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Science Behind the Fiction: The Earth biology of Chewbacca and the Wookiees

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May 22, 2018

Punch it, Chewie.

Never has there been a more loyal sidekick than Chewbacca, the Wookiee of Kashyyyk. Whether you're sprinting the Kessel Run or evading empirical forces, you can't do better than an eight-foot-tall man-thing with a cross holster and a bowcaster.

Unlike some other characters of the Star Wars saga, Chewie's involvement in the unfolding of political strife in a galaxy far, far away is more involved. Blessed with long life, intelligence, and incredible strength, Chewbacca and his comrades have had a hand in events ranging from the prequels through the current run of films.

While his efforts in the early Rebellion were mostly behind the scenes, Chewbacca would take center stage in the final effort, allying with Han Solo and teaming up with Luke Skywalker to take down the Empire once and for all… or so we thought.

Chewbacca is, for all intents and purposes, a super soldier full of mystery and righteous fervor. If only we had something similar to aid us on our way? Had we only hit the terrestrial stage a hundred-thousand years earlier, we might have.

Our own giant apes

Once upon a time, there were giant apes that roamed the Earth. Gigantopithecus was a giant ape, standing near ten-feet tall that lived in tropical rainforests for millions of years. Picture a sasquatch and you're pretty close to what they might have looked like.

When it comes to defending yourself, size is a huge (no pun intended) advantaged, but when the climate changes, food shortages become a problem for something that requires massive amounts of calories to keep trudging over the landscape.

"When, during the Pleistocene, more and more forested areas turned into savanna landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply for the giant ape," says Herve Bocherens, a researcher at Tübingen University.

While Chewie might have been an omnivore, casting sad glances at living porgs as he wrestled with his own interior morals, Gigantopithecus was a vegetarian, relying on fruits which became increasingly scarce as the landscape changed according to the new environment.

Food sources aren't the only thing that prevents real-life Wookiees from roaming the Earth. According to research, metabolism and reproduction also play a role. It's suspected that the larger the animal, the faster the metabolism and the more heavily a species will be impacted by changes in environment.

"It may be that mammals have higher metabolic needs, converting more of their energy intake into heat, because they're warm-blooded," says Aaron Clauset, computer scientist at the University of Boulder.

This might explain why dinosaurs prospered for so long while large mammals struggle to adapt to change. Whatever the reason, massive apes died off while their smaller counterparts like chimpanzees and hominids survived to do research and deliver shipments from the spice mines of Kessel. We don't know much about Gigantopithecus except that it's most closely related to orangutans and likely live alongside early humans. If you could take a camera back a hundred-thousand years ago, you might be able to catch a photo of Han and Chewie, though neither would be smart enough to pilot a starship.

Non-human ape intelligence

Human beings are the undisputed ape-champions of the world. We've molded our environment to suit our needs. We've exited the natural world and carved an artificial one of almost total comfort. But just to look into the eyes of our closest evolutionary relatives reveals a mirror to our past and an intelligence not very far removed from our own.

It may not be a surprise that the smartest non-human animals are those closest to us on the evolutionary tree, suggesting that we came from a lineage already gifted with exceptional cognitive abilities.

What is a surprise is that orangutans beat out chimpanzees as the most intelligent, in a recent study, despite conventional knowledge. The fared better in passing on knowledge and being patient in their teaching.

Orangutans have even been seen to plan for the future, something that has been often thought of as a human-specific ability.

Great apes like chimpanzees and orangutans share most of their genome with humans, while that small difference percentage accounts for all of the great innovations of humanity, it also means our furry counterparts aren't very far removed from us.

Great apes like chimps and orangutans have been noted to use tools, manipulating their environment for their own needs in the same way humans do, though at an admittedly smaller scale. They've also been noted to mimic human behavior up to and including learning language through signs and even the ability and understanding of manipulation and lying to get out of an unwanted task.. While some of these behaviors may not be innate, they suggest a dormant intelligence waiting to be unlocked. Maybe by the time we develop interstellar travel, Chantek the orangutan will be ready for co-pilot duty.

190 years old? You look great!

While Chewie's intelligence and strength are paramount to any smuggling success, his knowledge and memory of events leading back to a time before the end of the Jedi is invaluable. Long life may have been a curse for the Wookiee, he met Han in his youth, watched him grow old and die at the hand of his son.

We often think of mortality as a curse but that might not be so. Just ask any of these animals what they think.

When compared to our closest animal companions, cats and dogs, we might seem like Wookiees ourselves, living several of their lifespans. But when compared to other animals our lives are but a blink.

Calculating lifespan is difficult. We can measure based on the longest living known individual or based on the average of a total population. Even still, human beings aren't even at the midway point when it comes to longevity. When it comes to life on Earth, the question is complicated by the type of life in question. There are trees, like the Sierra redwood, that have lived for thousands of years. It becomes more complicated when you consider seeds trapped in permafrost, like the Arctic lupine whose seed lay dormant for 10,000 years before being unlocked.

If we settle ourselves on just the kingdom of Animalia, the numbers become a little easier to deal with, though no less shocking.

At the low end of the spectrum, you have mayflies, whose females live less than five minutes, that's a pretty serious mid-life crisis. No time to buy a Lamborghini.

Approaching the other end, we have whales that live several centuries. Even without the use of modern technology, we know that wales can live for centuries. Hunters have pulled Victorian spear heads from whales dating back more than a hundred years. And there are sharks estimated to be a possible 500 years old, perhaps the oldest living vertebrate in the world.

Take away the spines and the rest of the bones and things get even weirder. One study suggests there is a deep-sea sponge, monorhaphis chuni, that's lived to be 11,000 years old. There's considerable correlative evidence that the simpler the animal, the longer it's able to live. So it's no surprise that the record holder for longevity is the so-called immortal jelly.

Discovered in the 1800s, the immortal jelly is immune to old age. The immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis, starts its life-cycle as an egg, then a larva, a polyp, and finally a swimming medusa. What's unique about Turritopsis is its ability, under certain circumstances to revert to its polyp stage. While individuals are susceptible to predation or disease, it's theoretically possible for them to move back and forth from youth to adulthood indefinitely. If only they had a brain and the requisite appendages to avenge an untimely death at the hands of a rebellious son. Somebody build me a Giganto-orangu-turritopsis, I've got an empire to defeat.

Solo: A Star Wars Story hits theaters on May 25.