Ecology for Worldbuilders: Humans’ Resources

One of my favorite tricks for coming up with new species of animal is trying to figure out what uses humans would have for them. It’s two birds with one stone, after all—new animals for the world, cultural detail for the people.

And the list of physical resources humans and their ilk can get from the creatures around them is staggering. Birds can provide meat for the pot, eggs, and feathers for fletching, ornamentation, and/or stuffing sleeping gear and clothing. Mammals can provide meat, fur or wool, hides for leather, milk; even the bones can be useful. Reptiles would be mostly meat and scales, but the poison of the venomous species can be harvested as well. A turtle’s shell can be used as a bowl, or be carved into utensils or small ornaments. Shellfish have potentially ornamental shells—and can also be used as currency, particularly if they have distinctive patterns so one can tell if a new one has been introduced—but there’s also the edibility factor, and some species have secretions that can be used as dyes. Amphibians—well, the phrase “poison dart frog” is pretty self-explanatory, right? And what about arthropods? Honey, wax, spider-silk—and did you know that the ancient Egyptians used to grind up particularly shiny beetles’ shells to add luster to their cosmetics?

And then you can start reaching farther afield. Consider the shofar. Used in Hebrew ritual, the shofar is a hollowed-out ram’s horn played by lip-buzzing, as one would with a trumpet. Lyres can be strung on turtle-shell frames. Violin bows were, and still can be, strung with horsehair. People used to use boar bristles in toothbrushes, once they got past the chewing on a stick stage; granted, the bristles were too rigid for their gums and there was a bit of a risk of infection, but it did the job until better alternatives could be found. What about whale baleen for some sort of strainer?

If you really want to get cute, consider ancient oracular practices. People have been known to slaughter animals and try to make predictions from the arrangements of their innards, or toss the bones into the fire and interpret the pattern of the cracks. I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to adapt practices to new creatures, or new creatures to possible practices.

What about less tangible benefits? Consider pack and draft animals of various sorts: horses, donkeys, mules, oxen, camels, llamas—byproducts or none, they’ve shaped entire cultures by carrying things and people. Dogs come from the domestication of wolves to help hunt; trained birds of prey, though less likely to come back without incentive, serve a similar purpose. Ferrets were once used to chase rabbits out of their burrows. Most of us have heard of messenger birds of some sort or another.

This sort of purposing is something in which you can almost get away with “[Species], but different size”; imagine trained wolf spider-analogues the size of large cats performing a sort of ground-bound falcon-type role. Essentially, assume a capability similar to a creature that serves an existing purpose—or find a new use for an existing capability—and try to figure out what else might bear that quality. Don’t be afraid to mix and match, either!

More of this to come tomorrow.

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