Saturday 31 October 2009

the river Morae

While many people draw or paint an odd animal every once in a while, there aren't that many who go so far as to design biotopes or ecologies to go with them. And let's face it, not everyone is fortunate enough to have the skills to turn their ideas into attractive and biologically convincing depictions of fictional animals. It is therefore not that surprising that the number of 'grand scale' speculative biology projects is rather small. Most regular readers of this blog will probably be able to rattle off a short list of such projects, and my call for new ones some time ago added some, but not many (I still need to update the links page on the Furaha site, by the way).

So imagine my surprise and delight when Josh, a regular commenter, alerted me to a new project: the Morae River by Brynn Metheney. Browsing through the Morae River website revealed that the site came into being about half a year ago, so it is fairly new. What is it about? Well, one of the first pages shows a map of a large geographical region around the river Morae. The area covered is 300,000 square miles. After conversion to a more sensible length measure this conforms to an area of about 770,000 square kilometers. The closest match for countries I could find was Turkey. That is a big playing ground. This shouldn't pose too many limitations to the designer's creativity, as there are mountains, plains, hills, swamps, an estuary and a sea. I did not immediately spot a desert though, but there might be one. The site discusses animals, plants and biotopes. Let me show a few examples. There are more on her site, so be certain to visit it.

Click to enlarge © Brynn Metheney

The first animal I will show here is a recent addition to the site: the 'Sabulo'. It is described as a fish. Take a good look: that does not look like a contemporary Earth fish, does it? Its body plan is neither that of a teleost fish nor that of a cartilaginous fish. And it also doesn't look like any of the various extinct classes of 'fish' on Earth. I see no gill slits and no clear gill covers, and there are three pairs of paired fins, looking suspiciously like redesigned legs. Are we not on Earth? By the way, I have no objections at all to using the word 'fish' in a loose sense. On Furaha there are six classes of 'Fish', all of which have proper names such as 'Clavifluitati', which probably explains why they are usually labelled 'Fishes I' to 'Fishes VI' instead. The English language is biologically extraordinarily careless with the word 'fish' anyway: apart from animals such as salmon, there are crayfish, cuttlefish, starfish and shellfish. This motley collection makes you think that the word 'fish' originally may only have meant 'edible water animal'.

Click to enlarge © Brynn Metheney

Here's another fine drawing: a blue-throated hulompolus. I love the contrast between the gaudy dewlaps and the otherwise relatively boring dull gray exterior. The 'BTH' is a reptile according to the text; it lays eggs, but a reptile with external ears? Its hearing is said to be good, so it having ears is no mistake. Obviously, we are not in Kansas anymore. So where actually is the river Morae? Is this alternate evolution on Earth, or are we somewhere else entirely?

Click to enlarge © Brynn Metheney

A quick glance at the two animals shown here betrays how they get their calorie intake: these animals kill for a living. They are red-tailed mardiks. The scars on the nearest animal, with its one blinded eye, are a brilliant idea. I think that this is the first time that I have ever seen a recognisable individual of an imaginary species instead of just the general one. I wouldn't be surprised if people pick up on this notion and start adding things such as nicks to ears and broken teeth to their creations from now on. The mardik looks like a mammal and might be one; the spines and the apparent bony scutes on its neck could be explained away while still keeping it an Earth mammal, but then again, it might just be called a 'mammal' as shorthand for its general form. An other word might be used, such as 'mammaloid', but that sounds pretty horrible. 'Mammalian' could do; I once came up with 'mammalien' as a pun to use for a similar purpose. Anyway, none of this solves the riddle of where and when to situate the river Morae any smaller; quite the contrary.

The author prefers to keep us in the dark regarding how all of this fits together. I do not think this makes a big difference. After all, one of the tricks of a good science fiction novel is that it should leave you wanting to know more about the world you've just read about. Speculative biology is no different. A certain way to spoil that thirst for more is to write lengthy essays explaining absolutely everything about how a particular world works. That gets boring quickly. The river Morae doesn't do that at all. In fact, it is at the opposite point where I think I haven't seen enough, so I want more! Luckily, there are remarks in the text suggesting that there more is to come. Good! You can already order a book, published by using one of these novel 'lay out your own book and we print it' firms. It looks attractive, and I will certainly order one, right after posting this blog entry.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Some of Mike Bruinsma's animals

Lately I have given biomechanics much attention, perhaps at the expense of displaying alien animals. Much as I like a good drawing or rendering of a well-designed animal, my interest increases the more attention is given to a biological background. There aren't that many proper worldbuilders out there. Some I could discuss, but, like Wayne Barlowe, are already very well-known (and there are already enough discussions about matters such as the hard-to-believe absence of sight and his odd predilection for elephantine feet).

