It’s the second most successful video game-based franchise in the world and has sold well over 200 million copies during its eighteen year existence: yes, it can only be the juggernaut that is Pokémon! Along with most people who grew up playing games in the 90s, I am a huge Pokémon fan, and my enjoyment of the games has not dissipated as I have grown older.
Many Pokémon draw inspiration from real-life creatures and some, such as Seel or Mankey, are all too obvious from both their name and design. A few, however, are based on much more obscure animals; others still, although seemingly possessing apparent origins, have a few surprises in store. And nobody can pluck a nigh-unheard of animal and transform it into a collectible monster better than the Japanese.
1. Poliwag = Tadpole
We start the list with a well-known Pokémon from the first generation, Poliwag. It’s a small, simply-designed Water-type that is initially quite weak, but it can evolve into some decidedly more powerful forms. It has stumpy legs, a semi-transparent tail and a black and white swirl on its abdomen.
So how does that equate to a tadpole? Tadpoles transform into frogs over time, gradually losing their tails and developing limbs. Poliwag seems to be just starting that process: it still has a tail and it hasn’t yet grown front legs, but it does have newly-developed back ones. And what about that strange spiralling pattern on its belly? They represent the coiled intestines of some tadpoles that can be seen through their transparent skin, as shown in the picture below.
As Poliwag evolves into Poliwhirl, it loses its tail altogether and grows front limbs, just as a real tadpole would as it nears the end of its metamorphosis (although it doesn’t wear white gloves like Poliwhirl somehow manages to acquire). Poliwhirl can then evolve into either Poliwrath by using a Water Stone, or Politoed by trading it when it is holding the King’s Rock. Politoed obviously represents the frog stage that the tadpoles would eventually turn into, whereas Poliwhirl seems to be a giant tadpole that hasn’t fully grown up. This isn’t entirely unusual in the natural world, for some species of amphibian exhibit neoteny, which means they stay in their tadpole form for their entire lives and never develop into their adult stage.
And if that wasn’t convincing enough, Poliwag’s name comes from the Middle English word polliwog, an old term for a tadpole. The word comes from pol, ‘head’ and wiglen, ‘to wiggle’. Since a tadpole is little more than a wriggling head with a tail, it’s a pretty good word to describe it.
2. Manaphy/Phione = Sea Angel
Manaphy is unusual in several ways. For one, it’s a Legendary Pokémon that has the ability to breed, yet its own offspring Phione, which looks very similar, cannot even evolve into Manaphy. Manaphy is a graceful guardian of the ocean within the Pokémon story and was the star of the ninth Pokémon movie.
In accordance to Manaphy’s pleasant, graceful persona, the animal that inspired its design is called the sea angel, which swims slowly around the ocean using its wing-like appendages. It’s actually a type of sea slug, but that pretty much ruins the elegant image so nobody needs to know that…
One genus of sea angels is known as Clione and is almost certainly where Manaphy’s offspring, Phione, gets its name. Clione limacina, or naked sea angel, is well-known around Japan. For some reason, the Japanese are – how to put this? – obsessed with the clione. There are clione toys, clione jewellery and even a clione version of Hello Kitty. You can buy clione from pet shops, along with small, specialised aquariums to keep them in.
3. Drowzee = Tapir
Drowzee, the Hypnosis Pokémon, famously puts its enemies to sleep and then eats their dreams. It’s based on an animal called the tapir, a large pig-like vegetarian that has the same protruding miniature trunk that Drowzee possesses. But what is the significance of this? Can tapirs also put people to sleep?
Well, not exactly. But, in Japan at least, tapirs are called baku. Baku can also refer to a mythical dream-eating creature that was once a composite animal that later became a tapir. They supposedly remove the bad dreams that people have and then eat them. According to the PokéDex, Drowzee prefers to eat the dreams of children because they are tastier, something that the Baku is also said to favour.
4. Zigzagoon = Raccoon Dog
Anyone who has played Ruby and Sapphire for any length of time will probably remember this annoying little Pokémon; it popped up with maddening frequency during the early routes of the game and was utterly unremarkable in every way other than that it was terrible to battle with. And since it’s quite clearly based on a raccoon, as its name might suggest, surely it’s time to move on to something more interesting?
Except that it isn’t a raccoon. Rather, Zigzagoon seems to be based on a small type of wild dog called the raccoon dog. This strange-looking dog, which does indeed look more like a raccoon than a canid (hence its name), is considered to be the most primitive species of dog alive today.
As if obsessing over the clione wasn’t enough, the Japanese also adore raccoon dogs. This animal has been known throughout Japanese folklore since ancient times, and it is called tanuki. It is said to be a master of disguise and shape-shifting, yet gullible and absent-minded at the same time. Tanuki remain very popular in Japanese culture, but the rest of the world are usually only exposed to them via exported Japanese media. For example, in addition to Zigzagoon, Tom Nook, the guy from the Animal Crossing games who operates the village store, is also a tanuki as you might be able to tell from his name.
5. Wooper = Axolotl
Pokémon, as everyone knows, can change shape – or evolve – into other forms as they grow stronger. Many real-life animals also change form as they mature, a process called metamorphosis. Insects do it, crustaceans do it, and even amphibians do it. But there’s one amphibian that doesn’t transform, even when it should: a salamander known as the axolotl. And it even has a Pokémon based on it.
Meet Wooper. It’s a second-generation Pokémon that is dual Water/Ground, which makes it unaffected by Electric moves. It has no arms and has what appears to be pink antennae-like growths sticking out of its head.
The axolotl remains as a juvenile for its entire life. Whereas most salamanders lose their gills and move onto land as they grow older, the axolotl retains its gills and stays in the water. It’s the Peter Pan of the amphibian world. Those growths on Wooper’s head are actually the feathery, external gills that the axolotl possesses. As for its name… well, that comes from a Japanese term called ‘wooper looper’, which refers to the larval stage of the axolotl.
Perhaps the one thing that Wooper doesn’t have in common with the axolotl is that it actually evolves – into Quagsire, which, in case you were wondering, is based on the Japanese giant salamander, the second largest in the world.