The so-called “Mushroom Kingdom” is a hotbed of biological discovery. We’ve already covered the intriguing evolution and ecology behind bipedal turtles, giant meat-eating plant colonies, egg-spitting tuatara and even ghosts, but that is still only scratching the surface of the remarkable fictional discoveries ecologists would have made exploring this region for the past three decades if it wasn’t just a videogame franchise. Today we look at one of the less understood aspects of the Mushroom Kingdom ecosystem, its unique hominids.
Hominidae includes all the great apes, including chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. The Mushroom Kingdom has representatives of that branch of the hominid tree including the Kong (G. gorilla collasua), but it is also home to newly cataloged members of our own genus, Homo. While sapien is believed to be the only living species of the Homo genus, this was not always the case. 2.8 million years ago, the first homo species emerged from the genus Australopithicus, which had itself only relatively recently emerged from the genus Pan, which includes modern chimpanzees. Homo sapien emerged a mere 200,000 years ago, and shared the planet with others including the neanderthal. Sapien quickly murdered or interbred their competitors away and became the dominant life form on the planet. Legends of sasquatches, yetis and other lost, isolated pockets of older homo species have circulated almost as long as those other homo species have been extinct, but there was never any actual proof. No one expected to find proof of a living lost people in the Mushroom Kingdom, and above all no one expected them to look as they do.
The so-called “mushroom people”, or Homo fungus, are radically different than previously discovered homo species. Most are quite short, similar to the extinct “hobbit” species H. floresiensis, and almost entirely hairless. They have flat, almost noseless faces, small eyes, short legs and round bodies, but what is most amazing about these people is their behavior. Homo fungus are eusocial and have a seemingly symbiotic relationship with an otherwise unknown species of fungus. Both behaviors are quite unusual, but intertwined in a way that merits deeper explanation.
Eusociality is a form of animal society that is defined by extreme organization, cooperative care of young, a division of reproductive and non-reproductive labor and specialized behavior groups within the colony. The most well-known examples of eusocial behavior are insects such as bees, ants and termites, though there are also two species of eusocial molerats. In eusocial behavior, there is often a single reproductive “queen” and a host of sterile workers and soldiers who carry out specialized tasks. Homo fungus is only the third species of vertebrate to be discovered living in this manner. Homo fungus society revolves around the protection of a reproductive “princess” with specialized “toad” castes beneath her engaging in physical labor on behalf of the colony. While the toad caste is short and hairless, the dominant princess is of comparable height and appearance to homo sapien. This extreme dimorphism between the princess and her subservient toads is explained by their relationship with the so-called “super mushrooms” that readily grow in the region.
Members of the toad caste live in a symbiotic relationship with a species of super mushroom that grows on their body, covering the top of their head. The mushroom, and the spores and pheromones they emit, seem to be the basis for their hosts’ eusocial society. Spores are implanted onto newborn members of the toad caste, releasing chemical signals that effect their development on an epigenetic level. Genes are turned on and off, cells express genes in different ways than encoded in their DNA, and even heritable traits are changed long after the toad is born thanks to the mushroom they wear on their head. The mushroom keeps the toad caste sterile and physically stunted, but also helps impart a surprising strength. Despite their size, a toad can lift significantly more than a comparable sapien. Symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are not uncommon, such as the mole salamander which has symbiotic plant cells living in its skin that allow it to photosynthesize light or the sloth’s shaggy coat of moss and mold that provides camoflage and protection. However, the extreme manner in which these mushrooms change the genetic structure of their hosts is quite unusual.
Toad culture is almost entirely devoted to the maintenance of the colony. Toads do not have individual names as we know them, which has led to incredibly confusion when anthropologists try to identify specific toads. They are instead differentiated by the colors and patterns of their mushrooms, or by titles indicating their societal function (such as toads of a certain age and proximity to the princess caste being referred to as ‘Toadsworth’ by their contemporaries). Toad culture is also highly mercantile, with many wandering toads setting up temporary “toad houses” where crafts and goods are sold. It is not uncommon to find individual toads operating travelling toad houses even up to 8 worlds away from the central colony. Toads tend to wear simple vests and extremely baggy pants that completely obscure their legs. Toads possess at least rudimentary language, but written records of their history are rare. Toad history and mythology seems to be most often passed down orally, as seen in the legends of settlements such as Roguport.
