Saturday 30 May 2015

Future evolution from France: 'Demain, les animaux du futur' Review I

Click to enlarge; copyright Éditions Belin 2015  The bird at the top is a Necropteryx, a vulture descendant. The 'helmet' is found on males only, depends on hormones and signifies rank.

Books on speculative biology are rare, so the publication of a new one is an Event. The long-awaited 'Demain. Les animaux du futur' deserves a place of honour in that small library, right next to Dougal Dixon's 'Life after man'. It's very good!

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. I like the clever use of a fake infrared night image. What you are looking at is a confrontation between a predator and a carrion eater, both large birds. 

The book was written and illustrated in a very close collaboration between Marc Boulay, a sculptor who became a ZBrush expert, and Sébastien Steyer, a palaeontologist. As they themselves describe in the book, the artist and the scientist bounced ideas back and forth to shape their creations. The book is published by Belin and is available from Amazon (for 23 Euros, so it's not expensive). Before you all rush off to order it right now, be aware that it is in French.

The book has its own website and there is lots of other information on Marc's site too. It counts over 150 pages and contains more illustrations than text, which is how it should be. Almost all illustrations were done with ZBrush; that is a 3D sculpting programme that has very quickly become a world leader when it comes to sculpting organic forms. Marc is an expert and former beta tester of ZBrush. I knew how good he was with ZBrush, and drew attention to his ability to produce photorealistic illustrations back in 2009. Still, I was a bit hesitant, as I think photorealistic computer generated images run a risk of becoming somewhat lifeless.

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. The image of the head of a male parrot descendent, Tyrannornis rex, shows the level of detail in feathers, skin etc. 

I should not have worried, because Marc pulls it off. In fact, I now think that at this level of artistry photorealism really comes into its own. Paintings have the unique advantages of easily provoking the viewer into imagining a world, often through not showing every detail. Here, every tiny scale, feather, hairs, wrinkle or glint in an eye is visible, and that has an effect in a way opposite to what a painting can do, but just as good. Marc manages to make all those details add life to his creatures: they are actually there.

The book has four chapters: the oceans of the future, the endless mangrove, a new continent and a 'user guide of the future', which in part describes how they designed their creatures, what the design limitations were, etc. Each of the first three chapters has a main text in which unnamed human observers relate what they see in the world around them, so we read about interactions between animals, hunts and other behavioural aspects. The text at times jumps to another perspective providing insights of the reasoning behind a shape or form. I have not read every letter yet, but the authors provide information here and there of the underlying story. This is a world 10 million years in the future. The main players we are used to have disappeared, so there are no large mammals on land, and not even bony fish seemed to have made it through the extinction event. The chapter on the oceans coolly describes that acidification of the oceans might result in the extinction of many animals that make up plankton: this could start to happen in parts of the oceans as soon as 2030. The book does not make a big thing out of this, and the reader is left to fill in the gaps: in a way the book is about  the results of our own actions shaping future life on this planet, for ever altered. The authors chose a period of 10 million years to allow the ecosystems to swing back to stable states again, and also, pragmatically, because other authors had left this particular slot open.

So which animal groups quickly evolved to fill the gaps? There are some lovely and unexpected creations here, but the main players are squid, birds and bats. I expect that this is where people may become critical, either because it is not made clear why these groups survived, or perhaps because of a feeling that 'this has been done before'. As for the latter matter, well, yes, there is truth in that, but it would not be easy to come up with totally novel 'survivor' groups. Dougal Dixon had that luxury with 'After Man', but that was in 1981, because he was the first. Work on the present book started in 2000 as far as I can tell, and in those 15 years many people became interested in speculative biology. I think that that particular term was probably not even in use at the time. Marc and Sébastien do not seem to be worried about this.

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. A big nocturnal terrestrial bat

In fact, when presenting a blood-sucking terrestrial bat (Nosferapoda kinskii), they directly compare it to Dixon's night stalker and the 'future predator' of the television series 'primeval'. By the way, both featured in one of my earlier posts on echolocation. Marc and Sébastien write that creating a terrestrial bat can be considered a classic of speculative biology, and add detail and reasoning to their version: they explain why their 'night vampire' bears most of its weight on its hind legs, so its gait resembles that of knuckle-walking apes. I like this approach of not ignoring earlier works of speculative biology but of accepting that theirs is not the only one. Dixon's work is mentioned more than once in the book, and I am proud to say that my work is acknowledged too: there is a quadrupedal 'giraffe bird' with the species name 'Giraffornis vandijki'. I am honoured!

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. Giraffornis vandijki... I apologise for cutting off the image at the right, but that is where the book pages meet, and I will not ruin the book merely to get a better scan. The male is on top, and a female interacts with a young at the bottom. They are preyed on by Tyrannornis, I am sorry to say.     

