Creating Smashers Part I

beach.
© J Hoover

A few million years ago, two visitors to our world sat under a palm-like tree and basked in the warm breeze that swept in from the nearby sea. The tide had receded and the two watched as beneath the gentle waves a myriad of critters swam and ate and died in a dance of events that mirrored the larger dance of life.

The younger of the two, a medic who had never before been to this world, suddenly pointed at a rapidly darting form that had suddenly appeared in the melee and had attached itself firmly to a hermit crab. As he watched, pieces of the hermit's tough shell started to float away as tiny ripples whirled out from the struggling twosome.

"What a queer creature!" the medic exclaimed, and turning to the other asked "What is it, do you think?"

The older visitor, the ship's biologist, had closed his eyes and was starting to doze. He jerked awake, then looked closely at the small form that was now dragging the hapless hermit into deeper waters.

Instead of answering directly, the older crewmember asked, "How much do you know about this planet's biology and ecology?"

"I've been keeping up," the medic responded confidently, eager to show that he could grasp topics beyond the realm of medikits and syringes.

"Ok," the biologist said, for he was slightly bored, and relished the thought of discussing his expertise in some detail.

"Imagine if you will," he began, "a population of marine creatures who evolved to occupy coral or rock cavities. Assume that in any given area there is a limited number of such prized 'homes', and that the environment is such that a creature without a home is liable to be eaten sooner or later.

"Then ask yourself: What would such a population of these critters look like?"

A blank look greeted this query, and sighing contentedly (for the breeze WAS pretty comfortable), the biologist settled down and continued:

"Well, a possible list of adaptations for such a life might look like this," he ticked each point off.

  1. The creatures in such a scenario would probably be blessed with very effective offensive weaponry, and thus be capable of attacking and invading the coral homes of neighbors;

  2. The creatures might also have body adaptations that allow them to effectively defend the narrow entrances and passageways of these coral and rock cavities;

  3. Individuals in such a population would be intensely aggressive against other individuals, except during unusual occassions,such as mating;

  4. In order to ameliorate the widespread 'death and destruction' that would occur if ALL contests for homes deteriorate into actual killing fights (where one or both end up dead or injured), natural selection might force the evolution of ritualized combat and threat displays. In this case, killing blows are not exchanged but a series of ritualized actions occur between the two combatants to determine a 'winner';

  5. In order to engage in such ritualized maneuvers, the creatures must be able to rapidly and effectively communicate with one another over some distance;

    "Is THAT all?" the medic ask, amused.

    "Well, let's add other wrinkles to the picture," the biologist chided gently.

    "Let's assume the environment of these creatures is very brightly lit during the daytime (as it is right now, as you can see), and that the creatures occur in relatively dense aggregations (a relatively crowded city if you will). What other characteristics might be useful to these critters?

    "Since it's a brightly lit environment, we can make a good guess that the creature will probably possess very good vision, the better to communicate rapidly with other inhabitants across some distance. In addition, since they live in crowded areas, it would really help if individuals could distinguish among other individuals in this 'city'. I mean, If you tried to take over critter X's home and it beats the heck out of you, you don't want to keep annoying it again and again by repeatedly trying to invade its home, now, would you? "

    "This must be some fascinating critter!" the medic mused, then added. "Wouldn't some sort of intelligence be really helpful?"

    The biologist grunted.

    "Maybe a certain amount of intelligence has evolved in these creatures ---- if not due to selection pressures in such a competitive environment,then maybe as a by-product of the necessity for having some of the adaptations we mentioned above (e.g. being able to rapidly communicate intentions in order to avoid messy fights between two very deadly opponents). This is certainly a topic that is clouded in bias and debate right now...

    "Anyways, take all these things together, mix in some lettuce and tomato (just kidding!), and you have the recipe for one very fascinating critter --- a creature whose morphology and behavior are intimately linked to its evolution as a highly-active, top predator in a very competitive environment --- a stomatopod smasher to be exact!"

    The biologist was so caught up in his tale that he fully expected applause after this declaration. Instead, the medic asked," So what sorts of adaptations does this critter have in order to attack and defend itself?"

    The biologist paused, and in the air coalesced a representative image of an unusual-looking specimen. He breathed....

    To be continued in Part II.

    - ASJ.

    Web Site Author: A. Sunjian
    Site Created February 3, 1998
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