Strange Earth Species, and How They Can Help Designing Aliens in Fiction

Before I start on this entry I just want to let everyone know why I haven’t posted any new content. I’ve been pretty busy setting up a small pet sitting business for myself, and it’s taking off rather quickly. I will be busy toward the end of this month, but I will be sure to find time to get the blog content rolling.

On to the main content:

I decided to share a bit of info on some really interesting creatures this planet has to offer, and later, how they can be used as models for creating alien life in fiction.

Deep Sea Isopod-

I admittedly have a soft spot for these guys since they are close relatives of the land faring pillbug, or rolly pollie, which I often played with as a child. It may seem odd, but I find they have an adorable quality to them. Though, I can see how the big guys could garner less cuddly feelings.

Known by the scientific name Bathynomus Giganteus, the sea dwelling isopod ranges in length from 12 to 16 inches. I think they may get a little bigger than that as well. They are found worldwide and at depths of over 2,000 feet.

It is also the largest known member of the isopod group, which is a family of crustaceans related to shrimp and lobsters.

The enormous size of the giant isopod is a result of a phenomenon known as deep sea gigantism. The reason for these size differences is a mystery, although some researchers believe it to be an adaptation to aid the animal in dealing with the enormous pressures.

Like its terrestrial cousin, the pillbug, the giant isopod’s body is protected by a hard exoskeleton that is divided into segments. This gives the animal strength and flexibility at the same time. When threatened, this animal can roll itself into a ball to protect its vulnerable underside. Similarly to its land-based counterpart, the isopod has compound eyes, with over 4,000 individual facets. This gives the animal a large field of view, and makes it extremely sensitive to fast movements. Because light is extremely faint in the deep sea, the giant isopod has developed large antennae to help it feel its way around as it crawls along the ocean floor.

The giant isopod is carnivorous, and spends most of its time scavenging the deep sea floor. Food is extremely scarce at these depths, so the isopod has adapted to eat whatever pickings sink to seabed. This includes bodies of dead whales, fish, and squid. It is believed that the isopod may also feed on slow-moving animals such as sea cucumbers and sponges. The giant isopod has a complex mouth with many components that work together to pierce, shred, and disembowels their prey.

The isopod can go for long periods of time without eating and has been known to survive over eight weeks without food in when kept in captivity.

Giant isopods reproduce by laying eggs. These eggs are thought to be the largest of all the marine invertebrates. The females develop a pouch known as a marsupium, where the eggs are stored until the young are ready to emerge. When this happens, the young isopods escape from the marsupium as fully formed miniatures of the adults. Their terrestrial relative shares the same traits in reproductive anatomy.

The isopods prefer mud or clay ocean bottom areas where they prefer to live solitary lives.

Mantis Shrimp-

These aggressive and typically solitary sea creatures of the order Stomopoda spend most of their time hiding in rock formations or burrowing intricate passageways in the seabed. They are both an ambush predator and active hunter. Unlike most crustaceans, they will actually hunt, chase and kill living prey. They usually only exit their homes to feed and relocate. Depending on species, mantis shrimp can be diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular. Most species live in tropical and subtropical seas (Indian and Pacific Oceans between eastern Africa and Hawaii), although some live in temperate seas.

Mantis shrimp employ different sets of modified claws to aid in hunting and killing. They are well known for having the fasting punch in the sea. Definitely a formidable creature.

  • Spearers are armed with spiny appendages topped with barbed tips, used to stab and snag prey.
  • Smashers, on the other hand, possess a much more developed club and a more rudimentary spear (which is nevertheless quite sharp and still used in fights between their own kind); the club is used to bludgeon and smash their meals apart. The inner aspect of the dactyl (the terminal portion of the appendage) can also possess a sharp edge, with which the animal can cut prey while it swims.

Both types strike by rapidly unfolding and swinging their raptorial claws at the prey, and are capable of inflicting serious damage on victims significantly greater in size than themselves. In smashers, these two weapons are employed with blinding quickness.

I’ve heard of a few aquarists who’ve received either nasty gash or a cracked fingernail from one of these things.

The eyes (both mounted on mobile stalks and constantly moving about independently of each other) are considered to be the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. These animals see on several spectrums including hyperspectral color vision, polarized light, ultraviolet, and ifra-red. Some species have at least 16 different photoreceptor types.

Obviously, our mammalian brains would choke attempting this feat. I’ve seen some computer generated images that simulate what they might see, and wow, that’s a hell of a lot more color.

Reasons behind this complex vision are many, likely having to do with identifying types of coral, prey species, and predators. There also tie-ins with a fluorescing ability during mating, and tidal phases occurring at that time.

Mantis shrimp are long-lived and exhibit complex behavior, such as ritualized fighting. Some species use fluorescent patterns on their bodies for signaling with their own and maybe even other species, expanding their range of behavioral signals. They can learn and remember well, and are able to recognize individual neighbors with whom they frequently interact. They can recognize them by visual signs and even by individual smell. Many have developed complex social behavior to defend their space from rivals.

