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I'm about to kick off a game of Dungeons and Dragons. My setting is magic-medieval and the plot is that the power of flight has been suppressed by an avenging god. How long would it take before the lack of flight in the animal population would have visible effects on the ecosystem as a whole? IE, how long do my players have to reverse the effects, and what signs might they see that show how badly the world around them is falling apart?

Narrowing it down a little;

  • The reason for the lack of flight is simply "magic". I picture it a bit like all creatures suddenly "forget" how to fly - ie birds will still have wings, they just can't get off the ground. I can be more specific here if it's required, but as of this moment I haven't defined it beyond that.

  • All creatures with flight are affected at the same time, and the change is quite abrupt. I expect a small subsection of each flighted population will simply die from fall impact.

  • Assume the area affected is several hundred miles across, centered around the city the players are in. Any new creature entering the sphere of effect loses flight instantly. Anything leaving it gains it back.

  • The technology is roughly a medieval level, but with magic. Magical flight methods are also neutered (including magical beasts).

  • This will take effect in a late spring to early summer range.

I'm currently working on the assumption that it would be about a week, maybe two at a stretch, before the lack of flight started showing significant effects to the animal and people populations as a whole. Obviously long-term we'd be talking crop failures from lack of pollination and ecosystem imbalances, but exactly how much can go wrong in just a few weeks?

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    $\begingroup$ In winter or in spring or in summer? I very much doubt that any major effects would be seen in winter. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 20 '18 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP good question - let's assume a late spring to early summer range $\endgroup$ – Alex Mar 20 '18 at 17:15
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I would surmise that the world would change rather quickly (one month to several). As mentioned the main problem in the long run will probably be pollination and birds distributing seeds. However in the sort run you will probably also severely affect the food chain.

From the point that birds and insects drop to the ground to be fed on easily, so animals will engorge on them. Followed by, depending on the density of the population, rotting carcasses which can bring diseases. Although probably the spread will be less due to the lack of flying insects.

After the immediate influence, the second one is that all animals feeding on flying insects or birds will begin starving. So spiders, frogs but probably also cats and such will have a high starvation rate. I don't know how many insects feed on flying insects but I guess it is significant.

The next effect is that also the earlier stages of the flying insects (caterpillars, maggots a such) will become extinct. This in turn giving problem for rodents feeding on these.

And so on and on until the food chain stabilizes or becomes entirely extinct due to the sudden change combined with the later lack of pollination.

Since it is an area of effect spell you might see the bigger animals migrating away relatively fast or start roaming the border for easy meals from dropping birds.

So I think in a relative short time you will have a area a lot less densely populated with animals and a lot of rotting cadavers lying around. Can be a nice setting for some game.

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They have until the queen bees starve to death. Then the world ends.

If the bees can't fly, they cant collect nectar. No nectar means no honey. No honey, no bees. No bees, no pollination. No pollination, no plants. no plants no food, no food, no people.

The druids would probably notice the bees' suffering very quickly, and hives would have some stores of food, so you'd still have time to save them.

More generally, people would notice right away. It would be pretty weird to see a flock of starlings running across a road.

"Hey Bill, why did the pigeon cross the road?"

"Goddamit Adam, I already know that his is going to be one stupid joke. Hurry up and have kids so you can torture them with your lame dad-jokes."

"No, bill. That bird over there. It's walking across the road."

"holy crap, you're right Adam. What the hell?"

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    $\begingroup$ Before anyone says that not all plants are pollinated by bees, it would be wise to remind them that birds, as well as other insects are also pollinating agents. The bulk of those critters are flyers too. If all pollinators left are non-flyers and the wind, most plant species die, and the system as a whole succumbs really fast. Only marine life will still be there. $\endgroup$ – Renan Mar 20 '18 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ Corn, wheat, potatoes, rice, and soy are all viable without pollinators. Humans would miss coffee and flowers, but lots of us probably survive. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Mar 20 '18 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ Alex, I'd guess that would depend on the time of year. If everything gets grounded in October, when the bees go into hibernation, they could live for months through the winter. If they get grounded in late March, right when the bee's food stores are at their lowest, perhaps they could only last a few weeks. I don't know how much extra food bee's have after the winter. $\endgroup$ – user47242 Mar 20 '18 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ There would of course be many extinctions for species that couldn't adapt, but marine life would not be all that is left. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Mar 20 '18 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ Or in another worst case, some humans could survive by manually pollinating their crops themselves. This is already done in many lab environments. But to do it on a large scale would require a much higher proportion of humans to go back to farming. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Mar 20 '18 at 22:24
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Much of this question has been covered in the answers here: A World Without Bugs

