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Episode 16: The World of Partying Birds

Bird is the word on this rapidly rotating world. Harsh storms and flooded continents can't poop on this avian party.

HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist


  1. Katherine Hatcher is a chronobiologist at Albany Medical College who researches reproduction and puberty. You can follow her on twitter at @superchiasmatic and you can visit her website,

  2. Zak Martellucci is a museum educator who co-hosts VERSUS and Tales from the Museum, which has a show coming up on November 10! You can follow Zak on twitter at @ZakMartellucci and on instagram at @zzzzzzak


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Moiya 0:07

Hey there, and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host Moiya McTier, and I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. It's time for another expert panel episode where I invite smart people to help me imagine what life and culture might be like on a totally made up planet. My first guest is Katherine Hatcher. Katherine, can you tell us who you are, what you do and what fictional worlds you've been inhabiting lately?

Katherine 0:50

I'm Katherine Hatcher - Dr. Katherine Hatcher, I need to get used to saying that.

Moiya 0:55

Yeah, you are.

Katherine 0:56

I am currently a postdoc research fellow at Albany Medical College, and I am now studying how our brain is involved in regulating fertility. But when I was doing my PhD, I studied cool things like circadian rhythms and sleep and stuff like that. So I'm really interested in hormones and how our brain integrates information to influence our body's hormone production and functions. Fictional worlds I am inhabiting, I would say the reality that is 2020. It feels fictional some days. Or sometimes maybe I would even argue that avoiding what is happening in 2020 feels like a partially fictional world.

Moiya 1:47

Okay, what are you doing to avoid it?

Katherine 1:50

Going to work and acting like everything's normal?

Moiya 1:55

So, you're either at work or thinking about a global pandemic, when do you rest?

Katherine 2:02

I rest.

Moiya 2:03

Okay. I'll take your word for it

Zak 2:05

That does not sound very convincing.

Moiya 2:07

No. But have you been watching any TV or reading anything lately? Playing any video games?

Katherine 2:14

I am reading a book, I cannot remember for the life of me what it's called. Maybe "The Last Time I Lied". That might not be the title, But it's a book basically about a girl who went to this summer camp when she was like a preteen, and her three cabin mates like disappeared and nobody knows what happened to them. Now it's like flash forward to her in her adulthood and like the summer camp is reopening and she's going there and like, going to try to figure out what happened to your cabin mates.

Moiya 2:47

I'm sure that must have been so traumatizing for her, but as a former camp counselor, I'm thinking about how freaked the fuck out those counselors must have been.

Katherine 2:57


Moiya 2:59

All right, sounds like you're doing some cool stuff. Zak, what about you? Who are you? What do you do? What are you inhabiting?

Zak 3:08

Hi, I'm Zak Martellucci. I'm a science communicator and museum educator and museum consultant. I've gotten a chance to work with museums all over the world, to help them attract new audiences. I'm also the co-host of a monthly interactive debate show called VERSUS at Caveat here in New York City. Moiya, you were on it as one of our experts.

Moiya 3:29

I was! I lost. You kicked my ass.

Zak 3:32

Sorry. It was a good show, though.

Moiya 3:35


Zak 3:36

I also host a storytelling show for Atlas Obscura about museums called Tales from the Museum. That's what I'm working on these days. The fictional worlds that I'm inhabiting. I've been consuming a lot of media recently, which I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But currently I'm reading "Tales of the City" or whatever those books are by Armistead Maupin, they were made into a movie or a TV show. They were redone recently and Laura Linney was in both the old version and the new version. It's about San Francisco in the 70s, late 70s and all these characters, it is wonderful. It doesn't really feel that fictional. It feels really normal. I think it feels fictional because 2020 is messed up. Um, yeah. And then I'm also rewatching "Avatar: The Last Airbender". I'm in the middle of the second season or actually, I'm on the last episode of the second season, and I don't remember the third season that well so I'm very excited about the kind of combination of this.

Moiya 4:41

Nice. Are you then going to watch [The Legend of] Korra?

