This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Rebecca Mowry
Today’s expert is wildlife biologist Rebecca Mowry. Over the past 10 years, she’s spent countless hours in the field with wolves, woodpeckers, mountain lions, river otters, and a big salamander called a hellbender. Here’s how I know she’s the real deal: yesterday at work her pickup got stuck somewhere and had to be towed out; she came home covered in mud. We’ve had fascinating conversations about deer and predators and the evolution of migration patterns. You should follow her on Twitter.
Today, she offers some tips on getting wildlife biology right in your fiction.
Wildlife Misconceptions in Fiction
As a wildlife biologist, I encounter a lot of misconceptions about wildlife in books or film/TV that irritate me to no end. In many cases, even a little bit of research could clear these things up. I can think of a dozen species-specific misconceptions off the top of my head (mostly behavioral in nature), but I’m going to pick a few general examples.
1. I can put a cactus wren in Maine, no problem.
This remark stems from one of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption. You know that scene where Red finds Andy’s money under a rock wall in Maine? Yeah, that bird singing in the background is a cactus wren, and cactus wrens live in the Southwest. Near cacti.
Another classic example is the Coca-Cola advertising campaign featuring polar bears interacting with penguins. Sure, it’s cute, and Coke can get away with it, but I’m fairly certain it drove every zoologist bonkers.
What’s the problem? I like a little anthropomorphism as much as the next person, and I can shrug off the image of one the most aggressive carnivores on the planet sitting next to a family of penguins as the lies of advertising. After all, nobody really thinks that happens (at least, I hope not). What I can’t stand is that Coke ignored the fact that polar bears live only in the Arctic, and penguins live only in the Antarctic.
I am forever irritated by simple mistakes like this in film and TV. But it applies to novels too. For the love of all that is furry and feathered, look up a species’ habitat/geographic range before you put it in your story. Keep desert animals in the desert, forest animals in the forest, and so on.
This happens so often, especially with birds. The problem is that people love animals – which is, in my opinion, a great thing – but it makes it more likely that your readers will know more than you expect them to. Birdwatching is becoming more and more popular with the public, increasing the odds that your lack of research will be noticed and scorned.
Oh, and to add to the confusion, lots of animals migrate. So don’t try to tell me about the turkey vultures circling your lost MC in Montana in the winter, because they’re only there in the summertime.
2. The geographic range and habitats of my species never changed
If you’re writing any kind of historical fiction, you should be aware that the range and habitats and even appearance of a species can change over time. For example:
- Prior to the red/gray wolf’s extirpation from the eastern U.S., there were no coyotes there.
- Until a few hundred years ago, jaguars lived throughout most of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and even Louisiana.
- Horses were brought to North America in the 1400s, but they actually evolved here, before being wiped out by the ice age 10,000-12,000 years ago.
- Recent climate change is causing shifts in migratory patterns of a wide variety of birds, as well as changes in plant communities
Just like any other facet of historical fiction, it’s worth it to research what the wildlife community would have looked like back when your story takes place. In North America, most habitats have changed drastically since the advent of Europeans (and even since the advent of the first humans, period). You can probably get away with a lot of stuff, but you want your novel to be authentic, don’t you?
3. All wildlife biologists are park rangers, game wardens, or TV show hosts.
My friends and I all got tired of the “Wildlife biology? What are you going to do with that, be a park ranger?” comment in college. In fact, I was just watching an episode of the West Wing where C.J. Cregg gets a visit from a park ranger. This park ranger proceeds to tell Cregg’s assistant that he studied shrub/range ecosystems, and that it was a good thing the Park Service hired him, because he wouldn’t have had anything else to do. Clearly the writers of the show fell victim to the myth that “Park Ranger” is our only career path.
I’ll admit that I felt this way for my entire childhood. I grew up on Steve Irwin (may he rest in peace) and Jack Hanna, and I didn’t even know you could study wildlife biology in college until I was 17. I thought that if you loved animals, you had to be a veterinarian.
Now, of course, I know that the field is incredibly diverse. Wildlife biologists do lead tours in natural areas, arrest poachers, and educate the public on TV. But they also trek into remote jungles to document rare and unknown species. They survey deer and turkeys to set yearly harvest quotas for hunters. Thousands of university professors research wildlife behavior, evolution, habitat, and threats to conservation. Each state has an agency (like Texas Parks and Wildlife) dedicated to wildlife research and management, and there are several federal entities that do this as well (the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, the US Geological Survey). Then there are non-profit organizations that do their own work toward species and habitat conservation, like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund. They all employ wildlife biologists.
And we’re also not all tree-hugging, granola-eating hippies. Many biologists love game animals and hate predators. Many biologists love predators and hate hunters. Many biologists love everything. And some biologists are tree-hugging, granola-eating hippies.
4. Forensics is only for people.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon begs to differ.
Illegal harvesting and animal trafficking (for medicinal uses and the pet trade) are just two common wildlife-related crimes. To combat these issues, scientists have developed a variety of tools – as well as employing traditional forensics – to uncover evidence and catch the culprits. Almost any forensic analysis that can be done on human samples can be done on wildlife samples, but I’m more familiar with the molecular side.
Molecular ecology and conservation genetics are growing fields in wildlife biology, and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the power of DNA in unraveling ecological mysteries – and solving wildlife-related crimes. I actually got my master’s degree on a genetics project involving “counting” river otter populations in Missouri from scat samples. Yes, scat. There’s DNA in there, did you know?
