Creature Design in AMPHIBIA
PART ONE OF FOUR
Originally running from 2019 to 2022 - wrapping up only weeks before I began to write this - Amphibia is an animated series by Matt Braly in which a little girl from our own world is transported to an alternate world of vast swampland, monstrous invertebrates and an amphibian-based civilization, to name just a few of the major ways its geological and evolutionary history diverged from our own, and I'm still downright amazed that's the description of a real cartoon show. Not because anything about it is technically all that shocking or bizarre, but because, in a manner of speaking, I "predicted" its existence several decades ago.
By this, I mean that the concept of frog, toad and salamander people living in a mossy, slimy world of mushroom forests and giant insects was something I heavily fixated on for years of my own childhood, but was never something with any single, clear source of inspiration I could ever pin down. I had never even seen the above episode of the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, featuring Bullywugs. Was I thinking of Yoda's home on the planet Dagobah? Was it Kermit the Frog's ABC's of the Swamp? Perhaps it was simply the fact that worms, slugs, bugs, toads and fungi all occupy the same broad column of "slimy" nature in the public eye, and already feel like they belong to a magical, alien world too small, too out of our way to be a part of? Whatever the reason, I would spend many hours drawing and coloring my own ideas for an Amphibian-centric fantasy world, and at the time, I was positive that I would one day make it happen with a career in the cartoon industry.
While that never did happen, my bias towards these "swampy" motifs has never left me, still prevalent throughout my creature designs for Mortasheen and other projects that did, after all, come to constitute a "career," even if it hasn't yet linked up to the world of television cartoons. It's basically as if some other folks made my dream cartoon for me, and I may have been a little too old to be an active part of it's fandom, but it's been a lot of fun to see a series with such an unconventional premise take off well enough to wrap up with over a hundred episodes.
There was simply no way I could get around doing a pretty big feature on the show for this website, and this will as a matter of fact be the heftiest review I've possibly ever put into a single cartoon's fictional species since Ghostbusters. With scattered exceptions, I've combed through every episode of Amphibia multiple times to compile around 99% of its speculative wildlife, down to some of the most minor background creatures, and will be presenting them in roughly chronological order. There are so, so many, we'll have to split this up between at least four articles of over thirty creatures each, and while I usually like to upload these kinds of things in one big chunk, I'll be spacing these out every few days to a week - more time to add any significant examples you think I may have missed!
We'll put these three together, since they're simple enough and technically only appear in the opening sequence. A gigantic chicken, a large freshwater fish, and a hilarious giant frilled lizard give viewers a taste of the setting's central theme; a deadly, untamed wilderness packed with things ready to kill you. In that respect, it hearkens a little back to Mid-world!
The starring frogs of the show are the Plantar family, and their "car" is a giant snail named Bessie...except in the very first episode, when they're seen using a giant slug as transportation. It looks a lot like Ariolimax, a genus I also talk about in detail in an old article on slugs.
The rest of the series actually retcons the slug altogether, holding that Bessie the snail has been a part of the Plantar family for multiple generations. She's actually one of the very few snails I've ever seen in a cartoon show with an accurate mouth and tentacle arrangement, especially that her eyes are just black dots within the knobs of her antennae. Land snails don't have distinct "eyeballs" at all!
Over the course of the show, we get some interesting details on the role of these huge gastropods in frog culture. They're generally treated as "civilian" vehicles, especially associated with farming communities, and live long enough that a family will traditionally keep an ongoing multi-generational manual and diary of their snail's history.
I think it might have been cute if they had stuck with the slug, since it comes across as the "cheaper downgrade" compared to a snail, but the simple presence of a shell does make Bessie much more versatile to the narrative and visuals; as much as I love slugs, there's simply a lot more you can do with a character or creature that carries its own armored house around.
