The Science of Superheroes

A biological breakdown of your favorite comic book characters.

Do wolverines have supernatural healing abilities? Can poison ivy really kill you? These are the types of questions that Associate Professor Pedram Daneshgar and Kelly Zimmerman ’09 answer in their panel talk, “Wolverines Don’t Howl: What Comics Get Wrong (And Right) about Animal and Plant Abilities.” Since bonding over their shared interests in the natural world and comics, the ecologists have become a popular attraction at comic conventions, where they discuss what is biologically accurate and inaccurate about some of the world’s most beloved superheroes (and villains). Here, they share the science behind five plant- and animal-inspired characters.


Spider-Man

Accurate: Like Spidey, real spiders shoot different types of webs — seven to be exact — that are used for such tasks as catching prey and traveling from place to place.

Inaccurate: Spiders don’t shoot webbing out of their hands or wrists. It actually comes out of their, err, butts.

Poison Ivy

Accurate: Poison ivy can kill you, but it’s not “death by kiss” as portrayed in the comics. If burned and inhaled, the smoke will inflame the lungs, which could lead to suffocation.

Inaccurate: The DC Comics villain is often portrayed as a seductress, and while there is evidence that ingesting certain plants increases libido, poison ivy is not one of them.

Wolverine

Accurate: Similar to cheetahs, wolverines actually have semi-retractable claws that come out of their fingers.

Inaccurate: Wolverines do not heal faster than other mammals.

Groot

Accurate: Similar to how Rocket grows a “baby Groot” from a small piece of twig, plants can regenerate from tiny fragments. An example: cogongrass can regrow from as little as one-tenth of a gram.

Inaccurate: The regeneration timescale. So, while Groot can quickly grow limbs to protect his friends, a real tree would take much longer.

Ant-Man

Accurate: Ant-Man controls fellow ants via his cybernetic helmet. Similarly, real ants communicate with—and control—one another via chemical cues that trigger various responses.

Inaccurate: Nearly everything else. Ants do not change size at will and cannot travel through time (that we know of).

Jeff Carpenter adapted these illustrations from his book, Field Notes: An Ecological Journal of Nature’s Marvels.

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