Monday, March 10, 2014
Walking, talking plants.
It's not the first time I've used walking plants in my writing. That would be the Myloan Saga, and they only had a brief appearance in the first volume. The Ambulaflora, however, are quite different. I'm working on a little something based off a round of SimEarth. That's right, a civilization built by plants.
Origin of the Carniferns
When xenobiologist and chroniclers of ages long past spoke of little green men, the denizens of the world of Dirt (translation of the native name) were not what came to mind. In all of the explorations of the cosmos and discovery of its wide variety of intelligent life, humanity believed that nothing could surprise it. When contact was established with the Ambulaflora, that belief was shattered. They were not mammalian or reptilian, bird or fish, they were not even animals. The planet Dirt was in fact populated by a civilization of intelligent plants.
To understand the Ambulaflora one must trace its evolutionary path. Four hundred million years ago, in the region the natives call Archon; a massive salt swamp spanned the coast. The land was recently fertile wetlands, but the splitting of Neustria from Centrasia along a rift that created the Saline Sea. The flooding of the wet lands with salt water created less-than-ideal conditions for plants. Most species died out. Some species adapted to the nutrient-poor conditions by filtering the salt, while others tried to dig deep.
One unlike family adapted by taking their nutrients from the animals that fed upon them. The first carniferns appeared shortly after the flooding of the Archon Swamp. They were simple plants, like those found on Earth and other worlds. Fossils of pitcher plants and fly traps appeared perfectly preserved in a three hundred ninety million year old layer of sediment. As conditions in the land worsened, carniferns began to outcompete the other species of plants and take over the salt marsh, turning prehistoric Archon into a land of flesh-eating plants.
The Eyes Have It
For nearly two hundred million years, carniferns changed little. They adapted and improved their methods of feeding. A few families took to actively capturing nearby arthropods. Most early attempts failed for the carniferns lacked a means to track their prey. A few genera developed sensitive roots near the surface, similar to a spider’s web.
Two hundred twenty million years ago that all changed. Not much is known for the earliest examples of Visioherba come from fragmented fossils. The first of the plants used adapted cells to detect variations in the local light. This aided the plants in finding more advantageous locations to turn their leaves to more efficiently collect sunlight. It also allowed them to “see” passing arthropods.
Flexible branches lined with sticky saps and hairs would shoot out to grab the passing pray and drag it back to the carnifern’s “stomach”. These stomachs were pits of acidic liquid that first killed the prey, to prevent damage to the plant, and later to break them down into proteins and amino acids.
The eyes also allowed carniferns to see each other and for one species to identify another of its kind. Once detected, the carniferns would turn their flowers towards each other and excrete pheromones to attract pollinating insects. These pollinators were differentiated from prey species by the rudimentary nervous system of the Visioherba. As their vision improved over millions of years, carniferns began to develop “brains” in order to keep track of their environment and to know friend from foe.
When the Going Gets Tough—
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going—to where the going is easier.” This axiom applies to life on all worlds. Carniferns were confined to Archon for hundreds of millions of years. As the swamp dried out and reformed in countless climatic cycles, the unique plants struggled to adapt. One of the biggest limitations on carniferns was their sedentary existence. A species could only spread as far and as fast as its seeds.
One hundred forty-nine years ago, the Archon Swamp returned after a two million year absence and it returned with a vengeance. Many species were wiped out by flooding from the oceans. Those that survived did so because their roots were hardened against salt. The extreme moisture of the 149-142 MYA created a soil that was part silt part water. So loose was it that roots were able to move through it.
Mutations traced back one hundred forty-five million years indicate that around this time the first Tranieferns (pronounced Tra-naye-ferns) appeared. These early transient plants “moved” by having their roots grow away from the saltiest water. When they grew, they drug the rest of their bodies through the soupy mud. This mobility not only allowed the Tranieferns to escape the worst conditions but it also opened up their ranges. As plants moved, they dropped seeds, greatly expanding the species’ habitat.
As the climate in Archon dried, Tranieferns began to flee dryness in search of water. To protect against dehydration, a layer of bark-like skin insolated the roots. As the roots grew stronger, the distances traversed by the genera of Tranieferns greatly increased. All the prevented their spread around the world were large tracks of desert. Over the space of forty million years the web of roots gradually reduced into a smaller number of hardened spider-like legs. The fully mobile Tranieferns traversed the ground at speeds reaching fifty meters an hour; a speed their rooted ancestors could only dream of.
