Saturday, 9 April 2011

"A Venusian Bestiary", in Which Greg Broadmore Illustrates Monsters Before They Are Gracefully Slaughtered

"By golly, that's a splendid specimen! Blast its head off so we can turn its legs into umbrella stands, what?!"

This is not a literal quote from Lord Coxswain, but it might perhaps be one, suggesting a somewhat utilitarian and egocentric attitude. Lord Coxswain is a character from the 'Dr Grordbort' universe, in which Victorian style people (well, men, really) travel to Venus and have a jolly good time, helped by rayguns designed by 'socially inept boffins'.


Here is a short video to set the atmosphere: "Venus is doomed part II" (also found on YouTube or on the Dr. Grordbort page. As you can see, Lord Coxswain's attitude is that the last surviving animals of a species had best be bagged quickly, lest some other fellow acquire it for a foreign museum, and that wouldn't do, would it? Hence, Coxswain and his fellows -good chums all- take a healthy pleasure in shooting anything alive, animals, natives, whatever.

The person behind this yarn-ripping steampunkish universe is Greg Broadmore: a painter, creature and prop designer working for Weta in New Zealand. If neither 'Weta' nor 'Greg Broadmore' rings a bell, let me remind you of the dinosaurs and other creatures in King Kong, District 9 and other Weta work. Absolutely brilliant illustrations. In fact, Mr. Broadmore's work has featured twice before on this blog: once as a riddle animal (also here) and once when the King Kong book was discussed. He now develops the 'Dr Grordbort' universe, which has already yielded two books, rayguns you can buy (really!) as well as some stuffed Venusian insect-analogues that you can hang on your wall (really! Here's one and another).

I think his creatures are fascinatingly creative; he does dinosaurs, insectoids and various other stuff, and all of it so lively and so extremely well painted. There is also quite a lot of his material to be found on the internet. The 'Dr Grordbort' pages show that particular universe, and besides that he has his own website with a few galleries of work. If that is not enough he was interviewed at some length (part one and part two) on a website on creature design that most of you will probably like a lot even without Mr Broadmore's work on it.

In fact, those links should be enough to make this post worthwhile, but let me add a fairly large series of paintings on Venusian wildlife (these are not all). In time-honoured fashion I shall present my ramblings on what I think of their anatomy. The images were all taken from the sites mentioned above and are presented at a nicely large size, so be certain to enjoy them as best you can.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

The shallow-beaked grogan's four columnar legs suggesting a large size (Venus' gravity is about that of earth, so relationships between body mass and leg diameter should resemble those on Earth, assuming bones of equal strength. I like the neck design: like limbs, necks could consist of a few large segments instead of a larger series of small ones. The 'biramous' (split) design of the front legs is also interesting, and is a basic characteristic of Earth arthropod limbs. Having part of the limbs fused must call for some dextrous motor programming, as I wrote earlier.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

I cannot immediately think of a purpose for the sail on the back of this thingy, and in such cases sex is always something to keep in mind; perhaps the sail is a prop to impress its mates. The arms functioning as jaws are rather nice. Again, such designs work well in Earth's arthropods, and there is no reason to assume they would not work on bigger animals. But are there no eyes? Or are the spots arranged in a row along the head all eyes?

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

A large knuckle-walker with switch-blades for toes; is it a predator or are those for defence? It does not look particularly fast, so to be a a predator its prey should be very slow. The other Venusian beasties look quite athletic, so I would guess it's a herbiore or omnivore. There are more 'headarms' here, and I think there are eyes. lots of them.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

Now this one needs some explaining. Its body is slung low, and the legs zigzag a lot and are splayed, meaning that this stance calls for lots of energy. It could be a jumper, but it looks very large for an ambush predator. The whole front looks like a giant mouth, with the four black prongs resembling canines. This time I really see nothing looking like eyes. Not having eyes is probably a very unlikely event in animal evolution. Eyes seem to evolve so easily and must convey such advantages that it is hard to think of a reason to stop them evolving. All you need to start is some light sensitive tissue, some movement ability and the most basic of nervous systems, and you are off (unless there is total darkness).

