Episode 13: The World of Social Dragonflies
Astronomers recently found phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, which indicates that there MIGHT be life there. Obviously, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what that life could be like, and then this episode happened.
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
Jazmin Scarlett is a social volcanologist. You can follow her on twitter at @scarlett_jazmin. You can read her blog at https://phdvolcanology.wordpress.com/. And you should watch out for her upcoming podcast, What On Earth?!
Marielle Pellegrino is an astrodynamicist and a PhD candidate in aerospace engineering at UC Boulder. You can follow her on twitter at @MissAerospace and you can learn more about her on her website: http://www.missaerospace.com/
Jessica Ware is an entomologist who studies dragonflies and damselflies. She’s an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, which is now open at limited capacity! You can follow her on twitter at @JessicaWareLab and check out her website: https://www.jessicalwarelab.com/
Hey there, and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host Moiya McTier, and I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets, and I'm also a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds; and this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. Before I get started, I want to thank my new patron Kelly and my centaur level patron, Michael. I'm halfway to my first goal of making enough money to start paying my guests, and if you want to help me reach that goal, you can go to Patreon.com slash GoAstroMo. Today's episode is really fun, because it's the first panel episode where we've discussed a real planet. But when the news broke about phosphine and Venus's atmosphere last week, I just knew I had to get some people to help me imagine life on our neighboring planet. So I hope you're ready to hear about volcanic rainforests and dragon fly poop. But first, let's meet our guests because I was so lucky to book them all on such short notice.
Thank you so much for agreeing to be on this episode of Exolore. Let's get started with introductions so the listeners know who you are. And Jazmin is at the top of my screen. So do you want to tell us who you are? what you do and what fictional worlds you're inhabiting lately?
Okay, so I'm Jazmin Scarlett, and I'm a volcanologist. I research how people live with volcanoes in the past and the present to form our future. I play a lot of video games, and I'm actually playing a video game called No Man's Sky, which is basically exploring the universe, a fictional universe. So I actually have been going to some weird planets. When surveying weird minerals and animals and trying to find out what happened to like, a civilization that has kind of disappeared, in the universe and it's your job to try and figure out while exploring the universe, what happened to them. And also book I've actually recently read, I forget the name of the author, but it's called the short series called Binti. So it's an afrofuturism kind of sci-fi kind of a series of books. I just read the first one, and I really enjoyed it, and also that one's like, based in space as well. So I feel like that's kind of relevant to the surface.
Yeah. Oh, that's amazing. The video game makes me think that it's like a cooler version of a Roanoke mystery. Like what happened to this lost colony? That's really cool. Marielle, what about you? Who are you? What do you do and what fictional worlds are you inhabiting?
Alright, Hi, I'm Marielle. I'm a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado and aerospace engineering. I particularly focus in astrodynamics, or how things move in space. I'm currently working through some short stories by Ursula Le Guin. So I haven't had like a set world I've been inhabiting, but that's been really fun switching every night to a different world. Yeah.
That's awesome. I've never done that sort of, like very rapid switch from world to world. Does it require a big mental shift for you?
Um, a little bit. Like, there is one that I was reading, and it's a little hard to grasp your head around the rules of the particular world in such a small amount of time. So there was one where I was trying too hard to tie it to our world - it kind of made it interesting too in that respect, that I was like, finding out new things, even towards the end of the story.
Nice. And do you remember the name of that story?
I think that one's called Wild Girls. It's not my favorite one, of the ones I read, but yeah.
Cool. And Jessica, what about you? Who are you? What do you do and what fictional worlds are you in happening?
So I'm a bit of an outlier here because I actually study insects. I study insect evolution, and I'm a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. And my specialty are things that lived a long time ago, but still exist today, which are dragonflies and damselflies. It's so funny, the most recent sci-fi that I read was actually just a couple of days ago, and it was written by my twin. My twin writes, kind of afrofuturism type stories, and he wrote this piece called Antarctica, about this kind of future Earth where people who were born in Antarctica to claim land rights have been sent to Antarctica. As the world goes on fire Antarctica has now melted. And so these people of color scientists kind of band together to try and revolt against the kind of New World Order. It was it was a gripping tale.
That sounds really good. It's called Antarctica?
And what's your brother's name?
Syrus Marcus Ware
All right, yeah, well put that in the description box below so people can check it out. Unless it's like, you know, as the twin you have access to a pre-published copy or something.
Well, actually, my twin's an artists, so he also did it as a play. That was like a multimedia performance piece for people who go into this immersive experience. But now he's writing it as a book, kind of post play. So it was really cool. It's sad to imagine that it doesn't seem like fiction, actually.
