Thursday, 17 November 2022

More on Furaha at TetZooCon 2022

As usual there are many other things going on (nice ones, I'm happy to say!) so I am behind with blogging. But I do have some nice subjects almost ready, of which the one that must take precedence is the upcoming 'TetZooCon'!    

There will finally be a real live Tetrapod Zoology Convention again: TetZooCon 2022, on 3 & 4 December 2022! Have a look at the programme, which looks to be as fascinating, if not more so, than previous versions. If you like your biology mixed with some art and are not afraid to visit the outer regions of  biological disciplines, have a look. I have very fond memories of my earlier visits.

The art in question is 'palaeoart', meaning 'Palaeontological Art'. I have never written about Palaeoart before (or 'Paleoart'; I'll stick to 'Palaeoart' because I've set my spelling checker to the version of English closest to me, which happens to be British English). The simple reason for me ignoring palaeoart is that this blog is about the part of speculative biology that deals with life elsewhere, as reflected in the title 'Furahan Biology and Allied Matters'. I guess I could stretch the 'Allied matters' some more, and in fact I did when I showed my attempt at dinosaur sculpture. That doesn't mean I do not like Palaeoart; far from it! I love it. Palaeoart is blossoming these days, thanks to an explosion of interesting new discoveries that need to be depicted, and to a parallel explosion of talent all over the world. If you want to have a look at what is happening, please take a look at the book 'Mesozoic Art: Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Animals in Art' by Steve White and Darren Naish.


Click to enlarge; copyright White and Naish

I just received my copy and think it is excellent. Mind you, the two earlier books by Steve White on a very similar there are also excellent, with a large format and high printing standards: Dinosaur Art (2012) and Dinosaur Art II (2017).

There will be a Palaeoart workshop at TetZooCon, run by John Conway, as well as a Palaeoart Exhibition. I will show some Furaha prints there for only the second time ever. Mind you, when I learned about this exhibition, I wasn't aware yet that it was about palaeoart, so I applied, and now I realise that I am a sort of intruder there, showing work that isn’t 'palaeo'. Perhaps I should call it 'AllothenArt' ('Elsewhere') or PlagioArt ('Sideways'), but I don’t think those words will catch on…

The prints in question will show works, or versions thereof, that I have never shown in public before, apart for the exhibition in the Netherlands two months ago. So, if you are curious, you know where to go.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Here is a painting for those who cannot come to London. It shows a tetrapter, with the common name 'Red Baron' ('Dicella Gampsonyx', meaning 'pitchfork with crooked claws'). As you can see, it is a highly derived Tetrapter with several predatory adaptations. The red wing spots tell you that this is a female: have a look at the illustration here. By the way, I am learning how to preparing to sell and send prints over the internet, in particular involving selling prints abroad and outside the EU.

Back to TetZooCon: there will be a roundtable discussion about 'Designing Aliens', chaired by Darren Naish and me, with Jennifer Colbourne, Joschua Kn├╝ppe, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Dougal Dixon. If you like biology, science fiction, speculative biology, or preferably all three, I think you are going to love this.

Se you there!

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Furaha at TetZooCon 2022

In my previous post I mentioned that there would probably be a TetZooCon again and that Furaha would probably be there, but now I can tell you that it's going to happen. 

TetZooCon 2022 will be on 3 and $ December, 2022, In London. 

For more news, have a look at the following sites:

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Furaha at a Leiden Art Exhibition: 24 & 25 September 2022

 The following will mostly be of interest to Dutch readers: I have been asked to exhibit some paintings of Furahan lifeforms in an art gallery in Leiden, where I live.

The occasion is the 'Leiden Art Route', a yearly happening in which art galleries open their doors to present a variety of art. This year, the galleries open their doors on 24 and 25 September. I will be present in person to answer questions and to explain some of the background ideas during the afternoon of both days.

I was invited by Charlotte Lemmens, the owner of the Alien Art Gallery. That name tells you that my work should be right at home there. The gallery usually shows the work of Vincent Icke, an astronomer who uses his scientific knowledge to inspire his art. As I try to base my animal creations on biological science, our work has the combination of science with art in common. Personally, I think the two go well together, but I would think that, wouldn’t I, being a scientist.
The Leiden Art Route is organised by Museum De Lakenhal. Although the museum does have a website in English, the pages about the Art Route ('Kunstroute') are in Dutch only. Here is the page of the Art Route devoted to the Alien Art Gallery. Here is a specific page in the context of the Art Route about my work, in Dutch again.  

