Wednesday, 27 December 2017

"The Spirally Slanted Spidrid's Mad Dash For Safety!"

Last September I presented part of a painting showing the Mad Sickle, a species of spirally slanted spidrid ('slanties'). The comments quickly gave rise to two new ideas: the first was that the legs and body of slanties might hook up to form a nearly impregnable wall. I should probably do a painting of one. The second was that slanties might well move by cartwheeling. Imagine that as follows: a spidrid's body along with the legs sticking out in all directions forms a disk; now flip the disc onto its edge and roll it along; that's it.  Slanties might use this trick to escape very quickly down a hill.

As usual, life on earth manages to trump anything the speculative biologist can think of. To prove that, here is a short video showing a Namibian spider using exactly that same trick to escaper down a hill, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. There are also spiders that actually do a series of somersaults, head over tails, but that is another type of movement and also another story: here's a video).

Slanties have an additional trick up their sleeves: once flipped on their side, there is nothing to stop them from using the power of their legs to make this an active way of locomotion. Slanties need not be content with passively rolling downhill; they can get out of the way on horizontal terrain too. Actually, they could even roll uphill. I do not think that that would be more effective than normal walking (normal for slanties, that is!), but they could. 

Mind you, I am not saying I am the first to invent this way of locomotion for a fictive animal. I have written about Warren Fahy's 'disc ant' in the past, and there may be earlier manifestations as well.

So here is a quick animation of a slanted spidrid moving in this fashion. The legs flex and extend while the body rotates. I suppose it could also move on the other direction with nearly the same movement. We are looking at the dorsal side of the beast.

Here it is again, rolling in and out of view.

I doubt the animal would use this type of movement as part of its normal repertoire, because I do not think it would be able to see well, with the entire world circling around them like mad. In this respect, the movement is a bit like 'cernuation', a term to describe the movement of the 'squibbon' of The Future is Wild. To read about possible visual problems, find the posts here and here. The poor spidrid only sees the world as a blur when wheeling around in this way, and that is why it uses wheeling only as a last resort to escape from predation.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Run, rusp, run!

I keep coming back to rusps because their basic centipede shape allows me to play with gaits and movements more than I thought at the start. So far, I have only shown very large rusps, 'megarusps', having a mass equalling or surpassing that of sauropods. If you need to brush up on your crambology (yes, I invented a word to describe the knowledge of rusps), start with some earlier posts: one, two, three and four (there are more, but these will do). Of course, you can also learn about rusp gaits on the main Furaha page.  

Now, megarusps are immense, and you should not expect them to hop and jump around a place like a rabbit on speed. Instead, expect them to move ponderously and solemnly. Still, megarusps must have evolved from smaller ancestors, and that by itself suggests there could be lots of medium and small rusp species, and indeed there are. And then I wondered whether their multilegged nature might keep them from running fast?

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Here is my earliest sketch of small rusps again. I have not done any full paintings of such minirusps yet, but I do envision a fruitful adaptive radiation, including arboreal and burrowing species.  I have finished two paintings showing metriorusps ('metrio-' indicates medium-sized), and to do so I had to think about their gaits and in which way these would differ from those of megarusps.

Digging rusp. Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Varkrusp. Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
 Here are some sketches of metriorusps, that did not make it to 'evolved' status. I played with the idea of differential leg development, so I could have digging species. That design has not made it to a painting, but running and armoured rusps did make the 'evolved' status, though.     

Millipedes and centipedes on Earth can move pretty fast, but they do not really run. Can rusps run?  The answer lies in what exactly is meant by 'running'. On the one hand you can simply interpret the word as 'walking quickly', but there are more complex biological connotations too.
  Walking consists of cyclical strides, and each stride consists of two phases. In the stance phase, a leg is pushed down onto the ground and backwards, providing upwards and forwards force. In the swing phase, the leg is lifted and moves forwards so it will be ready for the next stance phase. During the lift phase the animal should not fall, and preventing that is usually accomplished by having other legs on the ground at that time. To walk more quickly there are few options: increase stride frequency and increase stride length. The latter can be done by having long legs and by swinging it over the largest distance possible, and to get that working, the time a leg is on the ground will have to be shortened.

copyright Gert van Dijk
 This is precisely what happens on Earth. Here is an old animations of mine showing a horse walking. When walking, each leg is on the ground for more than half the time, so there are likely to be multiple legs on the ground at any one time. The slower an animal moves, the more the situation resembles standing still, and for an animal standing still its centre of gravity must fall within the area described by the feet: that is static stability. The stars in the animations represent the corners of that area. The order in which the leg moves ensures that the area has the shape of a triangle under the body.
copyright Gert van Dijk

For a galloping horse, each leg only touches the ground for a short fraction of its movement cycle. The result is that the chances are low that many legs will touch the ground at any time. In fact, there may well be no legs on the ground at all at some times, so the animal is in fact making a series of jumps. At high speeds static stability gives way to dynamic stability, meaning the animal is kept from falling through inertia and a footfall at the correct time and place.

Running is regularly defined as walking with each leg touching the ground for less than half a walking cycle. On earth, all really fast animals use these principles. Having said that, it is time to go back to centipedes and rusps. Centipedes do not run: their stance phase typically lasts much longer than their swing phases. This increases the chance that there are many legs on the ground at any one time, and, seeing how many legs rusps have, this is almost a certainty. This adds up to there being no jump phases, which seems a bad idea if we want a fast rusp.


The answer, I thought, would lie in the gait. The animation above shows a rusp with a slow gait: each foot is on the ground more than half the time. In real life, the animation may have to be sped up for a more realistic effect, but at least the movements are well visible. To support the body well, no region of the long rusp body should be unsupported for a long time, and that is achieved by choosing specific phase differences between the legs. In this case, these seem to work reasonably well. Mind you, rusps have typical 'zigzagzig' legs (see here, here and here for what that means).

The next step, above, is to equip the rusp with a different movement cycle for its legs; the legs now swing further and touch the ground less than half the time. I kept the phase differences the same for comparison. Fortunately for this rusp, its legs do not kick one another with this setting, so the result is not at all bad. There are always legs on the ground though, and that may limit a further increase in speed.

So the gait is the next parameter to tweak. Here, the phase difference between successive legs is much less than before, so the legs on one side move almost in unison. Still, at the moment the last leg on one side leaves the ground, there is already a leg just touching the ground on the other side.            

That can easily be amended. Now the phase differences are almost gone, and there are two periods in the movement cycle when there is no foot on the ground at all. Again, you will have to imagine a proper film speed. This rusp is going so fast, its feet hardly touch the ground!  

So yes, I think there are ways to have rusps run. Actually, they might be able to change phase differences very subtly and continuously, giving them a 'continuously variable transmission', unlike Earth's large mammals, that typically have up to three gaits to choose from (walk, trot and gallop), each with a specific preferred speed.  But that will also depend on energy requirements, something I haven't studied in any detail. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

So here is the scale diagram of the runrusp, one of the metriorusps that has already been painted. To close with, it may be interesting to know that I leave hexpods for last, because I am not fully satisfied with the animation of their middle legs yet. But I must say that exploring all the nonhexapod lineages on Furaha is perhaps not a bad idea: it gives more attention to designs that are least Earth-like.