Fantastic Beasts and the Science Behind Them

Growing up reading Harry Potter, my favorite parts of the series weren’t the coming of age stories, nor the magical spells, nor the combat and adventure. Instead I obsessed over the mythical science, potions, and creatures. I was captivated by the Harry Potter companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and wondered, did such fantastic creatures exist in our world?

We tend to think that all parts of the map that were once labelled “Here be dragons” are free from mysteries. True magic may not exist, but there are still beasts at the corners of the world with abilities so magical that scientists have not yet entirely figured them out. Let’s take a look at five entries in a modern-day muggle edition of Newt Scamander’s encyclopedia.

Flying Snakes

Classification: Competent scientist should cope

A flying snake jumps off of a tree and glides, with neither wings nor a broomstick.

A flying snake jumps off of a tree and glides, with neither wings nor a broomstick.

In the jungles of Southeast Asia there are snakes that soar through the air. Technically, they don’t “fly,”  but they do jump off of trees and glide by flattening their bodies. Flying snakes have gotten the attention of scientists recently because the physics of the complicated air flow around these unconventional flyers is different from the traditional aerodynamics of large fixed-wing planes. The snakes’ gliding is somewhere between the flight of a frisbee and the flapping wings of a bird: they undulate in an S-shaped motion to increase the air pressure underneath them. Scientists hope to learn from these snakes how small dynamic animals stay in the air, and apply those lessons to build agile flying machines. The snakes’ bite can be annoying but is not dangerous, making them not worth summoning with a Serpensortia spell during a duel.

Star-nosed Mole

Classification: Harmless

A star-nosed mole bursts from the ground, probing with its sophisticated nose.

A star-nosed mole bursts from the ground, probing with its sophisticated nose.

The star-nosed mole lives in darkness, but it can “see” with its nose. Unlike a magical Niffler, a star-nosed mole forages rapidly underground for insects using its vibration-sensitive nose, which can pinpoint the location of nearby movement. The 22 tentacles on its snout have a total of nearly twice as many vibration and touch sensors as a human hand – all in an area smaller than a human fingertip. The mole’s brain processes signals from its nose similarly to the way we process information from our eyes. It’s so adept at using its “nose-sight” that its eyes have nearly evolved away out of disuse. These creatures are studied by researchers as case studies in how sensory information is transmitted from the molecular level of the sensors to the brain.

Nopoli Rockclimbing Goby

Classification: Harmless

The rockclimbing goby inches its way up a steep rock face

The rockclimbing goby inches its way up a steep rock face.

The rockclimbing goby is a small fish that climbs waterfalls in Hawaii. It might seem as though they Apparated to get to the top, but rockclimbing gobies actually suction onto the rock face behind the falls, and methodically inch their way up. Relative to the size of these fish, the height they climb would be equivalent to a person climbing three Mount Everests! Gobies interest scientists because the need to climb waterfalls to get to their nesting grounds creates strong evolutionary selection pressure. Scientists hope to apply their findings on these fish to understand how other strong selective pressures, such as pollution or global warming, affect evolutionary adaptation in various species.

Mimic Octopus

Classification: Competent scientist should cope

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Believe it or not, these are the same species. The mimic octopus can shapeshift and change color rapidly.

The mimic octopus can shapeshift to mimic other animals without even using a Polyjuice Potion, and its skin can act like an invisibility cloak. The skin of the mimic octopus contains specialized color cells called “chromatophores,” each of which contains a sac of pigment and is attached to a muscle cell. When a sac is squeezed by its muscle cell, it is pushed to the top, and its color appears on the skin. These octopuses have excellent eyesight, so they can see a color pattern and match their skin color pattern to match.

The skin of the mimic octopus also is covered in “papillae,” muscular structures that can change shape to match the surface texture of another object. Octopuses are also boneless and have fine control of their muscles, the same way we do of our tongues, which allows them to change the proportions of their bodies. Mimic octopuses can shape-shift to resemble a variety of sea life, including fish, sea snakes, and jellyfish. They can hide in plain sight so well that the species wasn’t discovered until 1998!

Electric Eel

Classification: Dangerous, requires specialist knowledge

A slow motion view of an electric eel rearing out of the water and attacking a rubber arm full of LEDs, as part of a scientific experiment.

A slow motion view of an electric eel rearing out of the water and attacking a rubber arm full of LEDs, as part of a scientific experiment.

The electric eel can stun large animals, without casting Stupefy. Electric eels are not actually true eels, but rather a type of large Amazon knifefish. They have specialized cells called “electrocytes” which act as small batteries and can produce high voltages. When the fish trigger these cells, electricity flows through the water around them. Some knifefish use this electricity for “electrolocation:” like dolphins and bats, they can detect predators or prey in the dark, but using electric fields instead of sound waves. Electric eels, though, use their electric fields to stun prey.

In the water, the electricity is diffused, so the current is usually too low to injure a human. But when threatened by large land animals, the electric eel has a special trick up its sleeve that has only recently been understood. In the early 1800’s, German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt wrote that, while exploring the Amazon, he watched electric eels leap out of the water and stun horses, which fell into the water and drowned. His claim was considered an exaggeration until, just last year, scientists at Vanderbilt University provoked captive electric eels with a rubber arm covered in LEDs. They found that the animals would rear their heads out of the water and press their chins onto intruders. With no water around them to diffuse the current, all of the electricity flows through the arm, producing a massive shock.

Myths are based on misunderstandings; what we don’t understand can often appear to be magical. Even in the 21st century, we’re still discovering new beasts and unlocking the secrets of those we thought we understood. Of course, when scientific research reveals how the animals work, that doesn’t take away from the magic – we just get to marvel at them on a whole new level. To keep the magic alive, it’s up to us, as Newt Scamander wrote in the original Fantastic Beasts, “to ensure that future generations of witches and wizards enjoy their strange beauty and powers as we have been privileged to do.”

Further reading:

Flying Snakes: National Geographic

Flying Snakes: NPR

Rockclimbing gobies: NSF

Star-nosed mole: Smithsonian Magazine

Mimic Octopus: Smithsonian Museum

Mimic Octopus: National Geographic

Mimic Octopus: Scientific American

Electric Eels: Scientific American

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