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Fantastical Biology – Part Two: Predators

There are lots of friendly fantasy creatures to write about, but sometimes you want something dangerous, with sharp claws and sharper teeth. Real animals can provide inspiration for writing believable and scary fantasy predators, and give insight into how some popular fantastical predators work. As discussed in the previous Fantastical Biology article, using biology to create fantasy creatures that evolve from their settings keeps readers engaged in the story, and much of the information discussed there can be used with this article.

Top of the Food Chain

Grimbelly by kerembeyitPredators are as varied as their prey. There are those that chase after food, while others prefer to ambush. Some specialize in catching only a few species, others will eat pretty much anything. Whatever their lifestyle, they are adapted to their habitats and the defensive strategies of their prey. For example, gazelles are fast, agile, and live on the open savannah. They’re one of the main food sources of the cheetah, the fastest mammal on land. Cheetahs are fast in part because their prey is fast, and living on open grasslands gives both these species the room they need to run.

It may not always seem like it, but life is dangerous for predators. Hunting takes time, energy and can be fatal. It might be hard to imagine a lion in trouble, but one well-placed kick from a zebra’s hoof could break their jaw. Also, many predators are prey for something bigger. When looking for inspiration from real animals, look beyond the popular big predators like wolves, the big cats, and bears. Some of the most impressive predators are insects, and animals get positively terrifying in the deep ocean.

Pack or Lone Wolf?

The Girallon Pack by JakeMurraySo what sort of strategies do predators use to get their prey, and how does that translate to fantasy fiction? Most predators hunt alone. Great white sharks, jaguars, and spiders are solitary hunters. Lions, wolves, and orcas hunt in groups. By hunting together, these animals can take on prey that they couldn’t alone. But lone hunters don’t have to share. So why do some work alone, and others group together? A lot of it has to do with the availability of prey. If food is plentiful, then hunting alone is the better option. When prey is scarce, or is too difficult or dangerous to kill alone, then hunting as a pack can be the better strategy. Groups can protect a kill from being stolen by other predators as well. If your story takes place during winter when food isn’t readily available, hunting together like wolves would be a good strategy. Something like a dragon; however, will probably hunt alone because they don’t need any help catching prey…especially when dinner delivers itself in the form of a brave knight.

Blending In

Big Bad Bunny Eater by Bobby ChiuCamouflage is another strategy hunters use to catch their prey. Many bugs are colored like the plants they hide in, and some lizards can change their color to match their surroundings. There are fish that blend in with the seabed, and ambush whatever swims close enough to gobble up. Or imagine carnivorous trees hiding in a forest, waiting for someone delicious to walk by. But the sneakiest camouflage is looking just like your prey, and fantastical predators use this to great effect.

Most vampires look just like us—perhaps a bit paler, but basically human in appearance. So long as they keep out of sunlight and stay away from garlic, they’re hard to distinguish from the people they’re snacking on. Werewolves are another hunter hiding in plain sight, since they’re only transformed one night of the month. The rest of the time they blend into society.

Mimicry doesn’t need to be restricted to appearance either; there are animals that mimic the sounds of their prey to lure them in. The margay, a jungle cat, emulates the cry of a baby monkey. This lures in an adult monkey, which is quickly devoured. Some fireflies mimic the mating signals of another species, and when the eager males fly down, they eat them.

Sticks and Stones and Magic

Star Eater by DiegooCunhaA few predators use tools to get their food. Apes will use sticks to get at ants inside their colonies. Some species of birds use rocks to crack open the shells of crustaceans and clams. Sea otters use everything from glass to clam shells to get their dinner open, and octopi use various objects to create shelters they can hide in. The wolf that stalks Red Riding Hood used tools and camouflage, disguising itself as Red’s grandmother for what it hoped would be an easy meal.

Since this is fantasy, I can’t close this article without mentioning magic. There are lots of stories that feature predators that either use magic or are formed by it. Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series features many such creatures, altered by the magic of an ancient war.

Many of the examples above can become magical, such as a creature that can perfectly mimic human voices to lure people in for the kill. Or start with a magical creature, like the manticore or basilisk, and use the ideas above to create realistic hunting patterns and behavior.

Title image by kerembeyit.

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5 Comments

  1. […] latest article is out at Fantasy Faction: Fantastical Biology Part 2: Predators. This one goes over hunting strategies of real predators, and how to apply it to fantasy. Make sure […]

  2. Avatar Kingaskean says:

    Great article. I’m going to use this advice, I have two species of animals in my story.

  3. […] of the most popular fantasy creatures are predators, and the last fantastical biology article focused on them and the strategies they use to catch their prey. Today we’ll move from the […]

  4. […] as being brutal, where only the strongest survive, and fantasy novels often follow this idea. But, predator versus prey is not the only way animals interact with one another in the real world. While […]

  5. […] this series has focused on animals and habitats, exploring anything from the relationships between predators and prey to the deepest parts of the ocean. But what is fantastical biology, without a fantastical […]

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