The Alien Art Gallery has its own page, also in Dutch, but you can see the work of Vincent Icke on its English page here.   

So there you are. The exposition represents a departure from my earlier stance on showing recent work. I had chosen to keep that mostly under wraps, wishing to keep the work fresh until the publication of The Book. However, perhaps a limited exposure will in fact help prepare the ground. I have produced high-quality prints of about 12 paintings; such prints will be for sale and can be ordered during the exhibition. There will also be a 36-page booklet, showing these paintings along with some of the additional illustrations and text written for The Book. This booklet is a much-abbreviated version of The Book, serving serves as a catalogue to the exhibition. It will also be for sale. But, as this is a local Dutch affair, 'The Booklet' is in Dutch, in contrast to The Book.     

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

As part of the PR process postcards were produced of four paintings. I added a text 'Greetings from Furaha', but in Dutch ('Groeten van Furaha'). You can see a stack of them above. The postcards are at present available free of charge in several book shops and at museum De Lakenhal in Leiden.   

Finally, to have something for speakers of English too, some other news. As things stand, there is a chance of a Furaha presence in London, next December. That would be the Tetrapod Zoology Convention (TetZooCon), but nothing is final yet! I will certainly announce any news about that here, but you may also read about it on the TetZoo blog

Sunday, 24 July 2022

The Dragons of Wales

Dragons have featured a few times on this blog already, even though I have no particularly strong interest in them; well, no more than in other fantastical or unusual animals. Earlier posts are here, here and also here. The last times 'dragons' popped up in this blog had to do with how the prototypical dragon has two wings as well as four legs, not exactly typical for Earth animals. The most common Earth 'wing plus legs' combinations must be 'six legs plus four wings' (insects) and 'two legs plus two wings' (vertebrates: birds, bats, pterosaurs). As dragons are typically large, let’s forget about insects as dragons; even 'dragonflies' are dragon-like 'flies', not fly-like dragons, so they don’t count. Adding extra limbs to vertebrates to form dragons is not at all likely to happen naturally. Of course, three pairs of limbs are the norm for large Furahan animals, so dragon-type flying animals merely requires turning one or two pairs of limbs into wings, which is exactly what happened on Furaha. 

Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge
Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

Back to the dragons of today's post; they live on Earth, in Wales to be precise, and have two wings and two wings. They do therefore not need magic at all, or perhaps it is best to say they did not at first. Just read on… 

The 'Dragons of Wales' are called that because their creator lives in Wales, where dragons are part of national mythology: the Welsh flag even has a nice red dragon on it. I came across these Welsh dragons by accident and immediately liked them. I am surprised I had not seen them earlier, as Andy Frazer, their creator, does his best to make them visible. Andy has produced several books on dragons already, using Kickstarter to get the funds to do so. 

So, what kind of animal are these dragons? The book cover above provides a clue; the animal is small, covered with fuzz and has two wings and two legs. The skeleton drawing reveals that the wing is supported by just one finger, so it definitely a pterosaur. Andy confirmed that his dragons were from the start indeed small evolved pterosaurs, descendants of a group that luckily did not die out at the end of the Cretaceous. Andy speculates that their ancestors survived because of their small size and because their specialisation allowed them not to be outperformed by birds, and, much later, by bats. 


Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

These two magnificent specimens show that Andy manages to produce very attractive and also realistic minidragons. Both sport interesting crests. Before you object that no flying animal should have such ridiculously large crests, have a look at some real-life pterosaurs, such as Nyctosaurus. Nyctosaurs are the kind of real animal that no designer of fantasy animals would dare produce because no-one would believe that such animals could exist. I like the way the colours are used to associate the animals with real animals. Here, the images evoke butterflies and bats. Parts of the animal are not standard pterosaur stock, though; the grasping tail is a nice original development, even though a flying animal might not need an anchor, as falling out of a tree won’t harm a flying animal much. 


Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

Andy is definitely not afraid to use colour. The red-banded dragon looks like a poisonous snake, with its high-contrast bands shouting 'danger'. The green one uses colour in the exact opposite way, to hide itself. It probably does not do so to hide from its predators, but from its prey, making it a nice example of aggressive mimicry. I love its toad-like demeanour, and wonder whether it is filled with air, as a massive animal would have difficulty becoming airborne. 

Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

These dragons look a bit menacing. They occur in the book 'Dragons of the Dark Woods'. The darker atmosphere is by design and is most obvious in the other example above. This dragon bears sticky worm-like tentacles on its face, something no pterosaur is likely to have ever had. It is here we see that Andy is abandoning the pterosaur ancestry to a degree. I asked him why, and he replied that the change was deliberate. He wished to increase appeal by producing darker designs. His project is, after all, not a pure artistic scientific endeavour but a commercial project too. In fact, quite a few of the dragons originated as suggestions by backers of the Kickstarter campaigns, which necessitated a degree of compromise. One day, Andy wrote, he would like to take things in the opposite direction and produce a book of wholly believable creatures with accurate pterosaur anatomy, probably based on Anurognathes (I'll buy it!). 


Copyright Andy Frazer; click to enlarge

Andy has recently started a new Kickstarter campaign: Dragons of Deep Time. The overall theme is again moving away from palaeontology, but in another, more mystical, direction: these dragons live so long that they gradually blend with rock and wood. 

The illustrations in these books are excellent. Andy told me he starts with a pencil drawing, which he then photographs. He draws over the photograph digitally, using Procreate for iPad. He adds photographic textures to add detail to key areas. The backgrounds are likewise produced using photographs. Many people, including well-known dinosaur illustrators, also mixing paintings with photographs. While that sounds easy, it really isn’t, as you often see a visual clash between the various parts of an image. Andy obviously manages to avoid such clashes. He uses a final layer of digital painting to bring the dragon and its environment together, including cast shadows etc. 

I hope that readers will like the Dragons of Wales as much as I do. Many images are readily visible on social media, so if you want to see more Dragons of Wales, simply copy and follow the various leads below. You will not be disappointed. 


 PS 1. I apologise for being late with this post. The reason is that I am preparing to move house, which takes a lot of time. 

PS 2. A selection of Furahan paintings will feature in the Art Route Leiden ('Kunstroute Leiden'), 24-25 September 2022, Leiden, The Netherlands. Many have never been seen outside my home. The plans include me being there to explain some of the ideas behind the work, and there will be a chance to buy high-quality prints for the first time too. More news is to follow. 



Friday, 27 May 2022

Playing it by Ears (Hearing 3)

This post builds upon the previous two about the sense of hearing, here and here. It is probably best to read at least the previous one, because some understanding is required about the 'cone of confusion'. That is a key concept to understand why combining information from two ears is not enough to determine the direction of a sound source accurately.    

To summarise, sound from a given source will take longer to arrive at the ear farthest from the source  than at the nearest ear; it will also arrive less loud at the farthest ear. The brain measures the differences in arrival time and in loudness between the ears and computes an angle between two lines; the first runs from the nearest ear to the source of the sound, and the second is the axis connecting the two ears.

If you know something about how to indicate a direction in 3D space, you will realise that you cannot do that with just one angle. If you wish to indicate the position of the sun in the sky from a point on the Earth's surface, you need two angles: one tells you the compass direction, and the other indicates elevation above the ground. With hearing with tow ears, the one angle you get is relative to the axis between the ears. The sound can come from all directions obtained by sweeping that angle around that axis. The result is the 'cone of confusion'. Do not worry, an image may help.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Here is a new animal, one whose head is elongated enough to accommodate two pairs of ears: the front and hind pairs. Let's explore whether having more than two ears helps. The small golden globe represents a sound source. To start with, consider just the front pair of ears. I have drawn the line from the source to the nearest ear, the axis between the ears, and the angle between them. Rotating the around the axis results in the specific 'cone of confusion' for this particular sound source for the front ears. Let's call it the 'front CoC'. By the way, the cone is drawn as if it stops at the sound source; in reality it extends into space.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

The sound will also be picked up by the hind ears, and we will assume that the animal’s brain performs a similar analysis for the hind ears. There is therefore a new angle, now between the source and the axis through the hind ears, and also a new cone: the ‘hind CoC’.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

There would be no point in having four ears if the two localisation systems could not be combined. The source of the sound must lie on both cones, so we need to find the parts that the two cones have in common: their intersection. That intersection is, in this case, a nice parabola. It is shown as stopping at the end of the cones but should again extend into space along with the cones. Does this improve localisation? Yes: the possible source of the sound is reduced from the surface of a cone to a line in 3D. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

But the brain can do more with the information already available. We can also combine left ears and right ears. In the drawings, the sound source was placed at the right side of the animal, so let’s use the right ears, with the sound nearer the front than the hind ear. The principles are exactly the same: we draw the axis running through the ears, determine the angle between the source and the axis and rotate it around the axis: the ‘right CoC’. In this example the cone is a bit more difficult to visualise because the source lies between the two ears involved, but the principle remains the same. If we combine the new cone with the parabola we already had, we find that the only solution now consists of two points.

