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Taking a Poke at Pokemon
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DAVIS–Talk about taking a poke at Pokémon.

A trio of entomologists affiliated with the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis, recently published a humorous take on the evolutionary development and history of the 646 fictional species depicted in the Pokémon media over the last 16 years.

“We made a very real phylogeny of the very fake Pokémon creatures,” commented lead author Matan Shelomi, the UC Davis entomology graduate student who conceived the idea.

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The article, “A Phylogeny and Evolutionary History of the Pokémon,” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a tongue-in-cheek journal meant “to make people laugh and then think,” according to the editors. In keeping with the “laugh-and-then-think” concept, the journal also awards the highly anticipated IG Nobel Prizes.

Shelomi, a graduate of Harvard where the IG Nobel Prizes are awarded, said he based his idea “in part on other AIR papers like the phylogeny of Chia Pets and the taxonomic description of Barney the Dinosaur.”

Devoted Pokémon fans know that Pokémon, which means “Pocket Monsters,” is the 1996 brainchild of video game developer Satoshi Tajiri of Japan, who collected insects in his childhood and initially toyed with the idea of becoming an entomologist. Today the Nintendo-owned Pokémon is the world’s second most successful video game-based media franchise, eclipsed only by Nintendo’s Mario.

Until now, however, no one has traced the evolutionary history of the 646 fictional species, let alone develop a 16-generation phylogenetic or evolutionary tree.

“I had a lull in his dissertation research and decided to spend the weekends and downtime making this phylogenym,” said Shelomi, who is studying,” said Shelomi, who is studying for his doctorate in entomology with Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis. “It took at least a month to actually collect all the data, which I did manually by scrolling through Pokémon websites.”

His interest in Pokémon? “I’ve played the Pokémon Stadium games and watched some of the TV shows when I was in junior high,” he said, describing the influence as strong. “I was in the right target audience range right when Pokémania was hitting the United States, and everyone I knew could recognize a Pikachu on sight.”

“What I love in Pokémon is similar to what I love in entomology–and I suspect Tajiri would agree with me,” Shelomi said. “It provides me with a wide array of unique and colorful creatures to study, all of which are connected in certain fascinating ways. It’s a fun way to tie biology with imagination; I just decided to take it a step further and make a paper out of it.”

After collecting the data, Shelomi sent it to Andrew Richards, a junior specialist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, for the actual phylogram making. When the AIR editors asked for illustrations, Shelomi sought out artist Ivana Li, a fifth-year entomology student and president of the UC Davis Entomology Club. Li, who works part-time at the Bohart Museum, honed her talents as a student cartoonist for the Schurr High School, Montebello, newspaper.

The trio added a fourth co-author, Yukinari Okido, whom Pokémon fans know as the name of one of the fictional Pokémon professors from the game/TV show.

“This was a very clever exercise and drew on the talents of some very gifted students,” Kimsey said. Their phylogenetic tree can be seen in the Bohart Museum, located at 1124 Academic Surge on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus.

Richards described working on the project as “fun, educational and nostalgic.”

“Matan sent me the information to process, I plugged it into a phylogeny program, and let it run, simulating generations for about a day,” Richard said. “I took the results and generated a tree. That took some time to add pictures and some color-coding. I wanted the tree to look nice and be pretty easy to interpret.”

The project also embraces educational elements. “I think it can be a good way to explain phylogeny to people with no background in it, since the characteristics and traits used here are easier to grasp than those used in molecular phylogeny or even those done using physical characters,” Richards said.

Richards, who finds playing Pokémon games “both fun and creative,” said the project included a nostalgic aspect, too. “I remember when they first came out and loving them then. When Matan told me about his idea for doing this I thought it would be fun. I wanted to see how well the data would come out, considering everything is just made up by the game makers without any thought to phylogeny or actual evolutionary relationships.”

“It turned out surprisingly well given the data we put into it,” Richard said. “Things fell into good places and it looks very nice.”

Li, who has played Pokémon “for at least a decade,” considers the game and the monsters “pretty creative, especially ones with an actual biological basis. Of course, breathing fire and shooting lightning is pretty cool, too.”

“I like the overall project,” Li said, “because it takes a rather extreme amount of nerdiness to appreciate. However, you have to admit that it is pretty interesting to be able to apply a phylogeny to a bunch of game characters. I really enjoy the simplicity of Pokémon because a lot of people can understand it and relate to it.”

Her sister, a teacher and an even more avid Pokémon fan, “is actually able relate to a lot of her students due to her knowledge of Pokémon,” Li pointed out. “There are aspects to cartoons and video games that might have other applications later on in your life that you would never expect.”

The UC Davis entomologists prefaced the journal article by relating why they did it. “With the phylogenetic and evolutionary relationships of the kingdoms Animalia, Plantae, and Fungi mostly out of the way, attention is now turning toward the Monstrasinu, commonly known as ‘Pocket Monsters’ or ‘Pokémon’ for short. Starting from the 151 original ‘species’ described by Japanese scientist Satoshi Tajiri in a 1996 monograph, Pokémon science today continues to be a rewarding field for taxonomists. Every three to four years, several new species are discovered and described almost simultaneously. A total of 646 Pokémon have been described, most of them in Japan.”

“This paper,” they wrote, “represents the first attempt to create a quantitative phylogeny of the Pokémon, using the underlying assumption that Pokémon evolved via natural selection independently from the animals and plants more familiar to Western zoologists. The goal was to apply modern evolutionary theory and techniques to a field previously limited to pre- Darwinian methods of inquiry.”

The trio acknowledged that some of the specimens are “threatened by the Pokémon fighting rings that are growing rapidly in popularity, particularly among urban youth.”

They also agreed that disagreements over species concepts exist, and that “several sexually dimorphic taxa have had males and females identified as separate species,” offering the examples of Nidoqueen and Nikoking.

“Further complicating the issue is the fact that Pokémon are quite willing to interbreed successfully,” they wrote, adding that “the lack of post-zygotic reproductive isolation is one thing, but how a 400-kilogram Wailord is able to mate with an 11-kilogram Skitty at all remains a mystery.”

As to methods used, they revealed that undergraduate, high school and primary-school aged interns/ trainers from Japan and New York state captured wild Pokémon. “Trainers may or may not have used their Pokémon for combat during the course of their research,” they quipped.

The result: a phylogenetic or evolutionary tree detailing 16 million generations of simulated Pokémon evolution. They concluded that “Pokémon life began in the water, with Pokémon similar to lampreys and bony fishes being among the earliest to reach their present state.” Terrestrial life, they said, rose independently three times.

“This paper,” they summarized, “thus sheds considerable doubt on whether Pokémon use DNA to transmit genetic information, and further suggests the Monstrasinu are a unique domain of life.”

What about reader reaction? “The paper is slowly making the rounds,” Shelomi said. “We’ve had quite a few people disagree with the tree, as some of the conclusions violate Pokémon canon, and we do have the usual phylogenetic problems of long-branch attraction, etc. The disconnect between the tree and Pokémon mating groups is a problem, but I argue that the Biological Species Concept should not be assumed for Pokémon and I stand by my tree.”

“So far, one scientist–a linguist in Japan–has asked for a copy of the dataset to use in a class on phylogram building, and he apparently came up with a different tree.”

“It would be nice to see a wide set of articles responding to this one,” Shelomi said. “I think it would be quite easy to fill a journal of Pokémon science, although much harder to justify creating one.”

Original article at the University of California at Davis.

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