Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Proteus Project (An Extrasolar Planet of sorts)

A different subject altogether. Some friends and I have been working on a project. it's been a lot of fun. The background has started to become very detailed and fascinating. The funny part is that background past a point isn't important. As a matter of fact, it's really getting waaaay more detailed than it ought to be. That's ok, cuz its fun, but it'll prolly almost all be ignored when the time comes. I'll post a map in the future.

Proteus is a moon of a gas giant, Poseidon. It's about 1.2 times the size of Earth and has a similar density. The atmosphere is breathable. Proteus went through a very long period - almost 300 million years - of a relatively inactive geology. At the time, the continents didn't move and the ecologies were biologically isolated. About 75 million years ago, the orbital resonances with the other moons of Poseidon reheated the core sufficiently that the continents drifted again. About 15 million years ago, 5 of the continents began to collide to produce a supercontinent. Each subcontinent had a radically different ecology.

Currently there are three "continents". One occupies the same position as Antarctica and is named "Hecate". Really it's something of a clone of Antarctica, but it will have its own twists. An ecology of warm blooded plants might be one idea in some remote valleys.

The second continent is Hellas. It's a very long and thin continent that seems like an overgrown blend of Greece and Norway. It's very rocky and mountainous, full of isolated valleys and canyons, mountains and mesas, beaches and tepuis. It makes for a very diverse, yet fragile set of ecosystems.

The supercontinent doesn't have a collective name. Each of the subcontinents are named. Sunken Mars, Bactria, Scythia, Aigyptos, Pallene, and Asbystes are the subcontinents.

Aigyptos was originally called Bull's Eye. It's in the center of the supercontinent. It has Himalayan style ranges on almost every side. Only on a very narrow - 200 mile/320 km - face does it meet with the sea at all. There it's extremely wet, being like Thailand. Interior wise though is much like a blend of New Mexico (USA), the South American tepuis, and Tibet. Very dry with a lot of temperature extremes.

Sunken Mars is something of a cross between Polynesia, the moon, and The Great Barrier Reef. It is west-southwest of Aigyptos. During the ecologically inactive stage of Proteus, this was very bombarded by meteors and then worn down by erosion. As the crater lips ended up being weathered away, corals began growing on the barely submerged lands. This ended up reinforcing and preserving, over time, the shapes of the impacts, many hundreds of millions of years past the bombardment. Sunken Mars is semiequitorial and where its plate has pushed up against Aigyptos a Himalayan range has risen. I originally lobbied for this to be called Greater Polynesia...but I lost. :)

Pallene is south of Aigyptos. It looks like an enlarged, flipped, and stretched version of Indochina Pennisula. It's a land of jungles, both tropical and temperate.

To the northeast is Scythia. It's closest analog would be Australia in climate. An isolated area of forests, but the majority is desert and plains.

To the northeast is Asbystes. This is something of an Asia analog, but not really at the same time. It stretches from its impact range where it abutes Aigyptos all the way up to the North Pole where it wraps itself around a very large bay like the Hudson's where the Arctic ice cap sits. The Pennisula that wraps around the arctic stretches south again. There it meets up with Bactria, a very small continent.

This is a sample of what's coming from the Bactrian wildlife. Bactria is the small subcontinent that was once called minime. It is a continent that looks wrinkled from orbit. It looks a lot like someone had taken the Rockies and made them into a continent. Due to its position in on Proteus, Bactria is a taiga biome. So, if you were to look at the comparable place from Earth, it would be the Canadian Rockies. Amusingly, a kids' website gives a good run down: here.

Originally, Bactria had been an equatorial continent and the wildlife reflected this. It was a land of rolling hills and a handful of mountains. Lush, the primary biome had been a rainforest. Thus, the soil poor even if the wildlife teemed and the plants were lush. The preeminent animal life was in the form of large arthropods and amphibians. The animal life could be best described as analogous to Carboniferous Age on Earth, but with accents that look like they could have come from the Cambrian. The plant life was actually more evolved than the equivalent Earth life: the flowering and fruit bearing plants were present.

