Real Creatures That Probably Inspired Pandora, the World of Avatar
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Few movies have captivated audiences like James Cameron’s 2009 box office hit Avatar. In addition to being one of the first films that fully immersed audiences in three dimensions, it also featured outstanding creature designs rendered in lifelike CGI, transporting viewers to a tropical alien moon. But did you know that many real plants and animals are very similar to those from the movie? Here’s a closer look at organisms that inspired the flora and fauna of Pandora, the world of Avatar.
One of the first animals to appear in Avatar — albeit very briefly — is the prolemuris. Sleek and colorful, it looks something like a cross between a frog and a monkey, with wide, piercing golden eyes and a downturned mouth.
Most striking is its arms. Each limb branches out into two at the elbow, essentially giving it four arms with which to swing from the trees.
In real life, crustaceans like crabs, shrimp, and lobsters also have biramous limbs, meaning limbs that split into two at a joint. For example, a shrimp’s swimmerets, which look like tiny legs that help it swim, branch into two parts in the middle.
It seems apparent that art designers for the prolemuris also found inspiration in some of Earth’s 107 lemur species. These primates use their prehensile tails, opposable thumbs, and flexible feet to swing through the trees. However, as their habitat shrinks, many lemurs are spending more time on the ground. It will be interesting to see which direction evolution takes with lemurs that leave the trees.
Christmas Tree Worms, Touch-Me-Nots
As Jake starts exploring Pandora in his Avatar body, one of the first species he encounters is the helicoradian, a plant resembling a large, spiraling pink fan with gills much like those of a mushroom. Walking through the field of these unusual flowers, he delights in how they instantly retract into their pods when touched.
Botany professor Jodie Holt took inspiration from Spirobranchus giganteus, commonly called the Christmas tree worm, when designing the helicoradians. These bizarre undersea tube worms look nearly identical to their Pandoran counterparts. Sporting colorful whorls of delicate tendrils — which are actually mouthparts called prostomial palps — these invertebrates also retract into their burrows if you touch them.
Another species that may have inspired the helicoradian’s design is the touch-me-not plant, Mimosa pudica. When you touch them, the leaves fold shut. Scientists aren’t sure why this reflex evolved, but it might serve to discourage predators or shade the plant to reduce water loss.
Manta Rays, Pterosaurs
Artists took inspiration from manta rays and skates to design the overall shape of some of Avatar’s most fearsome beasts. Banshees and the great leonopteryx, dragonlike predators that prowl the skies, have slick, diamond-shaped bodies and long tails to make them more aerodynamic.
The designers also used extinct pterosaurs like Tapejara as muses when creating the animals of Pandora, the world of Avatar. No one knows for certain why Tapejara — a reptile very similar to Pterodactyl — had such an enormous head crest. It may have helped the animal fly better, or it could have been useful for attracting mates. Either way, the crest’s impressive appearance translated well to the big screen, making the great leonopteryx even more imposing.
To create the skin designs for the banshees and leonopteryx, lead creature designer Neville Page mimicked the patterns of poison dart frogs, monarch butterflies, and birds. He then warped the patterns so audiences wouldn’t recognize them as easily.
Most of Pandora’s animals breathe through holes in their chest rather than nostrils on their face. Although this feature might seem too far-fetched to have any basis in reality, insect respiratory systems actually work the same way.
Insects take in air through spiracles. These openings — which deliver oxygen directly to the tissues — are located at several points along an insect’s body rather than on the face. Bugs can open and close the holes to reduce water loss.
Bizarrely, an insect’s respiratory system is unconnected to its sense of smell. Unlike in most other animals, where nostrils allow for breathing and detecting scents, insects only use their spiracles for breathing. Most bugs use chemical receptors in their antennae and mouthparts to smell. However, fig wasps can also smell through their ovipositors, the body part that females use to lay eggs! Sometimes, reality truly is stranger than fiction.
Muntjac Deer, Frilled Lizards
If you’ve ever gotten a close look at a deer, you might have noticed something strange. Right under each of the animal’s eyes is a deep slit called the preorbital gland. This tear duct helps lubricate the eyes, lets the deer scent-mark its surroundings, and even serves as a visual signal — red deer fawns open their preorbital glands when they’re hungry and close them when they’re full.
These glands are not very obvious in most deer. However, muntjac deer, species that belong to the genus Muntiacus, have a unique facial muscle that allows them to turn their preorbital glands inside out.
They’re also the only deer with frontal glands. These V-shaped slits along the forehead flare out for scent marking or when the animal is interested in something.
Watching a muntjac flare its facial glands is nothing short of fascinating, although the display borders on the grotesque. It would come as no surprise if designers used it as inspiration for the thanator, Pandora’s most terrifying predator.
The animal makes its first appearance when it sneaks up on Jake from behind. As it approaches him, it inflates two large glands on its face, presumably to take in his scent. The thanator also flares a formidable crest on its head, reminiscent of a frilled lizard’s impressive neck flap that scares away predators and serves as a display to other members of the species.
Pandora, the World of Avatar, Is Right Here at Home
Watching Avatar might feel like a fun escape from reality, but most of the creature designs were inspired by real plants and animals. You don’t need to visit Pandora to experience the magic of Avatar.
The animals and plants living right here on Earth are fascinating, and many of them have unique adaptations seen in no other living species. It’s up to us to protect these creatures so people can enjoy them — and the movies, books, and artwork they inspire — for generations to come.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.