There’s surely been a time for each of us, watching some grotesque monster in a sci-fi or horror movie, when we’ve sat there and thought, ‘How on Earth did they come up with that?’ Well, the answer very often is exactly that – the inspiration has come from some lifeform already on our own Blue Planet. More than we might imagine, the source for where we can find fantastic beasts is right here, right now.
It’s something very familiar to environmental consultant and writer (and one-time BBC nature filmmaker) Dan Eatherley. His most recent book, Invasive Aliens, a Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, and Waterstones Book of the Year, is all about plants, animals, and other organisms that have managed to colonize new places where they weren’t originally found and then spread out of control; things like Japanese knotweed, European rabbits, or Burmese pythons.
“Basically, the reason you get so many weird and wonderful adaptations, is because all these creatures, plants, and organisms, they’re all trying to survive,” says Eatherley. “Ultimately, it’s just eat and reproduce; and make sure you eat and reproduce before someone else eats you. That’s the basic mission, and over millions of years of evolution they’ve specialized in the way they achieve those goals. So yeah, almost every idea you get in some kind of sci-fi or horror movie, or whatever, is inspired by the natural world. The good news for film-makers is that Mother Nature has a seemingly limitless supply of concepts to draw on.”
With that in mind, and with A Quiet Place Part II blasting into cinemas at full volume, we (and its alien beasties) are all ears to hear about some of the most revelatory – and often most revolting – real-life creatures around.
The Alien Facehugger is one of cinema’s most fearsome fictional monsters — but it has its basis in real life as a creature that forces reproduction inside a foreign host.
Dan Eatherley: “Visually, I’d say the facehugger is like a cross between a vampire squid and a spider crab with like those long, thin legs. You do obviously get creatures that latch onto prey, like a lamprey. The most obvious analog in the natural world to facehuggers are parasitic wasps, such as ichneumon wasps.
They’re actually called parasitoids to distinguish them from true parasites which, strictly speaking, exploit a living host. A parasitoid, by contrast, ultimately kills its host, and is a bit more like a predator. Ichneumon wasps will lay their eggs inside a living caterpillar. The eggs hatch inside the caterpillar and the wasp larvae slowly develop until eventually they burst out and kill their unfortunate host.”
In the video above, you’ll see a parasitic wasp known as cotesia glomerata, or the white butterfly parasite. The caterpillar host featured actually survives the emergence of the larvae, and becomes a willing guardian to its cocooned ‘offspring’ until it starves to death. Which is even more terrifying, as it happens.
The Predator, or Yautja, is another iconic alien from a sci-fi classic, and hunts using a combination of camouflage and thermal vision.
DE: “All sorts of creatures have brilliant camouflage, but I think the best is something like the mimic octopus, because it has colour-changing cells, or chromatophores, covering its skin. By expanding or contracting these cells, it can quickly change its coloration to match its background. They are also literal shape-shifters, and when threatened by a predator will distort their flexible bodies to impersonate a deadly sea snake or lionfish.
“For thermal vision, the classic animal equivalent are pit vipers, the most well-known type being a rattlesnake. They get their name from these paired depressions, or pits, in the side of their face between their eyes and nostrils which are lined with heat-sensitive cells. So, they can sense warm-blooded prey like rodents through thermal radiation, or infrared.
The cells in these pits are actually wired up to the visual part of the brain. So they essentially turn that heat radiation into a picture: they literally see the heat. Nowadays you can get heat-sensitive cameras that essentially do the same thing, but to have it naturally, that’s pretty amazing.”
A Quiet Place Creature
The deadly creatures in A Quiet Place might be blind but their sonic hunting skills are second-to-none — except perhaps the killer whale. Interestingly, both species also share the same weakness: sound.
DE: “Unlike the predators of A Quiet Place, killer whales do have eyes! But being in the whale and dolphin family, they can use sound to communicate with each other underwater and use sonar – or echolocation – to find their way in murky waters, and also to hunt. When hunting, a killer whale sends out a series of clicks, called a click train, that spreads through the water like a flashlight beam of sound. And then these clicks hit the fish and bounce back to them.
“So the killer whales can detect prey at distances of up to 500 feet, much further than they could see in the dark. That’s why sound pollution is a big problem for whales and dolphins – when noisy boats go past it stops them feeding because it interferes with their ability to use sound to hunt.”
Pitch Black Bioraptor
The bioraptors in Pitch Black are another real-life species that utilise sonic hunting skills — but they’re also adept at blood sensing, while also suffering from photosensitivity.
DE: “Winged creatures who prefer to live in caves and hunt in packs in the dark: there’s an obvious natural equivalent to Pitch Black’s young bioraptors in bats, who, like killer whales, find their prey with echolocation.
“Meanwhile, the bioraptors’ ability to smell blood resembles mosquitoes’ ability to detect carbon dioxide, sweat, and body heat to home in on our blood. Or a shark, which doesn’t actually have a nose or nostrils, but actually has openings called nares with highly sensitive olfactory tissues folded over plates called lamellae. The old story that a shark can smell blood a mile off is a bit of a myth, but it probably can detect blood in the water a quarter of a mile away, which is still impressive.”
“As for the bioraptors’ photosensitivity, there’s a connection to perhaps one of the strangest-looking creatures, the naked mole-rat, which inhabits underground burrows in Africa. Like vampires, they are pale, avoid sunlight, and are known for their longevity. They also possess a colonial lifestyle, similar to ants and bees – workers acquire food, maintain the tunnel system and protect the nest of the breeding queen, akin to a vampire sire.”
