The Biology of Pandora

I have a long standing bet with my father that goes something like this: you show me any fantastical creature from science fiction, and I’ll show you something from the natural world that makes your alien look like a care-bear. Basically, it’s the old truth-is-stranger-than-fiction idiom. This held up through “Alien”, “Predator”, “Starship Troopers”, “Star Wars I, II, III, IV, V, and VI” and a host of other great and not-so-great science fiction adventures. When I heard about “Avatar”, the awe inspiring special effects, the bizarre reports of people being depressed after seeing it, and the incredible description of a totally new world, I though I had finally lost that bet.

I was wrong.

Sure “Avatar” is an amazing visual achievement (but see herehere, and here for some deeper discussions of the flawed narrative). And yes, Pandora is an amazing world filled with incredible creatures, but it’s nothing you couldn’t find right here on Earth. As in all science fiction, the creatures are either taken whole cloth from our own native fauna or pieced together from multiple earthly beasts to create that otherworldly feel.

Starting off with the easy ones – there’s nothing that brilliant about giving recognizable creatures and extra pair of legs, or sticking their nostrils somewhere else, or adding another set of eyes. The “horses” (they even called them horses) are just six-legged horses with anteater heads.

Caw!

The panthers, wolves, and big cat looking things are just slightly scarier big cat looking things. The giant hammerhead-rhinos, are, well, hammerhead shark heads on rhino bodies.

Even the big flying dragon things resemble conventional birds with an extra set of wings and a little more span. A cassowary on steroids is a pretty scary sight, but it’s not out-of-this world. Even the fiercesome reptilian faces weren’t anything new. I’ve had pets that look like that.

Ok, I've never actually had a pet viperfish

And it should go without saying that making a person ten feet tall and blue doesn’t immediately scream alien, either.

But those were the obvious ones, the ones that make you say, ‘cool, that’s what a hammerhead rhino would look like.’ Those are the bread-and-butter creatures of all science fiction. They make you feel like you’re on another world without being so strange that you have no frame of reference. We all knew that the wolf-looking creatures would act like wolves, that the horse-creatures would be ridden like horses, that the hammer-rhinos would charge. You need that reference frame in order to follow the story.

It’s the details that let the director experiment with the truly bizarre. Those little touches that are not key to the central story, so you don’t need to have a full reference frame. That’s where you get to invent really weird stuff, right?

As the hero walks through the forest of Pandora for the first time, we see some familiar sites. Most of the plant life is common, it’s back-drop not meant to distract us from the story. The first bizarre bit that crosses our eyes, the first plant that pops out in front of the action in 3D, is a very common fiddle-head fern, supersized but unmistakable.

Continuing on, the foil for this botanical exploration discovers some strange plants, beautiful spiral flowers emerging from a small trunk. Upon touching them, the entire structure retreats into the trunk and the surrounding flowers follow suit. The only thing that puzzled me about these giant Spirobranchia spp. was why they weren’t nearly as colorful as the christmas-tree worms we find in oceans all over the world.

After an action-filled interlude, the scene quiets down and we find ourselves in a night setting filled with light. Light that emanates from all the plants, but seems to be strongest from some strange, heart-shaped leaves that look mysteriously like the common sea pansy. But Pandora’s terrestrial pansies light up the night, do ours as well? As a matter of fact, they do.

And if you walk the surf at night, after a diatom bloom, your footsteps will luminesce as well.

http://spwise.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/bioluminescence-under-the-southern-sky.jpg

Crinoid

As our hero and his new friend wander through the forest, seeds alight on him, seeds that look eerily similar to crinoids, an ancient lineage of echinoderms still common in the ocean. Looking up after being covered in seeds, we see them surrounded by what can only be bioluminescent jellies hanging from the trees.

The pace of the movie picks up from there, and we no longer get a glimpse into the fine detail of the world created for this movie, but we do continue to see fragments of a rich and diverse ecosystem which closely mimics our own. The cloud forests of South America could easily stand in for the floating mountains. Caribbean Banyans would make a perfect proxy for the Tree of Souls.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Banyan_tree_Old_Lee_County_Courthouse.jpg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Banyan_tree_Old_Lee_County_Courthouse.jpg

The truly spectacular creature is Pandora itself. The forest is connected by a vast network of conduits which connect every living thing. Connected in much the same way that Symphony of Science has described the universe:

A network of mycelia connected to a root system

But if you want something a little more concrete than that, consider the vast mycelia network which connects entire forests together. Fungal mycelium, tiny strands which act as the root and the body of fungi, stretch out over hundreds of thousands of acres, covering the subsurface of an entire forest in a branching network. These mycelium act as roots, taking up nutrients, but also form symbiotic relationships with trees and other plants, fusing together and allowing nutrient exchange between plant and fungus. But even beyond that, recent studies have shown that this mycelial network can connect trees miles apart and allow the exchange of nutrients from one tree to the other. These networks can be shared across multiple species of tree and fungi allowing efficient exchange and providing a buffer for the forest when times are lean in one area. In many cases, these vast networks drive the forest ecosystem, essentially creating one multi-species super-organism.

