The Phoenix appears in Greek mythology and are most commonly seen as beautiful golden birds that burst into flame and are reborn from the ashes. Is there a realistic way that they could evolve? Using earth or near earth biology how close could I get to the classic Phoenix? Is there a reason that a Phoenix couldn't evolve?

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    $\begingroup$ A reason they couldn't evolve? Well DNA isn't known for being fire-proof. $\endgroup$ – Culyx Oct 27 '15 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ There are some ways a creatures could be fire proof though. that has been talked about in the dozens of questions about dragons and even more about fire here $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '15 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ good point, Maybe it just appears to burn to ash. Maybe for camouflage. $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '15 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ Some plants require being burned to reproduce. What about an animal that has a tightly coupled relationship to such a tree? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 29 '15 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ @LordofEden for the phoenix. But I like JDlugosz's idea. He's talking about this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_ecology#Plants Perhaps there are certain chemicals the phoenix needs for its biology that it can only get by burning and it can only reach the needed temperature if it burns itself. Then the fire-resistant eggs left behind can use those chemicals. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 29 '15 at 17:38

11 Answers 11


With some alterations to the Phoenix myth it could probably be done. First off, you don't have rebirth (though it could easily appear that way) you have birth. You would also need mated pairs as the mother would be unfortunately...absent... after the birthing process and infant vertebrates (birds in this case) are generally not self sufficient.

To be a vertebrate and for long term species health it could not survive on asexual reproduction. This is pretty easy to fix though, just have Phoenix(es?) mate like a normal two gendered species.

As @Namfuak mentioned it should also be noted that each Phoenix would have to have more than one egg at a time, as, mathematically the whole species would die out if they only have one...

It would have to evolve to carry the egg inside as opposed to laying it, so something similar to a platypus or echidna. (Monotremes)

To this point things are pretty realistic, or at least plausible. Fire makes things a whole lot harder though...mmm fire...sorry, flames are distracting.

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So lets see, standard sexual reproduction, sure no problem, ambient adult body temperature is high enough to allow for the development and growth of the baby phoenix, so we are good there.

So two questions remain, why is it biologically necessary (or why did it evolve in the first place) and what function does it serve/how does the infant survive the process...oh and how does the whole fire thing work? Ok, that's four more questions...

  1. Why did this evolve and why is it necessary? Well, I can't actually think of a reason something so complex would naturally evolve under selective pressures. So this is likely a situation where there actually weren't significant evolutionary pressures and it was more random evolution as opposed to selective evolution...its not a great reason but its the most realistic I can come up with...this is why earth is unfortunately (or fortunately depending on perspective) devoid of fire breathing creatures...stupid science.

  2. What function does it serve...well in line with the random evolution theory above, what if the egg has a particularly thick shell wall, and the egg is particularly large (meaning the mother can't naturally deliver it).

  3. How does the whole fire thing work? During pregnancy the mother's body creates sacks of chemicals that fill over time, toward the end of pregnancy the membranes containing these chemicals thin due to hormones and burst. The two (or more if you want to get complicated...more complicated anyway) chemicals mix and react, thinning the egg shell wall by chemically melting the outer layers. During this process the mother bursts into flames...

  4. How does the infant survive??? Well, the process would have to be rather rapid as long term heat exposure would cook the baby bird. The shell should also be a bad conductor of heat.

So there you go. I bet it tastes like chicken.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for fire joke and of course it tastes like chicken, everything does. Also good answer $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '15 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, to say something is too complex to evolve is usually not very valid, if you believe in evolution, then you have to say we evolved, and we're just about as complex as it gets. Additionally, I'm pretty sure that current evolutionary theory requires that all evolution comes from chance mutation, which is pretty random. But good answer! $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 27 '15 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ @DonyorM I guess the difference in my mind is that our evolution, while complex, is beneficial and therefore something that natural selection can...select upon. Whereas with this I can't think of an evolutionary benefit for the mother bursting into flames... $\endgroup$ – James Oct 27 '15 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ "I bet it tastes like chicken." OK, simply because my mind goes weird places sometimes, I see that and immediately think of the Hydra head BBQ joint from OOTS. Brings a whole new meaning to "order of the Phoenix"! ;-) $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Oct 27 '15 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ The mother would presumably have to "lay" a clutch of eggs, having one baby per two mates isn't sustainable even if they all survive to reproduce. I suppose they could also be hermaphroditic and impregnate each other, or have some very interesting love graphs between multiple mother-father pairs, though that's still 1 baby per 1 parent. $\endgroup$ – IllusiveBrian Oct 27 '15 at 20:29

Birds evolved from dinosaurs, but the Phoenix evolved from dragons.

A baby phoenix has the vestigial need to eat ash, a trait it maintained from its ancient dragon ancestors. This is to due to a bizarre need for heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, available in sufficient quantities only from burnt meat.

The way the mother provides this sustenance for the baby phoenix? Self-immolation.

The mother holds a fireproof-egg, just like a dragon egg. The mother phoenix also produces a flammable oil to keep her feathers shining and smooth, this is another trait from her dragon ancestors. While the dragons sprayed the flammable oil for defense, the phoenix uses it for grooming.

When she has one or two fertilized eggs ready, oil production increases dramatically. This, again, is because a mother dragon would need more oil to protect her young. This rapid increase in the oil makes the bird itself quite flammable. A glint of intense sun off the water or a static electricity spark ignites the mother bird.

