Sunday 26 May 2024

Could plants be shaped 'webbed' instead of 'branched' ? (Alien Plants VIII, Tabulae mortuae VI, Archives XVI)

 There are at least three clades of plants with different photosynthetic pigments on Furaha. While having leaves that are not green creates some 'otherworldliness', the shape of these plants is the one we know well: a stem with branches and leaves. At one time, some Furahan plants had enormous sail-like leaves. Unfortunately, reading about wind stresses on plants made me realise why Earth plants do not have sails or giant parasols for leaves. They are poor engineering, as giant leaves would suffer from wind damage (see here for what it takes to get large leaves). With some regret on my part, giant leaves followed ballonts (see here) on their way to the Forbidden Vault.

Even so, I always felt I should do more with plants and will share some ideas here. I find mangrove forests fascinating: plants, standing in salt seawater, form a barrier against waves and create their own ecosystem. Why are they limited to some tropical coats, and why aren't temperate coasts also blanketed with a whole range of different 'mangrovian' ecosystems? If Earth doesn't offer us such a spectacle, could Furaha have vast ribbon-like forests covering its coastlines? That's something I haven't worked out yet; I should probably first understand why this does not happen on Earth. So far, I suspect that the origin of Earth's land plants, stemming from freshwater organisms, has something to do with it, which begs the question how mangroves manage salt water. I will have to study that, but for this post I am more interested in how they withstand waves.                          

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Another plant aspect I once came up with was a desert ecosystem in which the local plants really went out of their way to fend off herbivores. Some plants produced caltrops, also known as crow's foot, among other names. Caltrops are the unpleasant pointy bits of iron strewn on the ground to make life difficult for the enemy's men and horses. In the case of Furahan caltrop plants, the spikes grew upward from the roots of some trees and shrubs.

Click to enlarge; from Wikipedia

Those Furahan root spikes looked -intentionally- like the top left caltrop in the image above, dating from 1505.

Other shrubs had nasty strong and very sharp thorns. Still, some herbivores, like the animal shown lying in the shade in the picture above, developed a string and tough carapax allowing them to move through the nasty shrubbery. The image is from an old oil painting that I later decided did not work  well, so it was delegated to the Forgotten Attic.        

But one plant species isn't on the painting. What if thorns that constantly touched a branch of the same plant would bend around that branch, clasping it firmly? If that would happen on many branches, the result would be a strong structure, one in which branches could not simply be pushed aside. This weblike structure would make life more difficult for herbivores, putting most of the plant outside their reach (well, until they evolved long tongues or the equivalent of pruning shears, of course).   

Click to enlarge; from Wikipedia
Another way to reach this webbed structure involves 'inosculation'. That isn't a concept I came up with for fun, but an existing word: here is the Wikipedia page on inosculation. According to Wikipedia, when tree trunks or roots rub against one another, the bark may wear off and the cambium, the live growing tissue of a tree, of the two touching parts may fuse and grow on from there, ultimately producing new bark around the touching area. This explanation centres on damage to the bark exposing the cambium. Grafting, the artificial variant of inosculation, also relies on would healing.    

Tree roots can certainly fuse, but roots do not move much, so I find it hard to believe that root inosculation must start with damage due to rubbing. This suggests that mere touch or pressure without movement seems sufficient to start inosculation. But roots and trunks can also press against stone, and such pressure does not seem to abrade the bark at all. In the end, it is often the stone that moves instead! Do trees recognise that they are touched by another part of themselves, and then allow or even favour inosculation? I found some evidence that some plants, like English ivy and strangler figs, readily from natural stem grafts (in this free paper). You can imagine that a climbing plant might benefit from a web structure. 

Click to enlarge; from Wikipedia

A strangler fig needs to be able to stand on its own stems when its victim dies, and firm connections between the stems are then quite beneficial. The image above, from the Wikipedia page on strangler figs, shows this fusion tendency quite clearly (but the page does not mention this).

That paper led to another stating that roots indeed graft naturally (here). One explanation for this tendency was that connected roots provide better anchorage (for other explanations, read the paper).

Well, well. It seems that some Earth plants indeed readily 'inosculate' to obtain a mechanical advantage! That is what I wanted, and as usual every time you think you had an original idea for a Speculative Biology project has already been tried by 'Nonspeculative Biology'...

All this makes me think that Furahan plants could do with more self-inosculation. The resulting cross-struts offer mechanical advantages that might help Furahan mangrovian plants to withstand the force of waves. In deserts, I can see plants preventing access to herbivores too.


For other posts on alien plants, start here or just search the blog for 'alien plants'. And for other posts of defunct paintings, start here. 


This is post #300! I also forgot to mention that the blog passed its 16th birthday in April, and that the 300 posts amassed a total of about 2680 comments. 

Friday 24 May 2024

Some modest website maintenance

 I haven't changed the main Furaha website in quite some time. The odd thing about old sites is that sometimes animations stop working or images become invisible, even though they did work initially, and nothing changed.

I was asked by someone, who wanted to know more about animal locomotion, about some of these animations. I decided that some attention was long overdue and started work on it. I found that in some cases the case of one letter differed in the html file and the actual file name, so it seemed that html has become less forgiving. I also added -slightly- more modern html code to make the animation work better.

I then recalled that someone else had asked whether the old 'Furaha right now' page would ever be reinstated. That page showed pictures of the planet around its sun Jua and of the distribution of light and dark on the planetary surface, updater roughly every Earth hour. At one point I had to remove that page because at the time I could not store all 900 images for one year on the server, and so had to remember refreshing them every month or so. I have more room now, so I polished the output a bit, ran the Matlab programs again, transferred the 900 images and made a new menu item: 'Furaha right now'.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

 Here is an example image showing a map with day and night areas, as well as two globes representing the dayside and the nightside of the planet, at one particular time of day and particular point in the planet's orbit.

If you revisit the page often enough, you may find out how humans on the planet devised a calendar to cope with their 551.1 day long year.

However, nothing else has been changed, because I do not have the time: I am working on The Book and a different art project altogether. But I will get to it. At one point.  

Friday 22 March 2024

A psychotherapist space spider

The recent Netflix film 'Spaceman' is an adaptation of the book Spaceman of Bohemia, written by the Czech/American author Jaroslav Kalfař. It is about a lone Czech astronaut travelling a long distance in the solar system to investigate a strange space cloud. A major theme of Spaceman is the loneliness of the astronaut. If you like philosophical themes and are not in a hurry, Spaceman is well worth watching; however, those who prefer ray guns and explosions might like it less.

But this blog is about speculative biology of the extraterrestrial kind, not about film reviews. While the astronaut, Jakub Procházka, is lonely and far away from other people, he is not alone. I am not talking about the ship's cat here, not that seems to be one. An alien being that is best described as a spider the size of a small child shows up aboard. How is unclear and you will probably wonder whether the spider is real or whether we see a hallucination springing from Jakub's too lonely mind. The internet seems full of discussions of that particular topic, so I will not discuss this. Well, in fact, you do see a small spider moving under Jakub's skin in the beginning of the film, which seemed to me a strong hint that the spider originated inside Jakub, not as a physical being, but as a concept.    

Anyway, the nice thing is that we get to see the space spider in sufficient detail to analyse it as a speculative biology entity. 

Why is it called a spider? You wouldn't expect alien beings to conform to Earth cladistics, after all. But there are certainly similarities. It has eight legs with long slender elements sticking out sideways. There is a big bulging abdomen, as well as a head. If it would be a proper Earth spider, that head should be fused with the trunk to form a cephalothorax, but this space spider head seems movable relative to the trunk part. The head has six eyes, not eight, even if some reviews mention eight. 

Click to enlarge. Nentwig et al. All you need to know about spiders. Springer 2022 

Click to enlarge. Nentwig et al. All you need to know about spiders. Springer 2022 

The eyes of Earth spiders are quite interesting and variable between families of spiders. There are not always eight, in fact, and six is definitely possible with Earth spiders. The two images above show that clearly. The eyes of our space spider, christened Zanuš by Jakub, appear to have pupils. The eyes seem immobile, and they are enclosed by a ring of elastic tissue, allowing them to become larger and smaller in apparent diameter. That is a clever trick that helps convey emotions. There are two large eyes and four smaller ones, but otherwise they all look the same. On Earth, different  eyes have different functions, and that shows up in their size, colour as well as the apparent direction they seem to be aimed in. We will get back to that later.

There are two very large cheliceres pointing straight down from underneath the head. I haven't seen Zanuš using these fangs and do not know what they are for. Then again, what can fangs be for? It does make you wonder what these space spiders do in their natural environment.

There are additional limbs around the mouth, and in one touching scene, shown above, Zanuš accepts a spoon from the astronaut with some food on it. These mouth limbs can then be seen to be tentacles, and tentacles are definitely not in the anatomical repertoire of Earth spiders.

There is one more big departure from the Bauplan of Earth spiders: Zanuš is obviously endoskeletal, as can be seen from the clip. There are tendons connected to bones, and the entirety of the body is covered by hairy skin. This is certainly not an exoskeletal joint with hinges open to the outside world. The joints are, like vertebrate joints, well and truly inside the leg. The legs, by the way, end in two prehensile fingers each. Zanuš clambers around the inside of the spaceship grasping objects with these tiny hands.

So what does all this suggest? A first explanation is that, if Zanuš is a figment of Jakub's imagination, Jakub knows very little about spiders. I doubt that real astronauts get much zoological training, so that is fine. A second option holds that Zanuš is a real being; inside the story, of course. If so, his Bauplan is interesting, and we will get to that. The third level is the one the creature designer and film makers used: why did they choose this design? 

Let's play along and see what we can make out. We have an endoskeletal animal the mass of a small child, with lots of fairly thin legs sticking out sideways. The legs, fur and locomotion all suggest a terrestrial origin; this is not a swimming animal. The legs are very spindly and stick out sideways; that, plus the presence of tentacles, suggests a world with very low gravity. The ability to grasp objects all around further suggests that the creature would be at home in a 3D environment, such as tree branches. 

Click to enlarge. Nentwig et al. All you need to know about spiders. Springer 2022 

One thing bothers me in all this: Zanuš' eyes all look in the same direction. In a 3D environment, it pays to be able to look in most directions at all times. If your Bauplan has multiple eyes, it makes sense to move some to achieve all-around vision. Spider eyes follow that principle, at least for some families, as shown above. In contrast, if your Bauplan only provides two eyes, which is a poor choice if you ask me, then evolution can be expected to place them where they do best. Here, they would be seeing what you eat and also covering as much of the world as possible. Not surprisingly,  the eyes of many fishes and birds that do live in a 3D environment are placed at just the right spot to achieve such goals. Of course, many birds and mammals have eyes that  depart from that pattern. If you only have two eyes, stereoscopic vision can apparently outweigh the need for wraparound vision. With multiple eyes, you can easily get it all, but Zanuš' eyes all look ahead. That seems odd.

In the story, Zanuš proves to be a thoughtful and respectful psychotherapist. You need good eyes to pick up tiny nuances in expression, posture and movements that tell you a great deal about someone's state of mind, but not eight ones!

A final word in this rather meandering post. I cannot speak for the general audience, but I quickly liked Zanuš, perhaps because I am not really afraid of bugs and small arthropods. I rather like it that the film makers dared choose a shape that many people find repulsive. I do not know whether many people actually turned the film off, disgusted by Zanuš' spider shape. I hope not, because the world could do with a bunch of sympathetic Czech/alien psychotherapist space spiders. Then again, I still wonder what Zanuš' people use those enormous fangs for on their home world...

Sunday 25 February 2024

No Fish in the gutter!

The realisation that publishers were probably not interested in my book forced me to reconsider several aspects of producing The Book in spite of that, which is one of the reasons I haven't written a post in some time. Another one is that I now also devote part of my creative time to a completely different type of art (I draw city views in the 'ligne claire' / 'klare lijn' style).  

The things I need to reconsider are those that an author would normally leave to publishing professionals: content and language editing, typesetting, lay-out, public relations and perhaps more.

I started with the language aspect. Even though the book is about images the text still counts some  45,000 words, so it pays to get that part right. I asked Biblaridion, who produces a very thorough YouTube series on designing an alien biospheres, whether my English would be good enough for a UK context. He was kind enough to have a look at the Furaha Book Sample (thank you!) and had only a few remarks, which was encouraging. Thinking matters through, I still decided to ask for professional writing advice. As most readers of this blog come from the USA, I will switch to US English, or I might produce more than one version. Next on the list is improving the layout; I have now looked at various self-published books on Amazon, and many of them looked wrong in one or more respects. The problems could have to do with character spacing, titles that did not seem to be on the right spot, columns with too many characters, wrong use of white space, or a too narrow page gutter. The more worrying ones were where I could not put my finger on a specific problem, which indicates I am not proficient enough to pinpoint what is wrong. There may be matters that I do not even spot as wrong but that a professional would identify immediately.           

