Harry Potter and the Misuse of Ecological Magic
If quarantine has done one thing, it has challenged our creativity in finding ways to pass the time. For some of us, that means trying new recipes or learning new skills. For others that has meant a complete absence of brainwaves and the choice to rewatch the Harry potter series (and if we’re really desperate, the new Fantastic Beasts and the Importance of Correct Animal Handling films).
The benefits of running a movie-based ecology podcast may be few (hate mail about dragon speciation is a new low), but one is that you have to challenge yourself to think about old systems in new ways. So with that in mind, let’s take a painfully obscure look at the ecological realm of the world of Harry Potter.
The Evolution of Magic
The first problem you face when addressing HP loopholes is that muggles are presumably unaware of the majority of magical creatures, apart from the presence of them in several of our mythologies (the Zouwu, Nagini’s supposed roots in Buddhist texts, the Kelpie). So presumably they have a) fairly limited distributions and b) no presence in our fossil record.
I postulate that this is because the majority of the creatures from Harry Potter are a result of deliberate breeding, spurned on by a high rate of mutation caused by their constant exposure to magic. That’s right, I’m going out on a limb and saying that magic causes higher rates of mutation, much in the same fashion as increased radiation.
It does make for some issues, in that there are a massive variety of magical creatures. However the majority of them at least superficially resembled some form of living animal (the nibbler is a cheeky platypus, the basilisk is a cross between a Komodo dragon and a titanoboa). And considering how badly we’ve been able to mess up the wolf (yes I DO consider a pug to be an abberation), if we consider the use of magic by humans to stretch back as far as our domestication of the dog, some of the variations aren’t that far-fetched.
Ok, so the next problem – how do you domesticate a rhino (to form the Erumpent) or a sloth (maybe the Demiguise)? Well presumably magical abilities allow you to capture and control larger, more dangerous animals.
But let’s have a look at some more specific examples of problematic ecological specimens.
Huge snakes have existed before – I’ve already mentioned one. And we can just put the evolution of deadly eyes down to irresponsible experimentation, or the product of people being so scared of some form of spitting cobra that they’ve misinterpreted the whole ‘looks can kill’ thing. The first of two bigger issues here is that a snake that size doesn’t NEED venom as well. Yes, the Komodo dragon is both venomous AND HUGE, but it often takes down prey much larger than itself, and there don’t seem to be too many prey species around that are large enough to pose a real challenge to the Basilisk.
The second problem is that it was lying down in the Chamber of Secrets by itself for a very long time with apparently no access to the outside world. Don’t give me all that “it was asleep” nonsense, I refuse to believe that a snake that size could remain in any sort of torpor for that long. I think its more likely that there was an entire population of basilisks down there. Often in sub-Arctic and Arctic lakes you will find single species of fish, the best example being Arctic Charr, the northernmost salmonid species. Some will evolve to eat invertebrates and become dwarf morphs, whilst other will become cannibals and grow substantially larger. That basilisk is doubtless (pfft) the latter morph, and has been supping on other basilisks for the last half century, whilst the smaller basilisks subsist on rats and cockroaches.
Bursting into flame is an absurd way to go out. As is hatching a new chick in a pile of ash. So we’ll take a leaf rom the late Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum here and suggest that a phoenix is simply a bird that has managed to speed the incubation process right up.
Viviparity in birds is (unfortunately for this situation) not a thing. There are several lizards of the order Squamata which have managed it, but so far there is no bird that gives birth to live young. So let’s instead say that phoenix eggs are simply extremely thin and that the mother retains them for a relatively long period. Having a pile of ash nearby can at least keep the eggs warm, reducing the need for incubation and allowing the phoenix to hunt more often.
Viviparity is thought to be more common among species in colder environments, with larger geographic ranges, although this is somewhat disputed. It could in fact be that viviparous squamates are instead better dispersers because they are viviparous, as this means they can move around more while reproducing. In any case, I doubt that a species with a larger geographic range like the phoenix would exist around the tropics much (species with larger ranges tend to hang around closer to the poles), so that makes the wild colouring odd. A predator (YES it’s a predator, look at that beak) would likely not benefit from such flamboyant plumage if it’s hanging around in a boreal forest or on the tundra.
Luckily, this I’m willing to put down to silly breeding. Albus Dumbledore’s family has a lot to answer for.
Interested in hearing more about how the ecology and physiology of these creatures might work? Want to find out a bit more about some real-life Dementors, like Eleonora’s falcon or Butcherbirds, or how a phoenix’s tears won’t heal you, but their saliva might? We have a fortnightly podcast called Cinematica Animalia which looks at the biology of movie monsters. I’ve linked our two recent Harry Potter episodes below.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is disappointed that his kid wanted to watch Harry Potter instead of Lord of the Rings. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter here.