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Q & A

Inventing the plants of 'Avatar'

A plant physiologist from UC Riverside helped create the exotic flora seen in the movie. 'What botanist would not want to "discover" new plants and name them?' she says.

January 02, 2010|By Lori Kozlowski

No, the movie is only about 150 years into the future, which is not a lot of time for major evolutionary advances. The real question I dealt with in working on both the movie and the Pandorapedia was how the environment on Pandora would have selected the many unusual, bizarre plants found there, as well as some that look very much like plants currently found on Earth.

I wrote an essay on this, which is also in the "Avatar Survival Guide." The information on the environment of Pandora -- including the atmosphere, soil, gravity, etc. -- was provided by James Cameron, and I had to piece it together to create a credible explanation for how this environment would have selected the many strange plants on Pandora with their unusual adaptations.

For example, the atmosphere is thicker than on Earth, with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, as well as xenon and hydrogen sulfide. Gravity is weaker. And there is a strong magnetic field. Given the role of the environment in plant evolution, one would therefore expect to see gigantism, less of a gravity response (which makes stems grow up and roots grow down), and possibly a response to magnetic fields, which I named "magnetotropism."

Are there specific plants that you are most familiar with? Did this background aid the film in some way?

At UC Riverside, I study weedy and invasive plants. However, all my degrees are in botany and I have taught general botany for 12 years. In this class, I routinely challenge students to analyze plant morphology and anatomy to explain plant adaptations to the environment. These experiences teaching botany were incredibly useful to me in working on the movie.

lori.kozlowski@latimes.com

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