Oni2:Slaves of War/Neo-Biology

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Below are some attempts at conceiving of what plant life would be encountered in the Wilderness, first looking at things that have already been done in fiction, then at some real-life freaky flora.

Fictional precedents

  • Myst III: Exile. After two games set in mostly lifeless worlds, Myst III (under new developers) moved in a more organic direction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAShllUlEK0. Notice that some puzzles involve divining the workings of plants and the minds of animals. Of course Oni is pretty much on the other side of the action<->thinking spectrum from a game like Myst, but there's still food for thought here.
  • Plants with Eyes. Just watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wc_Y1IXVSig. As far as I can tell, this was produced for a television show as a sort of throw-away tease segment, but it really stands on its own as a bizarre and super-realistic visualization of the very kind of stuff we might encounter in plants from another world, or plants that were more active than ours. Apparently they started with live-action footage of real plants, and then dressed them up with CG, but the results are surprisingly effective. Then again, some of our real-life plants are pretty impressive too, as seen below.

Awesome real plants

"On and on it goes. It seems the more you learn, the less and less and less and less and less you know." -- Apollo Sunshine, "The Egg"

Let's look at real plants to get some inspiration. It seems that peering into nature closely only demonstrates how incapable we are of imagining anything stranger or more alien than the actual life that exists on this planet -- plants that hear, plants that eat meat, plants that don't need soil.... Here's some stand-out examples:

Sensitive plants

  • Mimosa pudica is known by countless names in countless languages because people the world over so enjoy touching it. No, seriously. It's usually referred to in English as touch-me-not, and in most other languages a variant of the word "shy" is used in its name. You can see why in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLTcVNyOhUc.
    • The perfect orderliness of the folding leaves such as at 2:24 seems to belie our ideas about "organics" being "sloppier" than mechanical devices. Although it's been years since I played Myst III, watching this video reminded me of the stairs that can be seen at 1:09 in the game's trailer above (I actually forgot the game had all that organic stuff in it until I looked up the trailer to find those stairs!).
    • It seems to be a nearly universal reaction to become irritated at seeing someone messing with the touch-me-not, as you can see from all the comments on touch-me-not videos. One YouTube commenter wryly explains, "Funny how people willingly pick, cut, step on, or otherwise harm plants, but as soon as the plant is capable of noticeable movement, suddenly they decide it has feelings and anyone who bothers it is a bastard." Hmm.
  • The telegraph plant is a biological implementation of a solar tracker system; it uses leaflets to find the angle of the sun and then moves its larger leaves into place, to maximize its energy use vs. intake.

Carnivorous plants

The very idea of a plant that eats meat is so bizarre that we would refuse to believe in such a thing if we hadn't all seen venus fly traps on TV. It seems that carnivory is a viable practice in areas that are too nutrient-poor for regular plants to grow. These plants dispel the notion that an organism needs to be motile in order to catch food. (And the section after this dispels the notion that all plants are sessile!)

  • Everyone's seen the Venus fly trap catch a fly. It's actually the most primitive and slowest plant carnivore, as you'll see. But here's some interesting nuances that you probably didn't know:
    • It has a short-term memory. A single stimulus won't close the trap; it has to feel two movements within ~20 seconds with separate hairs in order to close. This seems to border on the whole "domain of the mechanical" thing once again.
    • The fly trap also allows smaller bugs to escape if trapped, and then re-opens early.
    • The other carnivores are extremely widespread, but the venus is only found natively within a 60 mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina, USA (200 miles from where I live).
    • Scientists don't know exactly how it works. The theorized details could be instructive for us, though, if I could only understand it. It has something to do with elasticity, ion propagation, and osmosis. Basically, the triggering hairs cause a chemical reaction which causes water to move around in the plant. This is apparently the basic explanation for all plant movement, such as with the telegraph plant above.
  • The waterwheel plant grows in water and uses underwater, floating whorls to catch bugs.
    • Its flowers are only seen for a few hours before they are pulled underwater.
    • In the winter, it detaches buds called turions to sit at the bottom of the water. These survive extremely frigid conditions while the main plant dies. Once warmer weather returns, they "reduce their density" and rise to the surface in order to germinate and begin growing.
  • The bladderwort has a complex vacuum-powered flushing trap that catches bugs instantly.

Motile plants

Resurrection plants

  • The waterwheel plant above is also a resurrecting plant, by this same definition of the word.

It might be more accurate to say that they are hibernating plants or sleeping plants rather than "resurrecting plants", but I didn't invent the term.

Self-planting plants

Some plants, such as the newly discovered Spigelia genuflexa, actually plant their own seeds in the ground.

Exploding plants

Some plants get bored waiting for Mother Nature to send wind or insects to help them spread seeds or pollen, and take matter into their own hands.

  • The White Mulberry tree spreads pollen by firing shots at half the speed of sound.
  • The fungus Pilobolus grows in cow dung, breaking it down as a decomposer. It fires its spores like a small cannon by building up water pressure in the stalk. It leans towards and fires into the sun for some reason, and the spores can travel several feet. The need to fire the spores comes from the fact that the cows won't eat grass right next to their own waste, and Pilobolus needs to be eaten by the cow in order to end up in a fresh cow patty and grow there.
    • Pilobolus is pretty gorgeous for something that grows in cow dung, isn't it? The bulbs are called sporangiospheres.

