How to Create an Alien Ecosystem
Part 5: Working With an Artist
Hi again everyone! In part 4 of this series we firmed up a lot of details in our alien ecosystem. In this part we're going to zoom in on one of the Orders and develop it into a set of species.
There are two ways we can do that: either by making a page of sketches of the alien we've designed, or by giving our written description of the alien to someone else to sketch, and see what they make of it. I decided to have somebody else to do it, to see how someone who has never heard of them before thinks they look - and to draw on an artist's knowledge of biology.
We’re going to use my Hares and Rabbits Order as an example. Here's what I wrote about them:
Appearance: Smooth, silvery feathers and stiff 'wing' and tail primaries allow these creatures to run swiftly with minimal wind-resistance and stall at a moment's notice if required. They are a prey animal that runs on two legs with excellent backwards-forwards reach, and two sets of fins that they use to steer while running, which allow them to dodge predators.
They live in colonies and feed together. When alarmed, their silvery colour and tendency to 'weave' during their first few steps makes them catch the light and alerts other members of the colony. While these creatures tend to live on land, beach colonies are not unusual, and these creatures have been known to run through rock pools to generate extra confusion to slow down their predators - they can be hard to see in amongst sprays of sea-water.
Reproduction: They breed in huge numbers, and hundreds can be seen basking in areas where these creatures live.
Predators: They have several predators to outrun: anglerfish, sharks and rays, eels and morays, and snakes and lizards all pick off slow, unaware, or sick animals. Given their need to bask, they are particularly vulnerable to being picked off during the early mornings or late at night on cooler nights or at higher altitudes (EDIT: I'm not sure if these animals would live at high enough altitudes to have this problem, but the biggest air-breather alive today lives in the sea, so anything is possible).
Beneficial relationships: They follow turtles around and eat any vegetable scraps left behind.
(EDIT: They can and sometimes do burrow, and use this as a means of protection. They retain vestigial gills which allows them to stay underwater for up to two hours if necessary. While they don't usually live in their burrows, they will dig them where they are liable to flood, and use them as bolt-holes when predators such as sharks come by.)
I gave this description to The-Gij. Gij is an artist with a particular talent for drawing speculative biology, and I gave them the above description to work with, without telling them that these creatures were based on rabbits and hares (that was to avoid prompting them to draw these aliens as too much like our native species. I want my aliens to look exotic, but if you wanted a more familiar look you could tell your artist what your Order is based on).
Gij drew the first sketches of these creatures several weeks ago, hence my addition of that final detail about the gills. I also gave them the description for the Cob'li po-fea, the umbrella taxonomic Class that these creatures belong to:
A group of primarily live-bearing, cold-blooded species. Most have feathers, although these vary greatly from one species to the next: you can find ones that assist with flight, gliding, or assisted ruddering while running; short-quilled ones that act like rough fur, smooth ones for a semi-aquatic lifestyle, and decorative ones for display.
Gij sent me back a total of a dozen sketches, which you can see below. They were diverse, and exactly what I was looking for! One or two went in directions that didn’t suit me so I mentioned what was wrong and why, and that further informed Gij's efforts.
Let's go through all 12 sketches and add extra written details so that we can begin to make them individual species. So far they lack names so I'll call them HR-and then a number, from 1 to 12.
A pretty start. I love the dainty features of this one. I think this species plucks its food out of hiding, so perhaps it eats the equivalent of barnacles or seeds wrapped within protective cases.
It seems to almost have hooves, or perhaps tightly-packed, large toes, so I think this one lives on hard ground. Its under-developed front fins appear to be in the process of evolving away, but for now I think they probably still assist with steering while running. Its bigger fins look as if they spread wide, and that helps cement the idea that they live in a plains-type environment with lots of space. If that's so, then maybe they use those fins partly for cooling.
I like those feathers on the back of its head and wonder if they are for communication between species or HRs or whether they mimic the appearance of grasses in its habitat, so a herd of these creatures looking out for danger may look like a patch of meadow.
This one also has a dainty beak, but other than that is quite different from HR-1. I like the emphasis of those four broad fins. They look like they would benefit the animal in an aquatic environment, so I think this is more of an aquatic species. Its webbed feet support this.
That's also a large, heavy-looking tail, and I wonder whether it sometimes uses that as a weapon, clubbing predators to startle them before running. It doesn't have any quills at all, unlike some of the other sketches, so is perhaps less invested in communicating with others of its species.
This one’s beak is long and serrated, which would be useful for holding live prey that might wriggle away, or smooth vegetation that might slip out of its jaws when it tries to pull it loose.
Its two sets of fins are well disguised as a single, continuous ‘skirt’ around the length of its body, and the quills that hold the skirt in place are sharp. As if it didn’t already have enough sharp edges, the animal has a spur on each hock. Not a creature any predator wants to eat without great care, but the orientation of its spines – along its sides, rather than on its back and belly – is curious. Perhaps it routinely lies on its side to feed? Or perhaps it shoulder- or tail-barges anything that tries to catch it.
I loved this one from the moment I saw it! It’s hard to tell whether it’s short and chubby or whether it’s slim but huddled against the cold or perceived danger.
That serrated beak again implies a smooth or wriggly diet, and those toes look webbed. That, plus its broad, smooth dorsal fins suggest that it spends a lot of time in the water. Perhaps its stocky build helps it withstand the tide washing over it? The way its tail rests on the ground may help it to brace itself.
It lacks entirely in those two sets of pectoral fins that most of these sketches have, and I'm happy to let that pass - mammals have four limbs, and they show on most species, but not in dolphins, where the hind legs have almost completely evolved away. The same could have happened with HR-4.
That stocky body also suggests that it does a fair amount of digging, so likely it lives in a burrow, which it digs itself. If that's so then it probably needs a dry burrow - being able to submerge and breathe through gills for a couple of hours may not be enough to live underwater in comfort. But then again, maybe.
I only got a head-shot of this one so can only say a little about it. It's certainly the fishiest of the HRs, and personally I prefer seeing them take a less piscene look than this. That said, we don't know what its body would have looked like. It has a combination of a very short beak and separate nostrils. This one has a more pronounced nostril than the others, and this is important because it has both nostrils and fairly strongly defined gills.
Its huge eye suggests that it is nocturnal, or perhaps has to be able to see in deeper water where the light doesn't filter down.
The positioning of its nostrils – high up and level with its eyes – tells me that it may rest in the shallows, watching, perhaps for prey, perhaps for predators. Regardless of whether its head is above water or below, it can breathe. That means we potentially have a dilemma in terms of its lifestyle, but I'm all for dilemmas - they'll make these animals all the more interesting! Perhaps it eats invertebrates that live deeper down, but also likes to bask in the shallows. Imagine dozens or hundreds of these things resting at the surface.
This one has a bigger mouth than most of the other HRs with a much more flexible jaw, and long teeth in addition to a beak.
Its smaller, forward-pointing eyes and sharp teeth mark it as a carnivorous hunter; since the others have sideways-facing eyes, I'll guess that this one's in a taxonomic Family of its own - it looks like this one is subject to evolutionary divergence.
Its large head-fins suggest that it either lives in a hot environment where it needs to shed body heat, or a cold one where it needs as big a surface area as possible to absorb the sun's heat.
This one didn’t appeal to me quite so much, but given Gij’s hit-rate so far, that’s fine by me! So let’s see what we can salvage from this one anyway.
It has a ‘face-plate’ which looks like a protective measure, and immensely powerful, double jaws. It has excess skin on its throat, which may function like a turkey’s wattle – as a cooling device. Or, given that it has that impressive mating display, perhaps that throat detail is cartilage to give a false impression of strength.
This is another one with no visible fins, so I think this one may be part of a taxonomic Family with the other finless HR
The dark feathers on the back of its head and its tail look like they're used for communication with other individuals.
Of all the HRs, this one’s fins are the furthest back on its body. They seem ideally placed to help with control when running at full speed. It seems odd that it has its fins behind its legs, and it seems the only one that has this.
