Okay here are my Exquisite Beast fanarts. I’ve come up with two new species which branched off somewhere between the first and second of the official iterations, and headed in a somewhat different direction. Yuko mentioned that the second beast had some adaptations for burrowing/digging, and my dudes have greatly expanded on that theme.
It looks like I will have to give my creatures names so I can describe interactions between the two without descending into hopeless confusion. So this first one, I will call a “molizard”. It is a small, burrowing herbivore, whose anatomical features speak to a life spent entirely underground. The primary mouth appendages at the front have been modified into powerful scoops which allow the molizard to burrow at an impressive rate. The secondary appendages underneath (barely visible in the picture) can keep the mouth covered so it doesn’t fill up with dirt while digging, and can also be used to pass food into the mouth while eating. Additionally, the tips branch off into a bundle of fleshy filaments covered in sensitive nerve endings, which provide a powerful sense of smell, and can also be used to taste things directly, to a lesser extent (these tips can also be retracted to avoid damage). The single eyestalk has developed into a “vestigal” light-sensitive eyespot, which allows the molizard to detect tunnel breaches and either repair them or retreat to a safer location. Beyond this, its visual acuity is extremely poor.
Meanwhile at the rear, the tail appendages have been modified into a fan-like array of hardened spokes with webbed skin stretched between. These act as a sort of catchment area into which dirt and debris can be shovelled and then carried to the burrow entrance and dumped outside. This allows the molizard to efficiently carve out sizeable, complex tunnel systems. There are also smaller appendeges on either side, just behind the legs, which help collect the dirt as it is passed back from the front scoops.
The most interesting thing about molizards is that they live in large eusocial family groups. Each colony is ruled by a bloated queen, who is attended by several breeding males, whilst the rest of the colony (sometimes up to several hundred strong) is comprised of sterile workers. Worker sterility is chemically induced by the queen; if she dies, the effect wears off and one of the workers will rise up to take her place (this is not always an amicable process, naturally). The workers - both male and female - are divided into castes, based mainly on body size: the smaller ones maintain the maze of tunnels and search for food, whilst the larger ones act as soldiers and usually stay close to the central areas of the nest, where the queen and nursery are located.
Food can be hard to come by underground, especially for a herbivore, but the molizards have several strategies to compensate. Their tunnels range over a wide area, and are usually built underneath plentiful vegetation, allowing them to systematically harvest tubers and other edible plant parts without exhausting the supply entirely (note, this is because they aren’t actually fast enough to eat through all the available food - I’m not suggesting some kind of foresight or planning, of course). If a plant is small enough, sometimes they will pull the entire thing underground by its roots, leaving only a shallow depression in its wake. Many of the harder and less nutritious plant parts are gathered in a central chamber and left to decompose, fostering the growth of bacteria and some moss-like organisms, which can then be harvested and supplied to the young in the nursery.
But in general, their diet is fairly poor, forcing them to resort to a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Their slow but steady existence, however, is occasionally thrown into disarray by an encounter with my second beast.
This one is called a “skorrat”. It is also adapted to life underground, but in a somewhat different manner. Its primary mouth appendages are not built for digging; instead, they act as a set of powerful, oversized jaws, arrayed with deadly spikes. It can throw these jaws forward and snap them shut with alarming speed, though it will take a few seconds to “reset” if it misses its target. Its rear appendages, meanwhile, have developed into an additional set of pseudo-legs, allowing it to move with greater speed than the more cumbersome molizards. Due to these modifications, it is unable to dig its own tunnels with any sort of efficiency, so it usually resorts to using pre-existing tunnels dug out by the molizards. This suits the skorrat just fine, however, as molizards are the prey it specializes in hunting.
Like the molizard, the skorrat posses only a single eyespot; however, its functions are a little less degenerated, as the skorrat occasionally has to brave the surface world to search for molizard nests or find a mate. But beneath the eyespot is a rather more robust organ: a series of heat-sensitive pits which allow the skorrat to “see” infrared radiation. This means it can travel above-ground at night and stand a somewhat better chance of detecting and avoiding predators, but it also comes in handy beneath the surface, too.
The main problem a skorrat faces when it raids a molizard nest is that it will potentially come up against dozens of soldier molizards, eager to put up a bitter defence of their queen and her young. An adult molizard and skorrat are fairly evenly matched, one-on-one - if it has time to prepare, the molizard can actually use its digging scoops to block the skorrat’s spring-loaded jaws and hold them apart. Then, it employs a rather grotesque attack of its own: it presses forward and clamps its extendable mouthparts over the skorrat’s own mouth, cutting off its air supply and doggedly suffocating it.
With this in mind, the skorrat usually finds much greater success in stealthily infiltrating the nest, avoiding the adult molizards, and heading for the nursery instead. This is where its heat sensitive pits come into their own: not only can they identify any potential defenders up ahead, but they also provide the skorrat with a limited ability to detect heat sources through solid walls of dirt, and the nursery is usually one of the brightest points in the whole nest in that regard.
But even so, it is a difficult task to make it all the way through the molizard labyrinth undetected. It requires supreme patience and cunning on the part of the skorrat; biding its time, moving from one out-of-the-way hiding spot to the next, gradually descending deeper and deeper. It is not uncommon for a single molizard nest to contain several skorrats, all at different points in their gradual infiltration, waiting silently in the darkest and least-used tunnels for their chance to strike.