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

Ooh, another jumper: Unwin's double-backed shrovel. The viewpoint does not suggest great size, and the Grodbort pages show it to reach knee height. It is wonderfully alien.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

This one reminds me a bit of an okapi: that must be the sloping back and the colour pattern. I wonder why there is a segment of both the hind and front legs that cannot do much mechanical work as depicted, because these segment more or less double up against the next segment. Then again, perhaps that is the point: these segment don't do anything in their current stance and are not supposed to. Once unfolded, they might be used to advantage, and this is just their 'fold after use' aspect. Well, if it isn't true, please admit that it is a nice idea.
Again, no eyes, I think. Barlowe tried animals without eyes (Darwin IV in Expedition), and I thought that that was a mistake, particularly if you do have bioluminescence.

Click to enlarge: copyright Stardog

Ha, some action! Coxswain in motion against the dimple backed vroxel! As I said, the feet, once divulged of bones and cleaned of flesh, do make excellent umbrella stands gracing any home.

Click to enlarge: copyright Greg Broadmore

More action! But just wait a minute... That's not a Furahan rusp, is it? (rusps are on the land page or directly here). It might be; it could be! What! We cannot have people like Coxswain murdering Furahan animals left and right!? That's no way to behave! Is he mad? The murderous swine! Stay off my planet!


j. w. bjerk said...

great work!
It's probably stronger on the art side than the concept side, but overall very nice.

Zerraspace said...

Lord Coxswain's attitude immediately reminds me of Swiss Family Robinson, in which their first response to an identified creatures seems to be "oh, look, an animal! BANG!" It seems to me a rather pointless attitude, if only because the ray gun disintegrates most of the animal. Except for sport, I can see no use for it - there isn't much left of the animal for hide, meat or other materials (whatever those might be) - and that leaves me rather disdainful.

It is however some impressive artwork. The neck design of the first and fourth is reminiscent of Epona's sprincroc, I imagine it could pack quite a punch if snapped forward, perhaps as a defensive maneuver or for hunting. My immediate thought on the second is that its spine may serve a function similar to those suspected of the sails of prehistoric reptiles like Dimetrodon and the Spinosaurus, warming up a cold-blooded body while other creatures are still warming up. The third, fourth and fifth all strike me as ambush predators - it seems to me that once those jaws caught onto a limb (particularly the top of the joint) the hunter could effectively immobilize its prey while rending the limb and then pull in its own body to make a kill (this might explain the second set of tusks on the fourth creature). In such a scenario, the interesting jointed-limbs of the first may have a defensive use - perhaps this is to prevent said predators grabbing of the limb or to dislodge them?

As for the last... I hope you've counted the legs, you just might be able to pull Lord Coxswain into court for hunting Furahan game out of season (with any luck we can deport him)!

Evan Black said...

Ah, Lord Coxswain. He so reminds me of my father-in-law, who is well on his way to completing the "Big 30" (I believe it's called): the list of huntable North American big game. I've accompanied him on his annual deer hunt, but I don't get the thrill out it he does. I do enjoy the meat, however.

I don't mind projects that are stronger in art than in scientific plausibility, which I think is thrown out the window the moment somebody dressed like Teddy Roosevelt hops in a steampunk rocket and lands on Venus to obliterate big game. If these creatures are indeed eyeless (as I've seen no clear indication otherwise, it's a strong evolutionary improbability but a common aesthetic choice to depict truly "alien" life.

Zerraspace said...

If one wants truly alien life without eyes, they can do so both plausibly simply by placing it in a lightless environment (deep in the sea, underground, or on a planet with a very thick atmosphere that blocks most light) - environments which host some of the most "alien" creatures on Earth. Even in an environment with illumination there might be a short period of evolutionary history without eyes if life developed in one without (say the first multicellular animals crawling out of a cave).

It would be an interesting world if there ever were one.

Evan Black said...

Part of the problem is that even rudimentary eyes are relatively easy to evolve, and if even a sliver of light is available it will likely be exploited to its fullest. Vision is more likely to hypertrophy than atrophy.

Deep sea and lightless caves will indeed be more likely places to find eyeless life, but they would hardly constitute the entirety of a planet's biosphere. Even after emerging from lightless caves photosensitivity will likely develop, leading swiftly to eyespots and eventually simple eyes. There may be other senses that dominate the species' sensorium but it's unlikely for vision to be universally absent.

Zerraspace said...

Well, that is why I said it would only be a short evolutionary period without eyes - it wouldn't be long before something did develop them and ousted all competition. I agree that eyes are probably as universal a feature as we can expect on any multi-cellular life (well, maybe mouths more so), I just was trying to rationalize the artistic viewpoint of going without them scientifically - see if I could keep my cake and eat it (after all, that's half the fun of being a worldbuilder)!

I guess my argument doesn't hold much water, especially if we extend vision to include vision outside the visible spectrum. There's radiation of some sort everywhere, and an eye that could detect some form of it seems inevitable, like a viper's heat pits which sense IR - not your conventional eye but an eye nonetheless.

Evan Black said...

Ah, I misunderstood your statement and I apologize. I thought you were saying that a brief period without light would cause eyes to disappear completely. In the case of Venusian life featured in this article, there is apparently sufficient environment light and the life forms look sufficiently well developed (much more than former-troglobites) that some form of eye would be in use.

Which brings up another question: could eyes develop in a form we may not easily recognize as visual organs? For example, I wouldn't look at the pits on a viper and think, "Oh, those clearly sense infrared EM radiation." Could eyes (of whatever complexity/acuity) take a form outside the familiar 'globe' shape? Could such an organ be somewhere on these guys?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Dear all -and welcome Zerraspace-,

Aha, this is going towards the "What's an eye" theme. It would seem there is no strong disagreement here.

If there is a bit of light, then eyes would seem extremely likely to appear. Should anyone wish to read up on that. I can recommend Land & Nilsson's "animal eyes" (don't buy the 2001 version, as a new version will appear soon).

The fact that eyes can disappear quickly in darkness is something that intrigues me; it is as if their presence then is harmful, but is it?

As for Evan's last question, which is whether you can recognise an eye when there is one.
Well, with a vertebrate/cephalopod type of eye, I would say that the one indispensable item here is a pupil, and that is going to look like a black spot in all environments. The cornea is a trick that can be supplanted by other means, and the iris can be coloured and camouflaged, but a pupil has to be there. But a sensitive retina and/or strong light will allow a small pupil, and if there are enough black spots around, one more will not be noticed.
With a compound eye, you could theoretically place ocelli just about anywhere and nobody would be the wiser. But there may well be a reason to "herd" ocelli together and form a proper eye.
I don't think anyone's given the answer to that one yet; why have specialised cells together in organs instead of dispersed all over a body?
(the answer probably has to do with efficiency of connections)

Zerraspace said...

If Wikipedia can be counted on eyes are energy-intensive organs, so there may be a metabolic incentive to lose them when no longer needed, in addition to your mention of possible camouflage. As for the size of occeli, it suggest that in insects (and this applies for the individual lenses of compound eyes), the lenses are so small that diffraction becomes an issue, severely limiting their resolution (this may be another reason for their clumping together).

As for the eye shape, it appears that the individual components of a compound eye are rod-shaped (you only see the top), so if you could expose such components you may have creatures with cylindrical eyes. I don't see anything like that on these Venusian creatures though (the first and second-to-last seem to have eyes of a sort, the second two seem to have what may be heat pits like vipers, and the poor rusp seems to have eyes of a sort - unless those are actually parts of its legs).

For that matter, the creatures of Darwin IV must have vision of a sort, at least if you follow the Discovery Channel documentary, which suggests that they do in fact have eyes. The Eosapien obviously responded to the holograph, knew its location, and used its bio luminescence to signify understanding. I personally believe that the grooves in most of the creatures' heads (most obvious in the Arrowtongue and Groveback) are some form of eye.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that eyes/light-sensing vision on some planet, is like electricity-sensing on Earth?: its found in the fishes whose lineage stayed in the water, but was absent in the tetrapod lineage.


Anonymous said...

Rodlox says:
While I realize that folding limbs are quite possible (our limbs operate on that principle)...I can't see how folding bodies would have endured.

"curling up" like pillbugs/sowbugs, sure. that works.

but some of the Venusian images show creatures with more folding points than a beach chair. :)

Andreas said...

Not completely relevant to the subject, but I think it is an interesting fact nonetheless. There is a crustacean, ommatokoita, who feeds on the eyes of greenland sharks. Luckily for the shark, they don't rely on the eyes very much for hunting. However, some scientists have a theory that suggests that the shrimps acts like some kind of fishing lures. While this doesn't really mean much for these creatures, who seem to lack eyes, but would it be possible for eyes to be a bad thing in a environment with lots of parasites? I am no expert on biology, but isn't eyes a easy way in to infect a creature? Or would the creatures develope strong defences? Great blog by the way, I have followed it for a year or so but haven't commented before.