However, over the last 50 million years, Bactria has marched its way northwest across the temperate and into the taiga zones. The mountain building for Bactria began several million years ago (about 20) when the continental shelf began to close in on the very far north of Asbystes. This caused a ecological crisis. The once very connected ecology of the continent became fragmented. With the still relatively poor soil, and now extreme temperatures being exasperated by the now uplifted terrain.

The fragmented areas made for a lot of places for creatures to evolve in isolation. Interestingly, it seems that the combination of temperature stress and isolation gave rise to a very odd symbiotic form of life. Where the lichen is an alliance between the fungus and the algae, the critters of Bactria are a similar alliance between animal and plant. About 10 million years ago, the Cardian Dualists burst out from their valley and overran the whole continent. So successful were these creatures that it is suspected, barring unforeseen events, the Cardians will supplant the last of the nonCardian native creatures in Bactria. There are even some that have successfully crossed the Great Barrier Mountains to the north and are spreading, albeit very slowly, in Asbystes.

Consider the Spiny Back. It's an amphibian that would have be noted, had it been in Earth's fossil record, as a step between the amphibians and reptiles. It has a horned, spiny back not unlike a porcupine, but remains a creature than needs water on a regular basis. Its layout is not unlike a salamander, with a long strong, but vertically spiked tail. The females grow to be a good 6 ft in length, like a small croc. The female is an herbivorous browser, like a goat. The males are much smaller, about 6 inches. The male is also a nectar eater, like a hummingbird, or some bats. What makes the Spiny Back so strange is that it has a fruit bearing plant growing in the female's body. The plant grows such that it entangles the reproductive system. When the Spiny Back mates, the plant releases a hormone to prevent the female from laying the eggs. Indeed, the plant even encystes each egg and nuzzles a seed up to each embryo. Over time, a female would be carrying dozens of eggs. In addition, the plant will begin filling the "empty" spaces of the female with tubers of collected sugars and such. During the last stages of a female spiny back's life, she develops a great deal of bright colors. This is because she has become poisonous, the plant itself is excreting the toxins, which the female is immune, but it is necessary to have a new line of defense because the female has become so slow due to the metabolic demands of the plant and eggs. When the metabolic stress from carrying the tubers and all those eggs gets too much, the female dies. The plant quickly uses the body and the tubers as fuel to grow into a tree.

The eggs of the Spiny Back are kept in well-protected fruits, until the fruit is ripe. Until it is ripe, a hormone is released by the now tree like plant that retards development of the embryo, but does not stop it. Once embryo has hit a tadpole stage, the liquid filled fruit is moved from inside the branches out to be exposed to the air. Once the tadpole has transformed into a anatomically mature, though very small (6") adult, the fruit has ripened and drops to the ground. There the Spiny Back eats its way out and wanders out into the world. The whole time a seed has been in the back of the creature. By the time it is sexually mature, the plant will have grown to the female sexual form and be waiting to be pollinated. The males of the Spiny Backs do just that by eating the nectar of the adult "male" tree and bring it with them when they mate the female spiny backs.

The great advantages are that the symbiotic plants get spread very far and wide being dropped over 20 miles from where they originally "treed". The Spiny Back gets a protective place for its tadpoles to grow, especially during the colder winter months, since the adult tree cultivates decomposing bacteria that give off heat to keep the tadpole "warm enough".

There is a great deal of variation on this theme in the Bactrian ecological landscape. Plants that ally with the vertebrates seem to be mutually beneficial and the most predominate. There are some that are purely parasitical and try to infect whatever nearest mobile animal is present: the Cardian critters are generally protected because their plants start a herbicidal war to protect them. That is why the arthropods are slowly going extinct: the infectious parasites are wiping them out by infecting, then eating them up inside, and finally overwhelming them and growing a plant to infect others.

As a result, niches formerly filled by insects and their analogs are being filled by small Cardian vertebrates. Despite what would seem like a chance for nature to create a great deal of valley specific ecosystems, the nature of the Bactrian flora-fauna has made the subcontinent a very homogenous ecology.

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