Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest installment of Nintendo’s popular game series, now available in high resolutions on the Nintendo Switch. Packed with fun and adventure, while featuring animals and natural history, will it hold up to a more serious look? I have a degree in biology and work at a natural history museum myself, and when my kids showed me this game, I was amazed by its accurate depiction of animals and cutting edge science. So, let’s take a look shall we?

So one of the things you can do in this game is catching wild animals and also go digging for fossils that you can deliver at your local museum. Much to the delight of a museum keeper going by the name of “Blathers”, and whereas he does a lot of blathering, he also delivers gold nuggets like this:

Now, I do hope you will consider donating what you’ve found.
The cultural development of the island is a worthy endeavor indeed.

Blathers

I really appreciate the value already being expressed here. It is very important to donate any artefacts you find to your local museum. Not only for the public to enjoy, but also for scientific progress. 

Just one small note: If you do find anything special, especially fossils or archeological artefacts, please just contact your museum and leave them there, where they are. There’s a lot of important information that might get lost when you take it out and you bring it someplace else. And then you may not remember exactly where you found it and how it was buried. And that is a lot of very useful information for scientists.  So if you do find a very interesting artefact, please take a picture of it and contact your local public museum. And let them send a team out, if it is something that is interesting scientifically. 

The noble enterprise of collecting donations for the public museum is dented a bit by the in-game option of selling your finds for profit to big business.

However, I learned that, actually, you can also sell your specimens for profit to what seems a rather shady character by the name of Tom Nook and his family business Nook Incorporated. Because once an entire specimen has been donated to the museum, it won’t accept any further specimens. Now even though that is a bit of a letdown, my kids reassured me that Nook is actually a good guy giving you loans for no interest and not taking any profits from building projects on the island So there’s at least that. Still one thing about that doesn’t make sense and that is that a normal museum would always accept additional specimens to their collection for the sake of scientific research. Because that is actually the main reason for the existence of a museum in the first place. Exhibits only show a tiny sample of its nicest and most important pieces to the public. 

Scientific research is the main reason for the existence of museums. Exhibitions usually only showcase a tiny sample from the collection, which can contain many thousands of objects.

Now the evolutionary tree shown on the museum floor is the part, I was really impressed by. It looks like the first room represents the earliest branches of life most of which have their end-points here. Now even though this tree is highly simplified, it is near-perfect. The branches that are included are almost a 100% correct, with only a few exceptions that I could find. For reference, I’ll use the excellent online tree-of-life explorer at the OneZoom website.

Let’s look at the first few branches. Now I couldn’t find a lot of info on these, but it looks like these are models rather than fossils. The first one on the left looks like a big model of a clump of bacteria, probably Staphylococcus, which you can get really sick of by the way, so this branch must be the Eubacteria or in other words: The true bacteria. The first one on the right could very well be a cyanobacterium, also called blue-green algae. Now these are actually bacteria and not true algae, and should really be included in the bacteria-branch. But I can understand why they put them there, because the next branch to the right looks like it stands for algae and plants themselves, and cyanobacteria did become a part of the cells of those lifeforms early during evolution. This evolutionary process is known as endosymbiosis.

The earliest branches of life at the beginning of the first fossil hall in the museum.

To the left is a branch over to the fungi like mushrooms and molds, which actually are a bit more closely related to animals than shown here. Then we get to the true animals and the first branch leads to a model of a jellyfish, so this is clearly the branch of the Cnidaria, which are the very simple animals that include jellyfish, sea anemones, and corals. Not sure what this next branch leads to, but it looks like a sponge, and sponges are actually even simpler animals than cnidarians, and more primitive, so these branches should have been swapped.

Then we get to the first main split and this is really exciting, because it correctly shows there are two main groups of animals with bilateral symmetry, meaning a left and a right side. And most animals are like that and in a group called BILATERIA, meaning two-sided, so with a left and a right side. 

The most common body symmetry in animals: Being bilateral means having 2 mirror image sides on the left and right.

