All tests are not equal. Get out the red pen because some are badly designed, destined to be poorly graded. These tests are simply:
No, not referring to those torturous math tests in eighth grade. I’m talking about animal testing.
Since the 1920s, animals from insects, fish, and birds to mice, rats, rabbits, sheep, cats, dogs, and primates have been subjected to testing in the name of public safety. The numbers boggle the mind. According to the ASPCA, more than 15 million mammals are used in research every year, with roughly half of them in painful and/or distressing studies. Many are not given pain medicines or even anesthesia for surgeries, particularly rats and mice that have no protections under the Animal Welfare Act, and they make up 90% of test subjects.
If you believe we have the right to subject animals to such, some tests were arguably justified in delivering beneficial vaccines (e.g., polio and hepatitis B), medical procedures, medicine, nutrition, etc. But just because some research has proved useful doesn’t mean all research has been. Cosmetic testing is a case in point.
Common cosmetic tests include the Draize Test (drops put in the eyes) and Lethal Dose 50 (forcing feeding product until 50% of animals die). Draize tested animals, traditionally rabbits whose cornea structure differs significantly from that of humans, have been known to break their spines trying to escape the pain. Lethally dosed animals typically experience convulsions, vomiting, paralysis, and bleeding as they die. And many more are subjected to a gamut of other tests – some too horrible to describe – only to be “euthanized” when done.
But, it’s a necessary evil, right?
No. In many cases, the science is questionable, with results that are unreliable or not applicable to humans. Bizarrely, despite decades of use, the Lethal Dose 50 test has never been scientifically validated, confirming results are predictive of chemical effects in people. One estimate is that 92% of tests “passed” on animals failed on humans, because animals and humans react differently to various substances.
Humane alternatives also exist, and they can be cheaper, faster, and more accurate at predicting human responses. Scientifically validated alternatives include using cell and tissue cultures (such as EpiDerm™) and corneas from eye banks to identify corrosive substances, eye and skin irritants, and skin toxicity and penetration. Computer models can replicate chemical activity within the human body and interaction with different cells.
Because of the questionable science and alternatives available, many recognize that testing cosmetics on animals is antiquated and unethical. Some countries mandate that cosmetics be “cruelty free.” For example, the European Union’s ban on any animal-tested cosmetics or ingredients, regardless of location of said testing, that will take effect next month, and Israel’s ban became law in January. Progressive companies – such as Paul Mitchell, Merle Norman, Dermatologica, Trader Joe’s, and Urban Decay – produce quality, safe products available in stores everywhere.
As individual consumers, we can make a difference too with how we spend our money. One, we’ll feel better about the products we use. Two, companies will pay attention. If companies aren’t motivated by principles, they certainly are by profits.
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, March 2013
Geography, whether in this world or that of the imagination, provides the grounding from which all else springs: plants, animals, economy, language, religion, health, politics, etc. If you start with geography, not only will you have a topographical map, but a plan for designing the rest of your creation.
All stories are set in a particular place and time. Geography matters in creating that place, even if you’re going to superimpose buildings and roads. It’s not simply the backdrop; geography interacts with the story, almost a character unto itself.
The goal of world building is ultimately to create a coherent, believable world with beings and cultures that are logical extensions. You’re inviting the reader as tourist to come along, and you want the world to be substantial, with plausible details (however bizarre or mundane) that make it come alive.
“Geography” comes from the Greek “geographia,” which translates into “earth describe-write.” How appropriate then, to discuss geography as part of literature. It is not strictly about earth sciences, but also about the man-land relationship (Christopherson 3). Think of any native group on this planet, and you can’t divorce their culture from the land on which they evolved.
Avoiding the Whomping Willow of Implausibility
Plausible plants—“flora,” “vegetation,” the “green stuff”—are the primary focus of this essay. But, since they can’t be divorced from their environment, including the animals around them, we’ll start with the “big picture.”
