Thrill of the Taxa: Reptiles

Thrill of the Taxa is a series where everyone's favorite hunter/behavioral ecologist Aukatos is going over hunter pets from a biological lens. We've been working our way through some of the loosely defined phylum and classes of tamable hunter pets (and non-tamable hunter pets); this week, in his last installment (for now), Auk is covering the House Slitherin of hunter pets: Reptiles.

Life in cold blood

Thanks for sticking though us for this series!  Be sure to check out the earlier articles on Mammals, Invertebrates, and Birds & Dinosaurs if you haven’t already.

We’ve made quite a trek through the fauna of Azeroth and beyond, and today we come to the end of the trail (for now) at our scaly friends, the reptiles.  It’s ironic that we follow up Archosaurs with reptiles, because it really was the other way around in nature.  If one were to make a quick summary of the evolutionary history of animals (to mammals), it would go something like this:

Invertebrates ⇒ Fish ⇒ Amphibians ⇒ Reptiles ⇒ Mammals

Of course, this is a vast simplification, and missing quite a few groups – notably dinosaurs and birds.  As you know from the last article, birds are dinosaurs, which are both taxonomically Archosaurs, which just happen to be one evolutionary offshoot of reptiles.  In fact, many often go so far as to distinguish “avian” from “non-avian" reptiles.

The term reptile covers quite a range of organisms, from the single-species Order of tuataras, to turtles, to snakes and lizards, to the crocodiles and other archosaurs we covered last time.  Generally, you can divide reptiles into groups based on the number of limbs they have (four to none) and the presence or absence of a shell.

All reptiles have skin that is covered with scales, whether they be thick or thin.  There are several other internal distinguishing features, but the one people most recognize is that all reptiles are “cold-blooded”.  In reality, reptiles don’t have blood of a lower-temperature, but they largely lack the means to regulate their internal temperature metabolically.  The correct term for such a strategy is ectothermy.  Ectotherms, actually, can sustain a wide range of internal temperatures.  As humans, if we deviate more than 5 °F, we almost assuredly will die; some reptile species can actually tolerate being frozen (~32°F) during the winter months, while others can survive in the blistering desert heat of over 105°F!

In WoW, there is a surprising lack of reptilian diversity.  Not only are reptiles the least in number of all pet families, there’s a HUGE discrepancy in relation to their real life counterparts.  In nature we have over 10,000 species of reptiles – in-game we have fewer than 100.  To put that in perspective, that’s twice the number of mammals IRL, but less than half the number of mammals in game.  Ugh.

Fig 1.  A phylogeny of WoW’s Reptiles by in-game family.  Numbers above each family represent the number of unique looks (species) within that family. *Turtle’s taxonomic placement is currently disputed, where it could also be placed closer to archosaurs. **See the Archosaur phylogeny.

Now, we have a couple taxonomic quandaries made more noticeable by the sheer lack of families in WoW.  First, IRL, turtles pose a very similar problems to crocodiles.  Turtles are very ancient, having evolved alongside – but separately – from dinosaurs.  Classically they’re placed as an outgroup to other reptiles, but more recent evidence would have them much closer to Archosaurs. Since we don’t know Azeroth’s evolutionary past, I’ve left them in the “traditional” placement.

Second, Warp Stalkers are clearly reptilian, but where they fall in relation to a real life counterpart has me split between two very different lizards: the Tuatara versus Marine Iguana (see below).  If we’re just talking looks, I think the tuatara is phenotypically closer, but their ecology is vastly different.  Tuataras are smaller and terrestrial, while marine iguanas, as their name implies, make frequent dives in the ocean for food and are much larger.  Since we have Warp Stalkers roaming the depths of Vashj’ir, I went with the latter, and placed them with the other lizards.

Fig 2.  A Marine Iguana (left), Warp Stalker (center), and a Tuatara (right).  What do you think is the IRL inspiration for Warp Stalkers?

There’s a snake in my boot!

