Saturday, 28 February 2009

Future evolution south of Brussels

So they have a Propellonectes on display in Brussels, but on the websites of the artists who designed it is a Calcitriornis.

If the previous sentence makes no sense to you whatsoever, please read the entry dealing with this subject first. In effect we are talking about an exposition in Brussels that includes some future animals. I had been using Google to find out more, but need not have bothered, as the material I was looking for is available on the websites of Marc Boulay and Sylvia Lorrain. The three sites contain largely the same material but are not identical, so it pays to visit all three.

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© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

I will just show you some images of 'Benthogyrinus' to make you curious. What you see here is a poster-like image with some explanatory text. This states that we are looking at the very last amphibians, descended from the frog genus Xenopus. The species now is an ocean dweller, filling the niche whale sharks once lived in. The animals have developed a salt-excreting gland allowing them to cope with their salty environment. They do not actually look much like frogs, but there is a good reason for that. They are neotenous, meaning that they become sexually mature while formally still being in a larval stage. In effect, they are giant tadpoles. Very giant tadpoles, as they measure up to 20 meters. The males are two or there times smaller than the females and are shaped differently. The next two images illustrate all this nicely.

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© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

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© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

By the way, if you see a heading 'demos' on their websites, do click on it, as it will lead you to some 'exe' files that provide a slide show with music showcasing their work. Those are definitely worth taking a look.

Nice as all this is, it does not explain why Calcitriornis is the same as Propellonectes. Calcitriornis predates Propellonectes, as is evident from the copyright dates on the images. The answer is given in one of the interviews, and if you want to read it, there is a link on Boulay's site. Here is part one, en here is part two if you need a shortcut. The interview dates from 2006 and mentions a plan for a park on evolution, and that was to contain a section called 'Demain; les animaux du futur' ('tomorrow; the animals of the future'). The same protagonists were involved that we encountered in the Brussels expo: Steyer, Boulay and Lorrain. I do not know whether Dixon was formally involved, but the text makes it clear that they were in contact. That probably explains the traces of his 'Zoology of the future'. Unfortunately for those of us who like such things, nothing came of the plans.

That is sad, but at least it explains the history behind the Brussels' beasties: they were part of an earlier attempt to create a new future. I wonder whether we will hear and see more of the plans from this trio. I hope so.

Oh yes: Jean-Sébastien Steyer has written a book on life before dinosaurs; compared to the dinosaur era that is a time that deserves more attention, and the book looks very good. It is in French, and here is a link.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Diary of Inhuman Species II

How to discover an astonishing monster a day? Easy; just visit Stan's website, where he publishes one each day. You can also order his book, which I did. It is small (16x16 cm), but is quite heavy for its size. That is not surprising, as its 416 pages are printed on good quality paper, and except for the introduction almost every one has one of his monsters on it. So you can probably just visit his site, but the advantage of a book is that you leaf through it at any moment you please, and you cannot do that with a website, can you?

What is the story behind all this? Well, it turns out that poor Stan is a victim of aliens; he is one of those abductees who were carried aloft and away. In his case, memories came back afterwards. The foreword of his book tells the story in a much more interesting way than I could, so I will simply quote it. By the way, the text in the book is provided in French as in English, so take your pick. I'll quote the English version:

"Although it has never been proven that Stan had a 'close encounter of the fourth kind', there is no doubt that he suffered an intense psychological shock that day, some sort of psychological trauma that locked him into a daily ritual, a compulsive need to give form on paper to these supposed visitors. At precisely the same time each day, he lapses into a near-hypnotic state as though his hand were acting as the cosmic mouthpiece of some invisible force."

The message is clear; poor Stan, compelled to retrieve near-hidden images of these aliens from memory, has to make one drawing each and every day. The book contains the ones from March 5, 2007 to March 4, 2008.

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Here is an example of a double page; the gray bit in the centre is where the two pages come together (I will not break a book's back to get a better scan). The little rectangle at the bottom of each page contains some data on the species. The Labeet on the right is 'U A T'; that means its sex is Unidentified, its mood is Aggressive, and it is Terrestrial. Half of the book is in colour, and I have chosen a few of those. Here are two more; I am not certain why, but they are among my favourites.

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Except from the abduction background story told in the beginning of the book, there is no story connecting the various aliens. But there are some sketches in the back, and I did find an intriguing page that does seem to tell a story. Here it is:


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We see some heavy-duty worker types with four arms. Great!; they must come from hexapod stock, and clearly exhibit the principle of centaurism, freeing not just two but four limbs from locomotion. They seem to carry a brain on their back, but the bottom row shows that this is a creature in its own right, looking like a grumpy brain on cute little feet. Stan, what is the story here?

