Saturday, 30 May 2015

Future evolution from France: 'Demain, les animaux du futur' Review I

Click to enlarge; copyright Éditions Belin 2015  The bird at the top is a Necropteryx, a vulture descendant. The 'helmet' is found on males only, depends on hormones and signifies rank.

Books on speculative biology are rare, so the publication of a new one is an Event. The long-awaited 'Demain. Les animaux du futur' deserves a place of honour in that small library, right next to Dougal Dixon's 'Life after man'. It's very good!

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. I like the clever use of a fake infrared night image. What you are looking at is a confrontation between a predator and a carrion eater, both large birds. 

The book was written and illustrated in a very close collaboration between Marc Boulay, a sculptor who became a ZBrush expert, and Sébastien Steyer, a palaeontologist. As they themselves describe in the book, the artist and the scientist bounced ideas back and forth to shape their creations. The book is published by Belin and is available from Amazon (for 23 Euros, so it's not expensive). Before you all rush off to order it right now, be aware that it is in French.

The book has its own website and there is lots of other information on Marc's site too. It counts over 150 pages and contains more illustrations than text, which is how it should be. Almost all illustrations were done with ZBrush; that is a 3D sculpting programme that has very quickly become a world leader when it comes to sculpting organic forms. Marc is an expert and former beta tester of ZBrush. I knew how good he was with ZBrush, and drew attention to his ability to produce photorealistic illustrations back in 2009. Still, I was a bit hesitant, as I think photorealistic computer generated images run a risk of becoming somewhat lifeless.

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. The image of the head of a male parrot descendent, Tyrannornis rex, shows the level of detail in feathers, skin etc. 

I should not have worried, because Marc pulls it off. In fact, I now think that at this level of artistry photorealism really comes into its own. Paintings have the unique advantages of easily provoking the viewer into imagining a world, often through not showing every detail. Here, every tiny scale, feather, hairs, wrinkle or glint in an eye is visible, and that has an effect in a way opposite to what a painting can do, but just as good. Marc manages to make all those details add life to his creatures: they are actually there.

The book has four chapters: the oceans of the future, the endless mangrove, a new continent and a 'user guide of the future', which in part describes how they designed their creatures, what the design limitations were, etc. Each of the first three chapters has a main text in which unnamed human observers relate what they see in the world around them, so we read about interactions between animals, hunts and other behavioural aspects. The text at times jumps to another perspective providing insights of the reasoning behind a shape or form. I have not read every letter yet, but the authors provide information here and there of the underlying story. This is a world 10 million years in the future. The main players we are used to have disappeared, so there are no large mammals on land, and not even bony fish seemed to have made it through the extinction event. The chapter on the oceans coolly describes that acidification of the oceans might result in the extinction of many animals that make up plankton: this could start to happen in parts of the oceans as soon as 2030. The book does not make a big thing out of this, and the reader is left to fill in the gaps: in a way the book is about  the results of our own actions shaping future life on this planet, for ever altered. The authors chose a period of 10 million years to allow the ecosystems to swing back to stable states again, and also, pragmatically, because other authors had left this particular slot open.

So which animal groups quickly evolved to fill the gaps? There are some lovely and unexpected creations here, but the main players are squid, birds and bats. I expect that this is where people may become critical, either because it is not made clear why these groups survived, or perhaps because of a feeling that 'this has been done before'. As for the latter matter, well, yes, there is truth in that, but it would not be easy to come up with totally novel 'survivor' groups. Dougal Dixon had that luxury with 'After Man', but that was in 1981, because he was the first. Work on the present book started in 2000 as far as I can tell, and in those 15 years many people became interested in speculative biology. I think that that particular term was probably not even in use at the time. Marc and Sébastien do not seem to be worried about this.

