World Development: Ecology (part 2 – Fauna)

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All animals living in the same habitat must interact in some way or another and will come into conflict with one another. This could be in a predator/prey relationship or clashing over a limited resource, such as food or denning space. There are various ways to control conflict – sometimes when two animals both share the same diet and niche, they will have different active times, ie: one is nocturnal, the other diurnal (for example, tarsiers, lorises and bushbabies are all nocturnal, which stops them being in conflict with the dangerous, but diurnal, monkeys); in other cases the conflicts and clashes will be violent (lions vs hyenas). In most terrestrial environments, there will be more “prey” species (deer, rabbits and other herbivores) than predators. So, although lions and tigers and wolves and the like may seem far more interesting, they do need to be able to have enough food to feed them.
Big predators hunt big prey. So if you have giant wolves or massive lions, you will need large mammals too.
Essentially, you need to create a food chain for your fauna.
Herbivores: Eat plant matter (rabbits, ungulates, geese etc) 
  • Low energy food, need to browse (eat leaves) or graze (eat grass).
  • Often are prey species
  • Often live in groups (more eyes to watch for predators)
  • In mammals, eyes are located more centrally along the side of the head, allowing them greater peripheral vision.
  • Not generally nocturnal.
 Fructivores: Eat fruits and nectar (many birds, lemurs, fruit bats etc)
  • High energy food, important in seed dispersal/pollination.
  • Birds have a high metabolism and thus need to eat high energy food regularly.
  • Arborel (tree living) mammals have their eyes located at the front of their head, allowing them better spatial judgement.
  • Birds are diurnal.
 Carnivores: Eat the flesh of vertebrates (felines, canines, seals, mustelids, raptors etc)
  • – High energy food, requires effort to obtain, one large meal can sustain a carnivore for several days.
  • Some species live in groups – packs/prides – and hunt cooperatively for larger prey.
  • In mammals, eyes usually positioned towards front of face, allowing better spatial judgement and thus better control over catching their prey.
  • Many diurnal, but some nocturnal.
 Insectivores: Eat invertebrates (hedgehogs, moles, aardwolf, mongoose, some birds etc)
  • High energy but need to eat a lot to sustain the animal.
  • Many insectivores also occasionally eat meat or fruit.
  • Generally solitary or live in pairs (especially if nocturnal as well).
  • Many are nocturnal, but not all. Depends on other factors – like predators and active behaviour of the insect food sources.
  • Birds are diurnal (mostly)
Omnivores: Eat anything (pigs, weka, rats etc)
  •  The best generalists, because they can adapt to survive in most situations.
  •  Highly destructive when introduced into new ecosystems. 
  •  Some are social, others solitary or live in pairs.
  •  Some are nocturnal, some are diurnal.
  •  Can be  a predator, but can also be prey.

 Scavengers: Eat dead things (vultures, blowflies etc)

  •  Work as nature’s “clean up” crew by eating things already dead – including stuff well past its expiration date.
  • A very important part of the ecosystem, even if they are kinda dirty and “gross”.
  • Vultures have naked heads so that they can stick their heads into the carcass without getting their feathers matted with blood – this could lead to problems with the “waterproof” qualities of their feathers and lead to them dying. They also do not have very strong talons.
  • Some scavenger species are actually very effecient hunters (ie: the spotted hyena). Just as some predators rely on scavenging or stealing their kills from other hunters.

Now, how about making up your own species? Sounds like fun?
It sure is!

Here are some ways you can make your native wildlife distinctively different from those on Earth:

1. Focus on birds, reptiles or invertebrates rather than mammals

Consider a world like ours in which there are no mammals – what habitats are there for the reptiles (or birds) to fill? How might they evolve to better exploit these habitats. It might help to study island ecology – looking at places like New Zealand and Hawaii where native mammals were never prevalent. Consider changes the birds might make to fit in here – losing their ability to fly, growing bigger, living in burrows, behaving more like monkeys… etc. Another thing to consider is that mammals hunt by scent (and many have poor colour vision), whereas birds and lizards both have colour vision – so what role might this play in how the native wildlife looks? New Zealand birds are generally drab in colour – which allows them camouflage and protects them from avian predators. This defence proved ineffective when mammals were introduced, and annihilated them.

