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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Jurassic World, Part 2: Is the Game Better Than the Movie? and I-Rex VS Mewtwo.

“…here we are, hunter-gatherers wandering among the wreckage of our own making, and evolved to play with evolution.” - George Gessert, “Why I Breed Plants.”

So, I mentioned last section that I’ve been playing Jurassic World: the Game. I love this game to death, and actually think it’s better than the movie. 

I know, I know: I speak madness, this is Sparta, GET REKT. Hear me out. 

One of the things I really hated about the movie was how forced a lot of the things felt. For a few examples: “FAMILY IS THE BEST THING EVER EVEN THOUGH I’M AT A DIVORCE HEARING,” “Remember that one time we made out? Yeah, we’re a couple, now,” “WE’RE KIDS LET’S BE REBELLIOUS AND STUPID!” (more on this later), “weaponize all the things” (more on this later, too), and, most importantly, “TAKE THAT, YOU GENETIC FREAK! Whaddya mean, ‘I’m just as spliced?!’” 

That last one is not only the main point of this article, but also one of the main points of Jurassic Park as a whole: how far can science go before its wax wings melt? 

This is where the game really stands out. Aside from more character development and more dinosaurs overall, I have to mention how the designs really made the whole point about wax wings better than the movie. It did that mostly by having more dinosaurs, allowing us to interact with said dinosaurs, and doing slightly different things with them. 

For example, in the movie, we see raptor training. Vic Hoskins, a person working with both InGen and the military, mentions weaponizing the raptors, suggesting them as mine-sniffing dogs with talons among other things. Hoskins also suggests selectively breeding raptors for loyal strains. In the end, the training/conditioning wins out, but here’s the kicker: there is nothing wrong with selective breeding, especially for loyalty/docility. What’s wrong, really, is the military’s intent for such a thing. 

You do realize he was selectively-bred, right? 

Get this: the domestication of the dog predates the invention of the wheel. Dogs have been confirmed man’s best friend since 15,000 BCE; the wheel was invented around 3,500 BCE. It has been proven, multiple times, that not only are dogs and wolves the same species, but that all you have to do to make a wolf into a dog is select the brood for tameness. In foxes, this took only four generations; in wolves, with how similar their social structure is to that of humans, it may have taken even fewer than that. For the record, feral dogs have reverted almost entirely into wolves, yes. They’re called dingoes

Imagine doing that with raptors. Wouldn’t that be AWESOME? Since this type of breeding also creates new patterns (specifically piebaldism - irregular white patches on a creature’s coat), we could have a variety of raptors tailored to the demands of anybody with the time and money for a pet raptor! Want one with a nifty stripe like Blue? You got it. An all-white one? Doable. Orange? Sure, why not! 

And y’know what? The game actually encourages this. 

Image from the JW Wikia, but I have one, too. 

JW the Game has an arena function. In order to get stronger dinos, you have to fuse two of them together. The results lead to cleaner patterns and brighter colors, similar to the selectively-bred Okeetee corn snakes (they are not a heritable morph - they are “cleaned” wild-colored corn snakes). The tradeoff is camouflage for a pattern that rakes in the dough. All you have to do is mate/evolve your dinosaurs. It’s no worse than trying to select for, say, deeper purple in albino reticulated pythons, along with a good temperament. Always go for temperament. 

“But that’s unnatural!” 

No, no it isn’t. Allow me to elaborate on why it is perfectly fine using “fuck” in every sentence with several different meanings. 

Nature does not fucking care what humans do to its creatures. As long as things are fucking and their offspring continue to fuck, the species survives. Mother Nature is a fucking bitch; as long as you fuck and your offspring can fuck, you win. It doesn’t matter if a fucking wolf does it with a fucking dog- humans are the ones who care. As far as the wolfdog is concerned, it is still Canis fucking lupus, and can still fuck either of its parents while producing offspring that can fuck. That is how animals fucking win. That is all that fucking matters to nature: fucking. 

What is unnatural is that male dinosaurs aren’t fucking acknowledged. We don’t even know if there’s a fucking stud, who, by the way, must be doing a lot of fucking if he exists. If anything, preventing the dinosaurs from fucking naturally like that is more unnatural than selectively breeding them. At least with selective breeding, there is fucking going on. 

I’m done with the F-bombs, now. Hopefully, they make the point. Your move, Catcher in the Rye. 

The problem: even selective breeding, an art as old as humankind, has very bad connotations, nowadays. PETA has made sure that selective breeding is linked with puppy mills, cross-eyed white tigers, and generally illegal activities. This is not to say that such things don’t happen at all with inbreeding, or that puppy mills are A-OK, but it is still an art almost as old as humanity itself, and will not go away. Generally speaking, humans move forward with their inventions, not backwards. This applies to breeding, too; for example, Siamese cats have had the exact same issues with crossed eyes as white tigers in the past (it’s the same type of albinism, even), but selective breeding, including outcrosses, overcame that hurdle. We’re generally pretty good at picking out traits we like and accentuating them without causing too much damage - i.e. making it so that the organisms can’t fuck. 

Refer back to the quote we opened with: we have evolved to play with evolution. Selective breeding is selecting for traits we like, rather than being stronger or faster. Considering that humans can be treated as their own extinction event, perhaps it’s about time we looked at selective breeding as its own, bizarre adaptation: a genetic response to a new environment. In this case, that new environment is us. 

So, again, let’s loop back to something I said in the beginning: part of the point of Jurassic Park is a sort of “wax wings of Icarus - don’t fly too close to the sun/play God” analogue. While we could argue that Indominus rex makes the point pretty clear by herself, might the game actually make it better? 

A liger, bred for its skills in AWESOME. 

Hybrids, in general, are a sort of breaking point for humans as far as science is concerned. You can mate a lion and a tiger, for example, making a liger, but the liger is going to have a few problems. For one, they suffer a lot of the same issues as large dog breeds; because the growth inhibition gene in lionesses is not at all present in ligers, they grow huge, to the point where their hearts literally cannot support them. Female ligers can indeed reproduce, but males are almost certainly sterile. Sterility happens rather frequently in hybrids, and remember our golden rule: Fuck. Once you can’t reproduce well, Nature herself flips you off as a species. This isn’t even touching sci-fi splicing; sometimes, crossing two things is enough to make Nature go “yeah, NO.” (Also, to preemptively cut off any anti-gay stuff? This has to happen to an entire species, and nature always has a few individuals that won't pass on their genes.) 

Before I go into how JW: the Game shows this better than the movie, I’d like to talk about Mewtwo. 

Scan from Bulbapedia. Should've just used mine. 

For those of you who do not know who or what Mewtwo is, you’re either really old or are not from this planet. I will nonetheless explain. 

Mewtwo is a Pokemon created from a single bit of DNA from Mew, said to be the progenitor of all Pokemon-kind, and Arceus knows what else. In its PokeDex entries, it is said to have been created by a scientist “after years of horrific gene splicing and DNA-engineering experiments.” Things like having the “most savage heart among Pokemon” and thinking only of combat also come up repeatedly. And yet…

…there are a few reasons that people are not piss-shit terrified of Mewtwo. No, if anything, Mewtwo is regarded as the only 100% badass Pokemon - even by people who are not fans of Pokemon. A lot of this has to do with how Mewtwo was softened as a character for the first Pokemon movie; watch the Japanese movie and/or the dubbed “Birth of Mewtwo,” and see exactly how anthropomorphized and softened the “most savage heart” became. 

Mewtwo was designed, from an artistic standpoint, to be a freak; like, seriously, that neck tube looks wrong. So was Indominus rex. Both are intelligent, cold-hearted, ruthless in battle, and meant to look like bastardizations of nature. They nonetheless are marketable badasses. 

Is it any wonder that this thing got the most merch? 

(Also, you aren’t marketing the hell out of something being a blend of T-Rex and raptor…why? “Part T-Rex. Part raptor. ALL AWESOME.” Also also, no, albinos are not scary; if anything, white and melanistic animals make things even more of an attraction! (See also: white tigers, black “panthers,” and NOLA’s white alligator.) Now fire your entire marketing department and anyone who kept THOSE TWO GENES a secret. The rest…people won’t care after that, trust me.) 

What the movie didn’t tell us was that there were more fused dinosaurs besides Indominus. Some of them, like the Stegoceratops, also got toys, despite not being in the movie. Others, though… 

This is Koolasaurus, the only fused amphibian in the game, but I'm pretty sure Pepe the frog has more reasons to live. 

I’m gonna throw it out there that the JW game doesn’t do enough with pterosaurs (or amphibians, for that matter). No long-tailed pterosaurs until the Dimorphodon update really stunted the potential for a giant, beaky wyvern-splicer. The fused monster (yes, only one fused pterosaur) for them simply looks like…nothing compared to the phoenixian Lv. 40’s until it fully evolves. All splicers start out with this pink-grey mush color to them, while the selectively-bred parent species look like something out of Avatar. It’s a kinda-dinosaur molded out of clay versus a living work of modern art. 

But oh, no. You look at the other two crosses of what should be badass dinosaurs, and things start looking so much worse. 

I'll give you the crack, okay? By the way, I don't own any of these caps because I'm not cool enough. 

I am, of course, talking about the Spinoraptor and Carnoraptor. One of these barely has feathers and has huge, pink, bulging eyes with tiny pupils, like some sort of dinosaur drug addict. The other has the cool horns of a Carnotaurus…stunted into little demonic nubs, along with wrinkly skin like on a shrunken head and black, beady eyes. If Indominus was not enough of an indication that insane splicing was not the answer, oh my gods, look at her creepy as hell siblings. 

Indominus kinda beat us over the head with “this is WRONG” while looking completely badass - just like Mewtwo. Her possessed siblings do so in a much more subtle and chilling manner. That is art. 

Now that's more like it! 