With these and other methods, biologists can use DNA from elephant ivory to determine where the elephant came from (a legal harvest zone versus a protected habitat). They can examine the DNA of fish meat at the market to make sure protected species are not being harvested and sold. Incorporating these types of tools could make for an interesting crime novel, I think, or provide an unexpected source of evidence.
5. We know just about all there is to know about wildlife and ecosystems.
Wrong, wrong, wrong! We’re still learning. Constantly.
Scientists are continuing to unravel the evolutionary history of wildlife species. Advances in genetic analysis have a lot to do with this. That’s why taxonomists (the people who classify animals into taxonomic groups) are always changing the scientific names of stuff, much to the dismay of people like me who had to memorize them in college.
In addition, the effects of contemporary environmental challenges make up a large proportion of current wildlife research. A lot of what is happening in our world today is unprecedented, and in most cases, we can only speculate how these changes will affect wildlife species (and potentially humans!).
Birds are changing the timing of reproduction and migration due to climate change. Grizzly bears and polar bears may be hybridizing because of range constriction (again due to climate change). Overfishing may be causing trophic cascades running all the way down the food chain; e.g. seals and sea lions decline due to lack of food, orca then run out of seals and switch to sea otters, and sea otter declines result in an overpopulation of sea urchins, which damage kelp forests, which are an important habitat for a number of diverse marine organisms. Other challenges include habitat degradation affecting animal behavior and food habits, and wildfire suppression preventing naturally occurring fire cycles to which plants and wildlife had evolved.
We’re still learning just how important these issues are, and whether we need to intervene to prevent species extinction, catastrophic wildfires, and other negative effects.
6. There will be no animals in the future.
This applies especially if you want to write futuristic science fiction. While I can’t say with certainty that this statement isn’t true (I can’t see into the future), I find it highly unlikely.
Certain animals and plants can survive in any number of tough situations; that’s part of the beauty of mutation and evolution. I’m simplifying this a lot, but consider the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction 66 million years ago that killed off the then-predominant terrestrial vertebrates, the dinosaurs. Many small mammals were able to survive the extreme environmental conditions that the very large reptiles couldn’t. That ushered in the explosion of mammalian diversity which allowed mammals to evolve into many of their current forms (including humans).
Humans may be one of the most devastating forces of “nature” when it comes to species extinction, but don’t forget that there are many species that thrive in human-dominated landscapes, like pigeons, feral dogs, rats, and cockroaches. There are even some that aren’t quite as “nasty”, like white-winged doves, peregrine falcons, red foxes, raccoons, and coyotes; in fact, I worked on a project in urban Orange County, California where we observed bobcats and coyotes making their home in culverts and office-park drainage systems.
Animals adapt, and evolution is still occurring. We may not be able to predict exactly what this will mean for the future, but it means you, as a science fiction author, have a lot of artistic license here.
How to handle wildlife biology in your novels
Here are some tips for handling these topics well in your fiction.
1. Do your research.
If you want to make your story as authentic as possible, make sure you’re describing the appropriate ecosystems and animal communities. There are tons of resources on the internet for this: ebird.com for birds, iNaturalist.org for everything, and even Wikipedia gets things right most of the time.
2. Have fun with it!
Because we’re always learning, there’s a lot of wiggle room for using wildlife in fiction. For example, G.R.R. Martin decided to use ravens as messengers in his fictional world, and while I’ve never heard of them being used as such, Corvids (the taxonomic group of which ravens are a member, and includes crows, jays, and magpies) are known to be highly intelligent. Recently, scientists have observed New Caledonian crows not only using tools, but using sequences of tools and showing ability to reason. Other crow species have been known to use passing cars as tools to crack nuts. In Washington, scientists (using Dick Cheney masks) demonstrated that crows can recognize human faces.
Here’s a fun TedTalks video about crow intelligence.
There’s a lot of license when it comes to using animals in fiction, and while I’m not saying you need to be 100% ecologically accurate, I’d at least like your details to be believable. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins bred genetically-altered jays with wild mockingbirds to create the mockingjay. Jays and mockingbirds are classified into different taxonomic families (which makes hybridization less likely), but I still find this to be an excellent incorporation of wildlife behavior into a futuristic story. Use your research on species’ habitat needs, evolution, and behavior to come up with a mind-blowing prediction of futuristic animal communities.
3. Contact a wildlife biologist if you have any questions.
Seriously. There are so many of us. Find a biologist at your state agency, a federal biologist, or a non-profit. We’ll probably be very happy to help you.
The Discovery Channel said it best: The world is just awesome.
About the Author
Rebecca Mowry works as a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, where her world revolves primarily around deer, but she still gets to do other fun stuff. About a year ago she began writing The Front Range, a story which hints at an ancient connection between humans and the world we live in, and was inspired by her experiences.
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I’d just like to add that apparently the polar bear/grizzly hybridization issue is apparently quite controversial, and some evidence suggests that hybridization has been occurring for years and may not be a consequence of climate change.
Haha that polar bear-penguin thing is now a joke in my family. They purposely buy me stuff that has both animals together just to see me freak out.
Kudos from a fellow zoologist on a very nice article, Rebecca. 🙂