Taxonomy GO

(July 19th, 2016) Europe is being overrun by cute little critters with funny names from Japan. Will better knowledge of their evolutionary history and relationship help us understand their biology?

For many years, they have not been seen. Some even thought they had become extinct but now, it seems the Pokémon population is on the rise again. The first individuals were spotted in Germany last week, then a few doduos and meowth popped up in the UK, Italy and Spain. According to recent reports, the critters have now been observed across the whole of Europe, suggesting a rapid dispersal mechanism. What makes this species so successful? And, moreover, how do they all relate to each other?

A few years ago, scientists from the University of California, Davis, and the Oak Pokémon Research Laboratory, Masara Town, Japan, pondered about the phylogeny and the evolutionary history of the Pokémon. “With the phylogenetic and evolutionary relationships of the kingdoms Animalia, Plantae, and Fungi mostly out of the way, attention is now turning towards 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,” the Pokémon taxonomists write.

Assuming the cute creatures evolved via natural selection, the scientists planned to create a quantitative phylogeny. Analysis quickly turned out to be rather difficult, when the Pokémon scientists learned more about the Japanese critters’ way of reproduction. “Pokémon are quite willing to interbreed successfully: 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. The results of the mating are, in at least one respect, puzzling. To our knowledge, no hybrids are created; the interbred offspring are always the same species as the female parent, yet with some traits inherited from the male.”

Having overcome the initial difficulties, the researchers revealed that Pokémon life began in the water and that terrestrial life arose independently three times – once to give rise to the monophyletic Ice types (starting with the semiaquatic Dewgong), then a major clade of Flying types (starting with the seabird Pelipper) evolved and finally, Pokemons conquered land for a third time to give rise to Normal, Grass, Fire and Electric types, which are fully terrestrial.

Taken together, the scientists’ data clearly revealed that “the biological species concept does not seem to apply to the Pokémon. Monophyletic groups of Pokémon are more consistently similar to the Pokémon Types than the breeding-related Egg Groups. This jarring disconnect suggests that the transmission of character traits through generations in Pokémon does not happen through the Mendelian genetics we are familiar with today. This paper thus sheds considerable doubt on whether Pokémon use DNA to transmit genetic information, and further suggests the Monstrasinu are a unique domain of life.”

Kathleen Gransalke

Image: Shelomi et al.

Last Changes: 08.23.2016