Zak 4:44

Definitely. I've never watched any of Korra yet, but I cannot wait. I'm watching this again so that I can watch Korra that was like the whole [point].

Moiya 4:53

I did the same exact thing. And I just started Korra earlier this week, [I'm] really into it.

Zak 5:00

Yeah, they're short and they're easy to digest. That's what I love about it. And like, who doesn't love talking about like airbending and waterbending? Like, so cool.

Moiya 5:09

Yeah, it's like dangerously short. It's the like fruity drink of TV. Like you can consume it without realizing you're consuming it. And then it's like four hours later, and you're fucked up. And you're like, "oh,shit".

Zak 5:21

Yeah, I've watched 12 episodes, [and] you're like, "what, how did that happen"?

Moiya 5:25


Zak 5:27

I'm not upset.

Moiya 5:28

No, not at all. All right, well, then, let's get into building our own fictional world. Today, we're talking about a planet that rotates very quickly. So instead of a day on this world being 24 hours, it's 18 hours. Everything else is identical to Earth. It's made of the same stuff, it orbits the same type of star, it has a moon that orbits every 28 days. But that like definitely does some weird things with the fast rotation period, but it just spins faster. And that has some dramatic consequences for the surface of the planet itself. One of them is that you'll have more extreme weather conditions, because the Coriolis Effect on this planet is going to be more extreme. So the Coriolis Effect happens because the planet at the equator is spinning much faster, because it has longer to go in the same amount of time, then something closer to the poles. And so because the equator is faster, as the wind moves north and south, it gets twisted, and the wind on this planet gets twisted much faster than the wind on Earth. So things like hurricanes are more common, and they have more energy in them, which is bad. The other fun consequence is that the water gets pulled towards the equator, so that the entire equatorial region is covered in water, there are no land masses there. As the planet rotates, the centrifugal force can act to counteract gravity. And so you are lighter, like noticeably lighter at the equator than you are at the poles, which maybe we can use to incentivize people to go towards the equator if they want to. But we can figure that out later, we can make whatever decision we want about this planet, which is the fun part of the exercise.

Katherine 7:19


Zak 7:20


Moiya 7:21

Any thoughts or questions about the planet?

Zak 7:24

So you said like, we have increased water at the equator, we have more intense weather patterns? Does the spinning increase or affect kind of like what's happening below the surface? Like any of the plate tectonics or any of the like earthquake seismic activity?

Moiya 7:41

That's a really great question. I was thinking about that. And I don't think so, because it's slightly faster than Earth, but not fast enough to really affect the gravity. So like, the mantle is still going to be as dense, maybe ever so slightly less dense. But I think it's still functionally going to behave the same.

Zak 8:04

Cool. Interesting. Okay.

Katherine 8:06

I have a question about like life on the planet. In general, we're not talking about anything specific yet, but is it originating from the planet? Or was it brought from somewhere else?

Moiya 8:22

It is a very important question. It originated on the planet. We are going to be focusing on like, the most intelligent - dominant kind of human equivalent, but they don't have to look anything like humans. We can definitely take inspiration from us, and they can be like humans with some changes. Or we can start from like, polar bears, or like, whatever.

Zak 8:43

I have one last question. I read or heard somewhere that the closer a planet is to its star that it's orbiting, the quicker its speed is. So does that imply that our planet is closer to a sun?

Moiya 8:57

Ah, Yes. The quicker it's revolutionary speed.

Zak 9:00

Oh revolution.

Moiya 9:01

Not rotation.

Zak 9:02

Okay. God, physics are hard.

Moiya 9:06

Physics are hard!

Katherine 9:08

I haven't thought about physics in a long time.

Zak 9:10

I know ... [it's] a good challenge.

Moiya 9:14

That's what makes us such a good team.

Katherine 9:15


Moiya 9:16

We have our strengths. Okay, well, then let's start thinking about what physical traits the creatures on this planet might develop to handle the extreme weather, the fast spin the rapid day night cycle.