Start by asking some questions:
- Terrain: What is the landscape like? Flat, mountainous, water bodies, irrigable, subterranean, volcanic, in the clouds? Draw a map to think it out.
- Climate: What is the weather like? Hot, cold, dry, wet, harsh, comfortable?
- Flora: Given this environment, what are the native plants like? Edible, leafy, tall, short, spiny, water-retaining, tasty, dangerous, mobile, intelligent, medicinal? Are they mimicking, trying to blend in, or screaming out how very dangerous they are?
Plants co-evolve with animals, being tasty if their reproduction is dependent on birds and bees for spreading seed, or being protected from consumption by traits such as poison and spines. So, while this essay is primarily about flora, let’s continue to the animals that will subsist on the plants (herbivores) and on each other (carnivores).
- Fauna: Given this environment, what are the animals like? What are their features, characteristics, abilities, intelligence, life cycles? What are the predator vs. prey relationships, interactions, niches in the water/land/air ecosystems? (For more information, please see Creatures essay.)
Ultimately, you’ll think through the implications of the environment on your sentient races too. How do the people/sentient beings survive? What do they eat? What do they extract from their environment to build their homes, clothes, and tools/technology?
Like filling in a character sheet, come up with as many details as you like. You don’t have to belabor all the possibilities, and certainly you don’t need to spell them all out in the story. They just need to fit in the logic of the construct and give you a tangible sense of place.
You don’t want to fall in love with some fantastical creation simply because “it’s cool,” least you create something that strikes the reader as odd and gives them pause. If they start pausing, they might put down the book.
A great example of this was recently put forward in a conference session, “Ecology and Evolution in Science Fiction,” presented by Dr. Steven Peck, an evolutionary ecologist at BYU. He showed an excerpt from the 2009 Star Trek film featuring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. The scene shown: where Kirk is being chased by a saber-toothed yeti creature (a “polarilla”) on an ice planet, only to have an oversized crustacean-looking beast become the threat of the moment. (You can see the clip at www.trekmovie.com.) While the polarilla doesn’t raise too many brows (except for a chuckle at its name), the other critter does. It seems an unlikely native resident of a polar environment: no hair for warmth, likely cold blooded (thus dependent on environmental heat sources to be out and about), and too large, likely crushing under its own weight (considering that the gravity seems to be the same as Earth’s). Dr. Peck’s list of illogical design points was longer, but this suffices to illustrate the point.
So, when you’re letting your imagination run wild, keep yourself in check by asking if your creations are a logical, evolutionary extension of their environment. Why would brightly colored, large-leafed plants grow on an ice planet? Why is there a race evolved with eight legs instead of two? Why do the Illaoreans have two hearts, finned digits, scales, and hawk-eye vision in the dark?
You can’t just say, “Here they are, ta da!” Creations are not islands unto themselves. Their features and characteristics should be appropriate to the environment, with evolutionary advantages. If silly or implausible, then the rest of story will be suspect, held to higher scrutiny. Of course, if you’re going for a humorous read, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where satire is the primary concern—not believability—go to town with sapient pearwood and the like. Also, some stories based on magic ignore these premises too, hence the Whomping Willow and gilly weed in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But, otherwise, no one is going to believe that Audrey II of Little Shop of Horrors and Monty Python’s Puking Tree of Mozambique are real.
Be bold about borrowing from our home planet. If your world is covered in snow, research the poles and the high elevations of the Himalayas. Writing the next Dune? Read up on arid lands and desert cultures. Make a list of the native trees, shrubs, and herbs, as well as crops that are commonly grown. Include descriptions for later reference. Pull up photos too and write up your own descriptions, hopefully something more poetic than “…radial, pedicellate flowers and rhipidia enclosed by large, spathelike bracts…” (the description of the Iridoideae subfamily of Iris in Plant Systematics).
Even if your setting is off-planet, the general rules apply, and this is a good starting point. After all, Earth is the reference point for your readers; let it be one for yourself, too.
You Can’t Divorce Mother Nature
Don’t think you can avoid all of this because your culture is technologically advanced and seemingly divorced from the surrounding landscape. First, it still evolved from something. Secondly, your characters continue to be affected by their environment. They needn’t be eking out a living by scavenging for edible plants, hunting in the woods, or farming, to be the only ones concerned with local geography. Even if they live relatively insulated lives in glass skyscrapers and bubble planes, they are still subject to the forces of Mother Nature.
I’ll use my city and myself to illustrate:
I live on a high semiarid desert surrounded by mountains. The culture is dominated by a religious group, who originally settled the area precisely because it was desert and no one else (excluding Native Americans, of course) laid claim or would likely fight them for it. The local lake, covering about 1,700 square miles, has no run-off; it is highly saline. Therefore, we rely on snow melt filling mountain reservoirs for our water supply. That snow also provides for ample entertainment (skiing, sledding, snow mobiling, and snow angels) as well as supports a thriving ski industry revolving around tourists. Because mountain water is vital to our livelihood, watersheds are protected, meaning I can’t take my dogs into those mountain canyons, lest they defecate. That same water turns the valley green, and we grow lawns that a Virginian would envy. In winter, the valley traps car and industrial emissions in an inversion, creating a thick brown haze, contributing to a high incidence of respiratory problems. Some of our mountains are mined for their high mineral content, with one site inverted into the deepest open-pit mine in the world, and now there are issues with neighborhoods built on the toxic tailings.
That’s just a sampling of how my local environment impacts me and my neighbors. All that despite the fact that most of us live in boxes: homes, cars, offices, schools, churches, and stores. We can’t divorce Mother Nature. So, despite suburbia being, as Bill Vaughan points out, “where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them,” we are still maintaining a relationship, however antagonistic, with “her.”
Floragraphia: The World as We Know It
Planets usually aren’t comprised of one ecology. A range of climates are found from the equator to the poles. Even on Frank Herbert’s Arrakis, there are some variations, with life more comfortable at the poles, and flora is still found: “saguaro, burro bush, date palm, sand verbena, evening primrose, barrel cactus, incense bush, smoke tree, creosote bush …”
Biomes are globally similar ecological regions that share similar plant structures, plant spacing, animals, climate, and weather. The vegetation is classified by plant structures (e.g., trees, grasses, shrubs), leaf types (e.g., broad and needle leaf), and plant spacing (e.g., forest, woodland, savanna).
Contrary to hope, there is no consensus on classifications of biomes. To simplify, I’m going with University of California Museum of Paleontology’s six major biomes:
- Forest: tropical, temperate, and boreal
- Grassland: tropical (or savannas) and temperate
- Desert: hot and dry, semiarid, coastal, and cold
- Tundra: arctic and alpine
- Freshwater: ponds and lakes, rivers and streams, and wetlands
- Marine: oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries
Within a biome, plant evolution is dependent on climate, soil type (land), zone (aquatic), and sun exposure/shade.
Leaves are very telling about the plants and the environment in which they evolved. They developed primarily to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, but the amount of sunlight varies by latitude as well as placement within the vertical niches of a forest, e.g., more light at the canopy versus the forest floor.
Broadleaf refers to leaves being “relatively” broad and flat, versus needle-like. The broader the leaf, the more efficient a solar panel it is, soaking up the sun’s rays. Broadleaf plants tend to be deciduous, shedding their leaves in climates with cold winters or those with seasonal drought.
Needle leaves have a thicker outer coating, a thicker layer of protective wax, and less surface area because of their shape. These features minimize water evaporation, especially important in arid climates or areas with cold winters.
Succulents, such as aloe and cacti, are water-retaining plants adapted to dry climates. Their leaves, if they have any, are water plumped, cylindrical-to-spherical shaped, with most photosynthesis occurring in the stems.
In sum, plants with broad, thin leaves like a good dose of sun for photosynthesis. However, if too much sun or inadequate water, the plants will tend to have small, succulent leaves. Shade plants have large, broad, flat leaves to capture as much sun as possible.
To keep this simple, I’ll limit this discussion to one or two examples from each major biome for a quick sampling. These should illustrate what is expected in a given environment, including the types of plants. I’ll include examples from sci-fi and fantasy literature and movies, as well. For further inspiration, the final section will be on strange and unusual plants that we fiction writers would be hard pressed to exceed.
You can then build a world based on one biome, or go for an epic, spanning multiple ones, like J.R.R. Tolkien does in Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire. (Also, consider changing your middle initials to R.R. before tackling your opus.)
Tropical Rain Forests: Welcome to the Jungle
You want a lush climate? You can’t go wrong with a tropical rain forest. It is the model for Pandora in Avatar, the island setting in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and the South Continent in Anne McCaffery’s Pern series.
Tropical rain forests are found along the equator, up to latitudes 28 degrees north or south. Year-round, these forests enjoy a consistent amount of daylight, temperatures averaging 77˚F, and high precipitation (Christopherson 656). Plant and animal life is diverse and abundant.
With such a concentration of life, ecological niches are distributed vertically rather than horizontally because of the competition for light: forest floor, understory layer, canopy layer, and emergent layer. The forest floor—where only about 1% of sunlight makes it through—is perpetually moist, with rotting fruit and mold, and a web of roots and vines from above. There is no wind on the forest floor, so pollination mostly occurs by insects, other animals, and self-pollination. The soil quality is poor, but rich in litter decay on the surface (Christopherson 658).
A thick and continuous leaf canopy of broadleaf evergreen trees, such as mahogany, ebony, and rosewood, tops the forest. Palms and bamboo may grow too. Tree trunks tend to be smooth and slender with thin bark and buttressed by woody flanks that grow from the root system to stabilize the tall trees. Usually no branches grow on the lower two-thirds of the trees.
Lianas climb the trees, and orchids, bromeliads, and ferns attach to them too, deriving their nutrients from the air and rain.
As with all the biomes, there are variations on theme. With tropical forests, subclassifications include lowland evergreen, semi-evergreen seasonal, montane, and flooded forests.
Boreal (and Montane) Forests: Winter is Coming
Staying with the forest theme, let’s go further north (or into higher altitudes). George R.R. Martin did in his Song of Ice and Fire series. North of the Wall is a boreal forest with pine-covered hills and snow-capped mountains.
(Other well-known forests featured in sci fi and fantasy—J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest and Lothlórien, J.K. Rowling’s Forbidden Forest, and the forest moon of Endor in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi—are temperate forests. Elves, in particular, seem to prefer these types of forests.)
In comparison to other biomes, boreal forests have relatively low biodiversity.
Boreal (“northern”) forests comprise the largest biome in the world. They are largely made up of needleleaf trees, as are the montane forests at higher elevations. A more open form of forest is the taiga that transitions to arctic and subarctic regions. Sometimes, “taiga” is used to refer to this biome in general. Examples include the Canadian and Alaskan forests, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Alps, and Himalayas (at lower elevations).
Areas inside the Arctic Circle have “midnight sun” in mid-summer and “polar night” in mid-winter. Snow may remain on the ground for as long as nine months in the northernmost areas. Some regions experience permafrost which is soil at or below the freezing point for two or more years.
Larch, a deciduous needleleaf, and cone-producing evergreens dominate boreal forests. Some small-leaf deciduous trees may be in the mix, as well as berry-producing shrubs and ground cover.
Boreal trees tend to be shallow rooted due to the thin soil. Some alter their biochemistry to harden their roots during the winter, making them less susceptible to freezing. The narrow conical shape of evergreens helps them shed snow. Thin needles (less surface area) minimizes water loss, and the darker green color increases absorption of the sunlight.
The montane forests of the Sierra Nevada are notable for the majestic giant sequoias that grow in 70 isolated groves; they are the Earth’s largest living things in terms of biomass, growing 28 feet in diameter and 270 feet tall. They’re also among the longest living; the largest is estimated to be 3,500 years old (Christopherson 666).
Grasslands, Where Everything Happens Under the Open Sky
The expanse of grasslands—North American prairies, African savannas, South American pampas, the European steppes—captures the imagination, particularly in terms of freedom and wildness. Think of buffalo-hunting Native Americans, hearty pioneers, Genghis Khan, and the exotic herds of gazelles and zebras.
In fantasy, the sprawling, flat Dothraki Sea of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind. And Rohan, a.k.a. the Riddermark, a grassland north of Gondor, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Both of these temperate grasslands are home to independent horsemen.
Grasslands largely fall into two broad categories: tropical (savannas) and temperate. In both, grasslands dominate, interrupted by trees and shrubs. The complex root systems hold the soil in place. The soil is rich in humus, and so farmlands tend to crop up in grassland biomes.
Larger plants are subdued by fires and large, wild and domesticated herbivores (which in turn are fed upon by large carnivores). In the savannas, fires occur annually and, if early in the dry season, are beneficial to plant propagation. Mature trees can survive the fires, but their seedlings may be killed.
Man has played a major role in creating and extending grasslands with deforestation, initiated fires, agriculture, and introduction of exotic plants and domesticated grazers.
In terms of plants, grasses reign with some deciduous trees and brush. Since the native nature of most grasslands have been altered, the plants I’ll mention here are from the African savannas: the flat topped acacia, the solitary baobab, clumped grasses, and bush thickets. Elephant grass grows quickly in the rainy season up to 16 feet (Christopherson 664). Plant leaves tend to be small and thick, waxy, or hairy. Both the baobab and acacia lose leaves in the dry season to conserve moisture.
The baobab—the largest “succulent” in the world—can grow up to 98 feet high with a trunk diameter of 47 feet, and some are reputed to be thousands of years old. Their fruits (“monkey bread”) and leaves are edible. Baobabs store water inside their trunks, which are covered with a fibrous bark (Shales). My first fictional encounter with these hearty trees was in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, where the prince weeds out baobabs that grow on his asteroid.
Warm Deserts á la Mode
The harshness of deserts lends this biome to many metaphors: emptiness, isolation, death.
Desert residents have to be tough, resilient, and resourceful, which might explain the attraction of deserts to writers, hence the deserts of A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr.), Arrakis in Dune (Frank Herbert), Tatooine in Star Wars, Dorne in Ice and Fire, and Calormen in T.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
Deserts aren’t just sand. And they aren’t dead stretches of land. Aridity defines them. They range from bare ground graduating into xerophytic plants, including succulents, cacti, and dry shrubs. Deserts have a high amount of plant diversity adapted to their conditions, being drought- or salt-tolerant, having deep root systems, or storing water in the leaves, roots, and stems. Another adaptation is spiny leaves developed to lessen loss of water.
Deserts aren’t necessarily hot either. Cold deserts, such as Antarctica, can be covered in snow or ice where the frozen water is unavailable to plant life (Crystal).
What defines a desert is the extremely low amount of precipitation, which may be exacerbated by evaporation. Deserts take up about a third of the Earth’s land surface (Christopherson 670), but sand only covers about 20 percent of those (David). The largest hot desert is the Sahara in northern Africa, covering almost 3.5 million square miles and 13 countries (Geology.com). With an average daily temperature around 100.4 ˚F (NASA), deserts are subject to the highest temperatures on Earth, with the record at 136.4 ˚F in the Sahara (World Meterological Organization). The daily temperatures range wildly because, on account of little humidity to block the sun’s rays, twice the solar radiation of humid regions is soaked up during the day, and almost twice as much heat is lost at night.
The saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert most famously symbolizes the desert biome. The “trees” of the desert, these upright, multi-armed sentinels grow slowly but may live up to 200 years. At ten years, they are less than 10 inches high. Saguaros first bloom around 75 years. When fully grown, they are 50 feet tall and weigh as much as 10 tons (Encyclopædia Britannica).
Many of the smaller, specialized plants are equally interesting. For example, lithrops are desert succulents that look like unappetizing rocks.
The Great White Tundra…At Least Until Summer
Having done the hottest biome, let’s balance with the coldest: the tundra. It’s the biome graduating from the boreal forests, losing trees in the process. Tundra comes from the Lappish (Kildin Sami) term tūndâr meaning “treeless mountain tract” (Glossary.com) In winter, it is the white expanse featured in the far north of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Narnia during the Age of Winter, and the Hoth of Star Wars and many other fictional ice planets.
On planet Earth, the tundra falls into two broad categories: arctic and alpine. The arctic (including Antarctic) is known for its cold, desert-like conditions. Annual precipitation, including melting snow, is 6 to 10 inches (NASA). Beneath a thin layer of soil, permafrost prevents tree growth.
Bogs and ponds may form during the warmer months, when water saturates the upper surface, providing water for the 1,700 kinds of plants in the arctic and subarctic (University of California Museum of Paleontology). The short plants—low shrubs, sedges, reindeer mosses, liverworts, and grasses—are adapted to the sweeping winds. Most reproduce by division rather than by flowering.
Alpine tundra is found further south, in high mountainous elevations. Examples are found in the Alps, Pyrenees, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Sierra Madre, Andes, Rift Mountains of Africa, and Tibetan Plateau. Again, the plants are short, but they include some of the most beautiful wild flowers to be found.
Freshwater Worlds Where Weesa Going to Get Wet
Aquatic biomes open up the possibilities for exotic worlds, alien to our experience. In the freshwater realm, I could only come up with one off the top of my head: the hydrostatic bubble city of Otoh Gunga on Naboo and its amphibious gungans in Star Wars: Phantom Menace. Water worlds are divided into vertical zones, warmer and better lit at the top, colder and darker toward the bottom. More plant life is situated at the top and along the edges, taking advantage of those solar rays.
In ponds and lakes, the zones include the littoral, limnetic, and profundal. The littoral is the top layer, nearer the shore, and vegetation includes several species of algae and rooted and floating aquatic plants, such as water lilies. The near-surface open water, in the limnetic zone, is dominated by plankton. In the profundal zone, the deep water is colder, denser, and poorly lit. During summer, the water temperature varies from 72˚F at the top to 39 ˚F at the bottom; in winter, the iced top is 0 ˚ F, and the bottom is warmer at 4 ˚F (University of California Museum of Paleontology).
In rivers and streams—with their fast moving waters—the environments are more radical between the headwaters and the mouth. The headwaters are colder, clearer with higher oxygen counts; the mouth is murkier with sediment, more sluggish, and warmer as it drains to a lake or the sea. In the middle, diversity increases at the widest points, with more green plants and algae.
Marshes, swamps, and bogs are wetlands: standing water that supports aquatic plants, including water lilies, cattails, sedges, and cypress. Wetlands have the most biological diversity of any ecosystem. Some of this flora is impressive: the Victoria water lily (Victoria amazonica) can grow up to 10 feet in diameter, from an underwater stem 26 feet in length (Guinness World Records). Its 12-inch flower is white and “female” (receptive to pollen) the first night it blooms, becoming pink and “male” (producing pollen) the second night (The Living Rainforest). Meesa thinks thisa is neato.
Marine: Into the Deep
As a fan of snorkeling, I think the most intriguing world possibilities are found in the oceans. Most existing sci-fi and fantasy stories delving into the deep seem to be about exploration, but some tackle underwater civilizations: underwater domed cities in Isaac Asmiov’s Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, the oceanic moon of Shora in Joan Slonczewski’s Door Into Ocean, and, of course, the mythical and fictional Atlantis inspirations. And don’t forget about the mermaids.
Oceans cover nearly 71 percent of the earth’s surface (Encyclopædia Britannica). Again, like in the lakes and rivers, the ocean is divided up into zones: intertidal, pelagic, abyssal, and benthic, going deeper and darker, respectively.
