Speculative Zoology (regarded here as a subset of Speculative Biology or Speculative Evolution) has been a regular presence at Tet Zoo since 2007. Long-time readers will know that I – and many others, I’m sure – have slightly confused feelings as goes our love of Spec. It’s so much goddam fun (“it’s like internet crack”, to quote my friend and colleague Matt Wedel), and yet is, at the same time, so seemingly pointless that indulging in it often seems frivolous and childish, divorced from actual science. Indeed, there might be a paranoia whereby the featuring of Speculative Zoology on a science-based blog might well be imagined as reducing the intellectual value (if there is one) of said blog.

Two iconic images of the modern Spec Zoo movement. At left: Steve White's scene depicting future chickens, cursorial crocodylians, and specialised finches and rodents. At right: a Squamozoic chalarodont, by Raven Amos.

And yet... screw it. Firstly, we can think about things like Speculative Zoology because they’re fun. If your mind isn’t racing with possibilities, crazy ideas, speculations, and things you wish you knew but never will when you think about animal evolution, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. Secondly, some of our speculations about animal evolution involve possibly useful and informative guesses and hypotheses with respect to parameters, trajectories, limitations and constraints, and some of these speculations are designed with real-world adaptations, processes and diversity in mind.

In other words, Speculative Zoology builds on real knowledge about the real world, it can provide educational examples of how actual evolutionary processes are thought to occur, and it can involve the development of genuine hypotheses about the future. In view of this, am I right to worry that it really is “seemingly pointless”, or “divorced from actual science”? Maybe not.

A selection of speculative beasts featured on Tet Zoo over the years. Image (c) Tim Morris, used with permission. From here on the Pristichampsus DeviantArt page.

Tet Zoo regular Tim Morris recently produced the illustration you see here, and can thus be considered wholly responsible for the review article you’re reading now. In the article below, we look at some of the Speculative Zoology themes explored at Tet Zoo over the years.

Montage of creatures from Dougal Dixon's 1988 The New Dinosaurs, redrawn by Darren Naish and coloured by Ethan Kocak.

Dixoniana. One person above all others is regarded as the parent of the Speculative Zoology movement: British author, researcher and artist Dougal Dixon. Dougal’s several books on Speculative Zoology – namely After Man (Dixon 1981), The New Dinosaurs (Dixon 1988) and Man After Man (Dixon 1990) – are corner-stone texts of the field, and his ideas and hypothetical creatures have been influential to just about everyone interested in the subject.

A few years ago I took advantage of my friendship with Dougal and interviewed him exclusively for Tet Zoo. The interview includes extensive discussion of his most recent project: Greenworld (Dixon 2010), so far only published in Japanese. Dougal spoke more about Greenworld, and about Speculative Zoology in general, at the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention of 2014. At that meeting, a special session and panel event was devoted to Speculative Biology as a whole. I presented at the same meeting, as did Lewis Dartnell, C. M. Kosemen, and Gert van Dijk. I wrote about the events of the meeting here.

Brilliant diagram depicting position and function of Godzilla's plasma gland, as explained in more depth in the 2010 article on the science of Godzilla.

Godzilla. In case you haven’t heard, Godzilla is a gigantic bipedal reptile (most likely a post-Cretaceous, radioactive theropod), closely associated with Japan, and filmed surreptitiously on numerous occasions since his first appearance in 1954. Godzilla’s anatomy, functional morphology, biomechanics and phylogenetic relationships have been the subject of one or two Tet Zoo articles, all or some or most of which (I forget) review the comments that real-world biologists and palaeontologists have made about Godzilla’s biology and evolution. An inferior attempt by an American studio to create a Godzilla-like, computer generated creature for a 1994 movie ended in disaster, but the resultant bastard monster – dubbed Zilla or GINO (Godzilla in Name Only) – has been covered here as well.

Skeletal reconstruction and skull of Zilla or GINO, produced by Tracy Ford in 2010 (used with permission). Zilla is a gigantic bipedal iguanian lizard with no affinity to the gigantic and enigmatic super-reptile known as Godzilla. For more anatomical illustrations pertaining to Zilla, see this Tet Zoo article of 2010.

Godzilla was, of course, the subject of another documentary screened in 2014 (featuring extensive new footage, mostly taken in San Francisco of all places), but I haven’t written about that, yet.