As I wrote before, Stan's remembered aliens are not the kind that call out for detailed criticism of their biological likelihood. It may be Darwin Year, but let's not judge these animals against the demands posed on them by nature red in tooth and claw. It would not be fair to attempt to determine the survival of Stan's aliens in terms of whose genes will get past along by being fit in the conventional evolutionary sense, and whose will sadly get stuck in the evolutionary doldrums. They should perhaps be measured with a different yardstick; I say that we should apply the degree to which they tickle a sense of humour to measure their fitness. Then they will not just survive, but live long and prosper.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Just an aside on 'the future is wild'


I suppose that people with an interest in 'fictional biology' are among the readers of this blog. I do not think I will have to introduce the TV-series 'The future is wild' to them, so I won't. However, something that may have escaped attention is a theme park in France called futuroscope. It has the animals of 'The future is wild' parading in front of you, in what is 'enhanced reality': you look through goggles at a stage set with rocks etc., or so I gather. The image of the animals is then cleverly added to the image you personally see, thereby allowing you not just a personal vision of the scene, but to interact with the animals. They also have a bit of software you can use at home to try this out, if you have a webcam.

The techology is very intriguing. The site appears to be in French only, but if you wish to see what it looks like to have a squibbon jump on your hand, select 'le blog' and watch the videos. Intriguing, but odd.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Future evolution in Brussels

The February 2009 issue of the Flemish magazine Eos, focusing on the popularisation of science, has as its cover theme 'De dieren van de toekomst' ('the animals of the future'). Now that is an interesting theme! Anyone with an interest in the subject will immediately think of Dougal Dixon's book 'After man, a zoology of the future' (see my installment on 'Why there's no walking on tentacles' for a glimpse at one of his other works). Eos' story is about a new exhibition in Brussels' natural history museum, in which a new evolution gallery opened on February 12 2009, the 200 anniversary of Darwin's birth. Apparently the museum people decided not to let evolution simply stop right in our age, but to leave the clock ticking for another 50 million years into the future. This period is called the Dixonian, so it's clear the people behind it have done their homework. Congratulations Dougal!

The page of the museum website is in Dutch, French and English (but not in German, which is odd, as it is spoken in Belgium and the main museum page does have a German version). It is frustratingly devoid of images of future lifeforms. A bit of internet searching led to a site promising a video of the animals, but at the time of writing the video did not work; I will include the video link here in the hope that it will work later on. So all I had to give you some more information was the magazine. Pick it up, if you can (and can read Dutch).

© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

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Above is an image taken from the cover; it shows five of the to-be-evolved animals with their names.

© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

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This is a close up of Neopyghoscelis, a penguin descendant reaching up to 4 meters in length. I wonder whether the image shows a young animal, as the size of the eye seems much too large for a 4-m bird. Eyes don't usually increase in size at the same rate as overall body size.

Anyway, one of its more interesting features is that it redeveloped teeth. Looking at the image I thought that these were pseudoteeth, i.e., bumps developing from the rim of the penguin's beak, but the text suggests that the teeth are the result of the genes for teeth, dormant in present birds, having become active again. I wonder if that event is more likely than reshaping the rim of the beak, but either 'solution' would do the trick, I guess. The text says 'Creative with Darwin' in Dutch.

© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

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And this is a Propellonectes (remember that name!). The legend says that is a descendant of a present-day petrel, that has lost its wings and swims with much enlarged feet. It is about 1 metre in length.

Very nice work. I will keep an eye on the museum site to see if more material appears. The magazine story is largely about how evolution works, but also provided some names on the people who thought all this up. It looks like a very interesting set of people. Jean-Sébastien Steyer is a palaeontologist working in Paris, and I guess he's the one responsible for coming up with biologically sound lifeforms. As an aside, I think that that particular activity could with reason be described as 'creationism', to be defined as thinking up animals based on sound biological principles. It's a pity that the word seems to be in use already, in a rather less entertaining setting...

Then two people come in to breathe life into the designs (I think I had better be careful with my metaphors here, but in Darwin week some leeway is allowed). The first is Marc Boulay, who does 3D computer sculpting in Z-brush, and just looking at his page makes me wish I had chosen to go into creative work in my life rather than pursue an academic career; oh well, I admit it, perhaps I am just a tiny bit envious...

© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

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The image above should whet your appetite for more. Dixon lovers will recognise this as one of his creations, a Tetraceras. But if that isn't enough, the task force also included Sylvia Lorrain, and her website tipped me from just containable envy after seeing Boulay's work into a feeling of deep inadequacy; they are that good. She combines 3D models with photographs to produce realistic depictions of animals, which is very tricky as it soon becomes tacky. She pulls it off.

© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-Sébastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

Click to enlarge

This particular bird is something I found on her site. Be certain to visit their sites, as there is more to see there. Obviously, this is a diving bird, and it's called a Calcitriornis. Hang on, that is the same bird shown in Eos as a Propellonectes! What is going on here? Calcitriornis evolving into Propellonectes? I think I will try to find the story behind this matter another day.

Now it's back to Brussels, so to speak. The team so far had everything it took to depicting 3D animals, but in 2D! The museum apparently wanted 3D items to display; ironic, in a way. The sculptor Yves Gaumetou did the final job of putting flesh on the digital bones. It's probably modeling clay or something similar, but the results can be touched and you can walk around them, and that was the point. His site contains excellent sculptures of present day animals in life-like poses.

I definitely think I will have to go to Brussels one of these days.

