Saturday 28 March 2009

A Natural history of Skull Island

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King Kong? King Kong?? Surely there's nothing there of interest for anyone interested in as serious a subject as fictional biology? After all, this is an American film script for an adventure movie from the thirties, so it is not likely to be consistent in any fashion, not even within the story. There is a sinking island, with lots of big dinosaurs on it that somehow survived the last 65 million years. Somewhat surprisingly there are also enormous gorillas there; their ancestors somehow made it from the Virunga mountains to a solitary island at the other side of the world and then quickly became gigantic. The only thing that is believable is that there are humans; humans are even more widespread than cockroaches after all, so that part does make sense. It's probably for the best that no-one decided to rectify all these issues when the film was remade, as there would be no point. The film would not be the same without Kong fighting off a tyrannosaur descendant. So, if you forget that the premise for the story is ludicrous, what's left? A large number of extremely well-designed and animated creatures, of course. Forget about the story, just look at the animals. I guess you may have seen the movie, but there is an interesting book to go along with it: 'The world of Kong. A natural history of Skull Island'. It can be bought directly from the people at Weta, but also through other channels such as Amazon. The authors did their best to come up with some information to fill holes in the logic, and do so rather well. Of course, suspension of disbelief is needed, but that is not difficult: the book is too much fun to be grumpy. I have had it for some time and still I leaf through it every now and then, simply to look at the animals. They are every bit as good as the Venusian animals shown in a previous post (there are a few I think less well painted, but that would be nit-picking). I will not show the big dinosaurs, so if you want those you will have to buy the book, but will focus on a few of the smaller animals.
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This is an Aerosaur (Aerosaurus verdens), an evolutionary experiment in flight. No doubt all of you are reminded of the dinosaurs in whom both the front as well as the hind legs provided lift. Here's another one. I really admire the liveliness of the painting.
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Some lovingly done mosquitoes. The middle one is Mortaspis. According to the text these various mosquito lookalikes are about two inches long, which is probably pushing the limit for blood-sucking insects. But with animals such as dinosaurs and Kong around, perhaps... I put this one in because I think the quality is really outstanding. The name seems to read as 'Mahy', but I could not find that name or anything looking like it in the list of illustrators in the book.
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Finally, some more carnivorous insects (the original is better; I had to manipulate the scans). If you have the impression that most of the illustrations deal with aggressive animals out to eat others, you would be right... But there are herds of herbivorous dinosaurs out there, so the food chain is not forgotten. By the way, a visit to the Weta website is recommended; they have some very creative people down under.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

South of Brussels II

© Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain - ADAGP Paris 2000-2009
© Jean-S├ębastien Steyer - CNRS 2000-2009

Meanwhile, our French friends responsible for the Brussels exposition discussed earlier, not just once but twice, have updated their three websites (here, here and a new link here). As you can see they were happy with the attention drawn to their work on my site, just as I was to have discovered theirs. They are promising to open a gallery about their animals of the future. Worth looking into. Here's a Phoruschacos. I thought you might like to know.

By the way, I will probably have to come back to the blog slightly less frequently, or else there will never be any new Furaha work, nor the new books on Snaiad and elsewhere, nor the Galfloat page, nor the Eponan rinascimento, etc....

Sunday 22 March 2009

How much more Speculative Biology is there? II

Thanks to those who took the time to help prepare a list of other fictional biology systems. I will use the results to update the list of links on my Furaha page. I had hoped that there might be new worlds completely unknown to me, but so far it seems as if we have all found the same sites. Perhaps there is something interesting going on in Japan or China. If there is, please let me know!

Josh was quite right about the beast I showed last time: it is indeed a shallow-beaked Grogan from Venus. You can find it, and three others like it, on the website of the inimitable Dr. Grordbort. 'Dr Grordbort' is a steampunk subsidiary from Weta in New Zealand, the people famous for the special effects in King Kong, The Lord of the Rings, etc. Should you wish to, you can buy marvellous ray guns in steampunk fashion from Weta (although you may find them to be a trifle costly).

Last time I had erased the name of the shallow beaked Grogan from the image, as that would make it a bit too easy. To rectify that, here it is again. I cannot make out the name of the artist, which is a pity, as I would like to give credit where it is due. If you look at the other animals on the site, the number of legs seems to vary. The Grogan seems to have six originally, and the middle one is split halfway. Arthropods on Earth can have a biramous leg design, with one branch forming the walking leg and the other part can be something else, such as a gill. But the split occurs then very close to the body, so the two branches are completely separated mechanically. In the Grogan's case, the split occurs halfway down, which doesn't seem very handy, as the top branch, that seems to be there to grasp things, would wobble along when the animal walks. Still, the grasping legs are intriguing: could this be a Venusian example of Centaurism? (discussed here and here). The neck looks odd as well, but could work, I think.

Next, a lively image of a Grogan hunt. Steampunk adventurers don't go in for conservation, it seems, but prefer to view wildlife lined up in their sights. What ho!

By the way, a Weta is a large New Zealand insect. If you care to look closely at them, you will see has a pair of appendages at their rear end: cerci. In my musings on Centaurism, I wondered whether centaurism occur on the hind end of animals as well. StevenH came up with the earwig, with a pincer at its rear end. Wikipedia treats cerci as being derived legs, so, if that is true, there is 'posterior centaurism' as well. How nice to bring two threads together.

In the hope of uncovering unknown fictional biology from Japan or wherever, I repeat my question to let me know of any unknown worlds. Again, I will whet the appetite asking you for the source of the following image. It's from Weta, but you have to be more specific than that.

