Imbued with god-like powers, the ever-inspirational Mathew Wedel, aka Dr Vector, has wondered what sort of experiments he might play with the biosphere in order to observe the evolutionary results. Given that I just posted an article the other day on Godzilla, it would be a good idea to avoid the whole speculative zoology area for a while. After all, I don’t want to get a reputation. But I have to strike while the proverbial iron is hot and, don’t worry, we’ll be back to rodents, passerines and small, dull brown lizards soon enough. Sticking only with tetrapods (of course), what neat extrapolations and speculations can we come up with?
Incidentally, my recent discussion (in the Godzilla post) of kaiju-biology caught the attention of Mark Meloon, the creator of the awesome kaiju-biology page that I linked to. His email made me laugh; here’s what he had to say….
I saw your recent article on The Science of Godzilla and figured I should drop you a line. You cited an old web page about kaiju-biology that I wrote way back when I was a grad student at Caltech (Alan mentions on http://kaiju.boomcoach.com/ that the original kaiju-biology page was part of my large Godzilla site) and it brought back happy memories of avoiding doing my Ph. D. research by watching giant monster movies. I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it’s still making people smile! Yes, I am actually a scientist,
although I’m working in artificial intelligence now instead of kaiju-biology. Thanks for the overview on the real scientific work on Godzilla. I had lost track of the cutting-edge research being done in this area. Rest assured, that if the country needs me to put my talents to work once again, I will not hesitate to answer the call!
Back to the matter in hand. The more I learn about science fiction, the harder I find it to think of anything that’s truly novel as goes alternative history and hypothetical evolution. Future animals have now been done to death, what with Dougal Dixon’s After Man, Man After Man, and The Future Is Wild, plus there are the classics like Wells, J. T. Bass, Simak and so many more. I once acted as advisor to a ‘future evolution’ scene produced by Steve White: we had smart tool-using finches and millions of tiny eusocial mole rats (the latter inspired by the discussion in Lavers (2001)) living alongside giant combat chickens, big rodents (including ‘pachybaras’) and neo-sebecosuchian crocodilians dubbed velocisuchians. All of our decisions were actually based on real things that happened, or are happening, in the real world. The result is Steve’s painting, used at the top and borrowed from his excellent Thunderlizard site.
‘Alternative’ dinosaurs and other animals have also gotten their due, with Specworld including a pretty impressive pantheon of hypothetical animals that have evolved on a parallel Earth where the end-Cretaceous event didn’t happen. Some of Specworld’s animals (particularly the birds) are lame, but others (like the marine monotremes and mosasaurs) are superb [adjacent pic shows Hobb's leviathan, a mosasaur from the oceans of Specworld, from here]. Dougal’s The New Dinosaurs invented a modern fauna of post-Mesozoic mammals, pterosaurs and dinosaurs, though few of the animals he came up with seem likely or reasonable (Dixon 1988) [image above shows some of the creatures from The New Dinosaurs, by me: go here for bigger version]. Greg Paul (1990) provided a detailed critique of Dougal’s ‘improbable view of Tertiary dinosaurs’ and proposed a rather different modern day where big mammals evolved alongside conservative small ornithischians, grazing hadrosaurs and geese. We also have a few other well-known ‘alternative evolution’ experiments like Dale Russell’s dinosauroid (for my take on smart theropods and dinosauroids go here). Moving away from planet Earth, multitudinous alien creatures have also been dreamt up: many poor, some good, and some excellent, and finally there are bizarre, wonderful, imaginary animals of all sorts, like Nemo Ramjet’s creatures (Nemo is available for hire as an illustrator, incidentally). This list is not meant to be comprehensive!
We can always make the argument that these assorted speculative creations are not necessarily random and pointless, but perhaps useful in highlighting the patterns of the past and present, and in informing us as to our fate and future. Indeed there are good solid reasons for making informed speculations about both alien life, and about future evolution. So-called extinction management is likely going to become increasingly important in future as global climates change, and we need the knowledge of the past and present to predict how lineages might respond to the changes.
Matt’s new ideas are nice and good: which animals might populate a future hot-world Antarctica?; what would have happened if Antarctica and South America remained linked and the circum-polar current never formed?; what if non-avian dinosaurs died out everywhere except Australasia?; what if Pangaea never broke up?; and what if turtles inherited the earth? He ended his post with ‘Seriously. If you had the aforementioned [god-like] powers, what experiments would you do?’. In the words of King Mufasa (father of Simba in Disney’s The Lion King – how’s that for a trendy reference), ‘Is that a challenge?’ (better might be Bugs Bunny: ‘Of course you realize… this means war’).
