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.
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.
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.
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 ‘Tapejara‘ navigans (for more on tapejarids, go here) [image below from here].
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?
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)
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].
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].
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].
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.
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?
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…