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!