Earth & Conservation

Inspiration and Ichthyology: The Science of Finding Nemo

Seeker's Bad Science podcast explores the marine biology behind Pixar's beloved fish tale.

Pixar's 2003 classic Finding Nemo is a notorious tearjerker. The computer-animated film, which tells the tale of a lost little clownfish and his father's quest to find him, has earned its place in the pantheon of great family films. In fact, Finding Nemo still holds the record as the best-selling DVD of all time.

In this week's installment of Bad Science, Seeker's weekly podcast on the scientific principles behind popular movies, host Ethan Edenburg confirms Finding Nemo's reputation as an irresistible weepie. Also admitting to tears in this week's episode are special guests Misty Paig-Tran, a marine biologist at California State University, Fullerton, and actress Jackie Tohn of the Netflix series GLOW.

Paig-Tran brings her marine biology expertise to the show as the panel breaks down various elements of the movie and its depiction of underwater sea life. Paig-Tran's scholarly specialties include functional morphology, biomechanics, fluid mechanics, and materials testing.

Nemo fans will remember the crew of vegetarian sharks who swear off their usual diet in an effort to promote peace throughout the ocean. But can sharks really be vegetarian?

Kinda-sorta, Paig-Tran says.

“There are some sharks that, while not vegetarian, can process plant matter,” she explains. “That was a pretty big thing, in the shark field, when that was discovered.”

As for clownfish, the species that brings us li'l Nemo and his dad, it turns out that there is actually more than one species to consider. The latest numbers from marine biology researchers suggests there are currently about 28 to 30 species of clownfish.

“With marine biology, it's always changing,” Paig-Tran explains. “We don't ever really know how many of everything there is. Like there's a new species of manta that just came out two years ago.”

Speaking of which, the panel fishes out some related trivia on that species, too. It turns out that Mr. Ray, Nemo's science teacher in the movie, isn't a manta ray at all. He's a spotted eagle ray.

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Paig-Tran also tackles that abiding question from movies, tall tales, and ocean fables: Could a person really be swallowed by a whale and survive in the whale's stomach? “In the stomach, not so much,” she says. “Digestive juices.”

On the plus side, it's actually pretty much impossible for a person to be swallowed at all.

“Whales have an esophagus, and it closes, so it's not swallowing things it doesn't want,” Paig-Tran says. “It's also pretty small. Like, I would not fit in a whale's esophagus. And it would know I was there and would spit me out.”

So that's reassuring. Tune in for this week's episode for more details on fringe ichthyology, coral aquariums, and the inspirational legacy of the movie.

“We're fifteen years out from Finding Nemo,” Paig-Tran says. “How many kids are in high school right now saying, ‘I'm definitely going to be a marine biologist.’”