3.18.2012

Predation, Part I


By on 1:14 AM


"Only sophisticated predators like rats, cats, mongoose, and humans that colonize island biotas whose members had no previous evolutionary experience with enemies of comparably high performance are capable of wiping out entire prey species." - Geerat J. Vermeij, Department of Geology, University of California at Davis



In Jurassic Park III, the big (and, let’s face it, only) ‘oh, shit’ moment is during Dr. Grant’s presentation: velociraptors are sophisticated, communicative, and intelligent predators – if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out, we humans would either have had to share our top position on the planet, or end up in second place altogether. And that’s assuming that the raptors would have left any of our predecessors alive long enough to evolve.

A velociraptor might not look terrifying, but
that's only because Jurassic Park is copyrighted.
There are so many variables about what the world might be like had a massive asteroid not killed off the majority of the complex life on earth that it's hard to even imagine a probable one. Giant reptiles could be the dominant species on Earth, or eventual climate shifts would have lead to the evolution of other (maybe mammalian, maybe primate) top predators… what are worlds like in which the top of the food chain had reached their evolutionary ‘now’ through different paths? Of course, the end of the dinosaurs isn’t the only factor that has influenced the formation of life – it isn’t even one of the most important or (depending on how punny you want to be about the Cambrian Explosion) explosive.

That honor goes to predation. As a subset of competition – as gruesome as it might be, both predator and prey are competing for the rights to the prey’s body – predation has played a large part in everything from our social skills to terrestrial life’s initial shift from photo- or chemo-receptive prokaryotes to more complex eukaryotes. An alien world without predation would be a calm, dismal place, but a world with a high rate of evolution due to extreme predation and short life spans – topped by a super predator far more technologically advanced or intelligent than us and with an interest in space travel – would fairly easily lead to our extinction or our being knocked cleanly off the top trophic pedestal.

Remember that island biota the University of California professor was talking about? Yeah: that would be us.

Because the realm of possible change is so infinitely huge, I’m going to follow predation’s effect on Earth’s life a bit backwards: first, how being both predator and prey has changed human, and how like changes could apply to extra-terrestrials. Then there’s predatory animals in general and, finally, predation’s effect on ancient cellular life – while it’s just about impossible to predict advanced alien life forms from this stage, an alien would in which predation never happened is a kind of weird one.

1 – The Humans

The Beatles said that “all you need is love.” This sentiment has been used for a lot of cheap segues, and refuted for equally cheap and plentiful segues. As far as human evolution is concerned, a little love helps – reproduction and all – but what you really need is a little neocortex. Really. It’s the part of the brain that singlehandedly holds the majority of what makes us human, and it keeps getting bigger, ever since we first started being primates.

Rather charmingly referred to as grey matter – and, by the way, whoever decided to name a Crayola crayon after it clearly did not have a neocortex-intensive brain – the neocortex is the control center for most of our more complicated activities. These include sensory control, motor commands, conscious thought, language, and spatial reasoning. It’s not that these things are unique to humans or even necessarily unique to terrestrial life. But the gradual formation and advancement of the made all of these functions come about in a range of formats for a list of specific purposes.


For example, our primate ancestors had forward-facing eyes and potentially nimble hands – the specifics of our sight-based strengths and weaknesses were based on these: terrific hand-eyes coordination, fairly excellent depth perception, and the honed skill of manipulating our hands, body and environment thought visual perception. These skills developed and advanced primarily because we both used and needed them. Primates grabbed (and still do) small pretty their hands, used tools, climbed trees, and performed social rituals, all using their hands.

If aliens had, say, telekinesis, they would not need hands, or any sort of limbs, actually. If they evolved in a world of icy cliffs, their ‘hands’ might be spike-like protrusions, hard enough to stab through ice and rock. Maybe, seeing as how this world is dominated by icy cliffs, it is far from the nearest star and receives very little heat and light: the deep cliffs, certainly, would lead to long shadows and little access to sunlight. Instead of their eyes adapting to what we know as the ‘visible’ light spectrum, they can see heat – both their prey’s body heat and that of their own species and hunting partners, letting them successfully hunt in sophisticated groups and with sophisticated strategies.

Who knows?

Social evolution seems to be the only constant necessary for both central forces of an alien invasion novel – that is, both us and our enemy. Sure, you could to the monster movie route or the plant/microbe/virus route, but if you want a good fight for the planet between two advanced species, each side has to be social.

There is a theoretical side-effect of sociability, however, and it’s one that you don’t necessarily have to buy into. This line of thought goes, essentially, the more social and intelligent you are – the more neocortex you have – the less able you are to physically and individually be aggressive. We rely on interaction for both attacks and defenses, as humans, whether through actual allies or by using technology and knowledge created by others. We are individuals without shells, we have only vestigial claws and fangs, and we can’t move quickly without sacrificing some balance or duration. So the elasticity of our brain really is our biggest resources – evolution demanded it.

That’s not to say that this is universal or that a case for connection can even be made. The aliens in Predator (terrible example, I know) are roughly like us in mentality and social development; they also happen to be far more physically tough. In fact, if not restricted by fairly stupid plotlines, that advantage plus their advanced technology could easily lead to them taking over the Earth and using us in slightly more grand hunting festivities.

Predation was influential in the formation of the contemporary human in more ways than the homo sapiens’ stint as a predator. We were (and still are, by the way) prey, too. In Africa – Ethiopia, by current popular opinion – humans were by no means on top; we didn’t have the technology or community base to ensure complete domination. We never will, if people keep taking boa constrictors and wildcats as pets (there’s that neocortex problem again), but humans will certainly not be wiped out by current terrestrial predators. During that long span of time in which we might have been, however, we got some evolutionary perks: increased alertness and locomotor performance, more survival-oriented habitat preference, and the foundations of our basic social structure. All of these things could have formed if we had only ever been predators, but they might have happened differently, unexpectedly, or maybe a bit slower.

So if we come across extra-terrestrial who had never been prey throughout the history of their species, maybe they never developed a finely-tuned fight or flight instinct. Maybe these aliens don’t identify dangers as rapidly, or maybe they don’t have any primal fear.

That habitat preference could also make for some interesting novels. Say that there were aliens who successfully invaded the planet, killed off the majority of the human population, and claimed Earth as their own. They need sunlight the way we need water (almost constantly, but we could easily made it without water for twelve hours and could spend a couple of uncomfortable days without it if not faces with undue environmental stress), but they never developed sunlight bulbs.

The remaining humans, after figuring this out, would head for the caves. Over a course of millions of years, humans have evolved to not need as much vitamin D ourselves, have developed better senses with which to navigate… Sight seems almost like a cop-out, so maybe some combined advancement of our ability to feel vibrations and sense proximity. With this, our fingers and ears might elongate and contain for more concentrated nerves; we’d become shorter to better navigate, too, and eventually become blind.

In short, the species would evolve solely for a habitat of caves, the only place these once-humans could survive.


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Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

About Syed Faizan Ali

Faizan is a 17 year old young guy who is blessed with the art of Blogging,He love to Blog day in and day out,He is a Website Designer and a Certified Graphics Designer.

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