I must confess to a bit of bias. James Cameron has a long history of work with the deep sea, so perhaps it takes a deep-sea biologist to see the inspiration for his creatures. There are ecosystems in the ocean that make Pandora look drab. Creatures so magnificent, so unbelievable, that the human imagination couldn’t even conceive of them until they were finally discovered.

The real point I’m trying to get at here is the Pandora is Earth. The fantastical creatures of Avatar can be found right here, in our forests and seas, on our coastlines and plains. You don’t need to travel to a fictional moon on the other side of the galaxy to find a world like Pandora waiting for you, it’s right here. There are creatures in this world more amazing than anything you’ll find in the movies. Places more diverse, more unbelievable, filled with new and wonderful organisms waiting to be discovered.

~Southern Fried Scientist

  1. I was waiting for one of you to do an article on this. However, when I saw the spiral-flower-tree-dealies I thought more of Turgor movements in Mimosa pudica, though in retrospect, the christmas tree worms are a lot more accurate.

  2. Dr. Stanly Schmidt, editor of Analog Science Fiction Magazine has often commented that there is little new – even in science fiction. In fact, he has gone so far as to say that he will make every effort to publish anything unique that is submitted to him.

    I’ve been reading science fiction since my teens and I can say that the themes and premises in Avatar are all ones that have been handled in the genre frequently and usually better than in the movie. At it’s best, it’s mediocre science fiction and it’s best aspects are the stunning visual effects as far as I’m concerned. Writing good science fiction may be one of the most difficult kinds of writing to do and most non-SF writers don’t do well with their attempts.

    But, having said this, the movie is still one of the better efforts to be put on film.

    To me, the most interesting premises of the story are the concept of the entire mass of life on Pandora actually being a single entity and the idea that the natives really have a vary advanced technology but one that the Terrans don’t recognize until it’s too late – biotechnology. (See Ursula LeGuin’s “The Word For World is Forest” and Alan Dean Foster’s planet “Midworld” for a couple of examples.) Of course if this entity handled things in a more practical way – say coming up with a nice, lethal, Terran-specific virus – there wouldn’t be much of a story.

    One of the problems a good science fiction writer faces is that if her or his aliens are too alien they are simply not interesting and the fact that many things in the movie are actually things from our own experience are necessary to make it watchable. But it could have been handled better.

    By the way of example, did you notice that all mobile life forms on Pandora were hexapods except for the natives? Again, it would be far more difficult to make an interesting movie where the natives were six-legged and looked like shaggy blue monkeys.

    • Nelson – you and I were typing our comments at the same time – see below.

      This web site can boast some well-read bloggers!

  3. I agree with the real-world inspirations for the Pandoran flora and fauna. I don’t find this surprising – after all, art is man trying out his hand at being “the creator”…

    So far, no one I know has brought this up, but an old guy like me has a long memory:

    In the 1970’s, one of my favorite sci-fi writers of the time (and still one of my favorite writers of fiction) came out with a book called The Word for World is Forest which featured an exotic planet being exploited and destroyed by military types despite an indigenous population, with a thoroughly interconnected biosphere. I still own the paperback, and the similarities are very striking. As far as I am concerned, the idea for the planet Pandora was stolen from the pages of an author named Ursula K. Le Guin. A quick web search shows that I am not the only one who thinks so! There are also some real similarities with her Dragon Riders of Pern series and the flying creatures.

    If you are going to steal, only steal from the best. I just wish they would have given her some credit – she is a truly outstanding author.

    Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed Avatar. If you haven’t seen it in 3D Imax, you probably need to see it again. Any movie that the far right is going to call anti-capitalist, anti-military, and godless, and any movie the Cathlic Church is going to criticize as somehow promoting “the worship of nature,” whatever that means, is bound to be a movie I am going to want to see.

    Speaking of movies, they have released The Cove on DVD, and it has a short free-diving film sequence that didn’t fit in the movie proper that is one of the most beautifully filmed underwater sequences I have seen in quite a while.

    • I actually didn’t like the 3D Imax. There was too much going on to be able to take everything in and the actual live-action scenes didn’t translate to 3D well. It looked like moving cardboard cutouts.

      Also, I hadn’t heard the right’s and the Catholic Church’s criticisms of it yet, but they make me like it more.

  4. I’d class Avatar as science-fantasy, not science-fiction. Being set in the future or on a different planet doesn’t automatically put it in the sci-fi bracket, any more than ‘a long time ago in a land far far away’ would.

