On the Origin of Species – Shroomish and Breloom

With the end of my field season in Ecuador and the start of the fall semester, I figured I should jump back into the wonderful world of blogging with a brand new Pokemon origin story! This week I’ve chosen one of my favorite grass types: the loveable lump Shroomish and his kickboxing older brother Breloom. Mushrooms are the main component of Shroomish and Breloom’s design (it’s right there in the name!), but there’s also a big splash of marsupial thrown into the mix and just a small hint of dinosaurian DNA sprinkled in for a bit of a spicy kick.

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Or punch, punch works too (Source: Pokemon Company)

Fungi, specifically the types that grow mushrooms, are easily the most recognizable part of Shroomish and Breloom’s design, both visually and behaviorally. Shroomish are commonly found eating compost under fallen leaves and become more active following rainstorms, while Breloom are able to scatter spores from their caps when threatened. However, while mushrooms are easily the most recognizable part of a fungus, they actually only make up a tiny, short-lived portion of the organism as a whole.

Fungi actually spend most of their life cycle growing within whatever food source they prefer, be that decaying wood, fallen leaves, poop, and even some plastic materials. Fungi are made up of thin strands of cells known as hyphae, which spread throughout their food source much like the roots of a plant*. Fungi consume resources using extracellular digestion, where the hyphae release digestive enzymes and reabsorb broken-down organic material.

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Fungal hyphae growing on wet coffee grounds (Source: Tobi Kellner)

When conditions are right, such as after a long period of rain, some strands of hyphae will branch off and begin growing a fruiting body. These fruiting bodies can take several different forms, including mushrooms, depending on the type of fungi. Fruiting bodies will grow rapidly (some appearing literally overnight) andcan produce thousands of spores, which are released and carried by the wind to new locations for the fungi to colonize. Scientists have even found spores that have crossed the Pacific Ocean just by catching the right gust of wind!

Shroomish appears to be based off a mushroom that has just started developing. This early mushroom appears as a small, egg-shaped object just below the surface of the soil. This mushroom egg’s “shell” is referred to as the universal veil, and protects the developing mushroom inside. When the mushroom sprouts, it will split the top of this veil, leaving behind a cup-like structure called the volva, which will either remain intact or decompose, depending on the species of mushroom. Shroomish even shows signs of sprouting, with a small split near the top of their body where the stalk would grow.

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Stages of mushroom development (Source: Illinois Mycological Society)

After the stalk of the mushroom has extended, a layer of tissue connecting the mushroom cap to the stalk will tear, allowing the cap to unfold much like an umbrella. This layer, referred to as the partial veil, helps protect the spore-producing cells in the gills on the underside of the cap, and will often leave behind a ring of tissue known as an annulus. The annulus has even been included in Breloom’s design as a fancy-looking neck ruffle.

Of course, Breloom is only fungus from the neck up. Below that, you’ve got a bouncing, boxing, fighting machine based on Australia’s pride and joy: the kangaroo. Kangaroos belong to the family Macropodidae (literally “large feet”), which also includes wallabies, wallaroos, and tree-kangaroos. Kangaroos and their relatives are all marsupials, meaning that their offspring are raised within a specialized pouch rather than within the mother’s womb.

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A mama kangaroo and her joey (Source: Pixabay.com)

Marsupials lack placentas**, meaning that there is no way to transfer nutrients from the mother into the developing embryo. Instead, their offspring are born about a month after conception and will crawl up the side of the mother into her pouch, where they will find a nipple and start drinking. Baby kangaroos, called joeys, will stay in their mother’s pouch for about 6-8 months, although they’ll continue to suckle for several months after leaving.

While Breloom may not have a pouch for their young like their real-world counterparts, both Breloom and kangaroos share an intense fighting spirit. Male kangaroos will often fight one another over females. These fights can be incredibly violent, with both males attempting to claw at each other’s face and eyes and delivering powerful kicks at their opponent’s chest. These fights can often result in broken bones and other internal injuries for both parties.

During the 1890s, this behavior resulted in a fairly short-lived sport called kangaroo boxing, in which people would put boxing gloves on kangaroos and train them to fight human boxers. While no longer common, kangaroo boxing was incredibly popular in its heyday, and its influence can still be seen anywhere from cartoons to the Australian Olympic team. This influence is even seen in Breloom’s description, which states that their short arms will stretch when they throw a punch and that their fighting technique is on par with that of professional boxers.

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Pictured: What passed for entertainment before TV was invented (Source: Getty Images)

In addition to kangaroos, Breloom also takes some subtle design cues from dinosaurs, specifically the Pachycephalosaurs and the Ankylosaurs. Pachycephalosaurs were herbivorous dinosaurs that lived during the Late Cretaceous period. They are easily recognizable due to their dome-shaped skull, which is believed to have been used by males to defend mates from rivals. While originally believed to have competed by butting heads together, recent research suggests that their skulls were not thick enough for direct impacts and instead were used for ramming their rivals in the side.

Like the Pachycephalosaurs, Ankylosaurs also lived during the late Cretaceous period, but rather than using their skulls for combat, they defended themselves from predators using their heavily armored backs and club-like tails. Ankylosaurs were covered in large bony plates known as scutes, much like those found in turtle shells and crocodile skin. As if these plates weren’t enough, Ankylosaurs also had large, bony knobs on the end of their tail which could easily break bone when swung at potential predators or rivals.

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A Pachycephalosaurus skull (top) and the club-tail of an Ankylosaurus (bottom) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Shroomish also has some subtle dinosaurian influence. With their round shape, light tan color, and green spots, Shroomish are quite similar in appearance to the generic egg used in all of the Pokemon games. This gives me the impression that the dinosaurian Breloom may in fact be “hatching” out of Shroomish. Maybe that’s why they always look so sad.

 

Footnotes

*Hyphae are single strands of fungal strands that make up the fungal body. Hyphae combine into large mats of fungal cells called mycelium.

**There are a few marsupials whose offspring grow placentas, such as the bandicoot, but they are much smaller than those of placental mammals and may not even be used for transferring nutrients from the mother to the embryo.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.