Yeah, a lot of the, you know, far fetched dystopian fiction that people have been talking about for the last couple decades now suddenly, doesn't seem that unrealistic, which is horrifying, unfortunately. But let's start talking about our own world and building our own fictional world together, which I've found to be a really cathartic exercise during these crazy times. So when I build a fictional world, I always start by talking about the environment. And then I move on to biology and then I move on to culture. So for the environment today, this is a first for Exolore. Usually I explore and imagine worlds that aren't actual planets. But for today's episode, we're going to be thinking about life on Venus. But not Venus, as it is today, Venus as it was a couple billion years ago. So astronomers have done a lot of research on Venus. And one study that came out a few years ago, found that, you know, through simulations, it's likely that Venus was pretty earthlike for a long time. So for two or 3 billion years, Venus had the same temperature and pressures that we find here on Earth, maybe even a little bit cooler. It's about the same size as Earth. And really, the only difference is that Venus has a much slower day. So instead of, you know, 24 hours, a day on Venus is like 120 Earth days, so it rotates very slowly. This gives you big, puffy clouds that are always under the sun. So it follows the rotation of the planet, because the water underneath the sun point has more time to evaporate and form those clouds. Venus also had less water than Earth did so enough water to form life. But the oceans were shallower and less of the surface was covered with water. And Venus was really volcanically active. So we think it might have some active volcanoes still today. But the surface is just really volcanic. But Jazmin will have some interesting things to tell us about what types of volcanoes they may have been, which we don't know, because we can't time travel two billion years in the past. And then about half a billion years ago, we think that there may have been this big outgassing event that put a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And now, if you look at Venus, it's the hottest planet in our solar system, even though it's not the closest to the sun. So on the surface temperatures can get up to like 900 degrees Fahrenheit, that's hot enough to melt lead. Its atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth. So you have these immense pressures down on the surface of the planet. But there is this one region of Venus' atmosphere between like 50 and 60 kilometers above the surface, where the temperature and the pressure are actually very similar to Earth. So in this episode, I want to imagine what life might have looked like, how it might have evolved for those two to three billion years when it was habitable. And then I want to talk about how they would have reacted to this transitional period when they noticed that their planet was changing. And then I want to talk about the society that they would have built in these clouds. We just had this amazing discovery of phosphine in that atmosphere of Venus, which is a type of gas that a lot of scientists think might be an indicator of life. So if we found phosphine in the atmosphere, let's imagine a way that it could have been put there, and been, you know, replenished over and over because phosphine is the type of gas that is pretty reactive, so it gets destroyed easily. Alright, so that's the environment. Now on to biology and I'm so excited, Jessica, that you're here and that you know about dragonflies, because I think aerodynamics will be very important in this episode. But let's first think about what types of physical features might help a species rise to power and dominance under those conditions on Venus a couple billion years ago,
Those are good questions because, of course, the way that we understand natural evolution as a process is that there's things that are selected for, and is selected for to provide for individuals that have the highest amount of fitness in, you know, a given time period. So, if the day is actually that long, how long regeneration times be for these organisms, because selection acts on who is, you know, getting most copies of their genes into the next generation. But if the generation time is really long, because the days are really long, I wonder how the selection [would] still be a relatively rapid process over long periods of gradual time, but like would generation times be less than a day? Would generation times be a full day? Would generation times be multiple days because things could be what we would consider to be crepuscular, early in the day and end of the day, but those would 100 days apart? That is an interesting question.
That is interesting. Do you have a preference? And the cool thing about world building is that it's at different points, you can just like make decisions, and kind of lock those in, and then we can deal with the consequences of that. So do you have a preference?
So my preference would be that these organisms would have a full day as at least one full day as generation time, but that they would partition the time when they were out. So that some would be only found like, now only in July, or they're only found in New Jersey in October. It would be like that only they would only be found, you know, the first one third of a Venus day. And then, they would either lay their eggs, and then be, you know, dormant, perhaps not terrestrial living in the water until the next early part of the Venus day.
That's so cool. How many cycles do you think they live through? Is it like one cycle and they're done? Or can they do many cycles and lay many batches of eggs?
I would think there'd be selection for different patterns. So some will specialize by having, you know, the strategy where they have just one, small brood that they maybe invest parental care in, and others will just kind of broadcast and then die, and then just hope that those eggs hatch, and the nymphs or whatever they are, of course I'm picturing insects... I'm not even thinking about mammals, but hopefully some small proportion would survive to the next Venus morning, or whenever it is their time period they're specialized for?
Yeah, that's awesome. Are you thinking within one species, they might specialize? Or is this across many different species?
Well, I mean, as soon as there's one species, you're going to have multiple species, right? Because that's the way that as far as we understand life, you know, it's that there's going to be variation among individuals. There always is slight variation among individuals. Their biochemical cascades, their appearance, whatever it is, their behavior, and some those variants will be selected for in certain times of the Venus day, or certain regions of Venus. And in other regions of Venus or other parts of the Venus day, they won't be selected for. And so then you end up seeing partitioning, and you end up seeing splits. And you end up seeing, you know, speciation. That's the beauty of the natural process of evolution.
Yeah, that's really cool. So I do want to focus on just like one species, and the species that we think would be like the human equivalent on Venus, right? So they, either through intelligence or strength or whatever, have risen to the top of whatever chain, and I would want to start thinking about what their biology might be. And I want to hear from from the other guests too. We can use our imagination here, and if we think of something that's just totally impossible, Jessica can tell us to rein it in.
