Sunday 9 April 2023

More alternate evolution in Japan: "What if extinct organisms continued to evolve?"

I am always interested in speculative biology projects, in particular those with well-done art. For some reason I was looking at the Japanese website of Amazon; I think I was looking at the Japanese edition of 'Demain; les animaux du futur', a French book I wrote about here and here. It is about life on Earth some 10 million in the future. As you may know, Amazon shows you lots of other books they hope you will buy. In this case it worked: one caught my attention, so I copied parts of the text into Google Translate so I would get a better idea what it was about. The translated title was: "What if extinct organisms continued to evolve?"

Click to enlarge; copyright Ken Tsuchiya, Masato Hattori

After looking at it a few times I gave in to temptation and bought it. The book was not that expensive, but postage from Japan to Europe more or less doubled the price, so check that first if you are interested. Thanks to Google Lens, I could point my phone at the pages and received an overlaid English translation. I you try that several times, you get different translations, so there is a 'Lost in Translation' sense here. I tried to contact the main author, Ken Tschuchiya, who is a geologist and palaeontologist as well as a science writer but was unable to reach him. However, the illustrator, Masato Hattori did respond, so I asked him a few questions. Unfortunately, but understandably, he redirected any enquiries regarding the reasoning behind the beasties to the writer. That left me to think of possibilities for myself, which is less certain but fun. I had a very similar experience looking at Dougal Dixon's Greenworld in Japanese

I asked Mr. Hattori how he made the images, guessing that he used ZBrush and Photoshop, which indeed he did. He modelled and rendered the animals in ZBrush and used Photoshop to blend the images into photographs. It is tricky to get the lighting, angles and contrast right, but Mr. Hattori certainly knows his business. Have a look at his own website here; there is more alternate evolution to see, in the form of dinosaurs running alongside present-day humans. 

Mr. Hattori was familiar with other works of speculative evolution, such as 'After Man' by Dougal Dixon and 'Demain, les animaux du futur' by Jean-S├ębastien Steyer and Marc Boulay. The latter work is still not available in English, I think, but there is a Japanese version (among other translations). Mr. Hattori said he has a collection of such works and was in no small way influenced by them. 


Let’s have a look at the book. Mr. Hattori said that the setting examines how archaic organisms would have evolved if they had not become extinct and had survived to the present day. In that respect it differs from 'After Man' and 'Demain', both of which describe Earth in the future. 

The cover of the book is shown at the top of this post; I like the composition and lighting very much. We are obviously looking at ammonites. I wonder if they differ much from their ancestors. Should we expect them to have diverged in shape given the very long time since their demise? Or would there be present-day ammonites that look just like their ancestors, as these seem to do? 


Click to enlarge; copyright Ken Tsuchiya, Masato Hattori

This is an obvious sea scorpion, again not looking that different from its ancestors. The world really needs more very large arthropods (I know, I know; they’re difficult...). I wonder whether such animals would have managed to compete successfully with sharks or bony fish for a long time. They don;y seem to have done so in our timeline. Such thoughts led me to think at first that the theme of the book was that the animals lived for a while beyond their extinction time, without necessarily making it all the way to the present. I also do not think that the authors meant for all animals to be alive at the same time. The book is arranged by geological era, with for some animals a point of departure at the end of the Permian. Later in the book we see alternate mammal evolution starting from recent ancestors, that would not have been there if the Permian extinction had not occurred. Each animal seems to be its own alternate history project. Anyway, I really like the energy of the image and the skilful use of iridescence. That is not an easy effect to achieve, I can tell you from experience. 


Click to enlarge; copyright Ken Tsuchiya, Masato Hattori

This one is decidedly funny. It is a caricature of Diplocaulus, the famous Carboniferous/Permian amphibian with a very odd 'boomerang' skull. I wondered how broad the lower jaw of Diplocaulus was, so I tried to find accurate anatomical drawings or photographs of Diplocaulus' mandible but couldn’t find high-quality images. The mouth seemed to be small though. According to the book, the extinction at the end of the Permian allowed a descendent to develop in a different manner. Young diplocaulids had no broad 'horns', but these developed as the animal grew. In this descendent, the moth broadened with growth too, resulting in a mouth that is as wide as the skull. It also seems to have gone for complete flattening of the body. Another image shows it lying on a lake floor, opening its mouth. I guess it might suck in prey that way. 


Click to enlarge; copyright Ken Tsuchiya, Masato Hattori

Here we have an animal looking very much like a river dolphin; it even has a 'melon', that bulge on the forehead that apparently helps whales produce sonar. But this is no whale: it's got scales! What is this animal descended form? 

Click to enlarge; copyright Ken Tsuchiya, Masato Hattori

Turning over the page reveals its ancestral line: it’s a spinosaur descendent! You may be familiar with the recent discussion about how well spinosaurs were adapted to swimming: some said they are, countered by some who say they aren’t. The authors of the If-book decided to let it take to the water. I wonder about the melon: could, and would, spinosaurs have developed sonar? I do not know enough about the starting point of hearing in mammals and dinosaurs to have an opinion on that, but it is a nice idea. So here we are: a 'river spinophin'. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Ken Tsuchiya, Masato Hattori

Here is the last example of what the book has to offer: this is obviously a predatory dinosaur, but not an agile one at all. Its genus name 'Megapubis' means you should take a good look at what it has between its legs: yes, that is a massive pubic bone, and it is sitting on it. Also look at the nearly columnar legs, only a bit longer than the pubis. This beast must spend its days resting and doing not much. It can’t even scratch itself, as its arms have atrophied completely: the species name 'acheirus' means 'no hands'. The animal is a scavenger, happy to wait until some animal has the decency to keel over dead. 

I will leave the rest of the book to buyers. There are 25 species in all, with quite a few reconstructions and additional images. The book is great fun, and the images are well worth looking at closely. The text seems quite interesting too; a pity I can't speak Japanese. Will there be an English version? Mr. Hattori would like that, and so would I,  but he wasn't aware of translation projects at present.