Sunday 31 May 2009

A question for the audience: not alien enough, or too unlikely to be true?

There are only a limited number of people designing and illustrating their own worlds and life forms, and in quite a few cases their designs seem to converge on either similar biological designs, or on the work of earlier designers. In the first case 'convergence makes sense, as that is what evolutionary biology does as well. The second type makes less sense, if you ask me... Anyway, an example of convergence is that, if you wish to move quickly through water, streamlining is inescapable. There are many more constraints like that, and to be believable a design has too look biologically plausible.

But isn't that too limiting? Where are the limits in such designs? 'Cephalisation' is a recurrent trend in evolution, meaning animals tend to have heads, i.e., various organs and functions are clustered together near the front: food intake, sense organs and processing ability seem to form a package that comes with a discount if you buy all of them together. Can you do away with a head altogether?

How about limbs? I have discussed limbs and locomotion often enough in this blog and on my site that I will not repeat all that again: gravity and energy expenditure limit what you can do with legs. But there can be more or less than four. The current main group of Furahan terrestrial animals happens to have six, but rusps are quite common too, and some Giant Rusps, with 20 to 30 legs, give the hexapods a run for their money. And that does not even count the octapods or the five-limbed raptorial jumping spidrids.

Still, I do get the criticism sometimes that my organisms are too 'Earthy'. In part that is my own fault for having Furaha look so much like Earth. Perhaps I have shown too many parochial organisms. There are certainly some oddities in my sketchbooks that have not made it to the site.

One such follows: here are some arboreal predators; you might expect some lighting-quick brachiating animals jumping and swinging through the canopy, and these indeed exist (they're just not shown on the site either...). Instead, these are sneaky ambush-type predators, hidden in the canopy, preying on animals making their way over the forest floor. The one of the left might be descended from hexapodal stock, but the one on the right has a body plan all its own. As you can see, the predators can grip branches and can spear animals passing underneath. If that doesn't kill them, their poison will, and rather quickly to (it had better, or else the wounded animal will bound away and succumb somewhere beyond the predator's reach.

Click to enlarge

But is this believable? Is such an essentially passive and sessile life style workable? Wouldn't prey learn to spot it and simply choose another path? Isn't this an evolutionary dead end if the prey has good senses and is highly mobile? Personally, I am not certain, and so this particular type of predator is even more imaginary than the rest of them: I haven't decided whether to raise it to the rank of actual Furahan species or to condemn it to continual 'uncreation'.

I would like to ask the readers of this blog to comment on two sketches of plants (or mixomorphs, as the case might be). I did have a specific environment in mind, but would like to hear your opinion. Both are 1-3 meters in heigth. Species A is round with branches coming out of whorls on its body/stem, and species B is flattened sideways, and seems to sit on the ground rather than grow from it as species A does.

So, are these not alien enough, or are they too unlikely to be believable?
This is species A

And this is species B

Sunday 24 May 2009

A forest in 'Dan Dare'

Sorry, but I haven't really got time to write a blog this week. Instead, I will just provide something to look at: it is half a page from the late-fifties British comics magazine the Eagle, and specifically a page of 'Dan Dare', a stiff upper lipped hero. The page is from the story 'The man from nowehere, and finds the multispecies group just after crash landing on a planet. The drawings were by Frank Hampson, and -at least initially- much time was spent designing characters, props, etc. Many the stories are set in space or in a high-tech setting, so there aren't that many plants and animals. There are various humanoid aliens, though. Just have a look at this website. More information can be found on Wikipedia. The stories are being republished and can easily by found through Amazon. But here is a forest scene. I guess that many of the details may not hacve an immediate biological meaning, but I admit that I do not design all background organisms anything in intricate detail either. I like the designs though. I think that I could have designed something very similar to he umbrella-shaped branches in the background of the third panel on top. I partiuclarly like the root or stem supporting it. Nice, isn't it?
Click to enlarge

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Furaha in the Cheltenham Science Festival

The Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK runs from June 2 to June 7 and is held in, well, Cheltenham. What you might like to know is that Furaha will feature briefly in it. On Thursday 4 June at 18:00 hrs Lewis Dartnell will speak about 'Alien evolution'. Lewis is an astrobiology researcher at University College in London. Here is his website. He has written a book on astrobiology: Life in the Universe, a Beginner's Guide. Here is the text from the website regarding the talk:

"How might the human body evolve if forced to live with the weightlessness of space stations or in habitats on the Moon or Mars? And how might Darwin’s natural selection have played-out for the plants and animals we may one day encounter in other worlds? Lewis Dartnell shows you the real face of ET and explores the fascinating realm where evolutionary biology meets exotic worlds!"

And what part of that means is that he will show a few images of Furahan life as examples of evolutionary routes not taken on Earth. If you are in the area, why not have a look?

