The new The Jungle Book (2016) movie is a magical live-action computer-animated film featuring the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken and other greats. The film features all of our favorite The Jungle Book characters, but also some new faces and zoological underpinnings.
Things You May Not Know about Kaa by Sara Ruane, postdoctoral fellow in the LSU Museum of Natural Science
1. Kaa is a species of rock python that, while it isn’t as massive as the 2016 film depicts, can grow over 20 feet long.
Kaa’s scientific name is Python molurus. These snakes live in India as well as Pakistan and southeast Asia. They are forest dwellers but can be found across a range of habitats such as mangrove swamps and grasslands and can climb and swim well.
Commonly known as rock pythons or Burmese pythons (some people consider these a single species and some consider them two separate species, I will just speak about them as one here), these snakes are among the largest out there and can grow over 20 feet long. This snake is quite infamous due to its success in the Florida Everglades as an invasive species, where it has caused the decline of native mammal species. Python molurus is also the first snake to have its entire genome sequenced.
2. In real life, Kaa couldn’t hypnotize Mowgli – but the snake has other tricks.
Rock pythons, like all pythons, are constrictors. They sit and wait for something tasty like a small deer to come by and then ambush it. They also have heat sensing pits along their lip that allow them to detect the heat signature of other animals and helps them strike with high levels of accuracy, even in total darkness.
Pythons are not venomous, but their mouths are loaded with sharp recurved teeth. Once they get a hold on their prey, they wrap around it in order to essentially suffocate it. Once the prey is dead, they swallow it whole. These snakes can take pretty big animals and can go months between feeding events.
There aren't actually any snakes that can "hypnotize" prey, that's more of a myth than a fact!
3. Kaa is endangered in some countries.
Large pythons such as rock pythons are used by people in a number of ways that can be detrimental, including for food, for leather and for pets. These snakes aren't considered endangered across their entire range but are in some countries specifically. Populations may suffer due to the aforementioned reasons, as well as habitat loss in their native range and people generally not liking snakes and killing them. Roads are also a major threat to these and other snakes, as they get killed trying to cross roads pretty frequently.
Things You May Not Know about the Birds of the Jungle Book by Subir Shakya, graduate student in the LSU Museum of Natural Science
4. The Jungle Book (2016) features a “cameo” by an Asian Fairy-Bluebird.
The opening scene of The Jungle Book (2016) pans through a typical North-East Indian forest with giant flying squirrels scurrying across trees and a pair of bright blue-and-black birds sitting on a branch. The bird is an Asian Fairy-Bluebird (Irena puella) and it is one of the most beautiful birds found in the Himalayan foothills. Although Rudyard Kipling might not have specifically mentioned this bird in his book, several birds do play a prominent role in his stories.
5. In the original The Jungle Book (1894) story, Mowgli communicates with a Brahminy Kite when he is kidnapped by the Monkey People, and Shere Khan uses vultures to spy on Mowgli.
In the original story, when Mowgli is taken by the Bander-log (aka the Monkey People) he communicates with a Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) and asks him to tell Baloo, the Bear, and Bagheera, the Panther, of his kidnapping. Kites are some of the most common birds in India and are somewhat like the vultures found in the U.S. Speaking of vultures, the 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book had true vultures (Gyps bengalensis) playing an essential role as the tiger Shere Khan’s eyes in the forest. Vultures are another common bird in the Himalayan foothills. In some parts of northern India, dead people are left out of special pyres for vultures to consume them.
6. There are nearly 1,200 bird species found in the Indian sub-continent where Mowgli’s story takes place.
In Rudyard Kipling’s story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a tailor-bird (Orthotomus sutorius) by the name of Darzee (which translates to tailor) plays an influential role in warning Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose, of the impending plans of Naga, the cobra. If you visit a house in this part of the world that has low-lying vegetation, chances are you will see leaves stitched together as if a tailor went too far. Such a structure is not at all man-made but is the work of the tailor-bird, hence its name. Below the leaves is usually a nest and if you are lucky you will also find its eggs there.
In The Jungle Book (2016), another bird that pops up, this time in a crocodile’s mouth, is the Bee-eater (Merops orientalis). As its name suggests, this bird is an insectivore. It will usually not foray into crocodile mouths but some other birds like Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and Bank Mynas (Acridotheres ginginianus) might, even though they prefer to be on backs of buffalo (like the stampeding herd Mowgli uses to escape from Shere Khan in the movie).
During the song “Bear Necessities” a hoopoe (Upupa epops) can be seen perched on a branch. Among the common sounds you hear in the movie, one of the most characteristic noises is the Mayoor, which is the call of the peacock (Pavo cristatus). There are nearly 1,200 birds found in the Indian sub-continent and the movie has definitely skipped a few of the most spectacular birds such as pheasants, green jays, parakeets and bulbuls. If you get the chance to visit this place, be sure to take your binoculars and enjoy the great avian diversity.
Things You May Not Know about The Jungle Book by Valerie Derouen, Outreach Coordinator for the LSU Museum of Natural Science
7. Baloo is a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), and no, he doesn’t hibernate
In The Jungle Book story and films, Baloo is a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), even if he sometimes looks more like a brown bear. The sloth bear weighs around 290 pounds on average, and can be found in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Just as Mowgli finds out, the sloth bear does not hibernate. They are the most nocturnal of the bears, and are excellent climbers. They eat insects (mainly termites), fruit, and honeybee colonies (including honey!)
The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because of habitat loss and poaching.
8. Ikki, the first one to notice the emergence of the Peace Rock, is an Indian Crested Porcupine (Hystrix indica)
Ikki has a broad range of habitats, from rocky hillsides to shrublands, grasslands, forests, and gardens. The porcupine lives in burrows and caves and is mostly herbivorous, eating roots, bulbs, fruits, grains, tubers and sometimes insects and small vertebrates.
Ikki’s quills are modified hairs; the quills are embedded into the skin musculature. The Indian Crested Porcupine can control them and raise them up, but cannot project them. (So it isn’t just a “reflex” like Ikki says in the 2016 film!) Once something contacts the quill, the quill is released and a new one grows in its place.
Things You May Not Know by Becky Carmichael, Disturbance Ecologist and Science Coordinator with Communication Across the Curriculum.
9. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli accidentally starts a forest fire that the elephants help extinguish. Indian dry deciduous forests have experienced man-man fires for 50,000 years.
Fire has shaped the landscapes of India for thousands of years, both through natural events and by people. Dry deciduous forests with large quantities of flammable grasses, savannahs and Himalayan long leaf pine forests are subject to periodic fires ignited by lightning strikes during the transition from dry to monsoon seasons. Such fires release nutrients, can reduce competition, and may stimulate new vegetation growth.
In The Jungle Book, the animals know fire and what organism “controls” it. Some estimates suggest that about 90% of all forest fires are anthropogenic. People have played an integral role in fire occurrence to maintain desirable landscapes for grazing livestock, shifting cultivation, acquiring forest products such as honey, and to ward off dangerous wildlife. As such, the flora and fauna in these ecosystems have evolved mechanisms to flee or withstand recurrent fire events in these areas.
Things You May Not Know by Sophie Warny, associate professor in the LSU Department of Geology & Geophysics and Curator in the LSU Museum of Natural Science
10. The Jungle Book story of the Peace Rock emerging in a drought season parallels climate changes today.
The story of Mowgli takes place in the jungles of India. The survival of the animals cohabiting with Mowgli and that of the lush tropical forest, normally supported by heavy rainfall, is threatened by a severe drought. Although this drought and the scarcity of water available encourages the animals to propose a truce and not prey on one another, the end of the drought also means the end of the truce and likely the death of Mowgli under the sharp claws of Shere Khan, the Bengal Tiger.
In respect to the drought, the movie intrinsically links life to climate. Safeguarding life as we know it in the face of a changing climate is a complicated issue. Louisiana residents know too well the difficulties one can face adapting to the effects of a warming climate and associated sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and increased hurricane activity in the Gulf.
Understanding the variability of climate and predicting how the Earth system will respond to changes is not an easy task. Modelers have to combine the various effects influencing our climate to predict its future. Studying past climatic changes and understanding their driving forces is one of the research areas conducted in the LSU Department of Geology & Geophysics and Museum of Natural Science. Ongoing anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is one of the components that plays a role in our changing climate today, but there are many natural factors that have been changing the Earth’s climate over geological time and which continue to have an effect today. These include drivers such as plate tectonics, weathering, vegetative cover, albedo (the proportion of light reflected by the Earth’s surface), and Earth orbital cycles, just to cite a few. All these components, whether human or nature-driven, can interact with one another positively or negatively and shape our future climate.
In the case of India, understanding its climatic history cannot be done without understanding the inception of its current monsoonal system. The monsoonal circulation brings copious amounts of rain to India during the summer as the land warms more rapidly than the ocean, drawing moist air from the ocean towards the land, delivering rainfall as the moist air masses rise along the high flank of the Himalaya Mountains, cool, and water vapor condenses. The opposite occurs in the winter, as the land cools faster than the ocean, and the dry, cooler air from inland moves towards the ocean. These alternative forces create cycles of hot, wet summers and colder, drier winters. This pattern might be what Rudyard Kipling had in mind when he set his plot. If the summer monsoon with its life-giving rain fails, all of India suffers.
Bonus Fact: LSU researchers are using ancient pollen to study the history of monsoons in India
Because the Indian monsoonal system is directly linked to the current tropical position of the subcontinent and the massive development of the Himalayan mountains, we know it did not always exist, and certainly not in its current intensity. To date, the inception and quantify the evolution of the Indian summer monsoon, the IODP (International Ocean Discovery Program) acquired a series of cores (samples of sediments extracted by drilling) in the Arabian Sea from March to May 2015. According to the expedition leaders, Dr. Dhananjai Pandey and Dr. Peter Clift, the purpose of the Arabian Sea Monsoon Expedition (IODP Expedition 355) was to understand the interaction between the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau uplift and the development and evolution of the Indian summer monsoon.
The palynological lab at LSU (CENEX) has been selected to conduct the palynological (study of plant pollen) analysis of Arabian Sea cores. In other words, our task is to extract the pollen and spores deposited during the past 23 Ma within the cored sediments: identify them, reconstruct the ancient vegetation that produced the pollen and spores, and (from the vegetation) infer the climatic conditions that existed at the time of sediment deposition. This investigation should provide evidence for the inception of the monsoonal system, and highlight potential strengthening or weakening of the monsoonal system over the geological time-period derived from the cores. The investigation is ongoing.