Reptiles have spread throughout much of the world, but one place they’re almost NEVER found are those places where it’s below freezing most of the year.  The inverse is true as well, with the majority of reptile diversity surrounding the tropics.  In fact, reptiles have adapted quite well to not only hot, but dry conditions.  Deserts boast surprising reptile diversity, where many other animals wouldn’t be able to survive.

While many reptiles are terrestrial, some have adapted to almost every habitat type on the planet.  You’ll find many arboreal species of snakes and lizards high in the rainforest canopy; there are snakes that carry out nearly their entire lives underground; many turtles and snakes live in rivers and ponds; and heck, a few have even evolved strategies to deal with the extreme salt of the ocean!

In Azeroth and beyond, most of the reptile placement is fairly reasonable.  Blizzard likes to play heavily on desert and jungle themes, so you’ll find basilisks and serpents throughout.

However, Blizzard seems to think that almost all turtles are aquatic. In WoW, most of the places you’ll find turtles are near water.  While there is sizeable diversity among aquatic turtles in real life, there are also many that are terrestrial.  I’m fairly certain the turtle family in-game started was inspired by snapping turtles, but has since *evolved* over the course of a few expansions (ancient turtles, dragon turtles).  Why not place some box turtles in the forest, or some tortoises deep in the desert?

Fig 3.  The first turtles I remember running across in my WoW career were these Snapjaws.  Common snapping turtles IRLcan tolerate a wide range of temperatures and can be found in temperate regions like Hillsbrad represents.

Leaping Lizards!

Reptiles can be carnivorous (all snakes, many lizards and turtles), omnivorous (many lizards and turtles), or herbivorous (a few lizards and turtles).  I hesitate to say reptiles are strictly herbivorous, because an iguana or tortoise may accidentally get an insect while munching on leaves, or opportunistically grab something if their diet is lacking in some nutrient or mineral.  Here, Blizzard hit reptile diets pretty spot on!  In-game, all reptiles can eat meat and fish, with warp stalkers and turtles being able to eat fruit, and turtles further being able to eat fungus and bread.

In real life, reptiles largely live solitary lives but can congregate at special times, such as breeding seasons or plentiful food patches.  Sure, they beef over turf, like in many lizard species, but there’s really no social hierarchy like we see in mammals, or division of labor like we see in invertebrates.  You might happen across a line of turtles going down the shoreline of Tanaris, but that’s probably just the path of least resistance from one food patch to another, and it just so happens several turtles are hungry at the same time.  This happens in real life, so again, I can’t fault Blizzard for this either.

Something that does bother me is the way the Serpent family models are designed. In the real world, snakes can’t sustain an upward body posture – it’s just too energetically expensive.  In fact, the only times snakes rear up like the models in WoW are for only the most extreme of circumstances, like intimidating a predator or battling another make for mating rights.  In-game, there are plenty of serpent models that are more realistic to real-world snakes, such as the elite Marsh Anacondas in (WoD) Nagrand.  Why these haven’t been incorporated into the Serpent family is a mystery to me.

Fun Facts about Reptiles!

Basilisks are really misunderstood. When they’re not guarding the Chamber of Secrets, they’re existing in the real world as lizards.  In addition, they seem to have traded their fabled ability to turn people to stone for a different fabled ability – to run on water!  It’s true; Basilisk lizards can run in short bursts, and have such a great surface area on their hind legs that they can run across short distances of water in pursuit of prey or fleeing predators.  This feat has earned them the nickname, “Jesus Lizards”.

There’s no such thing as a poisonous snake! When a snake bites you, you’re afraid it will inject its VENOM into your leg, not poison.  As a general rule, venom takes effect via the blood stream, while poison uses the digestive tract. (Okay, there might be ONE poisonous snake, but that’s a different discussion.)

Heroes in a Half-shell

Since we have so few reptile families in WoW to discuss, let’s look at each one’s special ability and see how it compares to their real-world analog:

Turtles have Shell Shield, which is a pretty literal take on their IRL abilities.  While not all turtles can withdraw into their shells fully (side-necked turtles), the presence of a shell itself is often defense enough.  Good job Blizzard, while not terribly creative you did hit the nail on the head here.

