by Keith Morrison
©2007 Keith Morrison
- And it came to pass that the land was split asunder and the sea did rusheth in, and there was much fire and smoke and pumice and pillow lava. And there arose great mountains and plateaus and upon the land was carried the animals to the corners of the world.
And lo, the creatures wept, for they had been separated from their brothers and their cousins by the sea; but pretty much forgot about them as they explored their new lands.
And from the sea there emerged creatures who first breathed the air, and thus did their descendants creep and then run upon the earth and in time spread across the lands and across the seas. And so upon new lands the creatures went.
And they were eaten by something bigger that had come out of the seas first.
- The Book of Norso-mri, Chapter 2
Briefly reviewing the animal life on a planet with a biodiversity at least equal to Earths is a fools task. Even if you just cover existing mammals its going to take a long time, what with having to cover everything from egg-laying echinoderms to flying bats to fully aquatic whales to the upright-walking tailless monkeys who are currently on top of the heap. Birds, reptiles, insects, the other arthropods, worms
utterly hopeless. We dont even have a clue how many species there are on the planet, with estimates ranging from the improbably conservative 2 million to over 100 million. But you can get a general grasp of the overall picture, and as anyone who has read a good RPG sourcebook or something like Dougal Dixons After Man has probably seen, one way to paint this picture is to break the task down into smaller (read: more manageable) chunks. Traditionally there are two ways of doing it: By habitat/eco-system, or by biological relationship. Both have their good points and bad points, but selecting one is usually the safest way of dealing with things. So, of course, Ill proceed to do both.
First off, though, a map (finally!). Although Id originally intended to use the Ordovician Earth as a basic geographic template, I scrapped that plan and came up with the following world. Note that the map is distorted because its an equirectangular projection, which seriously affects the map as it goes toward the poles.
Click on this thumbnail image to bring up a high-resolution (1,571 x 785) version of the map in a fresh window
Gayajans landmasses consist of 6 major continents, and like continents on Earth, they interact. The largest is Anjor in the eastern hemisphere. Thlaraj, just to the west and with a matching coastline, is clearly in the process of rifting away from Anjor, with a new ocean forming between them. At the northern end of Anjor, the opposite is happening with the continent of Kejak plowing into Anjor and raising the highest mountain chain on the planet as well as a very large and high plateau (yes, India and Tibet is the obvious example). This region is even more geologically active because there was already an active mountain chain running along the east coast of Anjor, formed like the Andes and the Rockies due to the subduction of oceanic plate in the deep ocean trench just offshore. The northeast corner of Anjor isnt going to be a fun place to live, what with the high altitude, unbelievable ruggedness and active geology.
Kejak itself has rifted away from the northern continent of Das-ren.
The western side of Thlaraj has a similar mountain chain, very much like the Andes, due to the continent plowing westward into the Tel Jifan (Jifan Ocean).
Across the Tel Jifan and to the north is Jovad. Jovad itself isnt a continent, per se, but a mini-supercontinent formed by several smaller continental plates in the area. Jovad is the name of the largest; for convenience, well use it as a label for the entire group. These plates have been rumbling around each other for over 50 million years, so theres been plenty of opportunity for sharing biologies. Even now its fairly easy to island-hop, so biologically, the area can be treated as one.
Das-jasen, south of the Jovad group, is your basic sunken continental mass. Once a single continent nearly the same size as Thlaraj, 20 million years ago (just at the time of the last mass extinction, by coincidence) the continent was caught over a massive downwelling in the planets mantle which has dragged the continent down, causing the ocean to flood low lying areas and leaving the exposed highlands. Recently the continent moved off the downwelling and so it is starting to rebound, making it very active tectonically, the excitement growing because of the volcanic hotspots that have punched through.
(Anjor is in the opposite situation: located over a mantle upwelling, its average height is higher than it should be. This is analogous to the situation in Africa.)