Evan Black said...

I agree that truly useless eyes can disappear from a lineage, and there are lots of troglobite examples to support it. Andreas brings up a good point too, showing that there are animals that can survive just fine without their eyes. So why don't they lose these evolutionarily costly organs as well?

My own theory (and I'll readily defer to any actual experts) is that enough of the species gets along just fine without losing their eyes and pass on genes that code for functional eyes. The fact that individuals of this species has senses that can take over in the case of blindness is just a handy backup, and such a feature will only perpetuate.

But this begs the question of why the troglobites lose their sight? It could be that the caves in which they inhabit are resource-poor, and those individuals who put a lot of effort into developing big, beautiful eyes do so at the expense of the rest of their bodies; those who happen to be born with weaker eyes are at an advantage because their diet goes to developing other systems, and this trend extends into an eyeless lineage.

But what I'm really wondering about is eye shape. I understand the tendency for vision cells to cluster, as it's then possible to run a single optic nerve to the whole thing, but what about the spherical organ itself? Could another shape be plausible? We have examples of pupils that are slitted, could that same shape extend into an entire organ that's long and narrow, with a long trench shaped chamber housing optical cells? There is also the example of the owl's eye, which is not spherical but roughly more cylindrical. The only advantage I see to spherical eyes is that they can roll in a socket, but if they are extended on flexible stalks or (as with the owl) mounted on a flexible neck, this no longer becomes an issue.

Okay, I've hijacked Sigmund's blog long enough. I'm now going to try and steer at least some of this comment back to his original post. I look at Unwin's double-backed shrovel (toward the bottom of the featured images) and just wonder how something like that could develop. I mean, the legs rooted further forward on the body extend to the back, and those coming from the back reach forward. What kind of evolutionary pressure can produce such a stance/gait?

Anonymous said...

> could that same shape extend into an entire organ that's long and narrow, with a long trench shaped chamber housing optical cells?

Well, that's a great idea...but it requires the "sight-line" (evolved from a lateral line?) to be on part of the body which doesn't bend or flex. Be it the Venusian knuckle-walker illustrated, a snake, or anything else.

A paralel: along the length of a person's arm might be okay for eyes or a sight-line...but no visual equipment would do well in the hollow of the elbow.


Evan Black said...

Well, I was thinking something more along the lines of a long rigid structure on the end of an eyestalk, but something recessed into non-flexible areas of the body may work too.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

So many themes! Eyelessness, hinged bodies, the shape of eyes, linear eyes... There's no time to discuss all. Besides, these are subjects worthy of a blog one day.

About losing eyes: the thing that surprises me is that something with a proven survival value (an eye) that should therefore be genetically encoded quite sturdily can apparently be lost so quickly. I accept that eyes are slightly detrimental in complete darkness, because of wounds and infection risks, but is that enough to select so strongly and quickly against them? I guess so, because otherwise we need Lamarckism. I will try to see if there are any proper scientific papers on the subject.

About eye shapes: with camera eyes you really need a spherical shape. Owls basically have spherical eyes; it's just that the sides have been cut off to combine a large eye with a small head. That's a compromise with two penalties; it must be more difficult to get this shape precisely right than a sphere, and you cannot move the eyes in the head. You cannot shape a camera eye at will, or else you get a fuzzy image. That has to do with the radial symmetry of the lens and the optical axis. Lenses are lens-shaped (sorry) because that works; I cannot imagine something like a pillow-shaped lens working properly. So no linear camera eyes, I am afraid.

With compound eyes, you can have every eyelet (ommatidium) point in any direction you want. As long as the brain knows the direction it is pointing in, it can assign its signal to a direction in space. For instance, you can eyelets that overlap to a large degree, and you can place these on a cylindrical surface (look at the eyes of mantis shrimps, or those of Furahan animals). Beyond a certain point there is no point in more overlap, which would probably limit how long a cylinder would be. An ovoid would do, but a really long cylinder probably has no added benefit.

Zerraspace said...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro, you have confused me - Evan, do you mean the shape of the actual eye organ, or of the eye lens? If you mean the organ, I can think up of several non-spherical shapes (although spherical shape would still have advantage because a compound spherical eye could give you maximal coverage), like the rod shape of insect compound eye eyelets.