2. All vertebates on Earth have four limbs – so why not give yours six?

This is where gryphons and the typical “Western” dragon fit in, any animal that has four feet and wings is a hexapod. I once made an ecology up for a world in which everything had three pairs of limbs. It was not nearly as impressive as that found in “Avatar”. If you do this, try and use it consistently, it perplexed me rather that whilst all the non-sentient life forms on Pandora had three pairs of limbs, the dominant sentient race (the Na’avi) did not, leading me to speculate that the blue cat-people were in fact aliens themselves that had invaded the land on an earlier occasion and modified the animals to their own purpose. This was never clearly answered.
3. Hybridise Earth animals – combine random species to create Chimeras
See also TV tropes: Mix and Match critters
This also explains gryphons and their ilk.
Chimeras don’t make scientific sense, since different species cannot interbreed. Although, some realworld species are bloody strange – anyone looking at a platypus might consider it a duckmole (that’s what I imagined Tamora Pierce was doing in her “Immortals” series). But hey, it’s your world, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s not entirely scientifically sound. Maybe there’s a mad scientist on the lose, or maybe the rules of genetics are different.
Making up names for chimerical critters is always fun. When naming hybrid real-world animals, half of the father’s species is taken first, and connected with the second half of the mother’s species. Hence a Liger is the result of a male lion and a female tiger. It looks quite different from a Tiglon, which has the opposite parentage. Generally, I just go with what works best – or start with the head and work my way back. Or you can just join the two names together, as they do in the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” tv series. I snorted with laughter when Ang declared “someone’s getting attacked by a platypus bear”.
Hybridising in this sort of way does, however, cause complications – because no two animals will ever look the same, or even necessarily be the same species – if any animal species can produce viable offspring with any other species, then what happens when two hybrid animals breed together? Will everything just end up looking really weird, or will they eventually converge to a sort of homogenised point?However, you can use this method to make some really original looking critters that might not *actually* be caused by the two species breeding together.
 Weedy Seadragon/Peacock = Weedy Seacock?

4. Take Real World animals and alter them to fill different niches

This is particularly fun for Post-Apocalyptic variants of our own world. Okay, assuming the world faces a nuclear holocaust, or climate change or whatever it is that entirely reshapes the face of the world as we know it – what animals will survive?

Probably the hardy generalists and omnivores. The rats, the pigs, the foxes and maybe the cats. Animals such as lemurs, aardvarks and anything with a highly specialised diet or life cycle will be doomed. So, with those animals gone, and the world reverted to its wild self, how might the surviving species change to fill the niches that are left?

Speculative Zoology is fun and challenging. There are several online sites I have found, so here are a couple of links:
Neocene Project

Also worth looking into is Douglas Dixon’s “After Man” – published in 1981, so maybe a bit hard to get nowadays. I picked mine up second hand.

And you don’t *need* to have a Post Apocalyptic setting to make this work – sometimes it is just interesting to think – how would a rabbit look were it arboreal? Or could sparrows live underground?

From Budgerigar to Budgieraptor!

5. Take real world animals and give them elemental powers

However, they might be mistaken for Pokemon. One thing that puzzled me with Pokemon (in the early days) was – what do they eat? Other pokemon? Later development answered this with a “yes”.

 Meet Makilumi!
6. Dragons  
Dragons are something I often have trouble with in fantasy novels. Ignoring the fact that they’re not really mammals, birds or even reptiles,  they are, for the most part, massive carnivores. And something that massive is going to need a LOT of food to fuel it. It might not need to eat frequently, but it will need large meals on a semi-regular basis. So if you have a situation where you have a world with large amounts of massive dragons, you better have enormous herds of some sort of herbivore for them to eat. Of course, you could also make them herbivorous.

Since dragons are a mythological species with no basis on any particular real animal, authors (and artists) have had a lot of fun developing them in a variety of ways. The typical Western dragon is reptilian, huge and scaly – often with wings – and this seems to have perpetuated throughout many fantasy novels – although sometimes they have three pairs of limbs (four legs, two wings) and other times two (2 wings + 2 legs). Often they also have elemental powers.

My two favourite Western-ish dragons in literature are Patrick Rothfuss’ in “Name of the Wind” and Robin Hobb’s dragon ecology in her “Liveship Traders” series.

In most novels, when a human bonds with a dragon, the two are able to communicate either via telepathy or verbally. This was nicely avoided in the movie of “How to Train your Dragon” which is one of the many things that made that movie original and wonderful.

I personally have several dragon characters, none of which resemble this phenotype:

Rhapsody the Sea Dragon (top)
Pippit the Rainforest Dragon (bottom)

There are NUMEROUS tropes used in fantasy for designing new species, I have engaged in intensive research at tvtropes to bring you a summary of some of their most relevant ones:

Call a Rabbit a “Smerp”:  Which refers to taking standard critters and giving them unusual and original names. This can be especially effective if the Writer wishes to convey an otherworldlyness to their story, or set the culture of the protagonists separate from the typical one. I, for example, generally have used the Malagasy names for the variety of lemur species featuring in my stories, as I feel this adds to the authenticity – as the Malagasy people were there first (likewise, I always list the Maori names on my NZ animal illustrations, when I can find them). It can give the ordinary a somewhat fantastical feel.

Call a “Smerp” a Rabbit: Which refers to having bizarre a variations on the typical – such as giant riding lizards or small wild birds but referring to them as their Earth equivalent – leading to confusion and disorientation on the part of the Reader. If your “cows” are really stocky dragons that eat grass, it might be best to find another name for them. If you do wish to go this route, make it very clear from the start that your cows are not like our cows! This is found in reality too, when early explorers named everything based on what they previously knew – hence the presence of “robins” and “wrens” in New Zealand, despite the fact that they are not closely related to the European birds by the same name.

For more tropes (and before I get off topic) – visit this page here.

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