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Literature / After Man: A Zoology of the Future

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A 1981 book written by Scottish geologist Dougal Dixon, which presented his hypothesis on how the fauna and geography of Earth could change 50 million years from now. It set the stage for the popular topic of Speculative Biology.

There's also an obscure Japanese cartoon episode and television documentary based on it, which, sadly, was never exported elsewhere.

This book provides examples of:

  • After the End: Mankind is extinct by the story's beginning.
  • Armless Biped: The wakka and the fin lizard lack forelimbs as a result of having become extremely specialized for running lifestyles where front limbs are of little use, and rely on their long necks and tails for balance instead.
  • Art Evolution: The 2015 reprint completely redid the artwork of the two most well-known species from the book, the reedstilt that featured on the cover of the original edition, and the nightstalker. The reedstilt is now much skinnier than before and the nightstalker has more ostrich-like limbs.
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • Batavia is based on the concept that an archipelago formed and bats arrived there ahead of birds for once and evolved into flightless forms. Even if this were to occur, birds are much better adapted to reverting to a flightless existence than bats since they don't stand on their wings, walk on land much better than bats, and only need to lose some wing feathers, hence why birds have become independently flightless dozens of times while it's never known to have happened among bats even once. It would also mean that birds didn't reach Batavia for millions of years (long enough for bats to dominate niches there), which is extremely unlikely, especially considering the existence of seabirds and migratory birds.
    • The flower-faced potoo and flooer are a species of bird and bat which have evolved to have faces which mimic flowers to attract pollinating insects. Such a lifestyle is probably unlikely for warm-blooded animals with such high metabolisms such as birds and bats, since the catch rate is low (hence why only small invertebrates such as spiders and mantises have evolved such a niche in the present day).
    • The matriarch tinamou has a bizarre reproductive system like a deep sea anglerfish, with the males living as parasites on the much larger female's body. It attempts to justify this strange evolution by stating that, like deep sea anglerfish, it has a low population density. However, it lives in a tropical grassland, which are highly productive ecosystems, unlike the deep sea, which the explanation does not address.
    • The striger, a predatory cat specialized to prey upon primates, bizarrely has a primate-like bodyplan with long fingers, opposable thumbs and the ability to swing from trees like a monkey: a feat impossible for carnivorans due to their shoulder structure and lack of a collarbone. More realistically, the striger should resemble the Madagascan fossa: a feline-relative adapted for hunting lemurs in the trees, and has a decidedly more catlike anatomy (though not a true cat).
    • The reedstilt, the animal frequently illustrating this book and all its editions, is a particularly unexplainable example. A flightless, heron/azhdarchid-like mammal that apparently evolved from shrews (suffice to say, anything from ducks to dogs has a better chance at getting to this niche first) with countless neck vertebrae, creating a bird-like flexible neck. Problem is, mammals are famously restricted to just seven neck vertebrae, with the slow-metabolic sloths and manatees being exceptions; any addition of neck vertebrae causes horrific birth defects that inevitably result in death.
    • The pelagornids are giant marine penguins which have fused their legs and tail together into a single paddle-like organ similar to a whale's fluked tail. However, birds have a very stiff and inflexible spine, so this occurring would be extremely unlikely; all known marine birds are either foot or wing-propelled swimmers for this reason (pelagornids are said to be descended from penguins, which are wing-propelled swimmers, so really there's no reason why they couldn't keep being wing-propelled swimmers).
    • The introduction shows numerous examples of different animals with the same ecological niches on different continents. While most of the examples are perfectly reasonable, the last one, "flightless birds", doesn't make much sense, as it compares a terror bird ("Phororhacos", now a junior synonym of Phorusrhacos) to an emu and an ostrich. Aside from being flightless, Phorusrhacos has little similarity to the other two (being a specialized predator of large animals rather than primarily herbivore), as being flightless isn't an ecological niche (a more appropriate example from South America would've been rheas).
  • Artistic License – Geography: It's noted in the foreword of the 2015 reprinted edition that the setting ignores changes in climate and floral overturn which surely would have occurred in fifty million years, supposedly so it would not alienate general readers with an environment that was too unfamiliar. Instead, the plant life and climate is exactly as it is in the present day despite the drastic shifting of continents and differences in animal life.
  • Ascended to Carnivorism: After the carnivorans mostly went extinct, rats filled their former niches to become the dominant predators in most environments. Similarly, the horrane and the raboon are predators descended from monkeys. Although it's downplayed, as both animals were already omnivorous.
  • Author Tract: It's indicated that part of the reason humans became extinct is because medical advances result in a buildup of detrimental genes which would normally be weeded out by natural selection; eventually humans as a whole were crippled by this. This was a view Dixon further expressed in an interview with the sci-fi magazine Omni and in his followup, Man After Man.
  • Backup Bluff: When threatened by birds, the terratail rodent ducks behind a branch, hisses, and sticks its long tail (which resembles a snake) in its predators' faces.