I stopped here, even though the ‘left CoC’ could still be added. You could also form two diagonal combinations, meaning the left front with right hind ear, and the right front with the left hind ear. With four ears, there are therefore six possible CoCs, and together that should be enough to solve the problem. However, I doubt that the animal’s brain would perform all the calculations after one another; there is probably a smarter way to get the correct answer.

The position of the ears could be more creative too. In the example above, the four ears all lied on a plane, but that is not necessary. Suppose that the front ears lie on a horizontal line, so there would be a front left and a front right ear, like in the example. But the hind ears might lie on a vertical line, yielding an upper hind ear and a lower hind ear. The four ears would lie on the corners of a tetrahedron. There may also be other ways to improve the location of sounds, so perhaps this will not be the last post of sound localisation.    

Sunday, 24 April 2022

14 Years on (and one million views later)

The first post of this blog was published on 22 April 2008. It was an experiment, and I had no idea how long I would continue to keep writing posts. I still don't,  but the fact that the blog is still here after 14 years, was not something I foresaw at the time and for now I shall continue. Let's start this post  update with an overview of past results, as per 23 April 2022:

Number of posts: 278 (not counting this one)
Number of comments: 2485
Number of followers at present: 220
Number of views: 1,001,012

This means that each posts generates an average of 9.8 comments. I like the idea that the number of views surpassed 1 million but have no idea how many of these views represent people taking an active interest, and how many 'views' in fact represent bots.

Which posts attracted the most interest?

Swimming in sand 1: the sandworms of Dune                                             10,100  
The anatomy of giants in 'Game of Thrones'; did they get it right?                9,500
A future book on future evolution from France                                             6,470
Avatar's "Walking with hexapods" or "Don't walk this way"                        6,380
Warren Fahy's "Fragment"                                                                             4,340
More future evolution in Japan                                                                      4,250
Alternate future evolution in Japan                                                                3,890
Future evolution from France: "Demain, les animaux du futur" Review I   3,340
A century of thoats                                                                                        3,070
The future is wild... and it is Manga!                                                            3,030

Comparing the list with earlier ones show that the top 10 hasn't really changed that much. The lesson is the same as before: if I would want to maximise the number of views, I should write about popular films, TV series and books. I largely stopped doing that, which explains why the top 10 is stable.


Click to enlarge

It is interesting that the attraction of posts can differ much over time. For instance, the sandworm post attracted a great deal of interest in the beginning, followed by a steady trickle of about 20 to 100 views per day. In contrast, the two posts with Japan in the title showed a comeback in 2020 and 2021.  

Just another dragon

A post without any new material or thoughts is at best mildly interesting, so here is a minor illustration showing a schamtic view of a 'Megadraco' taking off. This is a species of the clade Dialata, discussed here.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This animal is much larger than Earth's birds, so how does it fly? Well, readers will realise that pterosaurs grew much larger than birds. pterosaurs definitely flew, so how did they outsmart birds in this respect? Well, you may remember that lift is proportional not only to wing area but also to the square of air velocity. In other words, doubling velocity has the same effect on lift as a fourfold increase in wing area. Speed pays to remain airborne. The problem is how to get to such a speed from a start on the ground (jumping off a branch or a cliff is a much easier way to achieve speed) . The problem is more difficult for larger animals; if you have seen a swan or heavy goose take off, you may realise just how difficult it can be for a heavy bird to achieve that all-important speed.

The idea is that pterosaurs achieved high starting speed in a radically different way: they jumped into the air, powered not just by their hind legs, but also by their much more powerful front legs: the wings! That quadrupedal launch should be enough to get them high enough in the air for a first powerful downwards wing stroke, and from then on, they were in business. 

I like that idea and thought that evolution might well do its familiar 'parallel' trick again. If your basic body plan involves six limbs, of which the middle pair are wings, you have four legs left to propel yourself up into the air. That should help! Of course, once in the air, those four limbs weigh something but do not contribute to flight, so perhaps the resulting animals do not grow as large as the biggest pterosaurs. But even so, with a quadrupedal launch and a clap-and-fling first wing beat, these Furahan dragons get up fast enough to fly, large as they are.          