Granted, the evolved hybrids look a lot cooler. The gray mush of Tropeogopterus becomes just as bold as any other pterosaur, and even if Carnoraptor and Koolasaurus look just as freaky as before, it’s an improvement over the color gray. Evolve anything but Indominus, and it looks decent (red stripes and spikes...yawn). So, what else does the game do that the movie doesn’t? 

Pretty much just generic kids in the movie. Not so in the game. 

At this point, I’m going to bring up the two kids. Zach, the older brother, is a techie; he reminds me a lot of my (younger) nephew in that he’s concerned about things regarding technology, and is the type of kid who freaks when a place has no cell phone reception (which I think he got from his mom, but I digress). Gray, the younger kid, is into things like science and math, and is just giddy to see dinosaurs and be out in nature. Although these sides of these characters were probably in the movie on some level, I think one exchange really hammers in the key difference between the two: 

Zach: This is awful! There’s no cell phone reception! 

Gray: I know, isn’t it great? 

That bit, right there, cements these two as characters. (It also proves that the people who made Gray’s character really don’t know anything about how modern kids act, but more on that later.)  It’s not verbatim, but the exchange really stuck out. Zach’s character is consistently tech-oriented, while Gray is an absolute geek about the natural world. The movie focuses on the sibling relationship between these two, which, while realistic, feels cheap and forced in places (“Y U NO BOND WITH CLAIRE?!”). They could’ve had something more interesting and insightful if they had given the two more traits (or emphasized extant traits) beyond “they’re brothers; the younger kid likes dinosaurs, older brother is borderline stupid and generally a rebellious teenager.” 

I would like to note that the Wikia says absolutely nothing about Zach’s character and a lot about Gray’s character. I’ll get into why this matters in a bit. 

While it wasn’t necessarily crystalline in the movie, in the game, these kids are really, really symbolic in a way that doesn’t beat you over the head…as much as the movie did in spots with different characters. Look at that dialogue I pasted up there, and the purpose of these two siblings suddenly becomes clear: Zach is obsessed with technology and would probably die without his phone, while Gray is a junior paleontologist. These two are extreme representations of nature VS technology, with Gray being nature boy and Zach being glued to his phone. Even their names hint at this if you squint. 

Now, mind, they are still characters. They are also still older and younger siblings. For example, the Wikia describes Gray as a little bit hyper, and getting on Zach’s nerves from time to time. Zach nonetheless tries to keep a reign on his little brother, even if he has a rebellious side himself. 

Um, question: why not switch these two? I don’t really object to the younger sibling being aligned with nature and the elder being concerned with his iPhone, but symbolism aside, which is more realistic? Drawing from my own relatives, I know the opposite from experience: the older brother is more concerned with math and science and is a Boy Scout, and the younger one wants his tablet PC, his dad’s phone, or really, any screen to stare at and tap on. Kids these days are growing up with devices that their older siblings never encountered; it would make a lot of sense for a kid in that day and age to be tired of dinosaurs, which have been “normal” for much of his life, while the older sibling is more concerned with not only the names, but the processes that created them to begin with, as well as the older Jurassic Park. It would also make more sense for the younger sibling to be more hyperactive not just because he's a little kid, but because he’s grown up in a world that encourages technological ADD (which I have STRONGLY experienced with a friend’s little brother). 

Now, here’s why they didn’t do that: Gray is not only symbolic of nature, but also of the Jurassic Park fanbase. Really into dinosaurs? Check. Kinda knows when things are about to go wrong, sort of like an animal sense? Check. Knows stuff about the old park? Oho, checkaroonie. Again, though - wouldn’t this make more sense on the older brother? 

The world as most humans know it. 

Maybe, maybe not. It’s a sad fact of American culture that adults usually aren’t into nature. The mature world of man is not a world of wild animals  - it’s a world of metal and people on their phones on a constant basis. In the adult mind, humans have exceeded nature already, and don’t really see it as a threat. People who really like animals tend to be more in-tune with their inner child, so I can see why the writers did what they did with these characters. 

In short: while I don’t entirely agree with the positions of younger and elder siblings, I respect the creators’ choices. It just could have been more powerful if this had been fleshed out, and maybe switched. I do mean “fleshed out” and not “beaten into our skulls,” the latter of which ironically makes things less effective. 

In the end, the two siblings have to settle their differences and work things out in order to avoid being eaten by Mewtwosaurus. The humans eventually sic the natural (but still very spliced) dinosaurs on the freak they have created, and win out by playing off of both conditioning and natural behavior. In other words, a compromise between tech and nature was reached. We've evolved to play with evolution, but that doesn't mean we control it entirely, nor does it mean that we won't make icky-looking mistakes. 

While the movie does make the point of wax wings on its own, it feels like the game does it better. It doesn’t beat you over the head, lets you interact more with the dinosaurs than humans we are supposed to like (even then, Blue the raptor is the best character in the movie), and actually teaches you, the player, more things than the movie ever did without you realizing it. Nostalgia Critic was completely right in that the movie should maybe have been more about cool dinosaurs doing cool dinosaur things than about forced stereotypes, whether girls can ever have it all or not, and not-at-all subtle callbacks to the first movie (Jaws was very cleverly inserted, though). It’s still worth seeing, so go ahead and give it a watch - and then go play the game on your tablet or phone. If nothing else, it’s a fitting complement to a decent flick. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Welcome to Jurassic World (Part 1): Stop Hating on Kermit!

e been playing waaaaay too much Jurassic World: the Game. No, that isn’t the reason I haven’t updated anything. That, well, I might be moving my blog to Tumblr, or at least another account. We’ll see, but it's pretty likely that this will be a massive, three-part "grand finale" of sorts. 