Okay, so, during this time is still quite hot, right?
It's actually the same as Earth, a little bit cooler. Yeah.
Okay, so maybe their skin or whatever, is adapted to maybe giving off heat if it gets too hot. So like sweat maybe? Or maybe like shed its skin or whatever, when that's once it grows or not. And obviously, it would depend if they're near a volcano, then it will probably be more of make sure their lungs are adapted to the gases that are given off by the volcano. And also, that does depend on what the magma and the interior Venus is made up of in terms of how they kind of process those gases or not, because there could be poisonous to us, but maybe not to the species on Venus, or vice versa. That's what I'm thinking of at the top my head.
Yeah, I absolutely love the idea of them being able to shed a type of skin. I think that that later on, when we get to a transition to cloud civilizations. I imagine if they shed skin, then there might be something built in culturally, and I'm jumping ahead, there might be something built into the culture of being okay with like, leaving stuff behind, and taking on new roles and forms. And so I think that that would just be like, really beautiful if they can shed their skin. Marielle, do you have any thoughts?
Yeah, I mean, I think the probably the biggest trip up in comparing to earth and thinking is going to be the long day. So it would be interesting to see how whether it would be through hibernation or whether their eyes would have to adapt, or the way that they perceive the world would be very different. Maybe sonar or something like that would be really cool.
Yeah, so adapting from the shift from day to night. Yeah, that's really cool. Jessica, when things disappear, but they don't die, is it always that they're falling asleep and hibernating? Or is it that they've sometimes burrowed underground, and they're just hiding?
Yeah, there's lots of different strategies. I mean, there could be things that can dry out, you know, and they can stay dried out for a period of time and then be kind of reanimated with water. There's lots of things [that] kind of will have a life stage, it's intended to kind of dry out, like spores or what have you. It could be that they have kind of partition the habitat. So some could have a big part of their life in the ocean or big part of their life in the freshwater, and then the rest of their life kind of either in the sky or on the surface. That's also a good strategy. There are some things that kind of will burrow underground, we think of things like fish and frogs in our world today, they do that in the winter. Salamanders, they're all kind of burrowing and getting ready for winter. So that's definitely a strategy too if the day is really long, and if there's really a lot of heterogeneity, because I'm not sure Jazmin, but I'm assuming with volcanoes, there's going to be some heterogeneity in the habitat, right? That's the risk. You're a mother or father, whomever it is, that is you know, over positing or laying the eggs or giving birth, you are assuming that when the spores rehydrate, when the eggs hatch, when the larvae emerge from the water, that the environment is going to be kind of similar to the environment that you're in. Right when you're when you're laying the eggs when you're having the progeny.
That's what I assume when I lay my eggs.
That's what I assumed. When I had my children, I assumed the next day the earth is going to be the same. But if there's volcanic eruptions, and it's kind of changing the habitat, it's changing, you know, anything that's going to be around where the egg was laid. That is a risk, so maybe there'd be evolution for that.
Maybe their eggs have adapted too, if they do come into contact with lava, somehow so they're very hardy eggs that can withstand the heat and being buried and once they hatch, they also have to have that strength to push through the lava once it's solidified, because obviously that's rock now so then it's very tough to get through. Like on Earth, we have to like drill to get parcial through it. So if the egg is buried and then they hatch, they need to be strong enough to get through that solidified lava or they just die and can't get through I guess.
I feel like, in the past, I remember reading that eggs laid in different environments, even if they're the same species, can be adapted to those environments. Like does where you lay the eggs influence what comes out of that egg?
Well, I mean, certainly individuals that are adapted to say a salt marsh, you know when they lay eggs or eggs are going to have some of the genes of the parents that might confer some, you know, advantage to being in a salt marsh. Is that what you mean?
No, I think I was talking more about like, turtles. If the environment is really warm, females are more likely... so things like that. But if we could make it more than just sex deterministic. If a volcano goes off before you hatch, like you are somehow given the ability to then like, chomp through that rock or something.
Yeah, like maybe it triggers some type of, you know, epigenetics. It triggers some type of gene activation, that allows a phenotype that would allow you to be adapted to chopping through the rock. We see that with locusts. When locusts are in gregarious populations really, really close together, they have this switch, and they have a black phenotype. And they swarm to leave and go and chomp up all the food, right? So maybe that's what happens here. If they have cues, you know, that they're sensing in the egg form, or the larval form, and it causes this gene activation, and they have like a strong tooth, it's like the axe that Jazmin was talking about or the drill.
Yes, that's what I want. I want that for this world. Okay, so they can shed their skin, their genetics can adapt slightly to the environment where they hatch. I love that we're talking about insect type things that will be really cool. And they live through like, maybe a couple Venus days, and egg cycles, just so we can get some like continuity and longevity in there.
Where do they live? Are they in the sky, mostly? Do they partition their life strategy so they have, you know, one stage in saltwater, shallow ocean, and then another stage on the surface of a volcano?
What do people think? Where should they live?
