Saturday, August 24, 2019

James Cameron’s Movie Avatar Plants, Animals, and Fungi

Are your students buzzing about the movie Avatar?  Here’s how you might tie-in an extra credit biology  research project for motivated students. Ask them to research and report back on some of these real-life wonders which I noticed were echoed in the movie’s animation:

Christmas Tree Worms. One of the early scenes in the fantasy part of the movie shows the characters walking through the forest and touching some large feather duster type organisms that, when touched, disappear into the ground. These are very much like Christmas Tree Worms, which are much tinier organisms found on coral reefs. I’ve seen them while diving in the Caribbean. Like the ones in the movie, these organisms retreat quickly into their holes when touched.  There are also plants that react when touched…sensitive plants, on land.

Bioluminescent fungi. One of the best scenes in the movie is when the characters walk through a glowing forest. Parts of the forest light up as they walk. Bioluminescent creatures abound in nature. Look up bioluminescent bays and bioluminescent fungi. On land and in the sea, creatures glow. It’s not just fireflies!

The Great Tree. The forest in the movie reminded me a lot of the rain forest landscapes we have seen in the tropics. The tall, widely spaced trees that shade the forest floor are reminiscent of primary, lowland rain forest. The largest trees reminded me of the emergent trees. The emergent layer of the rain forest features particularly large trees that jut out above the canopy layer, ie the rest of the trees.  Brazil Nut trees in Peru do this. The vines, trees, and other structures in this movie are a good starting point for understanding rain forest structure  in general.

The Floating Mountains. These reminded me of the tepuis of Venezuela. These mountainous structures don’t float in mid-air, of course. But they are so remote and mist-shrouded that they have been barely explored.

Update: It’s been a week since I made this post. Lo and behold, I see an article “Inventing the Plants of Avatar” in the Los Angeles Times! Link here

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