Arboreal

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Sven, Jun 23, 2012.

  1. Sven My mommy is so proud!

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    Ever since this short discussion with Zuvarq, I have been tinkering with the idea of an arboreal sapient. I find the idea incredibly fascinating. However, a realistic portrayal of such a society is going to require a lot more thought and careful consideration than nonchalantly throwing around ideas about tree houses and rope swings (you know, not like the Star Wars method). In fact, as Zuvarq had argued, there are many considerations that may fundamentally inhibit an arboreal society from even forming.

    So, this is my next project. I want to imagine a world in which humans didn't evolve (let's assume that, for whatever reason, australopithecines never happened, and that chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are the only great apes in existence). In the place of humanity, some arboreal species evolved to sapience and became the builders of civilization on planet Earth. The timeframes will be about the same (taking place mostly within the last million years), and we'll go ahead and assume that the world, its flora and fauna will be essentially the same as in our timeline, except without us and our impacts on it.

    My ideas for this project are already developed quite far, and I have a whole lot of material ready for presentation. But I am interested in hearing what other people have to say on the topic. I really like the DValdron approach to threads like this: the group-based brainstorming and dendritic discussion threads make for a very thorough development of the project. And, it's far too big for me to realistically think I've accounted for everything on my own. So, I welcome any additional comments, suggestions, requests and peripheral discussions related to the theme of arboreal sapients on this thread. I have my first take on the topic fairly well fleshed out, but others are more than welcome to put a spin on it or take it in different directions.

    I have to say that, after brainstorming, I am somewhat skeptical of the plausibility of an arboreal society, but I don't believe it to be outside the realm of possibility. Certainly, I am willing to hear any criticisms: I did not post this to the ASB forum, because I want the finished product to be as realistic as possible, and that simply can't happen without considering other peoples' ideas.

    I am leaving the general guidelines of the project wide open, but the single restriction of the challenge is that the sapient and its society must actually be arboreal. It would be far too easy and too uninteresting to have an arboreal sapient gradually transition to a terrestrial lifestyle, where it could create a very human-like society. So, for whatever reason, I will assume that the sapient cannot fully "leave the trees," as it were.

    So, is there interest in the AH.com community to discuss and develop this idea?
     
  2. DValdron Random human being

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    Yes. Go ahead. I think this is quite interesting.

    I'd imagine these arboreals are smaller than humans - 60 to 90 pounds.

    It's just harder for large animals to get around in trees.
     
  3. Zuvarq Pinche pendejo güey

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    A period of very slowly increasing volcanic activity, resulting in a subsequent very gradual buildup of volcanic gases, occurs in a forested region.

    The trees are forced to become thicker, especially at the bottom, and grow higher.

    And gradually, most animal life moves up into the trees, or becomes taller and taller.

    This period ends, but in the region there are still a lot of different kinds of animals with different behaviors that live and interact in the trees. And the trees are very tall and thick.

    In this environment maybe a simian could evolve into an arboreal sapient.
     
  4. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

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    Look at orangutans. Gorillas are too terrestrial for your purposes, and chimps might be, too. Certainly they would be if they were bigger.
     
  5. chr92 Well-Known Member

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    For a sapient strongly adapted for aboreal life, could I suggest a New World monkey? The capuchin seems to be very intelligent already, and a larger variety might be quite surprising. (Actually, even the woolly and howlers might produce a sapient, but I think they'd take longer.)

    sidebar: You probably know already, but I thought I'd mention Harry Turtledove's 'Nothing in the Night-Time', a sf short story in March '89 Analog about extra-terrestrial arboreal primatoids. And even the kiffehs in Dougal Dixon's 'Life After Man'.
     
  6. jacobus Well-Known Member

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    Would this intelligent arboreal species be omniverous? Chimpanzees eat meat on occasion, apparently.
    Cultivation is out of the question I guess, but they can pick fruit from the trees. Tree crops, once you get them going, are going to be a lot easier to take care of and harvest than anything planted in fields. They might have great orchards, maintained carefully over generations, to provide fruit for everyone.
     
  7. Derek Jackson Member

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    I too love this idea, or better yet a human society living in trees. However fire seems crucial for civilization as we understand it and a bit unsafe in such an environment.
     
  8. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

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    Theyre never going to get metal working without fire, but they could achieve a neolithic level. With agriculture.
     
  9. Basileus Giorgios Augustus and Autocrat

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    Seems interesting.

    I've read a theory that seems reasonably convincing to me, that a lot of our modern sentience and sapience comes from the experience of having to deal with large predators on the savannah. Having, as apes, to deal with all of the modern African predators plus several species of sabre toothed cat and giant hyena was quite an important factor in forcing our evolution down a path towards greater intelligence.

    Coupled with that, is eating meat, which I believe increases brain growth and size down the generations. A lot of meat was available at this time (according to the theory, anyway) because the sabre-toothed cats were fairly inefficient eaters, leaving large parts of the carcass due to fear of breaking their teeth. The remains could then be scavenged by intelligent apes working to a strategic plan.

    How one gets these conditions in the treetops, where generally speaking large predators are absent, I do not know. Central African rainforests today harbour leopards and crocodiles, but the other predators like lions, hyenas and hunting dogs are generally absent. The sabre-toothed cats seem mostly to have been animals dependent upon open spaces to survive, and that may well go for the giant hyenas, too. And, of course, even leopards and crocodiles aren't a massive threat to an animal that can survive happily in trees- how much of a threat are tigers to orang-utans, for example? It's something worth looking up, I'd say.
     
  10. Sven My mommy is so proud!

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    Arboreal societies: general considerations

    Excellent! I'm glad there's interest here: that means that, with everybody's help, I might stand a chance of getting it right.

    The following is a post I prepared in advance. I'll respond to specific comments next.

    After hours of brainstorming on this topic, I have come up with a list of considerations that I think will have the largest impact on how an arboreal society develops. I have attempted to condense them into a short list, but it is still a lengthy discussion.

    1. Energetics

    The first consideration is a small-scale, physiological consideration. Basically, as Zuvarq pointed out in the earlier thread, the energetics of living in trees may make it difficult to physiologically support the brain power needed for sapience. While I grant that energetics will be an important consideration for the diet and lifestyle of arboreal sapients, I have developed a major skepticism toward energetic arguments, because, in my experience, energetics arguments have a long and ignominious history of excessive pessimism ("bees shouldn't be able to fly," "dinosaurs couldn't hold up their own weight," etc.). For the sake of argument, I'm going to more or less completely deflect this consideration: let's just assume that energetics are not particularly limiting (though we can entertain discussion about how it would effect agricultural development and lifestyles).

    2. Locomotion

    Living in trees entails major anatomical differences from terrestrial animals. It's not uncommon to see animals with essentially four "hands," or prehensile tails. On the face of it, increasing the number of prehensile appendages would seem likely to increase dexterity and improve technological ability. However, arboreal animals need these appendages to support all kinds of wild movements in the trees, which entails an increase in grip strength and stability, potentially at the expense of fine motor skills. Therefore, we will likely see tradeoffs between locomotory and manipulatory functions in the hands.

    3. Body size

    In general, arboreal animals tend to be quite small. Small size has many benefits in the trees, because it improves mobility and decreases the costs and risks associated with the precarious lifestyle high above the ground. However, it also has its share of problems. First, it increases vulnerability to predators. Not only is the number of predators going to be higher for a small sapient, but the number of ways in which predators might attempt to attack will also be higher for a small sapient. This will impact the social psyche and the entire purpose of civilization to some extent. Second, small size drastically alters the way the animal interacts with its environment. Construction, hunting, domestication, and travel will all be impacted and constrained by the size of the sapient, so each of these societal processes will have to be rethought to some extent.

    4. Diet

    Forests offer an entirely different suite of culinary options for their inhabitants than do grasslands. Tree leaves differ substantially in nutrition from grass and leafy forbs, and the availability of fruits is increased by orders of magnitude over grasslands. Additionally, the characteristics of edible animals will be entirely different: small, highly mobile, and solitary prey animals will be the norm, so the carnivory of arboreal sapients would generate entirely different behaviors from the big-game-hunter paradigm of early human societies. Not only will nutrition and energetics come into play here, but the spatial distribution of food resources and the means of obtaining them will also be pivotal concerns.

