The Science of The Life of Pi

HAPPY NEW YEARS FROM VALISTRIA, FELLOW READERS AND BLOGGERS! May 2013 be as full of awe and wonder for you, as we hope it will be for this blog 🙂 


[SPOILER ALERT] This blog post is about the science behind a particular section of the book ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel. As such, there are some spoiler alerts ahead. Though I will try to minimise the spoilers, they nevertheless will be present during the course of the post.


One piece of science fiction that has really gripped my imagination since I first read about it is found in Yann Martel’s fantastic novel, ‘The Life of Pi’. During the course of the novel, the protagonist, Pi, comes across a floating island. A floating, green island which looks normal enough. That is, until he learns the truth behind the island. In a nutshell, the island has pools of freshwater during the day. Legions of meerkats make their home on the island, standing to attention in the blazing sunlight. However, at night time, the island – composed of algae – completely changes its biology. The freshwater pools turn acidic, killing the marine life that swim in, and underneath, them. Fortunately for the meerkats, the dead marine life is still edible. And boy do those meerkats need it! And this unusually symbiotic relationship continues on in this fashion. Well, it still continues when Pi realises that the island is carnivorous when he finds a fruit from one of the island’s trees bearing human teeth. Eep! And, of course, at that point he realises that he has to get off that island pronto.

A freshwater pool on the carnivorous island in the movie. ©


It’s An Algae Eat Algae World!


That’s all well and good in a book, but how does it translate to reality? Can algae really be carnivorous? Well…the simple answer is, yes! Actually, quite a few dinoflagellates – one celled organisms with flagella (kind of like tails, in a sense) – are! About half are carnivorous and many of the rest are mixotrophic. That is, they’re both carnivorous and photosynthetic (make their own food from sunlight and water). To go even further, some are even cannibalistic, eating individuals of their own kind in certain conditions. So that answers the first question of whether carnivorous algae exist. Further, there are even certain species that specifically kill and feed off fish. For example, Pfiesteria piscicida boasts an impressive record for killing over a billion fish. And this algae is deadly! It chemically releases toxins once it senses fish nearby. Once the fish die due to the lethal toxins, the algae feeds off its flesh. Tasteful, isn’t it?


Sadly, that’s where the proof for the island actually stops. A big issue is having an island that is actually that big exist out in the wide, open ocean! I’d imagine that creating such a self-independent ecosystem is a tall order, size-wise. That, and you would have to get a viable population of meerkats/other animals that have evolved to live on the island. For one, I’m not sure how they’d even got onto the island. But once they’re on there, they’d have to adapt their behaviour to the island’s own ecology. Not to say that Martel’s depiction of a carnivorous alge island is not without merit for imagination. I personally hope that there is an island such as the one in the book – or similiar – somewhere in the world. I mean, such a well functioning ecosystem would just be incredible to behold! We could do without the human consumption though…ahem.


So a very short post, this one! And we hope it was informative too. At the end of the day, the island depicted in the book/movie does not exist in reality. But the functioning parts – namely, the carnivorous algae – certainly do. And it’s not a far stretch that, at some point, in evolutionary time, a carnivorous island ecosystem will exist on our weird and wonderful planet. Until then, well, we’ll leave it up to our dreamers and visionaries to give our explorers something to look out for in their travels!


Until next time, friends, may you avoid human-eating algae!


~ by tazjagdev on January 2, 2013.

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