Sunday 2 February 2014

An unknown speculative biology project by Dougal Dixon: Microplatia I

I recently exchanged emails with various people involved in speculative biology, including Dougal Dixon, about a possible common project. This bit of knowledge might just make you a little bit curious, but I will not say more about it until we know that it will go through. That should be in a month or two, and if it does I will definitely write about it here. 

Anyway, Dougal mentioned that he had drawings and illustrations from a project on exobiology with the Science Museum in London. Unfortunately the project was abandoned when the sponsor decided to withdraw. Apparently there were models as well, but those got left with the animation house and are no longer available. Somehow I forgot to ask whether any actual animations were ever done.

Dougal Dixon does not need an introduction in a blog on speculative biology; you could say that he introduced speculative biology. He put two of the three major fields of speculative biology on the map: the first was future evolution in the book 'After Man (1981)', and the second was alternative evolution in the book 'The New Dinosaurs' (1988). I have seen some of the themes in those books referred to as clichés, and perhaps they are now, having been copied and paraphrased many times. But nothing is a cliché when done for the first time, and these books were full of novel ideas. Scientific American recognised that not long ago and published a slide show on his work: Dougal's 'alternative dinosaurs' were less alternative than anyone could have guessed in 1988. Subsequent dinosaur discoveries showed that actual dinosaurs had features very similar to Dougal's earlier fictional ones. Moreover, if it had not been for recalcitrant publishers, his book on the third field of speculative biology, 'fictional exobiology', would also have appeared long ago. As it is, you need to speak Japanese to read 'Greenworld', about which I wrote earlier here and here.   

Back to the aborted project; I was curious and asked whether he would mind sharing some of that material. He did not, and was kind enough to send me several images and an accompanying text. So here is his text on 'Microplatia' and three images. I shall be cruel and post the remaining five images later. 



As with the Earth, Microplatia’s structure consists of a core, mantle and crust. The core is very large and consequently the mantle is shallow. Tectonic plate movements take place on the surface as they do on Earth - expanding and shrinking oceans and moving the continents about in continental drift - but as the mantle is shallow, the convection currents are very small. This results in a large number of very small tectonic plates (Microplatia - geddit?) that move around quite quickly.

With small continents - mostly no more than island chains - and rapid tectonic movements, the surface conditions are dominated by what we would term “natural disasters”. Not a day goes by without earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of all sorts, geyser and hot pool activity, tsunamis and so on. The energy of these movements is what supplies the energy that is exploited by the life forms (like the life forms around the hot smokers in the depths of modern earth oceans).

Life forms

No magnetic field, and so nothing to block out dangerous solar radiation. Most animals protect themselves by wading in the shallow seas. Those permanently on land have developed sun-proof shells, or transparent body coverings making them look like jellyfish.

Plant life is protected by layers of translucent resin that solidifies and persists as glassy cities and towers even when the plants that produced them inside have died off. They act as greenhouses protecting a whole range of animal life beneath them. Frequent earthquakes bring them shattering down, and the shards are used as raw materials for the next generation.

Amongst the animals the walking limbs are not like ours - rigid bone with muscles on each side pulling one way and then the other. Instead the bone is springy and the muscles are only on one side - muscles pulling one way and the spring pulling the other. (There is precedent in our own zoology.)

Attached are the plans of two of the animal types developed for the project.

The first is the Walkingmouth. A big animal of coastal shallows. Spends most of its time with its body just under the water. Several mouths on the ends of long springy rods that are cast out like an angler’s fishing rod. Each mouth has a set of legs that allow it to go looking for food on the shoreline. The youngsters grow on the back, and are broken off and carried inland on tsunamis, surfing on the giant waves.

The second are Bubblesonstilts. These are land-living animals that forage on the slopes of the volcanoes."

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
Here is the planet. It looks like Dougal painted over an existing sphere to produce the map. I did exactly the same thing to produce an actual globe of Furaha, but never finished it: it became fairly boring to paint yet another mountain range.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
This shows the ancestry of  Walkingmouths and Bubblesonstilts. I wonder whether these names are temporary placeholders or were meant as the final names of these groups. I rather like the idea of starting with an ancestral pattern and developing your life forms from there. Personally I did it the other way round, and am paying for that: having given my beasties' evolution more thought, the poor creatures on my paintings find that their transformation into digital form is accompanied by a ruthless rearrangement of their anatomy.