And now for something rather different. I found the website of Mike Bruinsma rummaging though other sites' links. His site informs me that he is a professional designer and illustrator. Luckily, his interests include 'Character / Creature design', under which heading you will find the following images, and more besides. I have no idea whether there these animals have a common background story or whether they all stand on their own.

Click to enlarge (© Mike Bruinsma)

I like this hunting scene. There might be some common parentage between the hunters and the hunted in view of their jaw design. Then again, the large hunters appear to be bipedal with a basic tetrapod design, whereas the small creatures in fact seem to be running on three legs, as far as I can make out their anatomy. It seems like they have one strong hind leg and two more slender front ones. The front ones move in unison. Well, well, I should have incorporated these when I discussed tripedal walking designs in a previous post.

Click to enlarge (© Mike Bruinsma)

A head... Clearly, Mr Bruinsma has a sense of humour and is not afraid to show it. Too many people take speculative biology too seriously, and then it quickly becomes boring. The whole field is an intellectual exercise, nothing more. Like science fiction it should be entertaining (OK, as well as thought-provoking).

Click to enlarge (© Mike Bruinsma)

Another head. Now this one immediately makes you wonder what the gaudy colours are for. Sexual selection immediately comes to mind. Many things in Earth biology that do not make sense from a simple and austere view of 'fitness' turn out to have to do something with sex, and why should the rest of the universe by any different. I wonder what the other sex(es) look like?

Click to enlarge (© Mike Bruinsma)

I will end with this one, because it is my favourite, not because there aren't any more. There are! It is a bit difficult to say why I like it so much. Is it because of the relative calm of its position or the calm composition? Its well-designed body position? By the way, I suppose everyone immediately saw that we are dealing with a pentapod here: there is one big leg at the aft end of the body and two pairs of legs very close together at the front. One pair of these legs hold the body in position by grasping the branch, while the other pair is held in the air. Are these dextrous manipulators? Is this another example of centaurism? It seems so. I guess I do know why I like this one so much: it's biologically interesting and artistically very pleasing. The only thing missing is more of the same!

Tuesday 20 October 2009

More on spidrids and tripods

I have been playing with my Matlab octapod program a bit more. The program proved to have a bug (sorry about that pun, but it seemed inescapable). I eradicated it...

First, here's one for Anonymous. It is a tripod walker with two legs moving in phase and one acting on its own. In this case, the leg moving on its own is the front one rather than a hind one. Please note that the hind legs do not just move in a pure front-to-aft direction, but swing in a circle. That's a result of their radial design. At any rate the body should swing to kep the centre of gravity balanced over the legs, but that hasn't been programmed in yet.

And just for fun a leggy spidrid. NOT a spider! A SPIDRID!

Sunday 18 October 2009

Odd walkers

Even the title is odd! (And yes, that was an intended pun.) I cannot help but be fascinated by how animals walk, hop or otherwise move around. This time we go for a somewhat bizarre approach: is it possible to walk with odd numbers of legs, such as three or five?

Why not? To obtain a first look of how a pentapod (five legged) animal might possibly look like, I adapted the Matlab program I had used to animate the octapods on my site. (you will find them on my site: go to it here, chose the yellow 'land' icon, and then go to the 'walking with...' icon). It was simple job to change the number of legs to five. Obviously, there is gait to consider: what should the phase differences between the various legs be? The first choice would be to have a 'skipped walk' , in which one leg is at 0 degrees (the same as 360), and the others are at 72, 144, 216 and 288 degrees. It's just a question of assigning a phase to a particular leg. Anyway, there it is.

I then thought I would experiment with legs moving in pairs as well. Of course, there will be one left to move on its own, so what you get might be two pairs and a single. So here we go:

Odd? Indeed. There is an animal on Furaha with a similar gait pattern. I do not remember mentioning 'secondary bilaterally symmetrical neospidrids' before, even though they are quite common. What happened is that some spidrids, octapods and therefore without a left/right symmetry axis, started lifting some of their legs to catch prey. They used three legs for this purpose, so these three 'raptorial appendages' are an example of centaurism. This leaves them with 5 to stand on. This induced bilateral symmetry, but with the plane of symmetry going through one leg!. This leg is in the median plane, and is noticeably bigger and stronger then the others. It is the neospidrids' jumping leg, providing most of the force of its jump. The adjacent legs help with propulsion and with steering the animal while jumping. In slow walks you get a gait more or less as shown above.
Copyright Gert van Dijk

You might think that no animal on Earth walks like this, but you would be wrong. True, there are no animals with five locomotory legs, but there are several using five appendages for locomotion. The following video, from YouTube, shows one. Have a look at the adult kangaroo. Moving slowly presents kangaroos with a odd problem: their legs aren't exactly designed for that, and for some reason they do not alternate the movements of their hind legs. These move in a pair, and so do the front legs. It is the tail that does the trick. Look very carefully: when the hind legs are swung forwards, the kangaroo rests on a tripod formed by its tail and the two front legs. This tripod alternates with a phase in which the tail and front legs move forwards while the animal rests on the stable area formed by the large feet. A pentapod on Earth!