    5. Environment

    By far the largest concern with arboreal sapients will be the ecology and function of forest ecosystems. They simply do not function the same way as grasslands. Trees have very high resource demands, and take a very long time to grow. While forest systems tend to be quite permanent and long-lived, they are not resilient to disturbances: it often takes decades for a forest to recover from damage. Also, trees are strongly limited by their high resource demands; water is particularly important. For a grassland species, like humans, expanding into a forest region is a simple matter of chopping down the trees and giving the grass a few months to grow. In contrast, an arboreal sapient cannot simply expand onto the grasslands by planting a few tree seeds: they have to fundamentally alter the resource base of the habitat in order to get trees to grow. At the very least, this entails the construction of large-scale irrigation systems, after which the forest will still take several years to grow to a useable state. This is conceptually similar to humans having to wait a decade or so for a new patch of dirt to grow so they can build a settlement on it: this is going to prove highly unwieldy for my project.

    Summary

    So, in summary, the ecology of forest ecosystems will require sapients to have great construction and engineering capacity to overcome the limitations of the environment, but the anatomy of the sapients is not going to be particularly conducive to large-scale construction or engineering. A rather cruel twist of fate, I think: and, ultimately, I believe it just might be fatal to the cause of arboreal sapience. Nevertheless, the very purpose of intelligence is versatility, and I have to believe that a species with intelligence equal to ours would be capable of devising a way to surmount these unique challenges and develop a respectably advanced and successful civilization.

    I have some ideas about the likely courses of action for arboreal sapients, and I feel like I have developed the rudiments of some very interesting arboreal civilizations. I welcome input and suggestions from any readers, because real societies are not built by single inhabitants, so realistic fictional societies will also require more than one contributor. There are likely many things I haven't thought of yet, so please jump in and offer suggestions and begin discussions.
     
  11. Sven My mommy is so proud!

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    Thanks for all the comments, everybody! I can tell I'm going to get a lot of good ideas and suggestions from this.

    I was actually targeting animals even smaller than that: most candidate species are considerably smaller than 60-90 lbs. Of course, there's a question of whether such a small animal would have a brain with enough processing power to support sapience.

    So, is this just a way to eliminate the terrestrial competition?
    Or a way to keep the arboreal sapient from leaving the trees?
    Could we get the same effect by just starting in a really dense forest, like the Mesoamerican rainforests?

    Theyre never going to get metal working without fire, but they could achieve a neolithic level. With agriculture.[/quote]

    Metalworking will be problematic in the trees, anyway. Metals are on the ground, so metalworking arboreals will have to be at least a tiny bit terrestrial. I don't think I'm going to go so far as to forbid their feet from ever touching the ground, so fire and metal may be possible. But, it certainly won't be a guaranteed development for them.

    I think it's a bit more generalizable than that: apes are simply not suited to a grassland environment in general. The real strength of omnivores is their ability to utilize a diversity of food resources. But, it comes with a dependence on a diversity of food resources to obtain the needed nutrition. In grasslands, resource diversity is relatively low, so an omnivorous strategy is more difficult to pull off. That promotes enhanced intelligence in order to find creative solutions, such as learning how to deal with and even take advantage of large predators.

    I disagree with you about the treetops not harboring the same predator impetus, though: the arboreal sapients ares going to be smaller animals than humans, so they will be vulnerable to more predators than humans are. I suspect that they'll have to develop creative solutions to a lot more predator concerns than we had to.

    -----

    So far, people have suggested the following species or types of arboreal animals:

    Orangutan
    Capuchin
    Howler monkey
    Woolly monkey

    These are all good candidates. But, they aren't the ones I was considering. I also wasn't considering chimpanzees or gorillas (they're too obvious and too similar to humans for my taste). In my next prepared post, I'll detail the species I've been considering (there are three), but I'll wait until people have had the chance to digest my first wall of text before I put out my second one.

    Other posters are more than welcome to pursue discussions about these other arboreals, and you're more than welcome to criticize my choice to not pursue them :D. I may yet be convinced to change my mind.
     
  12. Zuvarq Pinche pendejo güey

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    It's to both keep them from leaving the trees and make trees really tall and thick. Once the volcanic gases period subsides, the tallest trees will stay tall, since they block the sun for smaller trees. Of course, smaller trees will still end up growing since they don't need constant full-power sunlight, they just need a sufficient amount.

    Also, by forcing almost everything to go up into the trees over millions of years, the sapients will have to deal with a lot of different diverse creatures with different behaviors, and appearances, meaning memory and critical thinking etc. is involved for escaping predators and catching prey. And when it becomes safe to inhabit the ground again the tree animals stay diverse since the trees are so tall with so many huge branches for stuff to live on.
     
