The Natural History of Star Wars: Part I

Have you ever wondered: Are Ewoks and Jawas related to each other? What kind of plants were Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru growing on their moisture farm? Do the crystals in a Jedi’s lightsaber come from granitic pegmatites? In the lead-up to the museum’s Star Wars Identities: Nature Nocturne, Paul Sokoloff examines the natural history of George Lucas’s richly developed universe, indulging his inner Star Wars fan in an unusual way!

Star Wars is an incredibly vast and deeply developed realm. It encompasses six movies, four television series, a Christmas special (Google it), numerous video games, and enough Expanded Universe books to fill a star cruiser. The imagination and passionate work of many people have fleshed out fully realized fictional realm, complete with politics, religion, social commentary, science and much more. To me, the most striking facet of the Star Wars universe are the ecosystems, planets and galaxy-spanning natural world that the stories unfold in.

Sometimes this natural world serves as a backdrop to pivotal moments, like the battles on the plains of Naboo. Sometimes it’s an integral part of the story, like the space slug that tried to eat the Millennium Falcon. Even as a fictional realm where the imagination is your only limit, the Star Wars galaxy still follows many of the rules of our universe, allowing us to better relate to the story.

A slug on forest litter.

Enlarged up many, many times and given a face, this dusky arion slug (Arion fuscus) might start to resemble the notorious Jabba the Hutt. Image: John B. Giles © Canadian Museum of Nature

For example, humans (Homo sapiens) are many the central characters in the movies, working alongside aliens and droids. Many of these aliens are inspired by real-life organisms. Remember slimy gangster Jabba the Hutt? His repulsive presence was enhanced by basing him on a slug—something that grosses many of us out.

A model of Chewbacca and other characters in the Star Wars Identities exhibition at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

The evolutionary pressures of his homeworld may have given Chewbacca a different morphology that his Rebel comrades, but there’s more than enough room in the Alliance for being of all shapes and sizes. Image: © Lucasfilm

Wookiees resemble sloths, and both are adapted for arboreal life (Wookiees being tree dwellers from Kashyyyk). Of course, other species, such as venerable old Yoda, defy Earthbound classification.

A model of Yoda in the Star Wars Identities exhibition.

Wise and old, Jedi Grandmaster Yoda often gives the movie’s central characters insight into their struggles, but never once cares to illuminate them on the origin or scientific classification of his species. Image: © Lucasfilm

Like us, this diverse group of beings still live on planets (when they aren’t cruising between them); like ours, these worlds are made of stone. Minerals follow more or less the same rules in both universes. For example, while carbon has a few known allotropes in the real world (like graphite or diamond), The Empire Strikes Back introduces a fictional form of this element that is useful for encasing one’s enemies: carbonite.

A model of Han Solo in carbonite beside a model of Princess Leia and a photo of Jabba the Hut.

Being encased in carbonite kept Han Solo perfectly preserved while he was on display at Jabba’s palace. Like real-world diamonds, carbonite is forever. Image: © Lucasfilm

Nearly all of these planets visited in the series are archetypes of a specific type of ecosystem found here on Earth. You have the harsh deserts of Tatooine, the never-ending glaciers of Hoth, the swamps of Dagobah, the forests of Endor, the oceans of Kamino, and the sprawling cityscape of Coruscant. These worlds, filmed in exotic locations—Tatooine was shot in Tunisia, and Norway stood in for Hoth—take a single real-world ecosystem and extrapolate it across an entire planet.

A model of Anakin Skywalker beside a model of a speeder bike.

The desert planet of Tatooine is legendary as the homeworld of the Skywalker Clan. If Mars had an Earth-like atmosphere and diameter (as well as a second sun), it might well resemble Tatooine. Image: © Lucasfilm

And while the creators of Star Wars may have taken real-world inspirations and used them to flesh that Galaxy Far Far Away, my continuing love of the franchise means that I often see Star Wars in the everyday world around me too. For instance, every time I see a carnivorous butterwort during my work, digesting insects in its fleshy curved leaves, I’m always reminded of the Sarlacc. Happily, no butterwort has yet to try to eat me.

A woman in a simple plant costume.

I really do think of the Sarlacc when I see a butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris); maybe a little less when it’s our intern Cassandra Robillard dressed up as one. Image: Paul Sokoloff/Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

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