Friday 26 August 2011

Between the Morae River and the Red Valley

I discussed Brynn Metheny's 'Morae River' project once before in this blog. The project dealt with life forms in a certain geographical area called 'Solturna'. The animals there at first glance looked like Earth's mammals, reptiles, or fish, so you might think that the Morae valley might be somewhere on Earth. But a closer look revealed small but telling differences in anatomy, so you might think that the creatures perhaps stemmed from a not too alternate time-line and were mammaloid, reptiloid and ichthyoid. But a few animals departed so much from regular Earth stock to make you think that they required an extremely early divergence or an unearthly origin. Brynn gave no clue as how to place her creations, and preferred a fluid interpretation. Earlier this year she unfortunately decided to stop working on the Morae River. But that should those who never visited the site from doing so, as it is a great project even if it is no longer updated.

Luckily she did not stop producing odd animals. Far from it! I gather that she is making 'creature design' her career, which hopefully means that there is much more to come. There are several places where you can admire her work: she has a site on Deviant Art where she goes under the name of LenoreKitty. She has a site under her own name,, as well as one going by the name of Fishhook studio. I selected a few paintings for you to see here, and expect that they will make you hungry for more.

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

The pygmy esorifleu
As you can see, this is an arboreal creature with a strong bill, like a parrot's, and six limbs. The middle pair are placed at the top of the animal and are directed upwards, whereas the front and aft pairs are directed downward. There is also a tail, which looks like it is prehensile. This animal can only be a brachiating carnivore. It looks somewhat like my marblebill, to be found on the Furaha site but also in this blog (here and here). A fairly large design difference is that the esorifleu using its middle pair of limbs to swing from, whereas I chose the front pair. Brynn wrote me that the pygmy was designed for a creature design contest. I think the marblebill and the esorifleu are nice examples of convergent speculation.

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

Elegant hunters
And indeed they are. Mind you, the prey look rather dashing as well. The beaks of the hunters remind me of the mouth of a deinichthys. At first glance their body design seems to say 'bony fish from Earth', with its vertical tail, fin rays, gills and dorsal fin. But then you notice that instead of one pair of pectoral fins there are two, giving a jolt to the idea of what exactly they are. What I do not know is whether you have to know that two pairs of pectoral fins are impossible for that jolt to occur. Anyway, four gill slits is an unusual number as well.
I would like to see more of their prey, whose 'Bauplan' seems much more unearthly. I like the bumps on the front of the flippers. Not many swimming animals have those, but humpback whales have very knobbly leading edges on their enormous flippers, and in their case the turbulence they cause actually seems to help. Is that the end of a siphon I see on their sides? Are those expiratory outlets?

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

No classification problems here: that's a perissodactyl unguloid, or a hoofed animal with an odd number of toes. But are those concentric structures external ears? Perhaps the animal is not Terran after all...
What I like a great deal about this one is how the animals are not simply shown in side view, but are much more three-dimensional. The calf's head cannot be seen, and the mother's head is turned away a bit as well. This is where the trained artist shows herself, I think.

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

A work in progress
Lacking a name, let's call it a 'wip'. If I see correctly there is just one pair of eyes, and the other markings on its head are nostrils and ears. Even so, this animal is more alien than the previous one, with the sail on its neck and particularly the spikes at the base of its tail. Now what are these doing there? They are not placed well for attack or defence, so perhaps they are for display purposes, and display to members of the same species always boils down to sex. Do the spikes serve to impress other wips, or do they provide tactile stimulation during procreation? I had better reign in my imagination here...
It's a beauty though.

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

Another work in progress
If it is, we might as well label it a 'wiptoo'. It is interesting how this head and neck study immediately evokes the notion that we are looking at a very large animal. One reason must be the relatively thick neck. Large animals need proportionately thicker limbs, and that goes for necks too (see here and here for the reasons). Apparently we are so used to seeing the results of these laws of nature that we immediately draw conclusions from seeing their results. Alternatively, of course, this could be a moderately sized animal from a heavy-gravity world, but I do not think so: its eyes are also small in relation to its body. They seem to be camera eys such as vertebrates have on Earth. While bigger animals generally have bigger eyes, eye size does not increase directly with body size, so large animals have relatively small eyes. As with neck thickness, the observer takes these cues and judges the size of the animal, consciously or unconsciously.
Its skin glistens. You can tell from the linear nature of the reflections that its skin is smooth, and I wonder whether it is wet because it just emerged from a swamp or something similar or because the skin itself is wet or oily. A large animal with a permanently wet skin would need a permanently moist and saturated environment. Perhaps it lives as brontosaurs were once thought to do: in humid steaming swamps.

