Thursday, January 20, 2022

Astrovitae magazine: "A glimpse of life on other worlds"


Astrovitae is a magazine of speculative biology. But what is that, exactly? Speculative biology is, in many ways, a hybrid genre. It is fictional life- animals, plant, microbe, and other organisms- designed with a deep grounding in the laws and constraints of biology and physics. Now of course writers and artists have been inventing imaginary creatures since the dawn of human history. But many of those are rooted in myth and fantasy. Creatures of speculative biology, however, are grounded more in science- though even then the degree of realism can vary.

 The modern incarnation of speculative biology has its origins in the 1970s and 80s with Dougal Dixon’s After Man- a fictional field guide to Earth life millions of years in the future; and with artist Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition, a visual voyage to a fictional alien world. Later works such as the Speculative Dinosaur Project; C. M. Kösemen;s Snaiad project and his novel of future human evolution, All Tomorrows; and the early 2000s pseudo-documentary series The Future is Wild also served as major inspirations for many students of speculative biology. Many of these amateur artists and writers built their worlds in relative isolation during the 90s and early 2000s, but the increasing communication afforded by the internet allowed them to connect with each other more easily, resulting in a boom in creative output.

 Astrovitae magazine, founded and edited by Domenic Vincent Pennetta, aims to gather works from many of the spec bio creators working today to showcase the diversity in the genre. The majority of the entries in this first issue feature extraterrestrial life- particularly aquatic extraterrestrial life- though there a few organisms derived from our own Earthly fauna. This may simply be due to the interests of many artists working right now, but hopefully future issues will be able to feature more speculations on the possibilities of Earthly life.

A couple of aquatic aliens designed by Christian Cline

The magazine is divided into three sections. Captivating Worlds offers glimpses into several world-building projects- a brief peak at a kaleidoscope of planets. Artist Spotlight focuses on the artists themselves and the ways they develop and design their worlds. Creature Compendium is a showcase of individual organisms as opposed to full ecosystems.

 If you’re a biologically-minded person like me, it’s fascinating to see how each artist has used the known ecological and physiological laws of our own planet to extrapolate their creatures. Their organisms are alien, yet convergent evolution creates an undeniable familiarity. These worlds may not be ours, this life not the kind we know, but they undeniably evoke familiarity. A reader can see how these creatures fit into their ecology and how the have been shaped by the same biological and physical laws that have molded our own ecosystem.

A menagerie of strange beasts envisioned by Miles Rosenbloom.

It is also interesting to see the range of approaches to presenting these speculative organisms. Some artists like Christian Cline and Veknor showcase their worlds like a “field guide” or an informative plaque that one might find in a museum. Others like Reinhard Gutzat and Miles Rosenbloom focus on the aesthetics of creature design, presenting their works more like medieval bestiary or, if you’re a fan of TTRPGs, like the entries in a Monster Manual.

 I appreciate that most of the organisms have been given a common as well as a scientific name. While the latter adds to the realism, the former gives the organism more character for a reader to hook onto.

 This first issue of Astrovitae is a satisfying initial glimpse into the diversity of speculative biology creators working today. I’m eager to see what future issues will bring. You can download the first issue free on the official website.



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Art History, Part 3: Another Speculative Radiodont


Another speculative radiodont lost to the fossil record (check out my first entry here). This is the False Ammonite, Pseudammonites ptilobrachiones, a filter-feeder that sweeps plankton and small fish from the water with its massive, broom-like Great Appendages. Much like a hermit crab, the creature’s soft body is protected inside the discarded shell of another animal, in this case an ammonite. The False Ammonite’s home floats at the surface of the ocean thanks to a symbiotic siphonophore, Megaera deformibaccata,  that inhabits the inner chambers. Siphonophores are relatives of jellyfish that form vast connected chains of individual animals known as zooids. Many zooids are highly modified to serve specific tasks within the colony such as reproduction, prey-capture, and bouyancy. The striped, pink tentacles dangling from the aperture of the shell in this illustrations are Megaera’s fishing tentacles and the orange pear-shaped blobs are gas-filled "float" zooids.

To the right of the False Ammonite is another hypothetical filter-feeding radiodont, the Sun Drifter, Medusocola silvadorsum. Drifters inhabit the stomachs of jellyfish, where they gain protection and free transportation. Most Sun Drifters harbor a small colony of Gardner Crabs, Demeter hortulanus. These crustaceans feed on algae that they cultivate on the back of their Drifter. Like a human gardener, they constantly tend and prune their harvest, brushing it clean with their furry antennae and keeping it free of other herbivores.

