Thursday 23 December 2010

The woolly-haired Shuffler: Splendid Insulation

It is cold outside. Then again: there will be a white Christmas, which is largely nice. All that snow led me to choose a wintery scene for my long overdue update of Furahan animals. The update follows the same pattern as previous ones: if I show a new animal, an old one leaves the scene, and that is exactly what has happened. After all, if the Furaha Project is ever to become a book, there should be things in it that are not freely available on the internet.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Here is part of the map of Furaha showing the usual covering of snow in Winter for the Northern hemisphere. This is part of the area where the woolly-haired Shuffler lives.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

You will find the Shuffler on the land page, but here it is again. I could not resist adding some additional information here. At first glance you may wonder where the woolly hairs are, as the animal looks somewhat naked. Well, the hairs are underneath.

There are various ways in which animals can combat heat loss in a cold environment. Behavioural solutions are to stay indoors or sleep through the winter. There are anatomical tricks as well; a good principle is to be as round as possible with as few protruding parts as possible, in order to get a small surface area for a given volume. So, expect small ears, short tails and thick legs for animals in cold climes. A second anatomical trick is to be large, as it is easier for a large animal to conserve heat. There are metabolic and circulatory tricks as well, but a good theme is insulation. Layers and layers of fat wrapped around the more costly parts of the body will help, and as an aside these can store food as well. One of the best insulating materials is air. Fur works because the hairs trap air near the body, preventing the freezing effects of wind to reach warm parts of the body. Fur on Earth works quite well, and various animals have such sophisticated fur designs that they can withstand horrible conditions. Just consider hair that traps sunlight, leading the warming radiation into the body; hairs that are fairly thick but hollow, so they trap even more air; or consider fur made of layers of hairs with different characteristics. But such furs can still get wet, and while even that can be solved -think of polar bears- there is another way to protect against wind chill, and that is the ways humans do it.

Humans? Naked apes? I am talking about clothing. Animal pelts must have been among the first items of clothing, and among women of a certain class, a certain age and a certain cultural background fur coats are still in vogue (I cannot help but think -and sometimes say- that all fur coats are second-hand clothes, and that they invariably looked much better on the first owner). Fur coats work, but modern polar clothes are a miracle of ingenuity. They invariably have fibres to trap air much as hairs in furs do. But there is usually an outer layer of wind-breaking material to stop the trapped air from mingling with the really cold outside air. Animals don't have that, for the simple reason that it would not be easy to enclose large areas of air inside the body (oh well, Furahan tetrapterates do, but that is another story).

Once again, humans solved that particular riddle. Some brilliant Eskimo / Inuit must have realised one day that coats made of fur work even better when you wear the furry side of the pelt against your skin instead of on the outside. That was a stroke of genius, I think, but it is not listed among other great humans inventions such as fire, wheels and gossiping (the probable reason for the evolution of speech). I expect that women who like fur coats do not know this, and suspect they would ignore it anyway.

That Eskimo's idea is behind the fur coat of the Shuffler. Its skin forms folds, and the inside of the fold is covered in woolly hairs, while the outside is devoid of hair. The fold is dead, in fact. This might be as near as the 'Eskimo Invention' as biological evolution can get starting with hair on the outside of a body. The main downside is that investing in large amounts of skin and hair for just one season's worth of protection is costly in metabolic terms, so I played with alternative ideas, such as letting them keep their folds all year. Or perhaps they eat the skin when it falls off, in a rather unappetising manner.


As you can see, I made some other changes to the web site as well:
I added a new book, on Warren Fahy's 'Fragment'. This is probably the only fake book in the entire New Hades catalogue of fake books that will one day likely be turned into a real book!. It is on the book page, of course.
The list of links has been reworked too, see the 'about' page. Snaiad is gone, but I will put the link back again when Nemo chooses to find a new host. Then again, Nereus is there now...
The illustration on the site's front page has been changed as well; no new items there, but I think it looks better now.

Finally, I have written too many posts on this blog: it keeps me from actually painting new Furahan life forms. Next year, I will probably reduce the frequency of posts to perhaps once every two weeks. We'll see. I do have some ideas for good subjects though. Meanwhile, please consider telling all women with fur coats, except for the ones you really like -the women, not the coats-, that they should wear their coats with the fur on the inside.

Friday 10 December 2010

Furaha on io9

A few days ago this blog was mentioned on io9, under the heading Mad Science. The article was entitled "An intensive, multi-year study of realistic alien life". There was a definite spike in the number of people who visited my sites afterwards. Welcome new readers!

I was a bit doubtful about the 'Mad Scientist' bit, but what can I say? There is some truth in it; after all, I have been known to work my way through texts on the optical limits of compound eyes, to see whether I could somehow get around the conventional thought that such eyes would have to have a diameter of one meter to obtain a resolution as good as the human one. Is that geeky? I now think that computer science might hold an answer, and if you want me to write a post on that subject, you know what you are...

