The class tries to stifle a giggle as a pudgy, white haired, four-eyed professor in outdated clothes comes into the classroom. He arranges books, papers and other items on his desk in a shuffling way, then takes the podium and begins to speak in a casually slow, but deliberate fashion.
So, I am Doctor Mallard. Most people, however, just call me "Ducky".
He pauses for the obligatory class chuckle at his name, and smiles awkwardly.
Welcome to our introductory course on xenobiology. That is, the study of "alien" life, or to say it more specifically, life forms that did not originate from Terra. And on that point, I must first make a distinction of dire importance, which you should carry with you throughout this course and into your future, whether you decide to specialize in xenobiology or not:
There is a great difference between TERRA, and TERRAN.
What I mean by that is that just because a world is classified as TERRAN, does NOT mean that its life forms will be anything like what we are accustomed to on TERRA itself.
You see, the classification of "Terran" worlds encompasses a staggering variety of environmental conditions. Atmospheric chemistry, water content, global temperature, impact events, volcanism, gravity...all these things and more can affect how life forms evolve, in surprising ways for seemingly minor differences.
For a simple example, let us look at a common dragonfly, an animal familiar to us from Terra.
He holds up a live dragonfly in a jar.
Dragonflies are insects. That is, arthropods, and like most land-bound arthropods, they breathe through their skin. This naturally limits their size, based on their surface area and weight and other factors that affect their consumption of oxygen, including the oxygen content of the atmosphere. As you can see, a large dragonfly in today's conditions is barely a decimeter across the wings.
However, in prehistoric times, the oxygen content of Terra's atmosphere was higher than now. The difference was only a few percentage points, but even that small change was enough to let dragonflies grow to wingspans of over two meters.
He pauses to let that sink in, then picks up an animal crate such as might hold a small dog, and sets it on the desk.
Spiders are another example. On Terra, a spider the size of your hand is considered HUGE. I already mentioned how arthropods breathe through their skin, and how that limits their size. So how do you think THIS is possible?
He opens the crate, and the class recoils in fear as a gray, hairy, tarantula-like creature half a meter long emerges. The professor merely smiles as he pets the creature, and it makes a happy vibrating sound almost like a purr.
This is an Alpine Crawler, a species native to Tharkad...an icy, rocky world, hence its fur covering and coloration. Its many legs allow it to get about in its native environment. It looks like a spider, to be sure, but in many ways, it has more in common with Terra's mammals...including the greater thermal and breathing efficiency of lungs. And domestication, I might add. They act much like dogs when one treats them properly.
The professor pulls out a small meat treat
The creature immediately flips on its back and curls up, and the class laughs as the creature gets its reward before being returned to its crate. The professor smiles as he waits for the laughter and chatter to die down, then continues.
The point of that demonstration was to show that you cannot assume anything about an alien creature based on its appearance, even if it appears similar to a familiar creature from Terra. Let me show you a...different...case in point.
He picks up a jar containing what appears to be a brightly colored butterfly.
Pretty, isn't it? Pretty deadly, actually. This is a Bloodmoth. We think it originally came from the jungles of Sian, but it has become an invasive species on many worlds in the Capellan Confederation. It is carnivorous, and catches and digests prey with an acidic, poisonous bite. To humans, the bite is hemotoxic, breaking down flesh and causing bleeding, both inside and out. A good bite can kill a human being within hours without treatment.
He puts down the jar, rolls up a sleeve, and then walks around the room showing the hand sized divot in his arm where flesh is missing.
I was lucky enough to have a local guide with the antivenom.
He returns to the podium, and faces the now quiet class with his head high.
THAT summarizes the first and most fundamental point of xenobiology: when dealing with alien life forms, ASSUME NOTHING. Because assumptions based on the familiar appearance of otherwise alien creatures, kill hundreds or even thousands of people every day across human space.
Now, with the gloom and doom out of the way, let's move on to the course outline...
Be careful what you wish for. I might let you have it.
Last edited by Shades of Grey on Wed Jun 23, 2010 10:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.