Several days later her eggs hatch, the young phoenix birds consume the ash of their mother and begin the cycle anew.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a unique answer but you are flawed here. One why would anything need to eat ash? there is no advantage but many disadvantages. Also saying birds evolved from dinosaurs is like saying humans evolved from chimps. Birds and dinosaurs ARE closely related but they split off from each other long before dinosaurs were the massive creatures we know and love. $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '15 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ @LordofEden There is no flaw. 1) It's a trait of dragons to need to eat ash. It's not a caloric sustenance, it's a required mineral source that can not be gained from eating the non-charred source material. 2) Humans evolved from a common ancestor with chimps. To say we evolved from this common ancestor is not inaccurate. It is also not inaccurate to say birds evolved from dinosaurs (Check sentence three). $\endgroup$ – Samuel Oct 27 '15 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ I think the 'flaw' thing came from the part where OP was asking for Is there a realistic way that they could evolve? (No, there isn't, lol) - and your answer is kicked off by using another mythical creature as a basis (so isn't happy with it?). The ash part however, umm.... you might get a decent return in minerals by consuming ash of food (fruits, flesh etc...) but I doubt you'd get much of anything by eating common ash from your everyday fire... $\endgroup$ – Spacemonkey Oct 27 '15 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for postulating that one magical creature evolved from another. It seems extremely implausible that fire can evolve, given its extreme danger to its wielders. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Oct 28 '15 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @LordofEden Birds did not diverge prior to “the massive creatures we know and love,” they are direct descendants of Dinosauria, and Avialae, the first flying dinosaurs that would become birds, are not known to have existed prior to the late Jurassic (~160M years ago). Sauropods have their origins in the Triassic, and some of the largest specimens would have been contemporaries (geologically speaking, 170M to 150M years ago) of those earliest birds. Therapoda, which is closer to Avialae than Sauropoda, didn’t get large until the Cretaceous. $\endgroup$ – KRyan Oct 28 '15 at 14:34

Adding onto Caleb's answer and expanding and making it weird cause that's what I do:

Immortal Jellyfish. A sea creature who, when it reaches a certain point in its life, reverts to a younger version of itself. This is not breeding, but the same genetically identical creature, turning back time to its "baby" form.

So, rather than self-impregnation, I would say that the explosion and subsequent egg are the bird's way of reverting to its youngest form, in a method to extend its lifespan. This explains that the bird is the same bird, genetically identical to its old self, and not a child of the previous bird. Semi-perfect rebirth.

What I'm thinking here is that the "burst into ashes" thing is just an exaggeration born of human storytelling. After all, if you saw a bird combust, and there was a lot of heat, and not much bird left, you would definitely say something like "it totally effing exploded into ashes dude!" to your friends. But rather, I would perhaps say that the actual combustion is an implosion, rather than an explosion. The bird appears to "die" and collapses inwards, compacting the energy it has stored into a hardened, fire-resistant egg.

All that above could be posited into a bird format, under the right circumstances.

But what if we wanted to really play with evolution?

Perhaps what we should be looking at is a sea creature who looks like a bird. Something genetically similar to a catfish or flying fish, with fins that act as wings and rudimentary lungs. Shining and beautiful scales could look like feathers. The creature can spend some time on land, otherwise how else did humans see it. In fact, the creature we call a Phoenix spends its "childhood" near water or within very shallow tidal pools.

The first life stage is that of the "egg". In reality, this is a shell surrounding a tadpole-like creature. The creature probably uses baby fins and legs to drag itself around the sand or the bottom of a tidal pool to eat tinier creatures or algae. It is heat-proof, fire-resistant, and looks fairly egg-like to a casual observer. The shell acts as protection, ensuring that predators have to work pretty hard to get to the gooey tadpole in the middle.

The second life stage is that of the adult, who enters the ocean or river to gather in groups. These creatures have evolved to eat ocean-faring birds like cormorants, sea gulls, and other creatures, by leaping out of the water. They would have two large fins that act as wings and two "back legs" with which to hold onto their prey. They would also probably have a hard beak with which to attack and kill, though they could just as easily drown the birds they capture, but would still likely have a beak-like jaw to tear them apart to eat. Their shimmering yellow, gold, crimson, etc scales would be to attract mates, despite their "immortality" they would still need to replace the population who died due to predators, disease, or human intervention. Mating would involve "flying" or leaping, or even walking to a tidal pool, laying eggs, and having them fertilized. Then the eggs harden and transform into the child stage described above.

So we have a sea creature with flamboyant coloring, feather-like scales, broad fins, back legs, and a beak-like jaw with sharp teeth. All of these things already exist in the ocean creatures of our earth, so they are possible, and some creatures have several of these traits combined, so we know they don't necessarily cancel each other out, we just have to put our creature through the correct pathway to get it all of these items. A casual beachgoer might see a mother Phoenix leaping out of the water and "flying" her way to a tidal pool and mistake this creature for a sea bird rather than the sea creature it rightly is.

The third stage of life is the "elder" stage, in which the Phoenix prepares to "die". They will eat voraciously, collecting as much food as they can, storing the excess fat and material like a mammal might in preparation for hibernation. They will also linger closer to the shore in preparation to walk out of it and find a suitable location to be reborn. This is the stage at which they are most vulnerable to predators because they are full of food and easy to get to. The elders will come onto shore likely in a massive group to help stem the number of deaths by predators, find their way into tidal pools or other safe locations. Almost simultaneously they will combust, compressing their bodies inward. They will revert back to their first life stage, releasing a massive amount of heat in the process, probably rendering their outer scales into ashes or something that could be mistaken for ashes in the process.

It's definitely not perfect, but that's how I would do a phoenix and make it evolutionarily and biologically sound, based on creatures that already exist on our earth.

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    $\begingroup$ Or simply a Bird that somehow kept lizard traits and sheds it's feathers (or w/e outer layer you want), + add combustion somehow. leaving a featherless bird in the aftermath, not unlike a newborn. $\endgroup$ – Spacemonkey Oct 27 '15 at 20:27

@James' answer is indeed a great start, and deserves to be the accepted answer. Still, he missed out on a lot of opportunities to leverage the evolutionary aspect as an opportunity to flesh out the mechanics behind it all:

Step 1: We need a fire-chicken

First up is figuring out how self-immolating birds can evolve. Crucial for evolution is that bursting into flames helps the entity that bursts into flames, or its offspring. To start small, in a step that could evolve gradually, it seems important that the first fiery chicken doesn't have to change its behavior too much from its non-fiery predecessors. For that reason I suggest making the fire initially non-lethal to the phoenix-predecessor.

Cephalopods can squirt ink to help escape predators, some beetles can secrete "noxious or even caustic" liquid to make themselves less appetizing to predators, with e.g. bombardier beetles getting real close to starting fires to this effect. While none of these are vertebrates, it's at least plausible that your proto-phoenix can start fires when it feels threatened by squirting out two organic compounds which jointly catch fire.

