Ecological Function of the Ghoul

Antkaj arbu_imgkid.com_origin_Mazliet-pabaidisimies-4

Ghouls opening a tomb by  Mohlocco (Carlos Garcia Rivera)

In the previous article I described HPL’s ghouls as being detritivores; that is, they feed on dead bodies.  After a little more research I feel this ecological description is inaccurate.  However, before that is explored further I do want to briefly review cannibalism and the ghoul.  Cannibalism is a form of predation among individuals within the same species.  Even if ghouls are essentially considered to be a sub-species of Homo sapiens, their mode of feeding is not cannibalism.  Cannibals, focus solely on humans, typically kill their prey and eat or prepare the meat fairly quickly – either preserving it or cooking it for consumption.  The key to cannibalism is that the meat is fresh, whether eaten raw or cooked.  In contrast the ghoul needs the meat to putrefy or decompose for a period of time before it is palatable.

As previously described a better description of cannibalism by HPL is in “The Picture in the House” or in “The Rats in the Walls.”  Here we have individuals or communities that are largely isolated from society and civilization that resort to cannibalism to sustain their existence.

Originally, I described ghouls as being detritivores; that is, they may or may not be eating the same species but the key is that they are feeding on biomass that has been dead for a considerable period of time.  The formal, ecological definition of a detritivore is an organism that feeds on fragmented, particulate organic matter (A Dictionary of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics by R.J. Lincoln, G.A. Boxshell and P.F. Clark; Cambridge University Press, 1988).  Examples of common detritivores are earthworms, pill bugs and crabs (see below).

Earthworm_wiki

Earthworm (www.wikipedia.com)

woodlouse_www.amentsoc.org

Pill bug (www.amentsoc.org)

Dungenesscrab_LeoShaw_www.eopugetsound.org

Dungeness crab, photo by Leo Shaw (www.eopugetsound.org)

While detritivores are common throughout all Terran ecosystems, I am particularly familiar with them in freshwater ecosystems such as ponds and streams.  Shown below is a simplified food web for a stream ecosystem.  Please note that macroinvertebrates (essentially aquatic insects and other invertebrates you can see without the need of a microscope) are described as shredders, collectors, scarpers and predators.  The predators feed on the other invertebrates, while the collectors collect organic particulates (algae, bacteria organic particles) flowing through the stream.  The scrapers feed off the algae, bacteria and organic matter attached onto rocks or plants (some of this may be dead material).  However, the shredders are full time detritivores.  This group of organisms takes large organic material, like the leaf litter that falls into the streams, and grinds / tears the larger particles into smaller particles.  These smaller, partially digested particles can then be decomposed at substantially faster rates by bacteria and fungi than they could if the material remained as large leaves.  Thus, detritivores are an important link between the large pieces of organic matter and smaller pieces that can then be further decomposed on a microbial level, releasing nutrients that can be used by plants and algae.  Again, the key is that detritivores grind large particles into small particles for the decomposers.  However, the material they feed on can be leaf litter (macroinvertebrates), soil (earthworms) or the corpse of a whale (crabs and hagfish).

Figure_8_2_7_1Asimplifiedview04_www.nile.riverawarenesskit.org

Simplified view of a stream food web (www.nile.riverawarenesskit.org)

Given this broad definition of a detritivore and their ecological role in making big particles (a large part of which can be plant material) into smaller particles to increase the rate of decomposition, I feel this does not accurately describe the ecological function of the ghoul.  Looking into it further, I think the ghoul is best described as necrophagous – that is, exclusively feeding on dead material (Lincoln, Boxshell and Clark, 1988).  The most well-known necrophagous animals are fly (Order: Diptera) larvae, known as maggots.  Maggots feed almost exclusively on dead animal matter.  In fact, maggots are so good at feeding only on dead tissue and biomass that some species are used in maggot theory.  That is, these maggots raised under sterile conditions can be used to disinfect or remove dead tissue from a wound.  In addition, it has been demonstrated that through the release of specific lysozymes (a specific set of enzymes that are known to damage bacterial cells) the feeding of these maggots on injured / dead tissue can also help to reduce the potential for bacterial infections.

Maggots_wiki

Maggot therapy (www.wikipedia.com)

I propose that ghouls are necrophagous; they feed specifically off the dead or dead animal biomass in general.  They are not predators, which attack, kill and consume their prey immediately.  While in desperate times in the absence of food ghouls may attack and kill to produce food, they will not consume this food immediately.  The food must partially decompose to be palatable to the ghoul.  As I previously mentioned, there is probably some biochemical or physiological reason why ghouls cannot eat fresh meat.  Perhaps they do not have the enzymes needed to digest and assimilate the largely in-tact proteins.  In addition, I am sure they do not have the microfauna in their intestines to digest and break apart cellulose and other plant matter to obtain energy as an herbivore.

I hypothesize that the ghoul is essentially a necrophagous being, feeding off dead animals, primarily mammals, including humans.  While this is a detritivorous mode of feeding, it is a very specialized form similar to the larvae of flies.  Both forms of life feed on the dead by breaking up the biomass into smaller pieces with higher amounts of surface areas that allow bacteria and fungi to decompose this material at accelerated rates.  However, in both cases the biomass they consume must be dead for a period of time before they can be assimilated.

watchful_ghouls_by_mrzarono-d5sieos

Watchful Ghouls by Mr. Zarono (www.deviantart.com)

Thus, ghouls may provide a valuable ecosystem benefit in contributing toward the decomposition of organic matter and the recycling of nutrients and energy back into the global food web.  As some of the readers of this blog have cited in the comments, such ecosystems benefits may be particularly useful in times of war or plagues when the amount of dead is substantially higher.  Next time we will discuss possible practical applications of the ghoul’s biology.

Finally, I do want to thank everyone who has supported and contributed toward the Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-1), which currently has less than 14 hours to go.  We made our original threshold as well as two additional thresholds.  Once again, thank you!  Fred.

feeding_ghouls_by_lmerlo72-d8ltetz

Feeding Ghouls by Imerlo72 (www.deviantart.com)

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12 thoughts on “Ecological Function of the Ghoul

  1. Excellent article. I have long thought of Ghouls as necrophagous creatures. They are one of my favorite creatures next to the Migo overall. Keep up the good work, I really look forward to these articles.

    1. Thank you for bring that to my attention! I will make that correction immediately. I always appreciate it when people identify errors that I have made on the blog site. Thanks again! Fred

      1. I didn’t want to seem rude, I just wanted to make sure the artist is credited properly!

      2. No problem! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I want to make sure I always give credit where credit is due with the artwork or when I cite books or papers. Thanks again!
        Fred

      3. No problem! You were not being rude at all. I always want to make sure I am giving credit or citing the artist / writer of anything I mention on the blogspot. Thank you! Fred

  2. Lovecraft’s reference to the Pickman painting “Subway Accident” suggests that ghouls can — and do — engage in straight-up predatory carnivorous behavior.

    It also suggests that the MBTA in Boston is in cahoots with ghouls, but that’s not really news to anyone in Massachusetts.

    1. Good point! I think the ghouls can resort to more predatory behavior when food supplies (dead bodies that have not been embalmed) are low. In addition, a “pack” mentality probably kicks in when they are in groups and this generates more aggressive behavior. Also, in “Subway Accident” the people they were attacking (those still alive) were probably injured and vulnerable. Thus, they were functioning more as scavengers, taking advantage of a situation. We don’t know if they caused the accident but any injured people or dead bodies would certainly have been gathered as food. More importantly, there is no evidence that they were consuming their prey right then and there. I am sure they had to take the bodies somewhere where they could allow them to putrefy.

      Also, I think the Dreamland ghouls, who do not seem so limited in food, appear to be slightly more organized and civilized relative to those dwelling mostly on Earth. However, that is a topic for another discussion! Thank you for the comments – one does wonder if specific human institutions have some sort of agreement with ghouls! Fred.

      1. Perhaps modern embalming practices render corpses inedible to ghouls, or at least unappetizing, in which case they would have a definite incentive to become more active predators.

        One could also speculate that the practice of embalming originated for just this reason: to protect the dead from being devoured. This would also explain the origin of cremation.

        A further point is that, while not attested in Lovecraft’s own stories, other authors have had ghouls take on the memories and even the appearances of those they devour. One would think, at least from a strictly scientific perspective, that such a process would work better with fresh (or even living) tissues as opposed to decayed ones, but nevertheless this would help explain ghouls’ particular specialization.

      2. Excellent point. I could easily see ghouls adapting to be more aggressive to obtain food, particularly if they can travel / operate in packs. It may have been embalming that resulted in ghouls becoming more organized (at least on Earth) as a form of cultural evolution.

        And yes, I have seen that concept in a few stories – where ghouls can “download” the memories of the dead by devouring them. Very intriguing!

        As always, thank you for the comments! Fred

  3. “Of rubies from lunar mines there was a great store, both rough and polished, in one of the vaults near the water; but when the ghouls found they were not good to eat they lost all interest in them.” – ” Dream-Quest”

    What do we make of this?

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