Friday, December 28, 2012

World Building: Ecology

For your fantasy novel to truly work, you need to develop the world as fully as possible. This does not mean you need to spend half the novel describing the geographic formations, the flora and fauna, the rainfall and plate tectonics, of course, but it does mean that you need to have at least some inkling of what it is going to be like, so that your story remains consistent and becomes more vividly alive in the reader's mind.

Now, although I have written a number of stories, very few of them actually involve fantastical worlds - or at least, very few involve fantastical worlds that do not bear a resemblance to Earth. My latest novels, and first trilogy: "Lemurs: A Saga", is set in an alternate-world Madagascar, where the sentient life forms are primates - in the case of the island of Madigaska, lemurs, but there are also monkeys over on the mainland and that once played the part of Missionaries (but I decided not to make them following our world religions: although the irony was amusing, I do not wish to cause that sort of controversy). I also have a futuristic Furry/Steampunk/Magic School novel in the works - which required me to figure out a post-apocalyptic environment for earth, and which I keep abandoning because my scientific brain keeps pointing out problems with the fact that the characters are anthropomorphic animals of various species.

Anyhow, as someone who has studied ecology, I feel I can at least look a little authorative on the topic, so let us begin:

Designing a Convincing Ecology for your Fantastical World

Firstly: What is Ecology?
Ecology is the scientific study of how living organisms interact in their natural environment.

Ecology is made up of various parts, the simplist components of which are:
Habitat + Flora (plant and tree life) + Fauna (animals)

For the purposes of this, let us assume that Habitat refers to both the fixed geographic features (desert, swamp, grassland etc) and the variable features (weather patterns).
To begin creating your fantasy world, you must first decide on these geographic features and determine what the general environment involves - is it a tropical forest? Savannah? A post-apocalyptic future where the world has been wiped clear of most sentient life?


Sticking with environments that we have on Earth will make this easier, and also more convincing to the Reader. Essentially, the closer you make your world to the world we all know and love, the easier it will be for the Reader to delve into the world and better experience it. This doesn't mean that you need to make it a carbon copy of Earth - just that some facts like: rain falls down from the sky, there are day/night cycles, the world is round (or flat)* etc, will make for more time for the actual plot and less time spent on trying to make the Reader understand what the heck is going on. I am an avid Reader, but I struggle with books that distort reality out of my comfort zone - such as Graham Edwards' "Stone" series where the world is essentially a wall, and any books where the main setting is a house where each room is somewhat like a different kingdom. Discworld, however, I am fine with. And you might be able to make a world of floating rocks over a lake of molten lava** work - and if so, kudos to you! There are Fantastical Worlds compromised of islands (Clive Barker's Abarat), set in a carpet (Clive Barker's Weaveworld), shaped like a ring (Larry Niven's Ringworld) and I'm sure there is at least one that is the inside of a sphere, not to mention various worlds made of houses (Garth Nix's House, plus another that is so obscure I can't remember it, except that it was weird), the aforementioned Wall series and many, many more. But essentially, I prefer ones that mirror Earth, at least insofar as general environment goes.

- Cold, barren.
- Low plants, no trees (environment doesn't support tree growth - too cold for most of the year).
- Either frozen or wet, depending on season.
- Few animal species.
- Dark and cold for a lot of the winter months, food scarce.
- In spring, everything comes suddenly to life, and many birds come here to breed, then migrate away for the colder months.

- Temperate woodland
- Supports trees and plants, but not a great range of species.
- Range of different species, much of it fairly large - wolves, bears, deer, along with rodents and birds.

Alpine Tundra:
(High Altitude scrubland)
- Harsh, windy conditions.
- Does not support much tree growth - trees stunted and windswept.
- Animals hardy and opportunistic (in New Zealand, we have the kea, the only alpine parrot in the world).
- Some are drier than others, leading to high altitude grasslands.
- High altitude - air is thinner, making it harder to breathe.
Temperate Grasslands similar but less harsh. Warmer, but still cold in winter. (Prairies)

Temperate Forest:
- Wet and cool.
- Produces lush forest, with a variety of different Evergreen tree and plant species.
- Range of different animal species.
- Two layers - overstory and understory.
Temperate Rainforest similar but with three levels and supporting more range of species. Wetter and warmer.

