The Zora have been in many Zelda games and they often have an important role in Link’s quest to save Hyrule. Still, the Zora are quite weird creatures for general biology standards. When I was looking for more information about the Zora race we see in Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess, I came across a definition of the Zora on the official Zelda website (zelda.com):
When the Goddesses created Hyrule, they blessed Zora’s Fountain and eventually the fish which swam in its water evolved into the Zoras we know today. They are humanoid in form, but the Zoras can survive both underwater and on land. Led by their King, the Zoras are peaceful creatures who enjoy music and sports.
Even though it’s easy to think of Zoras as mammals, they are actually much closer in biological terms to fish than to humans. Zoras reproduce by laying Zora Eggs.”
These quotes raise various questions like what kind of animal is the Zora and what is their role in the evolution of the Rito in the Wind Waker? In this article, I will try to combine the in game facts with biology to answer these questions.
Sea Zora or River Zora?
In the 2D Zelda games the River Zora are Overworld enemies that live in the waters of Hyrule and attack Link by spitting fireballs. In the official artwork, the River Zora look a lot like large prehistoric fish with their blue-green skin and large red fins on their head. The Sea Zora is a peaceful aquatic race in the 3D Zelda games. The Sea Zora look a lot more like humans, but they still have the bluish skin and typical fish characteristics.
If you ignore the timelines and just use the order of the games as a ‘timeline’, you would say that the River Zora is an ancestor of the Sea Zora, but eventually became extinct. I think the reason of the extinction of the River Zora is their own success as predators. The diet of the River Zora consists of small land animals that they kill or stun with their fireball attack. The River Zora was so successful with this hunting tactic, that they lived in every river or pond in Hyrule. The prey animals got rarer over the years due to over-hunting (in the 3D games there are not as much small overworld enemies as in the 2D games) and the River Zora had to switch to a fish diet to survive. Eventually they evolved a more streamlined body to be more successful in hunting fish and lost their ability to spit fireballs because it was not useful anymore.
In the end, the River Zora also got more intelligent and lived a life of peace instead of attacking everything in their sight; and so the Sea Zora was born. It is a bit of a stretch, but it could explain why the River Zora is only in the 2D games and the Sea Zora only in the 3D games. Oracle of Ages, however, has both River Zoras and Sea Zoras living in the same world; but this coexistence can be explained.
Evolution always starts with an individual mutation, which improves the survival of the individual and eventually the mutation spreads across the population after many generations. Therefore, the mutation that started the evolution of the Sea Zora could have happened in one River Zora population. If this River Zora population stayed isolated from the other River Zora populations, that population alone eventually evolved into the Sea Zora. Eventually, the Sea Zora and River Zora are genetically so different that they cannot interbreed anymore and two separate Zora species can exist in one Zelda world. In the end, the remaining River Zoras get extinct because they can’t find enough small prey on the land and the Sea Zoras are the only Zora race left.
Before all the timeline theorists go mad because I didn’t use a real timeline, just give me a chance to explain myself. It is very difficult to use a timeline since there are so many different versions going around the internet. But don’t worry, I tried to make a little theory while using a timeline I sort of agree with. The timeline I will be using is explained in this figure:
In this timeline, the Sea Zora were the only species of Zora in Hyrule. In the adult timeline, the Sea Zora evolved in the Rito and probably got extinct since all the games in that timeline didn’t have Zoras in the game. In the child timeline, the Sea Zora disappear and the River Zora makes its appearance. This can be explained in the same way as I did with the order of the games as timeline, but the Sea Zora and River Zora swap places. Then the Sea Zora lost their main food source fish, which can be possible because the all the water in Twilight Princess didn’t have a lot of large fish populations. If there were fish, they were very small and the fish I suspect to be the main food source, the Reekfish, was considered a rare species. So maybe the Sea Zora switched to small land animals instead, using their large spear to kill the animals. Eventually the number of small land animals increased in the 2D games that go after TP and so the River Zora was born and the Sea Zora got extinct. Sadly, OoA contradicts this theory again because there were both Sea Zoras and River Zoras present in the game.
Overall, the timeline makes the Zora ‘evolution’ more complex. I can make a decent theory if I use the order of the games as a timeline, but the theory that I can make with a more decent timeline is a bit unconvincing. I don’t think the Sea Zora evolved back to the River Zora, because I see the River Zora more as an ancestor of the Sea Zora instead of a evolved Sea Zora. Still, there are some cases were animals evolve into a form that looks more like their ancestors than before. See this ‘Sea Zora to River Zora’ theory as a dinosaur going back to sea and slowly evolve into a more fish like sea reptile. The sea reptiles look more like their fish ancestors, but they still are officially dinosaurs.
What kind of animal is the Zora?