The movement of the continents has had major effects on the biology. To describe how, you need to go back in time a bit. The last time Gayajan had a single supercontinent was over 350 million years ago. That continent (Pangayajan, to steal a term) rifted into two smaller bodies, Proto-Jovad (consisting of Jovad, Dan-jasen and Das-ren/Kejak) and Anjor-Thlaraj. Fifty million years ago, Proto-Jovad split into its three component parts. Forty million years ago Kejak split from Das-ren and started its kamikaze run at Anjor. Twenty million years ago Kejak met Anjorand, at more-or-less the same time, Das-jasen started to sink. A mere ten million years ago, Thlaraj split from Anjor.
What does this mean for biology?
Since their break-up was comparatively recent, Thlaraj and Anjor are going to have similar-looking collections of plants and animals on both sides of the opening ocean. Jovad, Das-jasen and Das-ren, coming from a single supercontinent, will also have similarities, but 50 million years of separation from each other means theyve had five times as much opportunity to diversify. Still, the life-forms of the Jovad land masses will be closer to each other than theyll be to the life-forms of Thlaraj-Anjor, having been distinct from them for 350 million years.
Interesting things are happening due to Kejak. It brought along Das-rennian life to Anjor when it collided. This means relatives of Proto-Jovad organisms can be found in Thlaraj and Anjor, but there was no movement going the other way. A crude Earth example: Marsupials. As everyone knows, these creatures are mostly Australianbut some took off with South America when it split, and then moved into North America (the opossum) when Panama was formed. However, until humans came along, there wasnt a way for North American/Eurasian animals to easily get to Australia, and there wont be until Australia starts colliding with Asia in a few tens of million years.
Das-jasen is going to have its own setcorrection; make that setsof biological quirks. The essential break-up of the continent into islands has created a situation where the original biology has been forced into a number of isolated pockets. This, as anyone with basic evolutionary education can tell you, is a prime ground for some rapid diversification and interesting experimentation. Throw in a mass extinction to open up a few niches that had been previously filled, and things can get weird.
The overall effect is that theres likely to be some interesting diversity on this planet, even ignoring the magic aspect. Large areas have been isolated for long periods of time, far more than has been the case for Earth. On our planetagain, ignoring human actions and the result thereof, and Antarctica, which (being an economy-sized ice cube) doesnt have much diversity to contributeonly Australia and Madagascar have filled the role of large, isolated ecosystem for a significant period of time. South America had that until a few million years ago. Otherwise, theres been a fairly large movement of life-forms across the northern continents and Africa, due to their long period of contact. Gayajans had continents off on their own, isolated from each other, for far longer; in some cases, since before the first large land animals emerged from the water.
It would be as if the fish-tetrapod transition took place 375 million years ago in whats now North America, but Laurussia (North America, Siberia and Baltica) was not only further away from, but never got back in contact with, Gondwanaland to form Pangaea. If a fish-land transition happened separately in Gondwanaland, the land vertebrates that evolved there could be wildly different from those that emerged in Laurussia. As far as we know, that might be exactly what happened; but due to Earths continents playing taxi for all those animals, one group beat out the others and all the subsequent land vertebrates evolved from the winner. Unless we luck out and find the fossils proving two separate evolutionary transitions, well never know.
That, to remind you, is what happened on Earth. It did not happen on Gayajan.
Lets look at Gayajans life-forms, from the general to the more specific. It has six general kingdoms of life.
We touched on crystalplants in the previous column. Here Ill focus on the animals. There are several major phyla (everyone does know the old kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species drill, right?). On Earth, the nine best known and most common in terms of number of known species are:
In order to keep things simple, and since its a darned good bet, well take it for granted that Gayajan has close analogs of sponges, jellyfish, worms and so on. Naturally there will be differences, if only because Gayajan has working magic and Earth doesnt. But etherons or not, a sponge is a sponge is a sponge. The engineering constraints of a sponges particular lifestyle ensure that convergent evolution will likely make them, for our fictional purposes, functionally identical to their Earthly counterpartsand the same goes for jellyfish and the rest of that lot.
That leaves us the three phyla were really interested in: Namely, the equivalents of mollusks, arthropods, and the chordates. And for one of those groupsMolluscalets be honest: All people really care about are squid and octopus. Clams just arent that exciting in a fictional context. So, first major difference: Gayajan has its clams, but no members of that group are as interesting as squid or octopus. Sorry, well have to get our monsters elsewhere. Isnt life simpler when you can make arbitrary decisions like that?
On Gayajan, most of our interesting creatures will be clustered in three major phyla.
I never said there werent going to be any squid, merely that they wont be related to clams. Krakenoids are pseudo-chordates in that they have an internal skeleton, but instead of having a backbone with appendages sprouting off of it, the basic krakenoid skeleton consists of a cylindrical frame. The prototype has three longitudal members running the length of the body and a varying number of cylindrical ribs connecting those three spines forming a rigid cage. This gives the basic body form trilateral symmetry. Each spine has a multi-jointed limb coming off each end, giving the animal six. The cylindrical body has a definite front end (where the food comes in, location of the main sensory organs) and a rear (where the waste comes out).
With their internal skeleton, members of this phylum could adapt to land, since that skeleton allows them to support their own weight and protect the organs. Generally speaking, they havent been as successful as some of the other phyla that did so, and theyve remained largely amphibious. Their greatest success on land has been in Das-jasen, where the combination of the mass extinction and isolated islands removed some of the competition from the chordates and opened up previously occupied niches.
The typical marine krakenoid has a barrel or log-shaped body. The head of the creature consists of a centrally-located mouth with three moving toothed jaws. Three eyes around the circumference of the body are typical. Between the eyes and the mouth are the three arms. Some marine krakenoids have arms with only two or three joints while others have snake-like arms (that is, many smaller bones) that resemble the tentacles of a squid or octopus. Also typical are a set of three phalanges (fingers) at the end of each arm. The limbs at the other end of the body are specialized for propulsion, consisting of three long bones (thus each leg has two knees). The foot also has three (or fewer) phalanges. In free-swimming krakenoids, the feet form whale-like flukes and the animal is pushed through the water by their movement; arms in front, then body, then legs.
In benthic (bottom dwelling) krakenoids, the legs may act either as roots, anchoring the upright animal to the bottom, or as feet which grasp the bottom and move the animal around. In either case, benthic krankenoids have a lifestyle akin to very, very overgrown corals. Theyll usually just sit there, grabbing whatever happens to come within reach (or moving to find a better place to grab something within reach) or browsing on other benthic organisms that dont move much themselves.
Free-swimming krakenoids are active predators. The filter-feeders have arms with four bones, fin-like phalanges, and dense hair-like growth. When feeding on plankton the krakenoid spreads its arms wide, the hair on the arms interconnecting to form the equivalent of a net, and engulfs a mass of plankton. As the arms are pulled toward the body the plankton are trapped in this net, ready to be scooped up by the large tongue. Once the net is licked clean, the arms are extended for the next bite. When not feeding the hair lies flat along the arms allowing for streamlining. Given their lifestyle, its no surprise that the whalekraks grow large (just as the largest whales and sharks are filter feeders). Some species may grow to thirty or more meters long. They dominate this niche in the oceans of the planet and have for over two hundred million years.
Predatory marine krakenoids, on the other hand, have had their setbacks. Like their larger whalekrak cousins, they were once the top of the food chain in the ocean but they went into a bit of a decline once the local chordates evolved jaws and began active predation on larger food. The chordates had the advantage of flexible backbones, as opposed to the rigid krakenoid body, which provided them with greater maneuverability. The greater reach of the krakenoids (as only they had arms as yet) wouldnt mean much if they couldnt maneuver close enough to grab dinner.
Eventually two hunting strategies proved successful. The benthic krakenoids gave up on trying to chase down prey and moved to an ambush strategy, or passive collection. The torpedo krakenoid, on the other hand, went in a totally different direction. It traded what maneuverability it had for more speed, relying on that speed to hit its prey before future-lunch had a chance to maneuver away. The torpedo-kraken is a streamlined bullet. Three powerful leg-fins propel it through the water at high velocity. When in motion, it holds its arms rigidly in front of itself and clasped together, essentially forming a sharp nose for the body. The phalanges (two on each arm) are capable of bending backwards so they lie flat against the arms. When the krakenoid strikes its prey, the phalanges snap forward and grab the prey item with sharp claws, allowing the krakenoid to then feed at its leisure.
Since the arms are not as flexible as those of other krakenoids, it cant bring its food all the way to its mouth; therefore the torpedo-krakens jaws extend outward to take bites. But its jaws are relatively smallthey have to be, due to streamlining and restrictions on the size of the head. This means the torpedo-kraken has to take more bites, which leads to their horrific reputation: A torpedo-kraken suddenly strikes without warning, grasps you with needle-sharp claws that cant be pulled free, and slowly eats you alive. Torpedo-krakens range in size from 30 centimeters long (traveling in schools, with a reputation like that of our piranha) to three-meter-long solitary predators.
The terrestrial krakenoids evolved from an estuary-living ancestor some 350 million years ago. Unlike their ocean-going relatives, who live in a three-dimension world and so retained their circular body form, the shallow-water krakenoids were faced with a world that was more two-dimensional. This caused them to evolve way from the cylindrical shape of the marine cousins to a body form that had a defined top, sides and bottom. Their skeletal cage distorted so that one side was flattened, in essence creating a semicircular cross section. The skeleton of a terrestrial kraken would rest with two of the backbones (the ventral spines) resting flat on the ground connected by straight bone ribs, and the third backbone (the dorsal spine) held up by more delicately arched ribs.
The limbs connected to the ventral spines became dedicated weight-supporting legs; thus, terrestrial krakenoids are quadrupeds. The rear dorsal limb eventually atrophied and, if present, is more a tail than a limb. The front dorsal arm evolved into a specialized hunting appendage, which may well be the single most variable aspect of terrestrial krakenoid anatomy. In one genus, the phalanges have diminished so that the end of the arm consists only of a single spike, used like a spear to attack prey. In a more distantly-related genus thats omnivorous (and suspiciously intelligent), the phalanges remained and the animal uses this hand in a similar way to an elephants trunk.
Unlike the evenly-spaced and identical eyes of the marine krakenoids, the terrestrial krakenoids eyes have moved and specialized. The two eyes located on the ventral spines have rotated around so their bony enclosures are away from the ground, their field of view being forward. The dorsal eye is enlarged, and its focused forward in the more predatory krakenoids. In the omnivores its set further up and back on the head, giving a good field of view to the sides, top and even slightly backwards.
The terrestrial krakenoid faces something of a bleak future. All krakenoids give birth to live young, but those young are aquatic. For the first few months of life, even terrestrial krakenoids live in water. They never got beyond a marginal amphibious lifestyle on most of Gayajan, because of this restriction on their environments. As mentioned above, Das-jasen is where theyve managed to thrivebut unless they evolve the ability to give birth without the need for water, they face a drying world (the continent is rising again) and competition from purely terrestrial organisms.
What can you say, really? The major differences between Gayajan and Earth are that their insect-equivalents have four legs rather than six; the equivalents of spiders have six legs instead of eight. Not much to worry about in terms of difference, except for one thing: Gayajans spideroids went and did something not very nice at all. They developed proper lungs and a circulatory system. With those two features allowing them to both (a) extract O2 from the air more efficiently, and (b) schlep more of that oxygen to their cells, theyve been able to get a tad bigger. Now we arent talking Shelob hereexternal skeletons have issues with growth and structural supportbut running into a predatory spider the size of a fox will likely give an arachnophobe permanent nightmares. Fortunately for the sanity of said people, this has been a relatively recent evolutionary development, occurring in the last forty million years, which happened on Kejak after it split from Das-Ren. The monster spiders are thus found only on Kejak, Anjor and Thlaraj.
Of course, thats where most of the people live. Enh, [shrug] whatcha gonna do? They probably make great pets when they arent trying to pump you full of digestive enzymes and suck your liquefied organs out
Now lets move on to meet the animals were most likely to think of when somebody mentions the word animal.
First off, there are the fish. Unlike most fish that come to mind when we say fish, these guys dont have swim bladders. Interesting aside: On Earth, lungs came before swim bladders. The ancestors of Earths current teleosts (the ray-finned bony fish) were lungfish-like freshwater beasties who went back to the ocean and had their lungs change into swim bladders. Thats why sharks and rays, who didnt evolve from air-breathing fish, dont have them. On Gayajan this twist never happened; there was no migration of brackish/freshwater fish back to the ocean, or at least not a significant one. The ocean-going fish evolved a buoyant fat-filled organ (or distributed series of them) to give them their lift.
In another change, at least two different groups of fish made the transition to land. On Proto-Jovad, alongside the early amphibious krakenoids 350 million years ago, a family of fish with six lobed fins made the transition to amphibian and then terrestrial animal. Meanwhile, over on Anjar-Thlaraj, a group of fish with four lobed fins made the jump. With the large distance between the continents until recently, these two lineages never did meet and compete on the large scale. In consequence, neither lineage had the opportunity to hammer the other into extinction (or perhaps just marginalization). Sure, there were isolated meetings, but no truly significant conflicts of ecosystems. This all changed when Kejak docked with Anjor, which brought the formers six-limbed passengers into direct contact, and competition with, the latters four-limbed types. However, even this was qualified by history. Remember that Kejak had been part of Das-ren. But Das-ren, after separating from Proto-Jovad, spent a fair chunk of geological time hovering in Gayajans north polar regions. This limited the diversity of its life rather significantly, compared to what was happening back on Jovad and Das-jasen. The life on Kejak did manage to diversity on its ride south, but the animals that finally arrived were descendants of specialized arctic animals.
So what are the dominant lifeforms?
On Jovad and Das-jasen, the dominant animals are the dragons. Just like the dinosaurs, they occupy niches ranging from small burrowers to gigantic land animals. Most have six limbs, with variations including specialization (two or more wings), loss of limbs (there are quadrupeds, bipeds, snakes, snakes with arms, snakes with wings), so on and so forth. The vast majority lay eggs and are endothermic (warm-blooded). The ones that have insulation, also have hair.
The Das-ren dragons, in general, are larger than their southern cousins and more insulated. The Kejakian dragons were forced to adapt to changing climate as their continent headed south. The ones in the highlands retained enough of their cold-weather adaptations that when Kejak collided with Anjor, they could rapidly spread through the mountain chains along the eastern edge of Anjor and dominate the ecosystems of the high Kejakian Plateau. The lowland Kejakian dragons, forced to adapt more, became smarter. By the time humans showed up, intelligent Kejakians had spread to across Anjor.
On Anjor-Thlaraj, the four-limbed animals became roughly equivalent to birds. They, too, are endothermic, but they give birth to live young while covered in the modified scales we call feathers. These bird-like creatures have become the dominant air-breathers in the oceans, oddly enough, and have prevented the dragons from taking a similar plunge. Like the dragons they occupy all sorts of niches and have all sorts of appearances, ranging from small burrowers to large grazers. They occupy the niche that (on todays Earth) is filled by mammals, although with no bats (since thats filled by, well, birds).
Ive skimped somewhat on the details of the dragons and the mammal-birds, compared to the krakenoids, because the former are easier to picture, either from real animals, fossils, or fantasy art. The krakenoids, however, are just weird. Theres nothing like them on Earth, so they demanded a little more explanation.
Theres one final group of animals: The ones from Earth. Just to remind you; the gods of Gayajan, for their own reasons, dropped humans on this world. They dropped a few of the domesticated animals as well. So Gayajan humans have the familiar horse, cattle, dogs, and cats.
And, as I said in a previous column, the biologies are compatible. Dragon and human and mammal-bird can all eat each other.
So thats the quick survey of animal life. Next time well get into some of the more interesting (for fictional purposes) creatures: Those with intelligenceand humans arent the only ones of this kind. And thats before the whackiness of magical genetic engineering! Stay tuned.