John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, used to challenge writers with new premises. One of his challenges was to imagine an alien that is to mammals as mammals are to reptiles. Science fiction writer Poul Anderson took up this challenge by inventing the Ythri, flying intelligent aliens of the planet Avalon, for his novel The People of the Wind. The Ythri were able to support the high metabolisms necessary for flight because they had a special system for supercharging their bloodstreams with extra oxygen.
Since Anderson’s time, we’ve learned that birds – and some dinosaurs – are actually somewhat Ythri-like. To begin with, consider non-dinosaur reptiles, like lizards: their sprawling posture means that their legs compress and expand their lungs as they run, so they can’t run and breathe at the same time. (David Carrier, a biologist at the University of Utah, was a main guy to figure this out.) If you had travelled back in time to the Paleozoic and had good endurance training, you would have found the hunting easy, because the sprawling reptiles of the time would not have been able to run away for more than a short sprints. The predators to worry about would have been ambush hunters, not endurance hunters.
Dinosaurs got around these constraints in the first place by running bipedally (although some later reverted to quadrupedalism). And it now looks like at least some of them also had the sort of respiration we find in birds. Lungs are only part of birds’ respiratory systems. Birds also have an extensive network of air sacs running through their bodies, and even air passages in their bones. Air moves in both directions, in and out, like a bellows, through the air sacs, but only one direction through the lungs. This allows for more efficient circulation than mammalian lungs, where air has to move both in and out of the lungs. Just recently (2008), it’s been shown that Allosaurus, only distantly related to birds, had the same system, so it was probably widespread among dinosaurs. This breathing system may have helped dinosaurs to survive low-oxygen crises at the end of the Triassic, and flourish in the low oxygen Jurassic and Cretaceous. It may also have helped one group of dinosaurs to evolve into birds.
Anderson’s book isn’t just about respiratory physiology. It’s also about perennial issues of loyalty and identity. Avalon also has human settlers, who have so absorbed Ythri values — some of them even yearning, impossibly, to be Ythri — that they fight for an independent Avalon against an expanding Terran Empire. (Compare the movie Avatar.)
We’ll have more to say about bipedalism and breathing — and language — when human evolution comes up.