Step 2: (Re)production of phoenixes

I agree with @James that "being reborn" should be replaced with "dying and producing new offspring". I would suggest making the fire the sole means of reproduction, sticking to sexual reproduction as is normal in birds. This leaves one issue: clearly, more that one new phoenix should be (re)born per dying mother-phoenix. If statistically more females than males are produced (i.e., the "primary sex ratio" favors females, and stays like that up to and including the "tertiary sex ratio"), and males get to be "reused" (since they do not burst into flames), then everything can work out. Multiple eggs at a time would work, but better yet, we can have the phoenixes have a high tendency to generate twins/triplets/etc. all coming from the same egg.

This not only solves the issue of keeping the numbers of phoenixes up; it also provides us with the evolutionary pressure to evolve fire-chickens: The eggs would get so large that it becomes problematic: the female doesn't always survive laying the egg. A hand-wavy, pop-science interpretation of an otherwise decent article could suggest a similar issue appeared with neanderthal's babies' skulls being too large for the pelvisses of their mothers, complicating childbirth and being somewhat co-responsible for the end of the neanderthal branch in human evolution. Oh well, it's a stretch, but fits in the category "plausible")

Over the generations, the bulk of the evolutionary pressure pushes for smaller eggs, but the branch that ends up creating phoenixes takes a turn for the worse. (Since we want to end up with the mother dying prior to the birth of the offspring, things get a bit ugly. Sorry for that.) The eggs become so large that the mother always dies instead of breaking free from the egg. The chicks may have to eat their way out of their mother's carcass... But when they do, there'll be enough birds to keep the population numbers up.

Step 3: Fire at birth: Roosting or roasting?

So, we have a species that squirts fiery liquid when threatened, and a situation that makes childbirth an agonizing pain from massive internal bleeding, leading up to the death of the mother bird. It would stand to reason that this latter situation causes massive triggering of the defensive capabilities of the fire-chicken; to the extend of effectively accidentally lighting itself on fire.

The baby-chicks, however, are protected by the hard egg-shell. Sure, that shell might cracks from the heat, but it's time to hatch anyway.

Step 4: Phoenixes

To the external observer, an old phoenix just spontaneously lit on fire (for no visible reason), and from the ashes, a baby-version of the bird arose.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for explaining its evolution. It is worth noting that large eggs do have a benefit - they allow the baby to become more mature before hatching, improving its chances of survival. The kiwi is a real-life example of a bird with an oversized egg, almost one-third of its entire body weight. Once this accident occurs, it may be reinforced by the chicks eating the remains of the mother, further improving their survival chances. Some mites reproduce this way, eating their way out of the mother and feeding on her remains. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Feb 11 '16 at 6:03

Very belated answer, but stumbled upon this and came up with a viable solution I liked enough to be worth suggesting. I think this can be done realistically!

The short version is that when a female dies if she is carrying an egg the egg is encouraged to hatch, though she can have young with regular laying of eggs as well.

I'll try to go through the evolutionary steps as I did with my gryphon example. Were start with a 'normal' bird as our basis.

When in doubt set things on fire

First we have to explain how gryphons got associated with fire to begin with. I think this could work as an evolved defensive techniques. Pheonix aren't always on fire, but they can trigger 'fire' to scare off attacking predators.

Most wild animals have a huge ingrained fear of fire and flame. As such it would actually be a potentially good survival tactic to use flame to drive them away. I'm not necessarily suggesting using it to set something on fire, you don't need anything too drastic to scare someone away. Even if she could only create a short duration 'spark', something bright and scary but not burning dangerously hot or controlled enough to do serious harm, this could be still be a viable defense. Even if the predator isn't driven away by the sudden flame the bright flare could throw off it's vision, blinding it enough for the pheonix to escape.

I imagine original flavor pheonix only carred enough to make a few sparks right when a predator was chasing her. Once she discovers the usefulness of scaring away predators she could then evolve to realy on the flame more extensively for defense, but for now let's focus on the first limited use of flames while flying, I'll get to how the practice evolved after that.

Of course fire requires lots of energy to produce. The high energy expense of fire means that it would litteraly burn through calories if the phenoix was requierd to produce the flames herself, to the point she could starve to death from excessive caloric cost of constant flames. More importantly, it's nearly impossible pheonix's evolving a way to create and control any fire-producing chemical entirely on her own, there aren't any safe 'intermediate' steps where it's beneficial to have a means of producing an explosive chemical before it's been evolved to be part of pheonix defense.

That's okay, there is an easy solution here. The pheonix doesn't produce the fire, she steals it. I think she could find a natrually existing substance in her habitat that is flamable, which she collects and later uses to produce her flames. There are actually two possible approaches here, so I'll mention both options below, but in both cases I'm going to call this substance 'Exo' (for exothermic reaction), just to have a covenient term for it.

The important part here is that she must collect this substance, she can't produce it entirely on her own. Just like birds collect food and water the Pheonix would likely hunt for and collect Exo. If she runs out of Exo she can't defend herself well, and thus as her Exo reserves run low she will actively hunt it from her habitat.

Here are the two options I see for the origin of Exo and how she first tarted using it.

1. Fire Water First option is that Exo is a chemical, likely a liquid, which can be triggered to start an exothermic reaction. She would need something that wasn't too flamable, that wouldn't explode into flame when not desired and kill her. Thus she would be looking for something relatively stable, but which can be triggered to start an exothermic reaction quickly as well, likely by mixing it with a catalyst chemical to start the reaction. Best case would be that she already naturally produced a chemical that acted as a proper catalyst and 'accidentally' discovered she could exploit this to trigger the Exo.

