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The Scientific Accuracy of Tails' Tails

Michael Westgarth | 21 Feb 2013 13:30
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During our university days my geneticist friends and I would often unwind from intense bouts of lectures, experiments and report writing by attempting to answer profound, videogame-related questions. Could the human genome accept foreign genetic material like Rapture's plasmids? Could a man's excellence in combat be identified genetically and duplicated as performed in Metal Gear Solid's Les Enfants Terribles experiments? And could a fox be born with two fully functional tails?

When he first appeared, Tails did seemingly little to stand out from the myriad anthropomorphic animal characters that dominated children's entertainment in the early 90's.

When he first appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Tails did seemingly little to stand out from the myriad anthropomorphic animal characters that dominated children's entertainment in the early 90's. Players soon realized, however, that it wasn't so much his twin tails that defined him, but rather the novel way he used them. By rapidly rotating his tails, the little orange fox could propel himself across land at high speeds as well as fly through the air, helicopter style.

Tails' peculiar trait was a response by Sega game designer and artist Yasushi Yamaguchi to an in-house competition to create a sidekick to star alongside the blue blur in the follow-up to Sonic the Hedgehog. Aside from the name, which was changed from "Miles Prower," a pun based off "miles per hour," to "Miles 'Tails' Prower," the in-game appearance of Yamaguchi's winning entry remained relatively unaltered and Tails has been a prominent character in the Sonic franchise ever since.

It's likely that Yamaguchi's design of a red fox with two tails drew from the many ancient Japanese mythologies surrounding the red fox, or "kitsune," which persist in Japanese culture to this day.

Although the details vary from story to story, kitsune are generally described as intelligent spirits capable of various amazing feats including possession, shape shifting, emitting fire and lightening, and reaching incredibly old ages. In fact, after every 100th birthday, kitsune will grow an additional tail and gain a boost to their wisdom and magic up until the ninth tail, at which point their fur turns gold or white and omnipresence is bestowed upon them.

Some folk tales also describe a kitsune's 100th birthday, the day it grows its first extra tail, as the same day it is granted the ability to shape shift into humans. Tails' extra tail and anthropomorphic appearance may very well be Yamaguchi's modern rendition of a 100 year old kitsune. But if he was inspired by kitsune myths, what inspired the mythmakers?

Similar tales of multi-tailed foxes were told across ancient China and Korea and, due to being the most geographically widespread carnivore on Earth, red foxes and their multiple sub-species appear in some form or another in the folklore of almost every known civilization. Is it possible, then, that at some point in human history someone has laid eyes on a red fox with two fully functional tails and if so, what developmental mishap would have resulted in such an astounding outcome?

In order to answer that question we must first look at the very basis of developmental biology, the scientific discipline concerning the development, growth and maintenance of organisms.

Almost all multi-cellular organisms, be they plant, fungus, fish, insect or anything else, are derived from an egg that has been fertilized by a sperm resulting in an embryo containing an entirely new configuration of DNA. From this new, single-celled entity individual cell types must arise, different tissues and organs must grow, and an entire organism must be formed.

In animals this is achieved through an intricate choreography of cell divisions, cell-to-cell communication, timed gene expression and chemical concentration gradients. But where amongst such a high volume of interlinked events does the answer to our question lie? If our friend Tails the red fox, a mammal, truly wished to enter the real world, then a good place to start would be the coincidentally named protein "sonic hedgehog homolog."

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