Tetrapod Zoology

i-8c6a446a3cab64342599e2ae68fe0878-hammerhead-viperwolf-leonopteryx-resized.jpg

Tone and I recently went to see Avatar. I’ve been reading up on the movie for months and was really looking forward to seeing it. I mostly liked it, though did think it was a bit clichéd and predictable. But I’m not here to talk about storylines and plot devices… you want to know about the creatures. A lot of thought and time obviously went into the design of Pandora’s ecosystem and creatures. In part, I’d say that this was a success: a lot of people (even many not that interested in the natural world) have been very much taken in by the movie’s xenobiology – if only this inspired them to become interested in, and passionate about, the biology and ecology of the real world. Without further ado, here are my assorted musings on Pandora’s creatures. Would be interested in your take on them too!

WARNING: major spoilers ahead. Turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie. This is your last warning.

i-e908348ce29b54bb9056cddbdd17f7ba-banshee-Jan-2010.jpg

Without doubt, the coolest creatures in the movie are the flying beasts: the dragonesque Banshee [shown here] and the awesome, gigantic Great leonopteryx. Banshees are bluish-green, long-necked creatures with membranous wings and a pair of hindlimbs that also sport flaring membranes (there are two kinds of banshee, but we only really get to know Mountain banshee in the movie). Unlike most Pandoran creatures they aren’t hexapodal, and are hence assumed to have lost one of the rear limb pairs. A prominent alula-like clawed digit (it is flanged with another membrane) allows the animal to climb and cling; it looks similar to the large thumb present in megabats. The distal parts of the wings are translucent. The hindlimbs also have a prominent, alula-like, clawed digit. There’s a propatagium, but the main part of the wings are not composed of a single, continuous sheet (as they are in pterosaurs); instead, there are several rods embedded within the main membrane that help it to fold and fan out. The wings thus combine elements of the pterosaur wing with bird primary feathers and bat fingers.

When the animals fly, they stick the hindlimbs out sideways from the body; while the hindlimbs have membranes, these aren’t connected to the body or forelimbs. As a consequence, the flight configuration reminded me of John Conway’s pterosaurs, as he also shows the hindlimbs projecting outwards and backwards, and as distinct relative to the forelimbs [Conway Pteranodon below, from Pterosaur.net]. This might be entirely coincidental. The banshee tail is long and slim, with a horizontal vane at the tip.

i-daac350bcff835aa32f49f9426e017ef-conway_pteranodon_Jan-2010.jpg

The team behind Avatar‘s creatures put some thought into stuff like respiration, aerodynamics and gravity. Gravity is lower on Pandora than on Earth (it’s a moon orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus), and this has facilitated the evolution of giant fliers. It’s also noted that at least some Pandoran creatures have stronger bones (or bone analogues) than what we’re used to, as a sort of carbon fibre reinforces the animal’s tissues, and also makes them lighter. Banshees also have ‘intake valves’ – spiracle-like openings on their thorax – that allow them to take in more air than allowed through the head alone, and they’re said to have a unidirectional respiratory system, with used gas passing outwards via gill-like slits on the posterior thorax. This sort of stuff is fairly plausible and we might honestly expect alien creatures to have respiratory systems like this, rather than the nostrils and whatnot that we’re more familiar with.

While the banshees look pterosaur-ish, I’d already decided from the trailers I’d seen that they’d also been inspired by the bizarre, tiny four-winged dromaeosaur Microraptor. Microraptor – famous for having really long feathers on its hindlimbs as well as its arms [go here for more on this subject] – has been imagined by some to ‘flap’ with its legs as well as with its arms (this may not be at all possible, but let’s avoid that debate for now), and the double-winged flight motion of the banshees reminded me of this hypothetical flight style. However, I could be completely wrong, and, again, the similarities with Microraptor might be entirely coincidental. There’s also a scene where the two banshees ridden by Jake and Neytiri glide rapidly downwards in parallel with a vertical cliff face. This reminded me of some of the crazy stunts practised by people who use proximity gliding suits, and I find it hard to believe that this behaviour wasn’t inspired by scenes like this…

The Great leonopteryx – known to the Na’vi as Toruk – is neat, and the movie is worth seeing for this creature alone in my opinion [image below from here]. A giant predator of the banshee and other animals, it’s a vividly coloured, spectacularly crested hexapodal eagle-like monster, with terminal hooks on its rostrum and a pair of grasping posterior limbs. Unlike banshees, it retains all three limb pairs. Its wings are more complex than those of banshees: they’re mostly membranous, but there are three feather-like elements along the wing’s leading edge that can properly separate and create leading-edge slots like long primaries. Again, there’s an alula-like digit with a huge, curved claw. We see clearly that the digit is used to help support the animal’s weight when it rests, with wings folded, on the ground. Rather than being directed laterally, the digit projects directly forwards when the animal is grounded.

i-56febd07fb6d0b0973a2e6e41d7e6eb6-leonopteryx-jan-2010.jpg

Dark lateral ridges project from the sides of its head, shading its eyes (like many of the Pandoran creatures, it has more than two eyes: there are definitely two smaller eyes behind the main ones). These ridges make its head superficially raptor-like. Enormous, sheet-like blue sagittal crests project both from the dorsal surface of the head and from the lower jaw. To my eyes, these make the creature superficially similar to a tapejarid pterosaur, in particular to the sail-crested taxa Tupandactylus and ‘Tapejaranavigans (for more on tapejarids, go here) [image below from here].

i-e24eed7da8d73fc4e921d0bed4d6dfef-avatar_leonopteryx_Jan-2010.jpg

So – even before I’d seen the movie – I’d decided that the Banshee and Great leonopteryx were inspired by (1) microraptors, (2) tapejarids and (3) proximity gliding suits, plus with a bit of raptor and megabat thrown in too. While there might be some truth in this, the creatures are actually rather more complex, with inspiration for their design apparently drawn from even more diverse sources. Neville Page – mostly responsible for the creature’s design – has noted how he worked to emulate the smooth lines and streamlined shapes of creatures such as Great white sharks. It’s evident from the way their jaws open that banshees have some similarities with teleost fishes: when the animals gape, a maxilla analogue is pulled downwards from the upper jaw. A neat detail is that the entire tooth row in the upper jaw is mobile: when the jaws are closed, the tooth row is pulled upwards into a structure on the medial side of the maxilla analague, but it descends ventrally when the jaws are open.

Also on the teleost-like anatomy, we have good views in the movie of a Great leonopteryx skull (the Omaticaya clan of the Na’vi keep one in their giant hometree for symbolic or ceremonial reasons: the creature is important in their mythology). It doesn’t look tetrapod-like, but has the corrugated, gnarly bone texture you normally associate with fish. Having said that, there are some bird-like aspects to the skull as well. The rostral hooks recall the hooked tips of raptor bills, for example. Wikipedia says that manta rays, skates and plesiosaurs were also inspirational in the design of these creatures, and Wayne Barlowe (who was involved in creature design early on) is on record as saying that he based the banshee’s sleek design on sports cars. The patterns and colours of these animals were apparently inspired by those of birds, poison-dart frogs and monarch butterflies.

Hammerhead titanothere – alien, but not alien enough?

i-2083f1479e98ad1554dbc0a673e569d7-Hammerhead_titanothere_Jan-2010.jpg

Pandora is home to at least one mega-herbivore, the spectacular, elephant-sized Hammerhead titanothere [image above from here]. The fact that it’s called a titanothere might explain where they got the idea from. Titanotheres, generally called brontotheres these days, were rhino-like Eocene perissodactyls: they’ve been discussed on Tet Zoo a few times. Go here, here and here. The hammerhead-like, err, head is a nice idea, but – for my tastes – too ‘familiar’ given that we all recognise this shape. They could have gone for the same idea (after all, a battering-ram head could well be useful to a giant terrestrial herbivore: note that the Hammerhead titanothere does not, so far as I can tell, have eyes on the lateral ends of its ‘hammer’), but made it far freakier and more alien. The animal uses a fan-like cluster of flag-like structures on the top of its head as a signalling device. I liked the fact that (ordinary) guns wouldn’t be much use when confronting an animal this large and formidable: shoot it, and it will still be coming right for you. The stampede scene was awesome and very satisfying.

Thanator: super-predator with unrealistic super-powers (but still cool)

i-c23e8526fad847c96dd3fa18560871a5-Thanator_Jan-2010.jpg

The Thanator – a large hexapodal terrestrial predator – was pretty cool in my opinion, though I can kind of agree with those who think that it was too much like an ‘alien big cat’. I initially thought from the trailers that its designers had been looking at gorgonopsians, but, nope, no good reason for thinking this. Cameron has said that it was meant to be a sort of super-panther.

It’s dark, with slimy-looking skin, and dextrous muscular limbs with long, sharp claws borne on semi-opposable digits. Its head is long with a sort of naked, protruding rostrum and large anterior fangs. Its eyes are large and it has peculiar flap-like and soft, spike-like structures arranged around the back of its head. Not sure what these are for, though they might be used in visual display. In one scene, it grabs Jake’s back-pack. Jake slips out of the back-pack and runs away, and when the Thanator notices, it looks up, opens it jaws, raises its paddle-shaped tail, and flares the flaps and spikes outwards [images above and below from here].

i-858635d0aa5f6bd3caa6c1811ff012c9-Thanator_Attacks_Jake_Jan-2010.jpg

While I think it was a neat looking creature, it exhibits ‘Hollywood super-predator syndrome’, and acts like an unstoppable, drug-fuelled, psychotic whirlwind, smashing through vegetation, tearing tree roots up, and altogether doing everything possible in order to kill and eat the object of its attention. It’s not even deterred by a barrage of automatic gunfire, and almost pursues Jake right off the end of a cliff (he jumps off to land in the waterfall splash-pool below). It also appears to be incredibly intelligent, grabbing guns and discarding them during combat, for example. We all like predators in movies to be super-predators with super-powers, but creatures like the Thanator are so over the top that they really create the wrong impression as to what real predators are (mostly) like. One day I want to see a movie where the predator is a conservative coward that faints when confronted with a gun [Thanator toy below - I gotta get me one of those].

i-aa71e5e4561ffefc1b9db3e860ab5cd6-Thanator_toy_Jan-2010.jpg

One other thing to dislike about the Thanator: its roars sound exactly the same as the tyrannosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies. Having said all this, it’s an awesome creature and its two major appearances in the film are among the highlights.

Direhorses and viperwolves: not my favourites

As for some of the other creatures, I confess that I found them to be rather lame: they were just too similar in form or behaviour to real animals, or, in other words, too derivative. I refer in particular to direhorses and viperwolves. I didn’t like the Direhorse because it just seemed all too much like, well, a horse, though a very big, alien-ish horse… though still a horse. To their credit, Cameron et al. did try and make the animal fit in with the rest of Pandora: direhorses have the same thorax spiracles as the banshees, and – in keeping with the planet’s riotous and super-elaborate flora – we see in the movie that direhorses aren’t grazers; instead, they seem to be nectarivorous, and feed with a long proboscis from flowers. Needless to say, the evolution of gigantic nectar-feeders like this could only work in an ecosystem where flowers are enormous, annually permanent, and produce huge quantities of nectar [image below from here].

i-7dd5d3c72184554067398887911789ab-Avatar_direhorses_Jan-2010.jpg

i-668194f7111c9dba7fc04cb3340ce2bb-luck-dragon_Jan-2010.jpg

The viperwolves were the least compelling creatures for me [at very top, viperwolves are shown in the second image down]. They’re long-bodied, slinky, black-skinned hexapods with hand-like feet and facial tissue that can be retracted right off their scary looking, pointed teeth. They have floppy structures at the back of the head. They behave like rabid wolves, and prove essentially unstoppable when Jake is alone in the forest for the first time; despite his use of fire and other aggressive tactics, he would have been doomed had Neytiri not come to his rescue. Again, I thought this behaviour was unrealistic – there just aren’t any animals that are that hell-bent on attacking prey (especially large, formidable, unfamiliar prey). I also didn’t like the design: I just think they looked lame. They reminded me of small, black, slimy versions of Falkor the luck dragon in The Neverending Story [shown here].