It appears to have no eyes, carnivorous teeth, a jaw with no beak, and a flat snout. All of that implies that it eats Kaleida’s equivalent of worms or something else that spends most of its life underground. That doesn’t seem like the kind of lifestyle that needs high control at high speed.
And then there are its bristles. Bristles often help to prevent sunburn, so this animal appears to live in a hot and dry climate.
This is another HR where Gij took a direction that didn’t work for me. That strange face is inspired by liquivores such as spiders. I’d prefer these HRs to have vertebrate details, and the beaks we've been seeing so far have been fine.
With that aside, we have an animal that apparently lives in a dry environment – web-less toes, and long legs. Its fins – on the dorsal and ventral sides of its body – suggest that it still swims on a regular basis, and is perhaps hunted by something it wishes to discourage from eating it, with a few well-placed spines.
It's another finless species, so it looks like we have another one to add to that Family.
That tuft on its tail is also notable. If its tail were more flexible I might guess that that was to swat away flies or whatever other pests occur on Kaleida, but given that its tail looks too stiff for that, it’s more likely to be a way of communicating.
Another HR with fins behind its legs. This one has broad, aquatic fins including a rear rudder. Given that it doesn’t have any efficient way of propelling itself forward, I’m going to guess that this species lives in rivers. The current carries it along and it uses its rudder for control.
The bristles on the back of its neck may be for protection against the sun, but given that they don’t completely cover the animal and it has more bristles on its rear and belly, these may be for communication instead, or even protection against the floor of the rivers it is carried down. My guess is that they’re colourful.
Another head-only sketch. This one has a second set of eyes on top of its head, but I'm not sure I want to deviate into multiple pairs of eyes, so I'm going to call the 'upper eyes' false eyes to discourage predators viewing this animal from above.
This one has a strong jaw, perhaps for crushing the shells of larger invertebrates, and is beakless. Like HR-7 it seems to have a throat-flap which may be effective in creating an image of a thick neck.
Part-way through this sketch exercise I told Gij that I liked the chubby HR-4, and they made this secondary sketch based off of it.
It’s more clearly a stocky animal and has more bristles than HR-4, which is fine by me. Its fins are even further back than those of HR-10 - on its tail, and are accompanied by a set of spurs which perhaps work with the ‘true’ fins when running.
Its dorsal fin is now on its head and can be raised or lowered, so it’s clearly used for communication. The same is probably true for those bristles, especially the ones on its tail.
It has the same serrated beak as the earlier HRs did, plus what appears to be two sets of eyes. Again, I want to keep these creatures as having one pair of eyes, but I like the idea of them having a false eye that predators or insects might attack instead of its true ones. Its webbed feet mark it as at least partially aquatic.
Overall, given the number of changes, I now see HR-4 and this one as two different species, and that's fine by me - the more, the merrier!
A Finished Portrait
And here we are! HR-4, fully rendered in all its glory!
Short, soft, dense feathers keep the animal warm as it seeks out its food, seaweed, in rock pools and the surf breaks over it. Strong legs and a sturdy tail allow it to brace against the constantly-breaking waves, while a grey and dull blue-green colour scheme gives it the appearance of rocks and seaweed - excellent camouflage for this herbivore.
Low gills and high-set nostrils allow it to oxygenate whether it's hiding underwater or not. A serrated beak makes pulling mouthfuls of smooth seaweed from the rocks easy, and a large crop beneath the throat stores food for later consumption - useful for an animal that must graze constantly but also remain still in the presence of predators.
A minor sheen on the coat offers a little extra camouflage when this creature flees predators - shiny fur under sparkling, splashing water. That same sheen also catches the light when a herd of these animals flees so they can move in synchrony to confuse predators. For any animal singled out, its dorsal spines make lunging for it inadvisable.
We now have a dozen species, each with their own unique appearance, adaptations, and implications for their preferred habitats and ranges on Kaleida, plus a fully-finished species portrait. I got all of this for $30! In part 6 I'm going to separate them into taxonomic Families, decide on further details for them, and give them names.
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Title image by The-Gij and used with their kind permission.