Dry Woodland  
- Warm and dry summers.
- Wet winters.
- Diverse range of plants and species.

Tropical Rainforest:
- Wet and warm.
- Lush rainforest, with a vast range of Evergreen tree and plant species.
- Diverse range of different animal species.

Savannah (grasslands and shrublands):
- Dry and warm.
- Predominent vegetation is grass or small shrubs, occasional trees.
- Trees are deciduous to conserve moisture (acacia), or store water in their trunk (baobab).
- Plants have thorns (to protect them from plant predation), not leaves (which lose moisture).
- Support a large range of animal species, some of which can be quite large.
- Rainfall seasonal, often all occuring in a short period of time.

- Hot, barren, dry.
- Not many plants.
- Few animal species, most of which are nocturnal.
- Lots of rocks.

- Wet.
- Warm or cool, depending on latitude.
 - Considered the most biologically diverse ecostystem.

Other environmental effects that may affect your environment:
Volcanoes: volcanic soil is very rich in nutrients, but lava rock from recent eruptions radiates heat and almost forms a barren desert of its own.
Fire: can do great damage to the wetter forests, which are not adapted to survive its onslaught, leaving the landscape barren - and in some cases (as in Madagascar), almost infertile. This can also lead to soil erosion, which leads to the hills sliding into the lakes.
Earthquakes: The moving of tectonic plates shapes mountains.

After determining what your habitat is like, select a real world one that resembles it. In the case of the rainforest above, this is easy, but what of more complex worlds - what if, say, your habitat is a barren, frozen wasteland or bubbling pools of molten rock? Well, there are real life equivalents to those too!

My Furritasia world - the futuristic one with the anthro animal-people, is set in a post-nuclear world. Vast tracts of land were rendered barren and poisonous by the nuclear radiation***. Whilst I cannot, yet, come up with a plausible explanation behind the animal-people, a coral-life fungoid now blankets the post-nuclear wasteland and the main natural inhabitants were various species evolved from cockroaches, including several massive fungus eating species, and a carnivous type that hunt in pairs or packs. Cockroaches, it is said, can survive anything, and even radiation will not defeat them.


All animals living in the same habitat must interact in some way or another and will come into conflict with one another. This could be in a predator/prey relationship or clashing over a limited resource, such as food or denning space. There are various ways to control conflict - sometimes when two animals both share the same diet and niche, they will have different active times, ie: one is nocturnal, the other diurnal (for example, tarsiers, lorises and bushbabies are all nocturnal, which stops them being in conflict with the dangerous, but diurnal, monkeys); in other cases the conflicts and clashes will be violent (lions vs hyenas). In most terrestrial environments, there will be more "prey" species (deer, rabbits and other herbivores) than predators. So, although lions and tigers and wolves and the like may seem far more interesting, they do need to be able to have enough food to feed them.

Big predators hunt big prey. So if you have giant wolves or massive lions, you will need large mammals too.
Essentially, you need to create a food chain for your fauna.

Herbivores: Eat plant matter (rabbits, ungulates, geese etc) 
- Low energy food, need to browse (eat leaves) or graze (eat grass).
- Often are prey species
- Often live in groups (more eyes to watch for predators)
- In mammals, eyes are located more centrally along the side of the head, allowing them greater peripheral vision.
- Not generally nocturnal.

Fructivores: Eat fruits and nectar (many birds, lemurs, fruit bats etc) 
- High energy food, important in seed dispersal/pollination.
- Birds have a high metabolism and thus need to eat high energy food regularly.
- Arborel (tree living) mammals have their eyes located at the front of their head, allowing them better spatial judgement.
- Birds are diurnal.