Anyways. Jurassic World. Fun ride of a movie, which is amusingly about an amusement park. I want to take a D-Rex home. Working on it in the game. D-Rex should have looked more freakish if they put cuttlefish in there - c’mon, at least give us the neat W-eye! My general thoughts on the movie will get their own blurb later. Also, for whatever reason, JW and JP both hate frogs, even though it’s probably entirely unwarranted. 

Why? Because, from the get-go, dinosaurs could reproduce without a male. 

Who's the man in this, again? 

Read that sentence again. 

Read that sentence three times if you have to. Let it sink into your brain: even without as much genetic meddling that Jurassic Park had, from the get-go, the potential for every dinosaur on the island to reproduce asexually, and then sexually. 

Now, here’s my disclaimer: Crichton was largely using the frogs for genetic freak purposes. The whole point of Jurassic Park was that, maybe, there are some buttons science shouldn’t push. The frogs are the bad guys for art rather than any logical reason. I realize people back then didn’t know precisely how close birds were to dinosaurs, but there’s still no reason to use frogs other than HERPDERP SCIENCE EFFED UP. Use lizards. Or chickens. Science can get those very easily. 

So, just how is this possible, anyways? What could prompt natural dinosaurs to reproduce without a male? It’s all genetic…as nature intended?! 

I’m tempted to assume that most people reading this have taken basic biology in high school, sex ed, or both. All you really need to know for this is that human (and other mammal) females have XX sex chromosomes, and males have XY. Women are the only sex that could possibly reproduce without a male, but in mammals, that’s pretty much unheard of, and all of the offspring would be female clones of the mother. 

That is not the case with the rest of non-mammals. 

For many other creatures, including everything from butterflies (yes, butterflies are more like birds in this regard), to lobsters, to chickens, sex is determined by a system called “ZW.” What this means is that the males are ZZ (no, not ZZ Top, but if that helps you remember, go for it) and the females are ZW. 

That thing, with the females having two different letters (heterozygous), changes everything. Parthenogenesis, AKA “virgin birth” if you’re not a fan of Greek, occurs with a female egg effectively impregnating itself. It has been known to occur in lizards (most notably whiptail lizards, who are only female, and Komodo dragons), snakes (boas, Burms, and Brahminy blind snakes - again, that last one is only female) and a special breed of turkey literally bred because people thought this parthenogenesis thing was just too darn cool. No, chickens laying eggs by themselves doesn’t count; the eggs you buy at the grocery store are effectively chicken periods. Enjoy your Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwich! 

ZW animals can produce parthenogenically by either all-out cloning or half-cloning. A full clone is exactly that: a perfect clone of the mother. The half-cloning, however, includes only half of mom’s genes - twice over. For ZW, that means one letter gets repeated. 

Umm...girls? Your lesbian sex is legal, now. Everywhere. 

Remember what’s special about ZW: the male has ZZ. Through half-cloning, a mother lizard can create an entire clutch of males. They’re almost identical to her in every way except sex. Then, they can just go ahead and do it again with mom, or maybe even the odd WW females. ZZ Top will always be male. I’m sure they’re thrilled to be in a lesson about dinosaur sex. 

Parthenogenesis gets less frequent down the evolutionary “line,” but it’s not like dinosaurs grew out of it. If you must make evolution linear, dinosaurs are like a link between reptiles and birds. We’ll get to crocodiles; for now, well, birds are capable of it, too. 

BUT…they’re not as good at it. 

Parthenogenesis in birds usually results in duds. Either the eggs aren’t quite fertile, embryos die early, or the offspring have reduced fertility. An exception occurs in turkeys, who, for reasons not entirely clear, have mastered the art of giving birth without a dad. These are all ZZ males, who have then been rebred to virgin-birthing females in order to create a more stable strain, and eventually a breed. These ZZ Toms (the joke will not die as I write it!) are almost indistinguishable from your average turkey. 

If half-female, half-male chickens are possible...imagine a raptor like that. 
This is just the tip of the genetic weirdness iceberg possible without the frog. ZW is also capable of the weird chimerism called “bilateral gynandromorphy,” in which individuals are literally half female and half male. (XY can also do this, but very rarely.) Also, what if, like crocodilians (read: other archosaurs) dinosaurs had temperature-determined sex determination? I realize Crichton was using the frogs for freak’s sake, but the poor frog seems to be the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in that world. Give other animals a chance. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Member's Night Special: Pokemon in Science!

Hello, it's been a while. Again, I keep intending to post things and never getting around to it. This, however, was too awesome not to post.