Zak 9:36

My first thought is because it feels like life on this planet is just going to be dealing with water a lot more; like more water at the equator, more storms more just like precipitation in general. So I don't know what that means physically yet, but life is going to have to adapt to withstand being wet a lot of the time.

Moiya 10:00

I know that you recently did a "feathers versus scales" episode? Do you call them episodes? Event?

Zak 10:07

Show, yeah.

Moiya 10:08

Show, right. Do you remember anything from that about which one might be better in a very wet environment?

Zak 10:15

That's a good question. I think that they have their different benefits, right? Like, someone with scales is going to do well, in water in and out of water, [they] can be more amphibious. But something with feathers can use its feathers to kind of repel water, right, like we see with ducks. and a lot of animals. So it's like, do we want our life to be more in and a part of the water and be able to have that more permeation of its skin with the water? Or do we want it to be totally hydrophobic? I think they're opposite ends of the spectrum there.

Moiya 10:46


Katherine 10:47

Well, if we're thinking of more intelligent beings, if that's the direction we're gonna go, they're likely avoiding the equator where most of the water is. So I'm kind of leaning toward more of a hydrophobic situation here.

Zak 11:04

Same. Just because we're talking about feathers, and now I'm like thinking about birds. And like birds have like evolved to live in like, all of the climates pretty much, right. So they can be water birds, they can be like birds that live in the Arctic. They can be birds that are desert birds. So maybe something with feathers would be very beneficial.

Moiya 11:25

I mean, if we're going for like bird people. With the increased rotation, gravity is slightly weaker, so it would be slightly easier to fly.

Zak 11:36

Oh, my gosh, that's a great point.

Moiya 11:37

Yes. All right. Bird people. I am here for that.

Zak 11:42

Bird people, yes.

Moiya 11:44

Do they just like look full bird? Do they look like big bird? Or is there a lot of diversity?

Zach 11:51

I mean, I would hope that there's diversity.

Katherine 11:53

Yeah. And especially depending on like, where your ancestors originated from, there's going to be. If you're more like an equator based ancestry, then you're going to look slightly different than a polar based ancestry.

Moiya 12:10

Yeah. Just like humans.

Zak 12:12


Moiya 12:13

I love the idea of them being the same species, but looking very different. Like still being able to reproduce.

Zak 12:21

Mm hmm.

Katherine 12:21

Oh, yeah.

Moiya 12:21


Zak 12:22

Oh, interesting. Like they Okay, I like that.

Katherine 12:24

Oh, yeah. Okay, so what I need to know, we're talking about like, the days go faster, but like, what do the seasons look like? Like, what is summer? What's the light cycle? Like ... I got questions.

Moiya 12:39

Yeah, it's the same as here on Earth because seasons just depend on the tilt of the planet and how fast it goes around at start, which is the same.

Katherine 12:48

Yeah, so is it like a 16, 2 hour day in the summer or 16 hour day two hour night in the summer? Like, what are our light cycles looking like throughout the season?

Moiya 13:07

Yeah, I would say keep all of the proportions the same. So here, at the height of summer around, where I am at, like, 40ish degrees latitude. It's roughly what, like 16 hours of sunlight. And so on this planet, that would be like 12 hours of sunlight, and then six hours of darkness. Of course, at the poles, it's like, much more extreme. So it depends on where you are on the planet. And similarly, like the temperatures in the different seasons will be shifted because one thing that a fast planetary rotation does is it doesn't give the ground enough time to absorb as much heat from the sun, so it's slightly cooler. But also, because the night is shorter, there's not as much time for the heat to dissipate, so then it doesn't lose as much heat.

Zak 14:10

And what does that mean for the equator? It's pretty consistent temperature and data night cycles?

Moiya 14:17

Yeah, it's pretty consistent. But the weird thing about water is that it will absorb a lot of heat from the sun. So if the entire equator where the sun is strongest, anyway, is all water, and it's absorbing sunlight, then the water is getting heated. And it can create this bad feedback cycle of just warming the planet.