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Saturday 14 March 2009

How much more Speculative Biology is there?

Call it fictional biology, speculative evolution, alternate evolution or call it anything else, by rearranging these words at will or finding others. I like it, and I also like art concerning alien lifeforms (wildlife art in general and palaeontological art are also nice but left out of this blog; it should have some focus, blurry as it may be).

I know of books, documentaries and websites, and some are listed in the links section on the Furaha site, but there may well be more material I never knew about. The excellent work on hypothetical future evolution on Earth I discussed lately (here and here) was completely unknown to me, and I had not seen it mentioned on other sites either. So perhaps there are more sites or books like that. If so, I would like to know about them!

Why not ask you, the reader? I am looking for quality material with preferentially a good visual side to it, i.e. good artwork. If you know of anything good, simply mention it in a comment. I do not care about the form: books, documentaries and films are all acceptable. All languages are good (admittedly, I will need pictures if the language is not Germanic or Romance...).

To see how many experts are out there, I will post a picture of an interesting beast I found on the internet. I will come back to it later, and will then give full credit to its origins and provide the address.

Meanwhile, you can see that the artist knows his or hers business (although the biomechanics contain some oddities). Do you know where it is from?

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Sunday 8 March 2009

Centaurism II

A while ago I discussed the goumoun, a six-limbed animal. I thought that freeing a pair of limbs for another purpose definitely occurred more than once in evolution, but that this principle sadly had no name. So I took it upon myself to call it 'centaurism'. Do not get me wrong: I am not claiming eternal fame for this invention, nor do I think evolution biology will suffer at all if it does not spread beyond this page.

Just treat it as an intellectual game. The original centaurs in Greek mythology had the body of a horse, but where its neck and head should be you would find the torso, arms and head of a human. Ancient Greeks were notoriously vague about the evolutionary history of their mythological beings, so we know very little about protocentauroids. Nothing, in fact. Did they walk on six limbs? The Greeks were probably more inclined towards a form of creationism: 'Poof!', leading to 'here's one I made earlier'.

On Furaha, the ancestors of neocarnivores did walk on six limbs in the typical hexapod fashion. There is nothing wrong with walking on four limbs, as tetrapods on Earth show, and indeed on Furaha. There was therefore ample room for evolutionary experimentation with front limbs in hexapod Furahan animals. They accordingly evolved into clubs, spears, lances, hatches and even nets (in the Microraptoria). If you want to see a few examples, simply travel to the land page on the Furaha site and have a look. Here's one of them:

Copyright Gert van Dijk

But centaurism is not confined to the goumoun or to Furaha. In fact, there are quite a few examples on Earth. Let's start with animals that started with four legs: are there any that stopped walking on all fours and got up on their hind limbs? Definitely; there are ostriches and other ratites, kangaroos, predatory dinosaurs and people, to name the most obvious.

What do they all do with their freed front legs? Some animals use them for grasping purposes at some times but to walk with at other times. Examples are the giant panda, lots of primates, as well as the kangaroo. If kangaroos move very slowly, they move on five limbs: the hind legs swing forwards while the body rests on the front legs and the tail.
Other animals do not appear to do very interesting things with their front legs, such as ostriches. I have seen a male ostrich flapping it to attract females, but that is about it. In fact, some Furahan analogues do exactly that, but, having freed not just two but four limbs, they look even odder (the Grec on the land page is a perfect example). The same probably goes for the front limbs of Tyrannosaurus. I know that its arms were less weak then they look, and am aware of theories saying the beast used its arms to help stand up from a lying position. But all in all these puny arms do not impress me at all. Faced with animals that do not do anything interesting with their freed front legs, perhaps the definition of centaurism should include a new non-locomotory purpose for the freed legs.

That thought reduces the list: primates are still in, as well as those predatory dinosaurs that used their front limbs to do something interesting with. That group goes under the name of Maniraptora. One of the most intriguing examples would be Therizinosaurus, here shown as seen in the BBC documentary 'The Giant Claw', a 'Walking with Dinosaurs special'. Not that much is known about the animal apart from its front legs with their huge claws, so the claws are to the right scale, but the rest is educated guesswork.

BBC Walking with Dinosaurs Specials: The Giant Claw
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There is no reason to limit the principle of centaurism to animals starting with four walking limbs. Crabs are decapods ('ten-leggers'), but walk on eight legs. The front pair, the claws, are modified legs. In fact, the modifications are not that extensive, as is shown on an excellent animation on the internet from the University of Alberta and explaining how crabs' claws evolved and work. Here is a non-moving fragment to entice you to go and visit the original.

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There are many other arthropod examples. Here is another one: Amblypygi or whip scorpions are spiderlike, but no longer walk on eight legs. Instead, one pair has evolved into long whiplike sensory organs. The next two photographs are from 'Life in the Undergrowth', another BBC documentary. It has some excellent footage of these animals. The whips are the thin limbs between the pedipalps and the walking legs. If you need more, check up on Uropygids in Wikipedia.

BBC Life in the Undergrowth
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In conclusion centaurism is fairly common. The modified legs are front pairs in all cases. I have not found any examples of a hind pair of legs becoming centaurised. That is probably because of 'cephalisation': the front end of a body commonly has the most sensory organs, food goes in there, etc. Once you have cephalisation, any manipulatory limb is best placed at the front. But if anyone can think of a sound evolutionary way to free hind limbs from locomotion in an animal that is already thoroughly cephalised, AND that might fit on Furaha, I will consider making a sketch of one.