Have a look at the animal's arms or branches: these consist of the elements Dougal described above:  a springy bone, labelled 'gristle' with muscles attached to it to pull it against the direction the gristle pulls in, which must be upwards. When I read the text I imagined that the two structures would be placed alongside one another, but there is a lot of space between them along most of their length.  That is best visible in the Walkingmouth sketch at the bottom.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon
And this is a more detailed sketch of the Walkingmouth. The top view shows a rotund body with 'up to 5 mouths', and the side view shows just one of those mouths, or perhaps 'mouth limbs'. The gristle is now at the top, and forms a bow-like shape. What would be the string on a bow is defined as a 'trunk like gullet', with a 'mouth unit' at the end. These have there own 'legs', the details of which will be shown in another post.

That is a pretty radical departure of 'life as we know it', but there is more:  the youngsters on the back are described as the 'haploid phase'; there is another phase as well? 


Anonymous said...

Ah! After all these years Douglas send me back on the school bench once again.
Nice to hear that he also participate in the field of exobiology, can't wait to see more =)

All the best,


Petr said...

very interesting! veeery veeery interesting!

Nicky said...

Curse the ignorant towards speculative biology that has plagued us for so long. How dare does society focus so much on family drama and reality shows that are not even worth to be qualified as shows. Gah, if I had the rights to FOX and other media outlets, I sue them all. Darn them all for their supressionist acts

P.S. King Gert, would you do a post concerning the biology of the creatures from these two video games?

I know you are not a gamer, but at least share some honest thoughts.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anonymous, Petr, Nicky: glad you like it.

Nicky: I had a quick look and thought it was difficult to form an opinion based on that: the size is difficult to judge, so is movement, what kind of world is this supposed to be, etc. But I will look longer later.

Andrew Broeker said...

"but as the mantle is shallow, the convection currents are very small. This results in a large number of very small tectonic plates (Microplatia - geddit?) that move around quite quickly."

Could someone who knows more about geophysics than I comment on whether this follows? It seems dubious to me at first glance, particularly the part about the plates moving faster.

Nicky said...

Alright, i have some makeshift size comparison of the creatures from borderlands 2: Thresher (underground serpemtine creature that has tentacles, larger one can summon more tentacles) Rakk (flying, has no legs, mouth like a stingray's) Stalker (can be invisibe) Bullymong (gorilla like, uses its 4 arms to move around, very strong, uses smaller back legs a support when lifting heavy objects) Crystalisk (made of crystals, has radial symmetry) Spiderant (left, can had various armor, spider-like) Skag (right, dog-like, has bifrucated mouth, barfing is actually defecating) Varkid (exoskeleton varies) and one unique critter Chaurus (lives in caves, a centipede has stag beetle-like mandibles by means of convergent evolution) from Elder Scrolls: Skyrim from Garrysmod.

Ragdolls by Chrysaetos, who ported the models. Might show more tomorrow.

Daniel Demski said...

Earlier you asked for links to unknown specbio projects... I don't have one, but I've been reading posts I skipped on my initial read-through of this blog and noticed the ones about borrowing methods of movement from areas such as robotics. One excellent area for helping us think about biology without using assumptions from Earth, is genetic algorithms. For example much has been done to simulate evolution of walking and swimming.

Such strategies as are shown at that link seem to suffer in elegance for not taking into consideration anything but the need to move; but they are certainly possible ways of getting around.

Daniel Demski said...

This video contains some thought-provoking ones:

At 2:25 there's even an apparent clap-and-fling design, with four wings!

Regarding the post I'm actually commenting on. The bendy skeleton concept is definitely thought-provoking, it definitely allows for drastically different musculature. I did find one genetic algorithm walking experiment which simulated actual muscle tissue... Seems like such simulations would be a good way to explore other paradigms like 'extensile' muscle, or this one here.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Andrew Broeker: I'm not much of a geologist and cannot address yor comment adequately. However, Dougal Dixon is a geologist by training, unless I am mistaken. Perhaps he will jump in.

Nicky: all right, all right, but give me some time please. The chances of me doing a post on these creatures are very slim, but I will have a look.

Daniel Demski 1/2: I did report on such an approach once, but your examples are very interesting, particularly the one with the 'four flipper/wing design. I think I will try to contact the author.
Abiut the bendy skelton: there will probably be more about that in a second post on Microplanitia. When you wrote 'extensile muscle, were you thinking about the design in the Epona project?

Anonymous said...

This is off topic (though I'm also a fan of Dougal Dixon's work), but if you are still looking for different topics to talk about on your blog I just learned about a new book done by the same people who did All Yesterdays ( .

Daniel Demski said...

Yes, Eponan push-based muscles were what I was referring to. Don't know why 'extensile' was the first word to come to mind.