  13. jacobus Well-Known Member

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    I sort of took it for granted that these hypothetical tree-dwellers would be some kind of simians. But of course intelligent feline or lemurine species are a possibility too.
     
  14. Hrvatskiwi Chakravatin Qayan of the Great Ulus

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    What I think might be better, in order to increase realism, is that this TL takes place later than the evolution of modern humans, since a lack of humans probably isn't going to make other organisms evolve any quicker. Then you can also have other animals evolving differently.
     
  15. Kate Truly ,the People's Princess!

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  16. DValdron Random human being

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    Some random thoughts:

    One of the most promising theories for intelligence is enviromental complexity. Basically, monkeys are smart, not because they've got a lot of predators, but because they have to be smart to eat.

    Look at the monkey world - trees. Yes, but not just trees. Monkeys are frugivores, they at fruit. Trouble is fruit isn't in season all year round. A particular fruit or fruit tree may only be in season for two weeks of the year. Of course, you can round that out by eating many different fruit species with different maturation dates.

    But to do that means that monkeys have to make models of their environment. They have to know all the fruit trees in their territory. They have to know the quickest easiest routes from one to another. And they have to be able to figure out which ones are in season and when.

    This seems to be the driver of monkey intelligence - the need to make a living by quantifying a large number of food sources, and fixing them in time and space and relationships to each other.

    Parrots and Raccoons, which have similar lifestyles are also extremely intelligent animals.

    Note as well, that all arboreal animals have to model their environment in three dimensions, with a vast amount of local complexity.

    So an arboreal lifestyle really drives a lot of spatial and temporal mapmaking. This is our legacy as primates.

    An arboeal intelligence is not only possible, but very likely.

    Now, having said that, the Arboreal environment is going to be extremely resource poor. Listen, if you want twigs, fruits, branches, leaves, vines, plant fiber, insects, birds and occasionally wood... then the tree canopies are the place to be.

    Flint? Might be a problem. Shells, rocks, metals, various tool materials, big game.... all of this is on the floor, or well away from the local forest floor.
     
  17. Sven My mommy is so proud!

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    I'm dubious on some of the details here. Does volcanism really increase tree growth that much? Nitrogen is frequently a limiting factor in plant growth, and volcanoes are a source of useful nitrogen. But I don't know that we could really expect tree gigantism due to volcanism.

    Also, once the period of increased tree growth ends, you'd basically only have one tree generation (a few hundred years) before all the tall trees are gone and the forest returns to what it was before.

    I think the best bet is try to work out a way that an arboreal sapient could evolve in the biosphere we have today: I'm not sure I want to deal with the added complexity of redesigning the biosphere first, anyway.

    Don't get me wrong: "super-forests" are a common theme in arboreal-alien concepts in science fiction, and it certainly has merit. But, an arboreal alien isn't what I'm going for with my project.
     
  18. Zuvarq Pinche pendejo güey

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    The volcanism increases very slowly over millions of years. I'm talking several tens of millions of years.

    Volcanic gases probably inhibit plant growth. But that's the point. By growing thicker with tougher bark the trees can be more protected and by growing taller, more of their trunk, branches, and leaves is above the gas layer.

    Why would the giant trees disappear abruptly? They would shade the other trees, so tallness would still be an advantage. Redwoods aren't becoming smaller.
     
  19. Sven My mommy is so proud!

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    You're probably right: my choice of timing isn't particularly realistic. But, this is where realism takes a back seat to pragmatism. It would certainly be convenient to be able to have creative control over the world that my arboreal sapients would interact with, but it kind of kills the spirit of the challenge in my mind.

    Out of curiosity, though, in what ways would you have other animals evolve in order to interact with an arboreal sapient differently from modern animals?
     
  20. Sven My mommy is so proud!

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    I misunderstood you: it didn't click in my mind that you were talking about a very long period of volcanism and actual tree evolution. I thought you were talking about developmental plasticity, in which a tree would grow larger as a result of changes in resource levels (in which case, the gigantism would not be genetic or heritable).

    Again, I'm not sure I want to try to construct a new environment for this: it's a more interesting challenge if I try to make do with what OTL already gives me.

    But, what sorts of ideas did you have in mind for the kinds of animals or plants the would encounter in a giant forest like you suggest>