The next step in carnifern evolution occurred one hundred million years ago. Throughout carnifern natural history, the plants used pheromones to attract pollinators and warn others of danger. As intelligence increased, so did the sophistication of the chemical communication. Unlike so many animal species encountered across the galaxy, plants lack the lungs, vocal apparatus and mouths to make complex sounds.
Their already existing pheromone communication developed more complex molecules to transmit various meanings. One molecule would indicate danger while another might indicate a source of water. Despite their total mobility by the time their “speech” developed, plants still required water. Their legs retained millions of root filaments for drawing water into their bodies. Additional water could be drawn from prey when standing water was sparse.
When the first plant-analog of animal calls occurred is uncertain. The earliest fossil evidence of the organs that generate various pheromones dates back sixty-seven million years. These fossils were of reasonably developed organs, indicating that earlier carniferns possessed the ability to communicate earlier. However, no fossilized remains of the organ are dated back more than ninety-eight million years.
Pollen in the Wind
Climatic shifts seventy-five million years ago created a wetter environment across the continent of Centrasia. In the space of ten million years, carniferns migrated out of Archon and spread across the land. With no other predatory plants on the planet, the carniferns quickly filled various niches. A few managed to cross the Saline Sea at its narrowest and took root on the western continent of Neustria, spreading across the continent in the trail of insects.
To the east, a narrow land bridge connected Centrasia with Austrasia. Carnifern colonization of the eastern continent met with several obstacles, namely the trichordates. Trichordates evolved from meat-eating echinoderms. Once on land, many trichordates adapted to a plant diet. When they two phylum collided, the trichordates began to eat the carniferns. Predatory ones fed upon the arthropods that carniferns depended on.
The spread of carniferns across the planet offered a vast range of diversification as new environment appeared during the millions of years leading up to the Archon Era. Some carniferns grew as large as trees while others grew quicker. In the birthplace of the carniferns, some species began to grow smarter.
The next great evolutionary breakthrough in carniferns occurred around twenty million years ago. As pheromone communication grew more and more sophisticated, individual plants stopped behaving as individuals. The scents transmitted between individual plants within the same species began to take on a similar form as signals between individual neurons. An individual carnifern could do or think little, but a group of them behaved more like a super-organism. The larger the group, the more complex the actions.
For the most part, carnifern species proved to be smarter than their prey. Considering their prey ranged from grasshoppers to flies, that is not as impressive as it might seem. In the swamps of Archon, one genus of carnifern developed larger nervous systems as well as more complex scents. Numbers in at least hundreds, colonies of the genus Venatiherba began to manipulate their environment in favorable ways.
Early stone tools date back five million years to the dawn of the Archon Era. The Venatiherba did not make tools the way early humans made them. Instead, they used stones and other materials present in their environment. The use of tools did not provide immediate advantages to the Venatiherba against other carniferns. All carniferns fed by luring prey to them and ensnaring them with their sticking appendages.
The first use for stone tools was not in butchering prey or chopping down trees, but rather in digging. While no evidence exists for the reason the Venatiherba developed this habit, a logical reason was that one of the many eyes in the colony noticed arthropods burrowing in the ground. Instead of waiting for the prey to come to them, these carniferns took a proactive approach. In short, the plants began to actively hunt down their prey.
The use of flat stones gave the Venatiherba greater resources. As the colonies grew larger and larger, taking up much of Archon, they began to split into smaller units and move away from their birth place. Stone tools gave the Venatiherba greater access to food in a range of environments, allowing the genus to crowd out entire genera and families of carniferns across Centrasia. Neustria, separated by a large sea never had any populations of Venatiherba. In the east, after five to six hundred thousand years of expansion, the Venatiherba cross a temporary land bridge to Austrasia.
Stone tools could also be used as stone weapons. These weapons aided the small colonies of Venatiherba in Austrasia to fight off trichordates. Carniferns were never fast creatures, and only the slowness of most trichordates allowed the used of weapons to give the new carniferns an edge. Within a hundred thousand years of crossing the land bridge Venatiherba pushed most other carniferns in Austrasia into extinction.
The first Ambulaflora appeared in the Archon three millions years ago. Several anatomical and behavioral differences set them apart from Venatiherba. Ambulaflora habilis stood at one meter in height, and like its ancestors they had hexilateral symmetry. Since they evolved from tool users, A. habilis’s limbs grew stronger and more dexterous. The sticky filaments for catching prey became less sticky to allow the plants to drop tools.