Go back through my blog archives. Find the "Who's That Pokemon?" tag. Now, imagine getting up close and personal with some of those creatures.

That was my idea for this year's Members' Night at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. Mind, our choices were limited to reptiles and amphibians (I do work in herps, after all), but it was still a fun set up. We will definitely be doing it next year, too, possibly with a few modifications!

Now, I have to admit that the flyers were a little misleading. Initially, we had planned for both more Pokemon and live animals (leopard gecko, tiger salamander, and/or Pudge the Frog - a painted narrowmouth toad (Kaloula picta)). I made fanmade Pokemon for the setup, which will be available for viewing on my DeviantArt account (kurokarasu.deviantart.com). For now, though, let's focus on the setup itself and some of the critters covered on it.

First off, I'd like to apologize for the relatively narrow spectrum, again. For those of you who got the guide, I'm sorry that we didn't have room for Tyranitar, who makes an awesome armadillo lizard, as well as a few other Pokemon we talked about in the ad, but simply couldn't include. The setup still got plenty of attention (nothing quite got my own ear like when a kid walking by yelled "Pokemon!" - that happened a lot), so we did some things right. (I had to correct the setup above, by the way: Tirtouga is the Archelon, Squirtle's kind of a sea turtle like that hawksbill, and that is definitely a Torkoal shell, up there.)

See those critters in baggies? That's what we do in the lab when we don't want to use jars to send things. I got to heat-seal some of these, and they encouraged more interaction with the animals than just having them in glass jars.

I didn't take a photo of this, but one of the stars of the show was a preserved axolotl. For the uninformed, the Pokemon Wooper's name comes from the Japanese word for the axolotl, "wooper looper." Pick your favorite funny-sounding word for the eternally-young, indestructible salamander!

One of the more creative displays from the older staff was a section on Haunter and a cleared and stained horned lizard. Although the idea was the creepiness of the transparent body, it's always worth mentioning that the horned lizard cries high-pressure blood at its enemies. Emos, meet your spirit animal. Alas, I apparently didn't get a good photo of this on my digital camera.

It's hard to say which of these three displays is my baby. Anyone who's known me for a long time knows that I have a huuuuge thing about Serperior being a Baron's Racer (Philodryas baroni), but will not deny that there's probably vine snake in there. The habu and Draco maximus up there were really well-selected, though; if you look carefully on the habu, you can even see its fangs.

Overall, this exhibit was just a ton of fun to design! Two teachers want me to design Pokemon-based lesson plans for their kids, and since ACen hit yesterday (and okay, fine, today) as well, I'm tempted to do a panel on Pokemon as it relates to natural science. It's not something a lot of people think about, and seems to be a hit on more than one front. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Happy Year of the Sheep! The Bezoar Goat.

Happy Chinese New Year, everybody! What better way to start off the Year of the Goat…Sheep…Geep? with a goat? Just look at this thing: 


That goat is called a bezoar goat/ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus), and it is the stuff Gogoats (it's year of the Wood Goat, by the by) are made of. It's native to the Middle East, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan - all those fun places! There are a few places where it's been introduced, but what you really need to know is that this: 

…came from this: 


Although nobody's really sure how much the bezoar goat contributed to the domestic goat gene pool, it's either a direct descendant or a hefty percentage. Along with making them smaller and tame, bezoar goats lost their razor-sharp horns, gained curly tails, and now, some breeds have floppy ears. Also, some of them have been bred to faint, but that's not the fault of a goat with razor horns. Yeah, goat horns used to have a sharp, inner edge like a badass sword. 

Bezoar goats are very well adapted to mountainous, sometimes cold regions. At night, the temperature of places like Turkey sometimes drops drastically; wool is a good countermeasure to that. A goat's feet are also spongy and relatively narrow, allowing them to climb around in rocky areas. Have I sung the praises of those beautiful horns enough? No? Well, those are both sexy (to other goats, mind) and a great defense mechanism. 

At this point, some of you are probably wondering: isn't a "bezoar" something out of Harry Potter? Yes, and it does indeed come from a goat…or any other number of things, really. A bezoar is basically a stone of miscellany that didn't get digested, and thus wound up lodged in an animal's digestive tract. Goats are far from the only animals that have them; humans can get bezoars as well. Their poison-curing properties are greatly exaggerated, with only curing arsenic poisoning anywhere near consistently (and only with treatment). 

Oh, right, back on the topic of the wild goat. Another nasty thing that happens with domestication is the relative scarcity of the wild counterpart. The bezoar is technically only "Threatened," and then mostly due to habitat loss. Game hunting of these goats has also increased. Wolves and the aurochs are so very, very jealous right now, regardless. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

You Shouldn't Eat That: Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

I should really do more of these. The internet is a wonderful place, bombing us with weird nature facts all the time. In particular, I'm a fan of the work of Zefrank1 on YouTube. Here, have one of his videos on cuttlefish: 

For those of you who are not already aware, cuttlefish are total bosses. Along with octopus and squid, they rank among the smartest of mollusks. Their brains are larger than their bodies - referring to the squishy 'head' and tentacles, in case you were confused exactly how that works. Also, their amazingly sharp eyes look like someone's marbles that got lost in the ocean. If need be, they can, like squid, jet themselves away from danger. They are masters of changing color and texture to blend in anywhere - even in darkness that the human eye cannot see. 

