Shapeshifters and mass... ever the bane of realistic science fiction.
Let's say someone is changing shape (for whatever reason, voluntary or involuntary, it doesn't matter for this purpose). Don't worry about what is causing this to happen. Let's also say that the start and end forms have non-trivially different size (mass).
Is there a credible way a shapeshifter could gain/lose body mass when changing forms? asks about some ways that this can happen. The unfortunate reality, as noted in some of the answers there, is that if we want to stick to the realm of biological plausibility (which I want to do), the sort of "Hollywood" shapeshifting that happens in a matter of seconds or minutes is simply not possible. Realistic shapeshifting takes months, or even years... right?
Rather than asking how it can happen, I'd like to ask how quickly it can happen. I expect "days" (at least as a single-digit number) is right out, but what is a plausible duration?
Let's also assume that the body of the "shifter" (victim? Er... let's just call her "Alice") isn't changing radically, so we're not worried about having to replace functioning organs with completely different ones. This gives us a nice cop-out for increasing mass; we can look at growth rates of real critters and use that as a reference, maybe with a little bit of fudge factor because we're bending the rules a bit as to how this is being triggered in the first place. What about decreasing mass?
I can think of three possibilities:
- The body "eats" itself in a carefully controlled manner such that everything is being constantly put back together, only smaller. Mass that isn't needed is expelled through "usual" mechanisms (sweat, shedding, urination, defecation).
- The body uses the resources of the outer parts to grow a new body inside of the old one, which is then cast off in a much squickier version of reptile shedding.
- The body liquefies everything but the most critical bits and grows a new body from the resulting soup.
The last is both the most and least plausible; similar to how eggs and cocoons work (indeed, for my purposes, plenty of insects are shapeshifters to a greater degree than I need), but seems dubious without some sort of protective shell. The second seems like it would have issues with the skeleton. I lean toward the first for several reasons:
- Alice is plausibly motile (if clumsy) for the entire duration.
- Alice isn't starting from scratch as far as motor control; the skeleton, muscles and nerves are all in the same configuration. (Again, some clumsiness expected due to the size change, but this is basically the process we all go through growing up, only backwards.)
- Lost mass is dealt with in a gradual manner via ordinary mechanisms, rather than all at once in a great big mess.
- Alice is able (but not required) to
eattake in nourishment during this process at a rate of up to 3,000 calories / day, in addition to what her body can get from "eating itself". Anything extra is shed or excreted.
- The transformation process is allowed to (and almost certainly must) "overdrive" Alice's normal healing ability, but not "magically" so (less "Wolverine"/"Deadpool", more "young child"). For the purposes of the transformation, cancer is a non-issue.
- Aside from whatever triggered the transformation (which may be external!), Alice's biology is otherwise normal. Answers requiring exotic organs or the like must include the time to grow those organs in the first place. (I'll allow them to be "left over" at the end, but really, avoiding this sort of thing is preferred.)
So... is this at least somewhat plausible, and if so, how quickly could a process like this occur? (My goal is for Alice to lose about 60% of her initial mass in about a month, but answers that can be generalized/extrapolated are better for the community.) Again, I'm hand-waving why this is happening, but I'd like to keep rest of the mechanics fairly grounded in plausible biology.