Here are two of my favourite, most non-standard speculative evolutionary scenarios (it was going to be more than two, but I’ve run out of time). If you’re artistically gifted and with lots of free time on your hands, feel free to set up a website where you explore these scenarios to the full
Firstly, we have Squamate World. Mammals never really get going in the latter part of the Cretaceous, and while amphibians, turtles, birds and crocodilians continue as normal, it is squamates that come to dominate the post-Mesozoic biosphere. Herds of millions of herbivorous agamids dominate Eurasia and Africa, and giant armour-plated (but still sprawling) omnivorous skinks and mastigures inhabit scrublands, deserts and uplands across the Old World. Lacertids and skinks evolve unparalleled diversity, with small insectivores and mid-sized generalists occurring across all environments, from forest floors to tree tops. Giant predatory short-skulled amphisbaenians prey on large surface-dwelling animals [adjacent image, from Digimorph, shows the 10 mm skull of the predatory amphisbaenian Anops kingii. Imagine enlarging this animal so that its skull was 30 cm long]. Crotaphytid iguanians in the Americas evolve erect gaits and endothermy, and become long-legged giant cursorial predators. Across North America and Eurasia, diverse venomous helodermatids and big geckos skulk around at night. Big terrestrial and scansorial anoles dominate the American tropics and big bizarre iguanians are spread across the islands of the Pacific. The lack of amphibious and aquatic mammals means that several squamate lineages take to the seas, with Mediterranean lacertids, Australasian skinks, Pacific iguanines and American anguids all evolving amphibious and aquatic forms. The seas are filled with untold billions of sea snakes, and not just small ones, but giant ones too. Boids and their kin never go through an Oligocene-Miocene ‘dark period’ and Eurasia and North America are full of sand boas and related forms, and colubroids never really took off because rodents didn’t; instead small, gracile boas and pythons undergo a radiation and mostly prey on tiny diverse lacertids and geckos. Varanids in SE Asia and Australasia, and iguanines in South America, evolve endothermy and enhanced encephalisation. Short-faced arboreal iguanines evolve increasingly complex societies and cultures from the Miocene onwards.
All of these speculations are inspired by reality, honest.
Oligocene World, aka Slinker World
Here’s another one. Neogene drying doesn’t occur, and hence the development of plains and of wind-pollinated floras dominated by grasses never really get going; in other words the subtropical and temperate woodlands of the Oligocene remain covering the better parts of the continents. Apart from cool polar tundra, terrestrial environments are essentially wall-to-wall woodland and forest, making Earth like a big version of Endor (the forest moon from Return of the Jedi, of course). Other than that, everything else pre-Oligocene is broadly the same as really happened.
Devoid of the opportunity to evolve mid-sized ecotone and open-habitat forms, hoofed mammals mostly remain as small, browsing slinkers for the rest of Cenozoic history [rather similar to the chevrotain pictured above: image from here]. But the forests are filled with thousands and thousands of them. Proboscideans, notoungulates, rhinos, horses, suiforms, deer and bovids all diversify at small body size and stay that way. They are preyed on by big forest-dwelling eagles and sebecosuchian crocodilians. Carnivorans remain at small body size too, but all lineages remain scansorial and only a few species evolve to prey on the slinkers. Mostly the carnivorans prey on birds, bats and scansorial primates. The subtropical and temperate woodlands of North America and Eurasia are filled with plethodontid salamanders, with absurd niche packing occurring across the board. Consequently there are lots of arboreal, scansorial, aquatic and fossorial plethodontids of all shapes and sizes, and multiple reversions from and to biphasic life history and direct development. Rivers and lakes are inhabited by small, mid-sized and giant predatory plethodontids, the biggest of which (err….. 5 m long!) ambush slinkers when they come down to drink or go for a swim. Some slinkers inhabit the coasts of tropical Asia, and it’s these that have given rise to whales, so the cetacean fauna is the same as the real Earth one. And there are lots of meiolaniids, caecilians and pangolins…
Now ain’t that pretty?
Refs – –
Dixon, D. 1988. The New Dinosaurs: An Alternative Evolution. Salem House Publishers, Topsfield, MA.
Lavers, C. P. 2001. Why Elephants Have Big Ears. Phoenix, London.
Paul, G. S. 1990. An improbable view of Tertiary dinosaurs. Evolutionary Theory 9, 309-315.