creepy crawly alien creature

Pentapods: Adaptive and Rather Alarming Real-Life Aliens

Yesterday I researched Saturn’s moon Janus for Aliens Watch, seventh novel in the Other Worldly series, and to my surprise I discovered it harbors a real life alien straight out of scary central casting. A creature known as pentapods are the dominant life on Janus. Who knew?

And who knew pentapods would be so very bizarre, far more intriguing and alarming than most might conjure when creating a fictional alien monster, which I really had no intention of doing, but now, how could I not?

Factual details about the pentapods of Janus are fascinating. The kind of stuff blockbuster movies are made of, but better, and grounded in scientific realities.

Pentapods are radially symmetrical creatures, slightly smaller than domesticated cats. Per their name, they walk on five insectoid legs. If that isn’t enough of a yikes factor, they have circular, toothed mouths located on top of their bodies, surrounded by ten eyes and three long appendages used to both capture and drop food into its mouth. Just picturing it gives me the willies.

Pentapods are opportunistic omnivores, feeding on anything found in their environment. But things get really hinky when it comes to their reproduction. They are hermaphrodites who mate in the twilight zone of their planet—you can’t make this stuff up—with both partners impregnating each other during the act of copulation.

As a result, pentapods ultimately exhibit a specialized form of polyphenism that results in two radically different distinct phenotypes suitable for, and adapted to, their surroundings.

If that sounds too technical, here’s what actually happens. After mating, pentapods seek out windy plateaus on Janus where they spawn swarms of airborne larvae that are dispersed to the winds.

The larvae ending up on the desertic dayside of Janus, which is tidally docked with Saturn, develop as dayside pentapods, while those landing on the chilly nightside develop as nightside pentapods.

And despite their phenotypes being radically different, as previously described, they are exactly the same genetically, meaning they are not separate distinct species or subspecies.

However, fun facts regarding differences between dayside and nightside pentapods of Janus provide meaty details to work with as I prepare to have protagonist Rowan Layne visit Saturn’s moon with a young precocious alien triplet of the same name. It turns out certain details bore an uncanny and unanticipated connection to previous discussions about insects in Feeling Alienated, Being Alien, and most recently, Altogether Alien published last year.

Dayside pentapods are skinnier and more agile than their nightside brethren. Their shiny armor reflects sunlight—reminiscent of the iridescent beetle—and their physiology actually adapts to withstand scarcity of food and water. Plus, they have antenna-like appendages  with venomous pinchers at their tips. Makes me think of scorpions—not my favorite insect, nor Rowan’s. Plus, Altogether Alien features an all-too-humanlike alien villain of the same name. And Janus also has scorpions scurrying about. Go figure.

Nightside pentapods, more robust than dayside dwellers, are covered in shaggy fur to protect from chilly temperatures of their habitat. They gather around sources of geothermal activity where they feed on bioluminescent grubs that live around hot springs. After feeding, they absorb their prey’s bioluminescence, using it to attract more prey.

Creepy enough for you? Also, uncanny about the bioluminescence, a scientific phenomenon Rowan has previously encountered along with geothermal effects on rock crystals—on Mars. Not to mention Luna moths and her celebrated alter-ego heroine Luna Moth Woman, as well as oddly glowing fae lanterns in Scotland making her think of fireflies. Then there’s troglobites borne of subterranean caves, distinct species of crickets and spiders that also adapt to live in their dark, isolated world, as Rowan was told in Altogether Alien while traipsing amongst lava caves on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Hence, I felt like I’d come full circle through several novels when I learned of fascinating facts about Janus and its pentapods, as will Rowan. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to wrap it all together, including the discovery that Janus also harbors ants and fireflies, to create a monstrous adventure on a distant exoplanet rife with peculiar and potentially brutal insect life.





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