These fireflies almost appear to be in the foreground, until they start crashing audibly into the Plantar's house, seemingly attracted to the lit windows. What's wonderful about these is that the designs may be exaggerated, with long gnarly mandibles and massive, bulbous abdomens, but it may be the first time I've ever seen a cartoon show - or almost ANY media - accurately depict Lampyridae as beetles!
While these particular examples are seen later, various pigeon-like and chicken-like creatures are seen throughout the show. The fat, greyish "chickens" have prominent red fly eyes, and at one point, we see a delightful fly-eyed, fly-winged rooster with a featherless body and prickly legs. All one species? One genus? Whatever they are, giving insect facial features to a bird just looks kind of automatically cool.
Two giant mantids are encountered in the first episode; a more typical looking green species is scared off when the frog-folk stack on top of one another, a realistic maneuver to appear larger than an attacking predator. Unfortunately, the commotion attracts a much, much larger mantis. This second species borrows more from flower mimics, menacingly pink and red with conical eyes, colorful wing markings and a heavily spiny body.
The water striders or "pond skaters" of our world are actually Hemiptera, the only insect group we were technically supposed to call "bugs" before it became a widespread colloquialism for every variety of boneless, crawling creature. The giant strider seen in Amphibia, however, displays distinct beetle anatomy with symmetrical elytra and mandible-like chewing mouthparts. While it's probably just because it's an easier and more obvious insect design to come up with, I like the literal interpretation that one of Amphibia's huge Coleoptera convergently evolved this kind of lifestyle.
If it shares a water strider's dietary habits, the kids were risking their lives messing with such a massive predator. Specifically, striders feed on anything they detect drowning on the water's surface, following the vibrations of struggling insects like a spider in one giant, liquid web!
This huge, venomous aquatic snake has more fish-like transparent fins than you'll find on any known reptile. Of all the animal groups seen in the series, reptiles seem to grow the largest or near-largest, especially depending on how you want to extend the definition of "reptile," which we'll get to later.
What the frogs raise as "cattle" are soft, eyeless worms with rows of stubby feet, toothless mouths, cow-like horns and cow-like body patterns, apparently producing something resembling actual milk. Though the name derives from caterpillars, they look far more related to velvet worms (Onychophora) than anything else, which are stem-arthropods currently grouped closely to the tardigrades. If Cow-A-Pillars are, in fact, some kind of insect larvae, we never find out what they might mature into, or if the species may have in fact lost metamorphosis altogether. "Neotenous" insects do exist that retain a larval form into adulthood, but in most cases, it's only the females that do so! We eventually see a "bull" Cow-A-Pillar, but who knows, maybe the bulls alone would turn into some kind of moth?
In any case, you may notice that the legs of the females are very pink and sausagey, like cow udders. Yes, the feet are where the milk comes out.
Wish we had more of these crisp, transparent art uploads! What's referred to as a "doom tree" in the second episode is revealed as a huge, gnarled black insect with anatomy similar to a real-world stick-mimic grasshopper! The only major difference is that it has elongated forelimbs with pincer-like tarsal claws, behaving a little more like a mantid.
THE DOOM TREE
It doesn't just look like wood, though; somehow, its exoskeleton really is made of wood, and once eaten away by termites, there's only a pitifully wimpy, softer looking green "stick insect" underneath. Does it construct wooden armor for itself, or is it somehow covered in symbiotic woody plant tissue???
A giant lamprey with eyes on stalks! Oh, they GOT me here. Of all possible creatures, this is one of the most. I've been putting eyestalks on lamprey-like designs of my own ever since the Mynocks from Star Wars!
Such wonderfully bulbous, black eyeballs, too, with pale green pupils, and I love the fleshy villi encircling the pink rim of the sucker! Two of these appear in only the second episode, slithering up into the Plantars' basement during a flood. Another is later seen at a public aquarium. During the basement encounter, they also exhibit a strange attack strategy that entails twining together to generate a vortex. Will any two or more specimens do this in the wild, or were they a mated pair?
