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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Make a Museum about Pokémon!

By Josie Mills, on 21 November 2017

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you - do get in touch!)

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you – get in touch!)


While working in the Petrie Museum last week I glanced at the board reserved for visitor feedback, noticed this post-it and couldn’t resist taking a photo… As a child of the nineties I have a soft spot for Pokémon and have wholeheartedly embraced revival of the plucky little critters. I’ve particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of sharing the new games with my younger brother, Daniel; if only there were a degree in poké-studies!

Last year the app Pokémon Go made headlines world-wide and the presence of the virtual creatures in museums and archives was widely discussed within the heritage industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m team positive for Pokémon Go in museums, and the staff at UCL Museums have written some great blog posts on the subject. See this post by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby and Research Engager Arendse’s blog.


A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: J Mills 2016)

A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: Author’s own photo)


In fact, museums, archaeological ruins, and science labs also feature in the Pokémon games, serving as venues to transform fossils found in the wild into rare Pokémon. These Pokémon, like those mentioned in Arendse’s post, were inspired by real fossils, for example Omanyte from ammonites, and Aerodactyl from pterodactyl. My personal favourite is Relicanth, a fish bearing a close resemblance to the Lazarus species the coeleocanth!



Left: Omanyte (Image: Bulbapedia; Right: Ammonite (Image: British Geological Survey)


Omanyte and Ammonite

Here you can see the similarities between the shell of the Pokémon and the preserved ammonite Mantelliceras, which lived during the Late Cretaceous/Cenomanian period around 100 million years ago. This was a time when much of the Chalk in England formed and Cretaceous ammonite fossils are common in chalky areas of the South Coast. Interestingly fossil ammonites are often displayed ‘upside down’ (effectively with their head in the air!) whereas the Pokémon are orientated to move with their tentacles at the base, more like the original creatures.


Top: Aerodactyl (Image: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Aerodactyl_(Pok%C3%A9mon ); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: http://dinosaurpictures.org/Pterodactyl-pictures)

Top: Aerodactyl (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: Dinosaur Pictures)



Aerodactyl and Pterodactyl

Perhaps the most literal translation of the three are the obvious similarities between the Aerodactyl Pokémon and the extinct Pterodactyl, which lived during the Jurassic period 200-150 million years ago. The fossils on the game are rare and can only be found in certain areas; similarly pterodactyl fossils are also localised in real life, with most excavated from the Solnhofen limestone in Germany.

Top: Relicanth (Image: https://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/pokemon/images/a/ad/369Relicanth_AG_anime.png/revision/latest?cb=20141006041759); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: http://vertebrates.si.edu/fishes/coelacanth/coelacanth_wider.html)

Top: Relicanth (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: Smithsonian)


Relicanth and Coelacanth

Even Relicanth’s name nods to the antiquity and mysterious-ness of the real-life fish the Coelacanth. The Coelacanth is a ‘Lazarus’ species, a term that refers to a taxon that was thought to be extinct but reappears again in the wild. The cryptic nature of the Coelacanth is reflected by the camouflage cartoon pattern of the Pokémon, a graphic allegory of the fish’s complex history!

Although the Pokémon hype has gradually dwindled, perhaps this message from our younger audience (or any nineties kids out there), highlights what we can take from Pokémon: the appeal of learning about animals and artefacts, the surprise of finding new things where you didn’t expect them, and the lure of encountering the rare and interesting.

More practically, specimens that have inspired both fossils and non-fossil Pokémon are on display across the Grant Museum. However, if anybody is interested in funding a museum solely about Pokémon, please get in touch: I know someone who might be suitable for curator *cough*…

On the Origin of Pokémon Species

By Arendse I Lund, on 27 July 2016

Arendseby Arendse Lund

Last week, I was in the Grant Museum of Zoology when a cry came that a Pokémon had been spotted! Mobiles out, the visitors advanced on the creature and succeeded in capturing it. Surrounded by zoological specimens meticulously collected over centuries, here were people amassing their own digital collection of creatures. From a mouse that shoots lightning bolts to a shellfish that poisons with its lick, these creatures, collectively called Pokémon, take a variety of forms and all have different abilities. Many of these Pokémon are based on real animals.

TapirFor example, take Drowzee: These psychic Pokémon eat dreams and are based on the chiefly nocturnal tapirs, animals indigenous to tropical America and Southeast Asia. Tapirs have short legs and the Malayan tapirs are two-toned just like their virtual counterparts; they also have long, flexible snouts which allow them to grab foliage beyond their reach and even act as a snorkel when swimming. The Japanese word for tapir, baku, refers to both the zoological animal and a spirit in folklore which consumes dreams—just like its Pokémon counterpart.

PangolinAnother example are Sandslash, which have long claws for burrowing, feature brown quills covering their bodies, and will roll into a ball in order to defend themselves from attack. These Pokémon take their inspiration from the pangolin, which are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters. However, they are more closely related to giant pandas. The name derives from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up.” They have overlapping keratin scales armoring their backs, with tails strong enough to hang from trees, and a tongue that, when extended, is longer than its body. These incredible creatures are found in Asia and Africa but are sadly the most trafficked animals in the world.

DugongThen there’s Seel, which evolves into Dewgong. In these two Pokémon, everything’s in the names: The former is based off of a seal and the latter a dugong. In appearance, dugongs are similar to manatees but both male and female dugongs grow two tusks—this is reflected in its adorable Pokémon counterpart. The semi-nomadic dugongs’ habitat extends throughout the Indo-West Pacific but they mostly stay in the bays around Australia; their conservation status is listed as vulnerable due to overdevelopment of the coastal areas and excessive fishing. Dugongs derive their name from the Malay word duyung, meaning “lady of the sea” and the species is possibly the origin of the mermaid myth.

There are many more examples of the real-life basis for Pokémon: axolotl for Mudkip, tadpoles for Poliwag, and racoons for Zigzagoon, to name just a few. The creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, was heavily influenced by the type of creatures he found while insect collecting as a child. He used to sneak out into rice paddies and look under rocks for beetles. In a 1999 interview, he bemoaned the disappearance of those paddies and said of his love for the outdoors, “As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures.” These findings influenced many of the creatures that would make up the Pokémon world.

As both the Grant and Petrie Museums are PokéStops, it’s great to see people encouraged to check out the museum collections as they pursue their Pokémon. Perhaps most fascinating of all, these virtual Pokémon collections now spark conversations with strangers over techniques and the best places to acquire rarer species in a strikingly similar way to amassing physical collections of any sort.

And any avid collector, be it of stamps or insects, can understand the lure of the Pokémon slogan: “Gotta catch ‘em all!”