New Zealand’s Pokémon: a real monster from the deep

Did you know New Zealand has its own Pokémon? It’s called Relicanth and our science researcher Rodrigo Salvador has been speculating on why this creature was chosen to represent Aotearoa.

The launch of the “Generation III” monsters for Pokémon GO in 2016 had a surprise in store for everyone. New Zealanders discovered their country now has its own exclusive Pokémon called Relicanth. While this might be good news for us trainers around these parts, pretty much every other player in the world was left confused, disappointed, or angry – or any combination of those.

A map showing the exclusive Pokémon for each region of the globe. Image by Carlo P. Gómez, used with permission.

A map showing the exclusive Pokémon for each region of the globe. Image courtesy of Carlo Padrón Gómez

Why was Relicanth chosen to represent New Zealand?

Disappointment and anger is easy to understand, as not many Pokémon trainers are willing to travel all the way here just to catch this monster. But many (like me) were just confused. Why on Earth was Relicanth chosen to represent New Zealand? With no obvious kiwi-like Pokémon, they needed to pick another monster, but why Relicanth? Let’s take a closer look at the real animal behind Relicanth and try to uncover this.

Animated scene featuring Relicanths and a submarine

Relicanths in episode 370 of Pokémon: The Series. The Pokémon Company International

Based on a real monster

Relicanth is based on an actual animal, the coelacanth.

Coelacanths are lobe-finned fish and belong to a class within the vertebrates called Sarcopterygii (from the Greek, “fleshy fins”).

The Sarcopterygii also contains more familiar animals, such as lungfish, and all amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds – so, yes, we’re all lobe-finned fishes in a sense.

Coelacanths live in the ocean’s “twilight zone” around 200 metres deep, and feed on small fishes and cephalopods as they slowly travel along the bottom of the sea.

Fish on display at a museum

A specimen of Latimeria chalumnae from the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Nantes, France. Coelacanthe, 2009 by Daniel Jolivet via Flickr. CC BY 2.0 Generic

There are only two living species of coelacanths in the world – Latimeria menadoensis from Indonesia, and Latimeria chalumnae from the east coast of Africa through the Mozambique Channel. So nothing to do with New Zealand…

Thought to be extinct

There is a curious fact about coelacanths – lots of fossils were known to scientists but no single living animal was found until 1938.

Up to then, this whole group (formally known as the subclass Actinistia) was thought to be long extinct since circa 80 million years ago.

Popular literature has applied the term “living fossils” to present-day coelacanths, because they look superficially similar to the fossils.

They also go further, implying that coelacanths have not undergone significant evolution since ancient times.

Even the Pokédex entry of Relicanth reflects this view, saying that this Pokémon “has remained unchanged for 100 million years.” This is, of course, incorrect. Even if similar on a first look, the coelacanth lineage that is alive today had tens of millions of years to diverge from their ancestors. These accumulated differences can be seen on their DNA and anatomy.

A fossil of Undina penicillata from the Göteborgs Naturhistoriska museum, Sweden. Photograph by Gunnar Creutz. CC BY SA 4.0

A fossil of Undina penicillata from the Göteborgs Naturhistoriska museum, Sweden. Photograph by Gunnar Creutz. CC BY SA 4.0

Coelacanth fossils in New Zealand

Coelacanths begin to appear in the geological record roughly 360 million years ago and their fossils are known from virtually everywhere around the globe. So maybe New Zealand has some nice fossils?

Well, sorry to disappoint again, but no. No fossil coelacanth has ever been found in New Zealand, even though the country has rocks of the appropriate age.

Not the best choice

So to conclude, Relicanth was definitely not the best choice of exclusive Pokémon for New Zealand. Which “Gen III” Pokémon would you have chosen? Or would you rather wait and pick a monster from one of the next generations?

Further reading

If you want to know more about these amazing lobe-finned fishes, A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg (2000) is a good popular introduction to ceolacanths. For the hardcore biology readers, History of the Coelacanth Fishes by Peter L. Forey (1998) is far more technical and complete.

You can also learn more about all the fish Pokémon and the species they were based on by checking out this article from the Journal of Geek Studies.

3 Responses

  1. vera

    Oh wow! This is interesting and funny! I know a couple of 11 year olds who will enjoy reading this article. Obrigada Rodrigo! 😀

  2. David Lim

    Nice to have our own regional.


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