Tour to Neocene

 

30. Forest masquerade, or
The Mystery of the Flying Head

 

 

The movement of the continental plates does not stop while the magma of the Earth retains a liquid condition. Continental plates float on it, collide and split. Because of this, the location of continents is changing, affecting ocean currents and climate.
In the Neocene, a strip of land split off from African mainland from the east. In the Holocene, the line of this split was mapped out as the Great Rift Valley and the Great Lakes. Over millions of years, invisible underground forces have split the continent completely. The separated strip of the continental plate represents a large microcontinent, similar to Hindustan during the Late Cretaceous and Early Cenozoic. After millions of years, it will crash into the Asian continent, but so far this land is something like Madagascar island, but surpasses it in size by several times. The relatively narrow Tanganyika Passage separates this land from the African mainland. This narrow microcontinent is Zinj Land. Winds from the Indian Ocean and the Tanganyika Passage bring humid air to this huge island, so it rains here most of the year. There are no large rivers here, but the forest accumulates moisture like a sponge, maintaining the conditions of its own growth.
Zinj Land is almost entirely covered with dense humid forest; only in the far north of the microcontinent evergreen forests are replaced by deciduous ones, losing part of their foliage in the driest season. In such favorable conditions, life thrives, providing food to the numerous inhabitants of the forest all year round. Swarms of small insects constantly swirl over the forest canopy at an altitude of thirty meters above the ground. They are formed of mosquitoes and midges, whose larvae develop in the axils of the leaves of epiphytic orchids, flies and small butterflies searching for nectar-rich flowers by smell, and many other insects. Sometimes colorful beetles or shaggy forest bees, buzzing bassily, fly over the forest.
The abundance of insects attracts many hunters. Wasps, shining with their smooth coverings, down the intended prey on the fly, grab it with their legs and drag it into the nest. Insects perched on the branches are ambushed by ants and mantises, but the most active insect hunters are birds. Flocks of small long-winged birds deftly sweep through the branches, capturing midges and mosquitoes with wide mouths. These are homeless swifts, very numerous birds in this forest. Occasionally these birds sit perch on long branches to have a rest, folding their long narrow wings awkwardly. But they do not always manage to have enough rest – there are many other inhabitants in the forest canopy. They are not dangerous for these birds – the swift gathers great speed in flight and can easily escape from the chase if a predator decides to attack it.
But those animals that make their way along the trails in the treetops have little interest in such fast-moving creatures. They resemble primitive primates of the early Cenozoic in their appearance, but by their origin they are by no means primates, but descendants of a special group of ungulates – ashkokos. These descendants of tree hyraxes are agile, while climbing trees in search of fruits, nuts, small vertebrates and large insects. These animals represent a family group: it is headed by a male with white “glasses” around his eyes and a low red hairy crest on his head. He is followed by females and several cubs. Ashkokos go the round of their territory slowly, lingering for a while near large orchid bushes that spread out in all directions their long fllowe stalks with motley red-and-white flowers. In the thickets of orchids, it is possible to find large cockroaches, very appetizing from the point of view of ashkoko. The most important thing is not to miss this prey: despite the size, cockroaches are agile.

Crestbill Ctenorhynchus sp.

The delicious fruits of some trees differ favorably from cockroaches in that they do not run away anywhere, but simply hang on the branches and wait for someone to find them. And some inhabitants of the forest discover them earlier than ashkokos. A rather large bird is perching on a tree branch, where berries similar to cherries swing on long fruit-stalks. At first glance, it looks ordinary: it has a black tail and gleamy black wings, and when it jumps from one branch to another, its bright white back literally flashes. Stepping with its tenacious feet, the bird picks at the cluster of berries, choosing the ripest ones. When it raises its head, the most remarkable feature of this species becomes noticeable: a huge corneous crest on its head sticking out vertically. It is colored stunningly bright pink, shaded by a black bird’s head. This is a hussar crestbill, an inhabitant of the forest canopy.
The hussar crestbill tears off the ripest berries and swallows them whole, having slightly crushed their sweet pulp with its beak. Somewhere on the next branches, its congeners feed: their bright crests flash among the greenery of the trees – this is how the birds keep visual contact with each other.
