This blog is about the mistakes and misrepresentations of animals in movies.
Have you seen a suspect appearance of an animal in a (mainstream) movie? Let me know!!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


In ancient Rome, blood sport rules the mobs, or so we are led to believe in the epic movie "Gladiator" of 2000. The life of the loyal and successful general Maximus takes a turn for the worse as the emperor Marcus Aurelius chooses him as successor over his son Commodus. After the old emperor's death, Commodus has Maximus' family murdered. Maximus himself barely escapes with his life. As he gets trained as a gladiator, he finally gets his chance at revenge when he is sent out to Rome to entertain Commodus and the crowds. Maximus wins the favor of the crowds, and of some members of the senate of Rome. Commodus strikes back, and has several senators captured or murdered.
In the night, we see the soldiers of emperor Commodus put a snake in the bed of one of the senators who support Maximus. As senator Gaius and his mistress sleep, we see how a snake slithers between their bedsheets. The beautiful snake is brightly colored, and therefore must be quite dangerous. Animals that have effective means of defending themselves, such as a potent venom or a very bad flavor, often have bright colors (aposematic coloration). Luckily for senator Gaius and his bedfellow, the snake sharing their sheets is a harmless milksnake (Lampropeltis). These snakes are brightly colored because they are trying to pass as another species of snake- a highly venomous coral snake (several genera of the family Elaphidae). Not only a nice case of batesian mimicry in which a dangerous species gets mimicked by a less dangerous one, but also an observation of great historic interest; Apparently the Romans had already reached the new world way before Columbus or the Vikings! Not only had they reached the new world, but also brought back a pretty and harmless snake from North America.. Roma invicta!

The snake which looked dangerous.
The dangerous looker which came across the Atlantic.
The Atlantic crosser which did not kill anyone.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snakes on a plane

The title says it all really; obviously my hopes were high for this movie. There would be no need to spot the one tiny misplaced cockroach here. Samuel L. Jackson fights a whole crate of snakes on the loose on a plane from Hawaii to L.A. Although the snakes are all supposed to be highly venomous, any snake enthusiast will have recognized their favorite species of harmless snake among the cast: milk snakes, corn snakes, bull snakes, rat snakes and a big Burmese python. A total of 450 live non-poisonous snakes were used in the film. With such great animal casting, you wonder why they would also have these sad motionless rubber snakes lying around in some scenes. But despite the fact that almost all venomous snake species on this movie were CGI, they did a fairly good job. The CGI snakes are recognizable as real species, although the effectiveness of their venom, their athletic abilities, colors and aggression are very much exaggerated. The story line has the snakes all worked up on “pheromones” (Jackson:”Snakes on crack!?”). Although male snakes do use chemical cues to follow the trail of female snakes, it would not really make them go nuts like in the movie. The male snakes touch the ground, or any object, with the tips of their forked tongue. They then deposit their two tiny ground samples onto the equally split Jacobson’s organ in the roof of its mouth. This advanced smell organ then tells the male snake if a female passed there. Not only does it tell the snake what smell is there, but also which tongue-tip was carrying the strongest smell. Thanks to their split tongue, snakes can smell in stereo. Great for tracking females, or lunch. Coupled with the ability of snakes to sense heat, as nicely imaged in the movie, snakes live in a sensory world very different from our vision and sound dominated one. Snakes would not enjoy this movie at all. Or any movie for that matter, with their limited vision and lack of external ears.
One great scene has the large (CGI) Burmese python eat a small pet dog of one of the main characters. Having kept large specimens of this species myself (3.5m), I found the fast grabbing and strangling movements completely realistic! The CGI recreation of the strangling of a passenger however, was apparently not inspired on a real event, and looked very unnatural. But although the CGI snakes were impressively done, I guess it would not have hurt the movie to have some shots of real venomous snakes. Maybe a nice big rattler draped on empty airplane seats, or the digital Gabon viper that kills the captain in a real-life incarnation on some instrument panel? Only one real-life venomous snake appears in the film. In one of the few scenes not on the plane, agents track down the snake-dealer who supplied the snakes causing so much havoc in the air. In the snake dealer’s menagerie, from one of the terrariums a real rattle snake flicks its forked tongue at us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jurassic Park

There has been plenty of discussion about the validity of the scientific premises of this movie. Whether or not dino-DNA can be extracted from amber, or whether or not the colors and skin textures of the dinosaurs are right. All interesting biological questions. Additionally, a whole list of errors that occur in the movie can be found on the internet. The list lacks one small error in my opinion. In the movie, after their arrival at the park, the guests all go on an amusement-park like ride. During this ride, video screens explain how it is possible that the dinosaurs that roam the island were brought back to life. As Mr.DNA explains how dino-DNA might have found its way into the body of a mosquito, footage is shown of a mosquito being trapped by oozing sap. This sap will then turn into amber, preserving the mosquito and it’s last meal of dino-blood inside. The mosquito being trapped by the sap has pretty plume-shaped antennae however, showing that it is in fact a male. Male mosquitoes do not drink blood. Only the females drink blood to get the protein they need to lay their eggs. Males use their big plume-shaped antennae to find the females. So the Jurassic park scientists will be drilling for dino-DNA in vain with that particular specimen. It is a tiny error, and it is forgivable in the light of the fact that this short scene has probably taught more people about DNA than any education program! Go Mr. DNA!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

