After Epona's First Steps?
The Stage is Set for Growth
Well, that's about it with the description of what went on at the CONTACT X Conference. A huge amount of creative work was done, but much of it in the form of outline, rather than detail. We are now at the stage of a land fauna, approximately 5 million years into the warm spell. None of our creatures are near sentient yet; the most intelligent, the Ceretridon, has a mental ability no greater than that of a horse. The Springcroc has remained a killing machine with the brains of a shark. At CONTACT XI we will be taking the process further to develop an intelligent creature, although we shall be leaving the question of technology and culture until later. What we want from you is to fill in some of our current picture, to join the dots and shade in some of the background. Here are some outstanding questions that need solving.
Whilst our team worked out some of the flora of the lagoon evolutionary stage, almost nothing was done about later land plants contemporary with the modern Ceretridon. This is a serious omission and must addressed. So anybody out there who wants to design a land flora, please have a go. Bear in mind that it is difficult to evolve from seaweed to redwoods in five million years, but that evolution would find some way to cover the land in rich plant growth. Rhubarb‑like growths held aloft by ribbing perhaps rather than "wood?" Fantastically diverse descendants of the bubbleweed? Remember, this is important because the Ceretridon's food chain depends ultimately on autotrophs (All food chains do). Also, if we are to get some proper artwork done of the fauna of Coti Mundi in their natural setting, alien plants are needed as well as alien animals. Go to town, remember, these are alien plants . . . How do they reproduce? What color might their version of "chlorophyll" be, especially taking into account that 82 Eridani is redder than our own sun? Don't forget too, we have lower gravity and so, pound for pound, plants can stand taller.
So far, we have assumed Coti Mundi fauna have the same metabolism as terrestrial animals, i.e., carbohydrates being oxidized to provide energy. Now, your handbook will tell you that Coti Mundi has an oxygen rich atmosphere and so we can reasonably expect respiration to use oxygen in a similar way. But are there any twiddly bits we can add, some extra metabolic inventions, that might make our fauna different and special? After all, Coti Mundi is slightly older than our own planet. Here's an idea that somebody might like to take up. You know those hot‑rod cars than run on "nitro" ¾ nitrous oxide gas (N2O) that is squirted into the airflow to give the car a boost when Evel Knievel needs it? How does it work? Could it work for an animal? We know that bacteria can metabolize N2O, so why not higher organisms? Could we have an animal that respires using oxygen as per‑normal, but in the resting state synthesizes nitro and stores it within blood cells in some "spleen"‑like organ. When it really needs to kick ass the "spleen" contracts, and the vascular system floods with nitro‑rich blood for a few minutes, turning the creature into something that, just for a short while, could turn Arnie Schwartzenegger (Ed note: sorry Governor, couldn't have known it at that time!) into shish kebab! Just a thought . . .
Little of the internal processes of our fauna has been worked out. So far, it has been sufficient to concentrate on the outside of our creatures and to assume that it's internal processes are similar to those of terrestrial creatures. But are they? How does it oxygenate its tissues ¾ with "lungs" and a "blood stream?" Remember, lungs are a specific invention of a certain group of fishes from the history of the Earth; insects don't have lungs but spiracles. The fauna of Coti Mundi would doubtless have a different organ but fulfilling the same function. Breathing is universal, but the organ you do it with depends on the contingency of evolution, which could be very different on another planet. Similarly, the bones of terrestrial vertebrates have a specific internal structure and are made from calcium phosphate. However, shellfish make their shells out of calcium carbonate and some worms have teeth made from goethite, a hydrated iron oxide (FeOOH) which is hard and (this is why I like it) can be magnetized. You are not going to get proper "bone" on Coti Mundi, but you will get some form of hard, mineralized, structural support (a skeleton). What are the "bones" of our creatures made from? Calcium carbonate seems a sensible option, since, in the cold periods, carbon is often a limiting nutrient and so the bones can use it as a store. Are there any other chemicals that spring to mind and for which you can provide a convincing rationale?
Another question: how do our creatures perform homeostasis? How is their skin adapted to retain or lose heat -- scales, hair, or perspiration, perhaps? All these questions need addressing and so are grist for the mill. Start turning the handle everybody, and remember, the physiology that we end up accepting for our fauna will be universal since most top species will be related. Working out how our aliens work is therefore a particularly important, god‑like, task. Get out there and create!
The internal maps of the Ceretridon and Springcroc are still largely unknown territory. Brave new worlders out there, cartographers of the body, we need you. Once again, the person who invents a good internal body plan for a Ceretridon will create the blue print for both descendants and ancestors. All we seem to know so far is that it has an endoskeleton, "bones," "joints," but no spinal column or jaws similar to a terrestrial vertebrate. It has a "skull," but one made to a pattern utterly alien to anything from Earth. A nice design for the skull would be particularly welcome, particularly a workable design for the mouthparts, which evolved from limbs 1 and 2. Remember, the mouthparts have to be able to dispose of food adequately, as well as looking good. Another item of anatomical detail that emerged from the discussions at CONTACT X was the so‑called "asshole problem." Apparently the team had a bit of trouble wiring up the Ceretridon's "intestinal tract" to eject solid wastes down its long axis. This was especially the case for the bipedal knuckle‑walker which, if the anus was situated where one might expect, would do its business over its hind leg. Thus it was decided to situate the anus asymmetrically, on one side of the animal. This would give it a "good side" and a "bad side," having possible cultural implications once intelligence develops. So we want a good, alien body plan and need to explore from the outside inwards both the Ceretridon and Springcroc. The anatomy must reflect the workings of the organism, its physiology, and the two must therefore be integrated. One excellent suggestion made in the last minute of CONTACT X was that Coti Mundi muscles might work in the opposite way than muscle works on Earth -- it might be pneumatic, instead of contractile. Thus, instead of pulling, the Ceretridon's muscles push; when relaxed, they are contracted, when tense, they are extended. Could this work? If so, then it should have a profound effect on skeletal design: muscles pull on the bones of Earth creatures, but they would push on those of Coti Mundi. The implications of getting to grips with this kind of problem are quite exciting. Let's try therefore to go beyond the 2D cardboard cut‑out aliens of much of SF and make our aliens internally consistent by providing an exciting 3D creature. Then CONTACT will be breaking new ground.
The original reef ecosystem developed by the team was a very good start but was not carried through to the land‑based stage. There are going to be extant life forms other than plants, Ceretridons and Springcrocs. Many of these will be versions of the above, but there is still room for others. Those of you responsible for inventing reef‑dwelling animals which we haven't covered in this Newsletter are welcome to evolve a land‑based version and to submit it. Alternatively, just using the 82 Eridani Handbook as a guide, you might start from scratch and develop something entirely new. Remember though, that you must be able to show a plausible line of descent from some creature in some ecological niche in the preceding ice age. We are very short of good flyers, so you are welcome to work on these -- so long as they don't appear to much like birds but still look as if they can fly! Details and sketches, preferably both, are welcome.