Reader Questions

Reader Question: Exoplanetary Life

Reader orbiculator asks:

I’ve been having this thought regarding biological adaptations to viscous mediums. In a hypothetical exoplanet where the ocean is this thick, aqueous gel – could we assume that the native macroscopic species would have morphologies similar to Earth’s plankton despite their large sizes? That is, instead of being propelled by fins like our fish and whales, they’d go around using large ciliar or flagella?

Propulsion-wise, that’s a reasonable theory. If the ambient environment were viscous enough that macroscopic creatures would still be limited to laminar flow, then, yes, you could expect them to use something like cilia or flagella to move. They’d be restricted by the same reversibility that microscopic species are here on Earth.

But there are other factors that could come into play. Many microscopic species rely on diffusion for survival, whether that’s chemical diffusion across their exterior or diffusion within their body. As a species gets larger, the distance diffusion has to occur across grows, and diffusion becomes harder and harder to sustain. 

So while hydrodynamic constraints might result in an exoplanet’s fauna having features similar to Earth’s microscopic life, it probably wouldn’t be as simple as merely enlarging the species we see here on Earth. Some of the key biophysics that goes on inside cellular life as we know it just doesn’t hold at larger scales.

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