James Bond, Dr. No

In his long career with MI6, James Bond finds himself facing some adversaries that cannot be swayed by any amount of charm and sophistication; giant spiders, scorpions, snakes and sharks (without friggin’ lasers on their heads). When investigating the secretive operations of Dr. No in the Caribbean, he gets a tarantula placed in his hotel room by Dr. No’s henchman Prof. Dent (back in the day when being evil still required a PhD). In the middle of the hot Caribbean night, James is woken up by something crawling up his body. In the next shot, we see the spider walking on a faceless man’s body. When Sean Connery’s face is shown again however, the spider seems to be either walking on a sheet of glass, or is superimposed on his body. Apparently it was decided to not have the spider walk on Connery’s body. Either the actor himself understandably decided he did not want this scary thing on his body, or the crew decided they did not want their star actor to take any risks. But the risk for either Bond or Connery would have been minimal. The famous spider belongs to the genus Avicularia or pink-toed tarantulas, a group of tree-living spiders common in the Caribbean and central America. But although the spider was certainly well-placed in the general setting of the movie, Dr. No obviously was no arachnologist. If he was, he would have probably known that Avicularia spiders have relatively small teeth, are reluctant to bite, and are not lethal or even dangerous to humans. Bites of these spiders produce local pain and discomfort, and would have probably only ticked Bond off. But the spider did not even need to bite him to meet Bonds wrath, and his slipper.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Mummy - Scary Scarabs

In this movie, high-priest Imhotep is punished for having an affair with the mistress of the pharaoh by being buried alive with flesh-eating scarabs in his coffin. In his tomb, the heroes Rick O’Connell, Evelyn Carnahan and their group are threatened by swarms of fast and ferocious carnivorous scarabs. One character, the tomb-looting Beni, is even eaten alive by the scarabs. The black beetles that form these scary swarms could hardly be further away from the animal they were inspired on. Real scarabs (Scarabaeus sacer) are relatively slow and clumsily-moving dung beetles whose lives revolve around animal droppings, not human flesh. Scarabs make the dung they find into a ball and roll them along, looking for a suitable place to bury it. This rolling along of a ball of animal droppings has caught the imagination of the old Egyptians. They thought the scarab-headed god Khepri would roll the sun along the sky in a similar way, “explaining” the daily movement of the sun from east to west. The real scarabs meanwhile, roll their dung balls into a self-dug borrow. The adult beetle then lays an egg on it and closes off the borrow, sealing in the dung ball and the egg. The larvae now develops with a supply of dung large enough to feed it for several months, after which the larva pupates. From the pupa hatches another adult scarab. At no stage does the life of the scarab beetle involve flesh-eating, swarming or moving along at high speed, and they really don’t need to. These harmless beetles are impressive enough by their size (3cm) and their ability to toil along in the scorching sun of Egypt.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Harry Potter; Why the Basilisk is not a snake.

In “Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets”, the second book of the Harry Potter saga, Voldemort tries to kill Harry Potter by setting his basilisk snake on him. In the entire movie, Ron and Harry talk about the basilisk as if it is a huge snake. Harry Potter is able to speak snake language, and can therefore understand what the serpent says. The entrance of the chamber of secret and the chamber itself have sculptures resembling snakes everywhere and Harry and Ron find a shed skin that they point out to be of a 20 meters long snake. When the basilisk actually appears almost at the end of the movie, it looks like an enormous legless lizard. For the purpose of the movie, it is obvious the reference to the legendary basilisk, the giant snake that could kill just looking into your eyes, but also possess a deadly venom (even if according to Pliny the Elder, the basilisk is small sized). Other accounts refer to the basilisk as a gigantic lizard or a similar cockatrice with a snake's tail and teeth and typical crown-like structure on the head.
The basilisk that Harry meets in the chamber of secrets has probably been created from a mixture of creatures. The animators have clearly drawn on living lizards and crocodiles to make the head of the basilisk. Although it is supposed to be a snake, the jaw seems to have a clearly defined, high jawbone. The bone of the lower jaw of most animals is higher than it is thick. Just feel your own jawbone under your chin- from the bottom to where the teeth are placed is a much longer distance than from the outside of your jaw to the tongue side. This shape makes the jawbone very strong in the direction in which it usually gets pushed by chewing; up and down. Like a t-beam used in building, this shape allows large forces to be resisted in one direction by the jawbone, while using the minimum of material, so you can chew hard food. The same general principle applies to most animals that chew such as lizards and crocodiles, but not snakes. Snakes have very mobile, slender jawbones that are only connected in front by a ligament. This allows them to swallow large prey without crushing or chewing them with their teeth. The jaws of most snakes are actually so thin, that they could not crush or chew at all! Potter’s basilisk however, has high jawbones that seem to be connected in the front. The jaws of the basilisk seem to be taken from a crocodilian or a lizard, but definitely not from a snake! Crocodiles have some clever adaptations to living in the water. They can breathe through their nostrils with their mouth open under water, because they have a palate that separates the mouth from the nostrils. The palate has a flap near the throat that the crocs can use to close their throat off from their mouth, creating a waterproof passage from the nostrils to the windpipe. The basilisk seems to have the same kind of palate as a crocodile. But different groups of animals sometimes evolve similar methods to deal with similar problems. So maybe the basilisk is actually lives in the water like a crocodile? Another character that tells us that the basilisk is not a snake, are its eyelids. Snakes don’t have movable eyelids, but have a hard transparent spectacle that protects their eyes from dirt and dehydration. Potters basilisk has movable eyelids like a lizard, and therefore certainly is not a snake!
But basilisks do exist. And the real thing is certainly as impressive as its computer-generated counterpart in the movie. Real basilisks belong to one of the three species of long-legged South-American lizards of the genus Basiliscus. They are sometimes called the “Jesus Christ Lizard” because of their famous ability to run quite long distances across open water on their hind legs. And like the basilisks of the ancient stories, they wear a “crown” on their head.