Along with using stones as simple tools, A. habilis began to craft the stones into useful shapes. A flat rock they would chip away its edges until sharp. The sharper the edges, the easier the dirt came loose and prey were captured. Along with arthropods and other invertebrate small enough to grasp, A. habilis began to hunt down larger prey as the species expanded from modern day Archon and Syrixa to the north. Insects large enough to feed upon carniferns soon found themselves prey.
When brought down, the large bugs were dismembered and the pieces distributed throughout the colony. A. habilis hunts were simple and brutal affairs. Being plants, they could never hope to outrun an animal. Instead, they would lay in ambush as one of their numbers acted as bait. When the plant-eating insect tried to eat the bait, the rest of the colony would latch on to the prey with free limbs while the limbs carrying hand axes would smash the exoskeleton and mortally wound the prey.
A. habilis spread north along the western coast, circumventing the growing Gelleon Desert. Within half a million years, the species ranged from Archon to the south, along the west and north coast as far as the strait between Centrasia and Austrasia. As with other species of carniferns, the spreading of the species over generations was more of chance. Flowers sprouting on the branches that serve as arms, cast their seeds across the landscape from large pods. In the driest land, the seeds never germinate.
When they do sprout, their early life is sedentary and filled with danger. At this stage they are most vulnerable to grazing arthropods. Noxious smells and stinging filaments used for subduing prey did not always discourage predation. To compensate for the loss, a single nomadic A. habilis could cast as many as one million seeds during their lives. Through sheer numbers a handful will always survive to adulthood.
Ambulaflora, though they are capable of learning new skills, began their lives with only instincts to manipulate objects as a guide. Until true communities developed, Ambulaflora “culture” would be little more than a series of genetic commands.
Diversity through Desertification
The periodic shift between wet and dry moved towards dry two million years ago. The Gelleon Plains again transformed into desert, splitting A. habilis into three distinct populations. To the west, along the Illyium Coast in modern day Lilei, A. lilei made its appearance. This new species proved more drought resistant than the A. habilis trapped in the south. As the desert spread southward, A. habilis found itself confined to smaller and smaller spaces. Where the desert moved, A. lilei followed. Within two hundred thousand years, A. habilis was extinct and A. lilei ruled the western coast of Centrasia.
Further east, Ambulaflora encountered an environment familiar to its ancestors. Like the deserts, the Cerael Marshes expanded and contracted with the change of climate. In times of prolonged drought the marshes grew saltier. A. gelleus adapted to these conditions. However, the marshy ground did not provide the easy access to food as in other regions. A. gelleus sought new sources of food. With their hand axes, they began to break into fallen trees and feeding upon the Dirt’s equivalent of grubs and termites.
A variety of food sources presented itself in the marsh, but in different locations. Instead of all plants in a colony digging, A. gelleus organized itself into various shifts. One shift in the colony would attack fallen trees while another climbed living trees in search of food. A third shift, as shown by the fossilized content of one A. gelleus “stomach” even took to the water in search of aquatic arthropods. A. gelleus spread westward, hugging the coast of Centrasia until a wetter climate returned.
Battle for the Planet of the Plants
In the last year of the Archon Era, Centrasia was again divided between three species of Ambulaflora. Dominating the western third of the continent, A. illyius was the descendant of A. lilei A. illyius proved very adapted to dry climate. In fact, it was too adapted to an arid landscape, an adaptation limiting the range of the species. Their bodies proved less adept in wetter conditions. One of the traits of the species was their ability to dig for water. This was not the cistern-building culture that rose during the Ralae Era. There was no design for catching rain water. Their digging was strictly for natural occurring sources.
A. aridae, descendants from A. gelleus discovered near the city of Aridae, thrived when grassland returned to the Gelleon Plains, cover much of the remainder of the continent, save the Cerael Marshes of the shrunken Nufia Desert. The wetter savanna was not necessarily a safer place to live. Large locust-like insects roamed the plains, devouring anything in their path including a variety of species of lesser carniferns. A. aridae turned the table on the large arthropods, hunting them as often as the locust hunted the A. aridae.
Confined to the salty swamps to the east, A. sapiens made its appearance for the first time. Its early evolutionary history is not the different from its relatives. A. sapiens evolved from A. gelleus confined in the marshy lands. Shifting land masses provided a far more seasonal climate in the swamps. During the height of the wet season the land was flooded from rivers and sea. During the dry, waters receded turning the lands to baked earth. This species of Ambulaflora developed methods of storing the water during the dry season, both in their bodies as well as in shallow pits protected from the sun.