Air plants

Who says that plants need little things like roots, and soil to put them in? Spanish moss and other epiphytic plants can be found hanging from trees. They aren't parasitic; they absorb all their minerals and water from run-off that rain brings down the tree, as well as from rain itself. They may absorb moisture directly from the air as well. Spanish moss hardly performs any photosynthesis, appearing as a dead gray or pale green mass of hair-like leaves. Somehow this plant can still manage to put out small flowers, and it positively thrives in the southern U.S., where it can weigh down oaks and other trees.

Parasitic plants

Plants are supposed to be autotrophic, meaning that they manufacture their own food (unlike animals). The key to autotrophism is photosynthesis. However, some plants have decided to take a detour off of Photosynthesis Road and into Parasite Alley. They use a special root known as a haustorium. Rather than pulling nutrients from the ground, this root pulls nutrients directly from another plant. It works by winding into the host plant's cellular structure and sucking on cytoplasm. Eventually they can expand from inside of the host, replacing it with the parasite's body. Haustoria are traditionally used by fungi like mildew, putting parasitic plants in a strange middle ground between their autotrophic brethren and the separate Kingdom Fungi.

Non-plant parasites

Parasitic behavior may be relevant to the workings of the Daodan or some plants in the Wilderness. Let's take a broader look at this mechanism.

Fungi

The most frightening fungi are the ones that modify their host's behaviors. For instance, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis causes the infected host ant to clamp to the main vein of a leaf, "about 25cm above the ground, on the northern side of the plant, in an environment with 94-95% humidity and temperatures between 20 and 30°C", where it dies when the fungus emerges from its brain on a stalk and releases its spores.

Insects

  • The emerald cockroach wasp finds a cockroach and stings it in the precise thoracic ganglion which controls the roach's front legs. This allows the wasp to then sting the roach in its brain. The venom it injects disables only the roach's escape reflexes (not altering abilities like flight or flipping over). The wasp then chews off half of each antenna, possibly to allow it to regulate the amount of venom in the roach so it stays alive but under control. The wasp then leads the roach by an antenna to the wasp's burrow, lays an egg on it, and closes the burrow's entrance so nothing can prey on the roach, which is incredibly complacent about all of this thanks to the venom. Over the course of a few days, the wasp larva is born and feasts on the living roach.
  • Glyptapanteles is another amazingly specific wasp parasite. It infects a caterpillar, which hosts its eggs until they are ready to emerge and pupate. The caterpillar then guards the pupae until it starves to death. Don't believe me?
  • The Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga, which infects a specific kind of spider, forcing it to build a stronger-than-normal web, then makes the spider sit at the center of the web until the wasp larva emerges and consumes the spider, then pupates on the web which has been strengthened to support the pupa.
  • This doesn't have anything to do with parasitism, but just to conclusively demonstrate that wasps are the kings of the insect kingdom, witness the tarantula wasp.

Other animals

  • This one is pretty gross but very fascinating. The Lancet liver fluke grows inside cattle, until it eventually leaves the cattle in "pie" form. Apparently snails enjoy cow pies, and end up ingesting the tiny flukes. Snails then expel these flukes inside slime balls (kind of like how your nose deals with unwelcome dust). Ants then eat the slime balls, which are like a moist treat. The flukes grow inside the ant's haemocoel, except for one little fluke, which travels up to the ant's brain. This ant continues to behave normally, except for one odd quirk: every night, he climbs grass. He waits on the grass stalk until morning, at which point he descends to avoid the sunlight (which would kill it) and rejoins his ant buddies; he's become a vampire ant!. Finally, one night a cow or other grazing animal eats the grass that the ant is on. The flukes are now in the cow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Toxoplasma is a famous protozoan which likes to live inside cats. How does it get inside the cat? Often by infecting rats. The infected rat is suddenly drawn to the scent of cats rather than repelled by it. This is intriguing because the rat has not become fearless or danger-seeking in general; it just acquires a sudden urge to befriend a cat, who finds it to be a nice snack. Toxoplasma then reproduces harmlessly inside the cat, and its ovocytes end up in the litter box.
Because many people own cats, scientists estimate that up to a third of the world's people may be infected with toxoplasma. This is rather interesting, as toxoplasmosis is linked to auto accidents (through slowed reflexes), and miscarriages. It may be partially responsible for differing social psychologies around the world. It also may or may not be a cause of brain cancer and schizophrenia. Don't panic, it's not too hard to avoid infection; just clean the litter box every day, wash your hands after, and keep your cat inside so it can't eat rats! This public service announcement brought to you by your friendly neighborhood wiki.

To develop

Dropping these terms here for now: host range, Okazaki fragments, mobilome, aggressive mimicry, molecular mimicry, vector, RNA interference, viroids, plasmids, rolling circles, electroporation, replicons, prions, transposons, Red Queen's Hypothesis, Millepora alcicornis.
  • Tobacco mosaic virus: "Due to its cylindrical high aspect ratio, self-assembling nature, and ability to incorporate metal coatings (nickel and cobalt) into its shell, TMV is an ideal candidate to be incorporated into battery electrodes."

Wilderness phenetics and Neo-Agriculture

Neo-Agriculture is a placeholder term for the act of adapting the Wilderness to the world of humans. The working assumption is that the Wilderness is primarily composed of plants, both extraterrestrial (from across the "phase veil") and perhaps mutated Earth plants. Some time after the events of Oni, Mukade is working at finding a way to live alongside the hostile life of the Wilderness, akin to Princess Nausicaa. This is as opposed to the slash-and-burn approach that some are taking towards the encroaching wildlife, and also opposed to the idea of giving everyone Chrysalises so they can adapt to the Wilderness.

Daodan organism