When Anne attempts to introduce pizza to frog civilization, she finds that many key ingredients have only loose approximations. Frogs actually do refer to this plant as a tomato, and it tastes like a tomato, but each fruit is also a huge, snapping mouth. This "Audrey II" style of carnivorous plant is always a fun trope, but admittedly overdone. While this is its only instance in Amphibia, it's also rather shockingly one of the only instances of a carnivorous plant in Amphibia at all! Considering that they naturally tend to be swamp dwellers themselves, the lack of sundews and pitcher plants in this series feels like one of its few major missed opportunities.
Remarkably enough, though; real tomatoes are thought to be "protocarnivorous!" Insects easily become mired on their hairy, sticky stalks, and provide the plant with nutrients as their bodies decompose.
When Anne finds a fluffy caterpillar that reminds her of her actual cat, she brings it back the Plantar house and tries to keep it as a pet, unaware that it's the larva of a huge, voracious moth-cat hybrid. It's a cooler design than that even sounds like on paper, too; its round red insect eyes, needly teeth and noseless face are suitably more towards the creepy-cute insectoid side, and it has a terrifyingly thorny, tubular tongue! This is one of the first times we see a creature that combines arthropod with mammal characteristics, but it isn't the last, and every example is a large carnivore. What on Earth even happened to evolution in Amphibia? Or are such creatures even natural at all?
These adorable things would fit right in to a setting like Pokemon or Digimon! Their anatomy is typical of "cartoon" Myriapods, a single chain of perfectly spherical segments, with a pair of horn-like antennae and simple little spine-like legs. Their big, bulging eyeballs are mis-matched, each Zapapede having one eye with a plus-shaped pupil and one with a minus-shaped pupil, and you get no points for figuring out what they do.
The Zapapedes play into one of the silliest reality-breaking plot points in the show, however, when their excess of electricity recharges Anne's cell phone so far past its normal battery life, it will supposedly take years to run out again. I don't know, maybe she just had an obscure smartphone brand with some REALLY experimental features? Her phone never really matters that much to the storyline, to be honest, but its presence feels worth it for at least a couple of the jokes they get out of it.
Spiders have really come a long way, haven't they? It's only in the last few years that I've seen any appreciation in mainstream culture, which is mostly thanks to the almost formulaic cuteness of jumping spiders in particular, but it's a start! Archie is a little, round, onion-shaped jumping spider owned by an elderly frog, Sadie Croaker, and behaves like a little yapping dog. It's such a marketable little pet critter, I'm surprised he didn't belong to the main characters, but I'd be un-surprised if it wasn't an early concept at some point. I suppose Polly, the Plantar young enough to still be in her tadpole stage, already filled their quota for marketable orb-shaped protagonists.
It's worth noting that in one of the very last few episodes of the series, we see that Archie can spew acid capable of melting metal.
Grandma too good for a gastropod, huh? They do kind of treat her ladybug like it's a "sports car" compared to owning something as clunky as a snail, which is understandable; besides the higher maneuverability of an animal with actual legs, ladybugs are built like impenetrable tanks. They evolved to feast to their heart's content on mealybugs and aphids, which are often symbiotic with ants. Even spiders and mantids tend to avoid ants at all costs, but their jaws and stingers bounce right off the slick, domed shell of a ladybug.
SADIE'S GIANT LADYBUG
Sorry, "ladybird" if you're from the U.K. Never understood that one, honestly. A beetle isn't technically a bug, but it's especially not a bird. Silly! I would also like to point out that this is actuall the first time I have ever seen one of these voracious predators depicted in such finely accurate detail in any animated form.
One of the first full-blooded mammals we ever see are appropriately based on a real-life predator of amphibians and invertebrates alike, infamous in the world of Amphibia as the natural enemy of giant snails. I love how positively nasty they are, too, with their beady, glowing eyes and crooked, toothy snouts. They also have more dog-like than hedgehog-like legs, and behave very much like pack-hunting canines! Hedgehogs occupying a wolf-like role is a nice little stroke of genius in the context of this setting.
