Porg Ecology


We're a little over a week away from the opening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.  While I've been diligently avoiding any major spoilers for the film, its been hard to miss the mania around Porgs--one of the new creatures that will make their debut in this movie.

As a portion of the movie was shot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, providing the location of the planet  -- where Luke Skywalker spent many years in exile before he was found at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the challenges the filmmakers had to deal with was the abundant seabird colonies. Species using the island for breeding habitat include the Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica), Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea), and Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus).  Apparently, birds were frequently seen in the background of shots.  Rather than trying to digitally remove them, they decided to go all in and use them as (minor???) characters in the film, now known as Porgs.

Based on the relatively scarce information released on them, Porgs appear to be based on the puffin, however, at least to my eyes, they cross taxonomic classes and have the face of an otter. Rian Johnson, the movie's director put out some additional details in a tweet a while back:

The young are also apparently called porglets. I'm a little skeptical that they can fly well based on the size of their wings, but aerodynamics are one thing that don't always make sense in Star Wars. This short animation Disney put out over the summer shows that they are also a gregarious species and they appear to be as clumsy on the ground as their inspiration, the puffin. From this clip, as well as a brief appearance in a trailer, it seems Porgs can vocalize, while their real-life counterparts are silent except for a chainsaw-like growl when they are in their burrows.

One of the interesting things about this are the ecological impacts of filming at this location, as it is an important breeding site for puffins and the other seabirds that call the site home as well as a UNESCO  World Heritage site.  Apparently there was some controversy from the filming during the relatively short amount of time the island was in the The Force Awakens, as some of the bird species were still breeding at the site and disturbed by the activity. Additional precautions and measures were put in place for the sequel, but the long term effects  of the use of the site are unknown at this time. An additional complicating influence will be increased tourism to the site, something the Irish government hopes island’s film appearance will help bring.

Threats to Public Land in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Outside of ecology and conservation, one of the things that I am really into is Star Wars. A few months ago, Rogue One, the first anthology film in the Star Wars universe was released. This was preceded by a tie-in novel, Catalyst, that is a prequel to the the movie. The events in the book take place from the somewhere before the events portrayed in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith to immediately prior to the events of the 2016 Star Wars Anthology film Rogue One.

Note: spoilers for both the book and the movie follow, so proceed at your own risk.

As even the most casual fan of Star Wars knows, the Death Star is the size of a "small moon". A space station of this size would have to take an amazing amount of raw materials to build. I often wondered about the resources it would take to build such a station, not to mention the all the other ships of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance.

The Catalyst novel covers some of the exploitation of these resources during the two decades before the Battle of Yavin. As the Death Star is the the signature of the Empire, they are in a ruthless in its pursuit of the incredible amount of natural resources. While many planets were open to resource extraction, they also introduced the concept of a "Legacy World"--a term for planets that were environmentally-protected and legally exempted from exploitation. Limited industrial presences on this world were regulated so to be low-impact. The Empire finds ways to override environmental protections on these Legacy Worlds. When the Empire cannot simply claim these protected resources for themselves, they trump up falsehoods as justification for annexing resource-rich planets and taking what they need. In the end many planets are devastated by the Death Star project.

While reading this book, I could help to see the parallels between story and current efforts by some facets of Federal and state governments, corporations, and other parties to reduce or eliminate environmental protections on publicly owned land in the US, largely in the name of economic development. While it was a little stressful to read a book for entertainment that so strongly reminded me of work, it was good to see this issue covered in (semi-)popular media. So much for escapism though...