Creodonts & The Absurdity of Extinction

I just fell down a rather wonderful rabbit hole. My tale begins with a book review, written by Ross Barnett, of Sabretooth (Mauricio Anton). Apart from instantly causing me to add the book to my “to buy” list, the article also briefly lists the various mammalian clades which have exhibited sabre teeth in the past. Amongst this list were those I had expected, such as machairodonts (e.g. the famous Smilodon) and the marsupial Thylacosmilus, but it also contained several I had never heard of. Most notably, it mentioned creodonts.

If I’ve ever come across creodonts before I wasn’t paying much attention because these creatures are fascinating. As a group they are an early success story in the mammalian radiation that occurred at the ending of the Cretaceous, yet despite their broad range and varied niche placement they are now utterly gone. Whilst they may look akin to modern hyenas, cats and even bears, the creodonts are not closely related (or basal) to the carnivorans. They are their own unique, and now absent, thing.

I’ve always found the notion of entire clade extinction somewhat absurd. I remember first reading about the K/T event that signalled the extinction of the dinosaurs and, even at an age written in single figures, feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the narrative. I get how large, extinction level events cause biodiversity to crash, but the idea that such a wildly successful and diverse group of creatures would all succumb seemed silly. I must admit, then, that as I’ve aged it has been with increasing smugness that I’ve watched the consensus switch from “dinosaurs are extinct” to “non-bird dinosaurs are extinct”. Frankly, at this point, I feel the old narrative should just be ignored. The K/T event knocked several wonderful animal groups on their respective heads, but the dinosaurs were not amongst them.

Still, though, the plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ammonites and myriad pterosaur groups were all wiped out, amongst many, many others. Whole families, even genera, do go extinct, often with frightening rapidity when everything is considered. That still feels odd, plus more than a little disappointing, and I can now add creodonts to the list of groups which I would love to have had the chance to meet.

But my journey didn’t stop there. Intrigued and fired up by the beautiful imagery of Sabretooth, I went hunting for palaeoart of creodonts. Unfortunately, I largely came back empty handed, but my wide Googling did lead me to discover a new blog to subscribe to: Into the Wonder. It’s a loose connection to the subject I was after, but it’s always fun to discover someone actively writing about developing fantasy lore and creature creation!

Plus, who knows? It took over a century for someone to realise the creodonts were not just another branch of Carnivora, which is a large enough group for some individuals to have only undergone cursory examination, so perhaps they actually aren’t all gone. Maybe, just possibly, one day in the future, some slightly odd mustelid or squash-faced felid will turn out to be a creodont in hiding. Maybe that discovery will even answer questions about an unsolved riddle of folklore? It’s possible… though it’s probably also asking far too much…

Life Between the Worlds [#37]

I have recently fallen back into an old habit: League of Legends. The eponymous MOBA remains immensely addictive, fun and interesting, but above all else my return (after over a year!) has highlighted that Riot are finally managing to get their world building in order. The lore behind Runeterra was always a big draw for me, leading me to pore over every new champion’s bio pages to find out how they fit into the world and whose stories they might impact. Over time, the original plot of League became a little stale and boring; champions that could simply be summoned from any region of the multiverse understandably felt disconnected from each other.

As a result, Riot made the decision a few years ago to begin reworking the story of Runeterra. Rather than completely overhauling everything, at great expense to time and resources, they have instead slowly been chipping away at the established characters. That leaves some, like my personal favourite Rammus, in a state of unknown origin, whilst others like Urgot have really begun to shine. It also means the in-game lore is a little disjointed, with some bios referencing events or characters that don’t add up, such as recent champion Ornn referencing Volibear as a demi-god, rather than the mortal leader his own bio describes him as. Overall, the effect can be a little confusing, but when it works well it produces some absolutely fantastic fantasy.

For example, in the past I’ve been incredibly interested by the setup of the Harrowing, an event which has it’s routes in Halloween but, over time, has become something far more sinister and interesting. Most importantly from a world building angle it helps to explain a number of the more demonic champions, giving them a shared and interlinked history whilst explaining how creatures of utter darkness aren’t simply ruling this world by now. It adds to the mythos wonderfully and remains the centre of some of the best in-game events they’ve had to date.

So, upon my latest return, I was excited to find another area of lore which has been fleshed out in a genuinely fascinating way. In an attempt to simultaneously develop how magic works within the game and explain numerous “chimeric” characters, the world-builders behind Runeterra have come up with the Vastaya. The full logic behind the decisions has been written up in a brilliant dev blog article, which is well worth a read if you’re interested in world building at all, but the outcome is genius. I love seeing entirely novel takes on something so integral to the genre as magic and, with the concept of the Vastaya and their ancient brethren, I genuinely believe Riot have achieved that.

There are a huge number of explanations for how magic works, yet most fantasy franchises just wave their hands or come up with something that seems like an explanation until you realise they just changed the word (cough Midichlorians cough). The route League has gone down is certainly not completely fleshed out; magic itself remains something ethereal and just naturally occurring rather than having a (necessarily) distinct source. I like their incorporation of ley lines, not because it’s unique or original (it isn’t) but because they have thought through the implications. I love that intersections of ley lines become areas of wilder magic, and that magic even has different breeds or flavours to begin with. That’s a nice touch which, as they state themselves, allows a huge amount of complexity to develop within the system.

Above all else though, the concept of the vastayashai’rei is genius. It’s one of those concepts which I read and instantly wished I had thought of myself. It’s wonderfully simple yet also feels very original (to be clear, I’m not saying it’s genuinely unique, but I’ve never seen it before). In Runeterra, magic is an extra-dimensional energy, bleeding through via ley lines, creating border zones: areas of world which are part magical dimension, part Runeterra. But the dimension in which magic originates is not just the standard swirling, lifeless maelstrom. It’s a functioning universe with it’s own ecosystems and, crucially, life. Whilst improbable, our own planet is proof that life thrives on these biological edges, in the types of habitat that just shouldn’t work. Look at any geothermal pool and you’ll see this effect in full swing. Right where the water reaches boiling point the lifeforms are unique, often occurring no where else on the planet.

When extrapolated out to a mixing of two entirely different dimensions you end up with creatures that have evolved to survive in both. Magical animals that can take physical form. I love it. I love the idea that a creature learnt that it could hop through the ley lines and find sustenance, or escape predators, by doing so. Over time, that developed into a fully functioning race of sentient creatures which could transgress the boundaries between the two worlds. Taking it one step further, the team at Riot realised that such creatures wouldn’t need a fixed physical form, as it wasn’t inherent to their nature. In short, they became shape shifters, creatures capable of adapting the forms they found themselves requiring within the physical world. Throw in a little bit of interbreeding or evolutionary branches that chose to remain on the physical side permanently and you explain chimeras, creatures with evolutionarily impossible physical forms. Sheer, pure, brilliance.

It’s nothing less than incredible that the reason behind this level of ingenuity is a game which lacks any form of story mode at all; there’s no need for any of these musings beyond making the world more entertaining. That’s pretty awesome, too!