  • Bat Out of Hell: Batavia, a Pacific archipelago that formed after the age of humanity, is inhabited by various strange species of flightless bats. Most of these are simple insectivores or seal-life fish eaters, but the flightless nightstalker is a ferocious predator provided with powerful fangs and claws, and hunts vertebrate prey in packs that fill the Batavian nights with hunting screeches. These are probably the least scientifically plausible of the creatures presented (flightless bats could certainly arise — the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat does crawl around to hunt — but it'd be unlikely they'd produce forms like the nightstalker).
  • Bizarre Alien Limbs: The nightstalkers walk on their forelimbs, using their hind legs to subdue prey.
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism:
    • The female matriarch tinamou is similar to an adult turkey, while the male lives as a wren-like symbiont that rides around on her back.
    • The male bardelot looks and hunts like a polar bear, while the female has saber teeth and hunts elephant-sized megafauna.
    • The female common pine chuck resembles living songbirds, while male has a massive beak for crushing seeds and nuts.
    • The male pitta is about three times the size of the female.
  • Blind Bats: Most of the future bats have completely lost their eyes, making room on their faces for additional echolocation-enhancing folds and depressions derived from their enlarged noses and ears.
  • California Collapse: An elongated island of temperate woodlands is visible off the Pacific coast of North America. This is more justified than typical examples, since the book is set fifty million years in the future and this would be the result of thousands of incremental tectonic shifts gradually splitting it away from the mainland.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": Using taxonomic orders developed by pre-20th century humans to describe animals from 50 million years after man's extinction results in something like this. For example, the wakka (ratite-like bipedal grazer), desert leaper (resembles a dromedary but with kangaroo-like hopping motion), and bardelot (a polar bear analogue with sabretoothed females) are all classed as rodents even though they're very different from each other and don't always have what we identify as rodent features.
  • Cartoon Creature:
    • Classification of many of the animals depicted is very loose; sometimes they're only obvious as "mammal" or "bird", without any stricter definition given. For example, the creature on the cover, the reedstilt, is merely said to descend from an "insectivore". Insectivora was a group that encompassed about five-hundred different species (which, thanks to Science Marches On, turned to not be closely related in many cases). Some of the marsupials also suffer from it, as there are equivalents to placental sloths, pigs, and monkeys, but it's never mentioned what they evolved from.
    • An illustration in the epilogue depicts a creature that vaguely resembles a squat moa-like biped except with a mouth filled with sharp teeth rather than a beak. What it's supposed to be is never specified, but apparently, despite its sharp teeth, it's supposed to be an herbivore.
  • Chest Monster: The oakleaf toad lures in prey with its worm-like tongue, while both a bird and a bat mimic flowers to attract insects.
  • Extinct in the Future: The book covers the world in Humanity's Wake, but before they went extinct they managed to cause the extinction of many familiar species. A tree of life in the back of the book (mostly covering mammals) shows that cetaceans went extinct during the Age of Man, and elephants, perissodactyls (horses and rhinos), and tuataras shortly afterwards. Monotremes and pinnipeds go extinct between 10 and 20 million years in the future. Additionally, canines, bears, and big cats (and indeed all non-mustelid carnivorans except one felid) are extinct by 50 million years in the future.
  • Eyeless Face: The truteal, purrip bat, and slobber have no eyes, having become entirely reliant on hearing and echolocation.
  • Fantastic Fauna Counterpart: The book lives and breathes this trope, with so many examples that they have their own page. The text explains these as being examples of convergent evolution.
  • Feathered Fiend: There are several predatory birds, only one of which seems to be related to any modern birds of prey.
  • A Head at Each End: The terratail is a subversion: it has markings on its tail that make it resemble a venomous snake, allowing this small rodent to perform a Backup Bluff, complete with a realistic hiss, when threatened by predatory birds.
  • Humanity's Wake: Humanity dies out for unspecified reasons after causing the extinction of most megafauna, down to canines and all but one feline. After fifty million years of evolution, the empty niches are filled by the descendants of either smaller animals like rabbits, rats, and mongooses, or by those of domesticated but adaptable animals such as pigs and goats.
  • Land Shark: Desert sharks are sausage-shaped, hairless mammals with maws full of razor teeth descended from insectivores, which spend most of their time hiding beneath the sand to avoid the desert heat. They swim through the sand with their strong, paddle-shaped limbs and feed on rodents whose burrows their track down by smell.
  • Living Ship: In a land-going variant, one of the antelope species has a double-ridged back lined with long fur. Insect-eating birds nest in the groove between the ridges, giving their young a free ride along with the antelope herds, while the antelope gets a reliable tick-removal service and is warned of predators by the birds' alarm-calls.
  • Maniac Monkeys:
    • The cheetah-like horrane and the theropod-like raboons.
    • While not true predators, the khiffah sometimes leads a foe into a trap, and then eats it.
    • The swimming monkey is a hunter, albeit of fish rather than mammals.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: A page that otherwise has explicitly African animals includes a swimming anteater, even though anteaters only live in Central and South America (indeed, the trope is even more egregious than normal due to South America being an island in the future and having its own page in the book much later on). This is likely a case of Science Marches On, as anteaters were once thought to be related to the aardvark and pangolins (which do live in Africa), but it's now known any physical similarities between the three mammals were purely coincidental (a case of convergent evolution).
  • Most Writers Are Human: In a sense. While the book doesn't have any actual humans (being set after humans have gone extinct), humans are mammals, and roughly ninety-percent of the species featured are mammals. Birds get some representation, reptiles a little, amphibians just one, while fish and invertebrates only get passing mentions despite making up the vast majority of life on Earth.
  • Noun Verber: Many of the animal names follow this trope, typically being literal descriptors of what kind of animal they are and what they do.
  • Panthera Awesome: The striger, the last of the felines, and the first predator in Earth's history to develop adaptations specifically for preying on monkeys and apes (or second, if one considers the fossa of Madagascar that is specialized for hunting lemurs in the trees).
  • Parasol Parachute: The parashrew is a small insectivore which disperse as juveniles using a parasol made out of interlocking hair at the end of its tail. Most inevitably die, since it's an uncontrolled flight, but enough apparently survive to make it viable. Once landed, the hairs fall out and they grow into a normal shrew.
  • Portmanteau: Some of the animals are named like this, such as the rabbuck (a lagomorph that's taken over the deer ecological niche: rabbit + buck), and the shrock (a large, black-and-white striped insectivore-descendant: shrew + brock). We also have the flunkey (flying + monkey), porpin (porpoise + penguin), tapimus (Tapirus + Mus, the scientific names of tapirs and mice), and the raboons, which are raptor baboons.
  • Punny Name:
    • Many animal names are some kind of wordplay, most of them being Portmanteaus (see above).
    • The islands of Batavia are named after the historic capital of the Dutch East Indies, but the name also refers to the fact that it's inhabited by bat-descendants.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: In the distant future, rodents have adapted to take over several niches once occupied by larger mammals and have become ubiquitous members of the smaller megafauna.
    • Rodents are the dominant predators of the new world, and many species have evolved to possess the sizes and dispositions of wolves, large cats and polar bears.
    • Outside of the predator rats, the desert leaper is a kangaroo-like creature around three meters long and the mud-gulper reaches the size of a hippo.
    • Rodents in South America didn't turn predatory since carnivorans still survived there, but did evolve into larger forms like the tapimus, strick, and wakka.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The oakleaf toad comes from the genus Grima and has a tongue that looks like an earthworm. This is almost certainly a reference to Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings
    • The ghole might well have been named in reference to H. P. Lovecraft's ghouls and dholes, all three being bone-gnawers.
    • French people may look at the yellow-and-black, arboreal, and long-tailed Striger and think it's some weird attempt at a realistic Marsupilami.
  • Shown Their Work: Some of the ideas in the book are not actually as absurd as they seem:
    • The common pine chuck has insectivore females and seed-eating males. The idea of male and female birds evolving different diets is not unheard of: the now extinct huia bird of New Zealand had males with short crow-like beaks used to eat seeds and insects, while the female had a thin, curved beak to probe for nectar or wood-boring grubs.
    • While unlikely to evolve into forms like the horrane and raboon, monkeys and apes do hunt large prey on occasion and have a significant amount of meat in their diet, particularly chimps which are known to hunt and eat smaller species of monkeys.
  • Snowy Sabertooths: The apex predator of the arctic is the sexually-dimorphic bardelot. While the male is polar bear-like in appearance and behavior, the female has saber teeth that she uses to hunt woolly gigantelopes.
  • Speculative Biology: One of the earliest and most famous works in the genre, After Man is dedicated to exploring potential future forms taken by Earth life in order to showcase the ways in which evolution, ecology and natural selection work.
  • Spiritual Successor: The 2003 TV series (and companion book) The Future Is Wild, produced by Animal Planet.
  • The Symbiote: The trovamp, a small blood-sucking mammal.
  • Time-Passes Montage: The illustrations of savannah predators include three similar views of the same dead gigantelope, being fed upon in turn by horranes, raboons and gholes, until nothing is left but bones.
  • Toothy Bird: Not exactly "toothy", but there's a kingfisher descendant with tooth-like serrations on the beak.
  • T. Rexpy: The raboon is an unusual mammalian variant of this trope, being a baboon that evolved into a Tyrannosaurus-like carnivore walking on two legs, with short arms, a thick tail and massive fangs. The largest raboon species is primarily a scavenger that chases away smaller, weaker predators from their kill, which is a now-debunked theory about how Tyrannosaurus foraged that was gaining popularity at the time After Man was originally being published.
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: The book doesn't go into detail about how humans went extinct, as the extinction of humanity is mostly just a way of getting anthropogenic climate change and artificial selection out of the way. Whatever happened also wiped out most ungulates, most carnivorans, and all marine mammals.
  • Walk on Water: The mosquito larva-eating pfrit, a mammal so lightweight it can scamper across ponds like an insect.
  • You Dirty Rat!: The rats have become the Earth's principal predator group, taking over the place of the carnivorans.

Alternative Title(s): After Man