face fool you, this mongoose will destroy your island’s ecosystem (Source: Craig Moore)

The story of how mongooses ended up on Hawaii (as well as many other islands throughout the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea) starts with a plant. Sugarcane, to be exact. The production of sugar from sugarcane is believed to have started around 350 AD in India. Due to the high cost of production and processing, as well as the need for a tropical climate, sugarcane production remained in India, China, and the Middle East until the discovery of the New World. The tropical regions of the Caribbean islands and South America were perfect for sugarcane, and sugar production became one of the main driving forces of the slave trade.

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Sugarcane remains an important cash crop in South and Central America (Source: UF IFAS)

Hawaii began sugarcane production in the early 1800s, with the industry booming during the American Civil War due to Union boycotts of Southern-produced sugar. However, the rise of sugarcane also came with a rise in sugarcane pests, specifically rats. Rats were a common problem in sugarcane fields, and during the late 1800s, many islands began importing mongooses as a way to control their populations. Unfortunately, the people importing them never stopped to consider what effects the mongooses would have on the rest of the environment.

Going back to Pokemon, it’s incredible just how similar Yungoos and Gumshoos are to their real world counterpart. Much like the small Asian mongoose, Yungoos was first introduced as a way to control the population of Rattatas in the Alola region, which responded by adapting to urban environments and becoming more active at night. Both Yungoos and mongooses are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and sleep at night, although there is a slight difference in their sleeping patterns: Yungoos are described as collapsing from exhaustion around dusk and sleeping wherever they fell, while mongooses choose to retreat to their dens at night rather than leave themselves exposed to any potential predators as they sleep.

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The face of ecological disaster (Source: Pokemon Company)

Yungoos are an interesting addition to the Pokemon universe, as to my knowledge it is the only Pokemon expressly described as an invasive species. Many other Pokemon may be invasive species, based on where they commonly occur (for example, Rattatas are likely to be invasive species in a number of regions) but have never been described as invasives within the game’s fiction. Also, whether it was intentional or not, there’s definitely some good social commentary to be made about this vicious animal with a tendency to attack whatever it sees was brought into an environment where it could freely destroy whatever it wanted, and how it looks suspiciously like Donald Trump.