Sunday 27 December 2009

Mr. Fungi's Creature Journal

What I like to find during an internet search is a whole world of speculative biology, filled with interesting beings with nicely thought out backgrounds, sound biomechanical and ecological concepts, and oh yes, excellent artwork. In other words, a few years' work...

But there are quite a few creative people who design life forms for fun without all the rest of it. While a scientific background adds intellectual spice, not having one does not detract from the more primary, emotional type of fun of looking at a well-drawn animal. One example of this type of fun is the 'Diary of Inhuman Species' by Stan, who draws one species a day, as I wrote here earlier. Stan is still going strong, so do not forget to visit his site from time to time.

I came across another site with a constant stream of new odd animals, and like Stan's these animals should not be taken overly seriously. This is the 'Creature Journal' with the explanatory subtitle 'It's a journal with creatures in it'. It is written by 'Fungi' or 'misterfungi', also known as Mark A. Facey.

Click to enlarge ; copyright Mark A. Facey

Here is one of his creatures to start with: the 'mensblodder'. You can see it shouldn't be taken too seriously, can you? I asked Mark about any systematic biological background; there doesn't seem to be an intricately worked-out one, but he was curious to hear what I made of it. I'm ready to make a remark here and there, but do not want to spoil the fun by being too intellectual about it. At first I thought this might be an animal with radial symmetry, based on the legs. Then again, the upper torso and head are clearly bilaterally symmetric, so that probably holds for the entire animal. It seems to have an internal skeleton, so it certainly is no Earth insect. Not that anyone would have thought that anyway. Seeing it's legs bent this way and that, it is either not very large or must live on a low-gravity world. Mark, is that anywhere close to what you had in mind?

Click to enlarge ; copyright Mark A. Facey

It's a bird! It's a 'Cluckadon Tuft Puncher'. If you have seen films of birds of paradise, with their bizarre mating rituals and plumage, you can not think that this animal is wholly unearthly. Its posture reminded me of such birds, but I might be wrong: perhaps this is its normal standing posture. Then again, its name suggests a more pugilistic attitude: a threat posture? I would guess it is flightless, judging from the shape of its wings and its tail.
Click to enlarge ; copyright Mark A. Facey

The 'emerald nitpicker' is a tetrapod animal with an exoskeleton (look at the first joints of the hind legs); and why not? There is no rule stating that any animal with more than four legs in its body plan must be an arthropod and therefore have an exoskeleton. If  larger animals can get away with walking on four legs, why shouldn't small ones be able to do the same? I can't help but wonder why its legs are in the position they're in. Are the front legs designed to catch prey? Is it a jumping predator? Regardless, it is very eye-catching.

Click to enlarge ; copyright Mark A. Facey

The 'knuckleheaded guppy goblin', or, as I would label it, a fish. This certainly is a predator. I like the way its salmon-like head bump adds a sense of power to the animal. It's also nicely fleshy. It's not found in local waters, I think, as there anatomical clues why this is no mere Earth fish.

I hope you like Mark's animals as much as I do: they are fun and make me want to sit down and start painting immediately. In my case that usually involves oil paints, as I still have to make the -for me- difficult transfer to digital art. If any readers are in a similar stage, or wish to take up painting with Photoshop, Mark has posted a few videos showing how he paints a 'hulking shipwreck creeper'.  

This is probably this year's last post. Then again, I might decide to post some more attempts at videos showing Furahan landscapes. Have a nice 2010!

Friday 18 December 2009

"Anatomy of an alien": high gravity

A while ago, I showed a fragment of a 1997 BBC documentary called 'Anatomy of an Alien'. The fragment in question was about Epona, which was also what the post was about. The program contained discussions of more such extraterrestrial ideas, and contained short discussions with a variety of people involved in speculative biology, a term which I do not think had yet been introduced at the time.

Looking at the program makes you realise how fast computer graphics have evolved. Admittedly, the designers at the BBC probably did not have an enormous budget available, so they may not have been able to achieve the very best results technology could offer in 1997. In that period, 'Jurassic Park' was probably the yardstick you could get if you threw lots of money at the problem, and 'Jurassic park' dates from 1993. Still, the computer effects were certainly better than what an amateur could achieve.

