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Gargoyles are bipedal, slow-moving animals that lurk on rooftops and eat pigeons. The rumors of gargoyles being magical construct are false; in truth they're just animals that have adapted to urban environments.

By nature, the gargoyles are ambush predators; they have thick, craggy hide that gives them a stone like texture, and they can remain motionless for very long periods of time. They typically perch on high places, such as buildings or trees.

They are good climbers, but also slow-moving similar to sloths. They have no natural predators simply because they're too difficult to eat.

However, these gargoyles are also known for having wings. Two small wings protrude from their shoulder blades, with a limited range of flexibility. These wings are completely non-functional for flight; the wings are far too small and the body far too heavy to ever be airborne.

So the question is; if not for flight, why else would gargoyles evolve wing-like appendages? What other evolutionary purpose would result in gargoyles having these seemingly-decorative wings?

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    $\begingroup$ At first you explain that gargoyles adapted to city. Then you ask why would they evolve wings. What was first Chicken or City? $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Feb 24 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ Why do ostriches have wings when they can't fly? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 24 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Thumbs down for apparently doing no prior research on extant non-flying birds. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 25 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ Who says they can't fly? I've seen plenty of fantasy settings where they can fly. $\endgroup$ – Sam Dean Feb 25 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ "None of which applies to a gargoyle." There's absolutely zero reason that gargoyle ancestors couldn't have flown in the past. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 25 at 11:41

11 Answers 11

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Targeting.

Your gargoyles are the modern descendants of creatures whose main mode of predation was dropping from trees into the heads of unsuspecting passers by. The wings don’t aid in flight but, like the tail of a dart, they do provide a tiny amount of control in where the rapidly descending gargoyle lands.

This is critical for a slow predator like the gargoyle. It can’t chase after its prey. It either hits first time or goes hungry. If the prey shifts or the initial drop was a touch off then the wings provide correction as the bulky predators descend. Gargoyles without the wings simply miss and go hungry.

Of course: it’s pointless to evolve these wings further. The gargoyles aren’t looking to glide or fly properly, they just need a tiny touch more control and that’s enough.

Of course sexual selection means that the gargoyle with the most ornate yet petite wings gets the best mates, so...

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    $\begingroup$ I'm now imagining gargoyles jumping off buildings and slamming into people below... which actually kind of works. $\endgroup$ – user69867 Feb 24 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ DROPBEARS, QUCK, GRAB THE VEGEMITE! $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Feb 24 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Gustavo I only didn’t mention dropbears because they’re a decidedly antipodean species while gargoyles are clearly european. They might be related though... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Feb 24 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ @ti5 "I wonder what equivalent food/paste can ward off dropping gargoyles" I can almost guarantee good outcomes with Marmite and/or a surströmming paste. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Feb 25 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham: That’s why they have horns and are dumb as bricks. Large cranium full of impact protection mechanisms for a comparatively tiny brain, and horns that can break off and regrow for those particularly gnarly landings. A mere terminal velocity impact isn’t going to faze them. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Feb 25 at 13:02
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The Wings are used for thermal regulation.

Roofs get hot, really, really hot. Being able to unfurl a large surface area perpendicular to both the sun and the roof beneath allows the gargoyle to maintain active hunting well into the day when most other animals have slowed down.

Also the mornings and evenings are quite cool. By unfurling their wings into the sunlight, or across a particularly warm piece of roof allows gargoyles to start hunting earlier, and maintain hunting much later into the evening. Again when many prey animals are trying to warm themselves up, or are slowing down due to the chill air.

They remain quite small due to adaptive thermo-regulatory pressures. Mainly gargoyles with large wings freeze to death in winter.

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    $\begingroup$ This works really well with the idea that their ancestors used to be able to fly. Over the generations, the wings evolved to serve a different purpose. $\endgroup$ – Llewellyn Feb 25 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ So they're just like elephant ears.... +1 $\endgroup$ – Criggie Feb 25 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ And any pigeon seeking shade under a wing, well, lunch has landed... $\endgroup$ – Andrew Morton Feb 26 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ This fits in neatly with the fact that gargoyle wings are bat like and therefore have blood vessels going through them. $\endgroup$ – Barry Haworth Feb 27 at 1:44
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Vestigial wings.

Sea mammals got lower limbs tucked into their tails from tbe time they roamed on earth.

Your missing piece is a common ancestor with other birds which started to get defensive meassures over mobility.
If prey was available as nests or eggs, you don't need to be fast. Yet armor in shape of thick hide was handy to fend off angry fathers defending their nest.

You may go as the condor, forsaking the head plumage to avoid infections from decaying flesh stcking on the feathers. Then gradually the other areas are also devoid of any coverage. Warmer weather mabye?

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    $\begingroup$ This, except gargoyles' nearest relatives are actually dragons, not birds. I.e. gargoyles are dragons that have adapted to city living. $\endgroup$ – Martha Feb 25 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ No need for wings anymore when you can just sit there and let the prey come to you. $\endgroup$ – GreySage Feb 26 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ This is correct,, though they are still used these days for protection from the echinoderm lapido vulgaris species,aka the common stone-throwing urchin $\endgroup$ – mcalex Feb 27 at 3:28
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    $\begingroup$ The wings became less useful as the gargoyles evolved the heavier, stone-like skin. $\endgroup$ – Arluin Feb 27 at 21:18
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Balance and stabilization while climbing

Much like a squirrel’s tail, or a tightrope walker’s pole, the wings of a gargoyle are used to help the gargoyle balance itself. Walking along narrow ledges, branches, and roof ridgelines, even slowly, is a risky endeavor. One wrong move could result in a lethal fall. The gargoyle’s wings, while useless for flight, do help it finely adjust its center of gravity, making it much easier to maintain balance.

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    $\begingroup$ Right. If you lived in constant danger of falling off a cathedral, you'd be thankful for a means of stabilisation whilst clambering about! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Feb 25 at 22:52
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Filter feeding

Gargoyles will eat pigeons if they can catch them, but pigeons are a relatively infrequent meal because a gargoyle's success rate in catching them is lower than ideal.

Gargoyles' primary food source is actually dead insects, leaves, and anything else that falls in the rain. (Occasional rains of frogs and fish are a bonus.) In the reverse of the normal body plan, the water runs into an inlet hole in the back and runs out of the mouth, having been filtered for any particles of nutrients on the way. The large ears and the wings together act as a funnel to capture as much water as possible.

On the face of it, larger wings would seem to give some evolutionary advantage in increasing the rainwater capture area. However a gargoyle cannot fold its wings like a bird does, and gargoyles live in a very exposed, windswept environment. Strong winds are a real threat to a gargoyle with large wings, and any of the poor creatures who are cursed with large wings have to hide on lower, less exposed levels where the pickings are poorer and there are fewer mates. (The highest vantage point is naturally the most prestigious position in gargoyle society.) Some will try to tough it out at the higher levels, but storms will tend to blow them off the roof so they don't live long. Small stubby wings give enough water throughput whilst not putting the gargoyle at risk in high winds.

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    $\begingroup$ On a similar note: diffusion areas for gas exchange, like some form of gill or external lung? This means you can't see the gargoyle's chest move for breathing when they are waiting... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Feb 25 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ I love how this plays on the actual purpose of gargoyles. :) $\endgroup$ – Martha Feb 25 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Martha Thanks - slightly borrowed from Terry Pratchett, of course, but with some extras. :) $\endgroup$ – Graham Feb 26 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal Nice idea. I know frogs can do that - have to think about how well it scales. $\endgroup$ – Graham Feb 26 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham No, no, the fish are the ones with the scales. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Feb 26 at 18:41
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Camouflage

Humans have always, and still do adorn their buildings with statues, and often these statues have wings.

Over the ages, Gargoyles have evolved to more closely resemble these statues to better lay in wait for their prey, reducing the chance that birds and such will recognise them for what they are and keep their distance.

It is only the urban gargoyles that where evolution has given them wing like appendages. Some forest gargoyles have instead evolved leaf-like protrusions.

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Those appendages might not be good enough to fly, but do their job for allowing gliding and ambushing the pigeons.

From high above the roof the gargoyle can wait for the right target to be at reach and then dive onto it, helped by the winglets in controlling the direction of dive.

Then, after having consumed their lunch, they climb back to the tops where they lurk waiting for their next meal.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's fine during the dive. What happens on impact with the ground, 10 metres below? $\endgroup$ – Graham Feb 25 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham Their meal becomes a veneer, they have no teeth so they need to squash the target into a paste. $\endgroup$ – Burgi Feb 25 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Burgi I'm thinking more in terms of the gargoyle, not the target. A small rodent can survive falling from a high building; cats can just about; and anything larger just explodes on impact. Chickens bred for meat are a great example - a free-range chicken's wings are just about enough to stop it splatting when it jumps from a height, but many domesticated species can't, and their now-vestigial wings are generally larger (in comparison to their mass) than a gargoyle's. $\endgroup$ – Graham Feb 25 at 12:00
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Parachutes

Gargoyles occasionally fall off the roof. The wings slow down their fall from fatal to just painful.

Note that the reason they have wings at all is bird ancestry, but the parachute effect is why these wing haven't disappeared completely.

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The wings are purely decorative and use in seductive way. Like peacock does with their tails. Surely bigger wings show that you are a better gargoyles than the one with litlle one.

or they could be used in combat, perhaps the gargoyles are fighting against each others to know which one will get to mate with a female gargoyles and their wings could be used offensively or defensively.

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    $\begingroup$ I would think if big wings = better mating prospects, the gargoyles would soon have comically large wings, like the dramatic tail of peacocks compared to bird that 'just' you their tail to help steer while flying. $\endgroup$ – Meg Feb 26 at 15:10
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To steal an answer from the old Gargoyles TV show: they require way more energy than they get from food so the wings are also solar panels. The show gargoyles turned to stone during the day so they would collect and store sunlight during the day to power themselves at night.

The show did actually try to explain that kind of stuff :)

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I wish to combine Gustavo's answer with everyone else's, and raise an important point if you want a certain level of evolutionary "realism".

Which is that "wings", as in, the recognizable complex flight-adapted limbs of most birds, all bats, pterosaurs, and so on, are massively over-engineered for all the purposes suggested here. You could imagine the gargoyles might have "simplified wings" that could be adequate to some of those simpler purposes (like the "targeting" suggestion you accepted as the answer), but I'm betting what you're picturing in your mind is not simplified enough for that, because if it were I'm not sure you'd be calling them "wings".

In other words, none of the purposes described here would result in the evolution of wings, as opposed to simpler appendages. That's a strong claim to make, but I think the pattern in existing nature justifies it - only animals who fly, or whose recent ancestors flew, have wings. Plenty of animals glide, fall in controlled ways, thermoregulate, camouflage, have sexual displays, etc etc etc, and they generally have structures that are adapted for this, but almost never would you call those structures "wings". Because the visual appearance of wings is really hard to separate from their primary function, which is flying.

However all those purposes are completely realistic uses for vestigial wings! "Vestigial" doesn't mean the organ is not used or even useless. It means the organ is no longer used for the purpose it originally evolved to fulfill, which typically means that whatever purpose it serves now, it's massively over-engineered for that purpose and it's pretty visible what its original purpose was. Which is exactly how you describe your gargoyle wings: they're small, useless for flight, but recognizable as wings.

Choosing a current "secondary that became primary" purpose for those wings can inform a lot of what your gargoyle wings are like; how small they are, how many degrees of freedom and muscle control they've retained, have they changed shape or appearance. But making sure those organs did evolve from wings frees you of having to worry about "but why would my targeting organ have this or that extraneous winglike feature".

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