Flying insects that can't fly will all be eaten by ants.

Birds that can't fly will be eaten by terrestrial predators like rats and cats./

Though this is not the question, I must say this sounds like a dismal premise for a campaign. Grim dissolution of the ecosystem in slow and nonobvious ways - yay.

Maybe the magic should be "everything flies". Every living thing finds flying to be as easy as their previously preferred method of transportation. I think spiders would be too scared to fly around. Dogs would pick it up in no time. Elephants might just fly short hops and then stand around and make noise before taking another short hop. When whales do that jump out of the water and flop down on their side thing, they would do it up. Monsters would add flying to their list of skills. And your adventurers could fly too.


ADDENDUM In a D&D scenario I could imagine people not noticing the lack of birds, or that the ants were feasting. But D&D involves fighting and dead things. Immediate effect of this magic: the dead things would have no flies on them. No vultures would circle overhead.

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    $\begingroup$ You haven't quite answered my question; I'm asking how quickly effects would be noticed, and what effects. Your first few sentences start to touch on that. Also, I think removing the speculation on the plot would make for a stronger answer. $\endgroup$ – Alex Mar 20 '18 at 18:57
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The first thing that came into my mind: Plague! A veritable plague of ground-locked bugs.

They will no longer be held in check by birds and flying insects. They breed worse than, well, rabbits. They will eat everything organic in sight. The living plants will be consumed. Food stock will be consumed.

Together with the collapsing ecosystem it will make the area unable to sustain higher life forms pretty soon.

Picture an area razed by (walking!) grasshoppers. Nothing left, earth blowing away on the wind.

References:
https://io9.gizmodo.com/5927112/chinas-worst-self-inflicted-disaster-the-campaign-to-wipe-out-the-common-sparrow
http://www.historynet.com/1874-the-year-of-the-locust.htm

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  • $\begingroup$ Not really. The 1874 Great Plains Year of the Locust was not a necessary consequence, but due to hard winter + near-drought + unnatural breeding weather. And anyway in non-exceptional conditions, there are enough land predators that eat locusts. $\endgroup$ – smci Mar 20 '18 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ Locusts can fly just fine. If they can't fly, there are no shortage of ground-based insectivores that will be happy to eat the now-defenseless critters. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 20 '18 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ @smci The link was an example of the effects of unbalance. I've added another. $\endgroup$ – Bookeater Mar 21 '18 at 21:21
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In addition to the major effect on pollination, here are some non-expert thoughts:

  • the absence of airborne predators would cause a population explosion in small animals which can climb trees/cliffs and breed like rabbits. e.g. squirrels nesting up cliffs.
  • ... followed by an increase in climbing predators following them (Lotke-Volterra)
  • smaller birds (esp.) can still manage by hopping, so they could hop up cliffs but they wouldn't be able to forage effectively, and would diminish.
  • there would be a brief boom in landborne predators eating grounded insects and birds. Imagine hyenas eating grounded vultures and eagles.
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Are angels affected too?

If people are used to expecting migratory birds around this time of the year, their absence will be the biggest sign that something is going wrong. Either that or anyone who relies on messenger pigeons.

Does this magical process affect everything that hovers? Do clouds still float, or do they fall (as rain) to never form again? A continuously cloudless sky will be disastrous for agriculture.

If clouds are affected, what about fire and smoke? Tall buildings can't rely on central heating if the heat can't ascend.

Also, for how long are thrown objects allowed to stay in the air? If I shoot an arrow, does it travel normally or does it fall immediately at my feet?

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