Carnivores: Eat the flesh of vertebrates (felines, canines, seals, mustelids, raptors etc)
- High energy food, requires effort to obtain, one large meal can sustain a carnivore for several days.
- Some species live in groups - packs/prides - and hunt cooperatively for larger prey.
- In mammals, eyes usually positioned towards front of face, allowing better spatial judgement and thus better control over catching their prey.
- Many diurnal, but some nocturnal.

Insectivores: Eat invertebrates (hedgehogs, moles, aardwolf, mongoose, some birds etc)
- High energy but need to eat a lot to sustain the animal.
- Many insectivores also occasionally eat meat or fruit.
- Generally solitary or live in pairs (especially if nocturnal as well).
- Many are nocturnal, but not all. Depends on other factors - like predators and active behaviour of the insect food sources.
- Birds are diurnal (mostly)

Omnivores: Eat anything (pigs, weka, rats etc)
- The best generalists, because they can adapt to survive in most situations.
- Highly destructive when introduced into new ecosystems. 
- Some are social, others solitary or live in pairs.
- Some are nocturnal, some are diurnal.
- Can be  a predator, but can also be prey.

 Scavengers: Eat dead things (vultures, blowflies etc)
- Work as nature's "clean up" crew by eating things already dead - including stuff well past its expiration date.
- A very important part of the ecosystem, even if they are kinda dirty and "gross".
- Vultures have naked heads so that they can stick their heads into the carcass without getting their feathers matted with blood - this could lead to problems with the "waterproof" qualities of their feathers and lead to them dying. They also do not have very strong talons.
- Some scavenger species are actually very effecient hunters (ie: the spotted hyena). Just as some predators rely on scavenging or stealing their kills from other hunters.

Now, how about making up your own species? Sounds like fun?
It sure is!

Here are some ways you can make your native wildlife distinctively different from those on Earth:

1. Focus on birds, reptiles or invertebrates rather than mammals

Consider a world like ours in which there are no mammals - what habitats are there for the reptiles (or birds) to fill? How might they evolve to better exploit these habitats. It might help to study island ecology - looking at places like New Zealand and Hawaii where native mammals were never prevalent. Consider changes the birds might make to fit in here - losing their ability to fly, growing bigger, living in burrows, behaving more like monkeys... etc. Another thing to consider is that mammals hunt by scent (and many have poor colour vision), whereas birds and lizards both have colour vision - so what role might this play in how the native wildlife looks? New Zealand birds are generally drab in colour - which allows them camouflage and protects them from avian predators. This defence proved ineffective when mammals were introduced, and annihilated them.

2. All vertebates on Earth have four limbs - why not give yours six? ****
This is where gryphons and the typical "Western" dragon fit in, any animal that has four feet and wings is a hexapod. I once made an ecology up for a world in which everything had three pairs of limbs. It was not nearly as impressive as that found in "Avatar".

3. Hybridise Earth animals - combine random species to create Chimeras *****
See also TV tropes: Mix and Match critters
This also explains gryphons and their ilk.
Chimeras don't make scientific sense, since different species cannot interbreed. Although, some realworld species are bloody strange - anyone looking at a platypus might consider it a duckmole (that's what I imagined Tarmora Pierce was doing in her "Immortals" series). But hey, it's your world, so it doesn't really matter if it's not entirely scientifically sound. Maybe there's a mad scientist on the lose, or maybe the rules of genetics are different.

Making up names for chimerical critters is always fun. When naming hybrid real-world animals, half of the father's species is taken first, and connected with the second half of the mother's species. Hence a Liger is the result of a male lion and a female tiger. It looks quite different from a Tiglon, which has the opposite parentage. Generally, I just go with what works best - or start with the head and work my way back. Or you can just join the two names together, as they do in the "Avatar:The Last Airbender" tv series.