In terms of natural chemicals she might produce I would say most likely it would be her urine that happened to contain high concentrations of some chemical that servied as a catalyst for the Exo. The trigger being waste makes most sense to me, as it's the one place likely to have a high concentration of many different potential catalystic chemicals, and the safest place for chemicals that could be harmful to the body to end up (I imagine the catalyst is unlikely to be something good for the Pheonix). For that matter it makes sense that a Pheonix would discover the ability to trigger Exo as a defensive mechanism this way, as many species will expell waste when in fear, discovering that the dropped waste then set off some natural deposit of Exo on the ground to drove off her predator is a sensible 'first step' to start evolving a more intentional use of Exo for defense.

the 'fire water' approach with urine trigger would be by far best case for having a realistic evoluiton, if the appropriate chemicals exist in real life. The key catch is that I'm hand waving the existance of Exo chemical in nature due to my lack of chemistry knowledge. I can't point you to a specific chemical that has this sort of exothermic property, though I suspect someone could suggest some (if someone wants to add a comment about good options I'd be happy to add them and give credit!).

To help justify her being able to trigger Exo to flame perhaps the original the Pheonix didn't carry this substance around, but it was common enough to be useful for defense if she was close to a patch of it alread, with her discovering it as I mentioned above by accidentally triggering these natural Exo deposits when fleeing. This first triggered reaction may have been very small compared to later Phenoix could do, but still enough to provide a distraction and thus an evolutionary advantage.

Her ability to trigger larger, and more controlled, exothermic reaction in 'present day' may have evolved from this defensive method, with there being enough natural Exo deposits that gryphons better able to exploit them for defense lived longer and made more hatchlings. Only after she reached a certain degree of 'skill' at triggering Exo did she switch to carrying it around for a more mobile defensive method.

Once the pheonix was use to using Exo on the ground she started to carry a small amount of exo with her when she flew, so she could set it off in the air to drive away attackers when no natural Exo deposits were nearby. I imagine first 'draft' was exo getting on a pheonix claws while the phenoix walked around an Exo deposit, then when the phenoix was flying later the exo on her claws could be ignited later. If Exo doesn't burn too hot maybe she set off the Exo sticking to her claws and let her claws burn even though it singed her slightly just to scare off attackers.

Once the first arial use of Exo started the pheonix would naturally evolve to be better at it. Storing larger amounts of exo in specialized Exo storage organs, being better able to dispel it and the Trigger for it. All kind of more sophesticated controled use of Exo to create flame, Once you get over the first hurdle of using it in the air at all Evolution will do the rest.

One key detail, this substance would likely need to be something that she can't eat. It could be toxic or just not easily digested, but it's not something she can draw energy from directly, it's only useful to her as a source of fire.

2. Silent but Deadily: gassy doom

The other option is that Exo takes the form of a lighter then air (LTA) natural gas, which happens to to naturally leak into the air from vents in her habitat (likely a volcanic one in this case?).

On the down side these sort of natural gases tend to be more explosive, and thus more dangerous for a pheonix to carry around. On the plus side there are many known LTA exothermic gases, so unlike with the last example we don't have to handwave a naturally occuring exothermic chemical existing.

The question is why a pheonix would interact with such gases despit the risk of an explosion hurting her. I have a good potential answer though, boyancy. Perhaps a pheonix is heavier then normal birds (particulalry when pregnant, see below), and thus needs some help with the flying. A pheonix may have evolved to use LTA gases from vents to fill up some sort of air bladder to help offset her weight when flying. Even if the natural gas was slightly dangerous it could be worth it for the non-trivial caloric savings of not wasing as much energy on flight and the ability to lift larger weights when flying.

So originally the Pheonix would collect gasses for boyancy only, refilling her 'bladders' with gas when she needed to increase her boyance. The original gas bladders likely weren't filled entirely with Exo, since Exo would be too dangerous a gas to evolve to use for lift at this time and because most natural gases would be a combination of gases anyways. She likely filled her bladders at natural vents containing many LTA gasses, with Exo being only one of the gases, and possibly present in small enough quantities to not be overly dangerous.

As part of using gas to control he boyance the Pheonix would evolve to expell gas rapidly, to allow for rapid dives. When under attack by something diving at her expelling her bladders to help her to dive out of the way would be a naturally evolved tactic.

At some point the Pheonix 'discovered' that when she expells Exo from her bladder she can set it off to create a flame in the air to scare/disorient persuers. This could be a random mutation that made her better at setting the Exo off. Perhaps the pheonix evolved stronger muscles to excelerate dumping her bladder until she was able to exert enough pressure that it triggered Exo, or perhaps we go back to the idea of urine having a catalizing reaction and the pheonix evolved to dispel urine along with bladder gas to trigger the explosion. Alternatively perhaps, by chance or evolutionary pressure, the pheonix moved towards using gas vents to refill her bladder that had higher Exo concentration causing her bladders to now have enough Exo to trigger a reaction.

Whichever process happened originally the Exo would likely not have been a very spectacular reaction, a very minor spark that didn't burn very bright. However, if it did enough to even temporarily distract or confuse her attacker it would be enough. From there evolution would encourage better use of Exo.

First the Pheonix would become better at triggering the exo reaction, using whichever of the above methods she used to set off the exo, or developing a new method if the first uses of Exo were unreliable due to Exo not flaming reliably enough. She would also develop better means of using Exo to get away, aiming the Exo towards her persuer before igniting it or being able to ignite it from multuple points of her body instead of just the one bladder exaust point.

After that the Pheonix would become better at collecting Exo over normal natural gases. This would mean either explicitly hunting out vents with higher Exo concentration, or possibly a filtering method where she would fill her bladders with normal LTA gases, then filter out non-Exo gases and refill, slowly building up a reserve of Exo by expelling non-Exo.

Your flashy tricks won't protect you forever

The problem with using a defensive mechanism that primarily relies on scaring/surprising predators (not actually harming them) is eventually your predators get wise to your tricks. Those that you scare away don't catch a meal and risk starving, and eventually only those predators that aren't afraid of your tiny tricks will live on to spread their genetics. Your going to have to esculate your defenses accordingly.

So while Exo may start as a distraction the Pheonix will likely double down on it. Developing ability to carry and use larger quantities of it, to burn it hotter or keep the burn for longer, to aim it towards attackers and/or disperse flame over a larger region. I suspect their biggest focus though would be to burn it brighter, which may not be hotter, since even if predators aren't afraid of the flame your still mess with their vision by tossing such a bright flame behind you (and predators will never evolve to be as good at filtering out bright flame from their vision as you because you know exactly when to expect it and they have competing evolutionary pressures limiting their ability to specialize in hunting you).

