Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Life's a Gas

How many times have you heard the word Skywhale?

I remember seeing a cartoon on the UK's Channel 4 back in the early 1980s called 'Skywhales'. It was a clever little piece by animators Derek Hayes and Phil Austin that followed the story of an alien tribe of hunter/gatherers living on Roger Dean-inspired floating islands in the atmosphere of some gas giant. The cartoon followed one hunter as he and his fellows hunted the huge Skywhales in their balloon ships. The cartoon ended with a tremendous twist that shed new light on the relationship between predators and prey. Great cartoon (you can get it on a DVD called British Animation Classics Vol 1 or you can watch it in chunks here on Youtube) ... but I'm pretty sure I'd heard the term 'Skywhales' before that.

I seem to recall seeing an image of a huge jellyfish-like creature being attacked by something like flying manta rays on a sci-fi book cover back in the 1970s. I wish I knew what the book was so that I could find it again (Any ideas anyone?). I remember being fascinated by the idea of huge floating organisms - something we will never see on this planet - and from that day, every time I saw a hot air balloon I visualised it as a living thing. I've probably heard the name 'Skywhales' a hundred times since, most recently as an imagined creature for National Geographic's Alien Worlds: The Blue Moon programme.

I've also seen more than my fair share of Floaters. No sniggering, please. Carl Sagan's 1980s Cosmos series featured Adolf Schaller's amazing painting of life in a Jupiter-like world's atmosphere (see below). It blew me away. Since then, I've seen balloon-like animals and plants depicted in Discovery's Cosmic Safari, the aformentioned Alien Worlds series, floaters and hunters in Wayne Barlowe's Expedition (later turned into a TV series called Alien Planet) and any number of floating aliens in sci-fi literature.

It's interesting just how many artists and writers have come up with planetary ecosystems where life is mostly airborne. I've even done it myself and will show some off in a future post. But just how likely is a world of floating, flapping and soaring life?

Scientists postulate that if a planet had low gravity and an atmosphere at least three times denser than Earth's, animals as large as whales could fly (it has been suggested that the reason some of the larger pterosaurs, such as Quetzacoatlus with its 50ft wingspan, could fly is because of a denser atmosphere). Animals and plants produce gas too. So why couldn't that gas be harnessed for flotation? After all, kelp forests keep their fronds vertical with gas bladders, so why not create bladders of a lighter-than-air gas like hydrogen to keep afloat in the air?

There is also the possibility of naturally-evolving propulsion systems too. Wings have evolved independently in bats, birds and insects on Earth and would seem to be one of this planet's convergent evolutionary norms. Even water-dwelling creatures like stingrays and some sea slugs flap their 'wings' to fly through the sea. But other sea creatures like squid, octopus and some molluscs use a kind of jet propulsion, drawing in water and using muscular contractions to expel the water at force. Could the same process be used for a creature living in a dense atmosphere? Or can you think of something entirely new?

If you can, let's agree not call it a Skywhale though, eh? I reckon the name has been done to death.


Anonymous said...

Here's a picture I've made for Orion's Arm, of floating mat-like plants forming islands in the sky of a cloud-covered world:

One problem with life in gas giants is that current theories of abiogenesis wouldn't work in a gas giant atmosphere, so life would probably need to arrive from elsewhere.

Steve Bowers

Anonymous said...

Ithink the book may have been Arthur C Clarke's 'A Meeting with Medusa'. That came out in the 1970s. Chris Foss cover?