Deftly moving their paws, ashkokos hurry up to snatch their share of the harvest. However, the crestbills aren’t much in rush to share food with some thick-bellied furry creatures. Alone, none of these birds will dare to defend its interests, but together they represent a significant force. Therefore, when the ashkokos get too close, the alarm call follows, which sounds more like the quacking of an angry duck. A few seconds later, a dozen of birds with pink combs on their heads gather over the heads of ashkokos. At the same time, it feels like you get into a poultry house at night and wake up all its inhabitants. The crestbills quack heart-rendingly, fly over the heads of the confused ashkokos and flap their wings loudly. This is not a real attack, but rather a simple demonstration of their multiplicity. If the ashkokos had been more courageous, they would not have paid attention to the screaming birds while picking fruits. But the natural caution of these animals manifests itself, and the whole family group hides among the branches, preferring to stay away from such a noisy company. Seeing that the display has had an effect, the crestbills calmly perch on the branches and continue to help themselves to berries.
The crestbills are descendants of the corvid birds. On this continental island, they found an excellent place to live, breeding and having formed several species. The species of crestbills differ well from each other in the color and shape of the crest-shaped decoration on the head, which serves as an identification signal for relatives.
Several species of these birds can feed on the same tree, but they almost do not conflict with each other for food, since different species of these birds have their own diet.
The bright crest-like growth on the head at these birds is a means of communication and recognition of species. Even in dense thickets, the lemon crestbill sees that the bright pink crest does not belong to its congener, but to a bird of a different species. When the hussar crestbill gets too close, the lemon crestbill displays a threatening pose: the bird fluffs its plumage on its neck, like an angry rooster. A loud buzzing voice warns the stranger that it should not come closer: the lemon crestbill has a pointed beak and is very combative.
However, the lemon crestbill is really dangerous for very few animal species only: its main food includes hard seeds. But its relatives can be much more dangerous for it.
Crestbill nests are open cup-shaped buildings in the branches of giant forest trees. The nesting season of these birds is greatly stretched, so at the same time in the forest you can find both incubating birds and those ones, which are busy with taking care of chicks, and even parents followed by grown-up fledglings. Nesting birds have to protect the non-hatched yet chicks from numerous enemies, the most dangerous of which is the largest species of crestbills, great false calao. This bird, similar to Holocene hornbills, alone or in pairs examines trees in search of small animals or bird nests with eggs and chicks. Usually this species feeds on the ground, but during the nesting of small birds, it willingly supplements the diet with the contents of their nests.
A huge bird with a wide, boat-like, comb-like outgrowth on its head, flutters from one branch to another. It flaps its wings loudly and sometimes utters screams similar to cow mooing. This is the trick of this bird. Demasking itself, the great false calao scares the birds, forcing them to leave their nests. The bird’s attentive gaze had noticed that a lemon crestbill female took off from the tangle of the branches. So, a huge false calao is heading there to look more closely. Its expectations are not disappointed: among the branches a neat wicker basket is seen – it is a nest of lemon crestbills with eggs. However, it will not be possible to feast here calmly: congeners gather to the calls of the lemon crestbill female: there are several adult birds with bright crests, as well as youngs with small gray outgrowths on their crowns. The young ones keep quiet, but the adult birds are at the forefront of the defenders of the nest. The loud crackling buzzing of birds is getting louder, and when the false calao gets very close to the nest, the rage of a dozen and a half birds bears down on it. The giant’s feathers and tail are pulled and several birds try to peck its head. The false calao shakes its head, trying to scare off the impudents, but the lemon crestbills will not give up so easily – it is in group defense that their strength lies. And the huge bird is forced to retreat ingloriously and to look for more affordable prey.
False calao can ravage the nest of almost any bird in this forest. But how to ravage a nest that actually does not exist? On a thin branch, swaying in the wind, something that looks like a mushroom or lichen sticks out. But do mushrooms move? The growth is definitely swaying apart from the movements of the branch itself. After a few minutes, the riddle resolves itself: the “growth” opens its narrow long wings and takes off. This is a homeless swift hatching an egg. During the takeoff of an adult bird, the egg did not fall, although the branch continues swaying. It won’t fall: the birds pasted it with its own saliva. And the chick that will hatch from it, first of all, will grab the bark of the tree with its claws.