Like straight up in the volcanoes or around them?
I mean, we have evidence of species that do live in submarine volcanoes. So there's been like, video footage of sharks being found in like, volcanoes under water. So it's not impossible. Like there's a special type of bunny, like rabbit that lives on some volcanoes in Mexico. And also you get mountain gorillas in Africa, they can live around volcanoes. And of course, we live around the volcanoes as well. Um, so it's very possible to be in and around, maybe at the beginning of the cycle, or near the end of the cycle or whatever. And then we'll see as they evolve into more, suppose humanoid like things and more intelligence, whatnot. Um, maybe then they change where they live because obviously the volcanoes provide lots of natural resources for like building materials and stuff like that. And also jewelry as well and tools. So maybe, once they evolve their relationship with the volcanoes change in that way in terms of where they live and how they exploit it? I guess. I'm just saying, volcanoes because I'm a volcanologist, and I love volcanoes.
Let's go with volcanoes. And I can also imagine a scenario where they live around the volcanoes, but because of the way environment can produce these epigenetic differences, maybe they realize that if they lay their eggs in the volcano, their children are very strong. So maybe they start to actively select to lay their eggs in the volcano.
Do you think that there's sentience? Do you think that they, they're actually making choices?
I think that for it to be an interesting world that people can like craft stories in eventually I would like to get them to sentience. Yeah. Are you down with creating like a shedding, sentient dragonfly?
Okay, dope. Alright, so let's talk about what they need to survive. Do they need to eat? Sleep? Breathe? If so, how much?
I feel like they have to at least rest right, because for as far as what we know about cellular replication and repair, there has to be some downtime to do some of the housekeeping stuff that bodies usually have to do.
Cool, Marielle you look like you have thoughts?
I'm trying to think about what they're going to eat. Dragonflies normally eat insects, right. Like other insects?
Yeah, or they'll eat each other. Or they'll actually eat fish and tadpoles.
Dragonflies eat fish?
Mm hmm, when they're in the water, the babies.
250 million years.
Oh, so it's recent. That wouldn't have made it into the news.
Wow, I've learned something new today about dragonflies.
Marielle, what were you saying?
Oh, just the fact that they eat each other would be really interesting for a sentient being.
Yeah. It would affect their culture maybe?
Yeah. Absolutely. So they can eat each other, occasionally, they resort to cannibalism. It sounds like they can pretty much eat anything. They can eat other insects, they can eat fish. Do they eat plants and vegetable matter?
Yeah, that's a good question because what about the nutrition? Do they have an amino acid kind of code, like what we do to make and build muscle and proteins in their body?
Yes? Let's say yes. What does that mean?
Well, then I guess if they eat plants, there has to be plants. And can there be plants with all the volcanic action?
Yes. There can be but then that would depend on how frequent the volcanoes erupt. So if this is Venus, then obviously they're very flat and produce mainly basalts, which I gather would mainly be flood basalt, so a lot of lava basically. A lot of runny lava, so like the lava you see on Kilauea in Hawaii, for example. So it would require the fact that the lava would have to solidify relatively quickly, and then you'll see the pioneer species, the first colonizing species would have to help you get there very quickly, but it is entirely possible. I mean, the volcano I research each time it erupts, it's actually like rain forests, where there's water in the environment, the volcano erupts in and like the rain forest is wiped out. But then within 30 years, a rain forest grows back like an eruption never happened. So actually, because of the soil around that, and obviously the rapid speed in which the species grow back, it's very possible for vegetation like rainforests to grow around these volcanoes.
That's awesome. And there is going to be a lot of rain on the day side.
I was just thinking jumping ahead to when they eventually will have to migrate, they probably should be eating plants because that would be a lot more sustainable and easier for them to grow and you know, make their own food.
Alright, so we're doing a little back engineering. I like that. Let's do that. Um, what might they do for fun? Like what are common past times in their societies once they evolve to that point? Because I mean, like, like several billion years, 3 billion years is plenty of time to evolve to intelligence.
Before we get to talking about these newseum dragonflies pastimes, I wanted to tell you about two cool things. First, if you enjoy my approach to world building, and you want to learn more about it, you're in luck because I'm teaching a class about it through Atlas Obscura. Over eight weeks, I'll introduce you to facts based world building and the different world truths you need to know to make yours realistic. If you listened to the last Exolore episode where I interviewed Alison Luhrs, you know that the best thing for a world builder to learn is how their own world works. My class can give that to you. And because I like to teach by example, I'll also build my own world throughout the class, adding on layer after layer based on suggestions from the students and the material we covered in that week's lecture. To sign up for the class, head on over to atlas obscura.com/experiences and scroll down to facts based world building. I know the URL is pretty long, so I'm going to include the link in the show description below. The class costs $100, but I don't want money to be the reason people can't access my work. So if that's a barrier, just email me at Exolorepod@gmail.com. All right, there's another thing I wanted to tell you about. I recently announced that I joined Multitude Productions an independent podcast collective and production studio. One of the many shows they ... well, I guess now we make is called "Head Heart Gut", and it's a debate show featuring all the hosts of the Multitude Shows. I haven't been on any episodes yet, but I will be soon. So maybe you want check it out. The catch is that "Head Heart Gut" is only for members of the Multicrew, a program that gets you access to cool Multitude perks for as little as $5 a month. So check that out. I'll also post a link to that in the description below. All right, while you think about those things, let's get back to the discussion. Remember, we were just about to talk about what the Venus dragonflies do for fun but be sure to listen all the way to the end of the episode for a fun creative prompt.