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Remarks added in December 2010: Seeing that Darren Naish of Tet Zoo directed some traffic to this old post, I looked at it myself, and found that some links no longer worked and that the post is behind the news. Here is an update.

Marc Boulay is now here: http://www.marcboulay.net/
Sylvia Lorrain is still here: http://www.sylvialorrain.net/
Sébastien Steyer's page has moved as well: http://www2.mnhn.fr/hdt203/info/steyer.php

Other newsworthy items may be that Sébastien has written a very nice book on early vertebrate evolution, available in French and Dutch (as far as I know). Marc and Sébastien are working on a book on future evolution on Earth; you can read more about it on Marc's site.

Finally, I later wrote some more on the Brussels expo and on Marc and Sylvia's work. If you want to read it, here is a post that links to the other posts.

Sigmund Nastrazurro

PS. I still haven't seen the Brussels expo myself...

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Added a 'following' gadget

Should anyone wish to be informed of any new posts on this blog, that has just been made easier. You will not have to check every once in a while anymore. Instead, simply click on the 'Follow this blog' text to the left, and you will be notified of any news.

The goumoun, or 'Centaurism I'

A while ago I discussed Glapumt'ians, a creature from a French series of bandes dessinées (comics) called 'Valérian et Laureline' by Christin and Mezières. It is time to return to their universe with the goumoun.


Here he is, in the first frame he appears in. Note that he walks in a trot. Unlike Ralph the Glapumt'ian the goumoun only occurs in one album: 'Bienvenue sur Alflolol'. The story if that Galaxity, i.e., Earth's power centre, has turned the planet Technorog into a technological powerhouse, with extensive mines and factories. And then the original inhabitants come back in family groups. They turn out to live for some 16,000 years and left the planet for an outing some 4000 years ago. Now they wish to pick up life where they left it, on their home planet of Alflolol. The dumbfounded Earth people do not really know what to do. A such, the tale is fairly typical of the time it appeared: 1972, with echos of the 'military-industrial complex', the establishment', etc. Laureline immediately bonds with them, while Valérian hesitates between following her and more or less doing his job.

The Alflololians like a good party, and manage to wreck the neatly managed planet by camping in the wrong places, going out hunting leaving a wake of wrecked installations, etc. The following illustration shows the cover of the 1974 Dutch version (In Dutch Valérian is called Ravian, probably because of associations with the tranquilizing herb 'valeriaan'). The 'fish' they are hunting (a furutz) doesn't like hydrodynamically sound, with all those protuberances, but this series isn't about biomechaniscal rectitude. He looks exciting!

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The goumoun is the pet of one family of Alflololians; he is definitely relatively intelligent and from day one the goumoun and Laureline become the best of friends. As I noted before, this series makes no attempt to make alien species truly alien. The facial expressions on the goumoun's face are as easy for us to read as those of other people, or, come to that, of Glapum'tians! In the course of the story Laureline is carried away by a monster looking like a giant octopus brachiating through the jungle. Valérian is afraid of hitting Laureline by mistake with his impressive-looking space gun, but luckily the goumoun comes to the rescue.


The thing I like about the goumoun is that he has four walking legs and two other legs that function a bit like arms. There doesn't seem to be a thumb, and we never see him actually pick up objects with them, which is a bit odd; why have arms if you do not use them as such. Then again, kangaroos don't do that much with their front legs, do they?

Of course, many predators on Furaha have a similar arrangement of limbs, with four locomotory limbs and two front legs adapted for hunting. In their case, evolution started with a six-legged design. In time, the first pair of limbs lost its locomotor role and became free for other purposes. There is a page on such animals on the Furaha site (go to the land page), but here is one of the animals on it anyway:


While thinking about the concept of freeing a frontal pair of legs from locomotion, it struck me that I was unaware of a name for this evolutionary trick. This event has occurred on Earth quite a few times on Earth, but does not seem to have a name. If there is indeed no name for it (and please tell me if I am wrong!) one must be invented: let's call it 'centaurism'. The goumoun is an example of centaurism, and so are the neocarnivores with their raptorial specialisations. I think centaurism is a worthy subject for a future essay, so I will get back to it. Later.

Meanwhile, if you want to read the album, you may not be in luck if you are restricted to English, as there does not seem to be a translated version. But in France the series is an established success, and you can even buy a statuette of the goumoun:

Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Diary of Inhuman Species

The 'what?', you may well ask. Do inhuman species keep diaries? Who knows? Should they? Anyway, this particular diary concerns a website with the appealing subtitle 'Discover one astonishing monster a day'. To give you an idea, here is a sample illustration:


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Nice, isn't it? There are lots more monsters / aliens / animals to discover on the site. I think they have a French flavour to them I cannot put my finger on; it probably has something to do with the combination of very fine workmanship and a sense of humour, or at least not taking oneself too seriously.

The beings shown here are rather funny. I tend to look at such creations with an eye on biomechanical plausibility. I won't be doing that here, as that would kill the joy of looking at the beasties. If there is one thing exuding from this site, it is that the author (Stan) has fun. I'll be buying the 416-page book (and hope that it contains at least 400 animals). Enjoy!