In addition to camouflage, in wildlife there are many ways of protection against enemies used by weaker living beings against stronger ones.
Lemon crestbill is searching for food in the tree branches. This bird feeds mainly on hard seeds and nuts, but it diversifies its diet with beetles and sour-tasting ants, which inhabit the crowns of trees in abundance. But besides them, many other insects find shelter and food in the crowns.
Here, a bright green caterpillar with a yellowish pattern of small spots feeds on the leaves. Its strong mandibles literally “shave off” strips of soft tissues from the edge of the leaf, leaving the hard leaf veins intact. This caterpillar will turn to a large butterfly... if it manages to survive. The abundance of omnivorous birds like the lemon crestbill brings the death to many larvae if they cannot protect themselves. When the lemon crestbill gets close enough to the caterpillar, it makes an attempt to drive the annoying bird away. The caterpillar inflates the anterior part of its body. It has two longitudinal folds on the sides of its thorax, and at this moment they have an amazing transformation. The folds open, and the hidden pattern of the caterpillar becomes visible: two huge eyespots appear on its thorax, mimicking eyes. The whole caterpillar becomes like the head of a lizard. Releasing and drawing air with a well-audible hiss, it “blinks” with its ocular spots. However, lizards are sometimes included in the menu of crestbillk, so such a display does not frighten the bird much.
The lemon crestbill rushes at the caterpillar and grabs it. Writhing in the bird’s beak, the caterpillar uses chemical weapons more effective in close combat: a fork-like gland turns out on the back of its head, spreading an unpleasant smell. In addition, a pungent-tasting liquid oozes out of it, burning the mucous membranes of the lemon crestbill. Instead of a pleasant breakfast, the bird gets a tornado of unpleasant emotions.
The lemon crestbill releases the caterpillar and flies off to search for water: the caterpillar’s weapon burns its tongue unbearably. And the caterpillar plops down on a leaf growing below. It waggles its head for a while, trying to determine its location, and then crawls up the branch to a goal it knows only. On the way, it stumbles upon a strange outgrowth sticking out in the middle of a branch. But when the insect touches it, the outgrowth moves. To the touch, it turns out to be soft and fluffy. This is not lichen, as it may seem from a distance, but a bird – a nestling of homeless swift. Its only defense means against enemies are an excellent disguise and a branch that sways at the slightest gust of wind.
The caterpillar indifferently crawls right over the chick, and the young bird only clings to the branch tighter, trying to be invisible. But when the caterpillar continued on its way, the chick moved. Unfortunately for it, this was noticed by a huge false calao. The bird is not interested in the caterpillar – in its youth, the feathered giant tasted one of such kind, after which it washed its beak in the stream for a long time and completely lost interest in them. But a chick on a branch seems to be something interesting and unknown, and, maybe, even edible.
A huge bird flutters from one branch to another, getting close to the hidden chick. The false calao, a descendant of corvid birds, has a keen eye and a grasping memory. The chick, trying its best to remain motionless, will not deceive the predator: the false calao saw it moving.
But it is not easy to get such a tasty morsel: the branch with the chick is constantly swinging, and the thick branches on which a large bird can perch are far away. Therefore, the false calao decides to attack from the air. A huge bird, flapping its wings, tries clumsily to hang in the air and to grab a swift chick. But this attempt is all the more doomed to failure: from the flapping of wide wings, the branch swings even more, and it becomes absolutely impossible to grab the chick. A false calao will not be able to ravage such a “nest” – to do it, the bird must at least catch a branch swinging in the air.
