Developing a Workflow – Interlude: Biology

Looking over my planned workflow, I saw a major hole in the worldbuilding. Biology. I know I already handled biology in the very sketchy sense of saying that Terran and Yaccatrene organisms were capable of feeding on each other, but that really doesn’t give much one much of a feel of what it would be to stand near a Yaccatrene sea and see the trees, hear the calls of native animals, and smell the soft perfume of alien vegetation. Partially I tend to pass lightly over this because of a failure of imagination. Also, my artistic skills can’t support the needs of visualizing an alien world’s lifeforms. Since my mapping efforts are still going slowly, I figure I can make at least a survey of what others have done in this vein. So here goes.

First off, we have Life on the planet Furaha by Gert van Dijk. This and it’s associated blog are a joy not just for the extraordinary artwork, but for the technical thought that went into the organisms. Particularly appealing are his size comparison silhouettes often showing humans swatting off obnoxious swarms, trying to push large refractory animals from behind, being flung through the air by large refractory(and annoyed) animals or just swimming along. Some of the work he’s done on flyingwalking, and swimming are really fascinating, informative and… detailed. I’d love to take a gander at some of Mr. van Dijk’s matlab scripts! His site is a gem, but it’s really worth reading his blog from start to… where ever he’s at right now.

Snaiad by Nemo Ramjet is another classic of alien biology. Sadly, his main site is long dead, but he still has a Deviant Art page. I kind of despise Deviant Art as a site, but some of the artists working on alien biology make it worth dealing with. His work is highly imaginative and clearly shows the power of consciously applied perversity. Excellent.

Another great artist on Deviant Art is Alex Ries, who goes by Abiogenisis. I’ve had Alien Parenthood as my desktop image for some time now, and his Birrin are a real study in the complexitydiversity and history of a genuinely believable alien race. Even his alien animals are quite interestingstrange and believable. Clearly, he has an interest in brachiators, but his animals have real variety, while feeling like they fit together as evolutionary relatives.

Through a link on the Furaha site, I found Evan Black’s Nereus. The animals of Nereus have a wonderful combination of exhilarating strangeness and comfortable familiarity. I’m looking forward to seeing more work on plants. As often seems to be the case, his blog on the development of Nereus is very instructive to anyone considering developing their own constructed ecologies. Other than, possibly, the history and cultures of a worlds intelligent denizens, this is clearly the longest and most involved process in world-building.

Since this was never intended to be a giant super-project, I’m not going to do more than give an overview of the problems of developing an ecosystem on Yaccatrice and the sources of extraordinary diversity and interest that could exist here given the peculiarities of this world.

As I’ve mentioned before, life on Yaccatrice arose independently in at least three separate seas and spread into an oddly woven ecosystem over all of the seven seas. Maybe I should say set of ecosystems. While all three of the independent roots of Yaccatrene biology have had the mobility to spread to all of the places on the planet where complex life could flourish many of those places are still more isolated from each other than any place on Earth has ever been. This means that each of the seven seas has its own very different set of life forms. Even some smaller geographical divisions have formed into strange little Australias of isolated evolution within some of the larger seas.

As to actual organisms, I don’t have a real good image of the life of Yaccatrice, but I do have some hazy little images and ideas in head that I will share.

The Kanta Sea Biotic Domain was the least significant of the three independent roots of life on Yaccatrice, but it provided some of the commonest small organisms on the planet and one of the odder ones. Before animal life crawled out of the waters of the Kanta Sea, the shores were already greenish-grey with a form of vascular fungoid producer that may have originated from one of the larger neighboring seas or may have been native. In any case, while the descendants of the vascular fungoid producer have been more or less successful on the shores of five of the other six seas, it has been eliminated from the Kanta Sea region by competition with an odd creature. They may have been outcompeted by one of the odd life forms that originated from the Kanta Sea. The herbabestiae is a group of at least partially photoautotrophic organisms evolved from an earlier heterotrophic ancestor.

A mass extinction event seems to have decimated all of biotic domains of Yaccatrice about three billion years ago. Besides greatly reducing the diversity of the other two biotic domains and possibly wiping out a fourth domain that might have originated in the Sepama Sea, the extinction event seems to have nearly destroyed all of the existing photoautotrophs native to the Kanta Sea. While this extinction probably took several millennia, dwindling populations at the bottom of the food chain began to exert ever increasing evolutionary pressure on the remaining species immediately. With the exception of a few scavengers and detritivores, Kantese animal life had been reduced to a few species of soft worm that had incorporated organisms analogous to chloroplasts or blue-green algae as symbionts. Although photosynthesis was merely a subsidiary process for these organisms, it gave a few of them the narrow edge they required to stave off starvation for several generations. As it turned out, though the earlier plant life began to recover, the proto-herbabestiae had already begun to fill in many of the more productive ecological niches and eventually the previously existing aquatic plant life was relegated to  marginal places in the ecosystem. Literally. With the exception of unicellular phytoplankton-analogues, true plants were limited to the shallowest waters near the shore. With their ability to maintain position where the sunlight is best, even against currents in deep water, the more efficient chlorophyll-analogue of their photosynthetic symbionts, and their ability to consume other plant and animal life, these proto-herbabestiae found themselves dominant over the vast majority over the Kanta Sea. By the time the first of these organisms had emerged from the seas evolution had already equipped them with the tools to completely outclass the rather primitive vascular pseudo-fungi they found on the shore.

Most of the existing native Kanta Sea fauna are now of the “phyla” carodurae, mollicutae, viridlimax, or herbabestiae. These are all derived from the basal herbabestiae with various adaptations. In the case of the carodurae and mollicutae the photosyntetic capability has almost completely atrophied away. The viridlimax still retains the limited photosynthesis of the aquatic ancestors of the proto-herbabestiae. Except for the juvenile traveling forms of some species, modern herbabestiae are all completely sessile.

Two other, even vaguer ideas I have had for native plant life are bulb-trees(arborampullae), and propeller seeds(seminarhoncus). The bulb trees are a little

My attempt at drawing a bulb-tree

unusual for being one of my rare visually-oriented ideas. Basically, the tree is a collection of fairly vertical trunks growing out of a large ellipsoidal bulb from which the roots grow down into the ground. The basal bulb-tree has no branches as such, its spread provided by the gravitational splay of its trunks and by the large leaves which I imagine would resemble palm fronds to some degree. Now that I have a picture of it, such as it is, it seems to broadly resemble bamboo. Perhaps there are cane and grass species derived from the bulb-tree base. I also imagine there would be a kind of mangrove bulb-tree, with its bulb held up above the water on high stilt-like roots and glands capable of rejecting salt from its absorbed water. Given the lack of seasons on Yaccatrice, mangroves should be able to grow along the shore in much cooler average temperatures than on Earth as freezing winters won’t be a hazard over a wide range of temperate climates. As you can see from the drawing, this blog needs a staff artist. Anybody want an unpaid job?

Propeller-seeds aren’t quite the same as the propeller seeds of maple trees. One species of seminarhoncus on Yaccatrice uses them in a semi-carnivorous life-cycle. LIke all seminarhoncus its seed bases build up a great deal of torsion as they dry. In this case the seeds burst preferentially when a shadow falls across the tree. This releases dozens of 100 gram hard spinning blades, each carrying a seed. Left to themselves, these seeds can fly up to 50 meters across flat regions. The seeds are capable of embedding themselves into animals within about 10 meters. When this happens, the seeds are capable of much wider dispersal. The shell and wings of the seed act as a slow poison, typically killing animals of 5-20 kg in anywhere from an hour to a day or so. Smaller animals are typically killed immediately by the impact and larger animals usually survive the effects. Besides dispersing seeds over a wider region, the decomposing corpse also provides the newly germinated plant with a readily available source of nitrogen-rich soil.

A long time ago, I saw a fantasy painting of a caravan of giant elephant-like creatures with what amounted to small castles on their backs. These behemoths were trudging through a deep rocky valley, surrounded by high, bleak, foreboding mountains. My attempt to find this image on the net has been a colossal fail of my google-fu. Bugger! Anyway, I’m wanting giant thick-skinned hexapedal monsters to carry travellers across vast stretches of desert between the various seas of Yaccatrice. For historical reasons of my own(which I may have mentioned before?), I am calling these leviathans of the dry wastes, “Warks.” If anybody can find the image and let me know where I can find it, they will be rewarded in the best manner I can afford. At present that means I will mention your name on this blog and direct all four of the other people that read it to check out your blog or website or whatever.

Latest news! In the process of putting together a blog on building the terrain of Yaccatrice, I have had some ideas that add a bit of flesh to the Warks.

