Tuesday 30 March 2010

Predatory brachiation: an arms race

I suppose that the title of this particular blog entry is not exactly self-explanatory. Never mind, the explanation follows. I added a new animal description to the Furaha main site a few days ago. I also deleted another one a few minutes later, as I do not wish to give all designs for my eventual book away. That would be the 'Encyclopedia of Furahan Life' (and no, it does not exist yet).

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

The species chosen is a brachiator, meaning an animal that moves around in forests by swinging from its arms. To read more about this species, the marblebill, you will have to visit the site: simply go to the land page and select the first entry in the menu. The marblebill's resemblance with Earth gibbons should be obvious, and that is not because I have not enough fantasy. Actually that might play a part too, but there are probably not that many ways to design a working brachiator, certainly not if you start from a walking ancestor.

Click to enlarge; source here

The long arms, the relatively small body and short legs all play a role in its mode of locomotion. If you take a look at a brachiating gibbon you will see that it like a pendulum from one handhold to the next. If they move slowly, they grab a new handhold before they let go of the previous one, which seems a wise thing to do. In a hurry they simply jump the distance in-between two handholds. Starting with the safer mode, it's not hard to work out that longer arms will carry you further while brachiating. Long and heavy loosely dangling legs are not going to help setting up a pendular motion at all, so suuch limbs should not dampen the pendulum. Keeping them small and light is the easiest way of doing so. If you wish to see how poorly humans, apes with enormously oversized hind legs, do at brachiating, take a minute to visit a site from the animal simulation laboratory in Manchester here. You will see how awkward humans are when it comes to brachiation. There is quite a bit of knowledge to be found regarding gibbons and brachiation, including some nice mathematical models. Here is a result of one such model, in which the body and the hind legs are simply modelled as a single ovoid blob. The figure has an inherent beauty, I think, but the lack of hind legs in the model made me think.

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Gomes & Ruina. Journal of Theoretical Biology 237 (2005) 265–278

One way to obtain an intriguing brachiating speculative animal would be to do away with hind legs altogether, which would mean the animal perpetually hngs from its arms. In itself that is not a problem, as hanging in this way need not require much muscle activity; none at all, in fact. Perhaps it might then be useful to have more than two brachiating limbs, in order to ensure a good grip. I am only aware of one other brachiating type of animal in speculative biological fiction, and that is the squibbon in 'The Future is Wild'. As I noticed before, tentacles are not good to walk on, but they should be good for tensile forces, and those certainly occur in brachiation. I showed a similar brachiating neocephalopod in last week's blog entry, and added another design point: ideally, brachiating limbs should be attached at the upper end of the body, or else there are novel balance problems.

So why does the marblebill still have 'regular' legs, small as they might be? In truth, when I did the painting I never considered chopping them off, but in hindsight I think I was right not to. Earth's brachiators do not use brachiation as their sole way of propulsion. Such animals also need to climb vertical tree stems, and for that brachiating arms are unsuited. As it may not be possible to depend on brachiation alone, climbing limbs are needed too. If need be, such canopy dwellers may even have to descend to the forest floor and walk. Imagine a legless gibbon on the ground; poor beast... Instead, imagine a marblebill on the forest floor. I admit doing so takes a well-developed sense of imagination; the marblebill is not fast, but it is definitely not helpless, and is in fact still dangerous. Returning to brachiation, it should not be thought that hind legs must be useless. If the legs (or body) are pulled up during the swing, this will aid forward movement. The mechanism is the same as the one allowing a child to make a swing go higher and higher by changing body position on the seat of the swing. Finally, of course, the marblebill uses its four free legs as an aid to capture and kill its main prey. Taken together, it may be best for brachiators to keep some other legs; pure brachiation may be taking the idea too far.

The marblebill also differs from Earth animals in some respects: it is a brachiating predator, which principle seems to be unique, so far. It is also quite large in comparison to gibbons and the like. Still, it much more agile than Earth's orang-utans, which are as large or larger. Its prey, usually an 'Aggie', is a brachiator as well. Most often a pair of marblebills take an aggie by surprise, but if the first charge fails, they will pursue it at full speed. Two adult marblebills moving at full speed is something never seen on Earth; if only I had a video to show you...

What I do have is a video found on YouTube of a gibbon teasing two tiger cubs. Part of the excitement in the video may be due to clever editing of the footage, but there are enough uncut scenes to illustrate how remarkably agile a brachiator can be. On seeeing the video you get the feeling that it is just as well that the cubs are still young enough to be clumsy, or else things might end poorly for the gibbon.