Exhausted, the false calao refuses to continue hunting, and flies away. But its hunting had been watched from the foliage by its smaller relative, the hussar crestbill. The clumsy attack of the false calao gave it the presence of a swift chick, and now the bird with a pink comb is trying to take a chance lost by its huge relative. It has a much better chance of success: the hussar crestbill can perch even the branch where the chick is hiding. And it succeeds. Clutching a thin branch with its toes, the bird begins to climb down to the chick, making short steps. Soon it remains quite a little distance to it – the hussar crestbill distinguishes even the slightest stripes on the down of the chick.
At the same second, pointed claws seize the bird’s back. The parents of the chick, a nesting pair of adult homeless swifts, were not far away. While the false calao tried to grab the chick, they kept the distance – they can’t physically cope with such a giant. But the hussar crestbill was rewarded in full: the sharp claws of the swifts scratched its back, and the short beaks pinched its skin painfully. During the beating, the male clung to the back of the feathered robber, and the female tried to peck the hussar crestbill’s eye. The hussar crestbill shakes its head desperately, trying to drive away the enraged parents, but its efforts are futile. Then it makes the only right decision: it releases the branch and takes off. The swifts immediately let it go, although they pursue it for a while. And finally, the male swift pulls a feather out of its tail. It is absolutely not necessary for swifts who have completely abandoned nest building. These children of the air seem to be doing the world a great favor when perch on the branches of a tree to raise an offspring. And a black feather torn from the tail of a crestbill falls down, spinning in the air, from a thirty-meter height…
In the rainforest, many things may seem not they really are. The ashkoko family makes its way through the vines and branches, looking for insects and fruits. Ahead is the head of the family – a male with a red tuft on the crown and a white “mask” on the muzzle. Two adolescents are moving along the branch, following the male, and two females are closing the column. The beasts feed by gathering various insects and tree fruits. Large mushrooms with gristle-like flesh growing on the branches of some trees have a very pleasant taste, and ashkokos gladly eat them, lingering near their clusters. In addition, delicious beetles live among the mushrooms, for which the youngest of the adolescents immediately begins to hunt recklessly. One large black beetle flees, not wanting to take part in the ashkoko’s meal (especially as a snack). It escapes to the trunk of a tree, pursued by a young ashkoko, and hides in a thicket of lichens. But not all lichens are eager to give it a shelter – some lumps of fibers, which from a distance can easily be mistaken for lichen, move discontentedly. This is clearly not a lichen…
Strange creatures are the nymphs of one of the forest insects, a large lanternfly. They secrete long wax threads from special glands on the abdomen, and due to this they become much less noticeable. In addition, wax is a hard-to-digest substance, and a predator who finds such an animal must take a long time to clean the larva of inedible cover.
The disguise of the lanternfly nymphs saved not only them, but also the beetle: the ashkoko cub was frightened by the lichen that suddenly stirred and found it necessary to return to its parents. But this was not the end of the show of nature for it: a large green caterpillar carrying a pattern of yellow spots crawled out on a branch. Young ashkoko has never seen such insects, so curiosity in him is much stronger than caution. It sneaks up to a caterpillar, crawling imperturbably along a branch, and touches it with the finger.
In the next second, he received one more of those life lessons that teach caution. The caterpillar inflated with a hiss, and huge bright false eyes “opened” on its thorax. Clutching the bark with its abdominal legs, it raised the front part of its body, and its eyes "blinked". There was a complete impression that the head of a snake or lizard poked out of the hollow. The loud hissing and huge fake eyes made the proper impression: ashkoko rushed to its parents, screaming in fear. Even the adult animals, hearing its cry, worried markedly. And the caterpillar, having made sure that the enemy was gone, released the remnants of air, hid bright spots in the folds of the body covers, and continued on its way.
Many more times in its life, the young ashkoko will be able to make sure that in this forest the head can sometimes live without a trunk at all.
Among the large leaves of the tree, ashkoko notices a certain movement. There is no doubt: this is clearly a hussar crestbill. Its black head and bright pink crest are clearly visible through the foliage. The comb sways fussily from side to side: it looks like the bird has found something tasty.
One of the ashkoko females knows firsthand the quarrelsome nature of the crestbills that cause alarm when other animals approach. But she also knows that where this bird feeds, you can get hold of something delicious. And she decides to check out what this crestbill is so passionate about.