While the princess caste is always, by necessity of reproduction, female, the toad caste appears to have an interesting relationship with gender and gender expression. Toads recognize at least three genders, with most identifying as agender. Both male and female toads exist, as we would define them, but with the physical difference between the two so minimal and the absence of reproduction, they do not recognize sex among their own caste by those definitions. Instead, they recognize sex by expression. It is not uncommon to find a princess’ retinue including both male and female toads who, aside from specific fashion signifiers of gender, are otherwise physically identical. A common trend among toads observed today is to add mushroom “buds” to their head, creating a fungal illusion of hair, and using this to express different cultural or gender identities. It was this trend, and the cultural bias brought in by homo sapien explorers, that lead early researchers to the conclusion that their were no “female” toads until the discovery of the “Toadette” individual by racing anthropologists in 2003.The princess caste is not given a mushroom, and so she grows taller, more closely resembles other known hominids and remains fecund. She also receives nearly all the attention and results of the toad caste’s labor. Examining ancient murals found in the desert ruins of the Mushroom Kingdom reveals that the mushroom people used to be much taller and closer in appearance to ourselves even when bound to their symbiotic mushrooms. The evolution from an older homo species, perhaps even branching off from sapien, appears to have been a rapid process due to the change these symbiotic mushrooms had on h. fungus DNA. An easy, cynical read of this history would conclude that the original leaders of their society used the mushrooms to explicitly create a caste of sterile, subservient laborers. However, it is worth noting that the princess caste has little to no actual governing power. The emergence of eusociality among homo fungus may also have been a natural form of altruism, with these specialized behaviors emerging to help defend the colony in an environment filled with many dangers ranging from a competing, cosmopolitan empire of turtle warlocks to a landscape of poor, brick-like soil and seemingly bottomless pits preventing the development of traditional agriculture.
Amazingly, homo fungus is not the most dramatic hominid discovery found in the Mushroom Kingdom. At some point in the fossil record of this world, a branch of the homo tree became so evolutionarily distinct that an entire new genus within the family of Hominidae. The two species within this new genus, Mario mario and Mario luigi, are superficially similar in appearance. Both are slightly shorter than the average H. sapien, with M. mario being shorter. Both are largely solitary, fast, agile apex predators, often observed sprinting and leaping between wandering herds of land turtles and goombas. The evolutionary differences between the two species are slight, leading researchers to argue that M. luigi is merely a subspecies, but there are some key differences other than height.
M. luigi is capable of a surprising gliding behavior it uses to cross the many ravines of its territory. After propelling itself forward, the luigi flares out its arms and sucks in its abdomen to create a pseudo concave wing. At the same time, it rapidly kicks its legs in a repeated, undulating motion parallel to the ground to help stabilize its direction. This requires a lot of energy, and as a result the luigi tends to be more cautious and skittish than its relative the mario.
The relationship the twin species of the Mario genus has to each other and to the members of homo fungus is also interesting. Both marios and luigis occupy the same territory, but do so in a surprisingly consistent manner. Anytime a mario dies, a luigi will move in and claim its territory. When a luigi dies, a mario then does the same. While both species are usually solitary and quite dangerous to any creature that wanders into its path, they have been observed cooperating and coexisting with colonies of homo fungus. Homo fungus‘ largest competition, the Koopa empire, will often raid and attempt to capture the princess caste. This is similar behavior to that observed in some ants, where a queen will be captured and to produce a new worker caste for the attacking colony. Marios have often been observed thwarting these attempts, throwing themselves at the largest koopas in attempts to liberate the captured homo fungus. This seemingly altruistic behavior is not entirely unheard of in the animal kingdom. Recently, humpback whales have been observed disrupting pods of killer whales attempting to hunt porpoises and seals. The evolutionary reason for this behavior is not yet known, as unlike homo fungus, marios do not seem to possess a language beyond short whoops, yips and false cognates that superficially resemble the Italian language. However, it may be related again to the super mushroom.
While their relationship with this fungus is not as as entrenched as with the toads, observation has shown that marios and luigis that have access to these mushrooms grow larger, and live significantly longer. The fact that these mushrooms are largely cultivated by homo fungus means that the seemingly altruistic behavior of the Mario genus may in fact be based on their own long-term needs.
Wario and Waluigi are, of course, normal humans. What the hell else would you think they are?