Of course, if the gibbon would be replaced by a marblebill, the cubs would probably be plucked from the ground and eaten.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Alternate Future Evolution in Japan

Satoshi Kawasaki is a Japanese illustrator, author, or both. Normally I try to get the facts correct, but in this case I am forced to rely on Google's translation services. While these allow us all to sample texts that would otherwise remain closed, the results are not necessarily reliable. For those who do not now how to operate the Google translation service, simply go the main Google page, and there should be something called 'language aids' or similar just to the right of the search window. Clicking on it will allow you to paste in text, or to translate an entire web page. To see how well or poorly it works, have it translate a paragraph in your native language into Japanese, and paste the result in to translate it back again.

Following this link will bring you to an Amazon page showing a book of extinct animals. I think it is a safe guess that most people interested in speculative biology will also like palaeontology. If so, the cover of this book should convince you that Mr. Kawasaki knows his business, and seems to prefer the bizarre. He does not shy away from speculative biology either, and in his case that concerns life in the future on Earth. He has a very nice website showing life on Earth in various geological ages, starting at the Cambrium. Clicking on an epoch shows a world map for that age, and selecting a continent or sea opens a page with its inhabitants. From the Cambrium on each major era has its own map. There are four such pages for the future, resulting in pages for 5, 50, 100 and 200 million years in the future. But before you zoom off to look there, stop at the other ages as well, because here and there you will find animals indicated with an outline and a question mark, and these are quite interesting.

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

In the present era, I found this intriguing dog with a human face living in Japan and China. The text says that the animal is not suffering at all, but that this is its normal face; at least I think that is what it says. The garbled translation suggests that the original text might be quite funny, but that is something I can only guess at. At any rate, images such as this one show that Mr. Kawasaki has a somewhat surrealistic sense of humour, which I rather like. If you do not, be warned, because similar themes will keep cropping up. If you take speculative biology as a completely serious business, do not bother visiting his site. Of course, taking anything entitled 'speculative biology' completely serious is a bit surrealistic by itself.

I will not delve into all the animals, nor discuss in any detail how life evolves in the future. I rather liked the way how chameleons leave the trees and evolve into a range of large terrestrial animals, looking a bit like present-day mammals as well as like dinosaurs. What I also liked was that intelligent beings seem to evolve here and there, only to vanish without a trace.

Instead I will focus on the world of 200 millions years into the future, and on one theme only: land-living cephalopods! Yes, there are land-living octopus and squid here. Dougal Dixon was probably the first to shoo cephalopods onto dry land in his book 'Life after Man'. The theme was worked out in more detail in 'The Future is Wild'. I think there are some significant problems with this concept. One is that the cephalopod body structure simply does not provide a good starting point for an animal that needs to withstand gravity. Tentacles in particular are an extremely bad starting point. In earlier entries (last one here) I explained my reasons for thinking so. In short, you can walk on tentacles, but once evolution has increased their efficiency, they are no longer tentacles, but will have become legs. The second reason to think that cephalopods will have a difficult time making it on land is that they are not the first to go there, so they will have to compete with animals with fully developed legs. In 'The Future is Wild' swamps were provided for the purpose, but the other animals were not whisked away to support the cephalopods. Perhaps an isolated island, where there are no land animals at all, might do the trick. Even then you have to hope that birds won't bother the new-fangled land-squids too much. Mr Kawasaki's terrestrial cephalopods do not seem to care one bit about such sombre estimates of their likelihood, but look quite alive. Let's have a closer look.

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

This one is entitled a 'Purototerasukuido', and is described as a primitive 'Terasukuido'. Let me guess: 'sukuido' might be a Japanese transliteration of the English word 'squid', and 'terasukuido' might be 'terrestrial squid'. 'Puroto' could be 'proto-', so this might be a proto-land-squid'. The animal looks like it is lifted bodily out of 'The Future is Wild', so it seems like Mr Kawasaki is playing another joke. It is describe as a living fossil, and the statement that high fertility balances high mortality shows that Mr Kawasaki also thinks that such an animal needs all the help it can get to stay alive.

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

Next: a goby squid. The text says 'Second is to leap out of the crab', which may mean that it is an ambush predator, waiting for a crab to emerge. It has six walking legs and two prehensile arms, which makes sense, I think. It somehow manages to look very attentive, indeed like a little goby fish.