Maybe they like collecting things? Maybe they like making cabinets of curiosities with little bits of rocks that they find that they think look neat.
Oh, they're like geologists! They're like trained to be geologists from like birth. That's amazing! Oh, wow.
Does lava make good sediments to find fossils or is everything kind of boiled up?
So for lava, they basically barium all those things so not been found that you can actually have anything in the lava once it's solidified cause it's also molten as well, so get melted down. But for example, if there's like stuff underneath the lava flows, and it's just below the surface and obviously that can be preserved because it's like a hard casing. It's like a hard case. Once the lavas solidified and settled, then honestly anything underneath is preserved pretty much. So I suppose you could find fossils, if mostly did not disturbed in any way by the lava.
I wonder, well, maybe that's what they do. Maybe they go out and look for rocks and stuff. And then they end up coming across, you know, fossils of things that came before, because it's 3 billion years, a long time for them. And then you could have a little paleontology type, folks. So you could have, you know, people who are taxonomists, who are trying to describe things that came from the past,
Are geysers around all volcanoes, or is that just my context from Yellowstone?
It depends on the volcano, but usually, like, you can get geysers or hot springs. But obviously it depends, if there's water available. And obviously Venus has less water, so probably not as many.
I was just imagining the way we gather round Old Faithful group of dragonflies.
I like the idea of them having races because they can fly. So I like the idea of them trying to race the geyser and see who can shoot up from the ground faster. Okay, so they there, it seems like we're creating some very nerdy dragonflies. Some very, like intellectual dragonflies, which I love. And I think that that'll that'll make later bits easier. But I think stories would probably be really important on this planet. Especially stories about volcanoes, and I have never met another social volcanologist. So I would love to take the opportunity to ask Jazmin like, what stories? What myths? What legends do you think they might form?
That's very good question. So around the world on Earth, a lot of volcano myths and stories is about particular events of volcanic eruptions. So if they're quite disastrous events, they're usually incorporated into a story and then also is passed on generations and becomes a myth and legend. Some describe, like, how they were fooled. So Aborigines in Australia, through the dreaming, they have actually got stories about how volcanic eruptions happened in Australia. And of course, Australia doesn't have volcanism now. But actually, a geologists, like, decades ago, using a story through the dreaming actually managed to find a lava tube, not that indicates that there was lava flows in Australia. And so if they have like, long kind of ways of recording, and what changes in the environment, and indigenous people do very well with their kind of like story systems you could probably trace back to actually how these volcanoes came to be on Venus.
You said the dreaming, what is that?
So that's basically the way they kind of construct their memories. It's hard to describe, but it's sort of like how they kind of construct and collect their kind of like societal memories and experiences. So then they pass it down to the generations. And it's like how to find a particular resource for example, so of course, Australia is quite varied country so freely dreaming, for example, you can trace and find where to find water, for example.
So it's like a word that means the collection of knowledge?
Okay. I love that.
Yeah. So it would be like not only telling stories about past eruptions, but it would be forming knowledge and passing down knowledge and be like, it's safe to like be be built here or to gather resources here, but it's not safe to go here because this has happened in the past sort of thing. And that usually, is what myths and legend's mainly are. Or it could be really ridiculous and have no meaning at all. They could be just for fun as well. That's the thing as well. I mean, there's a story related to my volcano, and it sounds very, like the myth of Atlantis. And that's just like, "well, that's made up" because the volcano is still there, the island is still there, it's not disappeared. So yeah, it could be just for fun as well as for entertainment, and then it could be complex to try and maybe figure out which is true for which is fiction. And that could be a job of a nerdy dragonfly to figure out.
Alright, so maybe maybe some creation myths, maybe some just like very fun, absurd things that obviously aren't true. But people like to tell these stories, maybe around like their version of a campfire? What might their version of a campfire be?
Well, that's the question. I mean, are we imagining that there's parental care, so are these units of of individuals that are related to each other? Or are these just people that come together because they happen to be in the same area, they are aggregated and around a certain spot,
What I have typically run into in these very extreme environments, and it sounds like especially if they're around volcanoes a lot, it might be a very extreme environment is that collaboration and, you know, social creatures tend to do better is they can solve problems together and overcome obstacles. But we can zag from that, we can go in a different direction if we feel so inclined.
I mean, are dragonflies sociable creatures?
