How do birds get their color? Fantastical implications for designing new life forms.

One of the fantasies I like to entertain is that it may someday be possible for humans to create a whole new biota of life. I know, I know. I’m a scientist. Life evolves. It is not created. But just imagine how exciting it would be for humans to create their own living offspring. I don’t know how, when, and where, but isn’t it exhilarating to think that maybe we could create offspring of our own design? Our biologists are already attempting to make primitive living structures. Maybe someday we will colonize space. Could our artificial intelligence support our new life forms? A simulator? A novel universe among multi-verses? I think the possibilities are limitless no matter how many eons into the future it may take humankind to achieve such a goal.

Neo Rauch, Self-Portrait, 1987

So, one of my artistic activities is to study Earth’s biota and imagine new organisms. I study, make juxtapositions, and create new forms and biologies.

I have a doctorate in the physiological sciences. So, I have a pretty good understanding of molecular biology and physiology. Right now I am more interested in conceptualizing new structural and external features.

As I consider novel external features, I am obsessed with color. “Color is very important to me,” I recall my grandmother saying once. Color has also become very important to me. Color has played a role in my psychiatric disorder from the beginning. At first, it seemed to me that primary colors were being placed in my environment in purposeful patterns. Then these primary colors seemed cleaner and brighter. Change in color perception is still one of the predominant symptoms I experience when my mental status is altered. So, yes, color is very important to me.

As I imagine new structures for new life forms, one of the first things I think about is color. I’ve already started imagining greenish humanoids, but then I feel unoriginal. Doesn’t everyone imagine green aliens?

What about the possibility of multi-colored humanoids? This has led me to an interest in bird coloring.

It turns out that birds derive their colors from two types of pigments: melanins which produce black, grey, brown and orange colors, and carotenoids, which are used by specialized feather structures to generate the brighter colors.

The melanins are synthesized by melanocytes and the birds’ natural physiology. Natural structural variations in feather follicles give fine control to the pigmentation. The carotenoids, which give the birds the brighter colors, must be obtained from the birds’ food, and the melanins and carotenoids work together to give the birds their intricate, colorful plumage patterns.

So, as I continue my fantasy of designing a novel biota, and when I turn to the subject of a novel organism’s color, I am now given the idea to consider interactions between naturally produced pigments, pigments in the organism’s diet, and structural contributions to pattern and pigment.

Maybe someday I will share images of my creations. Right now, the biologies, forms, and colors exist predominately in my dreams. The project has just begun.

Finding The Mother Tree

Finding the Mother Tree

By Suzanne Simard, Narrated by Suzanne Simard

About halfway through the audio version of this memoir narrated by the renowned forestry scientist Suzanne Simard herself, I was ready to conclude that the author had not accomplished her goal of getting me to see the forest in anthropomorphic terms.  Now that I have concluded the book, this is in some ways still true for me, but by the end of the book I was able to see the parallels between Dr. Simard’s personal story and the life of the forest.  I eventually stepped into the shoes of both Dr. Simard and the forest.

This is a story of innate joy in curiosity turned into disciplined science and academic activism.  It is a story of communication, competition, cooperation, and synergy.  

In this book, you will learn how the forest works as a united whole, and you will find broad understanding and implications for human life with friends, family, and society in general.  By the end of the book, the title truly has a specially developed meaning.  You will find the mother tree.

Note:  I found the audiobook could be comfortably enjoyed at 1.5X.