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

This is a 'Sleipnir', named after Odin's eight-legged horse. The first animal shown above is a functional hexapod, using two arms for predatory purposes. Perhaps this is another example of centaurism, but that is debatable. The Sleipnir lives in herds and is well-protected by scales. Its length is given as 200-250 cm, so it is quite large. The legs might still be tentacles, but they might just as easily have bones in them; perhaps this is an example of a tentacle turned into a leg.

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

An African predator? Yes, the 'chitopasu' is a sprinter; is there a cheetah in that name? In this case, the text clearly states that there is no skeleton in its legs. What a pity. Note that the illustration is apparently not by Mr Kawasaki but by 'UME'.

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

The Zeburasukuido must be prey, and it is (I guess its name means 'zebra squid'). Note that the mouth is underneath the animal, while he eyes are on top, just like its ancestors. I do think that the eyes should probably be smaller, as eyes do not generally scale in the same way as body size. Having such large eyes makes it look much smaller than it is supposed to be. Count its legs: there are ten this time! All this leg variability suggest that land squids are not a monophyletic group; that means that the species shown here are not descended from a single species. Instead, their resemblance suggests that various groups of cephalopods all made it onto land, bringing their different body plans with them. Not impossible, but what would drive such a tendency?

Click to enlarge; copyright Satoshi Kawasaki

Finally, a brachiator (that's an animal swinging from its arms). It looks agile, as it should be. Its legs are attached to the underside of the body. If these animals indeed hang from branches much of the time, instead of sitting on them, the attachments of their legs might wander to the top of the body, making life a little easier mechanically.

I really like the sense of humour that permeates these creatures. It would be nice to have Mr Kawasaki tell us a bit more about his creations, and perhaps he will respond. Until then, have fun with his website and his creations.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Loose ends

Click to enlarge

Only a short post this time (well, there is such a thing as real life).

Firstly, I was in Paris last week, and as usual I picked up some bandes dessinées (BDs, comics). There is a collection of specialist shops, but you can also go to large shops selling books, CDs and DVDs, such as the FNAC. A short while ago I discussed Léo's series of extraterrestrial BDs, and had shown the cover of part three of the Antares cycle. The FNAC decided to increase the interest in this series: they are selling limited edition prints and have a small exposition of original sketches or plates that were not actually used. They also draw attention to all this by having posters put up in the passages of the Métro. That goes to show that the French really regard comics as seriously as they would films or other books, doesn't it? It was also nice to see a bit of speculative biology out in the open in one of the world's major cities.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Secondly, I have been working on an updated version of the cathedral forest that is already on the website. The reasons to work on it were that there is a possibility of it appearing in print, and I had spent some time on Epona; Furaha demanded more time!

I design such plants with a program called XFrog, and use Vue Infinite for rendering. Both have their share of problems: XFrog works fine, never crashes, but some parts of it are so complex that it is hard to predict what will happen. Vue Infinite is a program that may evoke more curses than compliments, but recently my opinion of it has improved significantly. The main reason for that probably is that I bought a new computer with much more processing power, and Vue does not seem to feel at ease with mere 'normal' computers. It appears a bit spoilt, in effect. Anyway, I can now produce scenes of higher complexity, and natural scenes quickly require enormous amounts of memory. Shortcuts disappoint quickly: in the past I have had to make leaves much to large in order to get away with a low number of leaves. Similarly, I tricked the eye into thinking that there were many leaves while these only consisted of small triangles without any twigs at all. Such tricks work until you get close, and then the illusion is shattered. Conventional painting is much more forgiving in this respect.

So here is a study of a Cathedral Tree. I think the leaves are small enough to convince the eye into thinking that this is a sizable organism. And now for the rest of the forest...

