Monday, 2 January 2017

Adding 'universal background animals': kwals

The Book is over half done and is changing as it develops. I started by repainting existing oil paintings digitally, and by now most paintings with a pleasing design have been done. At first the paintings were merely cleaned up and details were added, but in the latest cases not a single pixel from the original painting survived: they were completely recreated from start. More importantly, the content changed: writing more elaborate texts forced many story elements and biological principles to be firmly defined for the first time. The painting 'arrival at Furaha' is a good example of this process (first post here, last one here): painting an internal  spaceship scene forced me to turn my previously rather vague ideas how they might work and in-world design aesthetics into written concepts and painted shapes that will guide things coming later.

The next big step will be finally defining hexapod legs: I will have to decide once and for all whether each of the three pairs of legs will start with zigzag pattern or with a zagzig pattern as well. It is the middle pair that causes headaches: its design should not simply mimic that of either the first or the third pair, so how do I make it work? My thoughts on that subject are slowly coalescing.

But meanwhile another thought came up. So far, the animals in the paintings are fairly big and conspicuous; but how about the 'small fry', all those little creatures that together make up much more of the animal biomass than big animals do? Shouldn't I give them some attention? But what of their shapes? Must they all have truly alien shapes, or should they simply look like they were taken from a textbook of Earth invertebrates? Currently, I think the latter probably applies, based on two considerations. The first is the enormous variety of invertebrate shapes on Earth; it is hard to come up with an original design when evolution produced many oddities that would be dismissed as impossible if they were presented as fictional animals. The second consideration is that some principles will apply universally; streamlining must be a universal solution for moving through a fluid at any speed.

The challenge, of course, is to push their design boundaries a bit. They may not always be possible: 'worms' are probably universal. I mean small boneless elongated burrowing animals with a round or flattened cross section. So The Book shall contain at least one spread on 'wurms', and I doubt that I can come up with designs that do not already exist on Earth. A second group to merit attention are arthropod analogues: insects, spiders and the like. I already designed some of those: spidrids and tetropters. But the concept of a small bilateral exoskeletal segmented animal seems so good that it is hard to avoid. I will name the Furahan reprentatives of this design the name 'wadudu'; this is one of the remnant Swahili words left by the spacefarers of the good ship 'Ngonjera'.
Click to enlarge; from
Earth's oceans are full of jellyfish for the last 500 million years. They are radial bell-shaped organisms without complex nervous systems that move in a simple cycle: the bell contracts, water is pumped  downwards and by reaction the animal moves upwards. Then the bell relaxes , becomes broader and lets in water again. This has always seemed a bit odd to me: when the bell relaxes, it flattens but also broadens, which must hinder its upward movement. Also, water has to flow upwards into the bell from below, which must because an equal but opposite reaction pulling the animal down a bit. That was my unconsidered opinion, but recent studies showed that jellyfish swimming is much more sophisticated that I thought. Some swim as I described, by jetting water downwards. Those tend to be bullet-0shaped. The flatter ones drive down a toroidal vortex of rotating water, and that actually pushes water back up underneath the bell, pushing the jellyfish up when the bell is relaxed. Here is a very nice website explaining these matters.

And the video above shows the toroidal vortices that provide propulsion even in the relaxed phase. The paper to which the video belongs was published in PNAS and is freely available.
I wondered whether there was room for creativity here. What if some water can flow downwards right through the jellyfish while it is moving passively in the relaxation phase? Making a hole in the bell will of course impair its propulsive upwards force when the bell contracts, so the hole should be open during the relaxed phase to prevent the animal being sucked down, but closed when it contracts? Valves should do the trick, shaped perhaps like those in the mammalian heart. The ones in the aorta are a useful example: they open when the ventricle pushes blood out, and close to prevent blood flowing back into the relaxed ventricle from the aorta. I decided to play with that idea a bit, and give Furahan jellyfish analogues a twist.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Here is such an animal in a rough sketch. The first image shows that there are three valves. Instead of one central bunch of tentacles, as in Earth jellyfish, there are three outlined here. I may make the body less perfectly circular to reflect this triune design. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This cutaway shows a section just off centre of the animal, a bit near the camera. The cut goes through the two nearest valves and as you can see they are closed. This is what their position would be during the propulsion phase, when the bell contracts so pressure is high underneath the bell.   

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
And here is an open phase, with the valves apart from one another. I should have drawn the rest of the bell in a more relaxed shape, but thought this would be enough to convey the idea. 