They're not. I mean, the dragonflies we have here on Earth are not. They'll eat anybody and anything. They really come together only for meeting purposes. And in those circumstances, males fight each other for access to females. And males can be so aggressive to females to insist on mating, that some females actually modify their body coloration after they get sperm which they can store so that they look like males to avoid harassment. And it's like a really complex reproductive race so that females can try and just like please control their own fertility. So hopefully these dragonflies maybe on in this other world could be social. There's very few truly social insects actually.
Yeah, well, it's up to the three of you do want social butterflies? I'm sorry, dragonflies? Or do you want competitive and aggressive dragonflies?
I vote for social only just because I've already seen the kind that are competitive. I didn't see a variant of some sort.
Yeah. But it would be interesting to tie in some of those characteristics into their society as well.
I like the changing color aspect that would tie really well into fashion and ideals of beauty on this planet. If the dragonfly people could like change their coloration. Also, I bet the spy industry would be a lot bigger. Alright, so now let's imagine this transition period. I feel like we have a good enough sense of what life might be like when things are normal. Scientists think that there may have been either several big outgassing events in a row or one giant outgassing event that threw carbon dioxide up into Venus's atmosphere. We know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, it's changing the temperature on Earth, and it just did that on Venus but bigger so when they start to realize that their planet is changing, how would they react? Let's flash beyond the denial. And they're now in a moment where they're like, "oh the surface of our planet is very close to uninhabitable. We have to move", and let's also move past them deciding where to go and say that they're going to go into the clouds. What problems do they have to solve? What do they have to figure out in order to physically move their society from the surface of the planet to the clouds? Marielle, maybe you have some insight here?
Yeah, they're gonna definitely need food. Also, with the outgassing event, you're gonna have a different atmosphere, so they might actually not be able to survive on the clouds themselves, they might need to be in some sort of habitat in which they would need a pressurized system. Actually, the outside pressure would be the same, but yeah, you would need to kind of supply your own gases and stuff. Preferably not all oxygen, because that would be very flammable, so you generally need to bring your own food and oxygen. And then the temperatures there should be somewhat close to what they were experiencing before the event. So you wouldn't have to worry too much about like heat shielding or any of that stuff. The one thing that's tricky about the clouds is that because you're in the clouds, you don't have direct sunlight in the way that we have here on earth for solar panels and using solar light, so that's something that they need to think about whether they want to go above the cloud deck at certain points to get energy, how are they going to get energy essentially?
Yeah, that's interesting. So you think that's going to be their biggest problem is generating enough energy to keep themselves afloat? And power all of the stuff they need to like, grow food and everything else?
Yeah, it's definitely a big issue. So I guess for some context, when I was working on that Venus balloon mission this past summer, essentially, we just had to take a bunch of batteries. Yeah, I mean, it's a really cool program, if any planetary scientists are listening, they should apply to the NASA JPL planetary science summer school. But anyways, yeah, like, the biggest thing we were running against was power and sustaining all the equipment on and the fact that you're in the cloud deck, which is great for temperatures, but that means you're not getting direct sunlight. It's diffused sunlight. And that's not enough for a solar panel. That could be something that they could work on. Yeah.
I was thinking on that lines, that they probably would have gotten the energy from the volcanoes. So maybe they would find it tricky to actually transition because they're so used to the volcanoes, because they're so ingrained in their lives, they would actually find it very hard probably, to figure out an alternative source of energy.
Yeah, I think that's going to be a really difficult cultural transition. So have you ever come across an example of a culture that was very familiar with volcanoes and then had to move away?
On the top of my head, I can't remember the names, but it's usually volcanic islands where they have to do this. I would describe these kind of areas as like tiny islands with big volcanoes on them. Like the one I study in the Caribbean, for example, like the volcano pretty much dominates the northern half of the island. And usually, if the volcano is so destructive, and it overwhelms, like, our societal systems to cope, they have no choice but to move away. And it can be hard because also you get the sense of place, if you've been there for generations, that you get so attached to the environment, to the volcano, and think that, well, this is all I've ever known, I can't move away, because I don't know what's going to happen when I move away, but when you do move to new location, you lose that knowledge of the environment you were in. And this happens mainly with indigenous populations, but this is also associated with colonialism as well. And that because of colonialism, the traditions that you know, growing up with the knowledge you've grown up with, is being you know, oppressed, suppressed. And [they're told] like, "no this is how you should think." So like for example, religion was also a big thing with colonialism, like converting them to Christianity, from their traditional indigenous kind of spirituality and religion. So it pretty much would change their culture like quite dramatically and the volcano can, but at the same time, sometimes that movement is only on short term. So for example, again, with volcanic islands, even though they move away, sometimes they move back within a few years because they know that volcano is going to be okay in a few years time to move back. So it depends. And I think it's just down to decision making, whether they want to move back or not. So like on the volcano I research in the Caribbean, some communities after an eruption in 1900s, early 1900s, they did not move back. And I couldn't find out why they didn't move back because [the] previous eruption, they did move back. And I think that may have been down to the decisions by people in authority, and stuff like that so like the colonial government, may have been responsible for that we're like, "no, you're staying put here now." So I don't know. So yeah, it can be a positive and a negative I would say, in terms of negative that it could basically change your whole kind of cultural connection to the environment to the volcano to move away, but then it can be a positive, because you can reconstruct new culture and new knowledge. So combat the whole shedding the skin thing?
