Skull Island Biology: The Science Behind Kong’s Home

With the latest incarnation of King Kong hitting the big (and small) screen again this week, I’m naturally getting a bit excited. Obviously I’m keen to see Godzilla romping around smashing stuff again, but deep down I’ve always been more interested in the big primate, and a lot of that has to do with his birthplace, Skull Island.

The ecology of island life has always fascinated me. The changes that communities, species and even individuals undergo in adapting to islands tell us so much about population and community ecology. Macarthur and Wilson’s Theory of Island Biogeography is arguably some of the earliest work showing that some ecological theories could hold true in all parts of the globe, and a cornerstone of macroecology.

Because of this, I’ve always loved seeing Skull Island on the big screen. The island has always been almost a character in itself, and this latest incarnation is fantastic. Peter Jackson’s 2005 version may have provided a few new beasties (though many of the coolest were consigned to a follow-up book), but the 2017 version went all-in on novel species, giving us enormous water buffaloes, an array of horrifying arthropods, and some fantastic speculative lines of reptile evolution.

But how do they hold up in the face of island biogeography? Let’s have a look at some of its basic tenets and how well Skull Island obeys them.

1. Endemism

Generally the more isolated an island is, the higher the number of endemics (species which are only found there) are likely to be. Increased isolation means that if a species manages to establish itself on an island, its unlikely to have its population supplemented by more individuals from the mainland. This gives it time to adapt to the local environment without any genetic input from the mainland holding back speciation. Given that a mainstay of Skull Island is its isolation – whether imposed by reefs, storms, distance, or a combination of the three – the place should be crawling with species found nowhere else on earth. So all the new species we encounter in Kong: Skull Island make a lot more sense than the T-Rex analogues we got in previous versions.

2. Community Structure

Certain groups of species are more likely to be found on islands. Naturally you’re more likely to encounter birds and bats, as well as species that are good swimmers. So I liked that we got some new bird species in 2017’s version, as well as some weird bat creatures in the comic book follow-up.

The nature of an island’s origin come into play here. An oceanic island that has formed from volcanic activity is likely to be further from a larger landmass than one that was formed when it broke off from the mainland, and less likely to have species that aren’t great at dispersing across large stretches of water. Skull Island’s location is heavily implied to be in the Pacific, which would make it a likely candidate for an oceanic island. That makes the deer species we see early on in the film a bit of an oddity, though not necessarily impossible.

One species that I would love to see one day is a native Skull Island ratite. The ratites are a group of birds that include the flightless emu, cassowary, ostrich and kiwi. While it’s tempting to assume that these species all evolved from a flightless ancestor, the majority of evidence suggests that earlier ratites could fly and simply had a predisposition for evolving flightlessness. I would love to see the modern-day ratite which made it to Skull Island.

A wonderful and horrifying depiction of Hatzegopteryx and its sauropod prey (Image Credit: Mark Witton, CC BY-SA 4.0)

3. Species Size

This one is obviously where things tend to fall down. While many species do grow larger on islands thanks to a release from competitors or predators they encounter on the mainlands, many larger animals tend to grow smaller as a result of the limited area and resources an island offers.

Hateg, one of the islands which made up the archipelago of Europe about 80 million years ago, has offered up some fascinating fossils in this regard. Sauropods are generally thought of as enormous, twenty metre long beasts, but on Hateg they were more like five or six metres, with other three to four metre long dinosaurs a regular occurrence. Isnular dwarfism has also produced relatively tiny hippo and elephant species in different parts of the globe as well. More evidence from Hateg shows that huge reptilian predators aren’t completely implausible though, with giant pterosaurs like Hatzegopteryx reaching enormous proportions, and strolling around preying on the smaller sauropods.

Primates do tend to get smaller on islands though, as a series of studies a decade ago suggested. There’s limited data, largely due to the fact that primates are shocking dispersers over water. But any gorilla species that somehow made it to Skull Island would probably grow smaller with time, not larger.

Interested in more biology of movie monsters? Then check out the podcast Cinematica Animalia, hosted by myself and fellow EcoMass editor Adam Hasik and well as fiction writer Libby Young and veterinarian Dave. I’ve linked out latest episode on King Kong below.

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and wants to let you know that even with insualr dwarfism you still couldn’t win an arm-wrestle with a gorilla. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Title Image Credit: Kong: Skull Island, 2017

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