Those strange, vertically-oriented creatures are Thief Fish, Scutoculus longinares. They hang out under the False Ammonite, using their large, fan-like tail fins to keep themselves upright so they can steal bits of food from the great appendages of the radiodont and from the tentacles of its siphonophore partner. Thief fish have transparent bubbles of hard skin covering their eyes to protect them from the fine, stinging hairs that cover the False Ammonite’s arms and from the jelly’s tentacles.

Visually this piece was inspired by a painting in the book The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, a Scottish paleontologist and educator. The New Dinosaurs postulates what dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and other Mesozoic animals might have revolved into had they not gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.  Dixon had written an earlier book, After Man, about how animals might evolve millions of years in the future after humans have gone extinct. After Man and The New Dinosaurs (along with Dixon’s less popular Man After Man, about the possible future evolution of humans) are considered by many to be the foundations of the modern genre of speculative evolution.

The entry that influenced my creature was the Kraken, Giganticeras fluitarus, a massive speculative ammonite that feeds with nets of stinging tentacles much like a jellyfish or siphonophore. 

The Thief Fish were inspired by the real life Barreleye Fish, Macropinna microstoma, an unusual deep-sea fish that has elongated eyes which can rotate straight up to scan the water above it. It is thought that the barreleye feeds by stealing food from the tentacles of siphonophores, deep-dwelling relatives of jellyfish. Live footage of Macropinna revealed that the fish has a transparent shield over its eyes which may protect them from siphonophore stings.

Barreleye. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Sun Diver was inspired by Phronima, a genus of crustaceans that ride around in the hollowed-out gelatinous bodies of barrel-shaped creatures called salps. While Phronima eats the insides of its host, leaving just an empty, protective jelly-shell, the Sun Drifter leaves its host alive, to serve as a living transport.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Art History, Pat 2: Microbes

 Here’s another illustration inspired by the former Ruthven Museum, now the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. This piece was inspired by the Pond Life diorama on the Ecology and Wildlife floor.

Life in a drop of water.


Algae and ciliates

A colony of Volvox and more microscopic algae.

I’d seen pictures of microbes before, but this diorama really got me to think about them as actual living organisms with unique niches in a functioning ecosystem. I imagined them as animals in a real world rather than just weird phots and drawings.

There is incredible diversity in microscopic life. The most prominent and photogenic critters, of course, are the adorable water-bears, and wheel-mouthed rotifers. But there are tons of strange, interesting living things that all tend to get mushed together under the blanket “Protists” or “Protozoa” label. Microbe classifications are constantly changing, but at present there are around seven major groups that include Euglenids, amoeba, ciliates, flagellates, and so on.

It's tempting to think of microbes as alien creatures. I have, in fact, used protozoans as inspirations for extraterrestrials in other art projects. But the truth is microscopic life is far more abundant on Earth than animals, plants, and other large organisms. They've been around a lot longer too. Life on Earth was primarily microscopic for about three-fourths of its history. It's only within the last billion years or so that macroscopic life evolved on our planet. So, really, WE are the alien newcomers (geologically-speaking) on their world.

By the way, you can get a print of this piece on my store.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Art History, Part 1: Speculative Radiodonts

While designing my illustrations, I often like to imagine them as informative displays in a natural history museum. Museums have been a huge influence on my creative life, and elements from the institutes I've visited frequently find their way into my work.
In college, I worked as a docent at the Ruthven Exhibit Museum at the University of Michigan (now known as the University of Michigan Natural History Museum). My dad had brought me to the museum many times as a kid, so the place held a particular fascination for me from an early age. Working there as an adult only increased my fondness since I actually understood the information in the glass cases.

The Alexander G. Ruthven Building, home to the Ruthven Exhibit Museum when I worked there in the early 2000s (the museum has now moved across the street to the Biological Sciences Building)

The exhibit I most loved from child- to adulthood, was the Life Through the Ages room, which consisted of seven detailed dioramas depicting life from the Cambrian, Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous.

I can still vividly remember what it felt like to venture into that room. There were no overhead lights so all illumination came solely from the dioramas. It was looking at tanks in an aquarium, or drifting through an ancient sea in a submersible, observing the seafloor through thick riveted portholes. As a kid, I always wished my bedroom looked like that, and even as an adult I have this persistent dream of someday making my living room into my own private diorama hall. Considering how big of an impression those displays made on me, it's no surprise that they've made their way into my art. Today I’ll talk about one of those piece. 