I do not think that this means the program is no longer interesting to watch, so I decided to show some more fragments of the program. The one for today concerns life on high gravity planets. You will see an interview with Jack Cohen, a biologist with a strong interest in biology in science fiction. He has written a few books that all people who wish to design worlds should find interesting.  One I particularly recommend is 'Figments of reality'; a search on Amazon should result in several others.

In the video, Jack Cohen goes into the mechanics of legs for heavy worlds. He compares land-living crabs with sea-dwelling crabs to make the point that higher loads require stronger and more columnar legs, an effect encountered in this blog more than once. The resulting animation is quite nice. Another point that should be kept in mind is that high gravity is largely irrelevant under water. If your body mass is close to that of water, it will not take much effort to keep floating at the same height, and a relatively small swim bladder should allow you to change height at will. There's no risk of broken limbs from tripping under water.

On land, of course, things are quite different. In a truly high gravity the simplest trip could shatter your legs, so falling is something to be avoided at all cost. Even staying upright and walking requires legs that look different from those of animals of similar size on a low gravity planet (that's why I thought that Alex Ries' Birrin must live on a low-gravity world).

Click to enlarge (copyright BBC)

The video fragment shows a vaguely arthropod-looking animal, shown above, with a large number of vertically placed columnar legs. This makes excellent sense. The animal has large wings though, and that may seem surprising. Wouldn't high gravity make it more difficult to become airborne? It would, as a moment's thought reveals: staying aloft requires that weight, dragging an animal down, is exactly countered by the amount of lift pushing the animal upwards. If you double gravity and keep everything else the same, the situation is no longer in equilibrium, as weight is now twice as large as lift. Down you go.

But Jack Cohen makes the point in the video that high gravity may also make it easier to fly, by increasing the density of the air. It is indeed more easy to achieve lift in a soupy atmosphere than in a rarefied one, and vice versa. Disney's people knew that in 1957, as evidenced by the enormous wings of his Martian flying animals, designed to fly in the rare Martian atmosphere.

I checked some books and found that the amount of lift provided by wings is directly proportional to the density of the air. Here is the formula:

lift = 0.5 x density x wing area x velocity squared x lift coefficient

What that boils down to is that doubling the density of the air will double the amount of lift. That is nice: in the example above gravity was supposed to be twice as much as on Earth, so a doubling of lift is just what we need to keep the same animal in the air. Not that is at all likely that an animal living on a planet with twice the gravity and twice the air density could be the same as one living on a lighter world, but never mind that now.

So, to make things work, the only remaining question is whether doubling the gravity a terrestrial planet is compatible with doubling its air density. I have no idea. Comparing Venus and Earth suggests that similarly sized terrestrial planets can vary widely as far as their atmospheric density is concerned, so I guess a double air density is feasible. If anyone knows more about the relationships between gravity and likely atmospheric density of Earth-like planets, feel free to comment on this post.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Springcroc in springtime (Epona IV)

The springcroc is not a Furahan but an Eponan animal. Parts of the vast Epona material have reappeared on the web, and the many life forms discussed there include the springcroc. You will find it right here. Regular followers of this blog will now that I have discussed it before (first here, and then here and afterwards here), and I will probably come back to it in the future (I was one of the people who used to work on it, so that's why).

The thing to remember about Eponan terrestrial life forms is that they left the sea fairly recently, so adaptations to a land-based existence have not yet reached optimal solutions yet. That holds for Eponan trees, whose stems have not yet evolved anything as suitable as wood, and it may also hold for the springcroc. Its general design is very nice: in essence a springcroc is just a large stomach enclosed by two half shells. It lies in waiting in some swamp, and when a suitable prey arrives in striking distance the springcroc catapults itself towards the prey using its own froglike leg. The prey is engulfed by the stomach and is slowly digested. Simple, but simple solutions work.

Click to enlarge; copyright Worldbuilders

This is the springcroc as shown on the Epona site. Steven Hanly, one of the people involved in the Epona project, produced many 3D Epona images at the time, many of which can be seen on his web page. For this purpose he had also built a 3D springcroc computer model. A few months ago he sent me his 'obj' file to have a look at. I was also trying out ZBrush, a 3D 'sculpting' program that is extremely well-suited to produce organic looking animal shapes. I imported the springcroc shape, and used it to try out some embellishments, as ZBrush allows you to push and pull at objects at will. As you will see this ability is the reason why the poor animal now has so many bumps on its head.