Smart dinosaurs. The idea that non-bird theropods might have evolved big brains and human-like intelligence is a standard trope of the Spec literature. It’s actually not an unreasonable idea given that there are known theropod lineages that have evolved primate-like brain sizes and levels of intelligence (parrots and corvids). The idea that such creatures might have ended up looking like scaly green humans is, however, pretty dumb – those imaginary dinosaurs should look like dinosaurs. Regular readers will know that this topic has been visited, revisited, and revisited again on numerous occasions on Tet Zoo. I’ve published on it as well (Naish 2008).

1. Naish complains about 'smart dinosaurs' of existing literature, talks about hornbills. 2. Kosemen invents Avisapiens saurotheos. 3. Cau identifies skeletal characters in theropods of the Avisapiens lineage (Avisapientidae), proposes a phylogenetic hypothesis. 4. Numerous other spinoffs ensue...
Hypothetical flightless azhdarchids (or azhdarchid wannabes). At top: Shemhazai ptychocheirus (by Darren Naish). At lower left: the Lank Herbafagus longicollum (by Steve Holden, from Dixon 1988). At lower right: Qilin parungulatus (by Darren Naish). T. Naish for scale.

Flightless pterosaurs. We all know that birds have evolved flightlessness on innumerable independent occasions. Why, then, didn’t that other long-lived group of flying archosaurs – the pterosaurs – do likewise? Or, is it that they did, but that we simply haven’t found the right fossils yet? Those of us interested in pterosaurs and in Speculative Zoology talk about this issue a lot. I’m especially interested in a group of long-jawed, superficially stork-like pterodactyloid pterosaurs called azhdarchids. Because azhdarchids appear to have been well adapted for a striding, terrestrial lifestyle (Witton & Naish 2008, 2013), because they were sometimes enormous and heavily built, and because some of them inhabited islands where they were surrounded by weird, insular Cretaceous archosaurs, the idea that some azhdarchids might actually have been flightless island endemics has been kicking around for a while. For now, all we can do is speculate. And speculate we have...

Flightless bats. And what about bats? Bats have been around for 50 million years or more, and yet we have no indication that they ever evolved flightlessness nor anything at all like it. Even the mystacinids or moustached bats of New Zealand – sometimes mooted as ‘bats on the path to flightlessness’ – are actually specialised for a scurrying lifestyle that isn’t clearly anything to do with flightlessness or specialised life on an island, since the adaptations concerned are present in species that inhabited continental environments, not insular ones alone. Also deserving of mention are the incredibly odd, weirdly proportioned Mimetillus bats of tropical Africa: they have extremely high wing-loading and wings with very low aspect ratios (Norberg & Rayner 1987), and apparently only fly for 10-15 minutes at a time (Nowak 1999). But, whatever, we have no flightless bats. Does this mean that flightless bats will never – indeed, can never – evolve? We don’t know, but that’s what Speculative Zoology is for....

At left: Mimetillus, a flat-headed bat, mimic bat or narrow-winged bat (drawing by Darren Naish). The wing form of this bat means that it plots well apart from other species in wing-loading and aspect ratio: Mimetillus is marked with a red arrow on the graph (from Norberg & Rayner 1987). Centre: the Dixonian Night stalker Manambulus perhorridus (from Dixon 1981). At right: concept art and a toy depicting the Future Predator, a giant flightless bat from the TV series Primeval.

The Squamozoic. In an alternative timeline to our own, lizards, snakes and amphisbaenians – the squamates – came to dominate life on Earth. Among the vast number of squamate lineages invented for Squamozoic Earth (a field guide might appear one day), my favourites include the human-sized bipedal terrameleons of Madagascar, the gliding ptychozwooms of Australasia, the immense predatory South American amphisbaenian Graboidus, and the sea-going bathysaurs and prow-nosed podarciforms. Squamozoic scenes were first shared at Tet Zoo ver 2 during July 2010 and appeared on several subsequent occasions. A longer article discussing the diversity of Squamozoic beasts was published in time, and subsequent crossovers and inventions have been mentioned since.

Awesome Squamozoic fan-art. Clockwise from top left: Crested ardewaran plunges for a fish (by Rebecca Groom), Terrible terrameleon (by electriceel), and a giant, as-yet-unnamed stumpy-tailed predator (by C. M. Kosemen).