The important part of this is that Pheonix will be carrying far more Exo, and fuel to ignite it, on them.

You predators think I'll be an easy meal? Well I say Bite Me!

Eventually all this flammable substance will come back to bite the pheonix as occasonally she will set herself on fire when she fails to prevent a reaction on occasions. But more importantly, it will come back to bite predators when a predator tearing into her body accidentally sets off the Exo in her body and has their meal explode in their face.

This would originally be an 'accident', the Pheonix carries lots of explosives in her body and she doesn't care if it explodes after death so evolution hasn't done anything to prevent that. However, evolution loves the old addage "it's not a bug, it's a feature". Given time I suspect the Phoenix will actually evolve to intentionally explode when fatally wounded.

Their reason for this is similar to the reason that many reptiles waste energy producing dangerous poisions and then paint themselves bright red and taunt predators to eat them. Predators don't want a meal that's going to hurt them, and one that blows up in your face counts as that. The pheonix will find that having their last move be to harm whoever killed them is a very effective method to discourage attackers from hurting them.

To make this even more effective let's presume Pheonix as pair mating and caring for their young Now a mother (or even more so daddy) pheonix has more motivation for being able to die explosively, to hurt predators that are hunting close to their nest, and to discourage predators from attacking their mate and children in that nest.

Thus we finally know why pheonix ignite into flames on death. It's done to hurt their predators and to consume all the meat of their body so that even if a predator isn't harmed he still won't get much of an edible meal from the hunt. It discourages predation, and besides which it's a natural result of the pheonix body no longer regulating the explosive chemicals contained within. Pheonix likely will be able to do this as a concious decision at any time, as part of protecting their nest/mate/young, but in addition it likely will happen naturally at death or fatal wounding.

Other species fire babysitters for doing that you know

(look, two puns in one title, I'm getting punnier!!)

Once a pheonix starts carrying and using Exo they will likely find other uses for it, evolution is pretty good at reusing designs. I imagine they will likely be used longer distance communication (setting off flare-signals at night) or attracting mates with fire dances etc. Most importantly for now though they likely will be used for hatching eggs.

Keeping an egg warm is important to hatching it, thus the reason birds sit on their eggs. However, Pheonix mommies carry around a portable heating source they have unique mastery of, seems kind of silly not to use it to avoid all that boring egg-sitting time.

I imagine that the Pheonix would do it's best to find ways to Exo to help with tihs process. In the case of Exo gas perhaps they will regularly expell a very small quantity of exo and ignite it, since low quantity exo will only produce a little exta heat but not enough to burn the egg. For the 'fire water' exo they may paint small amounts of it on the egg before ignighting it, or create some mix of Exo and something non flamable to cover the egg before lighting it, perhaps even leaving a small Exo-mix 'burning' at a low temperature over the egg while they leave to hunt, depends allot on what the Exo chemical is.

This would free the Pheonix up to do more travel and hunting, and thus potentially to care for more eggs, potentially. But for now the reason this is relevant is mostly that the egg will already be evolved to handle slightly higher heat then most bird eggs, and to gain more of a speed increase in rate of growth when near heat.

Daddy says my mom was Hot Stuff before I was born

Now we get back to the whole pheonix reborn subject, which I kind of already suggested in the intro. Imagine a pheonix mother who is already carrying an Egg at the time that she is fatally wounded. She wants that unborn egg to still survive if possible. She will want to evolve a method of encouraging the egg to finish it's growth and hatch even without her support. This sort of thing is seen in other creatures, most mammals when badly wounded will go into labor and attempt to give birth in hopes that the child will survive even if the mother dies for example.

So imagine, long after immolation pheonix became common, a seperate evolutionary process lead to encouraging the pheonix eggs within the mother to still survive.

Originally this would simply mean the mother evolving to protect her egg from burning up in immolation, by igniting the outside of the mother's body but keeping the egg away from the hotest parts of the flame and evolving an egg shell that is good insolation against short duration, high heat, burns. Alternatively maybe the mother simply becomes good at expelling the egg on death, by laying it or other means, so it stays away from the main flame of the mother.

Later this could change to the egg actually triggering an alternative growth pattern when it sense enough heat to suggest immolation. This could be the egg switching to hatching earlier, when the bird isn't fully formed yet, to allow a chance of the hatchling finding safety, or the egg switching to a slower growth approach that doesn't require as much heat so the egg has a chance of growing to 'term' even without a mother incubating it.

If pheonixes raise eggs as a pair the mother may even have an approach of burning in a way that helps the father find and cary the egg away from danger back to the nest after the mother dies. This seems the most evolutionarily sound option, but also the least similar to 'pheonix reborn' myth.

Pregnancy means discussing getting fat and that good old 'bloated' feeling

Part of the problem with these solutions is that any egg that hasn't been hatched yet is likely far enough away from hatching that none of these give any reasonable chance for the baby to survive to hatching, much less survive to adulthood and have children of it's own. However, if you go with the gas-Exo approach this becomes slightly more forgiveable.

The problem with laying eggs is that their vulnerable. When you leave your nest your risk someone coming along and eating your children, their hard to protect. And since you have to incubate them you still end up spending most of your time stuck with them. Mammals realized this and decided if their going to keep taking care of the kids that long they might as well keep the kids inside the womb and let them grow there, at least thta way you can carry the kids around with you when you have to move.

Birds can't do this though, because of weight constraints. Birds have to fight hard to stay in the air, they've evolved a million ways to keep their weight low so they never get too heavy to be able to fly. Being pregnant would be difficult for this reason, the added weight, and lowered aerodynamic structure, of a full term child would make it hard for the mother to keep flying...usually.

However, a pheonix that exploits LTA gases to stay afloat doesn't need to worry about this as much. She can simply fill her bladders with more gas to counteract the weight of the egg. Sure she won't be able to fly as nimbly this way, but the again she doesn't need to be as nimble if she has scared off most predators with the threat of exploding in their faces.