Now what’s special about bilaterians is that they have a front and an end, meaning they can go in one direction instead of just floating around like a jelly, or sitting like a sponge or sea anemone. However, the main split in this group seems to be which end is where the mouth should be and which end is where the but should be. The front is usually where the head is and the end the butt. And the weird thing is that it’s switched around between these two groups, so one group decided to put food in one end and poop out the other and the other settled on the reverse. So that is why they call one group the protostomes meaning the “first mouth” and the other the DEUTEROSTOMES meaning “secondary mouth”.

Protostomes and Deuterostomes are the two main branches of animals that differ on what end of the body does what.

 Let’s start with the Protostomes on the left here. This group includes most invertebrates like arthropods and molluscs. Molluscs are represented by the cuttlefish over here  and the extinct ammonite here, are part of the cephalopods which also includes the octopus and other such big, tentacled soft-bodied sea creatures. The name cephalopod means head-feet, referring to the many tentacles attached to the head area. Not shown are molluscs like snails and slugs, known as gastropods, and neither are clams and mussels, known as bivalves. 

The molluscs are only represented by cephalopods like the squid model and the ammonite fossil.

Arthropods are represented by insects like the mosquito encased in amber here. Then there are the arachnids like the spider over here and crustaceans like the crab over here. Another major group not shown on this tree are the myriapods containing centipedes & millipedes. Now this is a highly simplified tree, so it’s understandable that groups are left out. There’s one thing over here though, and the last flaw that I found in an otherwise correct tree. The Trilobite here and the Anomalocaris over here are also arthropods and are really a part of this whole group. So I would branch the molluscs off lower and also, since Anomalocaris is a proto-arthropod, I would branch it off before the trilobite which is an arthropod proper. 

The Protostome branches corrected: Anomalocaris and the Trilobites should both be on the Arthropod branch, but the the former should branch off earlier, being a more primitive form.

Now let’s go over to the right, where we have the major animal group that we humans belong to, namely the Deuterostomes. Now there are two major phyla in this group apart from a few other odd lifeforms. The first one is formed by the vertebrates, which includes everything from fish to ourselves. The other one is the echinoderms, which includes sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea lilies and other marine animals.  It would have been nice, had they included a sea star over here or something, but it’s okay. 

The first branch leads to a fossil Myllokunmingia which is one of the earliest fish-like creatures, though we’re still not sure if it’s a true vertebrate or an earlier branch of the bigger group called the Chordata. In any case, it was a jawless creature and there are still primitive jawless fishes living today. You have the lampreys which are kinda like leech-fish that suck blood. And there are the hagfish which are eel-like scavengers with no eyes and barely a skeleton to speak of. Just a simple skull made of cartilage and a notochord, which is a flexible, internal rod running the length of the body. So these are really marginally vertebrates. 

Extant jawless fishes that the fossil Myllokunmingia perhaps was very similar to anatomically.

Now the funny thing with fish is that in the beginning they started out with a soft skeleton of cartilage, and formed bony plates on the outside. You can see that in the Dunkleosteus over here, which is part of a group called the placoderms which were one of the first fish with jaws and the plates around the mouth were sharpened into cutting blades for biting prey. Now one branch lost all of its bony plates and became a group including the sharks over here, and the other got a bony internal skeleton and those are called the bony fishes. And the first fossil on that branch is actually very important to us, because while most fishes have ray fins, Eusthenopteron over here is one of the early fishes with lobed fins. One of the only ones still living today is the Coelacanth that you can catch while fishing and more on that later. 

Exquisite in-game model of a coelacanth, whose lobed fins are homologous with our arms & legs

Now those fleshy fin lobes with bones and muscles are important because these eventually turned into legs and the front pair then turned into our arms. And that development gave rise to the first amphibians like salamanders and frogs and Acanthostega is an early stage in the move onto land. And it’s from this point that the main branch takes off into the rest of the museum. 

There’s a whole lot more to talk about there, but let’s wrap it up for now. If you would like to hear the rest, please leave a comment and check back from time to time!

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