Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Wildlife Biogeography of the New Jungle Book Movie Trailer

    The Jungle Book is a classic tale and, given the prominent role of wildlife, is one that has always interested me. So, I was intrigued yesterday when the trailer for a new Jungle Book movie was released. You can watch it below.

    I am fully aware that this story about talking and singing animals is a work of fiction, but it is a fact that many people learn about wildlife through pop culture. How many of you believe that a Tyrannosaurus Rex cannot see you if you stand still? So, I think it is important that movies at least try to get the science right. 

    Biogeography is the study of where species occur in space and over time. It is a fascinating subject to think about while considering how and why some animals occur in certain regions and not others. This body of knowledge and research reveals much about how and where species evolved as well as their current habitat needs. I kind of expected that The Jungle Book would throw biogeography out the window, particularly when the film wanted to incorporate animals other than the main characters. I was wrong.

    Let's take a closer look at the trailer. Remember, Rudyard Kipling's original story takes place in India.

    Other than Mowgli, the first animals appear at about 0:24 seconds in.

    The animals in the foreground are pretty clearly Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) and these animals are native to India. This is a good start. There are a few other creatures in this shot, perhaps including some kind of cat (Shere Khan?), some cattle and a large bird. They are too far away or blurry for me to identify here, but perhaps you can make some guesses. I will say that the bird call they play at 0:24 sounds suspiciously like a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), which are from North America. Also, an observant reader noted in the Comments that we can hear a Chorus Frog (Pseudacris genus) at 0:16, another North American animal.

   A few seconds later we get our first good look at a tiger, presumably this is Shere Khan.

   There are tigers in India, in fact, this country contains more of the world's remaining tigers than anywhere else. They are still of great conservation concern though. Tigers in India are considered Bengal Tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and the animal in the trailer looks spot on.

   At 0:31 we get a quick look at two animals which are likely Baloo and Bagheera. There are clearer visuals later so I'll hold off for now.

   We get a good look at a Black Panther at 0:37 (surely this is Bagheera). The term "Black Panther" is used to refer to leopards or jaguars that are melanistic (basically the opposite of albinism). There are leopards (Panthera padrus) in India so we are still doing really well.

    I am not quite sure what to make of what we see at 0:41. We are clearly looking at some kind of primate.

    They could be gibbons. Hoolock Gibbons (two different species in the Hoolock genus) occur in northeastern India but they tend to be black or tan when adults (depending on whether they are male or female). Also, it kind of sounds like I am hearing some stock footage of chimpanzees screaming, and these animals are from Africa. 

    Okay, here's Baloo.

    I don't know about you, but I think that Baloo looks a lot like a Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). In researching this post, I was surprised to find out that Brown Bears actually do occur in India. The Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) can be found in the mountains of northern India. But wait a minute...this is the Jungle Book we are talking about, not the Mountain Book. So, I think they should have went with a different species of bear to be completely accurate. Specifically, the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) is a good candidate, although they are little scruffier and smaller than Brown Bears.

    The animals are really coming in fast and furious now. At 0:42 we got a look at some elephants. 

    I was pleased to see that they are indeed Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) and not their more recognizable cousins, the African Elephants (there are technically two elephant species in Africa, both in the Loxodonta genus). Asian Elephants can be distinguished from African Elephants by their relatively small ears and the high points on their head.

    King Louie, the orangutan made famous in the 1967 Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book, presents a problem. King Louie was not actually in Rudyard Kipling's original story. This makes sense because Orangutans (two species in the Pongo genus) are native to southeastern Asia and not India.

    But, I imagine lots of viewers would be disappointed not to see this major character in the new movie. So, I chalked this one up to artistic license.


    When I vented on Twitter about this potential discrepancy, a couple of my clever followers suggested that perhaps King Louie is not actually an Orangutan at all. In fact, maybe he is an extinct species of primate, like Sivapethecus, that once occurred in India (about 2.2 million years ago). But someone else pointed out that King Louie looks gigantic, so maybe he is actually a Gigantopithecus, another extinct ape that could reach ten feet tall.

    I chuckled and moved on, but this morning I was made aware of this interview with director Jon Favreau, in which he states that King Louie is in fact a Gigantopithecus. And the reason for making King Louie this extinct species of ape is indeed because Orangutans do not occur in India. I am impressed!

    We don't see any new creatures until a little after minute one, when we get our first glimpse of Kaa the python.

    Kaa is supposed to be an Indian Rock Python (Python molorus) and the markings look pretty accurate to me. That said, it is kind of difficult for heavy-bodied snakes like pythons to pick their head up like a cobra and look around ominously....

    At 1:18 we see Baloo facing off against a bunch of monkeys.

    I can't make out these creatures too well but they look like they could be macaques (Macaca genus) although the relatively long tails are throwing me off.

    We get an intriguing look at a couple more primates at about 1:18.

    The creature that is giving Mowgli a ride is definitely a gibbon and as I mentioned earlier Hoolock Gibbons do occur in India. The other primate initially fooled me. I thought it was a Saki Monkey (Pithecia pithecia) and I was quick to point out on Twitter that these animals occur in South America. However, I was taken to task and informed that this animal is probably actually a Lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus) and these animals do live in India, along the southwestern coast. Fair enough!

   At 1:21 we get a very quick look at some stampeding cattle, perhaps they were scared by the menacing Shere Khan looking on in the background.

    Check out these wide sloping horns. This makes me confident that they are not Gaur (Bos gaurus) which are a large species native to India. These animals are probably supposed to be Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee), although I kind of think they look more like Banteng (Bos javanicus), which are found east of India. I think these are the last "new" species we see in the trailer.

    Overall, the Jungle Book trailer does a good job in portraying animals we would actually expect to see in India, where the story takes place. This is no accident and it is very clear to me that the makers of the Jungle Book took great pains to make sure the animals we see in the movie are biologically accurate. That said, I don't think they paid as much attention to the audio. But, in general: nicely done!

   But, you can't please everyone.

   Update: So, this just happened. Director Jon Favreau has retweeted a link to this post, presumably he finds it a fair assessment!

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