But first a little paleontological background. Radiodonts were a group of odd Paleozoic predators that include the famous Anomalocaris along with  stranger forms like Hurdia, Schinderhannes, and Amplectobelua.  Based on current research, radiodonts are believed to be most closely related to tardigrades and onychophorans, also known as, respectively, water bears and velvet worms. They are also thought to be related to a lineage that was ancestral to arthropods.

Radiodonts are characterized by:

1.1.)    Two spined Great Appendages on the front of their body. Several radiodont species are known only from these structures.

2.2.)    A ring-shaped mouth usually covered in plates, with small, pointed teeth around the opening, said to resemble a "pineapple ring". The name Radiodont, in fact, means “wheel teeth”.

3.3.)    Three armored plates on the head, which become large, scoop-like hoods in Hurdia and its relatives.

4.4.)    Rows of fin-like flaps along their sides that undulate up and down in sequence like the fins of a cuttlefish.

A representative group of radiodonts, which you can totally get as a t-shirt design right here.

Radiodonts were soft invertebrates lacking skeletons or hard shells that would readily fossilize. In order to be preserved, they had to be buried under rare special conditions, often in a sudden sediment slide that would leave the body in anoxic conditions where they wouldn’t decay. These burials also contain numerous other soft-bodied creatures, giving paleontologists a rare glimpse into an aspect of the prehistoric world that is absent from other sites. Fossil beds with this exceptional preservation are known as konservat-lagerstätten, German for “conserving storage-places”. They include the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada; The Maotianshan Shales in Yunnan, China; the Ediacara Hills of South Australia; and the Mazon Creek fossil beds of Illinois in the US (from which came Illinois’ state fossil, the enigmatic Tullimonstrum, a creature I’ve played around with in a couple of my art pieces).

For decades radiodont fossils were known only from the Cambrian period. But in 2009 a single specimen of a radiodont, Schinderhannes bartelsi, was discovered in the Devonian-era Hunsrück Slate of Germany. This extended the temporal range of this group by millions of years. It also provided a tantalizing hint at a hidden diversity of Great Appendage creatures that have either not been preserved in the fossil record, or not been unearthed yet.

Schinderhannes fired the furnace of my imagination. I’ve always had a strong interest in speculative biology and paleontology, and my mind was filled with ideas about what these “lost” radiodonts might have been like.

Hermit Anomalocaris

Here's where I get back to my experiences at the Ruthven Museum. The first speculative radiodont I designed was the Hermit Anomalocarid above. The design, layout, and even color palette of this piece was inspired by a diorama of a Cretaceous seafloor full of ammonites, belemnites and other cephalopods,. The look of the Hermit, especially, is based on the giant Placenticeras model that dominates this scene.

The Cretaceous diorama

Placenticeras peaking out of the algae.

The museum's Ordovician diorama also had a significant influence on this piece, particularly the look of the crinoid forest surrounding my creature. The main focus of this diorama is a pair of Endoceras, ancient straight-shelled relatives of the chambered nautilus. One of them has flipped over a trilobite and is in the process of devouring it- inspiring my Hermit Anomalocarids' attack on a horseshoe crab relative.. When I was real young, I recall that this model would actually move its tentacles up and down when you stepped on a pad in front of the diorama. The mechanism broke at some point before I got to college and was never fixed. Most of the people I've mentioned this feature to do not remember it, but I swear it was true!

The Ordovician diorama

The nautilus-relative Endoceras devouring a trilobite.

The Ruthven Museum had a ton of exhibits that influenced my artwork. I'll talk more about other pieces in future posts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review: Register Prehistoria

Mention prehistoric animals and a person’s thoughts will most likely go to dinosaurs. Then perhaps to the more popular Pleistocene animals like mammoths, sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths. Maybe a fossil enthusiast will think of ammonites and trilobites.

But there is so much more diversity to the 4 billion years of life on Earth. Piles and piles of creatures deserving more attention. That’s where Stanton Fink’s Register Prehistorica comes in.

Fink’s tome, which doubles as a coloring book, showcases an eclectic mix of trilobites, pterosaurs, mammals, echinoderms, amphibians, and even stranger beasts. The book covers a temporal range from the dawn of multicellular life in the Ediacaran all the way to the 1800s.