As their numbers grew, colonies of A. sapiens spread west along the northern coast into the Gelleon Plains. The savanna suffered from seasonal affects as well, with short wet seasons followed by long dry seasons. In times of extreme drought, A. aridae declined in numbers. In times of extreme drought, A. sapiens tapped their bodily stores of water, giving them the edge in the numbers game. A. sapiens adopted many of the hunting techniques of A. aridae, including big game hunting.
As A. sapiens expanded, A. aridae began to decline sharply in numbers. The end of A. aridae came with the desert expanding once again. That alone they could have weathered. However, A. aridae specialized in big game. When the game began to die from lack of food, A. aridae followed. A. sapiens, with its wider range of food, held on to life, hunting big game when it returned after the drought.
Ways of Life
The Ralae Era, named for an Ambulaflora paleontologist, is marked by the splitting of A. sapiens into separate cultures. The Nufia Desert expanded and contracted often in the past twenty million years, driving carnifern evolution in the region. In the early Ralae, instead of dying out like other species, the A. sapiens adapted their surroundings to suit them. The Nufia Culture is best known for the remains of cisterns scattered across the desert. At first glance, these pits appear scattered randomly. At the time of construction, these cisterns were dug near ancient seasonal rivers.
During the dry season, the rivers often dried out with only a subterranean flow remaining. The Nufia Culture not only dug cisterns near the underground rivers, they also dug out channels linking the rivers during the high flow of the Wet Season to their pits. Pits in the Early Ralae were small and scattered over wide areas, indicating the Nufia Culture retained its nomadic existence. Colonies marked out their cisterns and guarded them fiercely against rival colonies. From these struggles, some of the earliest Ambulaflora weaponry arose.
The earliest weapons were nothing more than clubs lined with sharp stones. When hit, the blades would slice through “flesh” and sever branches from the body. Not being animals, Ambulaflora and other carnifern species can take a high amount of damage. Wounds such as torn open stomach sacks, a mortal wound in an animal, did not automatically kill the plant. The loss of precious fluid in the desert killed more of the Nufia Culture than actual trauma.
Not only were wars waged over cisterns, but the Nufia Culture fought them over colonies of pollinating insects. Why exactly this began is not clear. Most likely one colony eventually decided if a rival could not reproduce then they would no longer be a threat. The more successful colonies either wiped out their weaker opponents or drove them out of the desert altogether.
Further north, the A. sapiens of the North Plains Culture retained techniques for hunting big game. Though not totally dependent on big games as other species of Ambulaflora, the North Plains Culture stagnated early. Their range was not dependent upon water or pollination but on the range of their prey, the giant locusts. Some of these beasts, thanks to the oxygen rich atmosphere of Dirt, grew to the size of sheep.
Further east, the A. sapiens remaining in the marshy lands developed the early Salt Marsh Culture. They were so at home in salt water than several colonies managed to cross the straight to Austrasia. As with other species crossing over, their range remained limited due to trichordates. Stone weapons aided the Salt Marsh Culture’s survival. Trichordates were not only hostile but of little use to Ambulaflora. Carniferns lacked strong enough acids in their stomachs to break down trichordate flesh. In order to break them down, the acids would need to be so strong as to dissolve the carnifern’s stomach.
By the Middle Ralae Era, the Nufia Culture gave way to the Pit Diggers. The Pit Diggers were the first sedentary society in Ambulaflora history. They built cisterns and stayed in the area. As time passed and the local climate became understood, Pit Diggers expanded their small cisterns into a complex network of channels, cisterns and wells. The surplus in water allowed the Pit Diggers to build the first gardens.
Ambulaflora gardens have a dual purpose. Throughout the evolutionary history of carniferns, after flowers were pollinated the seeds were cast off on the move. The seedlings were left to their own devices. Most never germinated and those that did seldom grew into adults. The stores of water allowed the Pit Diggers to construct specialized garden for their seeds. With sprouts now in the care of the adults, a true culture began. Techniques for construction were no longer inherited through genes. Instead, the sprouts could learn from the adults and apply change when room for improvement was discovered.
Plants were not nomadic solely for water. Their ranges and habits depended upon pollinating insects. The second function of gardens was the cultivation of these pollinators. The Dirt equivalent of honey bees were believed to be domesticated during this time. The pollinators provided a vital service to the Pit Diggers’ survival, and in turn the Pit Diggers provided water and protection to the pollinators.