The end result is a gas-pheonix is a bird that actually can afford to carry it's children to term! This includes allowing the children to grow larger then a newly hatched bird is, to be closer to self sufficent at the time of hatching.

Consideing this it's not unreasonable to imagine gas-pheonix carrying the egg within themselves for most of the pregnancy instead of having traditional nests. They may lay the egg only when it's intended to hatch and have the baby hatch as soon as the egg is layed (possibly with mother helping to break the egg?) This means when a mother bird dies it's possible for the egg it's carrying to be close to full term and ready to hatch into a larger-then-normal-hatchling size baby pheonix that actually stands a (small) chance of surviving on it's own without it's mother. Thus the gas-pheonix is the only one that seems reasonable to benefit from trying to protect an unlaid egg, as the only version where that egg may be large enough and developed enough to stand a chance of surviving.

A Womb with a view, and a heater The most pheonix like option is probably the biggest handwave, but isn't necessarily impossible. That's having the mother switch to a 'slow burn' death. When the mother is carrying an egg and dying instead of the usual immulation, or possible in addition to it, she dies in a way to allow a slower burning of Exo within her corpse. The idea being that the Exo burns slowly enough that the mother's corpse becomes an incubation chamber for the egg, a way to keep the egg warm for a longer period of time so it has enough time to grow and hatch properly.

This version is harder, as it requires such percision in death and Exo 'burning' that it streatches credibility that it could evolve through unguided evolution. Still, it's a very cool idea that I may forgive some handwaving.

These kids will be the death of me

As an alternative to the above there is a slightly more realistic evolutionary option, that mother changes to Exo incubation mode when badly wounded, but not yet dead! When a mother is badly wounded, or very old, or otherwise at the state where she doesn't expect to survive much longer she may decide to focus on making sure this one last egg hatches before her death, even if it means sacrificing any chance of survival after the hatching to focus all her remaining energy on the child.

So she settles down somewhere to well...die. She slowly starves herself over the next week or two, not bothering to eat, while burning her remaining exo inside herself to excelerate the egg's incubation with the extra heat. If a predator sees the wounded pheonix they will be hesitant to attack it since the mother could still immolate itself to kill/wound the predator if attacked, so the phonix is left alone to slowly die while incubating it's last child.

It could be that in this wounded/starved state the mother isn't able to go through a hatching once the egg is ready to hatch due to how week she is, or even that the hatchling is triggered to grow to a larger state before hatching when the mother does this to give it the best chance of surviving on it's own after hatching. In any case the mother is unable to give birth to her final hatching and so immulates herself when the egg is ready to hatch as the final step. to let the egg hatch.

Perhaps in this version the hatchling hatches inside the mother and the birth of the hatchling can trigger the final immolation by messing with the mother's Exo bladders when it's hatching? Alternatively the mother doesn't actually immulate until right after the hatchling hatches (and is far enough away to not be burned), but to passing humans it looks like the hatchling is coming from the immulated corpse rather then the hatchling hatching and then the corpse immulating right after?

To go even more morose perhaps the hatching can hatch and eat the mother from the inside if it's still alive for more energy to grow, so it's bigger and stronger before it's on it's own, whlie depending on the threat of the mother 'exploding' if a predator tries to eat the dying mother to keep it safe.

The approach of having the mother still alive, and just committing to protecting it's final hatchling, works better then the mother's dying and egg surviving on it's own because it means the mother is able to buy the egg some more time to grow, increasing the chance that the egg will be in a healthy state to hatch. It's also more believeable that many itterative adaptations can push the mother towards being very good at protecting her last egg compared to the above proach of the mother somehow dying in such a way that she makes a incubating corpse for the child. Here it could start with mother's simply committing more energy to caring for a child when injured and mother slowly upping the amount of sacrifice she can make for her last chlid to increase the odds of one last hatchling being born.

** I don't have any Eggcelent puns for this one**

The one minor question that comes up is why people think all pheonix are reborn this way if only a small subset are (those who's mother's are carrying an egg at time of injury/death and who survive to hatch afterwards).

Mostly I'm just going to say human nature, they see some hatchlings reborn from pheonix and so assume thta's how all pheonix are and that the times they don't see a pheonix being 'reborn' are simply because they didn't wait long enough for the rebirth (or that phenoix can only be rebirn sometimes and some deaths are final).

Still, there are a few things you can do to further this belief. One is to make sure mother's are always carrying eggs, which isn't too hard. Many species tend to mate when they can find a male, even if that isn't when their ready to bear young. Kangaroos are the first species to come to mind to me (and really, many marsupiles), but their by no means the only type. They usually do this because their not certain to have males available when they are ready to carry and have young.

So if you want to increase mother's trying for a final egg just say that mating and child rearing times of the year are different. Perhaps Pheonix mother's only mate during migration when males and females come together, but after conceiving the pheonix mother will fly away and only much later will she decide to trigger growth of the egg to give birth during warmer seasons when the young will be better prepaired (or maybe even during seasons when Exo is easier to find?).

This implies only one young a year being born, which implies Pheonix have long lives and generally care for hatchlings for some time. If Pheonix have few predators, due to their immolation defense, this could explain their longer then usual lifespan, and gas-pheonix may act like albatross and tend to migrate over long distance, even oceans, justifying a larger size and thus shorter birth rate.

Since pheonix have fewer predators it also increases the odds of a mother living to 'old age'. Thus increase the odds that a mother will reach the point where she is old enough to be unable to have many more young and chooses to go the final immulation route to ensure her final egg makes it despite her failing health.

No dad's allowed

There's also the problem that half of pheonixes are male, which means at most half of phoenixes that die could be incubating a final egg. You could have males look different and thus not usually be considered 'phonix' so that the myth only applies to the female pheonixes. Perhaps females use far more Exo, due to their need to increased lift to counteract the weight of large & heavy eggs, and as such their larger and more prone to using fire as a defense and thus are the only ones that are noticed.

