21 Conceptual Sci-Fi Aliens That Look Absolutely Real

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Alex Ries creates aliens for a living. He thrives in the niche artistic profession of world-building, with a focus on alien life-forms that could theoretically exist. That means that he's doing more than drawing a pretty picture - he's creating a 3-D (or 2-D) realization of an alien biology that could exist in our universe, obeying all known laws of physics and biology. A lot of research goes into each work of art, and in true world-builder style he includes a detailed description of each life form's biology, history, and culture.

A lot of work has been put into one alien species in particular, which he has named the "Birrin." You'll be able to see numerous studies of this fascinating sentient creature here - as well as the creatures that live on the Birrin world.

The work that this man does is absolutely stunning. You will be amazed by the detail that goes into each drawing - not only in the art itself, but the descriptions he writes to accompany each one. It's like reading through an encyclopedia from an alien world!

And if you want to do this yourself, Alex Ries also teaches classes on character creation. Don't have time for a whole class? Read this tutorial he wrote to find out, in detail, how he made the first alien included in this list.

You can find Alex Ries on DeviantArt under the username Abiogenesis, or on his personal website.

Cover art is "Serrum" by Alex Ries:

A pair of vast, sentient starships prepare to leave the thick atmosphere of a large planet. Smaller flying creatures, soaring high on powerful thermals, move in to investigate.

  1. Needlejaw

    The Needlejaw is a 4 foot tall quadrupedal omnivore inhabiting the dense red-leaved woodlands of a small fertile world. During the forty-hour periods of daylight it divides its time between resting, and tracking down fruits and soft plants with its keen sense of a smell, peircing them with its hardened rostrum and sucking out the fluids. As darkness descends however, its behaviour changes dramatically: Antennae previously held furled against the head are deployed and are able to detect the infrared radiation given off by its warm-blooded prey in the darkening forest. Using its slender legs and light build, the Needlejaw stalks silently until near enough to strike, driving its pointed beak downward with enough force to pierce tough skin and inject potent toxins and enzymes. The wounded prey is then tracked by the Needlejaws’ keen sense of smell, and drained of its body fluids by a strong muscular pharynx. 

    Powerful, sharp edged claws usually held flat against the chest are used to manipulate prey to facilitate feeding, or to tear open organs and other tough tissues. They are also utilised in carrying prey to a safer feeding location, where it will be protected from other, larger predators. This ability; to exploit different food resources during both day and night cycles, has allowed the Needlejaws to diversify greatly, and the group is found in large numbers in many habitats across the planet.

    *This is the creature that Alex Ries does a detailed tutorial on.

  2. Birrin Study

    The Birrin are a sentient hexapod (six limbed) species from a planet approximately the size of Venus. This individual, gaudily attired, lives (and sometimes works) in the tropical regions of their world, bordering the uninhabitably hot equatorial zone many birrin call the 'Kiln'. Low employment, high temperatures and generally harsh conditions mean that narcotic use is high among many of the population here.

    This birrin, after ending a work cycle and with no further hive duties, uses and deals in most of the local low end narcotics. The three clasped in the beak offer an enjoyable combination of flavours when partaken together. Other mixes are stored in plain view under a strap on the head for sale or later use. As there is no substance control in this region, they can be shown in plain sight. Potentially quite profitable, this individual has found much use for the money brought its way through the sale of longneck cigarettes.

    Either through trade or purchase, he has adorned himself with plenty of flaunted accessories, include a wrist mounted multimedia device, which feeds headphone cables to the auditory receptors at the tip of the upper two eyestalks; the device was likely traded illegally, or purchased from a wholesale shipment moving from the deep water docks on its way inland. Completing his accoutrements are an old cigarette lighter, a wallet strapped to the forearm, and a few rolls of personally selected drugs to his personal taste bound to his neck.

  3. Baby Birrin

    The Birrin are an egg laying species, and clutches typically contain 3 or 4 eggs which hatch within days of each other to reveal small, hungry and fuzzy chicks.  The young birrin have several adaptations evolved to aid their survival in the humid and life filled swamps in which the species first evolved. The short hair covering their small bodies is a dense mat of fibres designed to keep the myriad nest parasites from gaining access to their skin, while the conspicuous stripes allow birrin parents to immediately locate their young on foraging trips. This fur, while useful, poses an overheating problem in the tropical climate and so the undersides of the large dorsal ‘wings’ are highly vascular and by holding them out from the body the young can cool themselves. The fur is shed in stages, first falling away from the lower limbs to prevent mud from the wet forest floor fouling the fibres. The other major adaptation youthful birrin possess are large patterned plate-like growths around the base of each eye stalk, and covering part of the breathing apparatus: These plates not only help deny access to certain parasites but are also used to elicit feeding behaviour from the adults when displayed around the open mouth. Most modern birrin, having long since industrialised, rarely brood traditionally but often use communal incubators or hired nannies to warm eggs during gestation. Indeed the fur, once useful for parasite control, is now a hindrance in the hot modern climate of Chriirah and in some regions is shaved off soon after birth to keep the chicks cool. Depicted here are two young birrin recently out of the nest and already engaging in the boisterous play behaviours that will prepare them for their often dynamic, active lives.

  4. Winding Down

    Many birrin, being pleasurably susceptible to many of the psychoactive defence compounds found in their planets’ plants, have developed complex rituals around recreational drug use. The practices are not universally accepted, and many societies have strict controls to reduce their economic impacts. Others embrace them to such an extent that they have become an essential part of the daily ritual, as is the case with the Southern Chey nations: Before and after work many Chey stop at their local smoking bars to partake in a variety of substances both inhaled and ingested. As community focal points, smoking houses are also places for social interactions, and as a way to prepare for, or wind down from, the days’ pressures.  Smoking houses have a long history, this example predating the widespread collapse of birrin society millennia ago. Restored by wealthy locals as civilisation recovered, the interior was painted a calming blue to lend an air of tranquillity. To avoid the smoke damaging their garments, many regulars wear blue smoking suits infused with years of volatile chemical scents.

  5. Crystalline Cloakmouth

    More life from the Birrin Homeworld. "The flowerjaw body plan reached its peak diversity in marine environments, where this group inhabits almost every major ecological niche. The deep oceans, while low in energy and deprived of oxygen and sunlight, are nevertheless home to numerous creatures. The beings of this ecosystem are able to exploit the abundant surface environment through either migrating vertically at night to feed, or by preying on creatures migrating into the deep to escape surface predators. Sit and wait predation is an energy efficient way to hunt, and the Crystalline Cloakmouth represents an extreme adaptation to this way of life. The reduced, soft body hangs below the highly modified mouthparts, which are dominated by huge vertical jaws spanning 13 inches from tip to tip. Sharp semitransparent mandibles are poised ready to snap shut on any prey lured inwards by the bioluminescent tip of the tongue. Prey that comes too close is skewered by the mandibles and then enclosed by the heavily pigmented jaws. This prevents they preys' defensive bioluminescence being detected by larger foes. The two huge lower eyes are oriented upwards and modified to detect the bioluminescence of prey, or their shadows' against the downwelling surface light. The horizontal jaws, thin and elongated, are spread to the sides and covered in a line of fluid filled spheres able to detect vibrations in the water, a system also present around the rim of the main jaws. The horizontal mandibles are shorter and more robust than the crystalline seizing jaws, and are hidden away until prey is captured, which they proceed to butcher and then pass downwards into the pharynx. The upper eyestalks are highly elongated and the post-ocular sections bifurcated into sensors adapted to detect the sex pheromones of conspecifics. Currents are so slow and the environment so vast that highly sensitive antennae are needed to detect minute concentrations of chemicals in the water. The small eyes on these tentacles are still functional but of low resolution; they monitor the light from the surface world and allow the Crystalline Cloakmouth to tell night from day. Although ungainly, the Crystalline Cloakmouth can move quickly in short bursts to escape predators. Defence consists of several stages: First, the jaws with their large surface area are clamped rapidly together, shooting the creature away in the opposite direction. At the same time, thin translucent threads are extruded from modified limbs near the tail to form a mesh in the fleeing animals' wake. Predators caught in this are tangled by the sticky threads, which bioluminesce on contact and thus render the predator visible to its own enemies. Proteins on the Cloakmouths' skin inhibit this reaction when it becomes entangled in its own threads. As a final defence, the Crystalline Cloakmouth leaves the area using paired fins usually held tightly against its body, swimming slowly backwards to new hunting grounds. "

  6. Predator Headshot

    A Headshot of a large predator from the Birrin world. Upper eyestalks contain eyes and ears, lower contain eyes and sensory tentacles.  Most creatures related to the Birrin have 4 'lips' covering their jaws. However in this case the upper lip has evolved into a head shield which helps the creature push through dense forest. The blue membrane is used for display and can be retracted under a shield when not in use. The animal hunts like a large heron, snatching smaller prey by shooting forward its long neck. It swallows most food whole, or by tearing it apart with its smaller inner jaws and toothed tongues.

  7. Birrin Protest

    Refugees, faced with starvation and loss of livelihood by the diversion of the river that feeds the vast lakes they live upon, were shipped to uninhabited badlands in neighboring nations. The state responsible for the disruptive developments paid local poor governments, in arms and financial relief, to accept millions of displaced people inside their borders. Ill feelings due to the destruction of their towns and habitat, anger soon erupted into large scale protests which the financially insecure and corrupt nations had trouble containing. Seen here is a vast march from a nearby tent city; angry refugees storm an area of newly (but cheaply) build admin towers created to manage the huge displaced population.  Younger and angrier refugees quickly turned to violence, attacking understaffed riot police staff with knives and other improvised weapons.

  8. Birrin Evolution - Basketworms

    Beginning to flesh out the earliest members on the Birrin evolutionary line.

  9. Sardu Reef

    The oceans of the Birrin homeworld are populated by vast numbers of organisms, particularly the mid-latitude tropical zones on either side of the hostile equatorial 'Kiln'; a region of intense heat and violent storms. The surface waves and currents generated by these weather events create deep oceanic mixing, bringing nutrients to nearby surface waters and supporting the assemblages of life found there. The birrin are at home in water, and many engage in swimming recreationally with or without the aid of SCUBA systems. Diving activities are associated with risks: as in this potentially dangerous encounter with the creature seen here. Evolved from the same land-living ancestor as the birrin the Sardu, as they are locally known, are air breathing creatures of great strength and predatory skill. They range across most regions of the ocean, hunting diverse prey depending on local resources, and adjusting their strategies accordingly. All however rely on an extraordinary ability to generate powerful electric shocks via organs housed in their huge, elongated horizontal jaws. This allows them to stun entire schools of smaller organisms to consume at their leisure, or to probe their jaws into soft mud and detect, flush out kill benthic creatures of considerable size. The electrogenic organs also have a social purpose; and mating individuals compete to show both their ability to generate electricity, and to withstand the shocks of their adversaries. The small creatures that accompany sardu as commensals must also be tolerant of this hazard, and most swim to a safe distance during the closing stages of a hunt, moving in to feast on the scraps afterwards.  The birrin diver seen here may seem in danger, however it is experienced with the local sardu and knows it is not a part of their prey search image; the constant stream of bubbles generated by the SCUBA gear and bright wetsuit look so unlike the large bottom dwelling creatures it usually hunts that it does not view the birrin as food.

  10. The Kyrabilli

    The kyrabilli are a sentient hexapodal species about four and a half feet high, living on a small, warm world orbiting a slow burning star. Although now technologically advanced, the kyrabilli evolved as environmental specialists who hunted for both animal and plant food across the extensive moss-like forest floors of their subtropical home. This soft sponge-like substrate played a key role in the evolution of the kyrabilli and their unusual needle like feet: The thin tips, unable to support themselves on the moss, sink into it several inches and are stopped from slipping deeper by a ring of tough, fibrous hairs. This provides some extra traction, but more importantly allows the thin and highly sensitive tips to detect vibrations passing through the denser ground beneath. By sensing the substrate in this way the kyrabilli can detect large creatures moving a considerable distance away while also communicating with one another via rhythmic vibrations through the ground. As their evolution progressed towards more complex intelligence, entire long range conversations could be carried on this way and thus the groundwork was laid for co-operative hunting and intertribal communication. Whilst their stable environment made thermoregulation largely unnecessary, the kyrabilli are able to maintain an elevated body temperature when necessary by concentrating warm blood near the central organs and withdrawing it from the long slender limbs. Weather falling outside of their range of tolerance was met by moss matt shelters and communal huddling until the discovery of fire and limited clothing. Sensory input comes from several highly specialised organs and is dominated by sight. Two stalked and densely packed compound eyes extend from the front of the head, below which hang sensitive olfactory organs to detect scents and changes in humidity. In keeping with their well-developed vibration detection abilities, their hearing is acute and is mediated through mobile ears at the tip of the abdomen. As omnivores, the kyrabilli possess mouthparts and manipulators of a generalised and adaptable design. The arms, derived from the lips, lack a solid skeleton and collect fruits or carry weapons for subduing small prey. Equipped with their own basic sense of taste, these arms pass food up the mouth that lies between them. Their most critical adaptation, however, may be their linguistic abilities which encompass visual, aural and infrasonic components. Various configurations of the limbs and body reveal the colourful blue patches on the legs and abdomen, the different combinations conveying meaning and intent. Sound is generated through a combination of stridulation using the rough inner surfaces of the arms, and air expelled and modulated through the twin breathing spiracles on either side of the abdomen. Dramatic punctuation and long range communication can be supplemented by beating on the substrate.  Currently a technologically advanced and relatively peaceful people, the kyrabilli have developed sustainable high density agriculture and their population continues to grow.

  11. Pierson' Puppeteer

    A Re-Imagined Piersons' Puppeteer, a fictional species from Larry Niven's Known Space series.

  12. Megaherbivore

    The tall trees of the open forests demand a long reach to feed on their leaves. Instead of evolving a long neck to do so, this creature has radically extended its arms and modified the hands into gripping and tearing devices. With the arms fully extended, the animal towers 8 meters [26 feet] tall. The head is down near the center of the body, without a long vulnerable neck for predators to attack. The stalked eyes half way up the neck give good all around vision, as well as being able to focus together when dealing with a particularly tricky plant. When attacked by predators, each of its walking legs can strike out with a sharp claw near the ankle, though the creatures massive size protects against most enemies. The head is so far off the ground that to drink the creature either scoops up water in its feeding hands, or immerses itself in a deep lake or river and combines drinking with a refreshing bath.

  13. Pseudoraptor

    This creature evolved from the same stock as the Birrin. The Pseudoraptor lives on open plains, hunting the grazing creatures that feed on the tough mats of lichen-like creeping plants that cover the surface. Able to tackle a wide range of prey, the Pseudoraptor can bring down much larger animals than itself by latching onto their hides with six re-curved claws at the tips of its four arms. The stalked eyes can retract or in the case of the upper eye fold back so as to avoid damage when fighting or hunting, while the hearing and scent antennae are much reduced and are kept in a protective pouch on each side of the neck.

  14. The Shadow of the Sun

    Life forms evolved for microgravity. Two sentients shepherd a trio of flying life forms, who have angled their bodies towards the 'sun' for warmth.  In the far distance the forms of vast structures fill the sky.  No sentient living here has yet discovered their true nature.

  15. Buchwacker

    The tropical forest in the background is very different from those of Earth: Here, almost all the forest floor is covered with a grayish, mold-like organism. The large coral shapes on top of it are formed by the fungus and move slowly like waves across the ground, engulfing dead animals and vegetation for digestion. Large red capped fruiting bodies dot the forest, and are serviced by jungle creatures who then travel to others, and so fertilize far distant fungal colonies. The Bushwhacker, seen here in strike position, is a predator of the mid levels of this forest. Only about a foot or so long, it moves slowly through the vines, snapping at unsuspecting creatures which pass nearby. Its pointed teeth grip prey while venom injected by the proboscis paralyzes it, making it easier to handle. If the creature loses its footing, it is slow on the ground and likely to be eaten by animals living under the fan fungus ledges.  The first xenobiologist to study this alien was stung, but the toxins never evolved to attack earthlife and so apart from significant pain they were unharmed. It was named the Bushwhacker because of its propensity for ambush, like the rural guerrillas of the American civil war.

  16. Bioblimp

    This larvae of this parasitic species floats high in the atmosphere. When it spots a potential host lower below, the balloon on its back rapidly deflates and it plummets claws-first downwards, like a javelin. Just as it is about to strike its victim, the claws open out and tear into the hide, anchoring the creature. There it lives as a parasite on the larger animal and prepares to launch more floating larvae for the next generation.

  17. Greater Lightsail

    A creature based off a Dimetrodon, and pretty much my earliest attempt to use painting techniques instead of lineart.

  18. Barnards' Swordswallor

    Living in the oceans of a dense metal rich planet, the Swordswallower moves through the sea on a single undulating ventral fin. As it moves, its jaw sweeps planktonic life into its small mouth at the back of the 'net', where it is filtered and any food swallowed. The membrane it uses to hunt may look delicate, but is make from silk-like secretions and is easily repaired by glands in the egg shaped 'mouth'. To alter its depth, a gas bladder fills much of its insides and can change volume at will, letting the Swordswallower feed using minimum energy. Under the shadow of this specimen, a school of smaller fish-size relations of the Swordswallower seek shelter under its shadow. If I predator attacks, the feeding mouth of the large creature can be retracted, and the fish size creatures will hide inside. In return for this shelter, the fish like animals keep the Swallower free from parasites. Trailing from the rear of this specimen are two long pale strings of gametes, releasing hundreds of reproductive cells into the sea as it swims, to mix in the water with the eggs and sperm of others swimming nearby.

  19. Xenobiology

    A large Earth-based company intends to use this gas giant in a nearby star system as a vast Helium 3 extraction and sales operation. However to do so the law requires an ecological damage survey to be conducted on the gas giant's moons, to be sure the operation will not damage any ecosystems on them. This large moon, only slightly smaller than earth, was found to have an advanced multicellular ecology. The Sol Union Xenobiologist Makeba Sutphen was sent with the company when they left earth, to make sure the laws regarding alien ecosystems were followed. Here she is approached by possibly sentient natives of this large moon. Although she has a camera out now, if they get closer or show aggression she is well armed. The species itself evolved from large aquatic creatures which resembled less broad versions of Earth stingrays. As they began to move on to land small feeding appendages on their underside grew into thicker organs to propel them, and the large side fins retracted and darkened to protect against solar radiation. Sensory appendages which stuck from the sides of the head and helped find food underwater become very useful for judging distance above water, with the eyes set so far apart. Males, who had to compete for mating rites, developed these eye-stalks further into horns, and used them to scare off other males. They also developed a more upright stance to better compete for mates until the species was standing almost vertical. With a head now so far from the ground, the large mouth migrated to the bottom of the body, leaving the brain, eyes and breathing tube on the upper head, so as to spot danger and eat at the same time. Waste products are ejected explosively from the body from a pore on the back, to prevent contamination to the mouth. Now able to walk upright and survive on land, the species spread across its world to become the dominant creature on the planet.

  20. Alien Parenthood

    This alien mother is taking her young child on a food gathering trip to the edge of her clan's territory. It is the end of the growing season and the tough dryland plants are sending out their large, robust seeds as the last of the rains leave the plains for months.

    The plants stock their underground tubers with water and starches for their long hibernation, and it is these the alien mother is trying to find. However her child seems more intent on catching a large floating seed as it drifts past on the dry afternoon breeze.

  21. Parrot Flowerjaw

    The Parrot Flowerjaw is named both for its petal like mouth, and the earth parrotfish, and like its namesake it scoots around its environment picking food items from the substrate. Its gravity-less gaseous home environment has led evolution to favor radial symmetry, and the flowerjaw can see in all directions with its four eyes while scavenging for food among the multi-kilometer long strands of webforest. Though occasionally alone, it is often found in loose flocks of thousands that descend on areas of forest and strip it of all edible creatures before moving on. However at only about a meter long, the Flowerjaw is itself prey to larger creatures and some of the more aggressive plants... Internally as externally, the flowerjaw is divided into four quadrants, each possessing several organs. Four eyes are joined to a four lobed nerve ring, though a single digestive tract sits in the center of the body. Eight paired hearts are joined to blood sinuses, one of each pair pumping blood fore and the other aft. Four lung like sacks handle gas exchange, and are ventilated by expanding and contracting sacks along their edges, rather than use of a diaphragm as in some earth creatures.  Four fin-wings propel the flowerjaw in the manner of a cuttlefish or triggerfish and give it manoveuring ability in the sometimes tangled webforests.


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