Gripping a branch with her long tenacious fingers and toes, the ashkoko female approaches the bird’s comb flashing among the leaves. Much more and she will manage to feast on what this bird is looking for in this place. But if the female ashkoko could fully understand what was happening on this branch, she would have scratched her head in annoyance: not a single bird was perching on the branch at that moment!
And yet, the pink comb has not disappeared anywhere: it just turned out to be a clever fake. It stuck out on the thorax of a large insect that looked like a cicada. Ashkoko fell for the trick of the birdhead lanternfly, a relative of cicadas. The wings of the insect folded on the back imitated the beak of a bird, and large spots are visible at the base of the comb–like outgrowth – these are its false “eyes”. The birdhead lanternfly escapes till its whole short life by messing with the heads of various forest inhabitants. In the nymphal stage, it gathers in groups on tree branches and mimics lichens with its wax secretions. It was the nymphs of this species that frightened the young ashkoko by suddenly stirring. And after molting, a large bubble is inflated on the thorax of the birdhead lanternfly, which hardens and simulates the crest of a bird – a hussar crestbill. At least, this feature partially protects the birdhead lanternfly from various four-legged hunters – lizards and small birds. But ashkoko, also feeding on insects, will not be deterred, and maybe even attracted by this. This animal is not afraid of a single crestbill, and among large invertebrates, it rightly bypasses scorpions and spiders, whose bite can be fatal.
The ashkoko female, clearly disappointed by the lack of fruits on the branch, is trying to compensate it in any way: at the very least, the birdhead lanternfly will also become food. But when ashkoko stretches out her fingers to the insect, the winged deceiver jumps, opens its spotted hind wings, and flies to a nearby branch with a dry paper rustle. However, for ashkoko is also not a problem to cover such a distance: abruptly pushing off from the branch, the ashkoko female jumps after the insect no worse than a monkey and with one deft movement grabs the birdhead lanternfly.
Any other insect could at least bite a predator, but the long proboscis of the birdhead lanternfly is not adapted for this purpose – it is needed to drill into the tree bark in search of a source of nutritious sap. It is too long to prickle the aggressor. However, the lanternfly is not giving up yet – it has another way to protect itself.
Tropical cicadas, thorn bugs and lanternflies are reputed musicians among insects. They are capable of making a variety of sounds, which sometimes seem simply impossible to be attributed to living beings. And the musician’s art was intertwined at the birdhead lanternfly with the cunning of a skilled imitator. The captured insect emits sharp jerky sounds, similar to the quacking of a duck... and the alarm call of a hussar crestbill. Of course, this is only a rough imitation of the bird’s voice, and it is unlikely to interest an old experienced crestbill. However, a young hussar crestbill, picking at the moss on a nearby branch, easily succumbed to deception. The bird took off from the branch and began circling over the head of the ashkoko female, uttering a loud staccato quack. And a few seconds later, several more birds joined this one. Seeing something similar to the head of a congener in ashkoko’s paw, the birds make a loud rumpus and begin quite real attacks on ashkoko. The sight of something pink and black in ashkoko’s paw is a more weighty argument than personal experience, convincing that ashkoko is not dangerous.
In the ensuing commotion, the ashkoko female loosens her grip, and the birdhead lanternfly flies out of her fingers. The birds do not immediately recognize the deception, and chase the female fleeing through the branches until she joins her congeners.
Today the birdhead lanternfly deceived almost as many animals as in half of its previous life. In the overall commotion, it escaped with a slight fright and slightly crumpled wings. Landed on the underside of the leaf, it cleans itself, stroking the wings with the hind pair of legs, and straightening the rumpled antennae.
Meanwhile, another master of deception is preparing to change its appearance radically. The green caterpillar, masterfully transformed into another animal’s head, is now searching for a place to pupate. It has reached a solid length of about 7 centimeters, and now it’s time to turn into an adult butterfly. The caterpillar finds a secluded place among the leaves, where it attaches itself to a branch with a silk thread and turns into a pupa. At this time, it looks more like a thick pod of some plant: developing legs and folded wings give her body relief, further increasing the disguise. Then, being absolutely motionless, it spends for about a week in this form.
