Did Phronima inspire the design of the Alien Queen?

There is an interesting anecdote which claims that the amphipod crustacean genus, Phronima, served as the inspiration for the alien queen first seen in James Cameron’s, “Aliens.”

Photo: Pål Abrahamsen

The story seems to originate from David Attenborough’s narration in the “Blue Planet” documentary (Skip to 3:25 in this video for the scene in question). Some people around the web rebut this, stating that the original alien design was based on a painting by artist H. R. Giger. This seems to be the case as far as the original “soldier” alien morph seen in “Alien” (1979) is concerned. It is much more likely that Phronima actually influenced the design of the queen alien morph, seen in “Aliens” (1986).

I’ve tried to contact someone at the special effects company, Stan Winston Studios, but they seem to be hard to get a hold of if you are not the producer of a multi-hundred-million dollar blockbuster. Instead, lets talk a little about Phronima, which is an awesome animal regardless of whether or not it was the inspiration for the alien queen.

Phronima is a planktonic amphipod crustacean that lives in the pelagic zone (existing in the water column, not on the bottom) of the deep sea. There are two very distinct characteristics about these animals that may have influenced the design of the alien queen. I will talk about each of them in some detail.

Eyes

The most immediately recognizable feature of Phronima is the broad crest atop its head. This morphological feature is actually one set of the animal’s eyes, and represents a classic deep sea visual adaptation. These tubular eyes point upwards, towards the limited down-welling irradiance. The huge facets of these eyes collect whatever light makes it down to that depth, silhouetting potential prey above in the water column. The light travels down long wave-guides to the retina which is near the bottom of the head (the retina appears black in the photos). This tubular eye structure maximizes photon capture and is seen in a variety of other deep-sea crustaceans, squid, and fish.

Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Mike Land

The second set of eyes protrude from the side of Phronima’s head, and are more akin to other crustacean eyes. They probably look for bioluminescence to the sides and below the animal. It is thought that these eyes are used to spot the animals that Phronima likes to make their homes and nurseries out of…

Necro-parasitism

A gristly feature of Phronima that is reflected in the alien queen, is what I would call necro-parasitism. Females hunt down free-floating tunicates. They devour all the living tissue from the unlucky animal, leaving a barrel shaped house to live inside and drive around the deep sea in search of more prey (see below). Eventually, the female Phronima lays its eggs along the inside walls of the tunicate barrel, where the offspring grow and hatch.

It is possible that the alien queen was derived completely independently of Phronima, however I find the comparison shot below, taken from a 1981 paper and from “Aliens” respectively, to be strongly suggestive of a connection.

References:

  • Land, M.F., 1981. Optics of the eyes of Phronima and other deep-sea amphipods. Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, 145(2), 209-226.
  • Young, R.E., Function of the Dimorphic Eyes in the Midwater Squid Histioteuthis dofleini. Available at: http://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10125/953 [Accessed December 11, 2009].

7 Comments

  1. Rambling Woods February 1, 2010 11:41 am

    One of the all time great sci-fi movies done before all the computer animation. Just call and tell them you are James Cameron…Interesting post. My COS is low tech and in my yard… Michelle

    Autumn Meadowhawks Mating.

    http://ramblingwoods.com/

  2. Mike Bok February 1, 2010 11:49 am

    Its amazing how well the puppetry and animatronics in that movie hold up today. Having a physical creature on the film is more convincing than most modern CGI.

    http://arthropoda.wordpress.com

  3. artistatexit0 March 23, 2010 10:04 am

    Looking at the life that can cling around a grain of sand, I’m surprised that Hollywood doesn’t reference existing life more. There is plenty of inspiration to be found in looking at images of creatures best seen with an electron scanning microscope! Thanks for your interesting blog.

    • Jamie Leng October 18, 2012 6:33 am

      It seems thedesigners on Prometheus heard you, as most of the aliens were based mainly on earths sea creatures.