An early instance in the series of an insect as an everyday tool of frog society! Mounted to an expensive high-end snail, the round abdomen and flaring proboscis of this ant-like insect are reminiscent of an old fashioned hand-held horn, and that's exactly how it works when it's squeezed. I wonder what its natural ecology is like when it's not used by wealthier amphibians to honk at pedestrians. Or are some of these oddly specific creatures "bred" for these functions?
Jeremy is a cute little blue beetle befriended and named by Hopediah or "Hop Pop" plantar after he spends a day living in the dirt in his underwear. It's a long story I guess. Jeremy is accompanied by many others of his kind, but the rest are brown. This could indicate genetic deviation, sexual dimorphism, or even disease; there's a virus that turns isopods vividly blue, and a parasitic worm that does something similar to ants!
More about Jeremy and parasites much later in these reviews!
This green, noodly centipede-like organism has a mouth more like a long, thin, jagged beak, and it constantly shrieks. It never does much but terrify the kids for a passing gag, but it's a charming design and very funny role. It wouldn't realistically be screaming at things it intends to eat, so the screaming and chasing would likely be more of a defensive or territorial behavior.
Beautiful Culicoidea! Roughly deer sized, I love the thick spininess of their thoraxes and big, protruding orange eyes. The red of their abdomens would typically indicate that they're still filled with something else's blood, and just like the real thing, they're seen laying eggs in a pit of stagnant water. This is also an uncommon instance of a cartoon mosquito with the accurate number of wings!
One episode reveals that "jail" in the town of Wartwood is where petty criminals pay off their debt to the county by collecting eggs in what resembles a large chicken coop. It's just that these eggs are not from chickens, or even from the fly-chickens we're already familiar with. It's too bad we never see this referenced again; the idea of frogs getting their eggs from large, aggressive, screaming spiders is both a cool bit of worldbuilding and just plain funny.
Different mail-carrying insects are seen a few times in the series, but the first is the most interesting. Its curled proboscis, feathery antennae and fluffy thorax are somewhat moth-like, but its four thin, transparent wings and elongated abdomen are more reminiscent of a large mayfly!
I can't believe I forgot that it's also implied to suck blood, though. That's the "tip" it gets for delivering mail!
These huge, long-necked Columbiformes are symbols of romance in Amphibian culture, famous for the constant affection and lifelong devotion of mated pairs. It just so happens that they're also bloodthirsty, murderous frog eaters, and their paternal habits are more reminiscent of wasps than anything else: assembling an adorable, candy-colored nest from various flowers and mushrooms, they incapacitate victims with adhesive mucus to provide their young with the freshest possible prey.
Birds in general tend to be the biggest and most savage of all Amphibia's predators, which taxonomically means that its largest apex predators really are all reptiles. It's just that the avian reptiles seem to be the most successful of all, which makes a lot of sense in a world where worms and insects took over as the dominant megafauna.
This is a six-legged arachnoid with a distinctly spider-like face, including a pair of fanged chelicerae, a two large circular eyes and a scattering of smaller eyes reminiscent of a jumping spider. The rest of it, however, is very mite-like in appearance, entirely shiny white with thick, rounded legs and a scattering of brown, thorn-like hairs. It's even the case that some mites can be six legged, despite the fact that they're arachnids! There's even four legged mites and I do believe some zero-legged mites out there! Also interesting is that this creature keeps the first pair of legs raised over its head, and that these have combs of longer spines towards the end! There are actually many mites that raise their forelegs like this, employing them like an insect's antennae as well as in the capture of prey, so the spines may contribute to either or both functions.
Though encountered in broad daylight, its well developed eyes but totally colorless body would also suggest something adapted to conditions that are almost totally dark. An organism's eyes will degenerate in 100% darkness, but where there's at least a trace amount of light, such as the deep ocean or forest undergrowth, eyes may enlarge to collect as much of it as possible. In conclusion, this is likely to be a very spider-like, predatory mite that hunts in hollow logs or soil tunnels, but may emerge to hunt at the surface under the right conditions, probably after nightfall. This one may have just been a little disoriented.