In a lifetime, they can have as many as 20 or 30 breeding episodes. Depending on the species, the eggs can be laid and kept in a burrow, or carried around under the female’s tail until they hatch. Also depending on the species, male and female may come together only to mate, or they may bond in monogamous long-term relationships.

Cuttlefish-

If you’ve ever watched Nat Geo or Discovery, you may have caught sight of these fascinating little cephalopods. The most interesting features about this animal is its intelligence and their chameleon-like skin.

Their longevity is quite brief at about one to two years. The females typically lay their eggs, and die shortly thereafter.

Interesting fact about developing embryos and hunting instinct; the eggs are somewhat transparent, and the little cuttlefish within is able to see its outer world. This is believed to facility predator and prey behavior, and visual imprinting on common prey species. So, these little guys are curious while inside the egg, and taking notes apparently.

Another nifty feature is the cuttlebone, which helps the cuttlefish maintain buoyancy. It is comprised of calcium carbonate, and often found in pet stores as a supplement in the bird section. The rest of a cephalopod is usually made up of cartilage and other soft tissues.

The skin of a cuttlefish is a versatile tool for camouflage in the ocean realm. They utilize it to hide themselves from predators, or to wait and ambush prey. Pigment cells that can expand and contract, known as chromatophores, overlay a reflective whitish skin, which amplifies the effect of color and pattern. They can strobe colors over their bodies in what looks like a brilliant three-dimensional light show, and mimic the surrounding environment near perfectly. There are even muscles in the skin which can add the appearance of texture.

These displays are not only used in predator/prey behavior, but in ritual displays of mating, communicating with their own, and possibly emotional state.

They also have a pair of grappling tentacles about as long as their bodies, which shoot out to snare prey. They remain unseen under the rest of the eight arms.

Social Arthropods-

Social arthropods include ants, termites, wasps & bees, roaches, terrestrial decapods, etc., the list goes on for a while. These creatures have exoskeletons, and their numbers alone outnumber humans by the millions if not more.

Some groups organize loosely, while other have caste systems and build vast structures. They sense their world through sets of antennae, setae(sensory hairs), and pores within the exoskeleton.

Sight ranges from simple light and dark to the 360 vision achieved through multi-faceted lenses.

Antennae are covered with receptor cells that pick up on traces of pheromones, scents of food, and other chemical traces in their environment.

Setae are little hairs or bristles attached to the exoskeleton capable of sensing contact, air/water currents, taste, smell, pressure, etc.

While most arthropods lack actual ears, they have setae, internal membranes, and nerves that sense pressure and vibrations in their environment.

Roaches are one example of loosely organized social behavior in arthropods. There is a balance of both competition and cooperation in the group dynamics. Research has shown that group based decision making is responsible for resource allocation. These are not the only advantages to being among your kind, but it’s safety in numbers if any predator comes along.

Ants are one of the most strictly social arthropods, with a system that works mostly through chemical signals. An ant colony could justifiably be called a war machine. It’s worker drones stop at nothing to achieve their assigned goals, its soldiers will storm out of the mound willing to fight to the death defending their territory, and the queen is the egg laying machine at the center of it all.

The ant colony is incredibly industrious, and very powerful in terms of what it can do. Anything that is in the way is either consumed or mowed down. This system while admirable in its efforts, is driven by chemical slavery and working until death. FYI, ants don’t sleep, they just drop dead at some point.

The queen is actually not in control as most might think. She is in fact a hostage to her own constant egg-laying, and the workers who tend her. Her abdomen is swollen with eggs, and she is effectively immobile.

It’s a very alien and brutal society.

How they can inspire alien designs and biology?

Looking closely at the biology of some of our planet’s life, especially in its deepest darkest places, we find what looks like an alien world. Even if an imagined alien is based off some homegrown biology, changes here and there can be made to add some greater difference.

Knowing some of the basic relationship between organism and environment helps to add believability. Take gravity for example. If a planet’s gravity is greater than Earth’s, any life that lives there is likely to be short and close to the ground. If the gravity is lower, the life will be able to support taller, thinner structures.

Then, of course, you’ll have a few other parameters to account for such as what it eats, where it prefers to live, life cycle, intelligence level, etc.  You may want to start world building on your environments before you decide to design an alien, though I have to admit I done the process backwards. Do what works for you.

I’d suggest checking out some of the compositions of the planets and moon in our system for an idea of alien environments. There are a crop of new planets being discovered as well, so don’t miss those either. There are some that seem to be covered in ocean. Just look at the oddities we find here in our deep seas, and imagine what might be there. The organisms could be beautiful, or absolutely terrifying.

It’s not wrong to look around for reference material in the life we have on Earth when writing science fiction or fantasy. Mix the traits of biological oddities, and you will get interesting results. Just be sure to make it different enough to not come from our world.

It’s difficult to try to describe the unknown, but we should never stop trying.

~ Lynn

 

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