All right, I admit it: such activities might conceivably be considered geeky by some. In fact, according to Annalee Newitz, who wrote the post in question, my blog is "a treasure trove of biogeekery". Now that is a word to remember. Annalee must be a related soul, as she wrote: "This kind of intense, charmingly maniacal worldbuilding warms the screaming void at the center of my nerdy heart." Well, Annalee, it's nice to be appreciated, and please come again if you need rewarming!

Wednesday 8 December 2010

An xenobiological conference call

Just a short post this time. If you read this blog, it is a safe bet that you are interested in speculative biology, astrobiology, xenobiology and/or exobiology. I mention all four terms as they are about more or less different things. 'Speculative biology' seems to stand apart from the others; it is about any kind of biology that is not about real living beings, here, there, then or now. It can be about alternative evolution on Earth, such as dinosaurs in the present or about evolution on Earth in the future. Xenobiology, exobiology and astrobiology are restricted to unearthly life. The words 'exobiology' and 'xenobiology' are clearly older, but the newcomer 'astrobiology' seems to have won the day. Personally, I prefer 'exobiology', in part because it evokes 'exotic' and in part because I am linguistically conservative. 'Xenobiology' literally refers to the biology of 'strangers', and so it comes very close, etymologically, to 'alien biology'. 'Astrobiology' is literally about life on stars, and while I am willing to listen to any hypothesis about life, life on or in stars seems unlikely. But I will not be difficult about this; after all, 'astronomy' deals with more than just stars. Essentially xeno-, exo- and astrobiology are all about the same subject.

So, would you wish to go to a xenobiological conference? The full title is '18th International Congress of Xenobiology and Planetary Biology'. The program looks interesting: there will be talks on topics such as 'Xenophages and other new treatments and their impact on Human physiology'. As if Earth viruses and bacteria aren't enough, modified or with their wholly natural charm, you can now get treated with alien organisms. It's completely harmless, really! The introduction of Earth lifeforms in alien ecologies is always good for a controversy, so the talk on 'Introduction and Establishment of Terrestrial Insectoids in Rigel Kentaurus' is bound to draw a large audience. Then again, what do we care about Rigel Kentaurus?

You can read more on the conference on the following website. You will have to be patient though, as the conference will be held on 16-21 September, 2206. Aha; while there are serious conferences on astrobiology, this one is fictitious. The website is beautifully made, and if you ever been to a scientific conference, you will know that this is an excellent parody. It is all there!: there is a social program, a timetable, information about the venue and the hotel, and a list of sponsors. Whoever made this knew what he or she was doing. The author can be found by stripping the web address, and that yields something else altogether.

The website is in Finnish, a language I can recognise but not understand. Luckily, there is a copyright name there: credit to whom it is due, which in this case is Sampsa Rydman. If you work your way through the various options in the menu, you will find some interesting ones. One definitely worth a visit is 'Xenobiologia', proving that some Finnish words are easy. But from then on I would advise you to use Google's translation services. You will find a page with interesting pencil drawings on it, of which I will show two.

Click to enlarge; copyright Sampsa Rydman

This creature is a Löyhkähaahkaja. So what does Google make of the accompanying text? Here it is, without embellishments: "This is a great size (4-5 feet), carnivorous plants attract prey lemullaan intolerable. Although it elääkin entire life rooted in one place, its great tarttumaelimellä a wide freedom of movement. Löyhkähaahkajat spread and multiply rihmajuurakkoaan along."

Well, reading that definitely evokes a 'sense of wonder'. I think that we are looking at a sessile but mobile life form. Other life forms on the page seem to have elements of plants as well as animals, a feature they share with Furahan mixomorphs. The limits of sessile life forms perhaps deserve a post of their own, some day.

Click to enlarge; copyright Sampsa Rydman

And this is a Haaskahyppiäinen. "The kolmeraajaisten hyppiäisten sect belonging to the plains inmate is about 20 cents higher, munimalla growing insect-like vikkeläliikkeinen hajoittajaeläin. They are found largely blue-green leaves and raipparepsukoiden hills and mustaruohotasangoilta."

Right. I thought as much. But look at it: it appears to be a triradial life form, and I have a definite soft spot for radial animals, particularly ones with complex motor skills.

Have a look at the other animals yourself. They are probably more graphically pleasant than biologically plausible, but every once in a while that is admissible. Mind you, if you wish to have a look at the other pages, turn off the translation, or else you will not see the illustrations on the pages. There is a nice planetary map here. I rather liked the images advocating 'robot equality'. I hasten to say that I do not object to treating robots humanely (of course not!) but I hope that does not mean they fall under the heading of 'speculative biology'. Dear me.

I will keep it at this. This is a nice site! I would have liked to have seen more animals, but I guess I will have to wait for the conference...