Fink gives each creature its own character with interesting anecdotes about unusual behavior, history of discovery, or odd name origins. See, for example, the trilobite Triproetus bonbon- whose species name refers to the French chocolate candies- because the creature’s extremely well-preserved fossils were a “treat” to discover. Or the fearsome mesonychid mammal Ankalagon saurognathus, which was named after a dragon from JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Animal reconstructions are meticulously detailed, with lavish attention given to each tooth, scale, and osteoderm. Many of the illustrations are the first depictions of animals that are only known from a few fragmentary bones or shell pieces buried in an academic paper.

The backgrounds, by contrast, are quite simple, often little more than broad strokes to suggest scenery in the manner of a Japanese sumi-e or a Chinese shui mo hua ink painting.  This juxtaposition can be a bit jarring at first, but the simple backgrounds help to highlight the details of the subject animals without distracting from them.

Even cats like Register Prehistoria.

Fink has drawn and written many, many more books covering all sorts of obscure and fascinating prehistoric creatures. Register Prehistoria is an excellent jumping-off point to discovering more of Earth’s ancient diversity.

You can get a copy of Register Prehistoria here.

You can get a book of Stanton Fink's Ordovician animals here.

And, of course, Trilobites!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Review: Feeder by Lucinda Moebius

The world is full of supernatural monsters: vampires, lycanthropes, ghouls, and even stranger things. Many humans have glimpsed them, but few realize that the seeming diversity of creatures that stalk the shadows are all simply aspects of a single species of energy beings, called “were”.  These creatures have existed since the beginning of the universe, evolving in parallel with the mortal world. Were’s heightened senses allow them to see and feed on the life forces of other creatures. With the energy they gain, they can perform all sorts of supernatural feats- most notably shapeshifting into the forms of animals and thus giving rise to legends of werebeasts.

Maria Christine, the protagonist of Feeder, is one of the “nicer” were, since she typically only feeds on murderers, rapists, and the dying. But even she has little regard for humanity beyond a source of sustenance. She lives on the edge of both human and were society, scraping together a living as best she can, occasionally aided by a sympathetic were nun. Her transient, marginalized existence makes the readers sympathize with her even as we watch her stalk and drain humans prey. Her struggle also keeps her grounded even as the story gradually reveals more of her impressive powers.

Throughout the story, Maria is chased by two other supernatural  beings called simply the Hunter and the Warrior. Both are also energy beings made flesh, and implied to be distant offshoots of the were.  They work together to prey on Maria’s kind just as they prey on mortals. The story stumbles a bit with these two, as they aren’t particularly developed characters, aside from the Hunter’s sense of conscience. Their names are not particularly evocative. I wish they had better descriptors than just “Hunter” and “Warrior”. I do know their story is explained in the sequel, however, so hopefully we’ll see more depth from them there.

Halfway through the book, Maria is forced to flee her old haunts. She eventually runs into an organized pack of were who quickly become a surrogate family. It’s intriguing to watch tough, survival-driven maria gradually learning to open up and trust her new “father” and “siblings”. Though the ease with which they accept her did make me a bit suspicious that they had ulterior motives (no spoilers on whether that suspicion was well-founded).

I’ve long been a fan of urban supernatural fantasy, particularly the classic 90s World of Darkness and the Underworld films. The setting of Feeders gives me a similar vibe to those works, though  I like the twist that all these different supernatural beings described by mortals are actually just permutations of the same creature.

Feeder is a good, fast read for fans of urban fantasy and vampire tales who are looking for a twist on the familiar themes. You can get a copy here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

New picture book

Now that The Scarecrow Harvest Festival is all done, I'm looking for an agent and/or publisher for it. 

In the meantime, though, I'm already working on a new picture book about two of my favorite things: Halloween and cryptids. See, Cryptid Halloween is just like Human Halloween, but with little differences. Instead of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, cryptids carve cantaloupes and other melons. Instead of decorating with bats, rats, and cats, cryptids decorate with fur-bearing trout, jackalopes, and flying platypus.  And, of course, instead of dressing up as monsters to trick-or-treat, cryptids dress up like human kids, as you can see below.

Mothman (or, rather, Mothgirl in this case)

Champ from Lake Champlain

The Fresno Nightcrawlers

I'm still working on designs for other cryptid trick-or-treaters, and working on a book dummy. Stay tuned for more!