Hybridising in this sort of way does, however, cause complications - because no two animals will ever look the same, or even necessarily be the same species - if any animal species can produce viable offspring with any other species, then what happens when two hybrid animals breed together? Will everything just end up looking really weird, or will they eventually converge to a sort of homogenised point?

However, you can use this method to make some really original looking critters that might not *actually* be caused by the two species breeding together.

4. Take Real World animals and alter them to fill different niches
This is particularly fun for Post-Apocalyptic variants of our own world. Okay, assuming the world faces a nuclear holocaust, or climate change or whatever it is that entirely reshapes the face of the world as we know it - what animals will survive?

Probably the hardy generalists and omnivores. The rats, the pigs, the foxes and maybe the cats. Animals such as lemurs, aardvarks and anything with a highly specialised diet or life cycle will be doomed. So, with those animals gone, and the world reverted to its wild self, how might the surviving species change to fill the niches that are left?

Speculative Zoology is fun and challenging. There are several online sites I have found, so here are a couple of links:
Neocene Project

Also worth looking into is Douglas Dixon's "After Man" - published in 1981, so maybe a bit hard to get nowadays. I picked mine up second hand.

From Budgerigar to Budgieraptor!
5. Take real world animals and give them elemental powers
They might be mistaken for Pokemon.

6. Dragons
Dragons are something I often have trouble with in fantasy novels. Ignoring the fact that they're not really mammals, birds or even reptiles,  they are, for the most part, massive carnivores. And something that massive is going to need a LOT of food to fuel it. It might not need to eat frequently, but it will need large meals on a semi-regular basis. So if you have a situation where you have a world with large amounts of massive dragons, you better have enormous herds of some sort of herbivore for them to eat. Of course, you could also make them herbivorous.

Since dragons are a mythological species with no basis on any particular real animal, authors (and artists) have had a lot of fun developing them in a variety of ways. The typical Western dragon is reptilian, huge and scaly - often with wings - and this seems to have perpetuated throughout many fantasy novels - although sometimes they have three pairs of limbs (four legs, two wings) and other times two (2 wings + 2 legs). Often they also have elemental powers.

My two favourite Western-ish dragons in literature are Patrick Rothfuss's in "Name of the Wind" and Robin Hobb's dragon ecology in her "Liveship Traders" series.

In most novels, when a human bonds with a dragon, the two are able to communicate either via telepathy or verbally. This was nicely avoided in the movie of "How to Train your Dragon" which is one of the many things that made that movie original and wonderful.

I personally have several dragon characters, none of which resemble this phenotype:

Rhapsody the Sea Dragon (top)
Pippit the Rainforest Dragon (bottom)
There are NUMEROUS tropes used in fantasy for designing new species, I have engaged in intensive research at tvtropes to bring you a summary of some of their most relevant ones:

Call a Rabbit a "Smerp":  Which refers to taking standard critters and giving them unusual and original names. This can be especially effective if the Writer wishes to convey an otherworldlyness to their story, or set the culture of the protagonists separate from the typical one. I, for example, generally have used the Malagasy names for the variety of lemur species featuring in my stories, as I feel this adds to the authenticity - as the Malagasy people were there first (likewise, I always list the Maori names on my NZ animal illustrations, when I can find them). It can give the ordinary a somewhat fantastical feel.

Call a "Smerp" a Rabbit: Which refers to having bizarre a variations on the typical - such as giant riding lizards or small wild birds but referring to them as their Earth equivalent - leading to confusion and disorientation on the part of the Reader. If your "cows" are really stocky dragons that eat grass, it might be best to find another name for them. If you do wish to go this route, make it very clear from the start that your cows are not like our cows! This is found in reality too, when early explorers named everything based on what they previously knew - hence the presence of "robins" and "wrens" in New Zealand, despite the fact that they are not closely related to the European birds by the same name.

For more tropes (and before I get off topic) - visit this page here.