When you want to place an animal in a specific animal kingdom, the anatomy is the best way to decide what animal you are looking at. The anatomy of the River and Sea Zora consists of many animal parts from various animal kingdoms. Because the official artwork of the River Zora doesn’t have a consistent design, I’ll only talk about the anatomy of the Sea Zora. When you look at official Zora artwork from Twilight Princess, you can recognize many different animal designs.
First, it is quite clear that the Sea Zoras are tetrapods, which means they have four limbs. This basic design is used in every vertebrate animal kingdom, except for the fish. It is true that there are fish that use their fins to walk along the sea floor or even on land, but they don’t have the typical bone structure of tetrapod limbs. Therefore, the Sea Zora is not a fish, but there are still some animal kingdoms left to choose from.
I can’t ignore the fact that there are some parts in the Sea Zora anatomy that are based off typical fish anatomy. Examples are the large elbow fins, the smaller waist fins, and gill structures on the abdomen and cheeks. The elbow fins share the design of the fins seen in ray-finned fish while the waist fins are a combination of ray-fins and shark-like fins. I’m not sure about the large fish tail structure on the Sea Zora head.
In Ocarina of Time artwork, the tail resembles a dolphin tail because the fin is horizontal instead of vertical. In the Twilight Princess artwork, the position of the fin is a bit confusing, but I assume it is horizontal. The horizontal tail fin only occurs in sea mammals like whales and dolphins, so that cannot be a feature Nintendo borrowed from the fish kingdom. Next to the tetrapod build and fish parts, the Sea Zora is bipedal, which means they walk on two legs. This feature is typical for humans, but also reptiles (some dinosaurs) and birds use two of their limbs to walk around. Sea Zoras also have small scales, which helps them to be extra hydrodynamic in the water. Other parts of the Sea Zora that resemble real life animals are the feet, which resemble rear fins seen in other sea mammal species like seal. In addition, the hands with opposable thumbs are features normally seen in primates.
Overall, the Zora anatomy seems to be a copy/paste job of several animal parts. Sadly, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I can’t place the Sea Zora in a specific animal kingdom without contradicting myself. Every possible animal kingdom makes sense for some features and is impossible for other features at the same time. It seems Nintendo didn’t think of animal kingdoms when they created the Sea Zora, but they did do a good job with making the Zora perfect swimmers. What kind of animal the Sea Zora is remains a mystery, but we still have one Zora mystery left that are waiting to be solved.
From Sea Zora to Rito
The Rito were only in one game, but they started an enormous debate about Sea Zora evolution. When the Zora spirit Laruto asks Link to find her descendant, it was clear that the Sea Zoras were officially the ancestors of the Rito. However, in a time span of +/- 1000 years, is it possible for the Sea Zora to evolve so drastically? Evolution can be very fast, viruses for example can evolve several times a day because of mutations in the small genome.
A large complex animal like the Sea Zora though takes many generations to turn into a completely different creature like the Rito, so I think that the change from the Sea Zora to the Rito in such a short time can’t be done with normal evolution. It also will not make sense for the Sea Zora to adapt to a bird because of the Great Flood in the WindWaker. A mutation in the Sea Zora genome that makes an individual Sea Zora more tolerant for salt water is a more obvious choice than a mutation to grow feather structures instead of scales. If the Sea Zora had several million years to spend and many lucky mutations, a slow transition to the Rito is a possibility. The only thing that bothers me about the Rito is that they need magic to turn into their fully adult form. Without the scale of Valoo, the Rito are basically doomed to extinction. The only biological phenomena I can use to explain this magic scale is symbiosis through horizontal transmission. Symbiosis normally involves two animals (symbionts) that benefit from each other, like the lichen which is a symbiosis between an algae and a fungus. The horizontal transmission symbiosis sounds very difficult, but it basically means that a Rito doesn’t get the symbiont (in this case the Valoo scale) from its parents. Instead each Rito has to require the symbiont during childhood to eventually grow wings and turn into adults. Still, it is quite weird to see a scale as a symbiont, since most symbionts usually are other living organisms.
The transition from Sea Zora to Rito can’t be explained with only evolution. Because of the small amount of time after the Great Flood, the evolutionary step simply can’t be done with just natural evolution. Also the weird symbiosis with a lifeless scale doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe the Goddesses had some influence in the changes or maybe Nintendo doesn’t care about evolution. I personally think the Sea Zora to Rito evolution is possible, but not in the short amount of time that Nintendo gives to let the Sea Zora evolve and especially not if the Rito need a symbiosis with a scale from a dragon.
So are the Zora mysteries solved?
Zelda mysteries are never solved, since every game can give new answers to many of the questions fans ask. Still, I tried to give my opinion about the River and Sea Zora, what kind of animal the Sea Zora is and the Sea Zora to Rito evolution. The main conclusion is that the Zora is a very creative and awesome race that Nintendo should use in many new Zelda games. As long as Nintendo does not decide to let the River Zora evolve into plants in a period of 1000 years, the Zora is quite a likable animal although they can’t be placed in the current animal kingdoms.