Yeah. Um, I feel like we've created a conundrum here, because, you know, they're so incredibly tied to these volcanoes and getting energy and probably food to and tools from these volcanoes. And at the same time, I would hope that there would be this like, ritual or this cultural belief in like shedding your skin and becoming a new person. So how do we think those values, those beliefs would battle each other?
I think it depends on how long of a period of time the changes taking place over because I feel like when it's like a catastrophe, and is sudden decisions, it might happen one way, whereas if it's slow, gradual change, that might just be the creation of inequality; where there could be like a division and people who could do one path or another, maybe some people will be left behind and others will go to the clouds.
What kind of humidity do these dragonflies require? Like do they have to bring that as well with them?
Yeah, that's a good question because actually, I would be more worried almost about the juvenile stages. On Earth, juveniles are in freshwater, and so they would have to carry freshwater, or they would have to have some type of change in the way that the habitat is, I guess, for the juvenile stages, which is again, a question for the length of time because over, you know, evolution, like natural selection can select individuals that don't need a lot of freshwater, but it takes, long[er] periods of time. But if the change is very sudden, like in one or two generations, it wouldn't be enough time to, you know, see those types of adaptations and it would just be extinction.
I'd say the atmosphere changes over the course of like, multiple millions of years. So, you know, the atmosphere is changing, but that doesn't necessarily say when the Venusian dragonflies accept the change and, you know, decide that they have to do something about it.
Well, maybe they could make some sort of nuclear energy power, because like, I'm thinking of it through the limitations of what our societies kind of developed, but they could create some sort of plant that was small, and they themselves are much smaller beings than we are so keeping them alive and keeping them afloat is a little bit easier than keeping a human in that environment.
Also, they can fly.
Yes. Um, why don't we say that they can create their own energy? And so then they would essentially need to make little greenhouses. Have any of you been to biosphere in the US? It's in Arizona.
It's the coolest thing. But um, it essentially is, back in the day, I forget what really wealthy person wanted to develop a habitat on the moon. And everyone was like, "you know, you really should try to develop a self-sustaining habitat on earth before you go to the moon." So out in Arizona, they created this thing where they have a rainforest room and they have like a California desert and all these different things so that it could literally produce and create some own oxygen without having to interact with the outside environment. So a lot of interesting things that happened with that particular project. For instance, the first group that went in there almost suffocated, because they didn't take into account that concrete absorbs oxygen after it was made, so, yeah, all of a sudden, they're like, "oh, no, we're not getting enough oxygen." It was a big thing about whether, "Oh, should we pump in oxygen?" Even though it goes against the whole purpose of the place. I kind of imagined something like that, where they kind of create rooms and stuff to kind of produce their food they need to eat, but also that, whatever they're trying to breathe and things like that.
If it's like a long period of time, maybe individuals that were capable of something like photosynthetic production of energy would be selected and that could be the new species, or something like that. Because if they're flying constantly, they would have to really have an uptick in their fat stores.
Yeah, I think what I would love is if they had like blimps, but because they can fly the dragonfly, people can just like fly from one blimp to another. And that makes it more social. And you can have more collaboration and more problem solving as a society.
I'm imagining so from the context of like astronauts and stuff traveling from each of the things they put on their little... It's called a PLSS, but it's got all their oxygen and stuff in there and go to the next blimp. That would be really cute to see them carry little packs on their backs.
You'd have to have wing covers, maybe because that's the thing that gets dragonflies or insects on earth is when they get rain droplets or dew and stuff on their wings. It messes up with their wing loading and they can't fly as well. So maybe it's like a little raincoat because they're flying through a cloud. Maybe they have to put a little raincoat over their wings.
Are they super sensitive to acidic environments, too?
Yeah, I mean, they're really very much about freshwater. So they like that pH seven. They don't like basic, they don't like acidic. But there are exceptions of things that are less picky.
Why did you ask Marielle?
Aren't the clouds like sulfuric acid?
I'm thinking, yeah, you have maybe a little bit more problems than water droplets getting on their poor little wings.
Someone listening to this episode, please design some dragonfly raincoats that can protect from sulfuric acid. So one last thing I want to talk about is related to the actual result that came out. We found phosphine in the atmosphere, which has to be constantly replenished, in order for it to be found in the amounts that you know these astronomers actually detected phosphine here on earth is considered a bio-signature. A gas or molecule or something that indicates life because it really only gets created in large quantities through biological processes. And here on Earth phosphine is often associated with waste, because it is produced by these tiny little microbes that live in low oxygen environments, like landfills, or our guts - our digestive tracts. And so I think that waste management would be cool in this world, you know, in this cloud civilization, because it's a problem that they're going to have to solve and also, it could produce the phosphine that we just detected. So how do we think they manage waste?
Throw it in the volcano.
Well, they don't have access to the volcano.
No, they don't anymore.
But like in the before times, they definitely just like threw their dead people in the volcanoes.