While I'm thinking of it; not sure if you've seen this before:

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anonymous: I knew about it but hadn't read reviews etc. yet. I think I will order it. It's not about life on other planets, but there's no reason to be overly fussy.

Daniel: 'extensile' was the word used in Epona days, so it is apt. There was a a big debate about how well they would work at one point; I remember writing a two page analysis...
I had seen the dresden codak comic. Very good, and very enjoyable.

puyamaster said...

Very very interesting! I 'm looking forward to your next post.

P.S. I 'm searching for Dixon's 'Krakken adventures in future ocean'.
Do you know about it?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Puyamaster: that's a long time ago; welcome back. Actually, yes, I do know about it, but think that the video part has never been released on DVD and so is impossible to obtain.

Evan Black said...

It's always a delight to see material from the man who could be considered the father of speculative evolution. I'm doubly intrigued by the fact that it's an alien project! I think it's fair to say that most projects in this field are "aborted," but it's always nice to see what we can.

The explanation of geology reminded me of my own work. A large core would increase the overall density of the planet and produce a greater gravitational force. Depending on the planet's total mass, life on Microplatia might experience higher g-forces than life on Earth.

And this trait seems to justify the, er..., 'dynamic' tectonic patterns on Nereus. Perhaps I need to consider factoring similar "natural disasters" into Nereus, though maybe not with the same frequency.

No magnetic field has often been considered incompatible with a planet's life-bearing capabilities. I'd be interested to know about the radiation levels experienced from the sun, how different materials have coped with that process (how do transparent/translucent body coverings really help to protect organisms?), and why life forms haven't adapted to utilize that energy source instead of the geothermal activity?

If these springy-- perhaps cartilaginous-- bones exist in larger creatures, it suggest to me that the gravity is lower than on Earth, and the overall small mass of the planet would lend credence to why there is no magnetic field. I too was surprised by the arrangement of the "bones" and "muscles" because I also imagined the structures growing adjacently. I guess this is further evidence of the value of illustrations, especially in speculative biology.

If there is more of this project, I'd love to see it. Sometimes I wonder why works like this aren't more widely shared across the Internet, but a telling phrase echoes in my head: "If you're good at something never do it for free." I hope to see more of the potential variety and innovation a project like this contains, but I understand if we only ever get to see snippets. Perhaps it's encouragement for other speculators to try their hand at taking these ideas to new, interesting, and plausible levels.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Evan,

It's good to have you drop by again; you're missed.

You raise some good points, particularly the one about the radiation and how to protect against it (wavelength-dependent transparency would be my guess) or why life forms do not make use of that energy source (don't know; perhaps it is more difficult to get the process started for some wave lengths than other?).

As for the springy bones, I misunderstood the drawing in relation to the text, as Dougal pointed out to me. I will rectify that in the next post on this project. There is more, and I will post about it.

You are probably right about the reasons for not posting this. Many illustrators have wonderful material lying around made for themselves or as studies to improve their art, but those additional works do not get published. It probably has to do with the difference between a hobby and a job/profession.

Evan Black said...

It chagrins me to admit that I've only now noticed the roman numeral 'I' in the post's title, suggesting that you'll have more to say about this project in future posts. I look forward to it!

And I always say that it's better to be missed than to be hit. :)

Wavelength specific transparency makes the most sense to me too, but unless an organism is actually using at least some of the wavelengths allowed to pass through, why not have complete wavelength protection with opaque coverings? Since microplatian life isn't utilizing sunlight for energy, why transparency at all? Are the 'plants' described actually photosynthetic instead of chemosynthetic like black smokers?

Anonymous said...

How can a world be so geologically active but have no EM field? If everything moves as fast as the author says, it seems that there should be some generator effect inside that world.

Christmas Snow said...

The haploid "offsprings" growing on the walking-mouth's back present an interesting idea, and this reminds me of two equivalents on Earth:

- queen/workers hierarchy: Bees have a haploid phase called "drone", which lacks the sting. the drone mates with (preferably) another queen to establish a new beehive.

- Ferns: reproduce by alternation of generations: The plant sold at nurseries is the sporophyte, releasing spores. A spores landing on humid ground develops into a prothallium (Gametophyte) which is haploid and contains a sperm and ovule (primitive equivalent of a flower, but grows on its own). A fertilized prothallium produces a new sporophyte. (skipping the seed phase)

The walking-mouth may have a haploid generation growing on its back, detaching and searching for another walking-mouth to fertilize (like bees), or one haploid mates with a non-related haploid (like ferns) to produce a diploid (walking-mouth)

dysfunction said...
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