And then there is this thing: 

Credit to Monterey Bay Aquarium for the image. 

It's called a flamboyant cuttlefish, or Pfeffer's flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) if you wanna give credit where credit is due. It's found in the warmer waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia (which should just start advertising itself as real World of Warcraft already - oh, and no respawn). Like all cuttlefish, it is predatory, eating things like crab and fish. Since this is a very small cuttlefish - only about 3 inches long - it only eats very small things. 

Again, I'm sure I've done things on cuttlefish before, but it's been a while. Normally, cuttlefish hover above coral or whatever their prey happens to be on. They can do that because of the thick, inner shell called a cuttlebone that helps with buoyancy. The flamboyant cuttlefish has a proportionately tiny cuttlebone, meaning that it can only stay afloat for a short time. 

Without that cuttlebone to keep it afloat like a UFO, what does it do? It struts around like a dinosaur on the bottom of the ocean floor while tasting the rainbow. This...is not camouflage. We humans think it's amusing that anything walks like people, or even tries to, but being bipedal and flashy on the sands of the ocean floor is not a survival strategy in and of itself. 

So, let's recap: this thing is tiny, cannot swim well, eats whatever small thing it can find, changes color, has a brain bigger than the rest of its body...and yet it waltzes around like nothing on earth is going to hurt it. (Disclaimer: the writer is not factoring in alien species, and cuttlefish are darn close to aliens.) What's the catch? 

For once, it's okay to be purple. 

It is terrifyingly poisonous. 

I've heard and read mixed things about cephalopods being poisonous in general. The video I linked above, for example, mentions that all cephalopods have some level of venom. They do, from what I can tell, but in most cases, it's not at all threatening to humans. The flamboyant cuttlefish will actually kill you if you eat it. It is on par with the blue-ringed octopus in terms of how poisonous it is. By this, I mean it'll kill you dead in a matter of minutes if you catch it on a bad day. Eating one is always a bad day. 

Did I mention that cuttlefish, including these flamboyant ones, sometimes use their colorful, magical powers to 'crossdress?' Sort of like with anacondas, the female cuttlefish mate with many males at a time, and some smaller males sneak into the orgy by pretending to be females. Bring that up at Valentine's Day (or Turkey Day) and see how many people you impress. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Creature Design Post: Poison Running Through My Veins.

First off, I apologize for updating this less frequently. The biggest factor, by far, is my own moving away from my old e-mail account, and therefore my Blogger. It's not like my interest in life has been demolished, I've just been lazy about switching accounts. There were also a lot of trips in September! 

I've also been thinking about a new type of article. See, this blog started with the intent of being inspiration food. I'm a huge fan of creature designs, to the the point where they tend to overwhelm other parts of my work. I love monsters, especially ones that a) eat people and b) derive from nature. The way I see it, I may as well tell the world more about what I like using examples from both nature and other media. I want to inspire people using everything nature and art has to offer. 

In particular, I love animals that use poison! Goodness knows why, but I find it a very interesting, unique bioweapon. It's usually a "big things come in small packages" deal that sometimes even looks cool. Thus, it kinda cheeses me off when people just palette swap a creature and say one color is poisonous without taking in other structural ideas. 

So, without further ado…three tips for designing your own toxic beasts!

If this thing was a Pokemon, I'd catch the hell out of it. And it's invasive, so that would be okay. 

1. Picking Your Poison. 

Or, if you prefer, "the nitty-gritty details- how and why?"  

I apologize for starting with something so boring. However, it is a rather important part of why certain animals have poison while others do not, and help you, as a designer, gauge how poisonous a creature should be. Aside from the aesthetic of a poisonous thing, why something is poisonous should be the first things you think about. 

The truth is, that's how you have to think of poison. A toxin is not a horn or claw. It's not visually appealing in and of itself. Whereas one can easily brush off a horn as, say, a mating display, one cannot do that for poison. Poison has to have a bigger point than that. 

So, why does your thing have poison? Is it hunting prey, or just defending itself? While poison's a pretty versatile weapon, this will affect your design. The rule of thumb is that venomous creatures use their poison to hunt, while poisonous creatures use it as a defense. What kind of animal are you making?

Nobody ever suspects...the BUTTERFLY!

Probably the most classic poisonous animal to pick on is the monarch butterfly. The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly eats milkweed, a mildly toxic plant. By doing so, the caterpillar itself becomes bad-tasting, and birds learn to avoid them from that point on. The butterflies are likewise poisonous, and the circle of life continues when they pollinate the poisonous milkweed. A lot of prey animals do this - even the notorious poison dart frogs, which eat toxic beetles to make themselves toxic. Very, very toxic, in fact.