Maybe they eat their dead?
Yeah, because they're prone to cannibalism. Well, that solves that problem.
All right, great.
I mean, they'd be constantly pooping. Normally, they have these little pellets of waste, so their pellets would be just full of their dead.
Are the pellets hard because I'm picturing like an owl pellet, but is it soft? It doesn't have bones in it? Do dragonflies have bones? I don't know anything.
They don't they have an exoskeleton which is slightly hard, but they're pretty soft. There's no bones, no internal skeleton so their poop can be, I felt it. Sometimes it's dry. Sometimes it's less dry. Depends on what they were eating, I guess I would say but usually when I have felt it, it has been after they've been in an envelope for a while so it's dry, but I don't know if it's always dry when it first comes out of their body.
Phosphine itself is like pretty dangerous, right?
It at least smells bad to us. So it is dangerous to humans, but maybe it wouldn't be dangerous to them.
But I think that they sometimes even use it for like insect control. So it could be, you know, these insects have just a different way around it. But for some reason, I thought that they did use this gas sometimes for control, at least here in the United States. I don't know, though.
Yeah, that sounds familiar.
Yeah. So that would be, you know, if you'r waste is toxic to you, then you would want to really dispose of it so it's not near you.
Mm hmm. I mean, nothing's stopping them from just dumping it off the side of the blimp, or whatever, to fall back to the surface and into a volcano? Yeah, no, I think that's actually like a really beautiful way of them trying to hold on to their traditions, because we didn't get to that. But I would love to think about how their traditions and beliefs and stories would morph in this new environment. Because if we're talking about, you know, hundreds of millions of years, like real evolution is happening when they're up in these clouds. And evolution also happens to stories and folklore. So that's something that hopefully our listeners can get into. But we are at the top of the hour. So I'm going to ask the guests where our listeners can find more about you. And I'll start with Jessica and work backwards.
Well, you can find me on my website, JessicaLWare lab. Or you can look me up at the American Museum of Natural History's website as well.
Is the museum open these days?
It is. It opened on the 9th of September. So they have timed tickets. And hopefully the dinosaurs give some type of respite, some type of joy to your life during these pandemic times.
Yeah, they brought me joy before so I will get one of those time tickets and get some joy again. Marielle, what about you? How can people find more about what you're doing?
Um, sure. So I run a blog MissAerospace.com where I talk about all sorts of news and stuff, but also how to spot things like the International Space Station, or different satellites in the sky. Yeah, and then you can find me [on] twitter @MissAerospace. Most of them are Miss Aerospace, except my Instagram is @mariellegrino.
All right, cool. Thanks. And Jazmin, what about you?
You can find me mainly on Twitter, so @Scarlett_Jazmin. I also have a blog, but I confess, I haven't actually paid much attention to it these days. But that's PhDvolcanology.wordpress.com. And also, I am in the process of creating my own podcast. And that will be on celebrating the diversity of science and also how we decolonize STEM. And that is the What on Earth?! podcast. So that is @whatonearthpod. And that hopefully will be coming out soon.
Awesome. Yeah, I will post links to all of those awesome sites, blogs podcasts down in the description box below so you can find all of our amazing guests and keep up to date with them. Does anyone have any last thoughts that you just like, oh, I think that this would be really cool on this the Venusian world?
I hope that there's budding odonatologist on the Venusian world who are like, "wow, you know what ... studying dragonflies -- odonata -- is actually a really cool job." They would anthropologists, I suppose. But still.
I would like to think that they hear all these stories from their ancestors about the night sky and things like that. And then want to go above the cloud layer. And there's a group of them that make the journey to see the stars just coming from a space perspective.
Well, thank you all so much for joining me, I will stop the recording now. I had so much fun during this conversation. But I want to be very clear. This show was purely speculative. The presence of phosphine in Venus's atmosphere is an indicator of life, not proof of life. Please don't think after listening to this episode that we've definitely discovered aliens, because science happens slowly with repeated and increasingly rigorous tests. That's why it works so well. And it's why this episode was a fun facts based fiction exercise instead of a documentary. If you're looking to start a creative project, but need a little help getting the juices flowing. Here's a prompt. Imagine the flight patterns of the Venusian dragonfly airships, maybe you can create a map of their airborne society. Or write a story about what happens when the ships pass each other, or you can draw a picture of the ships themselves. There's definitely an opportunity for some dope biomimicry there. Please share your work on Twitter or Instagram and tag @ExolorePpod. Or you can send it to the email Exolorepod@gmail.com. If you want to learn how to build your own worlds, check out my class with Atlas Obscura. The link is in the description below and it's going to be so much fun. Also, check out the Multicrew to gain access to the debate show "Head Heart Gut" by Multitude Productions. And please follow our brilliant guests Jazmin Scarlett, Jessica Ware, and Marielle Pellegrino. To support my worldbuilding work you can head on over to patreon.com/GoAstroMo. Or if money's tight, you can rate and review the show on Apple podcast. If you like this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show because that's how you can catch me next time on another world.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai