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On the Origin of Species: Cyndaquil, Quilava, and Typhlosion

Cyndaquil, Quilava, and Typhlosion
Part of the reason I love writing this column – other than my obvious love for the Pokémon series – is my amateur enthusiasm for biology. As Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way”, and after 4.3 billion years, life has certainly settled into thousands upon thousands of niches across this pale blue dot we call home. Learning about different species is exciting and incredibly interesting, at least to nerds like me.

This week we’ll look at the last of the starters from Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Originally discovered in the Johto Region, Cyndaquil and its relatives are notable for having the exact same stat spread as Charmander. Its movepool consists mostly of Fire and Normal-type moves that mostly don’t work off its higher Special Attack, but it’s one of the more unique Fire-type starters that’s based off an equally unique animal.

If I asked you what defining characteristics of mammals are, you’d probably answer with things like “have hair or fur”, “are warm-blooded”, and “give birth to live young that nurse milk from their mother”. These are all true… with some exceptions. Evolution is random and often produces species that buck categorical trends. Case in point, the echidna, an egg-laying mammal.

Echidnas belong to a group of mammals known as monotremes and sort of look like a cross between a mole and a hedgehog. Their name comes from a half-woman, half-snake monster from Greek Mythology: the echidna’s cloaca has only one opening (like reptiles) whereas other mammals have three. The echidna’s distinguishing characteristics include the mass of spines along its back, its narrow snout, and the fact that females lay a single egg during breeding. They’re also very timid creatures and will curl up into a ball, relying on their spines to protect them from predators. Cyndaquil is a timid, long-snouted Pokémon with spines of fire introduced in the same generation as breeding. The parallels are quite clear… though ironically, the echidna is a strong swimmer and will travel towards water to clean themselves while Cyndaquil is weak to Water-type attacks.

Quilava, the family’s middle form, diverts from the echidna almost entirely. It resembles mustelids – particularly the stoat (Mustela erminea) — with its short legs, narrow body, and lightened underbelly. It also shares qualities with some species of rodents. The crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata) displays its quills like Quilava’s flames in ridges along its head and lower back. The paca (genus Cuniculus) from Central & South America shares almost the exact same body plan as Quilava: a cone-shaped body supported by relatively tiny legs; small, high-set ears; and blotches and stripes along their flanks. Quilava has similar spots on its body which are more easily visible when its flames are put out.

Typhlosion, the final form, continues the mustelid trend, seems inspired by two of the larger members: the honey badger (Mellivora capensis) and the wolverine (Gulo gulo). The honey badger lives in Africa and Southwest Asia and is like weasels in terms of anatomy. The honey badger is notable for having thick yet loose skin that allows it to avoid damage from bites and stings, which makes sense when the animal gets its name for raiding beehives. The wolverine roams the Northern Hemisphere in countries like Canada and Russia and looks like a miniature bear. Their fur is hydrophobic, allowing them to live comfortably in snow and frost. They mostly scavenge carrion left behind from other predators but have been known to hunt on occasion as well as forage for berries.
honey badger.jpg

Both animals are noted for their strength and ferocity. The honey badger will attack any animal if it can’t escape, including lions and Cape buffalo. Wolverines have been recorded killing prey much larger than themselves, such as caribou, moose, and bison. Sometimes a wolverine has tried to steal food from a black bear. Granted the wolverine was killed, but I’d give it points for effort. Typhlosion is noted in the Pokédex to set anything alight in flames if its temper peaks, which wouldn’t be unsurprising given its background.

Why was Cyndaquil chosen as the Fire starter for Pokémon Legends: Arceus? I can’t answer with total certainty, so what follows is merely speculation. Fire has always been a central aspect of human society. We rely on it for heat, lighting, to cook food, and as a weapon. In Ainu mythology, Kamuy-huci is the goddess of the hearth, one of the most important and powerful kamuy. The Ainu consider the hearth to be the gateway through which humans and kamuy can communicate, as well as where dead spirits live. The hearth must never be extinguished or else Kamuy-huci will deliver punishment.

In Japan, Cyndaquil is called “Hinoarashi” (ヒノアラシ). “Hi” comes from “fire” (火), while “arashi” is either from “yama-arashi” (山荒, porcupine) or “storm”. Quilava is “Magmarashi” (マグマラシ), where “fire” is replaced by “magma”. Typhlosion is “Bakphoon” (バクフーン), a combination of 爆風 bakufū (blast) and “typhoon”. Some fans speculate that “Bakphoon” derives from “bakufu”, a term that refers to the shoguns, military dictators that ruled Japan from 1185 to 1868. This has occasionally also been linked with the suggestion that Typhlosion might in part be inspired by how Japanese badgers or Mujina have been depicted as shapeshifting yokai in Japanese folklore, and apparently in one tale impersonated or acted as a shogun. While interesting, this potential connection is unlikely to be the primary reason for Cyndaquil’s inclusion in Legends, as the game appears to be set in an analogue of the Taishō Period that started in 1912, long after the bakufu ceased to be.

lava fountain.jpg
All these names seem to emphasize the Fire-typing and the massive power from a volcano. Indeed, both Quilava and Typhlosion are known as the Volcano Pokémon. Japan sits along a horseshoe-shaped region of the Pacific Ocean called the Ring of Fire. The movement, collision, and destruction of lithospheric plates in the area results in numerous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In fact, the 850-1000 volcanoes (around 2/3rds of all world’s volcanos) in the Ring of Fire have been active in the past 11,700 years, and about 10% of all active volcanos in the world are in Japan, the most of any country. Hokkaido — the region that Sinnoh is based on — is home to 51 volcanos. Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan and a well-known cultural icon of the island country, is an active volcano that last erupted from 1707 – 1708. Multiple volcanos erupted in Hokkaido during the Taisho period, most notably the 1926 eruption at Mount Tokachi which lasted through September 1927, killing over 150 people.

Typhlosion is generally seen as a below-average Pokémon thanks to its poor movepool and uninteresting typing & stats. However, there is more to it than what’s revealed at first glance. Its name and inspiration radiate power — not necessarily immediate power, but latent power. Echidnas are weird mammals but interesting nonetheless; badgers and wolverines are small compared to other predators but make up for it with tenacity; and volcanos are planet Earth’s raw, unbridled fury. I don’t believe Typhlosion would be a starter if it lacked the ability to fight alongside you.