The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If you must play Pokémon Go, ‘catch’ some real animals while you’re at it

Nintendo Co.’s Pokemon Go debuted last week on iPhones and Android devices in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, letting players track down virtual characters in real locations using their smartphones. (Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

Much is being made of the astoundingly popular Pokémon Go’s value in getting people off sofas and into streets to interact with the environment, forge friendships with strangers and maybe even become less depressed.

It’s a debatable premise, because the stranger-love that blossoms from the augmented reality app mostly happens at designated Pokéstops and gyms, and players’ eyes are pretty much glued to their phone screens while they “interact” with the surroundings.

The natives always know: Alligators are everywhere in Florida.

But hey! The upshot is that people actually are going outside. And whether they intend to or not, in their quests to catch Sandshrew and Nidoran and all the animated Pokémon creatures, they’re stumbling across real live animals. And that’s given biologists and other wildlife fans an idea: Use this new global obsession to teach people about wild animals.

With that tweet, Jackson, an entomologist and student in Canada — where Pokémon Go isn’t even available — started a wildlife-identifying sub-trend last weekend. For the past few days, players have been tweeting photos of the animals they encounter, hashtagging them #PokeBlitz, a play on “bioblitz,” an event in which people count all the living species in a designated area. Jackson and other scientists and wildlife experts, many of whom already volunteered wildlife identifying services on Twitter, have responded with the critters’ names — or shoutouts for more help.

Pokémon’s creator would no doubt approve. Satoshi Tajiri grew up collecting insects in his countryside hometown outside of Tokyo. But the concrete of that megalopolis eventually encroached on his town, and bugs became harder to find. The virtual landscape he made, on the other hand, hosted hundreds of make-believe species — ones that enthusiasts could collect, sort and classify, just as Tajiri had once done with insects.

“I have been saying for years that Pokémon is very similar to birding and that birders should highlight the fun, adventurous aspects of birding to attract young folks,” said Nicholas Lund, who blogs about birding — and has done so here on Animalia — and now also refers to himself as a “Pokeblitzer.” For a long time, he said, “birding has been sold as a quasi-spiritual celebration of nature, which is true, but is also pretty boring. Birding is also about getting out and having fun, a sort of cross-country treasure hunt seeking living dinosaurs.”

The non-virtual animal collecting got more interesting on Monday, when Asia Murphy, who writes about wildlife conservation at her blog Anati’ala, created a Pokédex template — which Pokémon players use to record their animated captures and stats about them — for wildlife spottings.

“People are going outside and, while catching imaginary Pokémon, seeing real wildlife,” Murphy wrote. “This might be a way to get more people interested in Earth’s biodiversity and science in general.”

Lund said he and his fellow PokeBlitz birders are under no illusion that Pokémon Go will spawn a new mass birding movement. But he said he’s seen the app get people jazzed about living creatures in their back yards — and also lure them out into wilder areas where the app works. Lund was at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Reserve in Florida on Monday, he said, and saw “a young man chasing Pokémon on the cypress swamp boardwalk.”

Did he “catch” real animals, too? That’s unclear. But there were hundreds of bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile species around if he felt like trying — and plenty of biologists eager to name them.

Read more: 

Zookeepers gave an alligator CPR. Here’s how. 

Five mountain lion kittens were just born near L.A., and they’re adorable

Pedals, a bear that walks upright, is back — and so is the fight about helping him