Sunday 17 May 2009

Alien plants

Every now and again I search the net for anything interesting about speculative biology. Typing in 'alien' is not a good idea, as there appear to be untold numbers of sites concerning little green or gray men with very big eyes who apparently visit Earth to abduct people either to perform unspeakable experiments or, failing that, to make farmers' lives miserably by doodling abstract forms in their grain fields.

Entering something like 'exozoology' or 'exobotany' is better but yields very few hits. So, with some trepidation I typed in 'alien plants', expecting the usual sites of Earth plants that cause trouble on a part of a planet where they do not belong. But this time I was directed to a message of someone wondering about the reality of a video. Some more research revealed it had been made by a company doing among others computer graphics; here is the link of the company, but I could not find the video on the site, so you may be wasting your time there.

The video was still present on YouTube, and I copied it (it is at the bottom of this post) as a mpg file. Here is the YouTube link for those who wish to see it in its YouTube surroundings.

By and large, I like it. The image seems to be a composite or real life footage with CG effects, which works quite well to convince the viewer that the scenery looks real. I looked at it a few times and started to think about what you see, and what all the effects are for.

What you mostly see is that these plants move. Obviously, all plants move, in the sense of growing and being moved by the wind, but these of their own accord on the timescale of animal movements. Some Terran plants do that as well: many seeds are dispersed by the sudden release of stored energy, either elastic or driven by turgor (turgor is the pressure inside plant cells; they push against the cell walls, giving the ensemble stiffness, like a tough balloon or a tire).

(from Wikipedia)

The above picture shows a Venus flytrap; it moves, and so do quite a few other plants. But the plants on this short segment, without any title, move differently. Their movements can be repeated and some are fairly complex. I wonder what the machinery behind the movement is? Contractile cells, i.e. muscle cells? A special kind of boosted turgor?

Moving plants are not that uncommon in science fiction; just think of John Wyndham's 'The Triffids'. Triffids could not just walk about on stumpy rots, but had nasty tentacle-like thingies to lash out and blind people, and they communicated by making sound.

This is the cover of a Dutch translation I read as a child in 1967 (the cover is by Rien Poortvliet! -for those to whom that means something-). Triffids were well thought out, and there seemed to be a sinister reasoning behind their make-up.

Click to enlarge

The same even holds for the big carnivorous plant in 'The little shop of horrors; after a sessile phase in which it depends on mobile forms to bring it food ('Fee me, Seymour!') it moves about on its own.

In many other cases having the ability to move does not make much sense for a plant. In science fiction, of which speculative biology is a part, there should ideally be a reason for any characteristic; at the least some 'techobabble' is expected. The video shown below does not display any reasons for movement. I would like to know more, but this is just a short clip of life somewhere. If you were to see a clip of some Terran field with flowers, you would not be told why flowers exist, or that they may be seasonal, or how the proceration of plants intermingles with the life of insects. So I am inclined to just enjoy it, and perhaps to start thinking about the reason for some of the movements.

But there is one thing I am uncomfortable with: many of the plants seem to have eyes. That raises the question why they would have any. Eyes are apparently not difficult to evolve, and there are an amazing number of ways to design eyes (an excellent book is: Animal Eyes by MF Land & D-E Nilsson). There are eyes that merely tell their owner from which direction light is coming, while other eyes have exquisite resolution and/or sensitivity, like ours or an octopus'. But you do not find such pinnacles of high-tech eye design on a mollusk spending its life stuck to a rock. They would need a big brain to do something with the visual information, and even if they had that, what would a clam do with the knowledge that a dangerous predator is coming its way? Run away? In fact, good vision does not stand on its own. It only pays to have high-quality vision if the resulting information can be processed and put to good use. All these things must evolve hand in hand, so to speak.

So I prefer to think that the eye-like organs in the video are not eyes at all. What we see is an organ with a shutter moving quickly across its surface every now and then. That does not mean it must be an eye. Perhap the working of this organ depends on a sensitive membrane that needs to be kept moist and clean. If only I could think of a function that does make sense...

Sunday 10 May 2009

The Epona Project III

Something is happening with Epona, and it is good. When I first referred to the Epona Project several weeks ago the website still shows signs of damage from a malevolent attack, but those had been repaired the second time, and some new content had been added. This time, I am happy to say, the website has received a makeover, and it looks excellent.

The site discusses how Epona was conceived and how its biological inhabitants evolved, starting with the geological constraints put in place at the beginning of the process. The process in question -' speculative creation'- is how the participants came up with specific life forms and body plans. I have no desire to become entangled in fruitless discussions regarding deity-driven creation, but what other word than creation can be used to describe it?

The genesis of such a world (couldn't resist that...) obviously evokes a comparison with biological evolution, and that comparison is more or less apt. From own experience I know that a specific body plan, one conceived, can quickly be taken for granted and can then be viewed as a 'starter set' to develop new forms. Both the animals and plants on Epona seem to have gone through the same process of explosive radiation. The likeness with biological evolution would be greater if species did not only appear on the scene, but would also die out. Were some ideas rejected during the conventions, and were some body designs scoffed at? Are these still to be found somewhere in an Eponan Burgess shale buried under limestone: extinct now but once, shortly, present?