Alternatively if you say that females only mate during migratoin season, as mentioned above, you could always say that females prefer to frequent different habitats then males and that the areas with pheonix-reborn myths tend to be habitats that are more attractive to females (again likely those where Vox is more plentiful for gas-pheonix version at least).

and...this answer was again way to long. But hopefully you like the idea :)


Easy! All you need is a bird. Now evolve the bird to store mass amounts of energy, over it's life. Now evolve it to be self-impregnating, as some creatures that really exist are. Now evolve it to consume itself in flame when it gets old, using that energy in a huge burst. leaving a heat-resistant/activated egg behind. Now you've got a baby who does the same thing all over again, out of the ashes.

Note, though, that the need for this would be the first step to evolution. You need to have a good reason for old ones to die, in flames, leaving only ashes. I would think a good reason would be the smell of a corpse drawing predators to kill the baby, thus, burn the whole thing, quickly. Still the question of why kill the old one at all, perhaps to preserve resources nearby, old and new never competing, (or eating each other.) Find a reason, and it's totally possible. With a little magic. But they're a little magical anyway, no matter what.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Got to tell you bud. I like it $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '15 at 18:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Happy to hear it. Love to vote your ? up, but I don't have enough rep. $\endgroup$ – Caleb Woodman Oct 27 '15 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ I can help with that $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '15 at 18:27

Let's start with a duck.

Well, actually, let's start with a fire-ecology. These are real setups, where periodic fires are both frequent, and useful to the ecology. There are species of plants, that can't sprout until their seeds have been charred by fire - but after they are, the ash gives a fertile jump-start to the new growth. Some plants resist fire, some tolerate it, and some need it to grow and thrive. Likewise, animals have their own adaptions - some flee, some find shelter... and this particular one adapted to need the fire.

So, back to the duck. Ducks have a waterproof coating of oils - the reason I picked them, it doesn't actually have to be a duck. In any case, this bird has evolved a coating of oils for whatever reason. It may be, or have been in the past, semi-aquatic. At some point, it got caught in the fire instead of fleeing it (birds usually fly away). It might have to do with nesting season, one of the major vulnerable times for birds... but maybe not, it depends.

Depending on the actual oils, feather composition, layering, and a bunch of other variables (mostly down to chance at this point), the bird survives - I'm guessing the oils worked like a grass fire, and burned quickly, low and cold enough that they left a layer of char resistant enough to keep the rest of the bird from burning. This assumes the outside fire was also quick moving and burned relatively cool, like a grass fire. Also, the bird gains some advantage serious enough to be worth the loss of half of its feathers - maybe it avoided predators looking for the fleeing birds, it got first and best pick of food before and after, or maybe preferential access to mates, or its offspring survive better (because their parent protects them in the egg from the fire, at the cost of said feathers).

So, this is the beginnings of a successful strategy. The bird sacrifices some of its feathers and oils, for the ability to last through the fire directly. It loses its semi-aquatic protection (oils are burned off), for semi-pyrotic protection. Probably, it will evolve to better fit the fire, tweaking the balance of oils and the composition of feathers so they protect better for less cost. Eventually, the fire is less problematic and more necessary - for example, protective feathers might keep growing, and periodically burning them off makes it lighter and more agile, or the oil starts to interfere and needs to be cleansed away - along the lines of rodents' teeth needing to be worn down, or sheep's wool overgrowing them if not periodically removed. Maybe it interferes with vision, or makes the birds less able to fly because of weight. Like the fire-ecology itself, a periodic burning is good for the birds.

Backing up a bit, if nesting season was the drive to develop the fire-resistance, then a resistance to fire would also build in the eggs. Maybe the mother builds the nest of flammable materials, which will have the same feather-oil all over it, so it burns controllably - giving the right amount of char but not killing the eggs. After a while, the eggs might need to be burned to be weak enough for the chick to break out of, or might just have less of an advantage if they don't.

So, we're at the point periodic burnings are actually helpful to the birds... lets make the fires a little more erratic. Maybe the fires aren't quite so reliable, they don't always happen or not at the exactly right times... and this is biology, not magic. The eggs won't stay alive forever if the fire doesn't come in time, or the birds will reach a point where they're overgrown from not having burned down the feathers is a disadvantage. Could be nature, or maybe we'll blame it on people, who might be interfering with the fire ecology for whatever reason.

But, if the birds are about as smart as magpies, which can find and collect shiny things, or other tool-using birds, they might overcome this. Maybe they take a branch, and go find a fire. They can light themselves off directly from a wildfire that's farther away, or a campfire, or any outdoor fire. They can use a branch to bring a fire back to their nests - especially if the oils don't need a lot to spark off, just a little ember. They might work out simple sparks from messing with bits of flint. Probably they would go either bringing it back or using tools, but either is is the possibility for moderately smart birds. I'll go with searching out fire, because the other bit needed for the phoenix legend is people to tell a story which seems reasonable, if not quite accurate.

And now - the legend
People see the bird fluttering around nearby - and it has an impressive, shiny plumage, fluffy and gleaming with oil in the sun or firelight. (it's nearby because it's looking for their fire, yeah?). So it sneaks in when people aren't nearby, because birds are shy and the burning time is vulnerable, lights of a wing-tip feather (or whatever's extra long and will serve as a wick), and scurries the heck away, so it can be somewhere a little safer and less exposed to burn itself off. People notice the bird flying off, and follow, and see it go up in flames, and emerge from the ashes alive - smaller, and spikier from the feathers being half-burned off. Depending on how much it was overgrown, and how puffy the feathers were, it might look quite a bit younger because of those visual differences. So, getting rejuvenated instead of dying is one point for an "immortal" bird.

Point two, someone sees the bird bringing fire back to its nest, for the same purpose (to simulate the fire when it didn't come naturally). They see the bird come in, and a fire erupts from the nest - probably the parent has already burned from wherever she found the fire. When they walk up to the nest, they see the eggs hatching or having just hatched. The mother might be hiding (birds are shy), might be getting food for a first meal, might just be overlooked if it's not actually, physically in the nest but just nearby - fire draws the eye, after all. The sequence of an adult flying in, the nest on flames, and seeing the egg(s) nestled in a heap of ash gets crossed with a rumor of a burning bird which gets younger - and they believe the adult burned completely away to be reborn as an egg (or multiple, in which case the legend maybe includes a 'regular burn' to become young, and a 'complete burn' to reproduce). Maybe the parent birds coming by later produces a story about adult(ish) phoenixes coming to watch over their brethren while vulnerable from burning.