The primary ocean flora are plankton and seaweed, with the remarkable kelp forests being the largest. Plankton and seaweed are comprised of colonial algae, which may be the most important plant on earth. Why? Because it produces 70-80 percent of the planet’s oxygen (Hall).
Coral reefs are found in warmer, shallower waters, along continents, islands, and atolls. Reefs are formed from algae and the exoskeletons of coral polyps which are animals.
Life is Stranger than Fiction, Or Inspiration for Yours
While the biome discussion provides a broad swath of plants to expect, some unexpected species have evolved that might prove a starting point for designing your exotics. For your consideration, may I present the carnivorous, moving, resurrecting, warm-blooded, super-sized, and long-living plants of Earth…
On Earth, there are over 670 different carnivorous plants (The International Carnivorous Plant Society), using pitfalls, snap traps, flypaper, and vacuums to trap insects for their nutrients. Pitcher plants are colorful tubes that attract insects and then trap them in the fluid at their base, drowning, and then absorbing them. Sundews trap insects in a sweet, sticky secretion, and some ensure entrapment with their tentacles. The Venus flytrap of the Carolinas employs a rapid-action bear trap approach, snapping shut on unsuspecting prey. “Feed me, Seymour!”
A couple dozen plants visibly move. Like the Venus flytrap. Some move to spread their seed or pollen, such as the exploding cucumber, trigger plants that slap pollen on flying insects, and Catesedum orchids (“Rapid Plant Movement”). Still others move in self-defense, such as the Mimosa pudica and Codariocalyx motorius. (Check these out on YouTube.) The plants on Pandora seem to take some cues here. There’s also a walking tree with stilt roots, but its ability to actually move to a sunnier spot may be a myth. Still, an interesting idea (and it shall be named Treebeard).
Yes, there is a plant that appears brittle, brown, and dead but will come back to life again after 100 years. The resurrection fern plays ‘possum when without water. When it finally gets the elixir of life, it springs back to a lively shade of green within 24 hours (“Pleopeltis Polypodioides”). I’m thinking a zombie plant is waaay overdue on the literary scene.
Well, in this case, it’s called thermogenesis, and no blood is involved. A thermogenic ability allows plants to increase their temperature to that greater than the surrounding air. Carrion-smelling plants, like arums and the appropriately named carrion flower (Rafflesia), tend to have this ability, which allows them to further project their lovely scent to pollinators (like flies). The warmer plants may also be attractive to insects when temperatures drop. This also allows some plants in colder climes to push up through patches of snow in spring, like the skunk cabbage (“Thermogenic Plants”).
The largest known organism in the world is a 106-acre grove of male Aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Utah connected by a single root system. Nicknamed “Pando,” each stem above the ground is genetically identical (DeWoody). The largest tree by volume is the Giant Sequoia, with the record-setting “General Sherman” tree at 630,096 board feet (Guinness World Records). The tallest is a Coastal Redwood at 379 feet (Guinness World Records). The largest flowers are the stinky Rafflesia arnoldii at three feet across and weighing 24 pounds (Encyclopædia Britannica), and Titan Arum, reaching over 10 feet in height (Guinness World Records). Do you want fries with that?
If your planet has less gravitational pull, you can go larger. Think Avatar.
Plants can hang out for a long time. The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is a Great Basin bristlecone pine that has logged a Biblical 4,774 years on this planet (Miller). Pando (see “Super-sized” above), which is considered a clonal colony, could be as old as one million years (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Welwitschia mirabilis is an interesting species to check out just to see this alien-looking relic of the Jurassic period, with some individuals suspected to be 2,000 years old (Conifers.org). Think of all they’ve seen.
In a nutshell, with a grasp of biology and evolutionary concepts, you can design and populate your fictional world so it feels true. Your story rests on the underpinnings of your world. After all, there are only so many plot lines, revolving around love, hate, loss, revenge. But the details will transport the reader, make them see and believe your characters and their reality.