I also realised that using two-page illustrations may not be wise: while they can look gorgeous, there is a chance that the most interesting part of the painting will disappear in the gutter, which is where the two pages meet. I used several such paintings and made the mistake of putting the centre of attention on the centre of the painting. That has to be corrected, and this post is about one such spread. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

The image above shows how the spread introducing the 'Fishes-IV' group looked a few years ago. I know the text on the image says 'Fishes V', not 'IV', but that is due to a cladistic revision). As two-page illustrations go, it was not too bad, because there was nothing of great interest in the gutter. But this painting predated the 'Great Hexapod Revolution', meaning their head anatomy changed completely. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This was the succeeding stage. The animals, now 'Fishes-IV', have evolved and have an updated head anatomy, with proximal and distal necks and complete separation of the neurocranium and the gnathocranium.  The background animal now is a filter feeder, using much modified lateral jaws as sieves. The 'cheek opening' allows water to leave the mouth when the mouth cavity is put under pressure by closing of the upper and low jaws. I must revisit that design one day, but I am not satisfied with it. And there is the gutter matter...   

I will need a new spread page to introduce the Fishes-IV clade. Above are four results of playing with the design, done in ZBrush. They generally look like plesiosaurs, don't they? Well, if you have a swimming animal propelled by flippers and teeth at the end of a long neck, evolution is going to smooth streamline it, so it will end up looking like a plesiosaur. Can't be helped...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

Variant A is fairly general. Note I did not work on the jaws; these 3D designs are merely aids to help painting, not goals in themselves. The three pairs of flippers are arranged in 'ascending staircase' fashion, with the first pair place lower and the last pair higher than the middle pair. In this species, the middle pair provides most thrust.       

Variant B is a fast swimmer with much-elongated necke. The lateral jaws are elongated but flattened and help to catch or cage prey, then chopped into coarse pieces by the short upper and lower jaws.

Variant C has an unusual body shape with lengthwise 'shoulders' supporting the fins. The shoulders do not make the frontal cross section much larger than the general rounded shape, and should not offer much more drag, but I must check that before I commit the design. The fins are arranged in 'descending staircase' fashion.

Variant D is a big blob sitting on the sea floor. It eats armoured shelled prey and has heavy upper and lower jaws to crunch the shells. It has no need for speed at all and is itself armoured.

As you can see, work on The Book continues. While distracted by layout matters, I can't help thinking about new and interesting creature designs. How about marine wadudu, that could grow much larger than terrestrial ones; with a mesoskeleton they could in fact compete with all those 'Fishes'. I have also been thinking about plants that would thrive in shallow seas, making empty beaches on Furaha rarer than they are on Earth. Or plants that actually form nets, not just branching structures.

But before I start dreaming about The Book Volume II, I had better finish 'The Book' itself.     

Monday 8 January 2024

New directions for The Book

This is the first post of 2024. It has been too long since the previous one. The explanation for the long delay consists in part of various things that have absolutely nothing to do with the Furaha project, but some other things were relevant. Quite relevant, in fact.

I visited TetZooCon in the beginning of December. It was great fun as usual: have a look at Darren's report here. I went there in part to speak with publishers or other knowledgeable people who might tell me more about my chances were of getting a publisher interested. I was lucky enough to speak such people, including a publisher. The discussions were open, and everyone was friendly, but the message was that there was hardly any chance of getting the book published by a large publishing house. That was disappointing, mostly because I had felt that getting a publisher to commit would be a sign that the work was good enough for that. Then again, as someone explained to me, even if you do get a publisher to print the book things can still go wrong: for instance, if those responsible for distribution put in little effort, nothing much will happen.

What it all boiled down to was that I might as well go for self-publishing. As one person said after seeing my sample part of The Book, now that I have already done most of the work, I should consider doing the rest as well.

I ruminated on that for a while, and finally decided that this is probably the way to go. At present I am thinking of Amazon, having seen an example of their quite acceptable print quality. Another advantage is that Amazon is accessible to most of my audience.

There are disadvantages too: a professional publisher should be able to prevent me making basic mistakes in book design, writing style or any other aspect of publishing.Without one, I am free to make all those mistakes! A major hurdle may be advertising: I will need a way to tell the wider world, once the time is there, that The Book is out. But those should be surmountable obstacles.

At present I think that The Book can, in principle, be available one year from now. I plan to have it published as actual physical books, not as e-books. Among the things you may expect in the coming months is a much-needed update of the Furaha main site, as well as posts about reworking some paintings for The Book' publication.            

I'll be back...