Monday, October 31, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - Zombie Ecology 101

YES! We're finally here! The part with the zombies! There are 10 million webpages about zombies, and the zombipacolypse, and all the different ways it could happen, yada yada.  A very few of them are even biologically possible - we'll discuss them here.

But the very interesting thing to me is that zombies, like human beings with souls and free will,  would not live in isolation of their surroundings or the natural environment.   A zombie could probably be kept in its  60% alive zombie state for quite awhile in controlled laboratory conditions - given safety from predators, drugs to control illnesses that have afflicted and killed humans for thousands of years, and a steady supply of food that would also not kill them.  Out in the post-zombipacolyptic world, absolutely NONE of those things are a given.  But wait - the psychobilly music!!

Part I.  Zombie Biology.
As many of you have doubtless read, seen, or heard, there are several ways that a zombie - or something very close to it - can be created from a human......for real. A few examples? Let's start off in Haiti, where banana plantation owners colluded with witch doctors to poison workers into a mindless, memory-free state of compliance (long hours and no pay for years and years).  Yeah, that happened. The Un-Zombie part?  if you stop giving the "zombie" the poison, then they gradually get better.  Oh, and they are totally nonaggressive and don't eat brains.

Then there's Creutzfeldt-Jakob (or Mad Cow) disease - a ridiculous disease of our own sloth and laziness as a species (eating beef cut from cows so sick with brain disease that they could not walk straight or see).  Then, combine sloppy slaughterhouse practices (infected brain matter getting into ground beef) and you have a limited outbreak of a zombifying disease on your hands.  In people, the disease destroys a person's memory, and then their personality, and finally their ability to reason.   The Un-Zombie part? Any potential zombies have to eat the infected meat, and Mad Cow (unless it evolves into something else) results in stupified, dying people - not aggro, brain eating, sprinting zombies. Also, as far as I know, the disease particle (prions) lives specifically in the infected brain - so being bitten by a zombie would probably result in a nasty staph infection some stitches, and psychotherapy, but not your own zombification.

So back to Zombie Ecology.  To understand the fascinating (though I suspect fascinatingly brief) role that zombies could play in our ecosystem, we need to understand where they fit in the food web.

Part I.  Zombie Prey
Here's where the mythology of zombies starts to fall apart.  As a species, our (humans, not zombies) strongest attributes are the ability to reason, the ability to organize into complex social groups, and the ability to devise, manufacture, and use complex weapons (metal shovels, spears with metal or stone tips) for growing food, hunting, and defense.  But based on what we know about potential "zombie-like" illnesses, groups of zombies would be highly unlikely to organize together, manufacture weapons, or certain, plan strategically or militarily against living human beings.

That means that the media depictions of "roaming zombie hordes" is actually pretty accurate.  It's accurate because unorganized groups of zombies would be forced into the lifestyle of "hunter gatherer" since they could not maintain food stocks, crops, or any material goods to trade for food.  To find examples of a lifestyle so primitive that things like stone spear tips and fishing nets (tools zombies could not use or repair) are not involved, we have to go back about 100,000 years.  That's right. About 75,000 years before humans ever entered North America.  And much older than the "paleolithic diet."  Bear with me.

The diet of mobile hunters is based on the selective intake of meats (preferably, but not always cooked) and whatever fruits, vegetables, and root crops may possibly be ripe at the time that the tribe - or horde - moves through.  Due to zombies' inability to organize, plan, or reason, we'll assume that they are on a meat-only diet.

So what could zombies (even Aggro-Zombies) catch as prey?  Perhaps anything unexpecting, however, let's remember that they lack tools and also lack any ability to "stealthily" approach prey - particularly with weapons they do not have or use.  While they could theoretically (and accidentally) mob an area and overwhelm pockets of human or animal prey, it's hard to believe that this would generate sufficient food for the group of hunters involved.   Also recall that animals that could be favored by zombies for food (deer, rabbits, geese) are all sufficiently aware that human beings are predators, and while they might be stupid enough to keep inside the range of effective hunting weapons, the zombies will have no weapons.

In the end, I believe that zombie food intake would be limited to the flesh of other zombies, human victims that are overwhelmed by zombie hordes (or caught surprised and unable to escape), and the scavenging of newly dead birds, fish, and mammals.   All of these food sources, from an ecological perspective, would establish a negative sliding (reducing) "zombie carrying capacity" for any given land area within a matter of weeks.

Part II.   Zombie morbidity (disease)
Time for more real talk.  The earth is a tough place.  Survival is hard.  Even for humans with all of our science, and weapons, and agriculture, and medicine. Zombies will lack all of those things.   And while I called this "morbidity," the correct term is really "co-morbidity," because these folks already have the freaking zombie disease, which at some point, I guess, is terminal anyway.

In the meantime, though,  there's fresh, clean water.  Even zombies will need fresh water.  Meat does not contain enough moisture to sustain our electrolyte balance.  I would expect the first great zombie die-off to commence about 4 days after the Great Zombie Disease Breakout, when fluid-starved zombies start succumbing directly to dehydration.  This will occur even faster in hot areas, or if it happens in the summer.

And for the clean part, if our sewage systems fail, probably 80% of the human species (and the zombies that arise in those regions) will be subjected to water that is chock full of deadly bacteria and viruses.  Humans will know to use filters.  Zombies won't.   The zombies will get sick with cholera, e. coli, and tons of other bugs.  They will crap their frying brains out.  Within days, I suspect they'll terminate due to dehydration caused by epic diarrhea.

What about the food? Yeah, zombies are not real picky.  And don't cook their food.  And might eat raw, dead meat.   I would anticipate a steady and relatively high mortality in zombies to E. coli (untreated mortality rate 25%), Listeria (60%), Staphylococcus (80%), and Salmonella (75%) infections.  Those odds ain't good if you're a hungry zombie and unwittingly tap into some brain tissue or a "gut line."

On morbidity, what are some common, zombie-ending occupational hazards?  I didn't know where to look for this, so, given the random, uncoordinated flailing nature of zombies,  I found a lawyer's page listing "most common accidents for the elderly."  Here they are, and how I'd expect them to impact zombies:

1.  Maltreatment - failure to attend to a medical issue.  This will absolutely happen to zombies, as no one will be there to say, "Bro, you should get that cut checked out, it's been bleeding green for 8 days."  This is why significant numbers of zombies will die (really die) from treatable illnesses, from melanoma to infected cuts (hello....maggots!!!), to bronchitis.

2. Trips and falls.  Same thing.  Let's get real.  Once a zombie has broken a few ribs, an ankle, a knee, or a hip, it will not be able to compete for food in a zombified world. It will starve and really die, permanently.

3. Driving.  Doesn't apply.
4. Suicide.  Oh, we wish.
5. Sexual abuse.  Eww.
6.  Fire injuries.  Mehh.

7. Traumatic brain injuries.  What with being half-dead and on the move 24 hours a day, with no water to drink, you can expect #2, "trips and falls" to routinely lead to #7, TBI.   As any zombie hunter knows, once you turn off that light's done.

Bottom line: if we look at things rationally, zombies have a whole lot of things going against the microbe world alone!

Part III.  Zombie mortality (predators)
According to National Geographic, early humans were just as often prey as they were hunters.  Largely, we can expect the same of zombies.  Modern humans don't experience significant predation because of the things I mentioned above - complex weapons, complex social arrangements (i.e. guard duty), and the strategy of defense.

I'm pretty confident that lions, tigers, bears, and mountain lions are going to eat some damn zombies.  Although, disappointingly, I doubt the casualties will even be in the same order of magnitude as the number of zombies killed by drinking foul water.

However, I'm overlooking another predator.  That would be us - the living.  Keeping in consideration the rapidity with which borders are closed and large groups of people are dispersed when an ANY type of outbreak occurs in the developed world, I can't imagine the kind of landscape present in Zombieland or The Walking Dead - where the living number just a few.  And as Cracked Magazine wrote in their article, "7 Scientific Reasons A Zombie Outbreak Would Fail - Quickly", " 'In Harm's Way' is about 4,875 feet away from this:"

This gun is used worldwide

If we were to consider the zombie as its own species, it would be an ill-fated one.  Zombies would most likely have every biological sensitivity of primitive humans, no advantage of modern humans (weapons, medicine), and every disadvantage of modern earth (unsafe drinking water, globally present disease, rats, etc).   Zombie skin (as human skin) would deteriorate quickly in either continued heat or continued cold, and of course...our skin holds our muscles together.  Or at least prevents them from being eaten by maggots.

If we can assume that an epidemic of a zombifying disease were to occur, that it would be locally or regionally severe, we can assume that large pockets of humanity would remain uninfected, or relatively so.  While a cure for such an illness may not exist, prevention would likely be possible once the "vector" is identified - food, water, human touch, breathing on others, etc.  This would probably take a few days.   I can imagine that order would be restored in a matter of weeks - and not without severe consequences to humanity.

But I'd expect the reign of zombies to succumb to the following:
50% - Dehydration and/or Exposure (2 weeks)
20% - Traumatic injury resulting in lethal secondary infection, or just death by dehydration/starvation (2 months)
10% - Traumatic injury directly resulting in death, i.e. stumbling off a pier in the dark (2 months)
10% - Foodbourne or waterbourne illness (death by dehydration) (1.5 months)
5% - Other treatable illnesses, resulting in fatal infections of the blood, organs, etc. (6 months)
3% - Predation (killed by humans) (6 months)
2% - Predation (killed by animals) (2 months)

Thanks again for tuning into this year's Psychobilly Outdoors.  Hope you've enjoyed it.

I'll let Zombie Ghost Train take us out.


Samantha said...

I'm starting my Halloween out right- "Zombie diarrhea" before 9 am.
Absolutely my favorite post of the series!

River Mud said...

Cool thanks! Hope you stop back in from time to time - sadly, the rest of my material is not that different.


Alex said...

I can't get the picture of a zombie wandering aimlessly through the woods in search of a deer out of my head. I'm alive and actively thinking (sometimes) and hardly ever see deer.

I love The Walking Dead, but it drives me crazy. It's like none of the characters have -ever- seen a zombie movie. **Splitting up sounds like a great idea** or **Let's explore those dark streets with my weapon of choice...the pitchfork**

River Mud said...

I know, right? How many times have I barely missed a deer because my bow wasn't tuned properly, or I breathed out at the wrong moment, or some other minutiae? Or that geese or ducks flared away because of a dull red shotgun hull near the blind? Tiny little things.

But yet zombies are just going to stumble around going "GRRR!! GURGLE! RARWWWWWRRR!" and all mammals and birds will just succumb to fear, I guess. It's a freakin joke.

And yes, I love the Walking Dead but the stupidity of the writing is starting to wear on me just a bit.

River Mud said...

I am still cracking up about your "splitting up sounds like a great idea!" hahaahahahaha