Endless Blue – Week 03 – The Piscean Form   6 comments

Biology

The Piscean Form

Unlike the world we know, life on Elqua mostly remained in the oceans. This results in a few common traits that are universal to all creatures, player and non-player characters alike. These “genetic constants” are just that – traits that evolved into the species from the first single cells that populated the planet’s waters.

Water breathing is the primary genetic constant. Never emerging from the palpable fullness of the seas into the intangible emptiness of air above the waves means the organs that extract oxygen from the atmosphere and infuse it into our bloodstream never developed. The lack of true air-breathing will result in some slight re-definitions of the various animal phyla and orders. Amphibians, for instance, are mainly defined as life forms with a water-breathing larval state and an air-breathing adult state. With the genetic constant of water-breathing only, amphibians may be relegated to a sub-class of reptile whose main differentiating aspect is the lack of scaly skin. The extent of these changes is perhaps better addressed at another day.

Not having evolved lungs means native life kept the pre-existing method of aquatic organs known as gills. Gills are an anatomical structure of microscopic filters that extract oxygen from the water and excrete carbon dioxide out of the body. Of the sea creatures we know, most vertebrates (biological organisms that posses a spine) have their gills located either side the larynx, with the “gill slits” exposed to the environment. To breathe, the organism opens its mouth and swallows an amount of water, which is then squeezed out through the gills by the muscles in the throat instead of the peristaltic push downward into the stomach as with the eating process. This is what the well-known gaped, gulping action of the mouth is that we associated most vividly with fish.

This would be simple enough to translate into the biology of an aquatic humanoid. Instead of respiration being dependent on a diaphragm in the torso, it would rely on thicker neck muscles. The problem, though, comes from volume. Compare the size of the chest cavity that houses the lungs to the small surface area of the neck. The lung has a network of divergent structures called bronchioles that terminate in alveoli. These work just as the filaments in a gill do, but with immensely more volume. If a humanoid was dependent on such smaller gills for respiration, they would constantly be gulping water to keep up with their cellular need for oxygen.

A further drawback to this form comes from a more artistic perspective. This form of respiration would make small things we recognize in our own behavior that convey great amount of emotion quite difficult, such as simply sighing. Strangulation would also prove nearly impossible, as the grip of the would-be attacker would need to press down and shut all the gills on either side of the neck, instead of simply shutting the wind pipe. Choking an opponent is such a primal, visceral image that it would be a great shame to lose that narrative tool, so some kind of change had to be made.

To resolve this, humanoids of Elqua will instead have “embedded gills”, a form of lung/gill hybrid. The bronchioles will connect to the gill fibers in lung-like organs that are controlled by the diaphragm. This wall of muscle will contract, forcing the water through gill exits located on either side of the rib cage. These groups of three gill exits will be lined under the bottom three ribs, with the muscle flap anchored to those ribs allowing the slits to be closed in cases where the individual will attempt to hold his breath. With this arrangement, putting pressure around the neck will still block the intake of water and result in strangulation, and the slow exhalation from the chest still achieves the non-verbal sigh.

With this second pair of bodily orifices, the need for a nose is greatly diminished. Thematically, the structure we know of as a “nose” will not exist in the evolution of Elquan life. This will not diminish the sense of smell’s role in the setting. Our sense of smell is strongly linked to our sense of taste, and it greatly enhances our experience when eating. Anyone with a strong cold or the flu can attest that food tastes much blander with their sinuses are clogged and preventing the odor receptors from interacting with the scents wafting in the air.

Scent and taste are intertwined for many denizens of our oceans. Sharks are notorious for their ability to detect the faintest trace of blood in the currents from far away. Elquan life will smell things much the same way, expressed by abilities like tracking by tasting trace elements in the sea currents.

What now comes into question is the ability to communicate through sound. Speech is an invaluable tool for the evolution of civilization, and without the ability to convey even basic need or emotion most animals would be helpless. Roars to frighten off encroaching challengers, whinnies to panic other herd animals, mating calls to facilitate reproduction are all facts of life dependent on the ability to not only produce sound, but to also hear it. This is where the lung/gill hybrid will help, by acting as a resonance chamber.

Much like the hollow body of a guitar, sound enters a resonance chamber and bounces off the internal structures, amplifying the intensity (volume) of the sound. With a stronger intensity, sound waves can be propagated through the water’s natural quality to impede motion. Humans do much the same thing when singing “from the diaphragm” – their chest cavity acts like a resonance chamber, aiding in the projection of sound. Despite the fact that the air is being pushed out the mouth (or out the rib cage in the case of Elquan natives), the sound is still intensified by the reverberation back into the body. The vocal chords of humanoid Elquan life will remain in the larynx, but speech will posses a slight triphonic aspect – much like a surround system’s left, right, and center speakers — as sound will escape not just the mouth but the gill slits on either side as well. Some intelligent species, such as the Orcans, will be able to take advantage of this to a great degree, giving them echolocative abilities and a unique mode of speech.

The piscean form maintains a constant trait from its prehistoric ancestors that is prevalent, but by no means omnipresent, in all other forms of animal life.  This is a traceable hexapodal shape of three pairs of limbs.  In the piscean form, this is exemplified by the pair of upper arms attached to the shoulders, a pair of large fins connected to the pelvis next to the hips, and the bilateral symmetry in the fluke of the tail.  Each limb of these pairs ends in an arrangement of bones resultant in four digits.  In the case of the arms, these digits form the familiar three fingers and one thumb hand, while the other two pairs of limbs terminate in bone arrangements more commonly thought of as spines.  All three limbs have webbed digits, with the pelvic and fluke fins being fully webbed and the fingers having webbing only until the first knuckle.  Some of the sentient races have variations of this morphology, such as the Lumulus and their fused last two fingers.

With this in mind, the image of aquatic humanoids begins to solidify perceptually. The removal of the nose serves as a visual distinction in the look of the Endless Blue setting that will hopefully add a level of alien-ness without losing the sense of empathy from the players. The position of the gills gives a reason to realistically leave the sides of the body relatively bare, playing well into the artistic interpretation that aquatic life would tend towards being scantily clad. Still identifiably human but sufficiently distanced by biological evolution, life on Elqua begins to take on a shape that will allow players to explore this new blue world.

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