The same episode later features another spider-like arthropod, but with a distinct head, thorax, six legs and immense, spherical red abdomen. Earthly spider anatomy doesn't matter in a world where a moth can also be a giant cat, but an arachnid with this body plan isn't necessarily off the table for our reality, either: besides the fact that there are hexapodal mites, there are also true spiders whose cephalothorax is "pinched" into what superficially resembles a distinct head on a small "neck."
I believe this is the first time we see what is unmistakably a Chilopod in Amphibia, a beautiful specimen with pale blue-grey segmentation, close set eyes and large, prominently segmented red antennae. It merely passes by the screen for a single shot, but a couple of episodes later we see a very similarly colored centipede large enough to demolish a building:
Perhaps they're different species, but I could also believe that the first was just a hatchling, even if the larger specimen now has four eyes. Little centipede fact: their "fangs" are really their first pair of legs, specialized to house venom glands!
Local legends apparently hold that vicious "mud men" lurk deep in the swamp, devouring hapless tresspassers. Once doused with water, these are actually revealed to be a race of unusually long-limbed frogs who use a coating of swamp detritus as camouflage. They despise being exposed and flee in panic without their protective mud, which is good, because the part about them eating people seems to be completely true.
While the existence of multiple Amphibian species and subspecies is already established, this is first time we see one that deviates so much from the "civilized" frogs, toads and salamanders of previous episodes, and the first time we see one that readily preys on the other species. The concept of these lanky, cannibalistic frog-folk, only brave when they're wearing the swamp, feels even more like a "fantasy monster" than anything else we've seen up to this point, and I'm sure you already agree by now that this was all just BEGGING to be the setting of a TTRPG.
These aren't given an official name that I've seen yet, but they're very cute, cartoonish flies with big, spherical bodies, crooked mosquito-like probosces and comically tiny wings. They shouldn't be able to fly, but they do so fairly well, so I'm going to speculate that their bloated forms are filled with a buoyant gas.
Love this little, stunted crocodilian! More than half its body length is just the jaws, and it's just the right size to snap shut over somebody's foot if they're not paying attention, or I'd imagine when it hides itself somewhere. It's actually a lot like the Klap Traps, still my favorite enemy designs from the original Donkey Kong Country.
In a montage of mishaps and annoying obstacles, we briefly see this dull green arthropod clinging to Anne by its tweezer-like mandibles. It's a thin, segmented thing, its mandibles matched by its earwig-like tail pincers, with beady orange eyes and just four stubby legs that we can see. Maybe it's an insect and the angle is just funny, or maybe it's an unusual myriapod that evolved with a smaller number of segments.
The behavior we're seeing looks more phoretic than parasitic, meaning that it latches on to passing animals as a transportation method. This is, however, also a common habit of actual parasites, which will grab onto a non-host species until they can gain access to their viable host species. If this creature is a parasite, its thin shape and dual sets of curved tongs would be very much at home in the feathers of giant birds, using the mandibles and tail to grip the feather shaft in a manner similar to the hooked legs of certain lice.
Another "household item" insect! Glue in the world of Amphibia is squeezed out of what closely resembles a fat, white grub with a small, orange head and sharp little mandibles. Both its anatomy and coloration match a termite more than anything else, though the head to body ratio is reversed from most real termite species. There are actually several termites that produce a natural glue, as well; some species project it from a tubular "gun" on the head of what's called the "nasute" caste, while another species actually swells with poisonous adhesive and explodes to protect the colony!
Once considered closely related to cockroaches, genetic sequencing eventually proved that termites simply are an unusual cockroach group. But oddly enough, an explicit example of a cockroach is one of the few major insect groups actually missing from Amphibia, unless the crew assumed roaches were a kind of beetle, which is a surprisingly common mix-up.