Friday 5 March 2010

Greenworld II

Dougal Dixon's new book is out. I suppose he does not need much of an introduction, as he is one of the first people to write a book on speculative biology in a pseudo-documentary style: that was 'After Man, a Zoology of the Future,' published in 1981. Mind you, he was not the first to do so. One book of possibly equal fame is the 'Rhinogradentia' ('last post' here).
I have never written much about Dougal's works on 'SB' - I guess it is about time to introduce an abbreviation for 'Speculative Biology', and 'Spebio' has a silly ring to it; 'SB' will do for now. The reason for not writing about his SB books is simply that I assumed that everyone knew them already. While he is a very prolific writer, he has not published many SB books on his own lately, which means I am excluding the various books on the 'Future is Wild', as these are more or less multi-author volumes. The present post is an exception, and the occasion is a brand new SB book, wholly written by Mr. Dixon. As I wrote earlier, the book has sofar only been published in Japan, in two volumes. I could not resist ordering it, and the two volumes have dramatically increased the total number of books in Japanese I own to three. It is just as well that I chose them for image content, as I do not speak or read Japanese.
I am not going to show you a large number of images from the book, and neither can I show you the sketches Dougal made years ago of some of the animals in his Greenworld universe. Apparently it may be bad for business to do so, so I will not. Instead, there will just be one or two images here that cannot yet be found on the internet. Some others have been shown before but t a lesser resolution. There was more to be found than you might have thought: I showed some in the previous post on Greenworld, and Puyamaster (who commented earlier) found more. Here is a short list for those who wish to have a look: the Japanese publisher's site on Greenworld, a fairly recent interview, and two illustrators' sites (one and two).
The two volumes are not very large, so many illustrations are printed on a somewhat small scale. The theme of the book is human colonization of an alien world and its impact on the local wildlife and on the entire biosphere. Each short chapter tells a short story of this impact, progressing in time, to judge from the dates given at the beginning of the chapters. Each short chapter is followed by some illustrations of Greenworld wildlife, or of how humans interact with it. The story seems to parallel our own involvement with Earth, meaning it is not a happy story. Personally I agree with this dark vision of human influence on the world: human nature being what it is, the chances of intelligent behaviour emerging on Earth seem slim. Please note that I consider the mere presence of intelligence rather less relevant than its actual application. But let's have a look.
Click to enlarge
The first one is one I scanned from the book. It shows an advertisement, I think, for a Kraal where you can tame your own Strida. The Strida is an animal that normally plays host to another life form, a Sitta. I presume that the Strida and Sitta live in a form of symbiosis, but can only guess what their mutual benefit s are. Anyway, it is clear from the illustrations that humans interrupt this relationship for their own benefit: they snare the Strida, take out the Sitta, and put themselves in the Sitta's position. I was a bit surprised by the Dutch names, but the addition of 'Kraal' suggest that the names should be considered Afrikaans rather than Dutch. I guess Africa evokes more of an amosphere of 'humans in the veldt' than the Netherlands does (and rightly so, even if 'veld' (modern spelling) only means 'field'; no romanticism there)
Click to enlarge
Well, that knowledge explain what the woman on the illustration above is doing on that Strida: she is probably using it as Earth humans used horses. The image can be found on the website of the illustrator Julius Csotonyi, and the woman in question seems to be a famous hunter.
Click to enlarge
This alphabet can also be found on the web, in a smaller but complete form. The large size of the scan brings out more detail than the illustration in the book itself. I suppose this alphabet is meant for children, and as such it is a very nice instance of thinking a subject through: toys and learning material on a colony world would quickly be adapted to local circumstances. What better way of illustrating an alphabet than with animals or events well-known to the children?
Click to enlarge
I will end with an illustration I like very much, even though I do not understand it fully. Have a good look at it before you read on. At a top someone is riding a Strida in the middle of a group of other animals; is this a herdsman with his herd? Are these animals good for something? Anyway, people on Greenworld see a reason to construct a crude likeness of such an animal in the form of a board. Apparently this fools the animal into approaching this 'mimicry board'. I have no idea whether they do so because of sexual attraction, or anger at a potential competitor, or another motivation altogether. What is clear is that humans have their own sinister motives to set these boards up: a wooden pole is bent in such a way that any disturbance of the board will cause the pole to swing with force in the direction of the animal. That cannot be good for its health, as this is likely to break its legs.
I have no idea what is going on in this scene, but hope that one of the Japanese readers will help the rest of us a bit by explaining what is going on here. On the one hand I really like to know every little detail mentioned on this page, which means we need versions in other languages. (Any publishers reading this: get to it!) But on the other hand the mystery of trying to deduce what is going on here has its own particular charm. Some of you may know the 'Codex Seraphinianus', one of my most cherished books. The Codex shows mysterious animals, objects or events with extensive texts in a completely unreadable script. (Perhaps I will come back to it in this blog later; contrary to what most people think it is not sold out.) Trying to make sense of the Codex is similar to reading Greenworld in Japanese, for me anyway. The one big difference is the Codex will forever remain mysterious, and that one day 'Greenworld' will probably appear in a language I can read. I hope so; I would very much like to see more of it.