Author Topic: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment  (Read 1426 times)


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An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment
« on: December 29, 2018, 03:31:39 PM »
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment
By Jubal

It's been a while coming, but here's the third part of my Unexpected Bestiary series, in each of which I look at seven lesser known or lesser thought about animals and give you some information on their lives, names, and culture, and perhaps an idea or two for how you might use them in your creative projects. As ever, please do let me know what you found useful in this and I'll try and ensure more of the things people are after get into the next article! You can read part one of An Unexpected Bestiary, here, and part two here. This time we've got hyraxes, oilbirds, sea sheep, and more besides, so do read on and find some stuff out...

Image credit: Bernard Dupont

These squat, furry mammals, mainly found in Africa, despite being superficially like a pika or marmot are curiously more closely related to the manatee and the elephant. Rotund and short-tailed, they live up cliffs in caves and small burrows, and are good climbers, mostly eating vegetation of various sorts. One curious quirk is their tendency to huddle – they actually have very bad internal temperature regulation compared to most mammals and will sun-bask or sit in huddles in order to compensate for the fact.

The hyrax is a bit mysterious in its way, being in a role we more usually associate with rodents or lagomorphs but not akin to them, and it is maybe in that role that it’s best fitted into stories and settings. They’re mentioned in the bible, and they make a suitable substitute for rabbits that mark out a warmer and more rocky setting, but they may have uses beyond that. In one rather obscure novel, Omar, a hyrax character claims their species was the origin of Lewis Carroll’s “frumious Bandersnatch”, and one can imagine these heavy-browed, almost lorax-like creatures taking up some sort of talking-animal or similar role.

Image credit: Lilac Breasted Roller

The oilbird, or guácharo, is certainly not a well known animal, and nor is it initially a very dramatic seeming one – it’s a medium sized brown bird that mainly eats fruit. There are a few things about the oilbird that make it rather more intriguing though; for one thing, the name “oilbird” comes down from the fact that people used to literally boil down oilbird chicks to get the oils out. Given this rather gruesome fate, it seems little wonder that the oilbirds have a famously harrowing cry – on Trinidad they were sometimes referred to as “little devils”. The oilbird has one other sneaky and rare trick up its sleeve too; it’s one of the only birds that can use echolocation, clicking its beak and listening for the echo to work out where it’s going at night. We are used to the high-pitch echolocation used by bats, which in any case we can barely sense, but there’s something decidedly unnerving about a flock of birds (and oilbirds live in cave-dwelling colonies) flying out into the pitch black, clicking their beaks as they find their way through the night.

The hunting of oilbirds was vividly recorded in the nineteenth century, when travellers to a Venezuelan monastery recorded the massacre of huge numbers of oilbird chicks around midsummer. Local people would apparently move their dwellings up to the mouth of the birds' caves and process the chicks on the spot after knocking them down with long poles, with the terrible cries of the adults in the darkness above their heads. As well as oil, they would cut open the crops of the birds and take out hard "guácharo seeds" for use as a fever cure. The oil harvest produced the whole year's cooking and lighting fat for the monastery - but as the fever cure story shows, the caves were nonetheless a place of superstition. This may be no surprise, either, with the birds literally able to fly far deeper into complete darkness than the humans could, with increasing numbers of increasingly piercing cries if one went further into the cave. The association with hell was very direct - death was known as joining the guácharos to the local people, and the exorcism of spirits (including a chief evil called Ivorokiamo) was noted as one of the activities happening at the cave mouth. They're evocative birds, I think, with real inspiration potential.

Image credit: Lee Elvin

The far from humble caracal has to be one of the most under-appreciated members of the cat family. Its name is Turkic, from kara kulak, literally “black ear”, and their impressive ear tufts along with their orange coat and sleek build make these visually very impressive animals. Whilst not as big as a leopard or lion, they are fast, agile, and capable of taking down prey far larger than themselves. Their powerful back legs give them a particularly notable jumping ability, which they can use to take down avian prey as it tries to fly away from them.

The caracal is stuffed with potential for stories, and has a long history of interaction with humans, mainly in that they can be trained as hunting animals (Iranian legend had the mythical Shah Tahmūraṯ select them as one of the first and best hunting animals to be trained, along with the cheetah). For any nobility who consider dogs just a bit too normal they can be used in much the same way, especially for running down small and nimble prey like hares or birds. Chinese Emperors used to give them as gifts, and it was common in parts of India to test trained caracals against one another by using them in competitive pigeon hunts (almost certainly thereby originating the phrase “put the cat amongst the pigeons”). A pet caracal definitely marks out either a setting or a character as either connected or existing outside a European-themed milleu, and bestows on them the feeling of seriously cool elegance that cats always have. There’s also definitely something more impressive about hunting with cats because we don’t expect it – humans regularly hunt with dogs and we tend to think of them as controllable, whereas we have a very different idea of cats and being able to command them feels inherently more impressive and very classy indeed as a result.

Image credit: Alif Abdul Rahman
Sea Sheep

The sea sheep is actually a sort of sea slug – a bizarrely diverse group of creatures with a multiplicity of forms – with a pale body and a mass of green fronds attached to its back. So why look at this particular blobby invertebrate? Firstly, it has a bizarrely cute face that looks very much like a cartoon farm animal, hence its name. Second, it has an absolutely incredible biological trick that’s well worth its inclusion here. Like most sea slugs, it eats algae. Unlike most sea slugs, it steals the chloroplasts out of the algae and reincorporates them into its own cells. Those green fronds aren’t just for show; they’re actually photosynthesising, letting the sea sheep produce energy direct from sun power.

The suggestion of photosynthesising animals has often been made in sci-fi (not least in some theories around 40K Orks) but it’s very cool to see a species that does it for real. We think of plants and animals - and different categories within either - as being fundamentally separate groups that we can distinguish by means of identifying characteristics. Creatures that by their nature play with and distort those boundaries always add significant interest, both in challenging the reader's ideas about the world and in making that particular animal stand out. The nuidbranch sea slugs of which the Sea Sheep is one are all pretty strange and have an almost science fiction feel to them to start with - to come up with strange things in space, starting here on earth is often a surprisingly fruitful point of departure.

Image Credit: Alex Pyron
Slender Lorises

There are two types of slender loris – the endangered Red, native now only to parts of Sri Lanka and with few left in the wild, and the commoner Grey which also lives in wide areas of southern India. They are primates with huge eyes, usually solitary and nocturnal and thus rarely seen, mainly feeding on insects deep in the forests of their home. Like all primates they are excellent climbers, and their huge brown eyes give them a strange sense of wisdom. They used to be considered quite ugly due to their thin, lanky appearance, and the Tamil word for loris, thavangu, could also be applied to ill and emaciated humans according to 19th century records. One old proverb recorded in the early 20th century was that they say that the loris's offspring is to it as beautiful as a gem - in other words, that parents will love their children even if they are ugly or misshapen.

For the lorises, humans and habitat loss are a major threat, but with some difficulty greys have been kept as pets. Slow-moving, and with strangely human-like hands and big front-facing eyes, they have reportedly been used by fortune tellers to select tarot cards, and that sort of mysticism suits their strange nature right down to the ground. Their association with magic and the mysterious extends to their use in potion-making traditions, from eye medicine to supposed leprosy cures. In setting design writing they would no doubt make an excellent companion to a mystic or magician for exactly this reason – there’s definitely something of the ethereal about these beautiful little creatures.

Video credit: Willy Escudero
Pink Fairy Amadillos

The Pink Fairy Armadillo’s name alone is more than enough to merit inclusion in the Unexpected Bestiary, but they’re also just all round lovely little creatures. They’re mainly burrowing animals, and small enough to fit quite comfortably in someone’s hand. Their slightly odd shape, with a very flat back end, is an adaptation to ensure they’re armoured from behind as they dig away at their tunnels: like all armadillos they of course have armour plating, too, though it’s not enough to fully protect them from feral dogs which are one of their major predators.

I think to include the fairy armadillo in setting design you have to double down on how weird it is. As a burrowing animal they don’t make good pets, so their use to humans is always going to be very restricted: their use to fairies, pixies, and sprites on the other hand could be great fun to read about, either for hole-digging or perhaps as beasts of burden. I don’t know if the pampas has many traditional little folk myths, but it would be great to see these combined with some such creatures for a story.   

Wilson's Phalarope. Image credit: USFWS

Heading out to the coasts, the phalarope is a bird of shorelines and salt lakes that has some surprising and interesting characteristics. There are three existing species: the grey, red-necked, and Wilson’s phalaropes. The most characteristic sign of these birds is their tendency to swim in apparently mad small circles – a behaviour that is actually a core part of how they feed. Their circular swimming creates a vortex in the water that pulls mud, small crustaceans and insects up from the bottom of a pool; the phalarope can then simply dip its long beak in and grab morsels to eat. It's an interesting feeding strategy and it might be a fun idea to apply to mythic creatures too - it's certainly a good alternative idea for where a whirlpool comes from! In phalarope society, it is also the female that rules the roost, with females being large, brightly coloured, and each engaging in competitions to win over a number of smaller, drab males with whom they mate and who they then get to look after and hatch the clutches of eggs they lay. Once the breeding season is over the birds will migrate every year to stay with the best feeding grounds.

The name ‘phalarope’ means ‘coot-foot’, referring to the coot, a commoner bird with which it shares a foot shape, and beyond its inclusion in the title of a 1953 novel by South African anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton there’s little more to be said there – its other names give some rather more exciting ideas, though. To sailors, it was once known as the whalebird, or mackerel goose; the names Wassertreter (German) or the beautiful veetallaja (Estonian) meanwhile indicate its water-treading habits as it swims in whirlpool-building circles. Given these birds’ distinctive circle-swimming and profoundly matriarchal society there’s a surprising dearth of folklore I’ve been able to find on them; perhaps that’s an opportunity as much as a drawback for a canny writer, though…

I hope you enjoyed this run through a few more obscure and interesting animals - there's plenty of fish left in the sea (we didn't even do any fish this time), not to mention birds in the air, etc, so I hope we'll get one or two more of these articles out in 2019. Please let me know if you enjoyed it - comments, and sharing the link to this article so others can find it too, are always hugely appreciated. And of course thanks for reading!
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


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Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment
« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2019, 06:49:10 AM »
As always, thoroughly enjoyed this article. Definitely taking some inspiration from here for Norbayne.
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