Zak 14:41

Yeah, so does that mean there are a lot more storms emanating from the equator even more than we have today? And just like more weather patterns period, that kind of like make their way to the poles?

Moiya 14:49

Yeah, there are more of them and they're more extreme because of the Coriolis effect.

Zak 14:56

Wow, you have to be like a pretty badass bird person to live at the equater.

Moiya 15:01

Oh, yeah.

Zak 15:01

All water, all storms.

Katherine 15:03

I'm like imagining the planet from "Interstellar", that's like with the giant wave like that's how I'm imagining, even though I know we're not getting the giant wave, but it's like all water.

Moiya 15:16

We could get the giant wave because if there are no landmasses at the equator, and the water can just go unimpeded around the entire planet, then it would create some very large waves.

Zak 15:29

Yeah, so it's an extreme environment at the equator.

Moiya 15:31


Zak 15:32

So that would make sense to me that like most life would be towards the poles.

Katherine 15:36


Zak 15:37

Where it's a little drier, a little more consistent.

Moiya 15:40

Yeah. Okay. Um, so bird people, any other physical traits? Are they like bird people, but with like an elephant's trunk or something like, we can get as wacky as we want?

Zak 15:52

I'm thinking about the cycles, right? I guess they're in proportion to us today. But like, if most people are on the poles, summers are going to have a lot more sunlight. Winters are going to be a lot darker. If there any, like physical adaptations that would help them thrive in those ecosystems?

Moiya 16:09

Oh, good point. I'm thinking something with the eyes. So they can adjust to the brightness?

Zak 16:17

And then the darkness.

Moiya 16:18


Katherine 16:19

But the proportions are the same, aren't they? Are we saying [that] because they're at the poles they're going to be more extreme?

Moiya 16:26

I think we're saying that because life probably happened at the poles then life would evolve specially to deal with long periods of darkness followed by long periods of brightness.

Katherine 16:42

Yeah, well, so then you wouldn't want big eyes because big eyes are for, like nocturnal all the time in the dark.

Zak 16:59

Before we do eyes, what about something to also like, regulate their temperature if they don't get as much warmth, so they have to, like take advantage of their two hours of sunlight in the winter time?

Moiya 17:09

I like that.

Zak 17:10

Something like, I don't know ... giant ears? That's a horrible example. Or maybe their behavior is like a lizard where they go and sunbathe and absorb as much as they can?

Moiya 17:24

Yeah, there's that. Um, but when you said giant ears, I like immediately picture Dumbo and I love that they could like fly with their wings and with their ears.

Zak 17:33

I mean, that'd be amazing. Especially with the lighter gravity.

Moiya 17:37


Katherine 17:38

Do they have feathers on their ears too?

Moiya 17:43

Yeah, they have to be protected from the rain.

Katherine 17:47

I'm like imagining like penguin-y kind of feathers too like, more like small. But then again, penguins don't fly.

Moiya 17:55

They can have all different types of feathers depending on what latitudes they're from.

Katherine 17:59

That's true.

Moiya 18:00


Zak 18:01

And also, because I think gravity is a little less at the equator is too, they don't have to have the same, you know, like, bones that are hollow. They don't have to have like, such light body weight in the same way that we see other birds. And plus if they've got some blubber like to stay warm when they're born in the Arctic region.

Katherine 18:21

Yeah, because [not only are there] a lot of extremes in temperature and weather patterns and things like that, [but] I feel like the physiology would also go through relatively extreme seasonal cycles, like, I'm not gonna look the same as I do all year round, like, I'm going to get a lot of fat during the winter in order to stay warm. And like, I am going to also then lose a lot of my fat in the summer. This could influence reproduction, this could influence a lot of things like physiology could start to get really funky. If we start getting these extreme cycles.

Zak 19:02

I love the idea that they change. They fluctuate, depending and even that could affect their plumage too [due to] molting and whatever.

Moiya 19:11

Yes, absolutely. I want to talk about that, but I feel like we have to first make a decision. What we essentially have on this planet is two isolated populations, one in the north and one in the southern hemisphere. And that typically leads to divergent evolutionary patterns, if two species or like to populations aren't allowed to interact. Is that what we want? Or do we want to find a way for them to interact so that they're more across the planet on average, homogeneous.

Zak 19:41

So something about birds that I personally love is like the intense migrations that a lot of birds do. And if this is a similar planet, kind of to Earth, like I imagine our bird people would be migrating at certain points? So maybe there's something about these two populations meeting together at certain points. Maybe it's at the equator.

Moiya 20:04

Yeah, I mean, there can still be like mountain ranges where just like little peaks of stuff peak out of the water,

Zak 20:12

Like little hidden islands or whatever.

Moiya 20:14

Yeah. And so maybe they roost there for their migration.

Zak 20:19

Because I think that can have some really interesting cultural implications, too, with this idea that these two cultures come together. And that's where we get diversity.

Katherine 20:27

That migratory pattern could be escaping some of the more harsher points during the seasons, you know, so maybe initially during evolution, there was some more like separated or polar species, but then over time, mingling, and mixing started to happen.

Moiya 20:51

I like that a lot.

Zak 20:52

Mm hmm. I also like the idea, though, of like, finding someone to be like, "ooh, your ears are so much larger. Your Mom's side must be from the South Pole, but you've got like the red feathers of the North Pole. I don't know.

Katherine 21:08


Moiya 21:10

Absolutely. Okay, so we want them to interact with each other. That's great. Now that we can go back to talking about their like bio and stuff. Katherine, I feel like you mentioned fertility. First. Can you answer a very simple question I have?

Katherine 21:29

Yes, absolutely.

Moiya 21:31

What exactly is encompassed by circadian rhythm? Is it just sleep?

Katherine 21:36

Oh, no, girl, okay. Oh, no. Sleep is the big one that everybody thinks of, because it's very relevant to almost everybody in the population. But there's a few kind of rules that come out with how we describe what a circadian rhythm is, but at the end of the day, it's anything that exhibits a 24 hour pattern - anything. Any behavior, any physiological, metabolic, whatever process that you want to think of, if it has a 24 hour pattern, it's circadian. The important caveat is [that] it has to exist in constant conditions, as well as in conditions with like cues like light and dark and temperature cycles and things like that. So that's how we identify what circadian rhythms are, is we find something that has a pattern, and then we take any environmental cues away, and then we look and see, does that pattern still exist? It may not be as robust, but as long as it still exists, we can say that's a circadian rhythm. So like, sleep is the one that we all think of, because we all theoretically go to sleep around the same time, every day, and then wake up around the same time every day. Humans are weird because we have a lot of like, obviously, kind of cognitive control, and we have a lot of social cues that can influence our sleep, but in general, sleep is a circadian rhythm. Our blood pressure has a circadian rhythm. So you know, it rises in the morning and falls at night. Our body temperature does the same thing. We're talking average blood temperature or body temperature and blood pressure. In a lot of males, I think most I'm gonna probably think mainly of rodents, because that's what I study, but I'll try to think of humans too, because I guess matter. Um, but like, testosterone, which is, you know, hormone produced by the testes. It has a circadian rhythm and that it peaks in the morning and then falls during the day. So lots of things can have circadian rhythms. The current consensus is they're driven by like molecular patterns of gene and proteins expressing at certain times of the day and not other times of the day. So if we could go bonkers with circadian rhythms in our planet, because life evolved on that planet, their circadian rhythm is going to be an 18 hour rhythm as opposed to humans and species on Earth. Our circadian rhythms are 24 hours.

Moiya 24:32

Is that automatic? Like does it have to align with the day/night cycle?

Katherine 24:38

To be circadian, yes. It has to be a 24 hour or whatever the planets day length is. It has to follow that pattern. But there can be other rhythms too. There's circannual rhythms or things that happen about once a year there's ultradian, things that happen multiple times during the day. There's seasonal rhythms, so things that happen across the seasons, so they're not necessarily circadian, but they kind of get lumped into this biological rhythms category that we think of time.