Click to enlarge; copyright Brynn Metheney

There are no animals on this painting, but the image contains a promise. The website of the Red Valley project is already up, but there's not much to see yet. We are promised that animals will appear there in the Fall, so hopefully Brynn won't keep us waiting too long. She wrote me that she is not going to reveal all about the planet: "I might know details about the whole of the planet and such but as far as my viewers are concerned, I'd like it to just be about this valley." I agree with that sentiment: always leave the viewer or the audience hungry for a bit more, and a hint that there is in fact more does wonders to whet the appetite. She added: "I want the flora and fauna to feel alien enough but I want viewers to relate to them as well."
From what Brynn has done in the past, I think she will succeed. The text on the Red River site also states: "No regions, no classification, just this place as it is." Oh very well, I get the message: I should stop trying to classify these animals to see where they belong and what makes them work.

Hmmm; as if I could...


Evan Black said...

The kind of ambiguity Brynn Metheny has employed is certainly a foreign concept for those of us who are accustomed to putting things in neat little categories, but it's done an interesting thing for me: when I look at her work I tend to just enjoy the art and design of the animals on an immediate level rather than trying to figure out the ecology. Her projects are almost totally right-brained in that respect, and when I keep that in mind I find I can give the left side of my brain a rest and just appreciate her work for what it is.

And that ambiguity is a real protection for projects in general, I think. By stating details explicitly then those details are subject to scientific scrutiny, but by leaving more to the imagination then not only are the problems of biological categorization avoided but the world surrounding the specifics of the project is one of potent possibilities. I sometimes wonder if I've done my own project a disservice with my more comprehensive approach.

I too enjoy the convergent speculation of the esorifleu and your marblebill. I especially think the whiskers of the esorifleu are an appropriate adaptation given the apparently cramped arboreal environment shown in the picture. Also, there seems to be a membrane along the upper brachating limbs; I wonder if this is the atrophied remains of wing membranes in flying ancestors, or perhaps Darwinian innovations leading toward a traditionally draconic bauplan.

I wonder about the front limbs too, and how they seem to be atrophying, too. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems to me that in such an environment those extra limbs would be an advantage.

Why are the two pairs of pectoral fins on the 'elegant hunters' impossible? Doe they cause some sort of hydrodynamic interference?

I agree about the artistic expression of the 'Mamma' image. It reminds me of a vérité style, as if this was an image captured candidly and on location. What little it may lack in clarifying illustration it more than makes up for in character and charm.

Do the spikes serve to impress other wips, or do they provide tactile stimulation during procreation?

Or maybe both? And if they live, as you suggested for 'wiptoo', in steaming swamps, then might they they be heat regulating fins too?

And the other dark spots on the head-- nostrils and ears-- could also double as distracting eyespots? But the 'wip' seems too large to really have a problem with predators.

That's probably enough geekery for me. I've always enjoyed Brynn's work; as you can see, it excites my imagination.

Anonymous said...

Agreed: Brynn is one of the best real- and creative-wildlife artists I've of the trinity of great ones: Brynn, M0ai, and Sigmund Na...the owner of this blog.
(Mr. Black is well on his way to joining them if he continues)

Umm, Evan, imho, there's a time and a place for ambiguity - and a limit to it as well; unless half-covered by a burrow or foliage, Nereids could not pass for Earth organisms...just as some of Brynn's fauns and creatures couldn't - its not a bad thing, it just is what it is.

and the Wipoo may be too large to have a problem with predators (unless the predators get big too)...but big animals have to grow up.

...unless they're ballonts. ;)

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Evan: You expressed that well, as usual. There is a balance in deciding what you leave to the imagination and what you divulge. In my 'sales pitch' on the books on Furaha and Nereus on the 'New Hades' page I emphasised the differences in approaches: you work from body schemes and cladistics, whereas my own creations are less well established cladistically. I thought on that some more and decided to present bits of evolutionary history here and there, such as for the descent of hexapods, but other groups will be presented as they are.

The analytical approach is fun, but so is just accepting what is there, and Brynn's work falls more in the latter category.

As for 'impossible' in the 'elegant Hunter', I only meant that the body plan could not fit in an Earth Fish scheme; biomechanically it could work, I think.

Rodlox: thank you. One day I will have to sit down and think of something to solve the ballont problem of 'being born big'.

Anonymous said...

>as they are.
so, little hope (pre-book, at least) of seeing relatives of the Grouillard?

about Ballonts:
Maybe it isn't a problem...because while they're born big, they grow up to be enormous.

...or they are like Earth grasses: if they break apart (or even just in two), that counts as a "birth" in the sense of two beings able to survive on their own.