Saturday 24 November 2012

Thomastapir’s Xenohox Gazelle

Readers who have followed my Furaha work and this blog will know that I take a strong interest in biomechanics and locomotion, resulting in studies and animations of concepts such as six-legged gallops, radial walks and tetropter flight. There is of course another drive at work, and that is the wish to create something new, something truly alien. Given the immense diversity of life of Earth I used to feel that there probably was not that much that blind evolution had not yet stumbled upon, but later I felt that the limited number of basic animal shapes on Earth does in fact pose limits on the shapes we see, varied as they are. Hence forms such as spidrids and tetropters that I consider among my most original animal schemes. But at heart I am a bit conservative, which is why I hesitate to depart from known and tested body schemes.

Luckily, not everyone lets himself be restrained in this way, and that is why I would like to draw your attention to the work of thomastapir, whose work can be seen at deviantART. Like me, he likes locomotion and biomechanics, and he has produced some truly original creatures. I will only focus on one of his aliens here, but his dinosaurs and mythical beasts are well worth an visit. I will very likely revisit his page one day to discuss the 'Moebius inside out animal'.

Click to enlarge; copyright thomastapir

Xenohox Triphidian
I should perhaps jump right in with the Xenohox gazelle, as starting there will give you the full sense of wonder, but it would need a lot of explaining at once. Starting with this forerunner, here in its original place, has the advantage that its shape can be taken in fairly easily. Now this shape is new. One way to look at body shapes is to smooth the surface of animals until the shape cannot be reduced further, revealing its topology. Limbs, as simple protrusions, disappear, and our own vertebrate shape reduces to a blob with a hole through it, i.e. a torus: our digestive tract forms the hole. Jellyfish have no such hole, and can be reduced to a blob, or probably even a sheet. Thomastapir's animal represents three half tori mashed together.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
That is what you see above: the blob on the left with a hole through it represents humans and our Earth kin us reduced to our basic topology, whereas the more complex structure on the right is the triphidian. The points where the three half tori join would be natural spots to place the machinery of an animal, meaning its digestive, respiratory, cleaning and neural tracts, along with other odds and ends that need not be universal, such as spleens. The legend on the deviantART page does state that the 'bodies' indeed house the organs. One is called the head and the other the body, which is almost a pity: departing the beaten track should perhaps be accompanied by more original anatomical names as well.

Click to enlarge; copyright thomastapir

Xenohox Gazelle    
The animal above, the 'Xenohox Gazelle', has the same topology as the triphidian. To develop it, we can pull at the surface to produce extrusions, in the same way we can pull at a single torus to sculpt a human or a millipede. The result of this sculpting are three strong limbs. 

You will probably need time to work out how this animal is built, and understanding how it moves will take more study. Thomastapir's remarks on his deviantART page explain how it works. He has chosen to keep the triradial anatomy fully intact. Others -well, me at any rate, see here and here- might have decided to let two of the half tori develop into weight-bearing structures, freeing the other one for other uses such as manipulation. Thomas kept all three as equally functional locomotor limbs, which inevitably leads to the conclusion that the animal must turn along its body axis to bring each limb towards the floor in turn. That is very interesting but also very complex. You will need a good ability to visualise movement in your mind's eye to understand it. This is the task: the animal is running across your imaginary field of vision, its body spinning like a screw as it does so. Each leg rotates along with the body, and when it is pointed downward, it also moves backwards pushing at the ground. When it moves up again it also moves forward. If you manage to visualise that, add the two other legs, of course with the proper phase difference. Got it?

If you did not, never mind, as I prepared an animation to help you see how it works. I am fairly pleased how it turned out, although it seems to move more ponderously than the name 'gazelle' suggests. Perhaps I stumbled along the analogue of a heavy eland antelope instead of a slightly built gazelle. 

I do see one problem with this way of movement, and that is that it adds complexity to sensing the world around you. The eyes turn with the animal, so the visual field continually turns around as well. That cannot help vision one bit. This is very similar to the problem I encountered in 'cernuation'. There was a solution though: the head would turn against the movement keeping the eyes still (of course, after one turn the head would have to snap back to allow a new counter turn). When I mentioned the vision problem to thomastapir he answered the following:  

"On the complication of vision due to rapid rotation about the long axis--it could be a matter of, let's say it has three eyes, that each eye takes a sort of "snapshot" at specific point in its motion cycle--say, when the given eye reaches the top of its rotation.  So then a composite or gestalt image is built up sequentially from those single snapshot images, almost like a flip book or film strip.  The rate of rotation is rapid enough that it should create a fairly smooth, uninterrupted stream of visual information. And certainly it could keep one or more eyes continuously open when it's motionless or walking slowly." 