Asimov, Isaac. Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1954. Print.
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver. Twentieth Century Fox. 2009. Film.
“Bill Vaughan.” n.d. BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc. Web. 26 March 2012. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/b/bill_vaughan.html >.
Bystriakova, N., et al. “Distribution and Conservation Status of Forest Bamboo Biodiversity in the Asia-Pacific Region.” Biodiversity and Conservation 12.9 (2003): 1833-1841. Print.
Christopherson, Robert W. Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography. Seventh Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
Conifers.org. “Welwitschia mirabilis.” 25 April 2012. The Gymnosperm Database. Ed. Christopher J. Earle. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.conifers.org/we/Welwitschiaceae.php>.
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First published in Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives, May 2012 (ed. by Sabrina Klein, Alliteration Ink); a 2013 Origins Award Nominee
The Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and the Nevada Association of Counties—with strong ranching ties—have filed suit against the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to destroy “excess” mustangs and wild burros*.
In the last decade alone, the BLM has removed 100,000 horses from the western range, but the agency is now struggling with budget constraints and capacity limitations at short- and long-term holding facilities. The plaintiffs claim that the still roaming horses are damaging public land and threatening private water rights, and they go so far as to say that wild horses that are “unadoptable” must be destroyed as opposed to kept at the crowded ranches.
However, according to Anne Novak, executive director of the horse advocacy group Protect Mustangs, 1.75 million head of livestock grazing on public land outnumber wild horses by more than 50-to-1 and cause most of the range damage. The ranching interests’ push-back on the BLM follows on the heels of more restrictions on grazing after a few years of drought and interest in selling water to fracking companies.
Many mustang advocacy groups, including the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC), believe the “wild horse overpopulation” is a “myth propagated by the BLM and the livestock industry.” AWHPC studied how the government allocated forage in 50 herd management areas where roundups occurred in the past few years. The analysis found 82.5 percent was allocated to livestock; 17.5 percent to wild horses.
According to AWHPC:
Livestock grazing on federal lands is estimated to cost taxpayers from $500 million to over $1 billion annually for total direct and indirect costs…[with] the grazing rates at the lowest rate allowable under federal law, $1.35 per [animal unit month] AUM…
That rate pales in comparison to the average monthly lease rate of $16.80 per head on private lands, according to the 2012 Congressional Research Service Report.
Youths’ Equine Alliance (YEA!), led by 12-year-old Robin Warren of Las Vegas, Nevada, is also fighting back to protect this American legacy. The group has been rallying to educate the public and save wild horses from helicopter round-ups, crowded holding sites where horses routinely die, and the threat of rendering plants. The group has successfully facilitated the pledged adoptions of 65 wild horses (as of mid-March), including Robin’s own mustang, Rocky. YEA! has inspired over 180,000 supporters to take action, including petition signing, on behalf of the animals.
According to the BLM, almost 50,000 wild horses now live in captivity, far exceeding the 32,000 left on the range. The BLM has been tasked with their protection. According to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971:
Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
According to Public Policy Polling, 72 percent of American support protecting wild horses. In a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, only 29 percent supported public lands being available for livestock grazing.
However, the Burns Amendment to the same Act, directs the Bureau to sell excess horses or burros that have “been offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least 3 times” to any willing buyer, including slaughter houses. The wild horses are sold to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada for a little as $10 each. If the lawsuit ultimately favors the plaintiffs, the 50,000 already rounded up are at risk of being deemed “excess” and subject to destruction, per that same law.
The issue is not unique to Nevada and, as a federal suit, the implications will be widespread, affecting the 11 western states with mustang and burro herds and holding facilities, including Utah. Utah has 22 free-roaming herds and two holding facilities at Delta and Gunnison.
The horses and burros are part of our national landscape and heritage. Our tax dollars are used toward them via the BLM, for good or bad. We’re all invested on some level and should have a voice in this matter. For the sake of the herds, let your voice be heard.
*First published in Pets in the City Magazine, April 2014