The devil’s archer, or sharpshooter as it’s sometimes called, is a superorganism that feeds on a wide range of prey. Each thorn belongs to a separate animal, like a worker bee in a hive, specialized for a specific function. Some are purely for killing, some are for reproduction, and the rest play crucial support roles. No individual body would be capable of surviving on its own. The colony acts as a system, connected by an external neural network that extends to pressure-sensitive structures in the ground. These detect passing prey items, which the archer will then shoot with a tethered thorn.
The animal is capable of basic decision-making based on what it can detect: speed, location, weight, number of legs, and not much else. Much of its aiming relies on guesswork, especially when presented with unfamiliar prey, such as six foot tall bipeds. Its “plan B” for a failed shot is to unleash all its fury at once. This is energetically costly to the sharpshooter but is certain to bring down even the largest animal, on which it can feed for weeks. That is, the largest native animal. Humans are immune to the paralytic venom.
Everybody lost when one archer attempted to catch and eat three passing explorers. The first took a thorn to the neck and died from the injury; the second got struck in the arm (but got to keep the spike as a souvenir). The archer, in return, lost two of its best arrows and didn’t even get a dinner out of it.
Despite being sessile, the devil’s archer possesses a well-developed nervous system capable of calculation and learning. It does so through a daisy chain of connecting bodies, which are units reduced to a bloodstream, nerves, and little else. The nerves can form synapses outside the body to connect to other bodies. These connections are plastic to facilitate learning and adaptation similar to the that of slime molds and ant colonies. The connecting bodies start at the launching units and terminate in sensory tendrils that protrude from the soil.
The meat of the superorganism is the launching unit. The arrow is the only part of the organism that hasn’t lost its rostrum. The body sits in a capsule of high pressure liquid perfectly sealed by a membrane secreted from the skin. The membrane is a living tissue made of cells, as are the tensile structures holding the arrow in place. It is called extrasomatic tissue because it has no connections to the arrow’s body. The closest Earth analog to extrasomatic tissue is the mammalian placenta. Its growth is guided by its own genetic program as well as hormones secreted into the fluid medium, and it is nourished by nutrients in the fluid.
When the sensory tendrils detect prey, they send a neural signal to the appropriate launching units to aim and loose their arrows. This sets off a series of actions. The first is a release of a small amount of venom and venom activator into the rostrum. The venom severs the tensile tissue and breaks the membrane’s seal. The fluid launches the arrow. At the same time, the hydroskeleton contracts and stiffens. This improves the aim and speed of the arrow so it can pierce the skin of its prey and deliver a potent dose of venom. Large meals are digested on the ground, while small animals and red plant fruits are retracted into what remains of the extrasomatic tissue. A particularly clever archer might leave behind small animals not worth digesting to attract scavengers.
Prey recognition in the greater devil’s archer is a lot more sophisticated than a simple hair trigger system. Because it takes three weeks to restore the launching unit to working condition after use, an archer cannot afford to strike everything that passes by. It must be able to calculate speed, size, direction of movement, value of the meal, and risk of injury if the prey decides to fight back. Because it has to do all of this with limited sensory input, the devil’s archer has evolved significant cognitive abilities for a sessile animal.
The attack on two crewmembers of Odyssey I was the first case study of archer behavior. It confused scientists for decades. Why would the archer shoot once, miss the vitals, then wait for a second person to appear on the scene before taking another shot? And why would it loose all of its arrows at once, instead of just one at a time?
It wasn’t until a Helen probe (C19) returned extensive data and footage of devil’s archer activity that it all began to make sense. The organism is pre-programmed to recognize certain classes of native wildlife: generic fourteen legged red plant derivatives, archersnakes, falling leaves, eight legged vermovillosids, and so on. When presented with something foreign, such as a human, it makes false assumptions and aims poorly as a result. For example, when an astronaut came to the aid of her stricken teammate, the devil’s archer assumed that the four heavy feet belonged to a large quadrupedal bottleneck. It launched a barrage of arrows at the astronauts because that was the best way to fell a large bottleneck.
Specimen 14-3 – Recovered from the victim’s chest: Untethered thorn, 14 cm in length. No tissue damage at site. Report suggests a reproductive purpose. Contains one fluid-filled chamber and multiple eggs.
Sample 14-3a: When injected into a hognose thrax, the creature was not paralyzed nor digested but displayed altered behavior and a strong attraction to the scent of archer venom. Venom likely contains a neurotoxin.
– from the Ilion Sample Library in Perth, Australia
The untethered thorn works a little differently than described. Its contains not fertile eggs, but gametes. During good times, when the sharpshooter can afford to skip a meal, it will designate a prey item as a courier for its seed. A special set of compounds in the venom alters the victim’s behavior to wander the forest floor until it is inevitably snatched up by another archer. Fertilized “eggs” are shot far and wide to take root wherever they land.
An archer tree is any tree that willingly hosts the devil’s archer. They are similar to myrmecophytes (tree-ant symbioses) in that they benefit from an association with a predatory animal, while providing housing and structure for the predator. The trees are the scaffold for the devil’s archer. The lower branches are devoid of leaves; instead, they are sturdy and textured so that the archer can take root and build a colony that will protect and feed the plant. Waste from the devil’s archer supplies nutrients that are lacking in the depleted soil. Some species siphon waste directly from the archer, while others let the waste fall and fertilize the soil at the roots.
They are also similar to myrmecophytes because they do not belong to one genus, but have evolved separately from multiple pterosperm genera. Three species are shown here. The first is the archer’s bow tree. It is the most common archer tree on Pandaros. Related to the archer’s bow is the wounded tree, which attracts prey with a sugary nectar that seeps out of lesions in the bark. The unrelated ashenskin is hostile to greater devil’s archer, as the added mass would break the lightweight boughs. Instead, it hosts the lesser devil’s archer, which preys exclusively on animals that crawl across the archer’s surface.
The devil’s archer evolved from an ancestor capable of growing tissue outside of its own body. This adaptation opened many new niches for the ancestor, and many of its descendents survive to the present day. They have been nicknamed “devil dagrites” for their relation to the devil’s archer, but most are benign and even beneficial to the trees they grow on. Some nest in tree hollows carved by other creatures, while others grow on the surface. None are parasitic to their tree hosts. In fact, it is believed that their presence blocks further attack by herbivores and pathogens.