The future

The 'Great Hexapod Revolution' means that the anatomy of various animals in various already finished paintings was no longer correct. Sadly, these paintings were therefore instantly no longer 'finished'. I am working my way through them, changing legs and heads left and right. I have only about 5 more of such reviews to do, and after that I will make only two or three completely new paintings. Meanwhile, I will work on some additional material such as a Glossary, and then the manuscript of The Book is all done. I expect to achieve that goal this year, but will also move from one house to another, which always takes more time than you think, even if you take that into consideration.

And then there is the matter of finding a publisher. That is an open question. I wonder what the post '15 years on' will have to say on that subject...   

Sunday, 6 March 2022

Lend me your ears! (Hearing 2)

In nature, localising the source of a sound has obvious survival value, to localise prey, predators, mates, competitors, etc. The previous post started the subject, but this one deals with how mammals, humans in particular, try to solve that problem. As we shall see, localising sounds is not all that easy. Of course, some animals are much better at this than others, but there are some fundamental problems. Humans make use of no less than three different mechanisms. This post might be a bit technical, but I left the mathematics to a nice free good review, here.   

The main problem is that sound can bend around obstacles, and so change direction. A sound reaching your ear can therefore come from just about anywhere. You can therefore hear things you cannot see, which is good news in the dark or in a jungle. Of course, you do not know where it is coming from. Sound provides a good alerting but a poor localising system, whereas a well-developed eye is a localising organ (see here for a comparison of echolocation with vision). 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

If we would have just one simple ear of the hole-in-the head variety, but with an eardrum and vibration sensors, we would be stuck at that level. But bilateral symmetry provides us with two ears, and evolution made clever use of that. The image above shows that the waves from a sound source travel directly to the nearest ear but must travel further to reach the farthest ear. The sound arrives at the ears with a time difference: the 'interaural time difference (ITD)'. The difference in arrival time depends on the extra distance the sound has to travel, shown in red. That difference depends on where the sound comes from, relative to the axis between the two ears. The maximum arrival distance occurs with sources placed on that axis, because the sound must travel farthest around the head. The minimum is no difference at all: this occurs when the source is placed on the plane of symmetry. You could make a table telling you which difference corresponds to which angle, and that is basically what the nervous system does for you. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect solution. The arrival difference tells you what that angle is, but not whether the source is up, down, to the front, the back, or anywhere in between. The image above tries to explain that. The source could be anywhere on the brilliantly named ‘cone of confusion’; that is the surface you get if you rotate the angle around the ‘hearing axis’. One way to get around this problem  is to rotate your head and listen again, because then you get a different cone of confusion, giving you an additional clue where the sound comes from.  

Mammalian ears make use of a second trick. When sound bends around an object, its volume decreases. Your head provides a ‘sound shadow’: The volume of sound in the nearest ear is louder than that in the farthest ear, in the sound shadow, so there is an 'interaural level difference (ILD)'. The difference in volume depends on the angle, and again the brain constructs a table telling you which difference in sound level corresponds to which angle. But that irritating cone of confusion is still there...

Mammal evolution came up with a third trick: the external ear! The complex shape of the external ear alters the spectrum of the sound, and how it is altered depends on the location of the source of the sound: the 'head-related transfer function ('HRTF)'. This works to an extent with just one ear. When I first read this, I wondered how that could work, because people have such differently shaped ears. Well, the solution is brain learns to live with the filtering characteristics of the ears you happen to have. This has been put to the test by altering people's ears by placing a mould on the ear, and that indeed that fooled the brain to make mistakes in sound location. 

Click to enlarge; source and rights here

You may wonder why you would have three systems for the same purpose. One part of the answer is that the efficacy of each system depends on sound frequency. The figure above shows the frequency: ITD ('arrival time') works best at low frequencies, and ILD ('loudness') and HRTF ('external ear') work best at high frequencies. Together, they do a nice job for all frequencies. But there are strong clues that the situation still is not optimal, and that is behaviour. Many animals can move their ears, and people can tilt and turn their head to locate the source of a sound: that shrinks the cone of confusion. But we still start a visual search of the general area of the sound, hoping that vision will provide the ultimate localisation. Of course, that is in part because we are diurnal mammals with very good vision; but part of the explanation is that localising sounds is inherently difficult.

Could animals on other planets do better? I think so, but that speculation will have to wait for another post.