D. Aalseth, S. Douglas, D. Scott
University of Tihsllub, Department of Biology and Palaeontology
Camouflage is a common tactic in the animal world to avoid predation. From leaf and stick insects to chameleons, to squid and octopus, being able to blend in and avoid being noticed is a very successful strategy for survival. In this paper we explore the lifestyle of a creature that has taken this tactic to an extreme, the Protist D. fantomi.
One of the driving forces of all life is to avoid being eaten long enough to reproduce. This is true of both sedentary creatures such as plants as well as active animals. On one hand you have the active defensive strategy, teeth, claws, speed, used by many successful creatures both to obtain food and to avoid becoming food. Then there are the passive strategies, shells, thick skins, tall trees that keep their reproductive structures out of reach. Lastly there is camouflage. May animals will avoid conflict by using camouflage to prevent predators from seeing them. Stick and leaf insects have developed passive camouflage so they just look like something in their environment. Chameleons are well known for using colour, as are squid. They can change chromatophores in their skin to match the coloration of their surroundings. Less known are the abilities of various species of small octopus who can change both their coloration as well as the texture of their skin to match that of surrounding materials, or even to mimic other animals. Seeing one of these octopus swimming along then settle and vanish is an amazing sight.
One of the fundamental precepts of evolution is, to put it simply, what works survives. That is to say if a species adopts a habit that succeeds it will survive, unless and until there is an environmental change that takes that advantage away. Tyrannosaurs adopted a lifestyle where they dominantly used their mouth and jaws for killing. Over time the line included varieties with larger and stronger jaws and smaller front limbs. This came to an end when the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event struck, rendering the advantage of larger jaws moot. Such would be the same with a creature that adopted stealth as its mode of survival. Over time its abilities would become more and more adept to its environment. It would become ‘stealthier’ if you will.
A creature that adopted extreme stealth as its mode of survival would exhibit a number of characteristics.
First it would be able to adjust the texture and colour of its skin. This has been observed in chameleons and octopus as mentioned above. Over time however these abilities would be refined. Increased photosensitivity would allow the skin on one side of its body to “observe” what it was against and then transmit this information to the skin on the other side. A precise sense of touch would allow the skin on one side to determine the form and structure of the surface and transmit this information to the ‘front’ side for mimicry.
Secondly, all of this data processing would require a large amount of computational ability. A large brain as it were. This creature would have to be highly intelligent.
Thirdly, bones would limit the amount of adaptation the creature could do to blend in to the background. Even if covered in the best camouflage, an arm still is an arm. As a result, a boneless creature would be best adapted to using camouflage. Similarly it could have no teeth or jaws. Tropical octopi have mastered the ability to blend into their background to no small degree because they have no bones. To excel at being unseen a creature would have be an invertebrate.
Forth, because these creature has adapted to a high functioning stealth mode of existence, they would be solitary. Sexual reproduction would be severely hampered because individuals simply could not find each other. Any strategy to attract a mate would quickly be seized upon by predators and make the individual vulnerable. Budding, mitosis, or other asexual modes of reproduction would be essential in a creature so hard to find.
Lastly, because partially digested food, scat, teeth required for eating, and appearing in the open to graze or attack prey, would compromise the camouflage, a creature adapted to a totally stealthy lifestyle would ideally not be a normal carnivore or herbivore. It would have to have some other method of feeding itself.
Therefore a species fully adapted to a lifestyle of camouflage and hiding would like ideally be amorphous in shape, be photosensitive and muscular on the surface, would have a large brain, and would not eat in the conventional sense.
What are the possibilities for such a creature?
For the moment let’s assume there is such a creature. It would be made of matter, belong to one of the known forms of life, if seen it would have the ability to “disappear” very quickly. Rather than eating, it would ‘feed’ during the day when it lay in the sun and absorbed water and nutrients from its surroundings. This could be done either through a natural ability or via a symbiotic relationship with algae. The latter though would require the animals tissues to be somewhat translucent. At night the creature would be mobile because staying in one place would make it vulnerable to being stumbled upon by predators. Due to the massive brain power required for managing the millions of chromatophores and tiny musculature in its skin this would be a very intelligent creature. It would however be a solitary creature, and either reproduce infrequently, possibly asexually, or both.
Have we seen such a creature? No, but we have seen all of the parts. The aforementioned octopus have the subtlety to mimic the most complex coral or reef surface. Protists get energy from their environment, and the colonial forms such as slime moulds can change shape at will and even modify some of the individual parts into reproductive organs when needed.
When observed, a creature such as this would have particular characteristics. It would seldom if ever be seen in the daytime. That is when they are feeding and at their highest level of camouflage. When seen at night they would be wandering around with the translucent off white to greenish colour of many colonial protists, or possibly with some vestigial remnants of whatever they last mimicked. It is even possible they might take on a humanoid form if they were trying to make contact with someone. Unfortunately, due to the “uncanny valley” effect these interactions would be very frightening to most people. When confronted the creature would flee and then using its camouflage evade detection, to the casual observer it would disappear or even seem to pass through a wall or other solid object. In fact it simply conformed itself to a thin layer a few millimetres thick matching the background. Only a very close examination with the proper lighting and instruments would be able to detect where it was hiding. If confronted, a protist such as this could even break down into its constant organisms and fade into the background, only to reform later when the danger was passed.
Let us call this hypothetical creature Dictyostelis fantomi. Is there any evidence that D. fantomi exists? In a word, yes, but not directly. History abounds with reports, from the vague and hysterical to very cold matter of fact from reliable sources. Ghosts are said to be able to do everything discussed above. Ghosts have been reported from every inhabited region, independent of culture or history. Ghost Stories are one of the truly common aspects of human civilization. In fact once we, as rational people, set aside any supernatural explanation for the phenomena, a creature such as D. fantomi would explain all of the reports of ghosts, or apparitions, or phantoms. In the face of all of these reports, the fact that there has never been conclusive proof, hard evidence of the existence of such a creature, is a priori proof that it exists.
Particular ‘ghostly’ behaviours are clearly within the abilities of a creature such as D. fantomi. Walking through walls would in actuality be conforming to the surface appearance and coloration. For all the reports of a ghost walking through a wall there are few to none of them being seen to appear on the other side at the same moment. Vanishing into thin air would in actuality be misdirection and camouflage. Appearing at odd hours, mostly at night would be a natural consequence of their lifestyle. They are out somewhere inconspicuous absorbing sunlight during the day. Indeed, it is our conjecture that the similarity of reports over the centuries, coupled with a lack of any physical evidence is proof that D. fantomi exists. Any differences in reports of the behaviour of these creatures around the world is likely due to individual or sub species variation.
If we set aside the idea that ghosts are souls or lost spirits or wandering human essences, and assume they are living things, all of the reported actions match with a creature similar to D. fantomi. One that has honed clandestine activity, hiding, and camouflage to such a high degree as to evade detection even in this modern era. A protest that is active at night, hides in the day to absorb solar radiation. Is intelligent and may sense our intelligence and so be attracted to us. It would be exceedingly long lived and may congregate around older dwellings and cities. Due to their low reproductive rate they would be solitary creatures and encounters would be infrequent leading to a general disbelief in a population raised to reject “superstitious nonsense”. In the end ghosts are not supernatural any more than a mouse or a cricket trying to hide in the corner. “Ghosts” are just a, heretofore unknown protist infestation of old buildings, a job for Orkin not an Exorcist. They are in fact just a sentient slime mould that can take the form of anything. Something no more supernatural than a spider or mouse would be if they were two meters tall and a pale greenish white.
Which to think of it is not that much more reassuring.