And to make it even more wonderful, consider the tail. It is of course a stack of vertebrae, but it must take some strength to keep it from buckling. Isn't this an example of 'walking on tentacles', in particular the Mark II Walking Tentacle?

Now it is time to reduce the number of legs to three. Quadruped animals lose a leg if unlucky, and there are many videos to be found on the internet of dogs and cats who seem to manage quite well as three-legged animals. But I know of no animal on Earth that uses three similar legs for walking, and for once there seem to be nu Furahan alternatives either, or at least they have not been discovered yet. So I whittled down my 'octapod' design to only three legs, and introduced a phase difference of 120 degrees so the legs are not in phase. Here it comes:

Could it walk? Certainly not as shown here. This model was designed for octapods in which there are always legs on the ground, which means the legs can be placed wide apart. If you have just two legs, or three for that matter, the feet should be placed much closer to where the centre of gravity projects on the ground. Just try to walk with your feet at least 60 cm apart and see where that lands you. I could adapt the program, and may, but that will take time.

The only recourse left are the worlds of science fiction and of mechanics. In SF a 'tripod walk' can only be associated with one thing: Well's War of the Worlds, and the tripod mechanical marvels in which the Martians strode around eradicating anything human. For good engineers they were remarkably poor biologists, but never mind that. So how did the tripods actually walk? Somewhat to my surprise I could not easily find clips of the Spielberg movie. Why is this? Aren't there any? Surely Spielberg's computer people solved the problem of having them walk in a believable fashion? I did find a very entertaining video made by 'mrgrotey' of a tripod as shown in Jeff Wayne's adaptation of War of the Worlds. Its original location on YouTube is here, but there is a more elaborate website as well. Have a look:

Before the tripod starts to dance, you will see it walk. Note that it moves with 120 degree phase differences between its legs. Is that they only way to move with three legs? Not really. You could have two legs moving as a pai with the other one as the odd man out, or have all of them move together. Someone has already worked that out. On Peter Balch' site I found three animation showing just that, and here I will only show one, so you will be tempted to pay his site a closer look. The support diagrams are very nicely done.

Note that the feet are planted very close to the midline, so there should be no problems with keeling over, or at least none that cannot be solved by a suitable brain, biological or otherwise. It seems to be the only design in which the legs are not attached to the body in a triangular pattern but along a line.

Finally, you may wonder whether someone has built a machine that walks on there legs. In fact, one such has been shown earlier on this blog, but I have found another. Here is where I found it. Unfortunately, I can't seem to copy it for you here, so you should follow the link. . You can see that the designer chose to have the legs wide apart, so for the beast not to fall it has to move the projection of its centre of gravity close to the legs that remain on the ground. Only then can it afford to move the third leg. The only other solution would be to actually build something like the tripod animation above, but I am certain that taking care of what an animal brain does naturally (sensing, adapting and correcting) is extraordinarily difficult to do with a computer. So the little machine shown through the link is quite brilliant: it is a walking tripod machine!

Sunday 11 October 2009

Furaha in France 2

One week ago I had the good fortune to participate in a 'rencontre littéraire' in the city of Ganges in the South of France. I presented Furaha using Powerpoint with a variety of images, most of which are also visible on the Furaha site. I enclose a few of the slides just to satisfy your curiosity. I met a number of interesting people and had a great time.

© Gert van Dijk

Luckily, Marc Boulay and Sylvia Lorrain, who were responsible for my invitation (merçi!) and who live nearby, were kind enough to help me with the French text. Just as well, as it turned out, because one my translation of the word 'seasucker' (you will find them on the 'swimming with...'page) in its literal form turned out ot have unfortunate connotations. And no, I will no mention it here either. Doing the talk in French was quite an adventure, but I think it well fairly well.

© Gert van Dijk

During the visit Marc and Sylvia were kind enough to invite me to their home, where they demonstrated the process of designing animal shapes in ZBrush as well as texturing them. It is clear to me that this process requires considerable expertise, and also that they have mastered it. Anyone interested should keep an eye on their sites.

© Gert van Dijk

By the way, all this traveling means that I haven't had much time to work on this blog (or on anything else). Still, I am collecting material on walking with odd numbers of legs. 'Odd' here is used as the opposite of 'even'; most what you find here is odd in the other sense anyway.