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. A big nocturnal terrestrial bat

In fact, when presenting a blood-sucking terrestrial bat (Nosferapoda kinskii), they directly compare it to Dixon's night stalker and the 'future predator' of the television series 'primeval'. By the way, both featured in one of my earlier posts on echolocation. Marc and Sébastien write that creating a terrestrial bat can be considered a classic of speculative biology, and add detail and reasoning to their version: they explain why their 'night vampire' bears most of its weight on its hind legs, so its gait resembles that of knuckle-walking apes. I like this approach of not ignoring earlier works of speculative biology but of accepting that theirs is not the only one. Dixon's work is mentioned more than once in the book, and I am proud to say that my work is acknowledged too: there is a quadrupedal 'giraffe bird' with the species name 'Giraffornis vandijki'. I am honoured!

Click to enlarge. Copyright Éditions Belin 2015. Giraffornis vandijki... I apologise for cutting off the image at the right, but that is where the book pages meet, and I will not ruin the book merely to get a better scan. The male is on top, and a female interacts with a young at the bottom. They are preyed on by Tyrannornis, I am sorry to say.     

I expect that most readers of this blog would want me to post as many as yet unpublished images of the animals in the book as I can cram in this post. I have included very few such images and will show a few more in a second post on this book, one or two weeks from now. But I will restrain myself, as that would spoil the joy of getting your own book. I had seen images on various websites before, but seeing the large number of fresh images formed a large part of the pleasure of reading the book. I hope that others will also restrain themselves, and that Belin finds an English language publisher quickly, so you can all find out for yourselves.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised the book has "no large mammals" when the Berlin museum included a large descendant of the capybara. Is that excluded in the book or is it still part of it?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anonymous: you mean the Brussels museum, not the Berlin one. But the point is clear: the capybara descendant is not in the book, and I saw no mention of mammals.

Anonymous said...

Sigmund: Thanks for correcting me. I'm surprised that their aren't any mammals in the book aside from bats. You would think that at least rodents would have survived as well if you're assuming all other mammal groups are doomed.

puyamaster said...

Great! I ordered this book. but can't read French...

Petr said...

i know this is an older post, but did you notice the "giraffornis vandijki" in one of the pictures you posted? Maybe a little homage found its way in the book? :D

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Petr: I know, I know! Just read the lines above the image...

Petr said...

facepalm! :D

Elizabeth Marling said...

Regarding the lack of large mammals;
Mammals are creatures which thrive during earth's ice ages exclusively. When the ice ages end, we inevitably fall victim to species who can grow larger based on food/energy without needing generations to evolve. Even today, reptiles are a great example of this. Burmese pythons in Florida, suddenly given an abundant food source and no competition for food have not only been getting longer and heavier, but females carry more eggs with each egg reportedly up to twice the size of what was considered "normal" when the species first became invasive to the area. Atmosphere has the same effect on insects, because of their short life span. Any extra oxygen and insects can become massive in what is to us a relatively short period of time.

Reality is, mammals have only been successful during a time of environmental famine. It's cold. Oxygen is relatively low. Humidity is locked in ice at the two poles. We have large amounts of solid rock and dry land. As a result, land mammals are tiny compared to previous creatures. The seas are the only place where we have matched the size of the dinosaurs, and it is an exception. We are small, active, social, visual, and yes, we live in herds. All of our advantages hinge on scarcity of resources.

So, to end this overly long comment: rodents may survive the next extinction event, but until the earth sees another prolonged ice age mammals will not be large, or dominate the planet, sea, or sky. Sorry, but the evidence is pretty clear on this one.

Great Blog!!! I am definitely following from now on!

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Welcome Elizabeth. I see your point about how mammals are generally better equipped than reptiles for cold environments, although it does not apply to all situations (amphibians might be better suited to the role of 'small animal at home on land and in cold water'). But mammals have been walking tall (punt intended) for most of the cenozoic, and most of that time was not characterised by ice ages as far as I know.

Anyway, the 'Futur' book is short on mammals, but it did not say that there weren't any; they are just not discussed. But I agree that rodents seem likely to survive if birds do.