Who's that Insect?

Imagine for a moment that we lived in a world where strange and wonderful creatures dotted the woods and grasslands and anyone who so wished, regardless of their age, could venture outdoors and interact with these astounding life forms. This was the concept envisioned by Satoshi Tajiri when he dreamed up a game that many of us know and love, and that has experienced a resurgence in recent weeks: Pokémon.

We've all heard of, or been one of, the many people walking around outside day and night in search of Pokémon using the new Pokémon GO! app. In a revelation of virtual gaming, Pokémon has stepped up by getting players to step out. Of course, this imagined reality - now a virtual one - needn't be either. This dream of a world filled with strange and wonderful creatures is already a reality, and it is this reality that inspired the creation of Pokémon. As Tajiri explains in an interview with TIME, his own inspiration for the game sprang from the formative years he spent collecting bugs:

'Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found. As I gathered more and more, I'd learn about them, like how some would feed on one another. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.'

Such fascination would nearly see Tajiri become an entomologist, but instead as we now know, he became a video game developer and the creator of a global pop culture icon. Nevertheless, you don't have to look hard to see the man's interest in natural history shine through in his creation. Many Pokémon, especially those from the first generation, resemble living fauna. Those of us who have played the original Red and Blue Game Boy games know that bug Pokémon are among the first that you meet as you head out on your journey. As a player, you wander through thickly wooded forests, underground caves, and over high mountains, while the anime television show echoes this depiction of vast, unending natural landscapes and wild places. This may well be a reflection of Tajiri’s sentiments regarding our own, increasingly unnatural world.

Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot [have] forgotten about catching insects.
— Satoshi Tajiri in TIME

In the Pokémon universe you need simply whip out your Pokédex - or watch Ash do the same - and you'll know immediately what it is you're looking at. Often, the descriptions of these organisms, combined with the context of where you've found them, tell you something about their ecology. For example, we can learn of Pinsir that: 'During cold periods, it hides in deep forests...it sleeps on tree tops or among roots where it is well hidden.' Or that 'Butterfree has a superior ability to search for honey from flowers. It can even search out, extract, and carry honey from flowers that are blooming over six miles from its nest.' And that 'Nincada lives underground for many years in complete darkness... [and] absorbs nutrients from the roots of trees.' And of course, we all know that Scyther, the mantid-inspired bug-Pokémon with its long scythe-like limbs, is perfectly adapted to the long grasses in which one might find them.

Back in the real world, we may not have Pokédex or an Apple/Google equivalent - yet - but we do have field guides, and some of them are damn good. Plus, unlike a Pokédex, they needn’t rely on you finding your subject first but instead can assist you in your search from the get-go. In the recently published guide Insects of South-Eastern Australia, author Roger Farrow, makes this easier than ever. As the subtitle explains, this is 'An Ecological and Behavioural Guide', which means that unlike some field guides, this particular book is relatable and pragmatic. As Farrow writes, 'Most guides to insect identification follow a systematic approach... [However] This field guide takes an ecological and behavioural approach and relies on the relationship between insects and the specific habitat that they occupy in the environment.'

This means that the reader can easily identify species in the field based on the behaviour and habitat they observe, rather than just relying on their own taxonomic prowess. It also means that emerging entomological enthusiasts and budding bug beholders can easily read up on what insects they’re likely to find where, and just what they are likely to be doing there. Much like in the Pokémon universe, species in this reality tend to be distributed according to habitat type (among a number of other things). If you want to find a Scyther, you know you should explore all that long grass in the Safari Zone, and if you want to find a green Christmas beetle (Xylonichus eucalypti), as Farrow’s guide explains, then the foliage of a snow gum might be a good place to start.       

However, there is an important distinction between the spirit of Pokémon trainers, real-life bug collectors, and the ethos of this particular field guide. As Farrow puts it, 'Many introductions to entomology include information on collecting, killing, preparing, labelling and storing insect specimens. This is not covered in this book and is not recommended for its readers. I simply want readers to observe insects behaving naturally in the wild.' He makes a rare and pertinent point. When it comes to insects and other organisms in our world, we don't need to 'catch ’em all' in order to enjoy their existence. However, this does not prevent us from collecting memories and photographs, and ultimately building an appreciation for the astoundingly diverse life forms that share this reality with us. 

With this particular guide, that endeavour has never been simpler. Not only will it help you find and identify insects, but it will also give you a wealth of insight into their behaviour and life history, and this itself can be key to finding them in the first place. That odd lump on a tree branch, or that strange bite pattern on a eucalypt leaf: they are clues – traces of existence left by small animals that lead big lives – and Farrow will show you how to follow them. This knowledge can be a real gift and greatly enhance one’s appreciation of the environment around them. It is easy to see the fascination we find in virtual creatures that appear on the train or at the local park – they are big, conspicuous, and immediately entertaining in that we can ‘catch ’em’. But rest assured, with a little know-how the smaller, more cryptic creatures we share this reality with can be just as locatable and ever more fascinating. You need know only where and how to look.

Chris McCormack
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC