Monday, October 24, 2011

When is Enough Enough?

Time for a brief aside from my reports on nereid plants. A discussion on Sigmund Nastrazzurro's Furaha website has touched on the idea of exactly how many species is sufficient for a "complete" speculative world; it's a difficult number to pinpoint because it depends on so many different factors, not the least of which being the amount of work a speculator is willing to put into the project. I thought I'd put together a blog explaining some of the creative process I go through early in my speculations and how I decide how many species to put in an ecosystem. Some other factors I could think of include:

- Diversity of the planet: How many different biomes of the planet do you want to explore/detail? Generally speaking, a planet that supports life as we know it will have several biomes, but if you're only interested in one or two you can largely ignore the others.

- Size of the biome: How much area does the biome cover? Obviously a water world will have many more aquatic creatures than land-based, and a biome that occurs in only a small corner of the world will not have room for much diversity.

- Biodiversity of the biome: How varied is life in each biome? You typically find more species in a tropical biome than you will in a desert. I chose to reflect this difference in my Nereus project, and you may wish to do so as well.

- The complexity of the food web: Who eats whom? When you're doing an overview of the biome's ecosystem you want to reflect the different trophic levels: producers, eaten by herbivores, eaten by carnivores. Obviously the process isn't always that cut and dried (both carnivores and omnivores can occupy several levels within the food web), but those three levels make for a good starting point.

For my own project I chose a rather large number of species (200 in total) because, in addition to well rounded ecologies, I wanted to show cladistic diversity and evolutionary radiation. That's a lot species for a project, of course, but if you want to do a project that's "complete" you could go through the following steps:

- Each ecology should include one apex predator, which means that a pyramid of species would sit underneath it in the food web. With two "lesser" predators underneath, and at least one herbivore for each predator you have six species of animals (if desired, you could throw in three or four plant species for good measure.

-Say there are three biomes you want to highlight. In order to reflect differing biodiversity of the largest one you could double the amount of species present and divide them up into groups of, say, six herbivores, three predators that consist of both carnivores and omnivores, two predators that prey on those species and an apex predator that pretty much eats what it wants. Or you could divide the biome species into two distinct ecosystems of six (for north and south continents, perhaps) and build them independently. Either way you're reflecting the broader biodiversity of the planet.

- In total, with three biomes (one of them twice the size of the other two) you've got 24 species to think up, and nine to twelve more if you add some plant species. If 36 seems like too much for your purposes you can always adjust your numbers accordingly. Perhaps highlighting only one herbivore, two carnivores, and a major plant for each biome will be enough, totalling to twelve species for the entire project. Of course there are more species on the planet than this, but you're not trying to show it all.

Well that's what I have to say on the matter; in the end it turned out to be longer than I expected and I'm glad I didn't post such a huge thing in Furaha's guestbook. If you think there's anything to add or a creative approach that serves you better let me know!

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Rolling Stone Gathers No Splashmoss

Though my class and work schedule are keeping me pretty busy, I managed to get a little bit written for the plant section of the website. As always, the text is subject to change, especially this early in the process, but I hope it gives a bit of an overview of what's to come.

As I've been researching and preparing, I've noticed that some of my plant ideas may need some drastic redesigns to move them more into the plausible end of the spectrum. I've provided images and descriptions of some plants throughout the animal and biome pages, but some of that information may be contradicted by my upcoming work with the plants themselves. I'll try and correct these points where I can, but otherwise consider the plant entries to trump information found elsewhere.

I also included a paragraph about the idiosyncrasies of the fictional scientists for a bit of flavor. I've always found such things an enjoyable inclusion to speculative projects, helping to flesh out the connection between the imaginary creatures/biosphere and the human audience.

At some point in the near future I will have the page up for the first group, the Coleria.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Parade of Plants

So now that the first batch of animals is done, I've been gearing up to present fifty plant species of Nereus. I'm still working to get all the plants into a satisfactory cladogram and taxonomic classification, but things are coming along nicely. I've decided that, rather than featuring individual species I'll focus on genera, that way I'll be able to speak in more, well, general terms (notice the pun? ;)). I noticed many times while working with animal species that I was occasionally limited in what possibilities I could explore within a given entry; hopefully writing about a genus at a time rather than a species will allow me a little more flexibility in coverage.

Another aspect I'm considering, and would love some reader feedback on, is the order of presentation. The animals were grouped by biome, but with the plants I could present them a clade at a time, producing them in groups based on genetic relationship rather than by shared environment. A couple benefits I see from this are:

- Continuity of concept and appearance. With the animal nereids I would often have to revisit clades in order to ensure that the features and attributes of my current species meshed with its 'predecessors.' This occasionally resulted in wildly different methods of, say, reproduction or similar details, and even some niggling little aesthetic differences. While I feel that ultimately the animal cladogram came out pretty well, there was quite a bit of adjustment I had to make in order for it to make sense (and still more work in some cases, but that's a topic for another post); working within clades will probably solve those problems.

- Linear evolutionary progression. By starting at the beginning and working my way through the clades, I could better show the progressive trends of evolutionary adaptation and complexity, further reinforcing my own scientific understanding of the project. This would also not lock me into the developmental quagmire I found when it became clear that I needed to add insulating hair to some of the animals.

I think this method of organizing the plant presentation could certainly work, but I also think that the benefits of ecological symbiosis and the diversity produced from spreading out the clades as I did with the animals could have merit too. I just don't know which one would be best, so I put the question to you, the reader. By clade or by biome?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Freshwater Ecology 4: The Finishing Touch

While I know that I still have a lot planned for Nereus, I feel very accomplished. The material on the website is substantive, and I feel like the planet is well represented at this point.

Okay, enough patting myself on the back. I think it's kind of fitting that the freshwater biome is the last one I do; since it threads through the all other biomes, it was helpful for me to know exactly what all those biomes were so the images and concepts I wanted to convey were clear and consistent. When it comes down to it, though, the only differences between the ecology I present here and what is found on Earth are largely cosmetic. I've explored how nereid bauplans would fare in this environment and the outcome has been interesting, but there wasn't much work to make the plants and environment plausible.

Not much else to say at this point. If you have anything to add, or see holes in what I've presented so far, let me know. If not, stay tuned for more nereid fun!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Freshwater Ecology 3: 99, 100!

I've done it! My original goal of creating 100 species for a single xenobiology project is complete! It's taken a lot longer than I thought (serious work began a little more than two years ago) but I'm pleased with the exercise in imagination and scientific education that has resulted from Nereus up to this point. By no means am I done with the project; this could even be considered nothing more than the halfway point.

But more on that later. For this post I wanted to focus on the final two species of this "first batch" of nereid animals. So far my freshwater nereids have been colored to rely on camouflage, and while there's nothing wrong with that, I wanted to depart from that with these two just for the sake of variety.

Of course, being an ambush predator, the river skate would benefit greatly from the same coloration as I've been employing so far, and in the end I abandoned my goal of a conspicuously colored predator here. Since the species is so different from any other nereids I've made so far I decided it would be unique enough to stand on its own while being camouflaged like everything else.

What I abandoned in one I embraced in the other, the yellow crested anguil. With a species already representing the taxonomic family, I had some precedents to work with, namely the armlike jaws, the mildly armored body, and a general color scheme. Of course, color is one of the easiest things to vary between species (and even subspecies) but it was nice to at least have the starting point. From there it was a simple matter of stretching the phylogeny to fit a unique species profile and make sure it's evolutionarily fit.

As always, I'm interested to see what you think about these species, so let's hear it!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Freshwater Ecology 2: Obvious Earthly Influences

My wife and I like to fish a lot, so working on this group of nereids has been pretty enjoyable. Though I try and keep things unique and interesting, there are some species that have obvious earthly influences. I don't think this is a bad thing, necessarily, since I've discovered that basic nereid bauplans make it difficult for such convergence with terrestrial life to seem contrived or unimaginative.

The boxhead is a direct result of all the rainbow trout I've caught over the years. They aren't quite as colorful as trout, but I've seen how hard it is to see a fish with that coloration and I thought it would be useful for the boxhead too. I made the red stripe more visible on the boxhead to reflect the general nereid trend that herbivores (especially aquatic ones) tend to have colors in common with their food source, providing camouflage while they eat. I wonder if I use camouflage too much...

One thing that occupied my mind as I put together the boxhead was its "hammerhead" eyestalks (another obvious earthly influence). It made sense when I made the goldwave so long ago, but I wondered if such a wide view would be feasible for the boxhead, which I envision slinking in between rocks and twigs. Well, they're not as wide as on their cousins, but I still think a broad spacing for boxhead eyes is useful enough to keep in what can sometimes be a confining space. One hiding in a hole could poke out a stalk without exposing too much of itself, for example. I think it works, but as always I appreciate your thoughts as well.

Even mythological creatures influence my nereids. I really wanted to make something based on the Chan Chu, especially when I discovered that they're described as having only three legs. So with a red-eyed, three-legged bullfrog with gold in its mouth as a starting point, I then needed to figure out how a similarly iconic nereid could come about. Most of it was easy, especially since I already have a clade that closely resembles frogs and toads. The gold in its mouth required not only design features for this nereid but for the pearl worm as well. Gold coloration solved the problem handily. Taking a page from the techniques of the alligator snapping turtle, and the chanchu was born. I must say I'm quite pleased with how it turned out (some nereids have undergone extensive redesigns before reaching their published form) and it's a fine edition to the Aquaparia class. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Freshwater Ecology 1: Back to the Basics

It's been a while since I've updated. Between two weddings, a funeral, and academic concerns my time has been in high demand; though I've managed to carve out a little time for myself here and there I've been so exhausted that any productive work with Nereus seemed like a chore. With any luck I'll be able to get into a routine with my personal life and can devote more consistent effort to Nereus.

The two latest species are the first of the group representing freshwater life. Because they represent the foundation of an ecosystem, they are quite simple species, relatively speaking. Also, because they are such primitive nereids it meant I had to revisit clades that have escaped my attention for some time. I'm discovering what a shambles much of my project is in, and will probably do some taxonomic reorganization once I finish this group.

The pearl worm is a very primitive life form, which means it provided familiar challenges for me but at a somewhat amplified level. First off, I wanted to make sure it fit within the evolutionary framework of the planet, and because it's phylogeny is so very different from every other wormlike species I've done so far it required a whole new taxonomic class. I basically had to build this creature from scratch, making sure that not only did it work as a species on its own but that it had a place in evolution; you be the judge of whether I was successful or not. Also, since I don't like to have a whole class with only one example if I can help it, this means I should probably come up with a few close cousins for this guy.

Secondly, I wanted to make sure it was in fact primitive. While I understand the appeal of superpredators and monsters of prehistoric proportions, I really appreciate seeing some of the more basic species as well. To me, it shows just how in-depth the project really is and helps me see the "big picture" of the world. I like to show that same attention to detail in my own work, and I hope I've done so with the pearl worm.

Finally, and as I've said before, I always want my nereids to be interesting. Making a worm-like critter that has little visual or conceptual difference from an earthworm just doesn't seem worth my time. The swelling yellow tissue was something I thought would really make the pearl worm iconic, and figuring out how it serves the creature that much more fun. I hope it's fun for you too.

The other species I'll talk about here is the river limpet. I must confess a common mistake of mine: that of confusing a limpet with a chiton. I don't know why I always mix the two up, but as a result you may notice that the river limpet has some chiton-like traits. Luckily, when working with aliens I can make such "mistakes," blending traits from different species to make a single unique creature. I considered changing the name to "river chiton," but it didn't seem to have the same ring. Instead I added some physical traits from the limpet to make it so that fictional xenobiologists can make the choice.

At the same time, of course, the river limpet must be uniquely nereid in nature. It has inherited the nested shells, limbs, and motipalps from mollipod ancestors, and while all have specialized, duplicated, and/or atrophied, its heritage should be apparent. I decided to show this species from the underside not only to show how the limbs function as mouthparts in this clade, but I'd never shown the underneath of a mollipod and I thought it would reveal a lot about their phylogeny to do so. Have fun seeing a little critter's underbelly!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ballerina Forest 4: Out on a Limb

At the end of each group of nereids I put together a little page about their common habitat. I've finally done so with the ballerina forest, an environment that shares traits with to both temperate and boreal forests, along with its own unique features.

There is precedent on Earth for rapidly moving plants, whether it's to trap insect prey or to protect leaves. There is also precedent on Nereus for rapid movement, given the tension-based methods of seed dispersal among many ballistaflor clades. However, nothing on Earth or nereus matches the scale or versatility of that exhibited by coryphee trees. Vascular chambers that run the length of the branches control their turgor, or overall rigidity, and tensile fibers help to support their extended weight and to return back to a neutral closed position. Mechanically, the concept seems to make sense, and nothing too obvious seems to contradict it, so I ran with the idea.

But my research into this feature was not extensive, and at some future point I may have to refine or completely remove this life form from the nereophyte cladogram, a disorganized jumble of clades that aren't nearly as ironed out as the nereozoans. Plant research for this project hasn't been nearly as extensive, mostly because I've mostly only used them as unique (and possibly fantastic) backdrops for my aliens. Any experts out there are welcome to analyze the coryphee as I've described them to help me understand how they work... or how they don't. ;)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ballerina Forest 3: Making Things Different

When I come up with ideas for nereid species there are several goals I try to reach:

- Each species is reasonably plausible given current scientific understanding. Given my limited knowledge of biology I think I've had varying degrees of success in this category, but I leave it to you, the reader, to make your own judgment on that account.

- Each species is conceptually unique. While I occasionally explore incidents of convergent evolution I also want to reflect the diversity of both ecological niches and the strategies that life can use to fill them. If every nereid I drew was basically a super-cool apex predator that could kick the butt of all others then Nereus just wouldn't be that believable or interesting.

- Each species is visually unique. There will always be resemblance based on evolutionary relations and convergent similarities, but I hope that each nereid can be a visually engaging addition to the list. I mean, who wants to look at a dozen pages of artwork that are essentially the same thing.

Sometimes these three criteria work against each other, and I have to make decisions that fulfill one at the expense of another. This post talks about two nereids that have given me such challenges.

The snow kytta is a heliavian: radially symmetrical flyer. I already have two heliavians (the spur and cliff whistler) that exhibit wildly different methods of powered flight; I knew this one would be like the spur, using two of its wings while the third is held behind as a stabilizing tail. The question I then had was how to make this flyer different. Apart from the habitat, which is much colder than that of the spur, I wanted to show an example of specialization that could make the snow kytta stand out from the crowd; given the carnivorous nature of its clade I looked to vultures, hawks, and other birds of prey as inspiration for behavior, but it turned out that the cold setting would prove to be a familiar obstacle.

Almost a year ago I faced a similar problem, putting hair on several nereids that were previously bare. I chose another route with the snow kytta, setting aside the opportunity to make nereid hair an even more paraphyletic feature in favor of a more nebulous explanation for an ectothermic creature's survival in a high altitude climate. A goal may suffer for the sake of others, but I still think it's an interesting enough nereid.

The other nereid of this post, and the featured apex predator of the ballerina forest is the manticore. I had come up with the basic concept of this creature long ago, so the manticore has a relatively old vintage. At least the idea of the manticore has been around for a while; there were two major changes that came about in the process of its inception.

The first change was one of habitat. I had originally placed the creature in the savanna biome, a clear reflection of its lion inspiration, but when I was looking for a place to put my flag raptor I realized that two apex predators would be too much for that group, at least for the first 100 nereids (the "expansion pack" will see additions to that biome). So I shifted the manticore to the ballerina forest to fill the apex slot here.

The other change was the name. I may still use the original name for another nereid, so I'm not going to go around blabbing it here. ;) But as I started looking around for images of Earth animals I could use as visual reference I came across the manticore. Not only is it visually close to my nereid but it has an interesting set of mythological luggage that I can mine for my own creature. The discovery of a catchy Greek name for the mythological creature (baricos) was the clincher, so I started shuffling around the names, details, and concocted a scenario of xenobiologists making a connection between a fascinating new predator and a mythological template.

And that's it for the ballerina forest nereids. I really didn't expect to write that much about two nereids that only have about 600 words of "official" explanation between them. Next time I'll cover the biome itself so I'll see you next time! Same Nereus-time, same Nereus-channel!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ballerina Forest 2: Motherly Love

The latest two updates complete my current list of order Eumaia of the vehoprolians. I may add more to the list at some future point, but for the time being I can put the lid on this clade.

I didn't realize this when I first put together the species lineup for the ballerina forest biome, but these updates share a strong maternal instinct. While that made this post easy to title it also meant that I had to put some extra work into making sure these two species had traits that set themselves apart.

The basket carm is a pachyfronsid, and since I've already featured two of those it only compounded my goals for a conceptually unique nereid. When I run into this problem I usually consider the niche I'm trying to fill and look at creatures from Earth that have similar ecological roles. While the colossus carm was inspired by mastodons and the emperor carm emulates savanna herd beasts, the basket carm is a temperate forest browser, much like deer and elk, so I drew upon them for inspiration. I also thought that, unlike the other carms who only have one or two offspring at a time, basket carms should have large litters. That led to thoughts about where all those weak-legged young could be carried and voila! A new and different nereid!

The other species, the tempered chuck, is an idea I'd had for some time. It's a common assertion in circles that aspire to plausible xenobiology that aliens with mammaries can't exist; all those apparent mammals we see in Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, and almost all other sci-fi just couldn't happen. Given the endless evolutionary possibilities on alien worlds I can accept this assertion, but I feel that most who make it leave out a very important qualifier: it may be true that an alien with obvious mammalian features isn't likely, but an alien who gives birth to live young which it then suckles through convergent means, to me at least, doesn't seem like it's outside the realm of possibility. The tempered chuck is my attempt to explore this convergence; I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to determine my success.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ballerina Forest 1: Shifting Gears

I've decided, for the time being, to use this space as something of a "creator's commentary." I'll talk about the latest updates on the project, what's inspired them, and some noteworthy decisions I made in the creative process. This is kind of what I've been doing with the blog any way, but I'm going to be more proactive with it.

With that said, I've started work on the second to last biome: the ballerina forest. Details about local flora are still in early development, but the general idea is a forest of lithe trees that twist and pose to maximize their exposure to sunlight. I imagine them resembling graceful dancers, but that may change as the design refines somewhat.

The first nereid of the group is the fulgie. It's the last nidovalve of my first batch of species, and is also closely related to another nereid, the flashbulb. I'm noticing now that I approach my 100 species benchmark that a lot of the species are in the same genus as-- or at least very closely related to-- previously featured nereids. This introduces some interesting challenges, such as how I can develop a species that closely resembles others while making them unique, interesting, and worth giving attention within the project.

What sets the fulgie apart from the crowd is its resemblance to flowers. I came up with this feature before I decided nereid plants should be flowerless-- at least as we know flowers on Earth. The concept sat as I worked on other species, but now that I came to it again it occurred to me that resembling a flower would be a useless adaptation in a world without flowers! Undaunted, I switched gears with the concept: now the flowery appearance isn't to hide, but to be seen; that they resembles flowers on a bush is more a result of terrestrial eyes than nereid evolutionary pressures.

The jester chaparro is the other new nereid of the batch. From the beginning I imagined it being the laughing hyena of the family, and drew on the mischief of corvids for inspiration. As the reader you'll have to make your own judgment on how I did with it. After I posted it, the folks at SE pointed out to me that kritocauds appear to have no pupil in their eyes. Well, that's a very good thing to point out. If I can't figure out a way to justify the apparent lack (a pupil so small it's not easily noticed, multiple tiny pupils in a compound-like eye, or some strange reflection of light that makes the pupils always seem red) then I might just have to chalk it up to artistic license and/or think about inserting pupils at some point in the future.

That's all I have right for right now. I have two more nereids in pencilwork and written outlines at this point, so keep a lookout for 'em!