I'm not much of a botanist. On Terrestrial Ecology field trips I spent too much time looking at the birds and not enough time looking for the plants we were supposed to be studying, but I will do my best to write a bit about flora here. This is also why I have left it until last, when you've probably already given up reading.

Flora is directly linked to the climate and helps create the habitat. Plants, for the most part, require moisture, nutrients and sunlight to thrive. Fungi are not a plant, and do not require sunlight, and can be useful if you need something for your cave dwelling humanoids to farm. Some fungi also display bioluminescence which can be useful when your hero is making their way through the deep dark caverns and have lost their fire source. The real world fungi, various species of Armillaria, often grow in the same place as moss, to create Foxfire. (Thanks for that, Yahoo Answers).

Your flora is very important - as it is what your herbivores and fructivores will eat as will the insects that feed the insectivores. Generally speaking - the wetter the environment, the greater the variety of plant life. On Earth, the humid (wet and warm) areas provide the greatest range of plants and trees and therefore support the widest variety of life. There are more animal species in a rainforest than on the tundra or in a desert.

The more moisture in the air, the more leafy and green the plants will be. Plants in a desert tend to have spines instead of leaves - because the surface area of leaves allows water to evaporate from them and also because desert plants store water, making them a desirable water source for the various desert animals. The thorns protect them somewhat from plant predation.

Tropical rainforest trees tend to be evergreens - that is to say, they keep their leaves all through the year. Trees from more temperate environments - where the winters are very cold, are often deciduous. By shedding their leaves, they can conserve moisture in their trunk and branches. Leaves are also likely to suffer damage such as frostbite. The leaves that fall form a compost around the trees roots, trapping moisture and also providing fertiliser.

Leaves are used for photosynthesis, and in the cold winters this does not work well in the plant - the light levels are often not bright enough for long enough, and the tree's metabolic rate has also slowed and photosynthesis is no longer a productive means, thus the tree becomes somewhat dormant.

Flowers sprout in spring, and are the means that many plants use to reproduce. Although some plants can reproduce asexually, others require fertilization. To facilitate this, the pollen must be transferred to the ovary. To do this, the plants either use wind or wildlife - generally insects. To attract insects, they often produce sweet tasting nectar which they advertise by being distinctive colours, that the insects have evolved to recognise. If you wish to have flowering plants in your world - you must also remember to include pollinating species. Bees and butterflies are common Earth pollinators, also hummingbirds and other nectar drinking birds, also some lizards, can aid in this cycle.  Pollinators are generally small and have often evolved certain features that aid them in gathering the nectar (and also collecting the maximum amount of pollen on their fur, feathers or hair - not that they care about this service that they are also providing!).

* One of the first worlds I ever invented, back in my Discworld obsessed early teenage years was called "Dyce" and it as six-sided (well, seven sided really, cos it had a sphere in the center). Gravity worked weird in that world - each side had a different environment and sentient life form, and each sentient life form thought that their side of Dyce was the top. This was because when you approached the edge (which looked like a steep cliff), you could actually just walk around it, like step over the edge and onto the next surface, without falling off. However, because your equilibrium was used to you being on the flat, you would forever feel like you were walking horiontally down a wall. Or perhaps even upside down, if you got that far. I never did go very far with that idea, but it's kinda nifty, and possibly worth exploring again at a later date.

** This was an idea I submitted to a "World Design" competition once. It didn't win, possibly because it would be too difficult to use as a roleplaying world setting.

*** If I had actually studied Chernobyl and other real world situations before writing this book, I would have understood that plants and even wildlife are not easily beaten by radiation, but so be it. 

**** As seen in Avatar. However, they broke the consistency rule by making their dominant sentient life-form only having four limbs, which led me into speculation over whether or not the Naavi were actually native to Pandora or were earlier invading aliens. This question has never been answered.

***** As seen in the Avatar tv series (no relation to #4 above). I remember snorting with laughter when Ang shouted "someone's being attacked by a platypus bear"!

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