Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Flying Testicles and ... Cloudwhales?

A few posts ago I was talking about Skywhales and Floaters. While working with sculptor John Coppinger on a potential book project a few years ago (actually, it's nearly 15 years ago now ...), I was researching possible alien biologies and environments. And what I found was a surfeit of floaty beasts. It seems that writers and artists are fascinated with the idea of an entire biosphere that hangs around in the air, rather than on land.

It must be said that the idea is quite appealing. Imagine a world of massive, living Zepellins slowly mooching about the skies, filter-feeding the thick clouds for airborne plankton or utilising symbiotic bacteria or plants in their upper surfaces to photosynthesise food. Smaller, more mobile floaters might travel in vast herds,linking themselves together with strands of silk or air-drying mucus, seeking out islands of vegetation held aloft by gasbags and bladders. Many of these floating plant masses might join up to create a sky forest. In amongst these browsers, smaller, opportunistic feeders would operate, picking the parasites from the giants' skins and enjoying the leftovers of their meals. And there would be predators too; fast-flying, highly manouevrable aerial hunters with sharp claws to tear open gasbags and powerful jaws to kill their prey. And all of this without ever once touching land.

Here are a few early designs for plants and animals living in a completely free-fall environment. The first two are by John, the second two by me.

John's testicular floating plants create hydrogen-filled gas bladders and draw their entire sustenance from photosynthesis and by catching water vapour using a web of absorbent tissue strung between smaller floats. His browser (below) - a skycow maybe? - was designed to feed on the smaller animals that live on the surface of the floating plants, picking them off with delicate pincers.

My 'Cloudwhale' (I couldn't bring myself to use Skywhale again) evolved initially from a sleek, whale-like creature powered by a tail and flippers. But then I turned it into a jet-propelled filter-feeding giant. My reasoning was that if everything is airborne, then why not plankton? So the second drawing shows a creature that sucks in vast gulps of air, filters out the food and then expels the waste air as a form of propulsion.

Then, in thinking about what kind of smaller, opportunistic animals would exist, I was inspired by seeing incredible images of manta rays leaping out of the water in the sea of Cortez (see link at bottom of this post for some more great shots).

It was the smallest of mental jumps to imagine atmosphere-breathing creatures living in alien seas that made similar leaps into the air. I envisioned an entire evolutionary chain of events that led to these occasional leaps becoming longer and longer until full flight capability evolved. Here's a colour sketch of the flying creature that I designed:

The creature has a basic supporting structure - maybe of something flexible like cartilege? - but the wings and limbs are effectively fluid-filled bags. Consequently, when 'walking', the creature can increase the pressure of fluid in the wings to support the body. Even then, the wing-tips flatten out and distort. The two-pronged arms are both defensive and used for fine flight adjustment. They are capable of complex manipulation like octopus tentacles and have microscopic ridges on the inner surfaces to aid grip (like the feet of geckos). The 'hump' on the back contains hydrogen for flotation and also acts as a streamlining keel.The 'head' contains the brain and an echolocation emitter to avoid collisions. Most navigation is made by reading the magnetic field of the planet via sensors in the head (which also acts as a keel to aid direction). The creature obtains a certain degree of its nourishment via photosynthesis and has a symbiotic relationship with a blue-green algae type organism that lives under the skin on the upper surface. Additional food can be taken into the small mouth (mid-abdomen) by using the flexible 'arms'.

Comments welcome!

More breaching mantas here.


Anonymous said...

What a great blog, what a great creature design! I've been reading it for the past couple of hours, really good work... you go to my blogroll as well. And also, congrats for the book idea, I'll be sure to buy it when it comes out!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Nemo. As you know, this post originally appeared on my 'Worlds of Possibility' blog that I am slowly absorbing into this one (I can only cope with one blog at a time). In moving it to here, I've also brought across your comments.

To anyone else who might be reading - check out Nemo's own site. It's amazingly clever stuff.