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Elementals are based on the 4 classical elements: earth, fire, air, and water, as those were all that the ancients knew of.

However, with science we have learned that none of those are actually elements as defined by the periodic table of elements.

What would an elemental creature based on actual elements be like?
Is there a realistic way that they could evolve?

Edit:
Based on the idea that all myths have a core of truth, what would it take to get creatures like the ones described as elementals in the legends?

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    $\begingroup$ I know I really wouldn't want to be chased by a chlorine elemental $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 25 '15 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ In theory yes you can, however it's complicated. First and foremost, you would need to mimic a brain, and that requires synapses, which would mean that only a few conductive elements would work for starters.. Then you have a problem with temperatures, at a natural state, some elements aren't solid, and you can't get a shape to be formed, unless you wrap it with something, but then it's not an elemental is it $\endgroup$ – Oak Dec 25 '15 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ @oak Well, fire, air, and water aren't solids either, so the same problem exists with the "traditional" elementals. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 25 '15 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ Whatever you do, don't high five the fluorine elemental. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Feb 8 '16 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ Fire is a process, not a gas. Some fires have no flame. Flame is a conductive plasma, and the fuel is a gas just before reacting. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Feb 10 '16 at 13:50
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A living creature composed entirely from one classical element is, of course, impossible under everything we know about biology. However, let's make things interesting and try to determine a way for an organism to look and behave like an elemental, without actually being one. In order from easiest to hardest.

Earth

This is pretty easy, actually, since the creature doesn't need to be made of earth, it just needs to be covered in it. There is a kind of crab which goes around collecting rocks, plants, bits of shell, and so on, and uses an adhesive to attach stuff to its shell for purposes of camouflage. Looking like the land around you is a good camouflage strategy, so any creature that values stealth or defense over speed and agility could benefit from this.

Water

It could be argued that most life on earth are already water elementals, since cells are basically little bags of water encased in thin cell membranes. Creatures like jellyfish can be practically invisible if their refraction index is close to that of the water they live in. But for a creature to be truly water-elemental-ish, you probably want something like a slime mold - a microorganism that is capable of joining together with others of its species to form a mobile blob-like creature.

I would also bring up hagfish, a creature that excretes microfilaments in order to convert large quantities of water into a thick slime. A single hagfish can produce gallons of slime this way, more than it would be capable of storing in its body in liquid form.

Imagine this: A population of microorganisms inhabit a large lake, strangely devoid of living fish. When someone comes into the water for a swim, they hardly notice that the water seems strangely sticky, but pay it no mind. As they approach the center of the lake, suddenly they feel the water around them turn to thick, clinging slime...

After eating their drowned victim and reproducing, a number of these microorganisms form a large, translucent blob, which crawls out of the water and makes its way toward another nearby lake, to repeat the cycle.

Wind

Microbes can't really control themselves in air all that well, so you'd need something that is too small for the eye to see, yet big enough to resist normal brownian motion. Massive swarms of very, very small insects (the smallest known flying insect is a fairyfly, about a tenth of a millimeter in length) with flocking behavior, perhaps, seeking to mate or hunt... but they probably wouldn't feel much like wind if they hit you, and the thicker the swarms, the less likely they would be to be invisible, and as it got close, you'd be able to see it for the swarm of insects that it is. From a distance, it would end up looking more like a (slow-moving) mobile smoke or fog.

On the other hand, if we're talking about air elementals, as in, air which can attack you... well, that's just airborne diseases, isn't it?

Fire

For a creature to constantly burn, it would require a lot more energy than it could ever hope to acquire through this method, and it is hard to think of a reason why this would be useful. Instead, let us consider the possibilities of a microorganism that starts fires.

Eucalyptus trees are fire-resistant, and drive out competing plants by producing flammable oils and waiting for something to light them on fire. Imagine a microorganism, perhaps descended from volcano-dwelling, heat-loving archeans, that has learned to colonize cooler regions by spreading spores which chemically ignite dry wood on contact in order to drive out competing organisms. Unlikely, sure, but we're talking about scientifically plausible fire elementals, so I think we can stretch probability a bit here.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid you've rather missed the point of the question. This isn't about the Earth/Fire/Air/Water elementals it's about making a Carbon or Hydrogen or Mercury elemental. The elements as defined by the periodic table. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 10 '16 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ The question was recently edited to ask about 'creatures described as elementals in legends', so I figured we were back to classical elements. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Feb 10 '16 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'll give you the edit, but it wasn't recent ;) $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 10 '16 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! This is pretty much what I was looking for after the edit. Actually, in hind sight, it's what I should have asked for at first, but I tried to be clever. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Feb 10 '16 at 11:58
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Basically you can't do it without magic. In order to be "alive" you need to be able to move, to do at least some processing, to take energy in and do something with it. If you do it with magic then you can do anything...

None of those things are possible in a homogeneous creature built entirely from one element. You might be able to achieve some things with for example carbon by using different crystalline forms but really you're so constrained you won't be able to achieve much. For example even though you can make circuits and even lubricants from carbon you can't make batteries, etc. That's with Carbon too, one of the most flexible elements.

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    $\begingroup$ "You can't without magic" - an answer that should really appear more often around here. Perfect answer! $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Feb 10 '16 at 12:20
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In a story idea of mine, there are a race of crystalline beings who were created in the Neogene Period by certain atoms 'falling where they needed to go' to create something similar to nerve-netting. With ambient electricity from lightning, and over a long time of course, these 'crystal brains' activated and formed sentience, figuring out how to multiply and change their shape. By the time of the Ordovician Period, they could bud their netting from their crystals and take whatever shape they needed, although those forms became predominately humanoid after their 'discovery' of people and the convenience of a simian body.

I added situations where people question their biology, such as asking how their bodies are so flexible, and how they draw in electricity as sustenance.
To these questions, they simply state that it would require an explanation of things humans are mentally inadequate to comprehend all at once, and so an explanation would have no use.

As someone answered me on a question I asked, find a sneaky way to explain that there are answers to those questions but are unable to be answered for good reasons. It's your story, a reality you create.
Though I'd hardly consider my 'eh, it's fine' explanation to be 'sneaky'

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It is a contradiction. “elemental” means simple: one kind of thing. You expect an exemplar of the kind of substance you are talking about. Living things, on the other hand, are complex and have lots of separate parts, probably made of many different kinds of thing.

Now if there are different kinds of things that are all pure rock or all pure water (etc.) then they are not worthy of the term elementals. In that system, there was a single rock and real substances were made of various combinations of the basic elements in differwnt proportions. A pure sample of any of them would be an extreme substance, but a pure substance without internal complexity.

Well, in the case of Earth you could build a mechanical device with all the parts being made of the same pure material, but again that's not very elementary.

This is true whether you mean a single Earth element or a hundred; you can't make something complex out of just one thing. Unless the thing is like Lego... but you could say we are made of just one thing: atoms, that come in some variety. That's not what's meant.

I recall when I was of a single-digit age reading a Star Trek novel, in which one of the children of the Horta was a Star Fleet member and went on missions...and the Romulons happen to worship Elementals and were deeply rattled when up against this personification of Earth as an advisary.

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