Otherwise known as Dirt Dragons, Tremors‘ Graboids are a giant worm-like subterranean invertebrate species that use vibration to hunt their prey.
DE: “Quite a few species actually sense the vibration of their prey. The most obvious ones are scorpions and spiders – when a fly drops into a spider’s web and it’s wriggling around, the spider can detect it. In fact, a single spider can have up to 3,000 so-called strain sensors all over its body, each acutely tuned to the tiniest vibration.
“And recently, scientists have shown that snakes, a bit like the stereoscopic heat vision in pit vipers, have got a kind of stereoscopic vibration detection through their jaws. Obviously, many snakes, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, spend most of the time with their jaws stuck on the ground. And so basically, when prey is approaching from, say, the left, the snake’s jaw can tell that ground vibrations are greater on that side, helping it quickly orientate towards its soon-to-be-dinner.
“There is an invertebrate that jumps out of the ground, the arrow worm. There are 200 species of them, and they’re like tiny spears, ranging from 1mm to 12 cm in length. They’re predators that mostly feed on crustaceans called copepods, using their keen vibratory sense to hunt prey and swallow them whole.”
The Blob Blob
The Blob isn’t as far-fetched as it might at first seem — the movie’s alien entity uses amoeboidal feeding, a bit like a real-life organism found in nature.
DE: “Slime molds are a type of amoeba, so they’re a single-cell organism, but unlike the amoeba, thousands of them group together to form colonies and they produce a kind of super-amoeba coated in a thin layer of slime that acts as if it’s one big single organism. They can actually learn from their experience and even solve mazes! If part of the colony encounters a horrible chemical that kills them, then the rest of them learn to avoid that chemical. So somehow, they’re communicating within the slime mold, probably using special chemicals.”
The Day of the Triffids Plant
The Triffids are stinging, spreading plants and have existing cousins native to Earth.
DE: “The Giant Hogweed, which I write about in Invasive Aliens, comes originally from central Asia. Victorian plant hunters really liked it because it was massive and even planted it in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. What’s weird about the giant hogweed is that for probably 150 years, everyone thought it was brilliant. But then suddenly in the 1970s children started turning up with these blisters on their hands and around their mouths and eyes. They’d basically been chopping up the hogweed and using their chunky hollow stems as improvised telescopes and blowpipes! But when chopped, the stems release chemical irritants called furocoumarins in the sap and bristles. These react with ultraviolet radiation within sunlight, and cause people to get nasty rashes and burns, like stings. The Hogweed’s stock plummeted overnight as they were recast in the press as real-life triffids, an allusion to John Wyndham’s bestselling sci-fi novel, in which humans, blinded by a meteor shower, are picked off by monster plants.”
The Thing Shapeshifting Extraterrestrial
The Thing utilises bio-assimilation and mind control as its modus operandi.
DE: “There are several parasites that actually control the minds of their hosts. The zombie ant fungus spore first infects an ant foraging on the rainforest floor, then spends three to nine days developing inside its body. When the fungus is ready to complete its life cycle, it manipulates the worker to plod blindly away from safety, like a zombie. Scientists found that an infected ant always goes to a similar location: around 25cm up a tree, in a spot with just the right amount of humidity for the fungus to grow. The ant then clamps down on a leaf with its mandibles and dies. Within 24 hours, fungal threads emerge from the corpse. Finally, a stalk pushes out of the ant and begins raining spores onto the rainforest floor, where they can infect more ants. It’s also a bit like the Alien chest-bursting scene, except that the ant is mercifully dead when the fungus explodes out of its head.
“There’s also the horsehair worm larva found in freshwater. It’s first eaten by a mosquito or mayfly larva which, on emergence from the water, then gets gobbled up by a passing grasshopper. That’s a fatal mistake because the horsehair worm, as it develops inside the grasshopper, will then warp its mind. When the time comes the mature parasite causes its insect host to commit kamikaze by drowning itself in a nearby pond or stream, allowing a new horsehair worm – or sometimes worms plural: one grasshopper had no fewer than 32 of them! – to emerge and breed again.
Return of the Jedi Sarlacc
The Sarlacc — whose pit Boba Fett memorably fell and then later miraculously emerged — is characterised by its ingestion of prey from below, via tentacles/grabbing appendages.
DE: “The Bobbit worm, or Sand Striker, can vary in length from a few centimetres to as long as ten feet, but most of its long, coiled body is unseen on the seabed. What is visible are its multiple jaws and antennae, waiting for an unfortunate fish to pass by. The Bobbit worm has no eyes, and not even a brain! It feels its prey or detects a passing shadow and then strikes like lightning, clamping down and dragging it under. Scientists aren’t sure but imagine it injects the prey with some kind of toxin so it can safely ingest it over time… Pretty nightmarish, really.”
Dan Eatherley’s book Invasive Aliens is available in all good bookshops and online here. You can find him on Twitter at @DanEatherley.
Article by Leigh Singer and Dan Eatherley
A Quiet Place Part II hits screens in the US on May 28 and in the UK on June 3.
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For more insight into the monsters of A Quiet Place, click on the article below, in which an ecology expert chats to Fandom about how such creatures might have evolved.