Thrill of the Taxa: Mammals

why don't people canoe much in world of warcraft?

A while back, I mentioned on this blog that I grew up in the Ozark Plateau, which led to my introduction to a fellow hunter and biologist who goes by Aukatos. Aukatos, it turned out, supervised a behavioral ecology lab about 20 miles away from my family's farm. After bonding over some mutual love of the Ozarks, and some brainstorming over how we could put his biological expertise to work in the wow hunter community, we decided to at least start with a little survey of the biological World of Warcraft.  

We'll be working our way through some of the loosely defined phylum and classes of tamable hunter pets (and non-tamable hunter pets), starting this week with Mammals. So without further ado, I'll turn this over to Aukatos.

Mammals in World of Warcraft

Hairy business: What’s a mammal?

IRL - 

Out of the possible 8-14 million species currently sharing the planet, about 55,000 of those are vertebrates (meaning they have bones, more or less). Of all the vertebrates, only about 5,000 of those are mammals.

Even so, when most of us generically picture "animals" in our heads, we most often default to mammals. Whether that be domestic pets, farm animals, or wild animals, most people think of something in a relatively small category in the grand scheme of life. Mammals have many unique features, including: hair, milk, and three inner ear bones (for those that care). Despite the relative scarcity of species, mammals have radiated to inhabit nearly every ecosystem on the planet. In fact, the only places where you won’t find some species of mammal are those without breathable oxygen.

Mammals are an incredibly diverse group, making up some of the smallest, to the largest vertebrates on the planet. For example, there’s a species of shrew where the adults weigh less than a dime, yet Blue Whales have weighed in at 181,000 kilograms, which is roughly the weight of 2500 people.  Delirium's note: or, to put it in terms people are more likely to understand that's 96 octillionths (or 9.6/100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) the weight of the sun... :-)

Mammals fall into two broad categories: monotremes (read, crazy stuff that lives in Australia), and therian mammals. Therian mammals can further be broken down into marsupials and eutherian (or placental) mammals. The latter is what everybody probably defaults to as typical mammals. Now, to further drive home a point. Only within eutherians, just over 60% of the total species are made up by rodents and bats alone! That’s a lot of bats and rats!  Delirium's note: wait a second, according to a scientific paper I read (Watterson, 1989) bats, it turns out, are actually bugs.

The point is, what occupies most of our perceptions of "animal" actually represents a small portion, of a small portion, of a small portion of species on the planet.

IVL - 

In WoW, much like in our perception of the real world, the largest group of pet families is the mammals. After reading the above, this should make you wonder a little. However, as far as average human perception of life on the planet, I think it’s probably in the ballpark.

Of the 15 families of mammals currently tamable by hunters, the first thing apparent is that bats and rodents are NOT very representative, having only a single family to represent each. That aside, the phylogeny of WoW’s mammals can be displayed as below:

Fig 1. A phylogeny of WoW’s mammals by in-game family. Numbers above each family represent the number of unique looks (species) within that family.

Noticeably, the largest group (most species in family) is cats with a total of 52 unique looks, which I’ll call species. Realistically we’d have fewer actual species, with several subspecies of each. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be treating each look as an independent species.

Since mammals are so diverse in form and habitat, I’ll be making some generalizations for the purpose of comparison between mammals in-game and IRL. Do note that there’s a wealth of information on each little tidbit of info that could become an article in itself, but for the sake of everybody’s sanity I’ll be brief.

Far and wide: Where are mammals?

As mentioned above, mammals have been incredibly successful in adapting to almost every ecosystem on earth where you can find breathable oxygen. From the cold Arctic tundra to the steamy equatorial jungles, from the depths of the ocean to the peaks of mountains, mammals abound.

One of the many reasons mammals have radiated so widely is due to the ability to internally regulate body temperature. This allows mammals to inhabit ecosystems much cooler or warmer than their optimal body temperature. Naturally, hair also helps regulate internal temperature – another feature unique to mammals.

When you have a Class that is so diverse, it’s hard to get their placement wrong in a fantasy world. With regards to mammals within WoW, there are three categories they fall into: extant, extinct, and fantastical.

As far as extant mammals in WoW, I feel compelled to reiterate the lack of bats. Bats (Order Chiroptera) are found worldwide and come in many shapes and sizes.

Fig 2. Who says fruit bats can’t be adorable, or comedic reliefs?!
The largest bats, fruit bats (or flying foxes), are found only in the tropics and subtropics. In-game bats are very large, so it follows they would be distributed in the warmer zones, however out of all the zones you find tamable bats, very few are actually in the “tropical” zones but rather in the zones that fit the “spooky” bat stereotype.

On the other hand, one group of mammals that would be hard for Blizzard to misplace are the cats. Cats fall into two broad categories, the “big cats” and everything else. Big cats make up the subfamily Pantherinae, as opposed to Felinae. When I say big cats, I mean lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. Smaller cats like lynxes, pumas, and even house cats fall into the latter group. Big cats inhabit many ecosystems around the world, and can be found on nearly every continent excluding Australia and Antarctica. So when we look at WoW, and see cats on every continent (not to mention every world and timeline), it’s actually not that far of a stretch. Kudos, Blizzard. (Now where’s all the prey to support them?)

Fig 3. Okay, this is pretty awesome. Now where
are the goats to feed the 3 dozen other cats?
Allow me elaborate on cats a little more. IRL, big cats are apex predators, meaning that they’re at the top of their relative food chains and need almost exponentially more prey than predators to support any given population. While they are more than capable of taking down live prey, many will also scavenge if an easy meal is available (as is true with many carnivores). This flexibility in diet, combined with their hunting prowess, is what has allowed big cats to radiate across the world. However, in WoW we simply don’t see the relative abundance of “prey” needed to support the cats. I do understand the feasibility versus fantasy argument. In some of the more recent expansions Blizzard actually has taken steps to show “natural” predator-prey interactions in-game (see fig. 3), so perhaps we can give them a pass here.

In terms of sociality in mammals, there is great variation. Some mammals, such as bears, only come together to mate, otherwise living solitary lives. On the other hand, many mammals are social, from smaller groups, such as seen in foxes, to the larger, socially complex groups gorillas form. Since pairing animals together in-game isn’t very difficult, this is one area where Blizzard has excelled. Just go take a walk through Nagrand and look at the packs of wolves, herds of clefthooves, and pods of riverbeasts.

Let’s talk about cross-species interactions for just a second. Symbiosis (no, not the since-removed Druid ability) has a much broader context than the way most people use it. Symbiosis refers to the suite of ways two organisms or species interact with each other. If both parties benefit, it’s called mutualism; if one benefits while the other is harmed, it’s parasitism; if one benefits and the other one neither benefits nor is harmed, it’s commensalism.

Cases of pure mutualism are virtually nonexistent in mammals. Commensalistic relationships are somewhat more common, such as when large mammals stir up insects while grazing that birds may feed upon, but are still rare between two mammalian species. The only case of parasitism by a mammal is in the Vampire Bats! Vampire bats, native to Central and South America, will locate large mammals at night while they’re sleeping. The bats will land on their sleeping host and make a small incision in the skin and laps up the blood. Neat! While there are several species of “vampire” bat in-game, it’s safe to say the WoW versions are much more aggressive (not to mention much larger) than their real-world counterparts.

Fun facts about mammals!

Hyenas are more closely related to cats than they are dogs, although they display many dog-like behaviors. In addition, Spotted Hyena have undergone a role-reversal in respect to many other mammals: the females are larger than the males, more dominant, and have external genitalia that scientists lovingly dub “pseudo-penises”!

Is venom only found in snakes? Heck no! There are actually many species of venomous mammals. Aside from the well-known species such as the platypus, there are several species of shrew, slow lorises, and hedgehogs, to name a few.

Can they actually do what they do?

I specialize in the study of animal behavior, so I tend to pay attention to not only the diversity and locality of our pets, but the abilities each brings to the raid.

All pet families in WoW have one of three basic attacks: Bite, Claw, or Smack. While I understand the need for the simplicity of such spells, there are simply places where none of the above make sense. Take clefthooves for example. IRL rhinos don’t bite, or claw, or really even smack an opponent. Something like “Gore” would better fit here, and could also apply to other families such as boars or stags.

Fig 4. In a battle between Ankle Crack and Mortal Wounds,
well, you can guess who wins.
Basic attacks aside, I think the developers did a pretty decent job choosing appropriate abilities for the mammal families, at least superficially. Sure, not all cats roar, but it’s close enough to home to feel right. One that feels incredibly well-placed is the riverbeast ability, Gruesome Bite. IRL, hippos kill more people every year than the crocodiles they share a habitat with, and are notoriously more aggressive. Not to mention they have the jaw-strength to snap a grown man in two. There’s that.

Now, it’s a fun non-biological reference when gorillas give us Blessing of Kongs, but something that has always bugged me is the dog special ability, Bark of the Wild. I get the pun, but come on! That’s terrible and even Blizzard knows it. Of all the training/teamwork/domestication traits that dogs are known for, they can’t come up with anything better? Ugh.  Delirium's Note: when Bark of the Wild was first introduced I giggled for a solid 10 or 20 minutes.  :-P

Filling in the gaps

With another expansion around the corner, this is a great time for Blizzard to take a look at pets and their abilities (and they’ve historically done so).

As far as mammals are concerned, I’d like to see some more diversity! If we’re going to have an isolated island, there’s a great opportunity to introduce some distant relatives of the mainland mammals, eg. Marsupials or Monotremes! Something like the spiny echidna wouldn’t be too hard, since they’ve got an existing porcupine model. Even a kangaroo or wombat could make an appearance! I know what you’re thinking, but marsupials aren’t JUST exclusive to Australia!

Aside from something totally new, I’d like to see some of the families with very few looks to get some attention. In my phylogeny above, there are seven families with less than 10 looks. There is still quite a bit of untouched diversity IRL that could be expounded upon in-game. Take Primates for example: we essentially have one model (with recolors) for monkeys and gorillas, whereas there are over 200 unique species IRL (not to mention subspecies).

I’d be just as excited for updated mammal models as I would for new mammal families. If Blizzard was going to add some novel families in Legion, I’d like them to be in one of the lesser-represented groups, say birds or reptiles (which, btw, have fewer families than mammals do combined). But more on that later.  Delirium's Note: Since Aukatos wrote this, we now have images of the new wolf and bear models.  Check out Bendak's site for previews.

Magical Creatures and Where They Are

Naturally, with a fantasy game, you’ll run into animals that don’t reflect a species that exists today, or some that have never existed altogether. Placing such fantastic beasts into a framework designed around what we know about real animals is hard to do accurately. But, for fun, let’s pretend we can. Here’s a shout-out to some potential fantastical mammals!

  • Chimaeras and Rylaks - certainly boast many mammalian characteristics and, despite their tails, don’t require a large stretch of imagination to see them as such.
  • Quilen - appear to be dog-like, at least the “normal” ones that aren’t stone. I haven’t delved into the lore of Pandaria as much as I would have liked, but it seems that they were mammals and some of which were turned to stone, or replicated with later-animated stone. 
  • Sporebats -  I know they’ve got BAT in the name, but I just can’t imagine these guys as mammals. Maybe, living plant is more accurate. 

Further Reading

If any of this is of interest to you, Aukatos will be here on Thrillofthewild.com continuing the Thrill of the Taxa miniseries in the coming weeks, with articles on invertebrates, birds and dinos, and reptiles!  

WoW Bio 101
If, by chance, any of you haven't already heard of it, Banya has an amazing site going through the taxonomy/classification of every tamable animal in WoW.  Definitely check it out. 

For all your hunter pet questions, petopia has you covered, with detailed maps of how to find every pet in the game. There's also an awesome community of hunters who hang out on the forums there; this is where many of the more difficult taming challenges in the game were figured out, including the spirit beast Gara and the Fel Wolf from Warlords of Draenor.

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