That would probably work, but is not ideal either, as visual information would be lost some of the time.

Anyway, above is another animation with added drama. Nice, isn't it? The topic of how such animals stand still or walk slowly also came up in our conversation, and it appears there are several solutions for this. Would evolution leave the animal this way, or would it evolve towards a simpler 'same side up' form? Would its particular set of hox analogue genes even allow such an evolution? I do not know, nor do I care much, while enjoying the creativity of the Xenohox gazelle and its mode of locomotion. 

Saturday 10 November 2012

Let's bag some Venusian animals while we can, what?

I visited Greg Boadmore's Venusian Bestiary in April 2011, which is not that long ago. It is quite possible you have all been visiting the Dr Grordbort site or Greg Broadmore's own site regularly, but if not, perhaps the following images will lure you to them. What you should understand about Dr Grordbort is that it is a place where hunting gentleman of the Victorian steampunk variety feel right at home. No wishy-washy 'preservationism' here; a sporting gentleman kills game, all in the natural order of things, of course!
It is obvious that the Dr Grordbort universe is thriving: there are more rayguns than ever, as well as some new books, but those are not the reason to visit (although I admit that I am tempted to buy one of the metal rayguns, but the more sensible -or humourless- part of my brain insist that I should not spend that much money on what is basically just a display object (so far that part is winning, but the boy in me really wants to hold a 1.5 kg raygun...).

Anyway, we are here to visit Venus and its menagerie. First, let's have a look at one or two insectoid specimens, nicely pinned and prepared in their own display cabinets.

Click to enlarge; copyright Stardog and Greg Broadmore

This is Gumbolt's wind rat (Xenodefugio subtiltus). It is obviously a flying animal, although it is a bit difficult to see how its parts function as a whole. If the blue parts are its body, the centre of mass would seem to be placed very far near the front, perhaps too much for the wings to keep it balanced. Unfortunately, the underside cannot be seen, nor is there a side view. Perhaps the brilliant blue lateral flaps at the front are very thin, so the centre of mass is placed somewhere between the attachment of the first pair of wings. Then again, the accompanying text describes Xenodefugio's locomotion as follows: "To ascribe the characteristic 'retarded' to it movement would not be unfair, as these simple little beasts move unpredictably in a manner akin to an unhappy grasshopper with mild brain damage." Well, its behaviour certainly seems to be in line with its anatomy.

Click to enlarge

The blue-sacked pillock (Simpletonius indigum). This one is accompanied by some intriguing remarks: the odd little blighters apparently attack themselves to the corneae of Royal Toops, providing them with the means to travel. It also has functional wings, and is a ballont to boot! The sac at its rear end helps it aloft, where it is 'suspended by its inflatable gas sack posterior'.

As you may know, my studies into ballooning life forms were rather disappointing as far as small animals were concerned, simply because the surface to volume ratio of the sac weighed against the balloon rising into the air (the last post on that is here, and you can find the others from there). It is jolly good to hear that things are rather different on Venus, where gentlemen need not bother with boffin types spoiling all the fun.

Click to enlarge; copyright Stardom

Ah, that's better, something large at last! All these silly little sissy animals do not warm a hunter's heart. Milton's Drunken Fussock is certainly large enough for sport!
   Intriguingly, the fussock has recognisable eyes, in contrast to many of its relatives. The lack of apparent eyes does not mean that Venusian animals do not have eyes. In my previous post on the subject, Mr Broadmore commented on just that subject, and said that the lack of visible eyes added to the alien feel. It does, too.
   That does not mean that I think 'eyelessness' is at all likely. In fact, writing about Venusian wildlife set me on the path to explore vision in some depth (here, here, here and here). No doubt, such critical musings would lead Dr Grordbort and chums such as Lord Coxswain to consider me a 'socially inept boffin' (comments on that are NOT required).

Click to enlarge; copyright Stardog

Now, here is Lord Coxswain himself -I assume that this is him- knows how to have fun; after bagging the fussock, he has set up the cadaver for a good laugh. Ha ha!

Finally, a video. The Grodbort universe is a clear source of inspiration to many people, and this video shows a splendid example. It was created by students from the Media Design School. I copied the one above from YouTube so you can have a quick look directly, but if you wish a much larger view, there is a much better version at Vimeo right here. 'The Deadliest Game' is all about the proper gentlemanly attitude towards 'sport'. The hero's beliefs are challenged by a young woman, but he is not fazed by such silliness. The film contains some wonderful animations of Venusian animals. I love the way in which modern software allows people to visualise what they imagine with more ease than ever before. Do watch the end titles, as they offer a glimpse of how the film was made. If I had to choose a career now, that is what I would like to do.