I might have an alternative to the spherical shape, though I don't know if it counts (it is definitely unconventional). Have the eye merely be a rod inside the head with only a pupil exposed to the outside. This eye can't move from side to side, but it doesn't need to - in front of it are adaptable biological mirrors/lenses that change their shape and bend back and forth so that they always reflect into the pupil and the optical nerve right behind it. To see forward, you either add another mirror, or have the mirror fold against the head so that light falls directly onto the pupil. This way the creature could look almost all around itself without turning its head. As for closing its eyes, all it has to do is bend the mirrors atop the pupil. It would probably be a very vulnerable structure but then again so are our eyes.

Do you think it could function?

rodlox said...

>, but is that enough to select so strongly and quickly against them? I guess so, because otherwise we need Lamarckism

Epigenes to the rescue! :)

>With compound eyes, you can have every eyelet (ommatidium) point in any direction you want. As long as the brain knows the direction it is pointing in, it can assign its signal to a direction in space.

so, if there is a vision stripe running down the length of a body, odds are good that its a row of compound eyes - right?

rodlox said...

Zerraspace - that sounds plausible...though that may be because when I visualize what you described, I place the lens on muscles very similar to a chameleon's eye turret (or a periscope 0 )

Zerraspace said...

Rodlox - well, it only works if the mirrors can swivel around in all three dimensions. I'm glad you think so though, because I'm depending on it!

If your second suggestion is true about vision stripes, I might have figured out how the insect analogues of my world see!

Luciano N. Ribeiro said...

It seems I'm too late for the discussion, but I'd just like to add that it is possible to have real working eyes that are so different from our own that no human being would readily recognize as such.

For example:

;- )

Zerraspace said...

I'm guessing you agree, snoring solution?

Evan Black said...

snoring solution is a spambot. It's not a real person. When such posts occur ignore them. Sigmund eventually removes them.

Anonymous said...

Lord Coxswain is supposed to be a buffoon- why else would he run around Venus disintegrating every animal he comes across with his ray rifle? After he's done blasting his quarry into ash and vapor, there isn't even enough left for a trophy!! That said, the ray-guns are cool. If I were visiting an alien world inhabited by creatures such as those, I would bring a wave disruptor gun- not to hunt, just as personal protection from certain creatures with large teeth and a bad attitude. Wouldn't want to end up alien chow while trying to observe the rare Venusian Meat Beetle, or tracking a group of atmospheric jelly-fish. There appear to be no naturalists amongst the Victorian visitors to Venus- a pity. A ray-gun capable of disintegrating seven tenths of an African Elephant in ten Earth seconds with infra-wave undulations would be a handy implement to have on worlds like Furah- you would have to prove that you only blasted a three foot smoking hole through the alien scum in self-defence, otherwise you might be deported for hunting out of season with ray-weapons illegal for hunting because they disintegrate the target in its entirety, leaving no useful remains.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

About eye shapes: I am beginning to think that vision in general might be a good subject for a blog entry one day.

As for Lord Coxswain, well, his attitude was real in the nineteenth century. If you search for "The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin"you will find the story. Horrid as that attitude may be to our eyes, Greg Broadmore's take on Victorians on Venus is amusing, I think. And I would like to have a ray gun...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Greg Broadmore contacted me, and with his permission I copy part of his message here:

"I am a keen lover of science myself and am always thinking of my designs with evolution and ecological niche in mind.
That said, I also don't take my work too seriously and in the case of Grordbort's aliens I purposefully play with a few cliches to make the aliens more...alien. Not that that's a very good description - real aliens will of course make complete sense in context.

Eyes are a good example - I leave them off as a stylistic choice. Most of my Venusian animal designs have photo receptors on them, and are imagined to 'see' far further into other higher and lower wavelengths, but I have made them as un-eye-like as possible to create a detachment in the viewer.
Having photo-receptors in a bifocal structure with lenses and articulation certainly makes the most sense evolutionarily, but I take a punt and guess there are likely other ways and if we're lucky our species will discover those in time.
Perhaps the eyes are within the body, under some specially composited skin and tissue and image in lower wavelengths, masking out the native tissue? They'd of course then be blind to similar tissue in the world.

But like I said, I want these aliens to be fun and challenging and they are part of a much larger fiction and so are as thought through as needs be for my stories."