Warp Stalkers have Warp Time.  Since this family isn’t an exact copy of a real-world reptile, I won’t count off too many points for having such a fantastical ability.  It is pretty cool, although I preferred the Blink they had a few expansions ago.  I wasn’t the hunter whose pet blinked through a wall and accidentally pulled Gruul and wiped the raid… that was… some other hunter.

Basilisks, like Warp Stalkers, are more fantastical than realistic.  However, unlike the prior family, “basilisks” do exist IRL.  Given the AMAZING abilities they display, I’m a little sad Blizzard didn’t play more heavily to something water-walking related (think like the glyphs Rogues have that lets them sprint across water).

Finally, Serpents have the creatively-named Serpent’s Cunning.  Now, maybe it’s just me, but I think if there ever was an easy family to create an in-game ability for, its snakes.  Constriction?  Nope. Venom?  Nope.  There’s definitely a lot of love that out legless pals need in Azeroth and beyond.

The “Elephant” in the Room.

I’ve touched on a sensitive matter a few times throughout this article.  It’s an issue very close to my personal interests, but is something a lot of people overlook when it comes to pet families.  More specifically, the taxonomic diversity.  Most specifically, the LACK of one entire Class of animals IRL:  Amphibians.

Amphibians IRL have about as many species as reptiles and mammals combined, not to mention making up the critical evolutionary link to nearly all non-fish vertebrates.  So, why have we not seen ANY Amphibian pets in WoW?  You tell me! (No, really.  Why do you think it is?) IMO, there’s plenty of lore that Blizzard could have drawn upon for fantastical amphibians – newts and toads are often mentioned in magical recipes, salamanders were thought to be beings of fire, the transformation from tadpole to frog is symbolic for rebirth in some cultures, amphibian’s association with water is seen by some as “cleansing” or “healing”… I could go on.

If Blizzard can recolor a Basilisk model nearly 50 times, surely they could retool it for a salamander model as well.  Seriously though, why so many Basilisk skins?  It would be one thing if it was a monumental effort to design a new NPC from scratch, but there’s clearly a template available for salamanders.  For those of you that are familiar with Caecilians, another group of amphibians that resemble worms, the existing worm models that could be reskinned for those too!

And then there’s Gulp Frogs.  Blizzard actually has an amphibian in game, complete with a fairly-updated model (Pandaria, if I recall), battle animations, and at least a couple different color variations.  Heck, there’s even battle pet frogs!  What would look cooler than waging war alongside the Hypnotoad?!  I can’t think of much.

Fig 5.  Seriously, how cool would this be?! Battle Toads anybody?

There are a few other issues Blizard could implement with reptiles, such as the Serpent models, or curious abundance of Basilisk colors, but none so important – or drastic – as the lack of amphibian availability as hunter pets, and their representation in WoW as a whole.

Three heads are better than two!

Although there aren’t any Amphibians, we do see a couple other families in WoW that are more mythical than a representation of a real-world reptile.  Hydras have been a staple of mythology since Ancient Greece, and are most certainly of reptilian nature.  There were several new Hydra models added to WoW with Warlords, not to mention Chimaeron!

Wind Serpents are fictional and reptilian.  While there are snakes that can expand their ribs to glide from the tops of trees to the ground, avian reptiles are the only members of this evolutionary tree that can sustain self-powered flight.  Wind serpents really cool nonetheless, and in need of a model update.

Now, I’d wager Sporebats are ectothermic.  Does that make them a reptile?  Who knows?  If you ask me, I’d say they’re closer to an amphibian!

Well, we’ve reached the end of our crash-course through the ecology, taxonomy, and behavior of a hunter’s most cherished companions.  I’ve had a blast sharing some of my perspectives through the lens of a MMO-loving biologist, and I hope you have enjoyed them as well. Heck, maybe you even learned a thing or two!  Just remember, the next time you’re venturing forth in Azeroth, and see a tickbird on a shardhorn, or perhaps a silkworm and a moth, or see a cat take down a goat, think of where it all came from.  While WoW is fantasy, they have a great team that uses the real world as inspiration.  Open up an internet tab and look it up – you might just be surprised by what you find!

Until next time!


No comments:

Post a Comment