The Na’vi and others

Finally, the creatures that feature most strongly in the movie are of course the blue humanoid Na’vi. In many ways these are the easiest of the creatures to criticise, if – that is – you’re like me and think that the odds of human-like creatures evolving independently of us are vanishingly small and downright improbable. On the one hand, you can argue that successful alien films can work fine when the creatures don’t look at all human. And – given that humans are meant to be remotely piloting genetically modified Na’vi bodies – it wouldn’t have mattered to the story what the Na’vi looked like.

i-5dec12681ac27544dd8ef8e34c87393e-Neytiri-Avatar-Jan-2010.jpg

On the other hand, this movie is about warfare between cultures, about allegiances, and – I suppose – about cool-looking shit, so it figures that good looking ‘people’ need to feature large in the story. Originally, the Na’vi were going to look weirder, with gills, fins and other structures, but over time they were made to look more human simply to appeal more to the audience. Female Na’vi have breasts, specifically for this reason, apparently. So, yeah, the Na’vi are nothing more than attractive, semi-naked blue people with cat-like features… let’s let it go. When we’re introduced to their spiritual beliefs and practises, it’s clear that the Na’vi are something like First Nations people, and it’s not really possible to think about the plot without comparing it to the conflicts that have occurred between European cultures and aboriginal ones.

The idea in the movie is that Pandora includes a lineage of primate-like animals whose evolution has closely paralleled primate evolution on Earth: early on in the movie, we see the hexapodal, aboreal Prolemuris. This animal is, I assume, meant to be to the Na’vi what lemurs are to us (that is, distant cousins that share a recent common ancestor), and this presumably explains why its two more anterior limb pairs are partially fused. Presumably, the arms of the four-limbed Na’vi therefore represent two, fully fused original limb pairs (though, if this is true, I thought it odd that the Na’vi have only four fingers).

Several other creatures also feature in the movie. The hexapede is a deer-like animal with a fan-like cranial structure, while we also see a small, arboreal hexapod that looks like a cross between a leaf-tailed gecko and a frog. When disturbed, it unfolds a giant glowing spiral-shaped structure on its back, and takes flight while spinning and emitting bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is in fact a major theme on Pandora, with virtually all of the plants glowing in the dark.

As you’ll know if you’ve seen Avatar, a linkage of some sort unites most (or all?) living things on the planet, and this proves key to the victory of the Na’vi over the evil invading humans. The Na’vi ‘store’ their cultural heritage in the memory of special trees, and it seems that memories and even personalities of individuals can be uploaded and downloaded via biological links with these plants. The Na’vi also have neural links with the creatures they ride (direhorses and banshees) and have to plug into them via tentacle-like structures on their heads. I don’t want to over-analyse any of this, but the link between the Pandoran creatures and the trees reminded me of the common mycorrhizal networks known to involve certain trees and their symbiotic fungi: I wonder if this is what inspired the whole idea?

i-fc1baa726411828e3b9c2a0d6d8824ef-Ripley-cargo-loader-Jan-2010.jpg

Finally, I loved the technology featured in the movie. Avatar is set in 2154 and I suppose the tech looks plausible based on the way things are going (yeah, if our culture lasts that long). The aircraft looked and behaved plausibly. The fat, heavily armed C-21 Dragon Assault Ship is awesome, and the gigantic Valkyrie reminded me a lot of the Hercules and other bombers it was probably inspired by. The AMP suits look like evolved, combat versions of the cargo-loaders we know and love from Aliens [shown above]. Though… not so sure that an exosuit would be kitted out with a giant KNIFE.

I’m not that sure that Avatar is a great movie – I mean, there’s nothing profound or particularly memorable that I took away from the story – but it really is the visual feast that we’ve been promised. It looks great, and the cool animals (like the Banshee, Great leonopteryx and Thanator) and tech make it well worth a viewing, or two. I’m going to go see it again some time.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on speculative zoology and aliens and so on, see…

Comments

  1. #1 Jochen
    January 14, 2010

    Darren, completely unrelated (and sorry for that), but you might find this link interesting:
    http://birdsmongolia.blogspot.com/
    Sadly you can’t link to specific posts, but I mean the Leopard Cat thing.

  2. #2 Dom Nardi
    January 14, 2010

    Darren, great review. I’m sick of all the hype around Avatar, and I’m glad somebody brought it down to Earth. Frankly, the whole idea of anthropomorphic aliens (like the Navi) was created by the directors of the original Star Trek series because they didn’t have the budget to feature exotic aliens. I’m very disappointed Cameron didn’t create a more interesting and exotic alien ecosystem, especially for the Navi.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on Wayne Barlowe’s other aliens, especially the “Alien Planet” documentary – whose aliens were both much more bizarre and realistic.

  3. #3 Nomen Nescio
    January 14, 2010

    The aircraft looked and behaved plausibly.

    well, if you make the basic assumption that they’re military vehicles designed to never be seriously shot at, they might. that great big four-rotored hovercraft assault thing would be just a large, slow target for anybody with a decent SAM (modern attack helicopters rely on speed and on being small enough to hide behind things for their protection; the smaller aircraft in the movie might be plausible, that way), and the whole idea of legged, walking mecha only vaguely makes sense if nobody else has a bazooka anywhere nearby. otherwise, there’s no way to bolt enough armor onto them to let them survive; modern tanks can’t necessarily stand up to anti-tank missiles small enough for two infantry soldiers to lug around the place, much less heavier missiles.

    also, let’s not discuss the silliness inherent in using an orbital shuttle as a low-level aerial bomber. Hollywood seems to have made itself an inviolable tradition that any “sci-fi” billed movie made in that town must have plot holes large enough to pilot starships through, and Cameron obliged that tradition here. then again, the movie would likely have been shorter and with a much sadder ending had he not.

  4. #4 Cameron
    January 14, 2010

    Frankly, the whole idea of anthropomorphic aliens (like the Navi) was created by the directors of the original Star Trek series because they didn’t have the budget to feature exotic aliens.

    The trope of human-like aliens was prevalent enough in the era of Weird Fiction for H. P. Lovecraft to express disdain and invent some outrageous extraterrestrials – which subsequent authors “Terranized”. Humans in general seem to have a lot of trouble relating to non-anthropomorphs; didn’t Terry Pratchett once write [something along the lines of] if somebody is asked to come up with an alien, they’ll probably just come up with a person in an alien mask?

  5. #5 Craig York
    January 14, 2010

    I enjoyed the film, but I view it more as a children’s
    film ( which is not to diminish it, in my view )than
    serious science-fiction. Wonderful overview of the
    ecology, thanks!

  6. #6 Leigh
    January 14, 2010

    I have to admit that what irritated me most about the xenobiology of Pandora was the locomotion of Cameron’s hexapods, which basically moved like tetrapods — the two forelimbs moved exactly in sync with each other — this was especially noticeable in the horses. Anatomically, these were also problematic, given that there weren’t really any obvious girdles for the middle pair of limbs. And the ‘neural link’ structure of the aliens really made no sense whatsoever to me, since it seems like a very expensive structure whose sole purpose is to facilitate domestication … hard to see how that would have evolved.

    Honestly, I was incredibly disappointed with the xenobiology as a whole. There are people out there who are doing really cool xenobiology — you’ve linked in the past to Snaiad by Nemo Ramjet, for example — with well conceived evolutionary histories, and creature design that actually feels somewhat alien. Sticking an extra pair of limbs on an earth animal doesn’t make it more plausible.

    I also thought that the entire ecosystem was pretty poorly conceived; the entire function of bioluminescence, for example, seems to be to look cool, while all of the plant life was ripped directly from Earth.

    One of my close friends has also pointed out that given Pandora’s status as the moon of a larger planet, the day/night cycles shown in the film don’t make much sense.

  7. #7 AD
    January 14, 2010

    Nice, I have been waiting for the Avatar post on Tet Zoo. I have forgotten a lot of my first impressions about the Avatar flora/fauna, and there’s a lot there to talk about, but I will say this: there were some moments where the exobiology they imagined really came to life, like the moment when the giant banshee initially appears to attack the two banshee riders, or when it swoops into the encampment. I like how the two types of banshees are similar, and this evokes a common theme of evolution on Earth: whenever you have a specialized clade of animals, even predators, there will be lineages within that clade that evolve to predate their ‘brethren’; the giant banshees evoke false killer whales predating other dolphins or eagles predating other avians. This was an unexpected source of verisimilitude for me.

    I give them credit for maintaining unity amongst the faunal types that can plausibly be attributed to an ancient common heritage, and thus they pay attention to basic biologic principles. Also they seem to generally have reasons for even small details of biology that go beyond sort of rationalizations for what they thought would be cool. Generally that is.

    One critique I had was why the rampant bioluminescence- it takes energy to make that, why would the plants be randomly glowing? I suppose one could make an argument about the long nights that must ensue when the gas giant eclipses their star…also the christmas tree worms were gratuitous cribbing from Cameron’s scuba dives on reefs…

  8. #8 AD
    January 14, 2010

    Also you have to ignore biologic conceits that were necessitated by the plot like the neural links, humanoid aliens, and unexplained wireless links between avatars and humans that somehow require the DNA of a particular human to operate.

  9. #9 Johannes
    January 14, 2010

    Neat to hear your take on Avatar, Darren. The neural uplink appendages of the Pandorian races would have been just a little easier for me to swallow if the movie had shown us their usage among non-Na’vi species. Do the wild beasts occasionally hook up with soul trees as well? Do they hook up with members of their own species as a ritual of courtship? Simply having such an appendage makes no evolutionary sense – especially in the very undomesticated Leonopteryx – unless we can apply phylogenetic bracketing and a common, natural usage. Neither does the conserved interspecies compatibility.
    Hadn’t noticed the implications of the fused Prolemuris limbs myself. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Dom: I strongly disagree that anthropomorphic aliens are a Star Trek invention. Hollywood history is ripe with human-like aliens; suffice to mention Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and the various villains from Flash Gordon and related serials of the 1930s and 40s.
    In fact I’ll suggest that anthropomorphic aliens are as old as space-related science fiction itself:
    http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/hoaxes/moonhoax.htm

  10. #10 Andreas Johansson
    January 14, 2010

    The Na’vi also have neural links with the creatures they ride (direhorses and banshees) and have to plug into them via tentacle-like structures on their heads. I don’t want to over-analyse any of this, but the link between the Pandoran creatures and the trees reminded me of the common mycorrhizal networks known to involve certain trees and their symbiotic fungi: I wonder if this is what inspired the whole idea?

    Less charitable people have suggested that it was inspired by USB plugs!

    But I shouldn’t rant on the xenobiology – despite the various oddities and implausibilities, it was the one part of the movie I thoroughly enjoyed.

  11. #11 Laelaps
    January 14, 2010

    RE: The plug-and-play style links between the Na’vi and the fauna of Pandora appear to have sprung from discussions with UC Riverside botanist Jodie Holt. Holt was called in to answer a few questions for the film’s producers but ended up helping to design much of the plant (and some animal) life in the film. In an interview with the LA Times she does mention she had some input into the idea of the neural connections.

  12. #12 Dan Holdsworth
    January 14, 2010

    One possible reason for the ubiquitous neural links in the
    Pandoran ecosystem could be that the whole thing is not actually a pre-industrial paradise at all, but a post-industrial designed one. This might actually have worked quite well as a plot theme, with the Na’vi referring to what the humans think are gods, but which are actually the creators of the entire ecosystem.

    In short, the entire planet could well be someone’s private supercomputer with the entire ecosystem custom designed to resist external disruptions to the thing (eco-warrior Na’vi being but one of the many discouragements to attacking the ecology). This would have made for an extremely cool ending, with the presumed owner of the computer surfacing out of the nearby gas giant planet and demanding to know what the hell is going on, and precisely how the interlopers were going to pay for the damage.

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    January 14, 2010

    Dan: a good idea, it could explain the uncanny (read = unrealistic) similarity between the Na’vi and humans. Sequels are planned, by the way…

  14. #14 Anthony Docimo
    January 14, 2010

    i think i saw a tiny nostril on the toruk’s head – so presumably the face-nostrils of most creatures atrophies, while the Na’vi lineage hypertrophied it (at the cost of the neck-spiracles)

    >. Presumably, the arms of the four-limbed Na’vi therefore represent two, fully fused original limb pairs (though, if this is true, I thought it odd that the Na’vi have only four fingers).
    well, I assume there was some loss of digits, either before or after the fusion.

    I suspect one of the things that hasn’t been shown to us are ambush predators that have long whip-like neural tentacles that zap out and grab the prey’s plug-in spot, thus paralyzing the prey while the ambusher walks up slowly.

  15. #15 shiva
    January 14, 2010

    Thanks for this – i’ve been intending to do a review of Avatar focusing more on the politics, but wanted to at least mention the xenobiology. IIRC, something like Dan’s idea has been at least hinted at in “official” media, although possibly with the Na’Vi themselves being the post-industrial descendants of the creators of the planetary neural network (who may or may not have “forgotten” their origins – sort of like Anne McCaffrey’s “dragonriders” series – speaking of which, the relationship between the Na’Vi and the Ikran/Toruk was very clearly influenced by…)

    Another possible influence for the planetary-neural-network concept IMO is Robert Silverberg’s Face of the Waters, which had a similar colonial theme (like a lot of Silverberg’s work) and indigenous aquatic humanoids on a nearly entirely water-covered planet who had a similar link to a “sacred island”, shared by the rest of the planet’s fauna.

    I had actually thought that the Ikran (was the term “banshee” actually used in the movie?) and the Turok both had 6 limbs – their main wings, their hind wings and their legs. Maybe the hind wings and legs had fused together in the Ikran. The design of the Ikran’s heads sort of reminded me of iguanas.

    I sort of liked how the viperwolves and the Thanator were obviously relatives within a “clade” similar to real-world Carnivora, even if they were a bit too much like dogs and cats respectively. The viperwolves reminded me (more in behaviour than appearance) of dholes or South American bush dogs.

  16. #16 Nathan Myers
    January 14, 2010

    I guess there had to be a TetZoo Avatar posting, if only because of the toys it will spawn. Sad to say, a billion-dollar take guarantees sequels. We can only hope that they will fundamentally undermine the pedestrian premises suggested in the original.

    For the anthropomorphism, or might we say gynecomorphism, the definitive exposition is:

    http://www.movieline.com/2009/11/movieline-explores-james-camerons-exhaustive-search-for-the-perfect-alien-breasts.php?page=all

  17. #17 Carlos
    January 14, 2010

    I only like the flying beasts and the plants; everything else is bullcrap

  18. #18 JuliaM
    January 14, 2010

    I don’t suppose they had to go far to do ALL their research; the scene where the thanator runs Jake to ground under the roots of a large tree, then throws itself on its side to ‘fish’ for him with its forelimbs is exactlyvwhat my cat does when the ball of screwed-up paper he’s chasing goes under the sofa.. ;)

  19. #19 Robbie
    January 14, 2010

    Totally agree with you. The xenobiology was certainly my favorite aspect of the movie, though many aspects of it were much too Terran for my liking. I think you’d enjoy the book “Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora.” I got it in the mail yesterday; it explains just about everything you want to know about the biology of the planet, even featuring creatures and foliage unseen in the movie.
    There are a few mega-herbivores on Pandora; besides the titanothere there’s another huge (I believe it’s bigger than the titanothere) beast known as the sturmbeest. There is also one more species of banshee which dwells in the rainforested parts of the continent.

    Also, I am thankful you added at least just one sentence about the giant robot superknife. I mean, that just seemed like overkill to me. A big gun for the ‘bot, I can understand, but a knife… C’mon, Cameron.

    Overall, I didn’t mind the movie, as long as it kept me distracted from the love story with Pandora’s biology and social history.

  20. #20 Anomalocaris
    January 14, 2010

    The viperwolves reminded me of Dougal Dixon’s falanxes (the predatory rats) from After Man

  21. #21 monkeyface
    January 14, 2010

    I rather agree… I liked leonopteryx the best but i liked the little werelizard thingees… thanks for the cool post.

  22. #22 Zach Miller
    January 14, 2010

    Looking forward to seeing it mainly for the xenobiology, especially the banshees.

  23. #23 Badger3k
    January 14, 2010

    I just realized that Cameron ripped off (or borrowed – or was inspired by might be better) part of Alan Dean Foster – his Midworld. The “emfol” of the book could relate to the communication/plant thing (I remember something similar in another series, but can’t remember the name – the trees of the forest communicated with each other through chemicals in the roots, and I think animal were involved as well). Of course, Midworld had human colonists with the hexapodal creatures, and the giant tree environment would (to me at least) be more interesting than floating mountains.

  24. #24 David Marjanović
    January 14, 2010

    This is not speculative zoology! It’s speculative xenobiology!!!!1!

    This might be entirely coincidental.

    Or it might be copied straight from John Conway’s website.

    There are beasts in the Narnia film that are exceedingly similar to the vulgures of Spec…

    suffice to mention Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and the various villains from Flash Gordon and related serials of the 1930s and 40s.

    Superman!

  25. #25 mo
    January 14, 2010

    When I saw the toruk skull, I thought of pike skulls:
    http://www.dkimages.com/discover/previews/966/45001680.JPG

    At this point, I had a nerdgasm and decided this was the best film of the year for me. :D Especially as I thought “they must have some damn teleost jaws to do that” at the the banshee and leonopterix scenes just before that. I think thats fitting for predators-in-fluids.

    Darren, the Thanator is not so persistent, it stops hunting Jake when he jumps into the river, which is just a few seconds after it first attacks him, and maybe it just can’t grasp what a bullet can do to it. And why should it be unfamiliar with navi pray? At first it was hunting for the herbivores anyway, and it only attacked Jake after it watched him for a time. maybe it was checking if he was alone and that he wasn’t carrying any obvious navi weapons?

    Also, at the second appearance it is mind controlled by eywa and than neytiri, which is why it knows how to unarm the mech.

    @ Johannes: huh? The other critters also cleary use their neural links to communicate with the planet-brain, or how do you explain the deus ex machina?
    I think all the lifeforms of pandora are pawns to the tree-network. :) The sequels will be even more awesome.

  26. #26 mo
    January 14, 2010

    I’m sorry for the typos before. Also, English is not my first language.

    Ah, I forgot to say, I also loved how the thanator and the wolves on the one side and the banshees and leonopterix on the other are members two clades, each derived from a common ancestor. It seems that between the banshees and leonopterix, the banshees are the more derived ones, as the only have four functional limbs.

  27. #27 Christopher Taylor
    January 14, 2010

    I think there’s a couple of allusions in the film (which I personally found a snore-fest) that suggest the neural uplinks play some unspecified role in the aliens’ reproductive biology – mating pairs link up using them, or something. Their use in domestication might then be a secondary plus.

    Personally, my big problem with the neural uplinks was their position in the Navi’s ponytail – I can’t help feeling that they would be rather prone to injury in such an unprotected position.

  28. #28 Nathan Myers
    January 14, 2010

    The sequel will certainly have a Lorax analog. Mark My Words. This will be on the quiz.

    Probably the worst feature of the movie will turn out to be the “unobtainium”. Imagine a Hitchcock knock-off with everybody chasing a briefcase containing a manuscript titled “The McGuffin”; or imagine Apple introducing its an iPhone replacement, the “Widget”. Some words should be left in the story-conference room.

    And why an element, anyway? We sort of know all the elements already, and unobtainium isn’t one of them. Why not some stuff that can only be obtained by extraction from the roots of, you know, those trees?

    Since these critters aren’t properly tetrapods, by any definition, their presence here can only be by the grace of the Proprietor.

  29. #29 Adam
    January 14, 2010

    I really liked this movie, and honestly quite a lot of the plot holes could theoretically be explained in backstory (as noted by some of the previous posters)….though admittedly they weren’t onscreen. Maybe the sequel will explain them..or maybe it will all be chalked up to midichlorians. As for #3…well, the assumption that the aircraft weren’t meant to be seriously shot at makes perfect sense….they were being deployed on a planet where the main dangers were stone-age aboriginals and nasty wildlife. In a jungle like that I’d rather have a mech than a tank.

    But my main point is this…I think the Navi remind me of those hominid dinosaurs. I understand the storytelling reasons for doing so, but I’d like to see a drawing of a hypothetical version more in keeping with the planet’s biology. It’d have two smaller eyes up above and behind the main eyes, semi-fused front arms like the pseudo-lemurs, nostrils somewhere around the collarbone, and two usb-port things on tentacles coming off of the head.

  30. #30 Johannes
    January 14, 2010

    @mo

    or how do you explain the deus ex machina?

    I’d prefer not to lest my brain would cry.
    And the point remains; we never actually see a non-Na’vi animal use its neural appendages for anything other than being subjected to Na’vi mind control.

    @David
    Of course, how could I forget :)

  31. #31 mo
    January 14, 2010

    Well it was a well pulled off deus ex machina, it was much foreshadowed and it served to estabish the planet-mind as real, and also explains why all those things have mind links.

    It’s simply part of the plot and not cheap.

  32. #32 Jerzy
    January 14, 2010

    Haven’t seen the movie as my family refused to see it.

    My long time hobby was spotting which real animals were basis of sci-fi and horror monsters (it is usually dead easy, what Empusa praying mantis was made into?)

    Apparently more zoological knowledge filtered from the internet into movie graphic designers over the years. Creatures are not straight take on earth animals, with just hints of tapejarids and hammerhead sharks visible.

  33. #33 Tim Morris
    January 14, 2010

    As an Australian, I thought the message about aboriginal cultures vs “the west” bears countless repeatings well. It appealed to me simply because I feel that a message of racial unity doesnt hurt, especially bearing in mind what the Native Australians went through.

  34. #34 Jerzy
    January 14, 2010

    Mental link between all creatures… Oh, my…

    What if a predator neuro-links with a prey? Or worse, a parasite with a human?

  35. #35 Jerzy
    January 14, 2010

    Well, cultural message seems like 20 years late. If I understand, it is about bad warlike industrialists exploiting tropics for raw minerals.

    More interesting would be if Na’vi were brutal between themselves, and a corrupt Na’vi rulers bought weapons, profiteered on contracts with humans and abused majority of Na’vi…

  36. #36 dinosauricon
    January 14, 2010

    Actually it was mentioned in the book that the dire horses at least do use their neural appendages for communication

  37. #37 Mickey Mortimer
    January 14, 2010

    I think both Dan’s and Jerzy’s changes would have been far preferrable to the bland, predictable plotline we got. And you’re absolutely right about the Unobtainium, Nathan. Giant knives are fairly common in anime mecha and don’t seem like such a bad idea, though blades attached to the arms themselves might be better. I basically agree with most of Darren’s other comments about the creatures, though I was far more annoyed with the anthropomorphism of the Na’vi. Would six limbs and shoulder spiracles have been so hard, or was it of critical importance to make them blue native Americans so that even a deaf and blind person could understand the allegory? I personally liked the air jellyfish though, even if they were seeds of the magic tree and exhibited er… soulotaxis.

  38. #38 AD
    January 15, 2010

    I dunno, I admit some of the noble savage/evil colonialist themes are a bit boilerplate and Dances with Wolves redux, not to mention the whole Western-emissary-sent-to-gain-confidence-of-Natives-to-facilitate-their-destruction-ends-up-switching-sides-(and-dates-chiefs-daughter)-and-becomes-one-of-them thing (um, that must be on TV Tropes somewhere).

    BUT, it did evoke many a topical theme- from healthcare (main character is uninsured and is convinced to go on the mission because then his paralysis will be fixed) to a seeming endless stream of possibly oil-related foreign wars (Venezuela, among others), producing gravely wounded vets who seem to be almost forgotten(Walter Reed), to the role of private security companies in wars and their sometimes vigilante approach to their perceived mission (Blackwater, Nisour Square, Abu Ghraib); the perception, for good or ill, of well-intentioned invaders by natives (Afghanistan, the ‘good war’), and those invaders’ attempts to do something for the natives (from the movie, “we made them schools, etc…what more do they want?”) and the dubitable value of what the invaders have to offer compared to what the natives already have (something that occurred all over the Americas and still happens in the Amazon today: here, fork over your ancestral lands, settle down and farm, and in exchange you can live on the fringes of modern industrial society). It also evoked an anachronism for today’s industrial society- the paragovernmental Companies of the early colonial era, a recapitulation which could be viewed as provocatively asking whether the Western cultural enterprise has really changed that much since those days.

    All of these themes and notions are bereft of their real-life context and are reimagined in a fantasy world, allowing us to view them in a new light, or even to think about them at all. So that’s my argument for why the plot and storyline shouldn’t be dismissed.

  39. #39 AD
    January 15, 2010

    A little off-topic for tetrapod zoology but I thought I would offer a defense of the movie itself, since others are commenting on that.

  40. #40 AD
    January 15, 2010

    Also, the aliens need to be kind of sexy if an Earthling is going to fall for one, even in alien avatar guise. so that may be why they are not six appendaged and 4-eyed.

  41. #41 Adam
    January 15, 2010

    Eh, I think that the Navi were anthropomorphic not because people would otherwise miss the native analog, but because most people enjoy movies based on the emotional connection they feel to the characters rather than the logical satisfaction they get from the movie’s internal consistency. Given this, it’s understandable the director would enhance the aliens’ humanness, boosting the former at the expense of the latter-despite the fact that I and many people on this site are just as interested in consistency.

    As for the unobtainium, I thought it was a good way to hang a lampshade on the unlikely substances which drive the plot of much of science fiction. But maybe I spend too much time on TVTropes.

    Back to biology, here’s a challenge…under what circumstances would it be adaptive to have some sort of worldwide information net? And not have it fall apart under competing selection pressure on the component parts?

  42. #42 Anthony Docimo
    January 15, 2010

    in answer to Jerzy and Adam:
    >What if a predator neuro-links with a prey?
    the prey can’t escape, and the predator can take its time in disabling the prey.

    >under what circumstances would it be adaptive to have some sort of worldwide information net?
    I suspect that Eywah was restricted to that one continent…so my hope is that the sequel involves Eywah vs another continent’s denizens (with teh humans on that side? humans as an untrusted – by Eywah – third party?)

  43. #43 Andreas Johansson
    January 15, 2010

    I dunno, I admit some of the noble savage/evil colonialist themes are a bit boilerplate and Dances with Wolves redux, not to mention the whole Western-emissary-sent-to-gain-confidence-of-Natives-to-facilitate-their-destruction-ends-up-switching-sides-(and-dates-chiefs-daughter)-and-becomes-one-of-them thing (um, that must be on TV Tropes somewhere).

    Mighty Whitey, The Chiefs Daughter, and a bit of Instant Expert.

    And the TV Tropes link for those who haven’t yet lost their spare time and minds.

  44. #44 Andreas Johansson
    January 15, 2010
  45. #45 Steve White
    January 15, 2010

    Anyone interested in seeing really cool movie ecosystems should check out The World of Kong, Weta’s book about the animals and plants of Skull Island. Lots of very cool artwork and evolutionary extrapolations which should be of particular interest to any prehistpric enthusiast. I’d also recommend The Wildlife of Star Wars – a superb encyclopedia packed with great artwork by Terry Whitlatch, who did all creature designs for the prequels.

  46. #46 Francisco Gascó
    January 15, 2010

    Hi Darren! These creatures are amazing… have you thought about doing a phylogenetic analisys of them? I did one on BSG’s cylon models weeks ago, and the results were quite interesting.
    Cheers!

  47. #47 Dan Holdsworth
    January 15, 2010

    Following on from my earlier comments, there still remains this problem of what is a planet-wide neural network actually doing? Secondly, how come this super-network just happens to be on a planet which has huge amounts of a wonder material on it?

    The possibilities here are absolutely endless, and could be used to scare hell out most audiences. A planet-wide intelligence (probably artificially created; I can’t see how this would evolve naturally) would have a very different view on what constitutes a person to what we would have. In the light of this, insanely persistent attacks from the local wildlife make a lot more sense; the planet-mind has recognised a threat to its self or has some pre-programmed response to alien encroachment and is merely using the local wildlife to discourage it.

    If this planet-mind were an ancient weapon of war, then if you carry on pushing it, you’re going to see more and more weapons on an increasingly nasty nature, with possibly even a “cliff edge” type of triggered response like Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitors (robots designed to prevent an all-destroying future war, by killing off intelligences as they develop star travel). The point is this: a planet-wide neural net pretty much cannot be natural and the local wonder material is also extremely peculiar; to have the pair of these on the same planet is so staggeringly unlikely that it cannot be a coincidence. Unobtanium might well be a sophisticated trap to lure in foolhardy aliens; once enough is removed for the local Artificial Intelligence to be certain that someone is mining it, the trap triggers. Quite what happens when that occurs is up to the writer and the special effects budget, but seeing as someone has designed an entire planetary ecology with this sort of thing in mind, I’d want to be very, very scared indeed (possibility for deus ex machina ending here: find the ID signal which identifies us as Friendlies, not Foes).

    Finally, I would also want to be looking around the stars around the Pandora system, for anything similar and in particular I’d want to look in gas giants, and cold and apparently dead worlds with nothing interesting on them; Pandora might be the bait in a very large and ancient trap.

  48. #48 Deen
    January 15, 2010

    I think the “lemurs” would have worked better as a “missing link” to the Na’vi if they hadn’t designed them with arms fused at the elbows, but with rudimentary middle limbs.

    What bothered me most, though, was the breathing. Pretty much all animals appeared to breathe through holes around the front of the chest. All, that is, except for the Na’vi. While I can think of reasons why a pair of limbs might disappear over time (which has happened on earth in whales, after all), I just can’t think of an evolutionary pathway that would disconnect the lungs from the channels in the chest and hook it up to the mouth and nose instead. This made it considerably less believable to me that the Na’vi were related to the rest of the fauna.

    The funny thing is, if they hadn’t put so much effort in designing a believable consistent ecology, it wouldn’t even have bothered me so much.

  49. #49 David Marjanović
    January 15, 2010

    Finally, I would also want to be looking around the stars around the Pandora system, for anything similar and in particular I’d want to look in gas giants, and cold and apparently dead worlds with nothing interesting on them; Pandora might be the bait in a very large and ancient trap.

    Why would anyone set up such a trap? Even for Cthulhu it wouldn’t make sense.

    Iä! Iä!

  50. #50 J.S. Lopes
    January 15, 2010

    I still couldn’t see the movie, but my preliminar (and a bit superficial) impression is that the “humanoid” aliens seem too “mammalian” to be fit into a insectoid “class”. They created a good bunch of hexapods, and forced a tetrapod humanoid species to make na’vi more “beautiful”. Depict aliens as preferencially humanoids is unfortunately an usual tendence in TV/Movie blockbusters. Since we don’t know another world, we cannot say if “humanoidness” is a rule or an exception. I think a hexapod bodyplan would provide a larger set of possibilities: six-footed beasts, centaurlike creatures, four-armed bipeds, etc.

  51. #51 Andreas Johansson
    January 15, 2010

    The Pandoran “hexapods” have six legs, but they don’t much resemble hexapods in the taxonomic sense – they’re vertebratoids rather than insectoids.

  52. #52 Wally Mellish
    January 15, 2010

    The one missing element was the Pandoran National Anthem,
    and it goes like this:
    “In the Na’vi, come on, protect the motherland,
    In the Na’vi, come and join your fellow man…”

  53. #53 llewelly
    January 15, 2010

    One day I want to see a movie where the predator is a conservative coward that feints when confronted with a gun

    Noble sentiment.

    [Thanator toy below - I gotta get me one of those].

    But that’s why you’ll never see one.

  54. #54 Bob Michaels
    January 15, 2010

    If we do come upon an Earth like Planet somewhere in time. We could find life similar to Earths if it had the same chemical make up. The great unkown is would it have similar ages, geological time frames, aquatic and land vertebrates That is the quest for Astrobiology A planet of Cryptids.

  55. #55 Sebastian Marquez
    January 15, 2010

    I really enjoyed the chameleon like creatures. Even if that “floating, spinning fan” alarm response really didn’t make any sense.

  56. #56 Nathan Myers
    January 15, 2010

    They should have had a Lampshade Plant.

  57. #57 Nathan Myers
    January 15, 2010

    Andreas’s TVTropes-fu is strong.

    I should have linked to the Lampshade page:
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging

  58. #58 Carl Tanner
    January 16, 2010

    To everyone here: Please, leave your critical functions at the door when you go to watch a movie like Avatar. It’s meant to be a fantasy, sci-fi adventure, not a treatise on an alien ecosystem!!!. As a scientist myself (a geologist and astronomer) I could’ve pulled it apart bit by bit myself, if I wanted to. But in defense of the movie, that’s not what you’re meant to be doing. You have to remember, you’re basing your criticism of the movie on currently known science, all based around conjecture and assumptions about one example of life that we know of, Earth. You say that it’s highly improbable that a sentient species like the Na’vi would occur. You have absolutely no idea at all!!. Even on our own planet, you have plenty of examples of convergent evolution amongst totally unrelated species. Remember, the laws of nature not only apply here on Earth, but they also apply elsewhere in this Universe. It’s one of the basic tenets of science and one that someone in my own fields of study relies on being correct. You can’t believe in something on one hand and then when it doesn’t suit your world view elsewhere just discard it. You either have universal truths, or you don’t.

    What most of you have done is gone into watching this movie thinking he same way as you do in the lab. The movie theatre is not a lab. In any case, a man far greater than any of us, Einstein, once said that imagination is far more important than knowledge. He was right. Our science is based on our imaginations. It’s where all our progress comes from. If you had no imagination, you would get nowhere.

    There was far more to this movie than most of you have cottoned onto. But, unfortunately, you’ve become so enamoured by what you believe you know that you’ve forgotten something fundamental. We don’t know as much as we think we do. This universe is imagination and anything we can think of will not only happen elsewhere, but there’s a damn good chance it already has. Stop looking at existence with blinkered eyes and start looking at it with the wonder and awe of a child. You might actually see truths you’ve previously missed.

  59. #59 T.Katz
    January 16, 2010

    Carl Tanner,
    i love your comment. Though i am a biologist, i was never looking at how plausible the fauna and flora was. If i want educational films about biology, i go to my university’s library.
    “Avatar” is an eye-candy, clichéesque story meant to entertain and make money (seems it does both pretty damn good).
    But the best thing about “Avatar” is that it is transporting a message about our real world for anybody to see who is willing to do so. Post 38 by AD has ecxplained that pretty well.
    I did never expect to be so deeply moved by such a primitive story.
    Or is Cameron correct if he says “There’s a fine line between cliché and archetype that touches something universal.”

  60. #60 arachnophile
    January 16, 2010

    OK. I’ll admit that I’ve not read all of the comments yet but I was so happy to see this review. My biggest beef with the movie was the obviously – tetrapod humanoids on a planet of vertebrate Hexapods! I’m a total amateur but I’m glad that I at least guessed the name, “hexapod” correctly. ;)

    I’ve only seen the movie once so far and not put as much time into the details as you have as yet. I just know that when I was in the theater I saw those lemur – like creatures as obvious hexapods as well.

    It is for this same reason I tend to give the movie: “Reign of Fire,” more credit than it deserves. At the very least, it’s dragons are believable TETRAPODS! I won’t go on about how they messed that up with portraying an egg from a female that hat an obvious embryo inside, despite the fact that they’d already established that the dragons fertilized externally. Still… Tetrapod dragons – pretty darn awesome. ;D

    As always, your spin on it all has been very informative. :D Thank you so much!

  61. #61 Carl Tanner
    January 16, 2010

    To arachnophile:

    Where does that leave us then?? We’re tetrapods, as are all vertebrates, living on a planet that is dominated by lifeforms which are either hexapods (insects), octopods (arachnids…ironic I would say, given your name) or “multipods” (chelicerates, echinoderms and whatever else there is).

    Just because one species out of many is not like the majority doesn’t mean it can’t exist or not have evolved the way it did. Pandora is, well, Pandora. It’s biota evolved in whatever ways they have and who are we to question that.

  62. #62 Croc
    January 16, 2010

    Carl Tanner, I’m glad to see that there’s still a scientist in the world with a little common sense AND the ability to simply sit back and enjoy a movie.

    And if the worry of all those scientists and scientist wannabes is that “the public gets the wrong message”, don´t sweat it; people who actually CARES will read about the subject and find out.

  63. #63 David Marjanović
    January 16, 2010

    It’s meant to be a fantasy, sci-fi adventure, not a treatise on an alien ecosystem!!!

    Is there a reason not to make it better?

    (And is there a reason why you put periods behind exclamation marks?)

    Remember, the laws of nature not only apply here on Earth, but they also apply elsewhere in this Universe.

    Fine, but there aren’t any separate laws of biology. There are just the laws of physics.

    Why did it take so long for an intelligent* species to evolve on Earth?

    * Radioastronomers’ definition.

    a man far greater than any of us

    <yawn>

    The argument from authority is a logical fallacy.

    Stop looking at existence with blinkered eyes and start looking at it with the wonder and awe of a child.

    What do you think we’re doing?

    What do you think we nerds are doing on a blog that has entire posts about utterly obscure and seemingly unremarkable snake species? On toad diversity? On soft-shelled turtles?

    Get over yourself, really.

  64. #64 David Krentz
    January 16, 2010

    I have to say, as a creature/character designer working in Hollywood Avatar was one of those movies that I was insanely jealous I didn’t work on. As far as movies go this one actually had a sense of a real working ecosystem. Yes, there were some “monsters” but for the most part the animals felt like creatures that inhabit a specific environment.
    A lot of creature designers love biology, but very seldom do directors care about the natural world or using it for inspiration. From what my friends have told me (those who worked on the film) Cameron knew his stuff. Remember, this is a guy who spends his spare time thinking about landing on Mars and putts around in submarines looking at deep sea life. He surrounds himself with scientists.
    Personally I’m happy he let the creatures be colorful. 99% of creatures in movies are grey/green/brown.
    Now, whenever I have an assignment and I start spouting off anatomical terms to producers and directors I can point to AVATAR and say ” they thought of this stuff, and look how much money it made”. My life just got easier!

    David Krentz

  65. #65 David Marjanović
    January 16, 2010

    Now, whenever I have an assignment and I start spouting off anatomical terms to producers and directors I can point to AVATAR and say ” they thought of this stuff, and look how much money it made”. My life just got easier!

    :-) :-) :-)

  66. #66 KW
    January 16, 2010

    Nice to know that someone was thinking the same things that I was during the movie.

    Hammerhead titanothere sort of reminded me of the beetle species in the Scarabaeidae family. But I agree, I didn’t find them very “alien.”

    Thought I’d throw out that one of the Na’vi rituals was obviously based off the Balinese Monkey Chant, see here…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkxuPxdsZ58

    I liked your thoughts on the forelimbs fusing rather than one pair being lost. The digit number is different on hind and forelimbs. I think the number of digits on forelimbs was more to show the difference between the true Na’vi and human Avatars, which had 5 digits.

  67. #67 mo
    January 16, 2010

    @ Croc: wut? read the posts man, many people here are scientists and loved the creatures and film.

    @ David Krenz: And films will be more awesome because of it!

  68. #68 Croc
    January 16, 2010

    Mo: Right you are. I just wanted to express my agreement with Carl’s words. That’s all :)

    The thing is I have many scientist friends who make a big deal out of artistic licenses. To date, many are still bitching about the frills in the JP dilophosaur, just to name an example. I simply think there’s no point to it.

  69. #69 Nathan Myers
    January 16, 2010

    My criticism doesn’t come from how “unscientific” the movie is. It’s about how boring it is. When you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a production, why not put in something that’s not just a “wolf analog”, a “panther analog”, a “dragon analog” that looks like conventional notions of how a dragon ought to look, and a “horse analog” that is slavishly horsy? Is it really so hard to come up with something interestingly original, that couldn’t just as well have appeared in a neighborhood puppet show? It would have been an interesting challenge to make the Na’vi look really alien and still be personally engaging. Short Circuit had a budget a hundred times smaller, but Number Five was more engaging than Steve Guttenberg’s character.

    Here’s another place where I have to hand it to Aaron Diaz over at Dresden Codak. He’s just a cartoonist, but he got more interesting critters into one strip than they got into the whole movie.

  70. #70 AD
    January 16, 2010

    OK Randy Marsh, I mean Carl Tanner, you may be a scientist of some sort but you certainly are not a biologist. You do not understand the “universal laws” that you are saying we should apply without prejudice. And while we don’t have a complete understanding of why evolution went the way it did on Earth, what constraints the evolution of human-level intelligence may place on the physical form it takes, we do have an ever-increasing understanding of how evolution works, and what paths it took and to some degree why major groups went extinct while others thrived. Organismal evolution is not like playing Mr Potato-head. For example, look at the title of this blog. It’s called tetrapod zoology. That’s because every large terrestrial animal on Earth stemmed from an initial colonization of the land by a animal with four limbs. After this clade took root, you are not going to be evolving more fish into land animals because of niche exclusion, the same reason the 3 domains of life have a common root and don’t stem from independent derivations of cellular life, and we are not continually evolving life anew on Earth. Further, every tetrapod, from frog to human, has five or less digits on each appendage. This is because the particular tetrapod clade that eventually predominated on land had five digits. Other early tetrapods had 6 or more digits. This is to some degree an amazing degree of conservation, yet it is also a simple contingency that can be explained with recourse to basic ecological and evolutionary concepts. This is why people on this blog are skeptical of the 4-appendaged Na’vi, for example. Obviously, the tetrapod-oids of Pandora sprung from a 6-appendaged ancestor. The Na’vi would also have evolved from this ancestor. Why would they have lost the limbs? Or their 2nd set of eyes? Or evolve bipedality (especially when one argument for bipedality in hominins is so they could carry stuff- if you have 6 appendages, you don’t need bipedality to carry stuff) Or lose the spiracles for breathing found in other hexapods on Pandora? Sure, one might conjure up a complex series of contingent events why these character state changes might come about. But assigning each a probability, to have them all come true becomes much less likely than simply evolving intelligence in the first place. And this is why they are critiqued from a biological perspective. The filmmakers just needed humanoids that audiences could relate to and which could tell the story the filmmakers wanted to tell- a love story, a noble savage story about beautiful aliens, etc.

    By the way, arthropods stayed small because of the unfavorable scaling of their architecture and physiology, and octopuses stayed in the ocean (not even colonizing freshwater, for some reason) because their version of a hydrostatic skeleton is unsuitable for use out of water. Arguably, all hydrostatic skeletons are unsuitable for use out of water, unless you count something like what plants have.

  71. #71 Anonymous
    January 16, 2010

    The one thing I found completely unacceptable was the fact that the scientific name given for the Na’Vi was Homo pandorus. For any here who don’t know, giving a disparate species the exact same genus name as an already-established taxon is a huge no-no in biology. For Homo pandorus to be valid, then the Na’vi would have to be highly derived Earth primates (which we know they’re not, based on Prolemuris). Therefore, I would like to propose a replacement name for the Na’vi; Caerulopardofelis pandorus. Etymology “caerulo” – meaning blue, “pardo” – meaning girl or maiden, and “felis” meaning cat.

    Oh, and the fact that James Cameron had cycads in the Pandoran biosphere. As in real cycads. From Earth. Not pseudo-cycad mimics. He tries to handwave this by saying it was from “cycad seeds becoming attached to the meteor that hit the Yucatan and then landed on Pandora” (no, really, see Avatar: The Activist’s Guide, it actually has that explanation in there). Someone really needs to explain to Cameron how biology actually works…

  72. #72 Suki
    January 17, 2010

    Feathers?

    Did anybody see any creatures with feathers in the movie? I don’t remember any.

    The fletching on the arrows appear to be feathers. If there were feathered creatures, fine. If not, where do they get the fletching or what is it?

    Thank you!

  73. #73 Paul W.
    January 17, 2010

    I’d be more naturally inclined to sympathise with something that looked completely alien than something quasi-human. The latter is like having something not quite right forced upon you. It’s like the images of ‘anthropomorphised’ sea-monkeys in the old comic-books advertisements – oddly disturbing.

    “We’re cute, we’re handsome”. No your not, you have bright blue skin, funny long necks and your eyes are set rather oddly. If it were Star Trek there would be some dubiousness going on, I’m sure.

  74. #74 David Marjanović
    January 17, 2010

    To date, many are still bitching about the frills in the JP dilophosaur, just to name an example. I simply think there’s no point to it.

    Are you sure such a frill wouldn’t leave any muscle attachment sites on the skull, the vertebrae, or the neck ribs? Really sure?

    Homo pandorus

    <headdesk>
    <headdesk>
    <headdesk>
    <headdesk>
    <headdesk>
    <headdesk>

  75. #75 T.Katz
    January 17, 2010

    Nathan Myers,
    i think i got your point. A film is “boring” to you if it doesn’t present new lifeforms, if it doesn’t bring on something “interestingly original”.

    Hmm. o.k. – you decide what’s boring to you. Who am i to say what has to be interesting to you?

    I can only say that i pity anybody who is “not able to enjoy a forest because there are so many trees”, as we say here (I don’t know what the correct englich counterpart of that word would be, sorry).

    And i can say that i was able to let my diploma in biology not hinder me in enjoying that film. Not because i liked the very obvious “panthers”, “wolves” and “horses” (ummm…. ever heard of “convergent development”?),
    but because i think i got what Cameron did want to tell. The organisms in that story did not matter. He could have told said story with comic strip figures, or with “terran” horses, panthers and wolves, or with real indians or Penan people in it, it would not have made any difference.

    I am not sure if you got that story at all – otherwise the word “boring” would not have been in your post.

    For my reference to the Penan: You may google “Penan” or “Bruno Manser”. THATS the story. A very sad one, and a story which has to be told to and understood by as many people as possible.

    - – -
    Nothing above is meant to slander, offend or insult. Sorry if that has happened.

  76. #76 Neil C.
    January 17, 2010

    take an Ikran (banshee) silhouette and take out the tail and you will get an azhdarchid with Jon Conway’s hindlimb configuration) (“chin” aerofoil will serve as the pterosaur beak. Nice, considering they’re supposed to be in the same size range as a Quetzalcoatlus.

    And then you have scenes of them launching bipedally AND quadrupedally…. wow.

    Now for a film with real pterosaurs.

  77. #77 Neil C.
    January 17, 2010

    agh! I spelled John’s name wrong. A thousand apologies.

  78. #78 Anonymous
    January 17, 2010

    I think the point that is trying to be made here is that the entire selling point of the movie was that it was going to be an alien world, filled with its own unique flora and fauna, and filmed in high-definition graphics. While most agree it accomplished the latter goal, it falters on the former, seeing as almost all the inhabitants of Pandora could be summed up as Earth creatures with an extra pair of legs stapled on, and painted blue. There are blue dragons, blue panthers, blue jackals, blue horses, blue titanotheres, blue catgirls, you get the point. The fact that they even called these creatures by Earthy names shows they really didn’t care when it came to worldbuilding. And in a movie that revolves around worldbuilding, and you have the special effects to create whatever you want, it looks pretty bad.

    The problem with the Na’vi’s human-like traits is that Cameron could have attempted to justify how they evolved that way by outlining their evolutionary history, but other than the six to four limbs thing he didn’t. Rather, he just showed members of the crew pictures of male/female Na’vi, asked if they were sexy, and then edited them until they were. I am not making this up. Heck, at least Star Trek had the excuse that special effects weren’t well developed back then, and then they went and justified the similarities between all the different species by genetic tinkering from other aliens. In fact, they even went back and re-did the Klingons when special effects got a bit better.

  79. #79 AD
    January 17, 2010

    @Anonymous- Actually I thought the newer Klingons look more humanlike..

    Also, I don’t see what’s wrong with going with a basic vertebrate bauplan for the large land animals on Pandora. This is as likely as some sort of exoskeleton-based bauplan (also do the biomechanics of exoskeletons scale up to large active animals?). And once you have vertebrate-like animals you are likely to evolve animals vaguely similar to like what we have evolved on Earth, where convergent evolution is commonplace and you often end up with unrelated yet similar (“analogous” but not “homologous”) animals fulfilling particular ecological niches.

  80. #80 Anthony Docimo
    January 18, 2010

    And of course humans use familiar names when they go to a new planet – look at what they did when exploring new continents.

    (and since Pandora is fictional…well, for the sake of the viewers, if nothing else. after all, which sounds scarier?: “Look! Szfribyyyihy!” or “Look! Flying Sabertooth!”)

    >(no, really, see Avatar: The Activist’s Guide, it actually has that explanation in there).
    Read more of the book – it also says that *obviously* Eywah arranged for people to come, so that Eywah can save Earth from total destruction.

  81. #81 David Marjanović
    January 18, 2010

    the very obvious “panthers”, “wolves” and “horses” (ummm…. ever heard of “convergent development”?)

    It doesn’t work the way you imagine. If it has to start from very different beginnings, it will lead to fairly drastically different shapes. Check out Snaiad.

    See also comment 78.

  82. #82 Seabold
    January 18, 2010

    I might be missing the boat here, but I think part of the reason that the inhabitants of Pandora look the way they do was intentionally done to ensure our sympathies. As was made obvious by “District 9″, it’s really easy to hate something or just dismiss it when it’s too alien. If you have nothing emotionally invested in it, then it means nothing to you. The characters were designed to be familiar (and attractive) to do just that. And the wildlife was only alien enough to remind you that it wasn’t Earth, but familiar enough for you make that connection to our own planet.

  83. #83 Carlos
    January 18, 2010

    @Anonymous: I came up with the name “Capillophallus pandorus”, but I figured out it would be, uh, “not very acceptable”

    @Suki: The titanothere and some fliers like the banshee and the leonopteryx do have structures vaguely similar to feathers, although in both cases they are fleshy. I suppose the na’vis violently tear them off from their owners?

  84. #84 Matt Wedel
    January 18, 2010

    The neural uplink appendages of the Pandorian races would have been just a little easier for me to swallow if the movie had shown us their usage among non-Na’vi species. Do the wild beasts occasionally hook up with soul trees as well?

    Presumably. On my second viewing, I noticed that when the direhorse is slurping nectar out of the giant flowers, it’s neural tentacles are playing over the flowers–presumably convincing them to give up the goods.

    also, let’s not discuss the silliness inherent in using an orbital shuttle as a low-level aerial bomber.

    Akin to the WWII Luftwaffe using the Me 262 as a low-level bomber, or the 1960s Luftwaffe doing the same with the F-104 Starfighter. Dumb? Absolutely. But at least it has a real-world precedent.

    The improbably human-like Na’vi may rub us the wrong way, but from a dramatic perspective it is obvious that they must be human enough for us to treat Jake as a viewpoint character and Neytiri as a babe. In a way, the movie’s title carries a double meaning; the avatars are primarily for the moviegoers to “ride”. Avatar is a planetary romance and I think that we are intended to fall in love with the planet and with the Na’vi. Cameron has been open about wanting the movie to be an update of the pulp-style planetary romance pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which Earthmen routinely run into (and fall in love with) extraterrestrial humans. So the idea DNA here goes back a lot further than Star Trek.

  85. #85 Gwen
    January 19, 2010

    So glad to see this. I have to agree about the anthropomorphism–at least the Star Trek folks had an excuse. When everything is CG anyways, you can’t claim budget as an excuse–the “Avatars with hybrid DNA” could have been an excellent window to allow the natives to look even more alien, but was completely passed over. Why do the Na’vi not have the spiracle-gills, extra limbs, eyes, etc. that everything else does? I was a bit annoyed to see that the Banshees’ wing structure looked similar to a project I’d been working on, but at least I can say I did better for my sentients.

    I also have to agree that the bodies were too normal-looking. They did wonderful work making the heads look unique, but the legs on the terrestrial animals were just so normal. The Dire Horses’ rear portions look exactly like Equus butts. That’s just wrong.

    The neural link could have some kind of plausible origin–best one I can think of would be as an alternative to instincts which would allow a mother animal to pass what she had learned to her offspring. This could also explain why the Na’vi could use it to control other species–said species might instinctively yield to it, at least assuming they already trust the “source”. The sort used by the animals could be an elaboration of a pre-existing and more basic “tree type” network with some other function.

    And Seabold, I thought the “prawns” in District 9 were much cuter than the Na’vi. Although that may just be me.

  86. #86 Nathan Myers
    January 19, 2010

    “Convergent evolution” is a non-answer. Very occasionally we find it in the natural world, and we can each list a few examples, but they’re the same examples, because there really are only a few. Scanning the fossil record, there are no mammalian sauropod-analogs, no reptilian elephant-analogs, no amphibian rodent-analogs. There are creatures occupying more or less similar biomes, in each case, but they don’t look like their counterparts, or act much like them. Bats, birds, sauropods, and bugs don’t look anything alike. Bugs don’t even look like other bugs. Likewise for plants.

    You can insist “it’s just a story”, but it was somebody’s job to make a lush, engaging world with interestingly alien creatures. They obviously weren’t inspired by the opportunity, and instead cheaped out by putting the digital equivalent of bumpy-head masks on nature-film standards.

  87. #87 Nathan Myers
    January 19, 2010

    The “prawns” in District 9 were superbly engaging. They had spiracles, too. And, for a bonus, they could eat rubber. And that was just for an allegory. Imagine if Neill Blomkamp had made Avatar…

  88. #88 Anonymous
    January 19, 2010

    “Imagine if Neill Blomkamp had made Avatar…”

    Don’t tempt me man.

    “no amphibian rodent-analogs”

    Cacops

    “there are no mammalian sauropod-analogs, no reptilian elephant-analogs”

    That’s because the two basically occupied the same niche.

    However, I see your point. Just because two creatures occupy the same niche doesn’t mean they would be carbon copies of each other (even in the ocean, where fusiform convergent evolution is rampant, there are still differences between dolphins, sharks, and ichthyosaurs). Perhaps one or two “earth analogue-like” critters would have been plausible, but an entire ecosystem full of them nearly breaks the suspension of disbelief. Better yet, compare colobus monkeys and Suminia. Those things basically share the same niche, a common ancestor, and similar adaptations. And yet one is a monkey and the other looks like a twisted version of an iguana.

    Sadly, the production team called in Wayne Douglas Barlowe to help design the creatures, and at one point the banshee/Leonopteryx looked like flying stingrays crossed with the current design, and the direhorse looked like the lovechild of an Edmontosaurus and a horse. Unfortunately, Cameron micromanaged every aspect of the design process, and so they had to work within his very, very specific ideas. He actually said he wanted the Thanator to be an “alien panther”.

    “Why do the Na’vi not have the spiracle-gills, extra limbs, eyes, etc. that everything else does?”

    When I saw the trailer, I was wondering “why don’t the Na’vi have the same cranial crests that every other creature on Pandora (Leonopteryx, Titanotheres, Thanators) have. It would have been a nice change from the idea that the only external appendages aliens ever have would be antennae, external ears, and such.

    What also bugged me was how there were so many multiton animals rampaging around the tropical rainforests of Pandora. I was always under the impression that animals tended to be smaller in rainforest environments, unless they were able to climb. And how come all the herbivores on Pandora seem to be low browsers. One would think that with an abundance of leaves someone would take advantage of them.

  89. #89 Carlos
    January 19, 2010

    “”What also bugged me was how there were so many multiton animals rampaging around the tropical rainforests of Pandora. I was always under the impression that animals tended to be smaller in rainforest environments, unless they were able to climb. And how come all the herbivores on Pandora seem to be low browsers. One would think that with an abundance of leaves someone would take advantage of them.””

    I actually assumed they were no true leaf eaters on Pandora, considering that if there were the plant entity thing would eradicate them all; instead things like the titanotheres were oversized granivores/frugivores, being usefull for the vegetation and thus allowed to live. Unless the plants are sadomashochists, of course

  90. #90 Cory Trego-Erdner
    January 19, 2010

    I would bet you that the similarities to John Conway’s Pterosaurs and Microraptor are on purpose. Many of the best creature designers in the entertainment industry are very knowledgeable about animal anatomy, zoology, and evolution. One look at Neville Page’s designs confirms for me that he knows a few things about actual animals.

    Dan Holdsworth– I found the plot well paced and emotionally satisfying enough that I didn’t mind the unoriginal plot, but still, your ideas are awesome, and would have improved on the film greatly.

  91. #91 amphiox
    January 19, 2010

    It would have been nicer if they had kept at least some vestige of hexapod descent on the Na’vi. A vestigial spike of bone on the elbow to echo Prolemuris, perhaps, or maybe a winglike tuff off the shoulder, etc.

    It should be noted that the reason convergent evolution occurs is because there are only so many ways of successfully doing something presuming that you start from with the same or similar embryological constraints. So there are only so many ways you can start with a chordate plan and get a fast efficient swimmer, and so you end up with lots of fusiform aquatic vertebrates. Or you start with your basic basal mammal and both marsupials and placentals end up paralleling each other in similar niches (you could add a good helping of therapsid examples to the mix of convergences, too).

    But if you start with a different set of initial constraints your chances of convergences drops dramatically. Squid don’t look like fish. Archosaurs and synapsids sharing similar niches most certainly did not converge. Even among mammals, kangaroos and antelopes did not converge.

    Now given the premise of starting with a hexapod body plan, there are so many options that could have been explored with regards to specializations of the third pair of limbs. Though I certainly liked the movie, I think the makers of Avatar missed a chance to be even more creative than they were.

  92. #92 Zach Miller
    January 19, 2010

    The prawns in District 9 were certainly more impressive, from a design perspective, than the Na’vi. My wife complained that they looks too human, what with the four limbs, upright stance, and two big eyes, but I didn’t care. I felt they were “just right” in terms of balancing human characteristics and alien biology.

    Also, and this is in response to an OLD comment, but the “Reign of Fire” dragons are not actually dragons, but wyverns. The differences between the groups are quite vast, but the most obvious is that dragons are hexapodal, having evolved a new set of limbs that function as wings (an alternate theory states that their wings are their arms, and that their “arms” are the new limb), while wyverns are basically bats–their wings are their arms.

    I could go on and on about this.

  93. #93 Nathan Myers
    January 20, 2010

    Zach: It seems much more likely that the wyverns abandoned their forelimbs as superfluous weight. Otherwise we are obliged to assume a great deal of gratuitous convergence. The Chinese lung and the Japanese ryu somehow managed to dispense with the wings, instead, without giving up flight. Good trick, that.

  94. #94 David Marjanović
    January 20, 2010

    “no amphibian rodent-analogs”

    Cacops

    What have you smoked, and can I get it legally in the Netherlands? :-)

    Cacops was a good old impale-and-swallow carnivore. Nothing even vaguely similar to gnawing in there.

    Also, whether Cacops was an amphibian is an open question… :-)

  95. #95 Anonymous
    January 20, 2010

    I meant in the way of a small microfaunal animal feeding on insects and such. But I forgot that most rodents were herbivorous there for a sec. Perhaps a “weasel-analogue” better choice of words.

    By amphibian, I meant in the layman’s sense of amphibian=basal tetrapod outside of Aminota.

  96. #96 Nick
    January 20, 2010

    “Now given the premise of starting with a hexapod body plan, there are so many options that could have been explored with regards to specializations of the third pair of limbs. Though I certainly liked the movie, I think the makers of Avatar missed a chance to be even more creative than they were…”

    If they added everything else that the science community wanted from this film, I’m sure it would have only cost $800 million to make.

  97. #97 Laura Henson
    January 20, 2010

    I just saw Avatar and I must say that the first thing I thought of was the short story “Call Me Joe”,written in 1957 by Poul Anderson. The stories are narly identicle and apparently I was not the only one to think so: see http://io9.com/5390226/did-james-cameron-rip-off-poul-andersons-novella

    The original natives in “Joe” actually had six limbs, being a sort of blue cat-centaur. Something that would have been much neater than the cat people of Avatar, though there would have been no direhorses or “dragons”.

  98. #98 mo
    January 20, 2010

    We probably all agree with this:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/19/science/19essay.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

    except the trolls.

  99. #99 Nick
    January 20, 2010

    I agree with that article wholeheartedly Mo. Cameron tried to bring a sense of wonder back to cinema (and by the way the movie is selling, I’d say he is succeeding). He took things he enjoyed growing up and then actually used science to make them more realistic. Did he succeed in making them totally realistic? No, he actually used backward science in starting with the desired result then finding the method for it. But it made the movie just science based enough to be believable for the average person (kind of like CSI meets xenobiology).

    I personally loved the movie. As a high school Biology/Anatomy teacher for the past 20 years, I’m referring to it constantly in class, and the students are actually better understanding the lessons I’m trying to teach as a result.

  100. #100 William Miller
    January 20, 2010

    >> I was always under the impression that animals tended to be smaller in rainforest environments, unless they were able to climb.

    Asian elephant inhabits rainforest environments and is not a climber. Same for African forest elephant (though admittedly smaller than African bush elephant, still a VERY large animal), Javan Rhinoceros, etc.

    In addition to “Call Me Joe”, the parallels to Midworld by Alan Dean Foster are striking … both have a group of natives in connection with a planet-wide forest-mind encountering commercial exploitation.

  101. #101 Nathan Myers
    January 20, 2010

    I do not concede that the movie would have been notably more expensive to make if the animals had been less slavish copies of extant Earth species.

  102. #102 Nick
    January 21, 2010

    Nathan, look at any of the documentaries on how much work and time went into creating these creatures and having them move realistically on screen. If you are working with something that is not similar to earth species, how do you translate that movement to make it realistic? It would take more man hours to come up with that design (and from what I understand, this movie blew the doors off the number of artists, scientists, etc… that it had working on it). For the believability factor of the audience, and cost of making the movie, it makes more sense to have the creatures based on earth based life.

  103. #103 Gwen
    January 22, 2010

    But “based on earth life” is not the same thing as “carbon copy of Earth equivalent”, which from the neck down is basically what the terrestrial animals are.

    What about a predator with a gait like a pig, or a fluid panther-like herbivore? Or basing the animals’ motions on the movement patterns of spiders, or mantises, or house flies? Any terrestrial invertebrate could make a great model. They have a very efficient design, and are visibly different from the mammals we are used to seeing. To say nothing of the standard limb count of Pandoran wildlife…

    Even shuffling builds and motion types between the animal models they did use could have made for more original creatures, but instead the panther still moves like a panther, the rhino moves like a rhino, et cetera. It still seems to be very much a matter of stereotypes.

  104. #104 Nick
    January 22, 2010

    So are we discounting tree seeds that look like jelly fish, carnivorous plants that act like tubeworms, trees that have electrical nervous function, vertebrates that breathe through spriracles, et cetera?

  105. #105 The Ridger
    January 24, 2010

    I immediately wondered about the loss of 2 limbs and a pair of eyes. But more than that – I could reluctantly accept that it could happen – I found Avatar to be a beautiful beautiful retelling of a very familiar, boringly predictable, and ultimately pernicious story.

    And the “message”? Not applicable. After all, if our gaea reacted like theirs, we’d be a bit more ecofriendly, wouldn’t we?

  106. #106 Zach Miller
    January 26, 2010

    Nathan, ample fossil evidence demonstrates that wyverns are basal archosaurs. The ancestry of dragons is hotly debated. Some workers have even suggested they are basal synapsids that arose during the Permian. That seems extreme. The current “consensus,” if you can call it that, is that dragons are prolacertiformes or, potentially, drepanosaurs (go figure). For more, see HERE.

  107. #107 Cameron
    January 26, 2010

    One day I want to see a movie where the predator is a conservative coward that faints when confronted with a gun

    You’d think that somebody would realize that it is far more interesting and horrifying than normal predator behavior.

    I can think of one sorta-example from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga: a human/lion chimera named Heinkel relies heavily on poor visibility and keen senses to attack opponents and, in one instance, evade snipers. Another incident involved him attacking a man from behind, biting out the throat, using the body as a shield against another attacker, and running off after an external distraction. While not predatory, it appears to have been done in the same “cowardly” spirit.

    And that is why they call me The Lord Geekington.

  108. #108 Cameron
    January 26, 2010

    Whoops, first paragraph should read “normal predatory behavior in movies”.

  109. #109 Sclerophanax
    January 29, 2010

    I’ve been avoiding reading or commenting this post before I saw the movie, and due to a lot of unexpected delays, it wasn’t until now. I actually managed to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy the whole movie, warts and all, but there was one thing that bothered me throughout: the missing Na’vi spiracles. I was convinced pretty much all through the movie that they had to have them and I was just somehow missing them all the time. I even considered the possibility that only the real Na’vi have them and not the avatar bodies, but I guess I was wrong.

    I also expected them to reveal before the end that the entire Pandoran ecosystem was artificial, put together by the ancient ancestors of the Na’vi. Faced with an environmental catastrophe of their own making, they sought to find a way to coexist with nature rather than fighting and exploiting it destructively. So they came up with a giant tree network to control the entire biosphere and house the enormous gestalt consciousness formed from minds uploaded through the tree of souls, fauna that could all be linked to using a plug&play tentacle interface, home trees to provide housing etc. I really thought at some point we’d get twist reveal showing that what the humans had thought to be primitive savages in a pristine world were actually the final result of a superadvenced civilization way ahead of humanity (though kept in the dark about their past by the worldmind Eywa).

  110. #110 Graham King
    January 29, 2010

    I love the film!

    I had high hopes, which I inwardly dreaded it might somewhat let down; but it exceeded them.

    And I feel – highest praise! – that the ending was satisfying. Not just some indulgent effects-fest with the plot left to go hang. Instead I was delighted and astonished at the intelligent respect for the audience which I felt the film showe, throughout.

  111. #111 Owlmirror
    January 30, 2010

    I also expected them to reveal before the end that the entire Pandoran ecosystem was artificial, put together by the ancient ancestors of the Na’vi. Faced with an environmental catastrophe of their own making, they sought to find a way to coexist with nature rather than fighting and exploiting it destructively. So they came up with a giant tree network to control the entire biosphere and house the enormous gestalt consciousness formed from minds uploaded through the tree of souls, fauna that could all be linked to using a plug&play tentacle interface, home trees to provide housing etc. I really thought at some point we’d get twist reveal showing that what the humans had thought to be primitive savages in a pristine world were actually the final result of a superadvenced civilization way ahead of humanity (though kept in the dark about their past by the worldmind Eywa).

    I like a notion that is almost exactly the opposite: That Eywa as a vegetable intelligence evolved first long, long ago, and that the Na’vi are basically the result of Eywa taking human DNA [and possibly feline DNA] (via some sort of space/time warp/wormhole or temporal communication link handwave) and creating the entire species of Na’vi from it.

  112. #112 Blind Squirrel
    January 30, 2010

    common mycorrhizal networks known to involve certain trees and their symbiotic fungi

    All trees, AFAIK.

    BS

  113. #113 Adam
    January 31, 2010

    Honestly, I thought the alien designs were pretty alien. I mean sure we on this forum could probably think up more alien forms but consider your average viewer…they’ve never heard of four winged dinosaurs, looked closely at a fishes mouth, or are used to concentrating on the underlying similarities between form and movement in animals. And they spent most of the movie watching the characters not the critters. The makers tacked on quite a bit more alienness and cohesiveness of form than they had to. I mean look at star-wars for example. Dagobah has a few loose tentacles and a few purely earthly reptiles, and its other aliens are fun to watch but on the whole rather less sensible than what’s on Pandora. Or star trek or stargate, who rarely show any wildlife at all. Sure, places like barlowe’s book or Ramjet’s work or Spec do a better job of creating believable lifeforms, but that’s their entire focus. In Avatar the ecosystem is a tangent, and one that could have been left out without losing the story.

    As an aside, for possible future plotline purposes…Avatar’s atmosphere has high levels of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide….so does polluted Earth’s….I know invasive species are typically considered bad, but maybe alien life is better than no life at all……

  114. #114 Tamara Henson
    February 1, 2010

    Those interested in the taxonomy and systematics of fantasy dragons should see
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/16225318/The-Evolution-Classification-of-the-Dragon

    I went through dozens of books to dig up every scientific name I could find that pertaining to mythical fire-breathing reptilians and that paper is the result. I even have cladograms.

  115. #115 Lissamphibia
    February 2, 2010

    @86, Nathan Myers:

    There are definitely bugs that look like other bugs! My favorite example of convergent evolution in arthropods is probably the mantid/mantispid comparison. Check it out:

    http://waynesword.palomar.edu/convevol.htm

    And more pictures of mantidflies because they’re awesome (some are even convincing wasp mimics!):

    http://bugguide.net/node/view/4796/bgpage

  116. #116 Greg Johnson
    February 3, 2010

    So the thanator is a black hexapodal predatory cat analogue with tentacles. Anybody else think displacer beast as soon as they saw one?

    http://images.google.com/images?q=displacer+beast

  117. #117 Brynn Metheney
    February 4, 2010

    I agree with you on the predator thing. I hate hollywood predators… one day I hope they get it right.

  118. #118 Dr.Alien
    February 4, 2010

    I think it’s sad there is no more realistic special effects to show extraterrestrials, like Stan WINSTON, Rob BOTTIN and other physical monsters with animatronics. For me, realistic living creatures have very few to do with CGI animation.
    Think to sick Triceratops from JURASSIC PARK, baby T-rex from SPIELBERG’s LOST WORLD, ROBERT HEINLEIN’S PUPPET MASTERS’ parasites, for example : incredible breathing creatures with very convincing skin.
    If you think at all good animatronics monsters that it would be possible to create with all the money spent.
    AVATAR is only a very expensive simulation game. And now a CGI CLASH OF TITANS, although the great animator Ray HARRYHAUSEN had never agrement to do a third mythological movie…
    Let’s bring back all those masters…
    PS: of course, the Navi are just humanoid cats. Not enough alien creatures for me too.

  119. #119 David
    February 5, 2010

    Nice comments, and an enjoyable read about a fantastic film.

    You are way off with the unidirectional breathing though. The fact that our breathing is “bidirectional” is crucial for our ability to maintain homoeostasis. If it were based on a gills-like system, it would rapidly destroy the gas and moisture balance in the lungs and kill us.

  120. #120 amphiox
    February 6, 2010

    re #102,

    I mostly agree with you here. CGI does depend a great deal on using real-world models for things like movement and interaction, so a certainly similarity is an inevitable technical limitation of the technique. You could, conceivably, design from pure imagination something completely different from anything on earth, and therefore, all its movements would also be purely up to the imagination. You could theoretically use a computer simulation of real-world physics to make sure your imaginary creation doesn’t break any laws of physics, but I suspect that the computation power required to do this for complex motion of a whole organism without any real-world analogue of any kind is beyond what is easily available currently.

    And there is also the very real possibility that even if your creation was truly realistic (ie obeys the laws of physics properly) it could still be so alien to your audience’s range of experience that they will not accept it as plausible and their willing suspension of disbelief gets broken as a result. In fact, I’m sure that as part of the creative process of making this movie and others like it, the film-makers probably tested various trial models of moving creatures with target audiences of some sort (maybe just themselves or groups of their co-workers) to see if they appeared realistic or credible to your average person.

    re #119,

    While your argument here is no doubt sound, it does not appear difficult to me to conceive of a unidirectional mode of breathing coupled to alternate mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis that could realistically evolve in a hypothetical alien.

    The flow-through respiratory system of birds is topographically a unidirectional, curved in on itself into a circle, so that intake and output is through the same orifice. Or at least that’s how I understand it (if I am wrong someone will surely correct me soon enough).

  121. #121 David Marjanović
    February 6, 2010

    The flow-through respiratory system of birds is topographically a unidirectional, curved in on itself into a circle, so that intake and output is through the same orifice.

    Yes (and through the same trachea, but that’s it).

  122. #122 Adam
    February 6, 2010

    It’s no wonder those alien horses looked like horses…. They used motion capture on actual horses to get the movements, as detailed in the link.

    http://www.movieline.com/2010/02/report-peta-punkd-by-avatars-six-legged-horses.php

  123. #123 Brian
    February 15, 2010

    I am surprised. A huge bunch of whiny little girly boys bitching about how “real” something was or was not. It was entertainment with a underlining social message, nothing more… deal with it. If you can come up with something better and make 2 billion then do it…what you can’t?

  124. #124 David Marjanović
    February 15, 2010

    Macho man, we are scientists. We have SIWOTI syndrome, and there’s nothing you can do about it. =8-)

    (Also mouse over the picture to see the additional text.)

  125. #125 Zach
    February 19, 2010

    Am I the only person who’s noticed the suspicious similarity of the Great Leonopteryx and Mountain Banshee’s piscean mouthparts to the mouths of the flying fish (“flish”) in the 2003 “future evolution”-genre mini-series “The Future is Wild”? This might be explained by the involvement of Dougal Dixon, who was one of the scientists consulted for the show and may have had a hand in the flish’s design: it thus might be that the similarity between the flying Pandoran fauna created by Wayne Barlowe for “Avatar” and the conjectural descendants of teleost fish for “The Future is Wild”, possibly the brainchildren of Dixon, is Barlowe’s snide way of avenging Dixon’s alleged plagiarism of Barlowe’s work (see The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe).

  126. #126 blake
    April 30, 2010

    my fav is the antolope creatures!

  127. #127 blake
    April 30, 2010

    what about you zach!!!!!

  128. #128 Defiant
    May 10, 2010

    Yes, I loved the movie. Yes, I saw flaws that didn’t make sense scientifically to me, and yes, I irritated my diehard Avatar-fan friends by pointing them out.

    However, while those of you who don’t like the Na’vi are so disappointed in Cameron for how they look, you gotta wonder if that was even his idea to change them. In the beginning he wanted them to look way different. Clearly, some sponsor/producer/what-have-you probably saw his concept on the Na’vi and said “That’s not gonna sell, make them prettier. Give the chicks boobies! Do cat-people! Cat-people sell the best!”

    That’s the only part I’ll defend. Have at him for everything else.

  129. #129 Matthew
    May 30, 2010

    You keep saying that the creature’s savage, hell bent behaviour is unrealistic. Well to you it is as it is something very weird and strange. These creatures live 4.37 light years away from us, and live on a planet consumed by war. If you lived on this planet, as a na’vi or one of the creatures, would you not go crazy to kill and destroy any outsiders you knew were trying to destroy your home? I know I would. You do notice that the thanator and other creatures seem much less aggresive towards the “real” native Na’vi. Thats because honestly there is no need for the creatures to hurt the Na’vi but there is a reason to kill Jake and the other marines who were bent on tearing the planet apart for the consumption of a mineral just to sell for money. Another thing many animals are based on our creatures here on Earth. Yes, they are a different and do look very alien like but they still resemble many common earth creatures. However to make a whole no body structure and system would be incredibly hard, so what Cameron did was to copy other animal’s such as the Dire Horse, from Earth’s common horse. What he did was amazing and to call his work lame and stupid is a terrible insult, I’d like to see you try and do what he did.

  130. #130 David Marjanović
    May 31, 2010

    to make a whole no body structure and system would be incredibly hard

    No. Has been done several times. Here’s one.

    What he did was amazing and to call his work lame and stupid is a terrible insult, I’d like to see you try and do what he did.

    Give Darren the money, and I bet he’ll gladly do better than Cameron.

  131. #131 Annonymous
    June 10, 2010

    WELL COOL!!! thnx im riting a second avatar so we can play it at school, it has vampires in it!!

  132. #132 Dom
    June 27, 2010

    “One day I want to see a movie where the predator is a conservative coward that faints when confronted with a gun”

    You’re probably right in describing modern predators, but I think there might actually be an evolutionary basis for the Thantor’s behavior. Before many large predators were introduced to guns, they did not have an instinctual fear of guns and man. Much of that fear and shyness has evolved over time. Peter Boomgaard has written an excellent book called “Frontiers of Fear” discussing the change in tiger behavior during the advent of colonialism in Indonesia.

  133. #133 Dom
    June 27, 2010

    [sorry, I forgot to finish the post]

    I suspect Thantor probably is in a similar position. Humans and automatic weapons are new to Pandora. The animals may not have developed an innate fear yet, especially as they seem to dominate the humans they do encounter (like Jake).

    The smaller and more vulnerable Viperwolves I admit probably would be more afraid of loud noises. However, some predators can show abnormal determination – witness the Komodo Dragon’s hunting a carabao in the recent BBC Life series.

  134. #134 talon
    August 12, 2010

    Just wondering if anyone sat back and enjoyed the movie for what it was, entertainment.

  135. #135 David Marjanović
    August 13, 2010

    Science is entertaining.

    We feel sorry for you because you don’t know what you’re missing. :-)

  136. #136 kris
    August 14, 2010

    Also, I assume part of the “problem” is that this is a zoology blog and not a movie blog. Why would we discuss movies if not for their animals?

  137. #137 Vasika
    June 18, 2011

    I don’t think that this should be taken as too much of an exoplanetary mission as much as an extradimensional one, because if Pandora was in another universe, I guess it’d be more possible.

    It’s surprising that the sturmbeest and the titanothere are the only megaherbivores shown to us. At least the low gravity sohuld, and would, allow the evolution of some gigantic, super-tall, or super-long monster herbivore that looked pretty outlandish but still convincingly real. I wish Barlowe had been given his own liberties in the production and design of the animals, instead of going according to Cameron all the time-I mean, hell, the dude’s more experienced!

    I like the lower gravity concept-and in fact, all of us do, as you can get beasts and plants of monstrous sizes on your planet if you do, and it may be a cliched theme, but it’s a good theme. THe Na’vi looking humanesque is okay, but in the same universe or at least galaxy, where the chances of convergent evolution are very low-hell, at least let them have a few sucking mouthparts or something.

  138. #138 Gansu
    August 15, 2011

    On earth the erect man and other vertebrates have four limbs. the difference is the number used as legs. Man evolved to use the forelimbs as hands and not for posture and movement. In avatar the vertebrates have six limbs-four in the front and two behind. But the erect ones – Na’vi have only four limbs just like man and other animals on earth. Did I miss something?

  139. #139 Iris Trombley
    August 16, 2011

    You think the Thanator sounds “exactly” like the T-rex? Wow Dude you need to watch Jurassic Park again. It sounds NOTHING like the T-rex. You also think its skin looks slimy? Looks more like the smooth skin of a dolphin to me. The Eclan (banchees) come in shades of blue, green AND orange. Maybe you should watch the movie again and pay more attention. Yes the story line has been done 100 times before. But this movie gave you so much more than that. For the most part “there is nothing humane about humans” period!

  140. #140 Owlmirror
    August 19, 2011

    In avatar the vertebrates have six limbs-four in the front and two behind. But the erect ones – Na’vi have only four limbs just like man and other animals on earth. Did I miss something?

    Only that the original post addressed exactly that point. Granted, it’s a bit far down, but it is there.

    (Search for “Prolemuris”)

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.