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[personal profile] corvi
The problem with deciding to write one post a day is that you get behind, and then you are obnoxious and spammy. This is a repost of something I wrote on the question and answer site Quora, where I enjoy posting serious answers to silly questions. Any rumors that I am reposting this just to annoy [personal profile] juli cannot be proven.

Question: How would the Bulbasaur Pokemon work?

Answer:
This is a fun question and I am going to write way too much about it. Here's what we know about Bulbasaur, from Ash's pokédex in the TV show, episode 10:

Bulbasaur. It bears the seed of a plant on its back from birth. The seed slowly develops. Researchers are unsure whether to classify Bulbasaur as a plant or animal. Bulbasaur are extremely calm and very difficult to capture in the wild.

And here's what the pokédexes in the games say:
A strange seed was planted on its back at birth. The plant sprouts and grows with this pokémon. (Red and Blue games)
It can go for days without eating a morsel. In the bulb on its back, it stores energy. (Yellow game)
Bulbasaur can be seen napping in bright sunlight. There is a seed on its back. By soaking up the sun's rays, the see grows progressively larger. (Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald games)

So it sounds like Bulbasaur is a plant and an animal living together. There are some real-world examples we can look at for ideas of how that combination works.

The Mary River Turtle has got the be the real-world animal that most looks like a bulbasaur. Unfortunately, it's just plants growing on a turtle. Unlike a bulbasaur, they don't share energy or work together in any way. (image source)
An Emerald Elysia sea slug, on the other hand, is actually a combination of plant and animal. A young slug bites holes in a bunch of yellow-green algae and sucks out the chloroplasts (where photosynthesis happens). It then keeps the chloroplasts in its own body, so it can live off sunlight like a plant (or a bulbasaur napping in the sun).

Bulbasaur is green, so it could have chloroplasts in its body, especiallyu in those dark green spots. Other than the colors matching, Emerald Elysia seems like a poor basis for for a real-world bulbasaur biology, since Bulbasaur's seed grows into an entire plant over time. Bulbasaur doesn't kill its seed and keep only the parts it wants.
(image source)

Spotted salamanders are sort of an inverse-bulbasaur: they live with plants until they hatch from their eggs, but go their separate ways afterwards. The baby salamanders growing inside the eggs don't have enough oxygen to develop properly without the help of an algae that lives inside the eggs and converts carbon dioxide produced by the embryos into oxygen.

Like the Mary River Turtle, spotted salamanders kinda look like bulbasaur, but since the association between plant and animal ends when they hatch, they aren't a good model for bulbasaur biology. (image source)
The Bullhorn Acacia is a tree that has hollow thorns for ants to live inside. When it wants some ants, it makes a special smell that lures a queen ant to live in it and lay eggs. It feeds the by creating drops of sugar and oil on its leaves. In return, the very aggressive ants bite the heck outta anything that wants to eat the Acacia. (image source)

I could almost see something like this working for bulbasaur - the seed makes a smell that lures a young lizardy thing to put it on its back (or trainers do it) and then the plant can feed the animal half with sugar when it has access to sunlight. Instead of swarms of tiny ants, it has one big helper animal to defend it.

The problem is, where does the plant get nutrients to grow itself from? It doesn't have roots to get water, carbon and nitrogen out of the ground, because it is wandering around on top of an animal. There are plants that live on tree branches and grow using only water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the air, like Tillandsias:


but they grow incredibly slowly. I had a botanist roommate who raised tillandsias. I lived with her for years, I'm not sure I could even tell if any of them were getting bigger. So this would only work if bulbasaurs were all centuries old. But in the TV show, May's bulbasaur evolves all the way to Venusaur during her lifetime - the plant gets a LOT bigger pretty quickly. (image source)

I guess bulbasaur could poop on its own back to get nutrients to the plant, but that just raises further questions. How does the poop stay up there? How does bulbasaur avoid massive parasite issues from pooping on itself? What kind of pokémon trainer wants to keep a poop-covered animal around?
This is the only plant I know of that can use nutrients from an animal to grow itself: the disease malaria, which lives completely inside animals. It kills half a million people a year. But it's small enough to fit inside an animal cell and steal what it needs directly, unlike bulbasaur's massive plant.
(image source)
So there are lots of real world plant / animal combinations where the plant provides energy to the animal, similar to bulbasaur. But in all those combinations, either the plants use roots to get building materials from the ground, or they are so tiny they don't need to do that. Bulbasaur's plant isn't tiny and can't reach the ground, and there are no real-life examples of animals that can share carbon, water, and nitrogen with plants even though animals have lots of that stuff.

So we need a third organism in the combination: a fungus. Fungi are great at exactly that thing.

One example is lichens - a fungus and a plant living symbiotically where neither one could grow alone. The plant provides energy, the fungus manages water and nitrogen. (image source)

In forests, mycorrhizal networks formed by underground fungus threads move so much nutrients and water between trees that some plants, like this corpse plant, live just by getting nutrition from the networks and don't bother with leaves or photosynthesis. (image source)

Okay, so fungi can provide nutrients to plants. Can they get nutrients from an animal?

Yep. Labouls are fungi that grow on bugs and steal nutrients from hemolymph (the insect version of blood). Unlike a lot of fungal diseases, they don't seem to hurt their hosts except for small amounts of nutrient-stealing. They just sit there and look very disturbing. (image source)

So that's my suggestion for a real life bulbasaur: three different organisms working together. One plant, one animal, one fungus. The fungus colonizes the plant's roots and the animal's blood, and allows them to share energy and nutrients back and forth as needed.

I don't know whether baby bulbasaurs hatch or are live birthed, but like lichens and labouls, they are going to have to start as separate organisms. A baby bulbasaur would catch the fungus by playing with or snuggling an adult (already fungus-infected) bulbasaur. The fungus on the adult bulbasaur would make spores that landed on and infected the juvenile.

If there are no adult bulbasaurs around, I guess a trainer could just collect spores from an adult and save them in a jar or something, then sprinkle them on the juvenile.

After that, when the seed is placed on its back, the fungus would begin to grow mycorrhizae into the seed as well, helping attach and nourish it. If you put a seed on an uninfected animal, nothing will happen. The seed can't get enough water to sprout without the fungus' help.

Probably the animal partner could live alone. Probably the fungus can't. The plant might or might not be able to grow in dirt on its own (some lichen-plants can, some lichen-plants can't).


I can't believe I just wrote over a thousand words on speculative pokémon biology. :) Wait, yes I can.

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