Warks and Warkid Hexapods

The genus to which the Wark belongs, contains several species of animals well adapted for crossing desert expanses. The Wark is about twice the size of an African elephant, although after a long desert crossing with its water reserves depleted, it’s only about a third more massive than an elephant. In other words, they can store up about two-thirds the mass of an elephant in water and nutrients. Other warkid species range from the size of a small pony to a bit bigger than a Wark. Almost all warkids are able to store up proportionally similar water and nutrient reserves. All warkids have an excellent sense of smell, being able to sniff out desert springs from many miles away. Wild warkids have been found at all five of the known Seas and one can assume that they are also present at the Paima and Seppama Seas. Few warkid species subsist on desert land. Like Earthly penguins, the proto-wark and most present wild warkids simply found desert oases as an excellent refuge to raise their young, safe from the predators and other dangers of richer climes. In order to reach their mid-desert spawning grounds, these proto-warkids needed to cross wide expanses of often rugged arid desolation. They also needed a way to carry the food and water they gathered elsewhere to their young.

All warkids have large panniers that carry up to a third of the warkids total mass as a fat, protein and water-rich milky substance. As with mammals, they have teats along their sides that allow them to feed the fluid to their young. After giving birth, females leave the young to the males to feed and care for out at the oases, while they head to the more hospitable regions around the seas to feed and drink and refill their own panniers. Even with full panniers, the males and the calves they care for strip the oases of vegetation and drink down any of the available till only the thin trickle of water from the spring serves to keep the trampled and denuded mud slightly damp. The species of vegetation found at these oases are well adapted to recovering from this predation and, barring human interference, is usually verdant again by the next warkid mating cycle. Warkids are even capable of sucking the moisture out of mouthfuls of mud. Finally, the females return with full panniers. Both the adult males and the young are fed from the female’s panniers. The young at this point are large enough and well-developed enough to make the journey back to the nearest Sea. Humans find the milky fluid nutritious and reasonably palatable. Wark-milk is one of the assets that make Warks such valuable desert pack animals.

Besides the panniers, the warkids have other adaptations that suit them well to crossing hot dry deserts. During the hottest portions of the day, warks hibernate and reduce their respiration rate to an absolute minimum to retain water. They cover themselves with a large tail covered with loose shaggy strips of dead white skin held well above their bodies, maximizing air circulation and reflected radiant heat and minimizing conductive heat transfer between the surface exposed to the sun and their living tissues. They also hold themselves well above the ground on wide-splayed feet, giving them the ability to cross soft ground while allowing them to minimize the contact surface with firmer hot surfaces. During the day, warkids try to stop on harder ground where their feet don’t sink in. During the night when warkids spend most of their waking hours while in the desert, they can store up oxygen as a highly toxic and richly oxydized organic nitrate compound in a large back hump. Besides allowing them to reduce their breathing rate still further during the day(analogous to the crassulacean acid metabolism of some terrestrial xerophytes), this toxic compound also makes them unappetizing to most predators. Developing this nitrate layer is both a major reason allowing young warkids to make the journey back to the sea regions and also allowing them to be safe from predators when they get there.

Most of the hexapodal subphylum to which the warkids belong have kidneys that lead to urinary bladders and one or more excretory pores that allow urination. Warkids, while they retain a tiny urinary bladder don’t actually excrete urine directly, but inject it into their extra-long water-recovering large intestine to help lubricate the passage of their desiccated fecal matter, thus allowing them to increase the water-recovery efficiency both of their kidneys and of their digestive tract.

The long and convoluted nasal passages of the warkid have structures with surfaces of alternating chemically hydrophobic and hydrophilic material, causing water in their exhaled breath to precipitate out, draining into the esophagus. These structures are largely non-living tissue and continue to function for some years after the warkid dies. Humans have used these to build primitive still-suits, and many desert shelters use these structures to pull water out of all but the most parched desert air.

The true Wark does not deal well with cold conditions, so travelers to the cold Sekta Sea have to try to tame the smaller, undomesticated and far less docile Arctic Shambler. These can be dangerous and unpredictable even when they are apparently very well tamed. Desert travel without Warks is still slightly more dangerous than travel with Arctic Shamblers. This has led to the peoples surrounding the Sekta Sea being among the most primitive and isolated in the known world. The Lesser Mountain Rambler is another species of warkid that has occasionally been successfully tamed, but never domesticated. They are more tractable and predictable than Arctic Shambler and rather faster runners than Warks. All Mountain Ramblers are also excellent mountain climbers.

Thank you for reading,

The Astrographer

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