With a majority of seed germinating and surviving, the population of the Pit Diggers exploded. Their numbers spilled over into every corner of Centrasia. The first of their neighbors to fall victim were the A. sapiens of the Plains Culture. Pit Diggers swept aside many of the large insects as they constructed new gardens and cisterns in their old ranges. A number of large insects were driven into extinction.
To the west, the Pit Diggers overwhelmed the last holdouts of A. illyius. The more primitive Ambulaflora stood little chance in competing with their more intelligent and better organized cousins. To the east, the Salt Marsh Culture managed to hold its own. By the Mid-Ralae, the Salt Marsh developed domestication of a different kind. Instead of pollinators, which were plentiful and in a number of different families and genera, the Salt Marsh took to domesticating arachnids.
They favored spiders above all, but not just any spiders. A number of orb spiders called the marshes home. The Salt Marsh selected the spiders that produced the largest webs. After the spider few once, one of the A. sapiens would remove the spider from a web and move it to a new tree, where a new web would be spun. The previous web the Salt Marsh used to trap flying insects during the night.
The end of the Ralae Era saw the Pit Diggers span across the continent and evolve into the Megalithic Culture. The Megaliths were not a people that specialized in one trait. Instead, it combined local specialties with the first network of trade. The wetter climate offered an overabundance in water across much of the land. Much of the waters at unused in wetter areas and in the drier regions. The people of the marshes tried to find a way to transport water. Early consideration for long-range channels ended when the distances were calculated. A channel hundreds of kilometers would have to be dug, and through mountains to reach the drier areas.
Instead, these people of the marshes, called Silk Weavers, began molding vessels from the abundance clays in their habitat. Unfortunately, they lacked the ability to turn the clay to stone. The Monument Builders of the desert had no such problem. They sunbaked vessels and traded them to the Silk Weavers for their other main product. Silks used for hunting were discovered to be very strong. The Silk Weavers began to breed spiders that produced large quantities of silk. The silk not used for hunting the Silk Weavers spun into strong rope that allowed Ambulaflora to lift and haul heavier loads.
In the range that once belonged to the Plains Culture, Megalithic Cicada Tamers rounded up the remaining mega-insects. The appetite of their livestock forced the Cicada Tamers to live at least a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving on when the cicada exhausted their local food supply. Cicada Tamers raised their livestock from eggs, through larvae stage and into adulthood. When the livestock reached its full size, the Tamers butchered and preserved them, trading them with other regions of the Megalithic “empire”. Silk from the Silk Weavers not only served as rope but the smaller strands were woven into baskets and preservation cocoons for shipping meat over long distances.
Not all cicada were butchered. The largest of the beasts the Cicada Tamers kept alive not only for breeding purposes but also as beasts of burden. A sheep-sized cicada could carry as much as ten of the meter-tall Ambulaflora. To the west and south of the Cicada Tamers lived the Grass Farmers. Ambulaflora are carnivorous and incapable of digesting plant matter. The grass grown were not for the farmers but served as fodder for livestock. The animals raised by Grass Farmers were smaller than the giant cicadas, but as the Grass Farmers expanded to greener pastures, they took to raising cicadas on ranches instead of as nomadic herdsmen.
They traded their grasses to the Cicada Tamers for use as fodder and for building material. The sturdier species of grass made for excellent sleighs. It was the Dirter equivalent of bamboo. Bamboo made it as far as the Silk Weavers, who used the material to construct rafts. Ambulaflora could float but their goods could not. Using these rafts, they discovered it was far easier to transport goods over long distances. During the skirmishes over the best spider territory, losers were driven out by the victors and took to the water in search of new land, some making it as far as the marshes of western Austrasia.
Grasses from the west, cicada from the north and silks from the east all ended up in the heart of the Megalithic Culture, the land of monument builders. Gone were the simple cisterns of old. In their place, the Monument Builders constructed huge monuments at their cisterns and gardens, announcing to all which colony ruled the land. These monuments served additional functions. Some where calendars, marking when the rains were expected to return and when the rivers would flow the lowest. They were also used against the back drop of stars at night to keep track of the year.
With the influx of goods, additional pits were constructed to store meat, silks and other goods. The monuments served as centers of trade across the continent and would give rise to the first true cities. With that we enter recorded history.