Mention of speculative biology leads me to mention some other sites and books you may enjoy. Speculative biology is the science of 'What if ...?' It is the science of imagining and designing life-forms that don't exist - but could. They may be organisms that could have existed in some alternative time-stream (such as 'what would have happened if the dinosaurs had continued to evolve?). Or they may be alien biologies that have developed on other worlds. Or they could be future Earth biologies. The fact is that life adapts itself to its surroundings, so no matter how bizarre its chemistry or ancestry, it will still evolve along the most effective path and, to some degree, that allows us to make certain predictions. I've just been re-reading Cliff Pickover's The Science of Aliens and came across these paragraphs:
'Evolution on Earth tells us a lot about possible alien shapes. Although every detail must be different, there are patterns of general problems, and common solutions to those problems, that would apply to life on alien worlds. In the course of Earth's history, whenever life-forms have had a problem to solve, they have solved them in remarkably similar ways. For example, three very unrelated animals - a dolphin (a mammal), a salmon (a fish) and an icthyosaur (an extinct reptile) - all have swum in coastal waters darting about in search of small fish to eat. These three creatures have very little to do with one another biochemically, genetically, or even evolutionarily, yet they all have a similar look. On first glance they look like nothing more than living, breathing torpedoes. Although they are biologically quite different, they have all evolved streamlined shapes to help them travel quickly through the water. This is an example of convergent evolution and we might expect aquatic aliens that feed on smaller, quick-moving aliens also to have similarly streamlined bodies.'
'Animals encounter similar environmental problems and cope with them in a similar way because that solution is an efficient one.'
'These universal solutions will be found on other planets with life.'
So there you go. Convergent evolution in action ... and Dr Pickover obviously believes that convergent evolution is a 'universal'. So on any world where there is light, will eyes evolve as an efficient solution as they have so many times on Earth? Welcome to the world of Spec Bio.
Four books that are a must for any speculative creature designer are After Man - a zoology of the future, The New Dinosaurs and Man after Man - all written by the ever-engaging Dougal Dixon - and Future Evolution by Peter Ward and Alexis Rockman. I might also suggest The Future is Wild (aka The Wild World of the Future), a TV-series tie-in book very much in the vein of After Man.
The Night-Stalker (picture by Diz Wallis) from After Man
And there are websites too. Chief among them is the staggeringly large Speculative Dinosaur Project site, somehow managed by Daniel Bensen, Brian Choo, Tiina Aumala and many others. In this you'll find out what could have happened if the Chicxulub meteor had utterly failed to hit the Earth 65 million years ago. My favourite pages are not the dinosaurs (though I love them). It's the cephalopod pages - I have a particular fondness for the giant baleen squids.
Imperial Baleen Squid (picture by Brian Choo)
Then there's Pavel Volkov's Russian 'Spec' site that looks at future evolution for this planet. He presents us with life in the Neocene Age; an age where Snowloppers run around on high mountains and Sharkodiles hunt in the warm tropical seas.
Furahan Tubesharks by Gert Van DijkI also have to mention Alex Ries and his Exoblog and the inimitable Nemo Ramjet. Alex is, I firmly believe, a future superstar of the alien life art circuit - his creatures are every bit as believable and realistic as anything Wayne Barlowe has produced. Meanwhile, there's more on Nemo's site than I can explain in just a few sentences. I strongly recommend downloading his portfolio and his superb All Tomorrows PDF book that graphically shows you the development of humans over the next several billion years.
A future sub-species human by Nemo Ramjet
Shadow of the sun by the brilliant Alex RiesAnd finally there is the aforementioned god of speculative biology - Wayne Douglas Barlowe himself. His staggeringly realistic and utterly alien beasts have dominated this field for decades now. You can visit his site here, but my advice is to get hold of his book Expedition. It's chock full of glorious paintings and pencil sketches and is a thing worth having just as a work of art.
Sacback by Wayne Barlowe
So there you go; a kickstart into the world of Spec Bio. It's a world where imagination meets science and I can't think of any place I'd rather hang out.
As a final, final little treat, here's Disney's take on the subject. Back in 1957, they produced an episode of its Disneyland series (sometimes known as The Wonderful World of Disney) called Mars and Beyond. The programme discussed the possibility of life on other planets, especially Mars. Included in the short feature are cannibalistic plants, rock eating animals, dust eaters and odd creatures that can use armour or petal-like flaps to cover themselves during sandstorms. They're more imaginative than some of the stuff that people are coming up with today. I just thought you'd like to see some of them. Here's the movie:
Perhaps the most curious thing about this film is that it happily talks about evolution as a fact. Now, some 50+ years later, we have US states banning the subject from the school curriculum. Is it me, or is that a giant leap backwards for Mankind?
All artwork (c) the respective artists. Please Mr Disney - don't sue.