I also decided to 'bodybuild' its musculature somewhat. With just one leg it must be difficult for the springcroc to control the direction of its jump in a lateral direction. While a jump in the general direction of the prey can work for extremely slow prey animals, a jump with some more precision should help the springcroc to rise to the pinnacle of the food chain (or at least to stay in plaavce with more ease). The only way the springcroc can exert lateral control is by pushing harder or less hard on either of its two toes while jumping, so these are fairly wide apart. For similar reasons the joints between the segments of its leg were broadened: to provide more joint stability as well as a bit more control.

Click to enlarge

So here it is: a springcroc before and after embellishment in ZBrush. As said, the bumps serve mainly to make it look more interesting.

Click to enlarge

Having done that, I exported the model again, and after some trouble loaded it into Vue Infinite, where I embedded it in a meadow-like environment of Eponan plant (well, actually one plant was designed for Furaha, but these images are sketches, nothing more). The springcroc should really be coloured a bit more interestingly, but this is just a work in progress. The white leaves reminded me of springtime, so there you have it: a springcroc in springtime...

Sunday 6 December 2009

Disney's exobiology

Yes, Disney's.

In the 1950s the Disney studios produced a weekly television series called Disneyland. One episode was called 'Mars and Beyond', which aired in 1957. It contains experts with heavy accents explaining things such as geosynchronous orbits to very attentive serious looking young men, but it also contains a short gem showing possible Martian life forms.

If you look at that part of the episode, reproduced below, you cannot help thinking that Disney's animators must have had a great time producing these scenes. Perhaps you have to overlook some of its now outdated aspects, such as the deeply sonorous voice. After all, this footage is over 50 years old. But if you look past that there is so much creativity that it is simply contagious. Some of the life forms in there look very far-fetched, such as the crystal ones that grow overnight and are shattered each morning. The daily cycle is a very nice and dramatic notion, but crystal life forms do not seem to have outlived the fifties and sixties in science fiction. I have always wondered in which ways a crystal would be said to be alive. Thought and even intelligence are not impossible; after all, neither neurons nor computer processors appear to do anything if you just look at them. It is simpler things such as movement that cause doubt, as well as procreation and selection. But never mind that; crystal life forms seem to belong a past concurrent with Star Trek's original series (which started in 1966, just 9 years after Mars and Beyond).

The plant that eats itself also seems impossible, because of problems with energy efficiency. Some readers might point out that one's own parts might be put to better use when the need arises, such as under extreme duress. Possibly, but there might be easier ways of recycling body parts than actually digesting such parts.

Click to enlarge; copyright Disney

I really like the scene shown above, in the beginning, in which the camera pans over a landscape, and we see rocks over which luminous threads glide along in parallel. I do not know what these are or what they are doing, but I like the air of otherworldliness of the scene. Later on, there are shelled creatures that can 'clamp up' to protect themselves from sand storms, and those seem quite likely. The animals that sieve the top layer of the soil for something are a nice concept. You could imagine a thin layer of bacteria or unicellular plants living in a few millimetres of otherwise barren ground, and this biome would definitely require specialised animals to get at this source of food.

Click to enlarge; copyright Disney

My favourite, I think, is a small ballont that hangs from, well, from something. When it lets go it first inflates and then seems to fly by jet propulsion, until it is -how sad!- speared by a sessile predator. Jet propulsion with stored air, now that is a nice thought! Disney's animal looks like a simple toy balloon that is let go, but there must be ways of making it more interesting. How about storing the air under high pressure, so the amount of air will last longer? That would take a fortified bladder, the walls of which must be capable of withstanding high tensile strength. Possible. The thing is how to pump the air in. Perhaps a series of muscular 'hearts' would do, each of which would increase the pressure to compress air into chambers separated by valves? Such an animal would run out of compressed air in flight, so this mechanism might work better as an additional power source than as the sole one. Food for thought...

copyright Disney 1957