Sunday 31 March 2013

The challenge: Tarquin's Jackjaw

So the challenge was a difficult one... Both rodlox and Petr were right: the animal indeed came from the Dr. Grordbort collection of nicely mounted Venusian insectoids. I had hoped for a proper species identification though. I guess the walls of the Virtual Main Hall will have to remain in their pristine state for the time being. Oh well.

Click to enlarge; copyright Weta Limited.

Click to enlarge; copyright Weta Limited
The animal in question is a Tarquin's Jackjaw. I found it along with four other unreleased 'Framed Venusian Wildlife Specimens' in the book "Weta, the Collector's Guide". The top image above one is a scan from the book, and the one below that was taken directly from the Weta site. The sculptor's name is not completely visible, but credit should go to where it is due: Jamie Beswarick. You can find more about him on the Weta side. 

I would rather like to own one of these display specimens, and am convincing myself that I in fact need one. Mind you, the book also contains rather large trophies of Venusian animals' heads, to hang on your wall. perhaps I will show these later, as I am rather fond of the Dr Grordbort universe.

But not next week; I will be returning to Furahan spidrids..

Saturday 23 March 2013

A challenge for the speculative exobiology experts out there

I decided to NOT present another chapter on spidrids this time, seeing as how I presented two posts in a row on that subject already. There is definitely more to say on spidrids, and I will do so, but the next spidrid post will be better if I take more time. Another argument to step away from all those little and not-so-little spidrids scurrying around my feet is that I found myself thinking "Earth crab locomotion really resembles Furahan spidrid walks more than I expected". When you start taking fictional animals as the yardstick against which Earth animals are compared, it is perhaps time to tone the level of 'biogeekery' down a bit. Well, not that much, really, as instead of a post on spidrid gaits I will present you with a question challenging your level of expertise in this particular field.

Click to enlarge
What's the animal you see here? Mind you, I altered the image a bit to make it slightly more difficult. I will reveal the source in a week. The prize is a virtual plaque with your achievement on it on the wall of the Virtual Main Hall of the Institute of Furahan Biology. That's something, isn't it?   

Saturday 9 March 2013

Skitters ('Falling Skies'), spidrids and footless crabs

The previous post was devoted to spidrids, Furahan radially symmetrical walking animals. In thinking about their movement my attention was drawn more and more to Earth crabs, because the anatomy of their legs proved to resemble the anatomy I had chosen for spidrid legs. I admit that spidrid leg anatomy mostly came about because of a wish to see them walk. There are programming problems that I cannot solve myself (inverse kinematics) and I do not have any of the high-end graphics programs that can do it for me. So that is why I came up with the simple scheme I discussed before: at the hip joint there is a vertical axis of movement allowing clockwise rotation, but all other leg segments have horizontal axes enabling shortening and extension of the legs. Later, the exact same scheme proved popular with robot builders.

Last time I discussed a feature of crab (or spidrid) legs that I still do not understand well: slanting. I tried to contact arthropod experts but without luck so far. But there is another feature of crabs I do not understand: why do they not have feet? Crab legs more or less just end in rounded points. This is odd, because crabs, often living in tidal water, need to be able to get to good hold on the ground they are walking on, or else they may be swept away by the current. You would expect feet with curved claws for that. I have not found a discussion of why crabs do not have feet, just one mention of the fact that they do not. As I was considering adding feet to spidrids, I wondered whether there could be an anatomical reason for their absence. That will be discussed first, and only then will the 'skitters' of  'Falling Skies' be discussed: they have feet.
Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
In the past I discussed the influence of leg posture on the anatomy of leg joints, and in particular how many axes are needed. The image above shows a new version of an old design (Mechanicus disneius). In the left image the leg is simply rotated forward around the vertical axis of the hip/shoulder joint: the foot ends up rotated with respect to the ground. While walking, the foot should move along a path shown as a stripe on the ground; in reality the animal moves forwards and the foot stays on the ground; it's the same relative movement. The foot should point forwards during the entire step, and that requires rotation around an axis parallel to the most distal leg segment, shown by an axis sticking out of it. The image on the right shows where the foot should be: many joint positions need to be adapted, but the one important here is the rotation of the feet around that longitudinal distal leg axis. By the way, rotate your hands palm up and palm down: what you are doing is pronation (palm down) and supination (palm up), which is just such a movement, due to the long bones in the forearm crossing and uncrossing.

The need for pronation and supination must be present for any animal with sprawling legs. That does not only include lizards and turtles, but arthropods -and spidrids and radial robots!-. I have not found any mention of how arthropods solve this problem. The robot builders just ignore it. Insects have a series of short segments at the need of their legs, the tarsus, linked through ball and socket joints. Are they how insects cope? Does the tarsus more or less flip around during a leg cycle? As said, crabs have no feet, so the end segment of their legs must turn in place during a step, rotating against the ground. Do crabs have no feet because there is no mechanism for pronation and supination? I cannot believe that. All this rotation with friction without a proper way to grab the ground seems an odd way to design a leg, and yet it seems to be there. If anyone knows an arthropod limb expert, please ask them...

Click to enlarge
What does all this have to do with the skitters of the television series 'Falling Skies'? Well, they have radial legs with feet, in an interesting example of 'convergent speculation'. A skitter is shown above, along with my simplified version to illustrate its anatomy (Disneius horrificus). Skitters have invaded an conquered Earth, but as the story unfolds it seems they did so under duress, so to speak. Their top end shows bilateral symmetry but their nether end has radial symmetry, which is odd. There are more aspects that suggest we should be well prepared to suspend disbelief (I like the series). For one, the legs are overly thick given that there are six of them. In itself that might indicate evolution in a very high gravity, but the sprawled position of the legs argues strongly against that. They can walk along vertical walls, a feature so unlikely there is little need to discuss it. They communicate through radio, an old favourite of speculative biology that seems difficult to get underway in an evolutionary sense. (All right, here is why I think so: the evolution of biological radio might well start with a primitive capability to receive radio waves, but can you see/hear with that sense? Where is the benefit?).

The video fragments above show skitters in action. I have repeated the very short fragments to make it easier to see what is going on. It is clear that their nether ends are indeed fully radial, and that the feet accordingly stick out in all directions.

Above you see another fragment, one I rather like. I have repeated this one a few times as well. The skitter turns as it negotiates the path between the furniture. It must turn, as its top end has clear front and back sides: if it has to face the humans, it has to turn. With that clear preference you would expect its bottom end to have an equally clear fore to aft distinction, but that part is radially symmetrical. The one distinguishing feature of radial symmetry is that it allows movement in all directions. With such feet, a skitter might be expected to walk in any direction with equal ease, even directions in which it cannot see...  

The feet remain planted on the floor during the turn, so the legs in fact rotate around a longitudinal axis of the distal leg segment. That is nice; a pity that the anatomical mechanism is not visible. I very much like the way the animators solved the problem of how an organism with such a wide leg base negotiates the limited space between the furniture, designed for the much narrower forms of humans. The skitter behaves like an all-terrain vehicle and simply puts its legs on the furniture where needed, evening out the differences in height between its feet as it goes. That is very well done, I think.

But still... Leaving spidrids with leg points that pirouette against the ground at every step is very unsatisfying. The feeling is a bit like when you are unable to solve a puzzle, the answer of which must be staring you in the face. I think I will equip spidrids with feet, if only to end the irritation. That still leaves crabs, presenting the same puzzle...