I expect that most readers of this blog would want me to post as many as yet unpublished images of the animals in the book as I can cram in this post. I have included very few such images and will show a few more in a second post on this book, one or two weeks from now. But I will restrain myself, as that would spoil the joy of getting your own book. I had seen images on various websites before, but seeing the large number of fresh images formed a large part of the pleasure of reading the book. I hope that others will also restrain themselves, and that Belin finds an English language publisher quickly, so you can all find out for yourselves.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Unveiling cloakfishes' cloaked filters

I stopped blogging, so what is this post doing here?

Well, I never said I would stop altogether, and I would return if there was something of special interest to report. Yesterday, I received my advance copy of  'Demain, les animaux du futur' from the authors, Marc Boulay and Jean-Sébastien Steyer. I am quite impressed and will return to write about it, in a week or so. Writing the present post is to get me in the mood again.

A main reason to reduce blogging was to spend more time on producing The Book, and that worked quite well: without blogging, I manage to produce one two-page spread every month, meaning one full painting, accompanying text, scale drawings and usually a minor illustration. At 24 pages a year there is definite progress (and I intend to increase the output). Sadly, Fishes I, II and III together only get one spread, while terrestrial hexapods get many. To illustrate the mechanics of some groups, I have stumbled on a three-spread theme: one spread for explanation, one to show diversity, and one showing a single species in a full painting. Groups that get this treatment are spidrids (half finished), rusps (all done), tetropters (not yet) and cloakfish: half done.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
The early beginnings of cloakfish are shown here, and the latest instalment of their physique was posted here. Like it or not, that particular form, shown above, has now been scrapped. As you can see I played with putting the mouth in the cone forming the 'snout' of the animal. Well, not anymore. While sketching I drew a cloakfish cut in two and that gave me the idea of making a 'cutaway' version to explain how it works. Unfortunately, that meant that I could use very little 'handwavium'. Without a cutaway drawing I could just write something like this: (imagine an Attenborough-style voice-over) "Hidden from view by the animal's cylindrical body wall, its food rakes, next to the gills, steadily filter the nutritious plankton so abundant in these waters." How they look is left to the imagination.

With filters unhidden, the problem presented itself that I never really understood how filter feeding works, which is no wonder as I never looked it up. Many animals use it, from sharks and rays to bony fish and whales. So it works, but consider a whale shark or a basking shark as a gigantic sieve sweeping through the ocean. After a while, the filter will have sieved lots of food particles, now stuck against the sieve. The animal will have to scrape the food from it, not only to swallow it, but also to prevent the sieve becoming clogged. Remember that the gills are there as well, and you do not want to ruin respiration, not even for feeding. What bothered me is that whales might use their tongues to scrape clean their baleens, or so I supposed, but I was not aware of scrapers inside a whale shark's mouth.

Click to enlarge; Source: Brainerd, Nature 2001; 412: 387-388
Well, reading a few papers later I found out about something called 'cross flow filtration'. Naively, I had imagined the filter as a sieve at a right angle to the flow of water, allowing water to pass while particles get stuck. That's not how all filters work, though. The image above explains the process nicely. In 'cross flow filtration', the surface of the filter is parallel to the flow of water. Behind the filter there is a low pressure area, so water flows there. Apparently, particles move on parallel to the water, staying on one side of the filter, where they are  concentrated more and more. The papers then mention things like 'near the oesophagus', suggesting that the animal then merely has to swallow the concentrated particles and there you are. If you want to read more, I found a site where you can obtain a Nature paper for free here. Mind you, the fact that this was worthy of publishing in Nature in 2001 means that this is still all fairly new. The papers are somewhat vague on why the concentrated particles bunch up in a cul de sac waiting for the oesophagus to gulp them up, but I will accept this leap of faith; it cannot be easy to do an oesophagoscopy on a freely swimming whale shark.

So I sketched some more, filling in the inside of cloakfish contours, giving it a cross flow filter with a cul the sac leading to the oesophagus. Actually, since we are talking about a tetraradiate animal, there are four filters and four oesophagi leading to one stomach. I paint but am not a technical artist, so I needed some help with the perspective and also with visualising the insides of the cloakfish. I used Vue Infinite to provide me with as many perspectively correct views of the animal's inside as I wanted to help draw the cutaway.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
What you see above are some aids in doing so. The holes help visualise the flow of water (but I must add that the gill design was changed afterwards). The painting, based on this design, is nearly finished, but I will not show it: there should be new material in The Book. My first look at the 'Demain' book showed a very large amount of previously unpublished animals, and that strengthened my resolve to keep much hidden. I must say that writing this post did remind me why I did it for a long time: it is fun; but time is short...