So there we are: Furahan jellyfish analogues. I do not wish to simply call them 'jellyfish', so they needed a name that would in the Furahan story setting. In Furahan lore, settlers came mostly from a Western European background with a smattering of people from other parts of the world (the down-to-Earth reason for that is that I am only comfortable with a few Germanic and Romance languages). I looked up the word for jellyfish in various languages (here is a site to check some all at once for yourselves).  Many languages use variants of Medusa (the Greek monster woman whose hair takes the shape of snakes and whose regard turns you to stone). I like the Brazilian name 'agua-viva', or living water; very poetic. But I will go with the German and Dutch variants of 'Qualle' and 'kwal', words that evoke a soft flabby and unpleasant nature. I considered an anglicised version in the form of 'quall'. To be certain I checked, and found that 'quall' already has a meaning as yet completely unknown to me. Hm. I had better avoid that connotation. So, 'kwal' it will be, unless someone comes up with a better suggestion. Actually, the 'a' in the Gemran and Dutch versions sounds like the 'a' in 'father' or in British 'bath', but for Furahan purposes a pronunciation like an 'o' is the likelier one.  


Petr said...

How would these creatures eat? there is no obvious space for a body cavity here. I understand if you don't want to reveal the answer just yet, but it'll be interesting to see how you solve this.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Petr: a ring-shaped cavity should do the trick (which I had't drawn, true). Before you ask: either there is one asymmetrically shaped mouth, or there are three. At present I favour the idea that these animals are in effect colonies of three 'persons' ('person' seem to be the word used in proper jellyfixh biology. Theree are probably pentameric kwals too.

Petr said...

Very interesting indeed! I like the multi-mouthed idea very much, It does make the creatures more alien and it makes sense structurally.

It's also interesting how words can have wildly different meanings in different contexts, I had no idea the four "quarters" of a jellyfish were called persons. My brain can't decide whether it's funny or mildly disturbing, but I don't want to trouble you with my brain farts too much. :)

Thanks for the quick response!

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Pter: No thanks needed; I just happened to be doing a painting (of a mdudu). Not all jellyfish are colonies, and the quadrants of the more common jellyfish are just parts of one animal. However, within the name 'jellyfish' are hidden various different groups, and the ones that are in fact colonies are 'siphonophores'( I took the colony concept from them and transplanted it to animals that look more regular 'medusae'.

As I am straying into the world of small and ubiquitous animals, I decided to study invertebrates some more. Should you have in irrepressible urge to read about jellyfish (not likely...) I found this to be informative as well as beautiful:
That's where I got the term persons.

Anthony Docimo said...

Your mind is always working & coming up with greatness. Kudos to you.

As to the smaller fauna...might some of the niches be occupied by tiny hexapods - the shrews, caecilians, tenrecs, and bumblebee bats of Furaha?

Have nice days and keep safe.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anthony: Thank you. You are quite right about small hexapods. You may expect there to be a size overlap on Furaha, where small hexapods compete with large wadudu. It is not obvious which Bauplan hads the advantage in such situations. But some small tetrapterates (hexapod bird analogues) will certainly be caught and eaten by predatory wadudu. Some might even develop long appendages to pluck them out of the air...

anthony docimo said...

Apologies for the lateness of this, but i recalled that lancets (hemichordates or whatever they are), have cranial asymmettry: their mouth is on one side (left?) of their head, and their gills are on the other side of their head.

would that help with the kwals (and others) any?

Petr said...

@anthony - That's the sort of thing teachers should tell you when teaching about lancelets, but they don't. What a shame!

Evan Black said...

I love this idea of giving attention to the background life. Making a rich ecology (or at least a seemingly rich ecology, for the sake of projects such as these) is a real challenge. One of the downfalls of my own project is that, rather than delineating between "universal background animals" and "featured" species, is being too specific with some species at the expense of more quintessential nereids.

There's also a creative benefit to your approach here. You can conceive a broad group (here, the 'kwals') give it general biological parameters with some unique and alien traits, and creatively riff on that basic design with potentially spectacular results, all with a minimum of necessary scientific rigor. The artist has a little more leeway instead of being beholden to the scientist.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anthony: I did not know that about lancets either. On the topic of odd asymmetries: apparently long-necked birds like herons do NOT have their oesophagus and trachea always running on the ventral sides of the vertebral column, but these may be displaced to one side of the backbone. It makes sense given the need not to stretch them, but somehow I would never have dared imagine that.

Evan: good to hear from you again. I wouldn;'t worry about Nereids: I have often thought that I should design ecosystems like you did, but in my case the systems follow the species.
As for morphing kwals, you were quite right. At present kwals have already split in several major groups, and i haven't painted a single one yet. I cannot boast to do justice to the quote that 'forms most beautiful and most wonderful ahave been, and are being, evolved.' But if you make it read 'odd' and 'fun' this comes close to my intentions. I may write a post 'kwals 2' showing their evolutionary speciation.