Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. 101, 20 July 1981, pp 53-67
from Xenology Website
Pretty disgusting, huh?
The classic tales of science fiction are full of Bug-Eyed Monsters (or BEMs as they are affectionately termed by cognoscenti) which invade planets, threaten towns. attack rocket ships, and carry off shapely human females.
Hollywood producers apparently are convinced most extraterrestrial (ET) beings fall in one of four zoological categories:
Can’t we do any better than this?
We inhabit a queer planet with many strange settings and fabulous living creatures, altogether an excellent example of what extraterrestrial life may be all about. To a team of Interstellar Zoologists, researching sentient terrestrial mammals out here in the galactic boondocks, our world is as rare a planetary zoo as any in the Milky Way.
As biologist Allen Broms once remarked,
Human body cells average a few microns in size. (One micron is a millionth of a meter, about a hundredth of the thickness of the page these words are printed on.) The smallest living thing on Earth capable of independent metabolic activity is the PPLO, or “pleuropneumonia-like organism,” which measures 0.1 microns. Microbiologists estimate that the smallest cell that could, in theory, exist would measure about 0.04 microns in diameter.
It is amusing to speculate that the alien analogue to a human being, constructed in the same form but using these miniature cells, would weigh a mere 50 milligrams and stand only 5 millimeters tall – hardly the thickness of a pencil. Whether creatures so small could retain a human-level intelligence is anyone’s guess.
Further, the largest known single living cell was the egg of the now-extinct half-ton elephant bird or “roc bird” (Aepyornis maximus). This egg measured about a third of a meter across and weighed 15 kilograms.
Two extinct dinosaur species, Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, had two brains, one in the head and an even larger hunk of neural tissue in the hip region. (The volume of this “sacral enlargement” in Stegosaurus, another fossil animal of grand proportions, was perhaps twenty times larger than the brain in the cranial cavity!
And the entire body of an insect is its “lung” – oxygen is carried directly to cells by an intricate network of tracheae or microtubules permeating the entire organism.
The dolphin, for instance. eats through its mouth, breathes through its blowhole, and “speaks” through its “ears.” The land snail’s lung opens into a passageway other than its food canal, and sea cucumbers breathe through their rectums (called “anal respiration”). The cloacae of frogs and many other animals is a single organ which combines excretory and reproduction functions.
Brachiopods can only vomit excrement
from their “blind intestine” (a kind of alimentary cul-de-sac), and
the members of phylum Nematomorpha (long worms) eat solely by direct
absorption of nutrients through the skin – for they have no mouths.
This universal geometrical principle,
first recognized by Galileo more than three centuries ago, holds
that volume always increases faster than surface area as size
increases. A solid cubical box whose edge is doubled increases in
surface area by a factor of two squared (2x2), or four; whereas
volume, hence mass, increases by two cubed (2x2x2), or eight.
It’s easy to apply this to biology.
Picture a bony extraterrestrial herbivore placidly grazing in some alien meadow. Suddenly we double its size all over. The animal’s leg bones, now twice as thick, have quadrupled in cross-sectional area; but the creature weighs eight times as much so its bones must sustain double the pressure. It may collapse under normal exertion unless it grows proportionally stouter limbs to handle the added physical stress.
To walk at all the overgrown arthropod needs muscles proportionally thousands of times thicker; unfortunately, vital tissues already fill the hollow skeleton of the tiny original. It did not collapse under its own weight or was not immobilized by the feebleness of its muscles, an overgrown insect would starve to death because its stomach would be a thousandfold too small to absorb enough food; or it would suffocate because its tracheae could carry only a thousandth as much air as needed.
Bodies in motion like to continue in motion – extraterrestrial leviathans larger than whales would experience serious steering, turning and braking difficulties because of their relatively great mass compared to the area of their control surfaces. Cornering too fast might cause stresses in excess of the tensile strength of biological materials and the behemoth would literally snap in two.
These problems are familiar to pilots of
modem supertankers, huge ships requiring kilometers to turn or stop.
It is true that the maximum weight of living species cannot exceed the crushing strength of bony material. But animals are not designed to stand still – if they were, human legs could be a few millimeters thick.
Instead they must bear up under the peak pressures and accelerations encountered during normal running, jumping, and other strenuous survival activities. A horse at rest seems greatly overbuilt; on the racetrack where it may pull to a halt in a second or less, near the breaking point of its bones, the design limits are more fully exploited.
Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the largest land carnivores, was at least 8000 kg. The Baluchitherium, the largest extinct land mammal, was built like a hornless rhinoceros, and carried a bulk of more than 22,000 kg. The largest land animal ever may have been Brachiosaurus, of which some specimens may have weighed 111,000 kg. but we’ll ignore this majestic brute because he probably had to spend lots of time sitting in swamps resting his tired bulk. We may conservatively guess that the heaviest exclusively land-dwelling creature plausible on a 1-gee planet is around 22,000 kg.
Now, if gravity doubles, bone stress won’t increase if a creature’s height is halved while other dimensions remain the same. If maximum height is inversely proportional to gravity, then maximum volume (hence mass) goes inversely as gravity cubed.
By this measure the heaviest animal on a 2-gee world is about 2800 kg, while on a 0.2-gee planet (like Saturn’s moon Titan) the most massive beast could conceivably reach nearly three million kilograms – though I’d hate to try to keep it fed! So animals like walruses, small elephants, even 70 kg humanoids are quite possible even on the heaviest of all reasonable Earthlike worlds.
No need for,
Of course, gravity will affect design.
In any given mass category high-gee animals should have shorter, stockier bones than those evolving in low-gee environments. To provide proper support, bone cross-section must increase directly with weight. Weight is the product of mass and gravity, so bone diameter must be proportional to the square root of gravity.
Experiments have confirmed that animals
reared in high gravity grow thicker bones, stronger hearts, and lose
fat, but alien creatures will not appear wildly over- or underbuilt
as compared with Earth life of equal mass.
There are other advantages to life without a rigid frame we can hardly appreciate. For instance, an octopus, often called the supreme escape artist, can stretch itself incredibly thin, passing rubberlike through small holes or narrow crevasses and sliding confidently across desktops and the decks of ships.
Surface life must evolve some means of physical support or be reduced to a groveling mass on the ground. On Earth the most common frameworks are the exoskeleton and the endoskeleton. The former, typified by insects and crustaceans, is a hollow bony tube packed with the creature’s viscera. The latter, which all vertebrates have, is a central spine from which vital organs hang like coats on a hat rack. Exoskeletons are bony material surrounding gut; endoskeletons are bone surrounded by gut.
The answer is that we’ve considered only static strength. Large endoskeletons outperform exoskeletons under dynamic impact loading – like falling out of trees – which is why the largest of all animal species have worn their bones on the inside. Massive alien insectoids are not impossible, just less likely. Falling impacts shouldn’t be as severe on low gravity planets, and large active arthropods might survive in a rich oxygen atmosphere.
The greatest carapaced creatures on Earth have ranged in size from a tenth of a meter for the South American tarantula on land up to several meters for certain fossil marine arthropods.
Animal bodies are kept stiff by pressurized fluid trapped in a sack of tough skin. Mostly only small earthworms and nematodes have this support, but massive sea creatures such as sharks compress their innards to help negotiate sharp turns and even man uses the contents of his abdomen as a hydrostatic skeleton.
Large aliens might evolve a liquid
skeleton inside taut, fiber-strengthened tubes with extensive
reinforcing musculature – purely hydrostatic caterpillars, for
example, have about 4000 individual muscles as compared to less than
700 for a human being.
Perhaps one of the most striking instances of this “convergent evolution” is the “camera eye’’ invented separately by at least five major terrestrial animal phyla (chordates, mollusks, annelids, coelenterates and protists). Each have radically different developmental histories.
Naturally there are a few discrepancies – for example, light-sensitive cells in molluscan eyeballs point towards the light, the opposite of vertebrates. But the adjustable lens. retina, pigments, focusing muscles, iris diaphragm, transparent cornea and eyelids all are immediately recognizable. Nature is perhaps trying to tell us something: The camera eye is ubiquitous because it’s simply the best design for the job, on this or any other world.
The compound eye, however, has such poor resolving power that an insect poring over this page of print would be quite unable to make out the individual letters, so large ETs will find the system unattractive. It seems best for smaller creatures – if a flea had a spherical lens eyeball like that of humans, the pupil would be so minute that diffraction effects would utterly ruin the image.
The principle of the optical reflector telescope has never been developed for direct imaging on this world, though many species use a biological mirror assembly to increase camera eye sensitivity (the tapetum of the common tabby cat) or to attract prey using deep-sea “searchlights” in conjunction with bioluminescence (the retractable reflectors of the luminous squid).