The parent bird doesn't have to die - If it does in some cases, that feeds into the legend one way, if it doesn't, it might feed into the legend a different way. It has the traits to be born from the ashes, hatching in the burned nest, or 'youthened' (from losing its overgrown plumage) - either or both of which contribute to a story of a bird "dying and being reborn". And the conflation of these facts and tales produce the immortal phoenix mythology! Tahdah!


Rather than a bird, start with a crab - Hard shells don't grow or heal too well, so when they need to grow, they climb out of their shell, leaving behind what appears to be a complete dead crab. Some reptiles also shed complete skins - usually a much thinner layer, but enough that it isn't completely implausible to ramp up and apply to a bird.

Instead of discarding an old shell immediately, it may make sense to keep it around as a disposable shield. If the phoenix lives in an environment with frequent forest fires, burning the shell could absorb enough energy to allow survival. Ash is a good insulator, so the best shell is one which produces a large amount of ash - enough to make it look like the entire creature has been consumed.

As well as being able to survive natural disasters, the phoenix may seek out fire when it is ready to shed. The fire resistance might require a thicker shell which can only be escaped by burning, or it could simply be that feasting on the charred corpses of the competition is a good way to get the energy for renewal.

Spontaneous combustion is unlikely to evolve, but starting a fire with flint is not all that different from the sort of tool use observed in real life birds.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't get it... it seems to say that it has a shell that is fire resistant but it is not because you want it to leave ashes when burn. Also, wouldn't the shell mean it is heavy to fly? $\endgroup$ – Theraot Jan 6 '16 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Theraot Think ablative heat shielding - nobody really cares what happens to the shield as long as it doesn't burn all the way through. Crab shells can be pretty light - keeping weight down does need consideration, but it isn't so different to say that a bird's skin and feathers would make it too heavy to fly. $\endgroup$ – Quentin Clarkson Jan 10 '16 at 5:08

Niven, I think, started with the fact that some ground-nesting birds build elaborate nest structures several times their own size and lay out displays of colorful/shiny objects in front of them, evolved the behavior a bit to add a display dance which involved throwing those objects, gave them a fondness for flint, and came up with a bird that gathers kindling and strikes sparks, thus creating grassland fires which kill many animals and leave bodies for the birds to scavenge.

Not exactly a phoenix, but a plausible firebird. That's 90% of a solution for 10% of the effort; now all you need is to figure out how this impacts breeding.

There are trees that don't reproduce until a fire has passed through, but that requires first surviving the fire.


As to explain the evolution, as people have already commented, periodic fire is already present in nature, and often triggers seeds to grow, such as (I think) in proteas. Maybe the Phoenix have close mating pairs, the female of which sacrifices itself to start a fire, causing a reseeding of the area around, meaning many plants soon start to sprout, and the Phoenix chicks are fed by the father who catches the small mammals and other herbivores which gather to feed on the germinating plants. The reason the mother would be sacrificed would be because she would already be low in body water and fat content from growing the eggs and so be the natural choice for being set alight. I think the main difficulty to overcome is figuring out a reason why the adult Phoenix would die from the burning, as this doesn't seem adaptive and so unlikely to be passed on. This explanation would also skew the gender ratio as only the female Phoenixes would be dying this way so this would have to also be remedied by the males dying, or explained another way.

What I like better is on another track to explain the evolution of the burning, maybe it acts as a warning signal to other phoenixes, or better yet, or as a dis-incentive for predators. Maybe Phoenixes, like many kinds of butterfly, make themselves unpalatable to predators and do this by burning up when killed, stopping the predator from getting a meal, so causing them to stop preying on phoenixes, adaptive for hen as a group) This unlike some other explanations, would allow both genders of Phoenix to combust. Perhaps in this case, the Phoenix mythos of being reborn arose from parent Phoenixes being killed while nesting over their chicks/eggs which they would be vulnerable while doing. This would still be fairly adaptive as the remaining partner could still raise(at least some of) the chicks, and the predator that tried to attack them would surely learn its esson and not return. This would also not skew the gender ratio like the previous idea mentioned.

This ability could maybe be expanded once developed to allow Phoenixes to do things like:

Attract mates visually by flying up at night, catching a bit alight, before diving down to blow out the flame by the wind/rolling on the ground or diving in water. Cook their food (assuming they were carnivorous), thus freeing up gut space for digestion and allowing them to be lighter for their size, so allowing them to be larger/fly more efficiently.

The main problem would still be how the Phoenix manages to catch alight, but I think oily feathers are a good start- perhaps a mechanism like the bombardier beetle (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombardier_beetle) Maybe modified salivary glands(which birds do have), contain chemicals which when mixed ignite, or maybe different types of feathers that in the rachis(stalk) contain different types of chemicals, so when pulled out, these mix and catch alight. This seems more on point with a Phoenix than the salivary glands as that is more getting into dragon territory, and this would also allow for Phoenixes, by pulling out a few feathers from different sides of their body (to prevent the two types of chemicals mixing on them so they themselves caught alight), to cook their food by placing them together on their prey so the liquids mixed and caught their uncooked meal alight.

This of course would again need some explanation of how it arose. Possibly it started with proto-phoenixes, being quite intelligent, using natural sources of fire and eventually evolving to do it themselves?

Personally, I think this aspect of their evolution could be left a mystery, Phoenixes are, after all, magical/mythic creatures. So many things have actually evolved in nature we have no idea how to explain, that I think Phoenixes like this are plausible enough.


The phoenix has fireproof epithelial tissue, and a microbiome made up entirely of archae evolved for surviving massive temperature fluctuations. The phoenix has a special organ where it ignites methane, which is a byproduct of digestion. When the phoenix is infected by a parasite or bacterial/viral infection, it bursts into flames, killing the infection. The phoenix also has an incredibly long natural lifespan, so it can survive for centuries if nothing kills it.


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