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Yes, professor, Pokémon are real.
Or at least, they can be if you name a new beetle species after the iconic pocket monsters. That’s the lesson Darren Pollock, a professor of biology at Eastern New Mexico University found out when a fellow researcher in Australia contacted him with the discovery of several new beetles.
In truth, they don’t actually look much like Pokémon. But Pollock and the researcher, Yun Hsiao at The Australian National University, opted to name the newly found insects after the names of three extremely rare Pokémon from the popular series: Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.
“I always feel it is nice to connect the public popular culture to biotaxonomy to raise the people’s concern on the conservation of the amazing diversity of our earth ecosystem,” Hsiao, a Ph.D. candidate, wrote in an email to USA TODAY. “And I really appreciate the biodiversity of Pokémon world, which is actually based (in) real life diversity.”
Hsiao discovered the beetles while he was scouring the Australian National Insect Collection – which, according to its website, houses more than 12 million specimens – and found there were new species of a genus of beetle that Pollock had previously studied.
Hsiao contacted Pollock and the two described the beetles. They’ve been dubbed Binburrum articuno, Binburrum zapdos and Binburrum moltres. The two published their findings in the journal The Canadian Entomologist in December.
The three bugs are named after their Pokémon counterparts – namely, birds of ice, lightning and fire. The names have generated some attention, Pollock and Hsiao said.
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The scenario is a bit of reality mirroring fiction.
Legendary Pokémon tend to come in sets of three in most games in the series. That pattern crossed Hsiao’s mind when the beetles were discovered, he said.
Pokémon professors in the games ask trainers to help with cataloguing the creatures with a high-tech encyclopedia called a Pokédex. There are already a few beetle-like Pokémon in the popular series: Heracross, with its giant horn, bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese rhinoceros beetle, for example.
Pollock said it was Hsiao’s idea to name the beetles after the rare legendary bird Pokémon. In the original Red and Blue games – the “first generation” games, Hsiao’s favorite – in the U.S., there was only one of each type of bird available to the player. Naming the beetles after the one-of-kind birds was a nod of sorts to how rare the beetles are, Pollock said.
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“The number of specimens we looked at in this research project were very few,” Pollock said. “Just a handful of specimens.”
Choosing Pokémon names meant the chances of duplicating an already-used name were slim, Pollock said.
“One of the things that’s very important when you’re describing new species is you absolutely cannot duplicate someone else’s species name,” Pollock said. “There’s a genus, and then a species, like Homo sapiens (humans), or Musca domestica (housefly), or Binburrum articuno. If you’re going to be describing a new species, one of the easiest ways to make sure that you don’t duplicate somebody’s old name is to make it something new and different, or clever.”
He added, “Back when the species were being described hundreds of years ago, the Moltres or Zapdos and Articuno… those words weren’t around.”
The beetles have received more attention than Hsiao and Pollock expected.
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“It’s spread quite a lot more than I ever thought it would for dinky little beetles from Australia,” Pollock said.
He added, “The bottom line is, it’s documenting the need for describing species on the planet. There’s just so many species that need to be described, and there’s so few people that are able to do it. That’s a win-win, I think.”
Hsiao is the more hardcore Pokémon fan of the pair of researchers, Pollock said. Still, the professor has fond memories of the video game and television series. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the first games’ release in Japan.
“I remember getting up with my son and watching Pokémon on TV and standing in line on Black Friday and buying a Pokemon Yellow GameBoy, which he still has,” Pollock said.
Plus, he remembers his son searching for a rare Charizard card when opening Pokémon Trading Card Game booster packs.
“I’ve never actually seen one,” Pollock said with a laugh.