Elisabeth's chromodoris, a species of sea slug, known in parts of the Philippines, Indonesia and Borneo
Aliens? That’s something for Hollywood special effects artists to worry about. Sure, we can imagine impressive and convincing alien creatures, but is there any science behind our understanding of what extraterrestrial life might be like? Or is it no more than guesswork?
According to zoologist Arik Kershenbaum of the University of Cambridge life on other planets must be shaped by some of the same forces that shape it on ours. The two most important are evolution by natural selection and the concept of an ecosystem. Some constraints on life are dictated by the laws of physics: if you want to fly, you should have wings; if you want to run, you should have legs.
Other generalizations about life on Earth are less obvious. Predators chase prey in any complex ecosystem. Sex—whatever that might be like on an alien world—means that parents care for their offspring (but still try to get away with doing the least amount of work).
Although we don’t know whether extraterrestrials will be green, Kershenbaum shares his insights into how familiar they might be, using lessons from the behaviors that we see in animals on our own planet.
Kershenbaum studies communication, in wolves, dolphins, and other animals. His recent book, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy looks at the broad features uniting all life on Earth and throughout the universe.
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