Venomous creatures are another can of worms. A venomous creature is usually a slower predator, often of the ambush variety, that naturally makes its own toxins. It is usually well-camouflaged, sporting a swift strike. This thing is definitely poisoning to kill, meaning that one strike should hurt a lot. Bad taste won't cut it, even if it is still considered toxic. Venomous creatures like our lionfish (from the start of the article) are both predator and prey, thus the vibrant markings. 

Why things do not have poison is just as important as why things do have poison. For example…ever wonder why there are so few poisonous mammals known to science?

Put bluntly: they don't need it. Why invest in poison when you have massive teeth, claws, hooves, or long legs? Mind, there are a few oddball mammals that still have poison, but there's a reason that they are exceptions rather than the rule. For example, a toxic lion would be redundant; one, they aren't prey for anything, two, cats kill with a death-bite to the neck. 

Here are a few reasons why something might evolve poison: it's slow; it's small; it doesn't have sharp claws, wings, or horns to defend itself. The vast majority of poisonous mammals are shrews, i.e. small furry things, or shrew-like solenodons; in a remarkable display of sadism for such small creatures, shrews use venom to render prey comatose while they cache it for winter. Solenodons have it because they are the closest mammalian things to reptiles after monotremes, and simply saw no need to evolve out of their toxic fangs.
Solenodons are weird, by the way. T-Rex would have seen this guy! 

Most mammals have claws, fangs, or massive size that they can use to their advantage. They don't need to slowly weaken things. They don't even need toxic skin to defend themselves. It's the smaller, slower, more vulnerable animals that are more likely to have poison. If you can't cause a lot of damage or run like the wind already, you might just be a good candidate for toxins.

And then, oh, the plethora of toxins out there. There are toxins that paralyze, toxins that cause internal bleeding, toxins that attack muscle, and that's just naming a few. It's not simple to create an antidote for every venom out there, just because of the variety. I could stress again and again that these things tend to be tiny, yet potent, so whichever route you design best be worth it. 

Of course, when you're making man-eaters, tiny is not an option. Slow is also usually a pretty bad idea, but toxins can still compensate like they do in nature.  Monster Hunter has my eternal respect for having several very well-designed poisonous beasts in a number of regards. My personal favorites of MH 3 Ultimate, Lucent Nargacuga and Gigginox, are both venomous, but Gigginox is a real gem. It's slow, blind, breeds more than rabbits, and flings poison lugies at you. Perhaps size aside, it's one of the best-designed toxic creatures ever!

Or you could just go, "here's a thing, here's that thing again, only purple. The purple one is poisonous." Ah, recolors - the bane of my existence in cases like this. 

2. It's All in the Delivery. 

Here's another bugger concerning poisonous critters: how do you get your poison in? 

The evolution of venom in snakes is a long and hole-filled one. We do not know when or how lizards went from having four legs to none, whether it was related to water or earth, or if those lizards were poisonous. We also don't know how certain lizards evolved poison, or if any snakes can truly, 100% be called "nonvenomous." Science is still split on the Komodo dragon, but poison or bacteria, a bite from that thing is deadly. 

What we do know, however, is that the poison glands in snakes evolved long before they had the fangs to properly inject the stuff. Duvernoy's gland, the sac that produces venom, is found in seemingly harmless colubrids. There are also snakes dubbed "rear-fanged venomous." 

Yes. Let's talk about those for a bit.

Rattler left, cobra right. 

If one looks at the skull of a rattlesnake or cobra, one will notice two very obvious things: one, the skulls have very different styles of fangs, meaning that the images of cobras with massive fangs are really a load of BS; two, despite the differences between the fangs, they are both situated towards the front of the mouth. This only makes sense; after all, where better to put a weapon for injecting poison into prey? 

The venom-injecting fang did not start there. Evolution is an awkward mistress who tends to make a ton of mistakes before getting it right. The injection fang was situated towards the eye, closer to the gland, before the efficient venomous snakes we know today. These snakes still have and make poison, but can't get it into a squirming, potentially biting, kicking prey item.

The boomslang - embarrassingly known better as a Harry Potter potions class ingredient than a snake that can kill you by opening its mouth 180 degrees. 

This says nothing about how lethal the poison is, just that it's harder to get into a nice, warm rodent. Pretty crazy tricks have to be done just to get the point across (ha ha) if the machinery isn't there. The boomslang is one of the more noteworthy rear-fanged venomous snakes out there, but it doesn't have the huge fangs of a rattler, or even the fixed fangs of a cobra at the front of the mouth. It has three fangs for injecting venom, located right beneath Duvernoy's gland. It can almost open its jaws in a straight line in order to deliver its lethal bite; most rear-fanged snakes are not so lucky, and have to chew their venom into their prey to get it in at all

This is, of course, largely concerning venom. When you're poisoning something to kill it, of course you want the most efficient delivery system possible. If the poison is defensive, however, chances are a predator will be doing half of your work for you - usually touching the skin. Both the pufferfish and poison dart frog varieties have this right, with the pufferfish sporting death needles and dart frogs having a coating so poisonous that merely touching it causes at least a tingle."Your mouth is on my skin- sucks to be you" is very different from sticking fangs into an unsuspecting mouse. Needles, spurs, and toxic coatings are all cool ways to go about it. Delivery isn't as big a problem when the pred's doing your work for you. 

Point is, it doesn't matter how nasty your poison is if you can't get it in. It's like putting medicine in a bottle you can't open. In nature, there are no "much stronger people" who will open that bottle for you, so best make sure you can open it yourself. 

3. Acid Trip! 

Poisonous things can be among the most gorgeous beasts in the animal kingdom! A lot of poisonous (not always venomous) animals are very colorful as a warning, even though most of nature sees in black and white. Poison dart frogs are a classic example of this. Really, this guy blends in exactly nowhere:

The Frog Formerly Known As Azureus. He was never a Prince. 

Dart frogs aside, nature has another warning method: stripes. There's a trinity of red, yellow, and black that can be found on a lot of poisonous animals, including coral snakes and wasps. One could even add skunks to the "stripy and kind of bad for you" pile. Even to black and white vision, the stripy pattern stands out. The fancy term is "aposematic coloration" for the things that just taste bad.

Then there are the posers. 

For every genuinely toxic animal, there is at least one mimic- not usually venomous or poisonous, but darn if they don't dress the part. Coral snakes copy a far less deadly species (they're prey, too, remember?), but kingsnakes and milksnakes are known for mimicking the lethal coral snakes. ("Red next to yellow will kill a fellow, red next to black is a friend of Jack" stops once you cross the southern U.S. border, by the way.)  There are several very good bee mimics, including the hummingbird moth. The mimic octopus steals from everybody, making anything else trying to copy a venomous creature a futile cosplay attempt by comparison:


There is a visual aspect to poison, it just isn't necessarily purple. If anything, poison's colors are red, yellow, and black. RPG's have lied to you!

In conclusion...

...I hate palette swaps. And bad design that doesn't give a flip about how poison works in nature, or how to properly portray it aside from the color purple, but mostly, I don't like how people arbitrarily add poison onto anything without thinking about it. Pokemon and MonHunt have you beat already. There are a ton of creative ways to use poison. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Creature Feature: MONGOOSE!

So I'm in Hawaii, right now. There is flora and fauna that I've never seen anywhere else everywhere. Oh, and I've also caught a few glimpses of a species that one does not expect to see in Hawaii: the mongoose.


How did I not do the mongoose before? Mongooses are weird little carnivores that  are related to civets and hyenas- yeah, picture that family reunion for a sec. Like hyenas, they are more closely related to cats than dogs. Even the names "mongoose" and "ichneumon" are weird.  Although the Indian grey mongoose is the most well-known, there are some 33-odd species of mongooses, including the meerkat- which I did cover a very long time ago. Mongoose species are native to Africa and southern Eurasia, including India.

Like the honey badger, the mongoose is a badass. Its greatest achievement is taking down cobras. Mongooses are so well-known for this that Rudyard Kipling, the author of the Jungle Book (and the white man's burden) wrote "Rikki -Tikki-Tavi," an adorable little story about a mongoose saving a family of humans from a family of cobras. Seeing as mongooses are cute, fuzzy little things and cobras are cobras, it's obvious whom the audience will root for.

Nom nom nom nom nom....bring the kiddies. 

There's a bit of conflicting evidence about whether mongooses are technically immune to cobra venom or not. Almost everybody will cite that the mongoose has a thicker hide than most fuzzy animals. Most people will also cite a chemical immunity to at least part of a cobra's venom. Regardless, there's not much a snake can do against a mongoose. It's really not a fair match.

This snake-killing reputation has gone so far that researchers will consciously ignore everything else in order to sic a mongoose on snakes. There were efforts to curb the Okinawan habu, another venomous snake, by introducing the mongoose. Instead, it turned out that the two species were not even active at the same time, so the mongooses helped themselves to the native bird life. This incident was so famous that it remains a roadshow staple, and even got woven into Pokemon's Zangoose and Seviper. Y'know, even though it was an epic failure.

Image cropped from a Bulbapedia scan. N.B.- Zangoose has Immunity, and an overall better stat spread than Seviper. Once again, this is not a fair match.

Speaking of epic fail, introducing a mongoose to an island for any reason is a bad idea 99% of the time. Even if your excuse is rodent or snake control, mongooses are versatile little buggers. They don't really look to kill snakes as much as honey badgers do; if there's easier prey, they'll take it. Although they can kill venomous snakes pretty easily, the same really goes for almost anything smaller than the mongoose. The Hawaiian o'-o', among other birds, fell prey to the mongoose because they had no defenses against any predators. They had originally been brought over to kill rats and other vermin, but screw that- those birds had nothing to protect them. It's like choosing from a pre-packaged steak or getting out there and shooting the cow yourself. Maybe people trying to control pests should think of things that way!

Thing is, Hawaii also has Stitch. Mongooses are pretty awesome, but Stitch is immune to everything but water. Game, set, match, mongoose.

[Unfortunately, I could not find an image of Stitch VS a mongoose. You'll have to use your imagination. ]