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I'm currently about halfway through Dune and I'm curious about the speculative ecology therein. I'm going to disregard the Sandworms/Sandtrout because (a) they're stated to not be native to Arrakis and have desertified it after being introduced, and (b) they are not real (to my knowledge).

However, many of the species of Arrakis are real Terran species... native to one specific part of earth. The saguaro, the barrel cactus, the creosote bush, and the kit fox are all named and are certainly native to the American Southwest; the desert hawk, desert owl, and jumping-mouse, and bat are all vague categories that, while not exclusive to the American Southwest, could describe its species: any number of hawks and owls, some sort of kangaroo rat, and one of any number of bats.

So, here's my question:

  • Why are there earthly animals and plants on Arrakis (if they are indeed the same as the animals they share a name with)?
  • Why do these earthly organisms all call one specific desert home (as opposed to organisms from the Arabian desert, Sahara Desert, Great Red Center, etc.)
  • If these organisms were introduced by humans (which seems reasonable given they are likely from Earth)... why? Why introduce commercially irrelevant species that don't play a role in the Spice trade, seemingly the only reason outside forces care about Arrakis? And if they were for beautification, or a terraforming scheme like Kynes', why not introduce more varied desert species that might thrive on Arrakis or simply be more beautiful?

Curious if this has an in-text answer I haven't reached yet or is simply a random ecological detail of the variety Herbert seems to so love.

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    Hi, welcome to SF&F. What kind of "in-text answer" are you looking for? I'm 99% certain that none of Frank Herbert's novels address the (apparent) presence of Earth animals; are you looking for out-of-universe comments by him? Would an answer from Brian Herbert suit you?
    – DavidW
    May 29, 2023 at 20:45
  • Thanks for the response! If no such answer exists in-text that's all right; any sort of out-of-universe comment could be interesting but if there's no concrete answer then it doesn't bother me -- all the more to speculate about. May 29, 2023 at 20:47
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    The short answer is: we don't know. We don't know much about the origin of the sandworms either (at least, not in FH canon; the endless prequels by Brian and KJW might have addressed it). But also note that an argument could be made that all of these are native species that are similar to - and fill similar ecological niches to - their Earth counterparts, so they were given Earth names. May 29, 2023 at 21:04
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    Muad'dib also appears (based on some googling and cross-checking by someone who doesn't speak the language) to be a real Arabic term meaning roughly what Stilgar says it does: "Muad'Dib we call 'instructor-of-boys.'"
    – Amanadiel
    May 29, 2023 at 22:35
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    @frеdsbend The Arabic influences are indeed glaring, which would make an Arabic term an exceedingly earthly name.
    – Amanadiel
    May 30, 2023 at 16:41

2 Answers 2

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A lot of your question will probably be answered by the appendices at the end of the book.

There's a reference to both "a rare native root plant" and "the terraform desert plants" - so it seems Arrakis has both native flora and plants introduced from Earth or the rest of the Empire. The appendices detail the introduction of a lot of species as an effort in deliberate ecosystem construction. A caveat is that the "native" species might just be other Earth transplants from much longer ago.

Why introduce commercially irrelevant species that don't play a role in the Spice trade, seemingly the only reason outside forces care about Arrakis?

There are many different groups with different interests at play.

The appendices also provide some important perspective. They describe "a hundred and ten centuries" of widespread and unregulated space travel before the Butlerian Jihad and the formation of the Guild monopoly. I may be overlooking or forgetting a reference to the discovery or settlement of Arrakis, but it's very easy to imagine virtually anyone could have gone there and brought whatever they could, thousands of years before anyone knew what spice was. The Zensunni, precursors to the Fremen, are noted as schisming from their mainline religion over a thousand years before the Butlerian Jihad, though whether that's also when they migrated to Arrakis I can't say.

In other words, the universe of Dune is old and a lot of people have been moving around in it for a long time. Humans invented agriculture and writing and ten thousand years later got to nukes and spacecraft. Ten thousand years more later they had a holy war against thinking machines and set up the Imperium and the Spacing Guild. Ten thousand years after that, the events of Dune take place. There was a time equivalent to all of human history today during which space travel was a reality but the strictly controlled feudal system described in the books was not in play, so the space of possibilities is larger than you are perhaps imagining.

Why do these earthly organisms all call one specific desert home (as opposed to organisms from the Arabian desert, Sahara Desert, Great Red Center, etc.)... And if they were for beautification, or a terraforming scheme like Kynes', why not introduce more varied desert species that might thrive on Arrakis or simply be more beautiful?

To my knowledge there is no specific information on this point, but the simple answer would be that if you're trying to set up an ecosystem or terraform an environment your safest bet is to use species that already coexist in the same environment where you found them, rather than trying to mix and match elements from all over Earth.

A real world explanation might be that Frank Herbert was inspired to write Dune by a research binge for an article he never actually wrote about sand dunes in Oregon. Any overrepresentation of North American species is likely partly due to author familiarity.

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    Awesome response; thank you so much for the level of detail and spoiler-light summary! This seems like a complete summary taking into account textual and out-of-text factors, and I appreciate it a lot. I'll remember to read the appendices once I finish the book; I tried to do so beforehand and got a bit confused :P. May 29, 2023 at 23:51
  • Given the age of the Dune universe, the animals could have been transplanted to various systems from old Earth, step by step, and finally to Dune.
    – FlaStorm32
    May 30, 2023 at 2:19
  • I remember reading that Herbert was inspired by a specific place in the USA which then inspired reading and research on desert places.
    – user15742
    May 30, 2023 at 14:40
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    Florence, Oregon. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_(novel)#Origins
    – user15742
    May 30, 2023 at 14:50
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    "Why introduce commercially irrelevant species?" We can look at Earth's own history for an answer. 1) Accidentally (ex. tumbleweeds, razor clams, rats, cats, etc) 2) Food (ex. rabbits) 3) Pest control (ex. cane toads) 4) Cultural (ex. American Acclimatization Society).
    – Schwern
    May 30, 2023 at 21:24
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He thought of the filmbook Yueh had shown him--"Arrakis: His Imperial Majesty's Desert Botanical Testing Station." It was an old filmbook from before discovery of the spice. Names flitted through Paul's mind, each with its picture imprinted by the book's mnemonic pulse: saguaro, burro bush, date palm, sand verbena, evening primrose, barrel cactus, incense bush, smoke tree, creosote bush . . . kit fox, desert hawk, kangaroo mouse . . . Names and pictures, names and pictures from man's terranic past--and many to be found now nowhere else in the universe except here on Arrakis.

There is no official answer to this question, as mentioned by DavidW and Daniel Roseman in the responses. However, I think the above quote could indicate that some of the species are of terranic origin... or at least their names are.

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    "Botanical Testing Station" is most of an answer all by itself. Good find.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 30, 2023 at 21:57

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