Evolution of Pokémon

Congratulations! Your Seaking evolved into … Pidgeot?

The phylogeny of the animal kingdom is an evolutionary tree, something many students are well aware of. A Pokémon phylogeny, however, is not something one comes across everyday.

Three UC Davis affiliates have recently published this phylogeny in the July/August issue of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) magazine.

“It’s similar to entomology and how we approach things, so I wanted to apply the science to the fiction,” said Matan Shelomi, a graduate student working under professor Lynn Kimsey in the Bohart Museum of Entomology.

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the website hosting this magazine (improbable.com) is one dedicated to making people “laugh and then think,” as dictated by their homepage.

“[AIR has] had similar papers in the past in this vein, like the phylogeny of Chia pets and the scientific description of Barney the Dinosaur, so I figured they might be interested in something like this,” Shelomi said. “Plus, I’ve seen online some people trying to do phylogenies, and it was always either take a real phylogeny and replace the animals with Pokemon or it wasn’t very quantitative, and I wanted to do something using real science.”

One of Shelomi’s colleagues on the project was Andrew Richards, a junior specialist for the Bohart Museum. Richards assisted in the input of data into the computers.

“Matan needed someone with phylogenetic experience, and I took a few courses in it and it sounded really interesting. I wanted to see how it would turn out,” Richards said. “I thought the makers of it had just made it all up; there was no way something reasonable would work out at all. I tried it, and it came out really well.”

It took about a month for Shelomi to collect the data on the weekends when he was not conducting his own research for the museum. Once that was completed, Richards used phylogenetic programs to simulate the data into the evolutionary tree, which only took a few days, and then Shelomi wrote the research paper.

After a clear phylogeny was created with all 649 Pokémon, Richards was surprised by how well the finished product turned out.

“I was pretty interested in whether the phylogenetic tree would make sense, and it did. I feel like it brought out the work that the creators put into making them,” said Ivana Li, fifth-year entomology major, student researcher at the Bohart Museum and president of the Entomology Club.

Shelomi and Richards needed an artist to illustrate all of the Pokémon characters for the phylogeny, which was when Li joined the project. She said she credits Pokémon for inspiring her to keep drawing.

“I have always been a fan of the Pokémon games. I’ve been playing the games and watching the TV show since I was ten,” Li said. “To be able to do something extra nerdy like this, I was like ‘Why not?’”

After sending the phylogeny to AIR, Shelomi said it was accepted fairly quickly, though it took a couple of months to put it into the magazine.

Since word has started to spread about their research, Shelomi said there has already been talk about using the phylogeny for teaching biology.

“I would be very happy if this was being used to teach evolution and biology to children,” Shelomi said.

There has also been an attempt by a linguist in Japan to make a new phylogeny using the researchers’ data. After contacting Shelomi, the linguist ran his own data analysis.

“He used a different procedure than we had and ours was pretty simple. To do anything more complicated, you’d have to make a lot of it up for this to be in the real world. For example, we don’t know the rates of evolution or the things that we would just have to completely make up out of thin air and I think he may have done some of that,” Richards said.

Shelomi posted the research on some Pokémon forums online and found that some fans had arguments against his data. However, Shelomi saw this disagreement as an opportunity to encourage others to create their own Pokémon evolutionary trees.

“I’d like to see more people try to make these massive trees for all the Pokémon and argue for different sides for what they think is appropriate,” Shelomi said. “If you don’t like the tree, make your own and try to justify which is better.”

The full phylogeny can be viewed in the Bohart Museum of Entomology at 1124 Academic Surge during its business hours. The magazine issue which includes the paper, “A Phylogeny and Evolutionary History of the Pokemon,” is downloadable for free via low-resolution .pdf on the website or can be purchased online.

MARIA MARCELINA CRYSTAL VEGA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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