The entire Squamozoic project is, of course, a giant work of fiction and hence (arguably) ‘worthless’ (as per comments above). However, virtually everything invented or extrapolated for the Squamozoic world is based on something real from our own timeline. Without getting too pretentious, I want you to note that these hypothetical extrapolations therefore have the capacity to educate naive parties about the diversity and evolution of real-world squamates. Dougal Dixon has said exactly the same thing about Speculative Zoology in general: that one of its functions is to describe or depict real processes using fictional examples.

Inspired by the Squamozoic, Brian Engh produced the awesome scene you see here: it turns out that European dragons were actually giant gliding gekkotans. Inset: Australasian tube-snouted ptychozwoom (c. 1 m long), by Darren Naish.
The shrink-wrapping/palaeoart/Spec Zoo crossover... At top: the cetacean Phocoenoides as imagined by denizens of an alternative/future timeline (by Darren Naish). Below: the birds Pelecanus and Balaeniceps, depicted likewise (by C. M. Kosemen, from his tumblr).

Shrink-wrapped whales and swans, and All Yesterdays. Imagine if the creatures of today were reconstructed by imaginary intelligent animals of an alternative or future timeline. It’s a slightly convoluted scenario, in that we’re talking about real animals that are being imagined by imaginary ones. I developed this concept some considerable time ago when I wondered how extant cetaceans might be imagined by intelligent species that have no concept of what cetaceans really look like. But, of course, I’m hardly the only one to have explored this idea: my colleagues and co-authors C. M. Kosemen and John Conway both came up with it as well, and a section of our book All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012) is devoted to this concept...

Or, to a version of this concept, anyway, since the idea we were exploring there was more to do with re-imaging modern animals in the ‘shrink-wrapped’ style prevalent in the work of certain palaeoartists. It’s since been explored in a series of additional illustrations that Memo has produced. So, this area is actually a complex and messy blend of palaeoart commentary, speculative fiction, and intriguing, exploratory art. Or something like that.

Fuzzoamphisbaenians, dropgorgons, dragons and such. Tetrapod Zoology has been going for over nine years now, and a long-term feature of the site has been the amazing and otherwise-mostly-undisclosed discoveries that get announced every April 1st. Some of the stories concerned might be considered Speculative Zoology since they could be interpreted as relating to the events of alternative evolutionary pathways, other timelines and so on. Or they might be considered as tongue-in-cheek escapades full of in-jokes, take your pick. Yes, this is the realm of flying cats and dropgorgon diversity, mokele-mbembes and the phenomenon of phylotardation, the world of battle cassowaries, the secret amphisbaenian origins of mammals, truthiometrically chromated cetaceans, and so on and on.

At left: Dropgorgon giganteus, largest and most 'extreme' of the pantheropterygines. At right: phylotardocline depicting evolution of lame, flabby Chipekwe lackadaisicalus from Mesozoic ancestor with far higher ACF (= aesthetic coolness factor).

Several other subject areas that are within the Speculative Zoology remit have also been covered at Tet Zoo over the years. There are the ‘non-standard hypotheses’ that invoke the existence of speculative creatures, the predicted creatures that were invented as speculative projections or bits of fun and then discovered in reality, and the creature-building that’s become an integral part of cryptozoology (Naish 2014). But, for now, dear reader, our speculative adventures must come to an end, and it is time to move on.

Refs - -

Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.

Dixon, D. 1981. After Man: A Zoology of the Future. Granada, London.

- . 1988. The New Dinosaurs: An Alternative Evolution. Salem House, Topsfield (MA).

- . 1990. Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future. Blandford, London.

- . 2010. Greenworld (two volumes). Diamond, Tokyo.

Naish, D. 2008. Intelligent dinosaurs. Fortean Times 239, 52-53.

- . 2014. Speculative zoology. Fortean Times 316, 52-53.

Norberg, U., & Rayner, J. 1987. Ecological morphology and flight in bats (Mammalia; Chiroptera): wing adaptations, flight performance, foraging strategy and echolocation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 316, 335-427.

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Witton, W. P. & Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3: e2271.

- . & Naish, D. 2013. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or “terrestrial stalkers”? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4202/app.00005.2013