Nature usually economizes, so a single receptor organ is good enough for nondirectional sensing. Most large organisms have but one organ of smell and one of taste. On the other hand, directional senses can make good use of the benefits of stereo. Triangulation and depth perception require at least two physically separated receptors, and there seems little to be gained by going to more than a single pair.
As astronomer Carl Sagan once pointed out,
A Three-Eyed Alien
Lifeform (courtesy of Wayne Barlowe)
Nevertheless a few animal species do have more than one pair of imaging eyes.
Zoologist Norman J. Berrill of McGill University in Montreal describes the dinnertime antics of the spider, which has four pairs of eyes:
The ultimate limit is probably reached by the scallop, whose literally hundreds of tiny, beautifully constructed nonimaging “eyes” are spread around the circumference of its mantle like running lights on an ocean liner.
Most xenobiologists regard this as a rather unlikely adaptation for thinking animals. Eyestalks require a hydraulic support system inefficient except in small animals. Eyes are vital senses for large organisms, yet stalks could be lopped off by predators with a single stroke of claw or pincer, permanently depriving the owner of sight.
Periscoping eyes unprotected by bone are
also more prone to common injury – in an accident, stalks could be
bumped, slammed or squashed all too easily.
The rattlesnake is quite good at this – the creature has two imaging eyeballs operating in the visible, and two conical pits on either side of the head which permit binocular IR sensing of temperature differences as little as 0.002 °C. The theory of optics predicts that alien infrared eyeballs with resolution close to that of the human eye could have apertures as small as 4 centimeters at 93,000 Angstroms (the peak wavelength of black body radiation emitted by a warm human body).
This compares well with the size of the eye of the Indian elephant (4.1 cm), the horse (5 cm), the blue whale (14.5 cm), and the largest cephalopods (up to 37 cm).
The acoustical, tactile, and chemical spectra of sensation have also been well exploited by life on Earth.
The “radioactive sense” was once artificially bestowed on a small group of laboratory animals by wiring portable Geiger counters directly to the fear center of feline brains. When confronted with a pile of radioactive materials in one comer of their cages, each cat shied away.
For example, we could imagine a sophisticated meteorological sensorium evolving on a world cursed with highly volatile, perpetually inclement weather. Humidity and barometric sensors would be essential, as would anemometers to calibrate wind velocity. The ability to sense changes in atmospheric composition, such as the carbon dioxide detectors possessed by honeybees and fire ants, would be useful.
Atmospheric turbidity, closely related to developing weather patterns, greatly influences the degree of skylight polarization – sensors responsive to the intensity and distribution of polarized light might permit their owner to seek shelter from the elements before disaster struck. The seeming ability of many animals to sense an earthquake or tornado before it arrives may relate to their perception of very low frequency infrasonics or minute electrical field variations immediately preceding the event.
And the allegation that elephants can
sense water located a meter or so beneath the surface of apparently
dry riverbeds is unproven scientifically, yet the fact remains that
such biological dowsers would be tar more likely to survive on a
Ancestral fishes only have fins in pairs, so mustn’t all limbs evolve in pairs as well?
The extinct Tyrannosaurus rex and a few large contemporary creatures such as the kangaroo run bipedally but stand tripedally. The tails of these animals are as strong and thick as the forelegs and are regularly used for postural support. Indeed, when kangaroos fight, they rear up on their tails, freeing both legs to deliver crushing kicks to opponents.
About one-third of the mammalian brain is committed to sensory functions, whereas only a small slice handles motor control, ETs are much more likely to have extra arms than extra eyes or ears.
Marine creatures with many pairs of fins would have the advantage, ultimately inheriting the land and producing a rich ecology of multipodal animal life.
Animal (courtesy of Wayne Barlowe)
Of course, legs are not the only game in town.
The potential of rotary motion (to pick one possibility of many) cries out for fulfillment. A few years ago biologists made the amazing discovery that the tails of tiny bacteria are driven by minute ionic motors complete with rotors, stators, bushings and freely-rotating drive shafts spinning up to 60 cycles per second.
The rapid back-and-forth wiggling of flagella we see under the microscope is actually a complicated helical twisting movement more akin to a propeller screw than to a simple fishy undulation. This finding contradicts the long-standing dictum that living organisms may not contain detached, self-rotating parts.
Occasionally sand particles jam in a portal, causing irritation. The animal responds by encasing them in a perfectly smooth spherical pearl, much like those of the modem oyster.
Its jet ports now permanently plugged by large pearly structures almost from birth, these animals might develop the ability to roll along the graded continental raceways. Speed is controlled by internal sphincters aided by heat sensors for guided braking on gentle downhill stretches and a “low-gear” muscular assist for steep climbs.
Tentacle arms like ski poles provide
additional stability on fast runs along the coastline.
This 10 kilogram bird reaches wingspans up to four meters and needs a lengthy runway to achieve takeoff speed of 20 kph. This minimum velocity is called the “stall speed” and is partly determined by air density. Venusian pigeons could remain airborne at speeds ten times slower than their Earthly cousins, whereas Martian birds of similar size and shape would have to fly ten times faster to stay aloft.
For the same ease of flight a pigeon on a 2-gee planet with Earthlike air must increase total wing area by only 75 percent; on a bantam-weight 0.2-gee world, wing surface may decrease 75 percent. Gravity also influences stall speed. An albatross on a 2-gee planet needs a 40-percent runway extension; on a 0.2-gee world it can get by with 55 percent less. Massive extraterrestrial avians are more likely on puny planets with dense atmospheres.
Adding yet more wings would serve no useful purpose, hence are unlikely to evolve. Only a very few insect species on Earth retain vestigial traces of an ancestral third wing pair, and these are degenerate and useless for flight.
Much like the toy plastic projectiles that shoot the length of a playing field when fully charged with water and compressed air, the rocket fish bolts from the sea skyward and mouthes its dinner on the fly. Such an animal must have a sturdy posterior pressure canister that can be discharged rapidly through a rigid bony nozzle, rechargeable in minutes using powerful sphincter muscles, internal gas generation, or osmosis.
Earthly precedents include the jet propulsion of squids and octopuses, the pressurized chemical sprays of warrior termites, and the boiling liquid jet of the bombardier beetle.
Illustration of the
Rocket Fish (courtesy of Wayne Barlowe)
A lightweight planet with high winds might be ideal for the evolution of sentient “parachute beasts,” large aerial aliens able to navigate the airways of their world by manipulating sturdy chutes or simple gliding surfaces.
Vultures can sail for hours with little effort using strong mountain updrafts to gain altitude, but other worlds may be even better suited for this mode of flight. Further terrestrial precedent includes the aerial dispersal of spider young – spiderlings crawl to the tip of a blade of grass, raise their tiny abdomens and let fly a thin silken thread, then hop aboard as a gust of wind catches the gossamer strands and whisks them away into the sky.
These creatures supposedly inhabit a world with cold winters, heavy gravity and a thick atmosphere. Twice a year the herbivorous hundred-kilogram blimps inflate their many lifting bags with metabolically generated hydrogen gas and drift to the opposite hemisphere to avoid the seasonal chill. Strong winds are an advantage, but predators are numerous and many noble aeronauts are lost during the migrations when a chance bolt of lightning strikes and ignites their flammable bodies.
On Earth the Portuguese man-of-war, the chambered nautilus, and swim bladders in fishes provide precedent for a balloon lifestyle in a fluid medium.
These creatures drift with the shore currents, feeding on surface algae and nibbling the tops of seaweed stalks.
In time the shell could become better adapted for navigation, perhaps with a streamlined undercarriage, allowing the ET to better chart its course between known patches of food and to escape its predators. Eventually it gains still more speed with a crude sail, a thin membrane growing from a shank of cartilage in the animal’s belly. With further evolution the membrane becomes retractable, even delicately manipulatable by fine muscles.
At last the emergence of a brain and sensory organs strictly comparable to those of higher mollusks on Earth makes possible a kind of living clipper ship complete with masthead (forward sensors), jib, mainsail, riggings (extensible tendon), and a rudder.
The Sailboat Creature
(courtesy of Wayne Barlowe)
Every habitable planet has millions of living species and billions of extinct ones, and there are many trillions of useful planets in the universe. This adds up to an incredible diversity of life.
Christian Huygens wrote in The Celestial Worlds Discovered (1698) that,
Whether Huygens’s prophecy is true is something we can determine only by traveling to faraway worlds and sampling extraterrestrial ecologies at close hand.
Perhaps, someday soon, we will make this