    I recognised a fair number of the animals myself, I agree they’re not really new creations. And yes, the plot is recycled too. But who cares, it was a great visual spectacle and the story was well-told. I really enjoyed it. I went to see it twice 🙂

    I too am happy to stay on earth. I get to see enough amazing wildlife without it all trying to eat me or stomp me into jam. I like that.

    • Agreed. Our parlance far too frequently lumps sci-fi in with fantasy (as in this article, where Star Wars is considered sci-fi). But I would not call it “science” fantasy. They are getting the fiction part right, it’s the science that is lacking. Good sci-fi couches its conclusions in some sense of scientific plausibility (think 2001: A Space Odyssey). On that front, Avatar is far more appropriately labeled sci-fi than Star Wars.

    • I use the term ‘science-fantasy’ mostly to distinguish it from swords-‘n’-sorcery fantasy, rather than to emphasise the science. I agree with your definition of good sci-fi, it has to have some scientific basis, even if it gets stretched for the benefit of the plot.

  5. I loves me some speculative biology as much as the next biogeek. But I’ve often wondered at the folks who spend innumerable hours coming up with alternative exoecologies and xenobiologies. Even at there most detailed and intricate, they always seem to be less than what’s already available in the real world. That being said, I have yet to see anything in the reality as strange as Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s Emperor Seastrider walking/eating the Amoebic Sea.

  6. My reaction to Avatar follows closely from the Southern Fried Scientist’s last tweet – that he would have found it more interesting to have Sigourney Weaver do a natural history lecture on Pandora as the movie. Much like David Attenborough in the Secret Life of Plants (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4753736638977368381#), I assume.

    However, I think there’s much to be said for bringing in the sci-fi audience that wouldn’t sit down to watch a natural history documentary into the world of appreciation of our own planet. Those people who found themselves depressed that Pandora doesn’t exist haven’t spent enough time outside.

    Also, if you find the mycelia argument a bit uncompelling due to lack of spirit and mysticism and still argue that Pandora brought something new to life here, I’d like to point you in the direction of one of the basic tenets of Buddhism – that all life is interconnected and that your time here on earth is only borrowed. Sound familiar?

    • I think you’re right, probably most people don’t realise how easy it is to experience and enjoy nature, even in a big city. If they did, I guess there might be less need for the mysticism. Maybe we’d even learn to look after the world a bit better.

  7. Very nice post (and pictures)!

    Though the idea of common mycorrhizal networks has been a bit oversold…

    Mycorrhizae are important, but most fungal ecologists I know doubt that single mycelia play important roles linking dozens or hundreds of plants together very often. A given plant may be connected to multiple mycelia, and multiple plants may be connected to a given mycelium, but whole forest aren’t likely to be connected continuously – after all, it doesn’t due a healthy tree any good to prop up it’s sick neighbors.

  8. That being said, and yes to all charges of being copy cats, I still liked this movie very much, but not enough to call a suicide line because my perception of reality was week in comparison. Maybe its our own “strangest” side of flora and fauna that makes this movie so good.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie, even with its insanely over the top ‘last samurai’ style white man’s burden narrative. Familiar and predictable doesn’t necessarily mean not good.

      Of course, they could have done away with the Avatar program completely and just had a movie about the ewoks fremen croatan Robert the Bruce Na’vi fighting the mining company.

  9. The anatomy of Pandoran life raises an interesting evolutionary question. If the Na’vi are quadrapeds, and all the other “vertebrates”, including the apparent other primates are hexapeds, what does that say about Na’vi evolution? Are there enough other syanapomorphies to suggest that the loss of one pair of limbs is an apomorphy in the Na’vi? I read somewhere that the banshees are quadrapeds. If so, what does that suggest?

    And how about the ability of all life to “plug in” to one shared communication system. How would something like that evolve? Is it Gaia run amok?

    And one more thing – what are all those floating thingies and christmas tree worms eating? Do they have to be photosynthetic since there are no plankton to eat? It’s an interesting twist when you put body plans adapted for dense water out in air.

  10. On the Gaia run amok comment – one shared communication network – what about DNA? There’s a long history of genes jumping from one species to another (horizontal transfer) and of one organism slowly entirely absorbing the other (first through symbiosis and then completely encapsulated like mitochondria and chloroplasts in all cells).

  11. James Cameron is on NPR right now, talking about Avatar (I’m sitting in the lot at work listening to it, waiting for my shift to start so I can see if my PCR turned out alright) and he spoke on this subject a bit (and specifically mentioned christmas tree worms)– the transcript should be on the website, freshair.npr.org.

  12. The whole time reading this I was thinking I bet you could find species like this on Earth. I have never seen Avatar so I do not know what all the animals are but I agree that Earth is a mysteries place that needs to be discovered. One doesn’t need to go to another world to see interesting animals and plants.