But that is not today's main course. In 1997 the BBC did a series apparently called 'A weekend on Mars', and one program in that series was called 'Natural history of an alien'. It showed a range of fictional planets with their life forms, ranging from Aldiss' Helliconia to, you guessed it, Epona. There were almost four minutes devoted to Epona, and I have taken the liberty of showing that section here. I do not think that the program itself is available for sale anywhere, or at least I have not been able to find any mention of that. There are listings of it in Wikipedia, and it can be found in the Internet Movie Database, but I found no mention of a DVD or, more appropriate for 1997, a video. I did find some references that the program was aired in the USA in 1998, possibly by the Discovery Channel under the name 'Anatomy of an alien'. The Discovery Channel's website only came up with 'Alien Planet', something completely different.

So here it is. The Epona Project 12 years ago.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Edd Cartier: the Interplanetary Zoo (Final...)

One year ago I wrote an entry on Edd Cartier's work. Cartier was a science fiction illustrator in the 'golden age' of SF. I had seen a drawing of an alien being from his hand in the seventies, and that made a lasting impression. His most intriguing aliens were drawn for a chapter in a book called 'The Interplanetary Zoo' by David Kyle. A year ago I found a collection of the drawings from that book on a Japanese site, from which I copied them and removed the yellow backgrounds. Since then I have showed some of his remarkable creatures on my blog (here, here and very recently as well), reasoning that some things are so good that they need to be nibbled rather than gulped down. On the off-chance that there might be something new on Edd Cartier I typed his name in once more, and was surprised by the large number of hits. It turns out that Mr Cartier died last December at the age of 94. Apparently, his death resulted in a large increase in the attention devoted to his work and life. A bit sad that it took his death to bring that on, but at least there is more of his work to find now. Those who are interested in his illustrations for 'The Shadow' and similar works can do a search of their own or try their luck starting here or here. But a real treasure of illustrations of 'The Interplanetary Zoo' can be found on a website by a Mr. Door Tree called "Golden Age Comic Book Stories". The relevant entry is of August 30, 2008. It has no less than 16 of these illustrations, and in an enormous size too. The quality is much better that the ones I had found. Of course, I immediately proceeded to store them for my own amusement. Here, I will show you two of them, and add a little discussion of their biomechanical properties.
Click to enlarge
Walking on tentacles! That is a subject covered in detail in this blog, ending here, so let's not go into that again. But what an intriguing shape. The creature looks quite bulky, and his nether end with the short walking tentacles looks a bit underpowered. We will have to assume that this creature lives on a low-gravity world, or else tentacles will not function properly. There are no arms I can see (but perhaps it has them folded on its back?), but its proboscis ends in three tentacles. The middle one is long and ends in two fingers, so it looks like it would be useful as a manipulative tool. I take that as an additional indication that it lives on a low-gravity world, where it is easier to get away with boneless appendages than on a medium- or high-gravity world. The purple things look like eyes; they might be of the compound type, shared by many of Earth's creatures and by Furahan hexapods. Unfortunately, compound eyes have inbuilt problems limiting their resolution, so if they are to be good, they better be big. This creature has big ones, so it probably needs good vision. The bulkiness bothers me a bit, as low gravity allows a spindly build such as arthropods and spiders have on Earth. But allowing it is not the same as it being better, so perhaps there are other features that determine the evolutionary likelihood of being spindly versus compact than gravity. Any views on that?
Click to enlarge
The colours make it slightly difficult to work out the three dimensional character of this being, but you can see it is a tetrapod looking back over its shoulders towards the right. The four limbs are spindly and equipped with long fingers and toes, giving it a feel like a race hound. The only thing wrong with that view might be the odd stance of the hind limbs. They are very columnar and do not visibly bend in the zigzag manner typical of Earth's mammals. Than zigzag bend is there for a reason; if gravity would be the only consideration, all legs would look like those of elephants: columns! The other reasons probably fall under the heading of manoeuvrability and speed. Otherwise, a beautiful design. The red thing is probably an eye. Just one eye does not provide much in the way of a safety margin for diseases etc., and this one does not look as if it provides all-round vision. This animal better have some superior other senses as well. Perhaps it has; its tentacles might be well-equipped with sense organs, or olfactory organs, or perhaps both. Oh yes, the same reasoning for tentacles applies as above, but tentacles dangling down may function much better than tentacles you need to stand on. The elephant's trunk is an example of a danglinfg tentacle, and that works pretty well. I think that this will be the last of my blog entries on Edd Cartier, unless something unexpected comes along. For one thing, I have no idea what the text was these images were meant to illustrate. I have not found any mention of that yet, but if it does come along, there might be a postscript.