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King Kong Island Home Is Pure Fantasy, Ecology Experts Say

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 14, 2005
 
The massive star of the new movie King Kong, which opens today,
effectively apes real gorillas. But the bizarre assortment of wildlife
on the creature's island home seems to be from out of this world.

As seen in the remake of the 1933 film classic, Skull Island is supposed to lie somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

In the island's jungles roam a wide array of dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex; aggressive, 3-foot (90-centimeter) cockroaches; bloodthirsty car-size crabs; and, of course, Kong, a 25-foot-tall (8-meter-tall) silverback gorilla who lives alone in his mountain hideaway.

It's a world that violates most of modern science's evolutionary rules.

"The notion that dinosaurs could survive on a tiny mid-oceanic island is preposterous," said John Terborgh, a professor of environmental science at Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"Islands, even moderately large ones, are notoriously devoid of large predators," he said. "The two largest predators on Cuba are a lizard and the red-tailed hawk. The whole notion of apex predators on islands is fantasy."

Island Laboratory

The giant gorilla presumably evolved in isolation on Skull Island, though this is never explained in the movie.

Islands, as Charles Darwin said, appear to be nature's laboratory, where experiments are carried out with species that travel from the mainland.

"The first experiment is titled, Can you survive on this place that is different in every way from the mainland or other island from whence you came?" marine science expert Dennis Kelly said. "Most species probably do not survive this experiment."

But those that do survive often change over time to fill an ecological niche that exists on those islands.

"If a species is small—usually very small—it can actually increase in size [via a phenomenon] called gigantism," said Kelly, a professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California.

California's Santa Cruz Island scrub jay, for example, is up to a third larger than mainland jays.

"[But they can't grow] by too much … due to the often limited resources and space on any island," Kelly said.

Other species, such as the tiny island fox of California's Santa Rosa Island, may shrink—a trend known as dwarfism.

In the process of growing larger or smaller, a few species may change their basic structures—birds may become flightless, for example. But no species would grow as huge as director Peter Jackson's great ape.

"Kong is obviously not a realistic representation of an island species," said Stanley Temple, a wildlife ecology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Primates don't often get to remote islands.

"I can think of no evolutionary advantage for an island primate to become larger than its ancestor," he added. In fact, the opposite would be more likely.

"Think about the small Homo species recently discovered," Temple said, referring to the "hobbit" species of early human (Homo floresiensis) recently found on Flores Island in Indonesia.

(See "Hobbit-Like Human Ancestor Found in Asia.")

"Larger animals have smaller populations than smaller animals, so a population of giants on an island would be small in numbers and, hence, more vulnerable to extinction than a smaller-sized animal."

Many species are particularly vulnerable on islands because the animals have evolved in the absence of competitors, predators, and parasites and have thus lost their defenses.

Chest Beating

Granted, King Kong is not meant to be scientifically dissected. The filmmakers deliberately changed some of their animals' anatomies.

The T. rex, for example, has claws with three fingers instead of the scientifically correct two—an homage to the original movie, in which the dinosaur had an extra finger.

But the filmmakers did set out to portray King Kong himself as realistically as possible.

"It's based on a silverback gorilla, absolutely," Richard Taylor, the head creatures designer for the movie, said in a telephone interview from New Zealand, where his Weta workshop is based.

In the 1933 movie, Kong walks around on two feet, beating his chest with clenched fists. The modern Kong—like his real-life counterparts—walks on his knuckles and feet and beats his chest with cupped hands.

The new Kong, however, is shown standing straight up on his rear legs and beating his chest, something that a real gorilla can't do to the same extent.

Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, was outfitted with motion sensors to provide the movement and voice for Kong. He also, with the help of 132 sensors, controlled the ape's facial expressions.

To learn how mountain gorillas walk, communicate, and interact, Serkis studied gorillas in one of their natural habitats in Rwanda.

(Read a National Geographic Adventure magazine interview with Serkis.)

Like Kong, real-life male silverback gorillas are fiercely protective of their females and young. If confronted by a hunter, silverbacks may stay behind and position themselves between the hunter and the fleeing gorilla family.

Frans de Waal is a primatologist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He says Kong appears "more humanlike than gorillalike," based on the movie previews he has seen.

"The few scenes I have seen have too much direct eye contact by King Kong," de Waal said. "Gorillas almost never stare straight into the eyes of anybody."

Then there is the distinctive gorilla odor.

"The film audience misses out on this," de Waal said. "[It] must be powerful coming from an oversized gorilla. I'm curious if the girl [played by Naomi Watts] will faint."

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