Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Animals with wheels

I read a discussion about why it’s highly unlikely that animals would evolve wheels.

From what I gathered, the wheel and axle are not only composed of several different parts but the wheel would need to revolve in a way that’s not compatible with muscle structure. I might handwave my way past that in fantasy, but there’s a further concern. The wheel does best on flat smooth surfaces. It’s difficult to imagine wheeled creatures achieving any great speed in forests or plains or marshes.

Bacteria do have wheel-like structures which power their flagella (tiny whip-like tendrils that rotate rapidly and permit them to swim, swarm, tumble, etc). But they’re working in a fluid environment that permits them much more freedom of movement.

On the other hand, there are wheeled creatures in both science fiction and fantasy. I watched Return to Oz years ago, but still remember the Wheelers – humanoid beings with wheels for hands and feet – because they ended up harnessed to Mombi’s chariot and whipped to even greater speeds.

They were unnerving enough as-was. But they could have done even more if they had the ability to move or retract their wheels and allow hands to emerge.

Of course, wheeled creatures would be best adapted to roads or road-like structures, but given the popularity of urban fantasy, there’s no reason such mechanimals couldn’t turn up in futuristic or fantastic cities. They’d fit right into a place like New Crobuzon.

And I’ve read that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has creatures which “use natural roads on the planet's surface formed from cobalt ribbons. Their wheels are also a tool rather than a body part.”

Animals could also create such roads. If they have wheels, why shouldn’t they also have the magic to lay down roads just before them? Such roads could wind through an environment or could float just above the surface of a marsh or desert, like the path in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”.

Being magical rather than physical structures, they would also dissipate after a few seconds, so they would offer no advantage to any predator pursuing the wheeled creature.

The other advantage of wheel-like structures is that they can be damaging. Not only a la the chariot race from Ben-Hur, but similar to flywheels with serrated edges. Such a creature might not even need speed; its sheer weaponry would be enough to keep it safe.

What are your thoughts on wheeled animals?

Image from:


Maria Zannini said...

The manipulation of organic and machine parts always creeped me out--even more so if the body is naturally made that way.

What makes this doubly ironic for me is that I am a huge fan of surrealism in art where these incongruities figure prominently.

Why does the visual intrigue while the verbal creeps me out? My guess is that the mind fills in the voids in a verbal description and maybe my additions are a little more horrific than what the original author intended.

Loren said...

There are macroscopic organisms with rotating body parts.


They get around the nutrition problem by dying and breaking off.

Tumbleweeds usually live in grasslands and deserts, where they can roll relatively freely. So grasslands and deserts are the best places for growing wheels.

Randall said...

While I am no fan of Piers Anthony, he did feature credible "wheeled" aliens in one of his books (I no longer remember which one). The wheels were actually spherical, and I believe they were made up of dead tissue (like finger/toe nails).

Mary Witzl said...

Well, Loren has beaten me to tumbleweeds, which aren't animals, of course, but still seem animate. I'll never forget the sight of half a dozen tumbleweeds, hurtling down the desert highway. They're annoying and sometimes dangerous, but they're still eerie and mysterious and beautiful. Many seed pods are also spherical and thus capable of self propagating far and wide.

When I've tried to incorporate fantasy elements in my writing, I feel so overwhelmed. How do I make the fantasy work and keep it credible? It's a challenge creating a whole world that is believable, but fantastical, and I feel like God considering all the possibilities and implications of my creations.

Marian Perera said...

Maria : Some descriptions don't translate well from the visual to the verbal. Probably why how-to books on writing suggest not using comparisons such as, "She looked like Scarlett Johannson." :)

But the creepiness factor you mentioned is one reason I'd really like to see pit ponies with wheels or fish with propellers.

Loren : In the discussion I read, there's a video of a desert spider which escapes a predator by rolling down a slope at top speed.

Randall : Spherical wheels? I've got to look that up on the web.

I read some of the Xanth novels until I realized I couldn't tell them apart, so I don't think I'll be rereading them to find out.

Mary : "How do I make the fantasy work and keep it credible?"

That's a great question. I wrote a post on making fantasy authentic, because sometimes it may seem as though you can have it bizarre or believable but not both.

Randall said...

It wasn't a Xanth book; it was nominally SF (ie--I don't vouch for the science after all this time)