Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Most Extreme

Everything I need to know about constructing aliens, I learned from Animal Planet. Well, not quite everything, but an awful lot. That network has a series called "The Most Extreme," which features top ten countdowns of "extreme" animals in various categories, such as reproduction, courtship, partying, speed, acute senses, foul temper, endurance, gourmet eating, disgusting behavior, etc. (In our Eastern time zone, new episodes appear on Tuesdays, and reruns are shown at 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday.) Many real-world animals have such bizarre traits that a writer hardly needs to draw upon fantasy to create plausible aliens.

Chameleons display their emotions through color changes. Some creatures can sense electrical or magnetic fields or see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum. A microscopic animal called the water bear can endure freezing, boiling, hard radiation, or deprivation of food and water almost indefinitely; they have been known to survive in suspended animation for over a century and then "return to life." Bears hibernate for months without eating or excreting, and some snakes can live without nourishment for a year or more. On the other hand, shrews and hummingbirds have to eat almost continuously to sustain their rapid metabolism. Most people know male seahorses become "pregnant." Fewer know about the fish species (e.g., the angler fish) in which the tiny male attaches himself to the much larger female, drawing nourishment from her bloodstream, and atrophies to an inconspicuous lump on her body. Kangaroos can have three offspring in different stages of growth—one in the pouch, one hopping alongside, and one an embryo in suspended development waiting for the proper time to restart its biological clock and move to the pouch. Rabbits can be "a little bit pregnant," resorbing embryos if conditions aren't favorable for rearing young. Naked mole rats are mammals that live like bees or termites, with a single queen who produces all the colony's babies from her swollen abdomen. Some wasps lay their eggs in the living bodies of other insects. Some fish change sex from female to male according to the reproductive needs of their community.

Imagine the characters one could generate by assigning some of these traits to intelligent aliens. Octavia Butler's classic story "Bloodchild," as an example, features intelligent, sensitive giant-centipede-like beings who lay their eggs in the bodies of young people chosen from among the Terran colonists on their planet. Some other sources of weird and fascinating animal lore: BIOLOGICAL EXUBERANCE, by Bruce Bagemihl, surveys the almost infinite varieties of sexual behavior among Earth's animals (with particular emphasis on same-sex liaisons; the author does have an agenda). In OTHER SENSES, OTHER WORLDS, Doris and David Jonas examine the sensory abilities of animals who perceive their environment very differently from the way we do. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's MOTHER NATURE draws provocative conclusions about human maternity from, not only cross-cultural anthropological findings, but also motherhood among nonhuman animals. Aliens are all around us!


  1. Margaret,

    I'm with you! I am an avid watcher of The Most Extreme. For inspiration for my alien djinn romances, I especially like The Most Extreme Lovers... Tasmanian Devils for their abductions and captive romances, lions for mating half-way vigorously every fifteen minutes for three or more days.

    And you didn't mention the prenatal fratride and sororicide that goes on in the womb of the sand tiger shark... but I did, in MATING NET.

    Best wishes,
    Rowena Cherry

  2. PS

    You know how they say that great minds think alike?

    Recently I blogged about the swings and roundabouts of a lion's sex life on

    I also described the soft underbelly of a male crab's machiavellian seduction technique.

    Best wishes,