Z is for Zoology
The total lack of cities, roads or any other distraction made the small groups of animals grazing on the plains impossible to miss. To Amber, whose personal experience with animals could be almost entirely summed up by dogs, cats, rats and roaches, they didn’t look too scary. Long-necked bodies and four thin legs made them look more or less like deer, except that they also had long tails. Instead of antlers, they had a set of back-sweeping horns, in addition to which they also had two huge jutting tusks. Their shiny, scale-covered skin was brownish on top and black underneath, with a white stripe on their bellies that only showed if they stood up on their hind legs, which two of them kept doing, gronking and clawing at each other with their hoofless, taloned feet. –The Last Hour of Gann
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Two ponies—those cute little cloven-hoofed horses—banged into their chosen hopper, knocking it out of the air mid-leap. The other ponies were on it in an instant, abandoning the rest of the hoppers and letting them vanish into the tall grass. Cute little pony-mouths opened. They went right for the hopper’s neck, and unlike lions, who suffocate their prey with a similar bite, these adorable little ponies ripped the throat right out of it. –The Care and Feeding of Griffins
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Wow, last letter. November has just flown by, hasn’t it? And I’ve saved one of the best for last. I touched on animals briefly as they contribute to a viable ecosystem, but it’s certainly a subject worthy of its own day in my Nanowrimo worldbuilding series. Designing the animals that inhabit my alien worlds is the funnest part of the job for me, but it’s important to remember that it is a job and the most essential aspect of that job is to tell my story plausibly. That means I can’t get so carried away creating fantastical animals that I forget they have to be able to have evolved on that world and occupy a niche in that environment. And that means more science.
As always, the best place to start researching fictional animals is to look at the real ones. My go-to resources for real-world inspiration are my Smithsonian Institution’s Animal, the American Museum of Natural History’s Ocean, the Amber Books edition of Dinosaurs edited by Carl Mehling. I also own the complete set of Walking with Dinosaurs, including Prehistoric Beasts and Cavemen, and the BBC documentaries Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet. The better you understand what makes animals successful in different conditions, the more realistically you’ll be able to portray animals in your fictional world.
Here on Earth, we classify animals based on shared physical characteristics. Please note that sharing characteristics doesn’t mean sharing an appearance. One of the more irritating things about James Cameron’s Avatar (among the many, many irritating things to choose from) was that all the creatures, plants and blue bunny-people looked uncomfortably similar, like they were six generations at most descended from the giant glow-stick that gave them all life. Animals are wildly diverse, even within the same group or, heck, the same ecosystem. Lions, baboons, elephants, meercats and giraffes are all mammals who share territory and look nothing alike. Diversity is your friend, especially in a fantasy setting.
Another thing to remember is that the ways we classify animals on Earth mean exactly nothing when it comes to classifying animals on an alien world. Meoraq, the hero of The Last Hour of Gann, is a dumaq, a race with a distinctly lizard-like appearance, but he is not a reptile—he’s not cold-blooded and his people do not lay eggs. You’re not ‘breaking the rules’ if your giant insect-like monsters have an exoskeleton as well as bones, you’re just not on Earth. In your own world, you can do anything.
But no matter what planet you’re on, every feature of your alien animal has to serve one of three purposes: it has to help it get food, help it avoid being killed, or help it attract a mate. This is non-negotiable and yes, I will come to your house and tell you in detail why your multi-armed, spike-shouldered tentacle butterfly would never exist. I have a lot of spare time and I enjoy road trips and making people cry, so use common sense in your creature design. It’s not that hard, really. You can get away with a lot in the name of attracting a mate—wild colors, crests, big horns, a professed love for romantic comedies.
As for other characteristics, they depend largely on what your animal eats and what’s eating it. The main thing to remember is that your resources are limited, even if you don’t have a human-like top-tier race encroaching on their habitat. Herbivores often develop very specialized diets to compensate for this; one animal might graze on grass while another browses on branches and yet another noshes on nuts. Plants do a very good job of protecting themselves from getting eaten by having few calories, often having little nutritional value and generally being difficult to digest. Animals that eat them have to evolve compensating characteristics like flat teeth and multi-chambered stomachs. They also have to eat a lot more often in comparison to a carnivore; most grazers and browsers eat 18 hours out of the day, virtually every minute they’re awake! They defend themselves against predators by growing too big to eat, staying small and maneuverable, gathering in large numbers, or evolving protective armor or even weapons, such as toxic skin, antlers, or heavy bludgeoning tails.
Now let’s talk about predators.
Let me begin by repeating that animals need to be part of a functional ecosystem, which means keeping them in balance within their environment. Way too many books and movies fall in love with the carnivore, throwing their heroes (or more likely, their heroines) under the slavering jaws of one predator after another, and yes, I am bashing the Riddick franchise again. Carnivores are awesome, but by necessity, they are also few. In Africa, one of the most diverse places on Earth and home to many of the animals we think of when we think of carnivores, the predator/prey ratio is estimated at 1% (discounting insects). Note that refers to the number of animals, not species. Why? Because, as I said earlier, all animals only develop features that help them eat or avoid being eaten (or mate, but we covered that). Large numbers help herbivores avoid being eaten while small numbers help carnivores eat by avoiding competition.
But what the hell are you going to do with your characters if you can’t threaten them with slavering predators, you ask? Simple. Threaten them with prey. Some of the most dangerous animals in the world are herbivores. Hippos look so cute in a tutu that’s you’d never guess they have killed as many as 3000 people in a year—more than lions, sharks and crocodiles combined. The cape buffalo are so notoriously aggressive that they won’t just trample a man to death, they’ll actually camp the corpse, stomping and goring in increasing fervor until nothing’s left but a muddy, bloody puddle. Numerous insects, fish and frogs, otherwise no danger to humans, secrete venom lethal enough to kill a man many times over. Predators and prey evolve together; the more deadly the carnivore, the more aggressively the herbivores defend themselves.
Well, I guess that brings us to the end of the series. I hope I’ve helped you consider some new aspects of worldbuilding or at least that you weren’t too bored. Enjoy the rest of the month and let me know how you did at meeting your Nanowrimo goals!