When the right time comes, the covers of the pupa burst, and a strange creature with wrinkled stubs of wings on its back crawls out of it. It crawls down its old skin, clings to it upside down, and begins transformation into a fairy-tale forest prince. Air is pumped into the wings along the hollow veins, and they gradually straighten out, acquiring the shape characteristic for swallowtail butterflies, and the “tail” straightens on the rear wing. The wings are still folded, and the pattern of their upper side is not visible. But the underside of them has a very characteristic pattern, which one more insect in this forest already has... Bright pink and black colors on the forewing, a narrow wedge-shaped gray stripe on the rear wing are the colors already used by the birdhead lanternfly, and... the hussar crestbill. When this butterfly, a mimicking swallowtail, keeps among the leaves with its wings raised, from a distance it seems as if the hussar crestbill froze among tropical plants. And if the enemy is still intended to attack it, the “bird” can instantly disappear: when the swallowtail opens its wings, it completely merges with the surrounding leaves. The top of the wings of this butterfly imitates the color of a tree leaf, slightly gnawed by insects. A similar coloration with the exact opposite was found in the well-known butterfly from the Holocene of Eurasia, the peacock butterfly (Aglais io). But its upper side of the wings was brightly and noticeably colored, and their underside imitated a rotten tree leaf.
Having spread its wings and rested well, the young mimicking swallowtail goes in search of food. Being guided by the smell, it precisely locates the place where pink flowers, similar to sweet pea flowers, blossom right on the tree trunk. Unlike bees or beetles, the swallowtail butterfly has a long proboscis. Having landed on the flower for some seconds, the butterfly plunges its proboscis into it, sucks out the nectar, and then flies to another flower. It must be a strange sight from the point of view of a certain hussar crestbill: a head of a congener appears on the flowers for a second, and then disappears inexplicably. However, the butterfly does not care about what is going on in the bird’s head, if it is not the thought of food.
Having had enough, the mimicking swallowtail rests on the tree leaves. However, the flapping of wings makes it alert, and a sharp push of a branch indicates that an uninvited guest has appeared here. Lemon crestbill perched on the tree branch in search of food. It rarely diversifies his diet with butterflies, but this is not a reason to ignore its appearance. The mimicking swallowtail folds its wings, taking the only defensive pose known to it. Lemon crestbill, enthusiastically searching for beetles on the underside of the leaves, did not notice the butterfly at first, but, having raised its head, it found that an eye of a larger species is “looking” at it almost point-blank. If there were several lemon crestbills, they would not be afraid. But alone, even having a pugnacious behavior, this bird will lose a fight to a hussar crestbill. To reinforce the imaginary threat, the mimicking swallowtail sways its body, imitating the movements of the head of an excited hussar crestbill. Therefore, without wasting time looking at the suddenly appeared “stranger”, the lemon crestbill leaves the branch, not realizing that it was simply tricked.
The forest canopy is so rich in food that its inhabitants do not have time to eat all the food at the top level of the forest, and a part the fruits and seeds falls to the ground. Here, on the leaf litter, in the shade among the roots and trunks of huge trees, there is a world of its own, into which only rare guests from the sunny world above enter. One of these guests is a huge false calao. These birds spend almost as much time on the ground as on trees. Instead of bird nests, they ravage the nests of turtles and burrows of small mammals. Also, in search of food, they dig up anthills and termite mounds, similar to clay mushrooms.
A pair of false calaos feeds on the ground – these are a male and a female, very similar to each other. The male can be distinguished only by a larger and brighter growth on the head. Birds dig up a layer of fallen leaves, catching too slow worms and spiders – birds love eating these animals very much because of the softer body covers, although even the hardest beetle is not a problem for their massive beaks. Also, these birds eat various mushrooms growing on the roots of trees. However, they are clearly not alone here: the approaching sounds – grumble and snorting – are a sign that some rather large animals are approaching.
One of the calaos hastily swallows the rotting fruit, and warily waits for the appearance of the source of this sound. Voices are heard louder and louder, and finally strange and ridiculous at first glance beasts appear from behind the plank-buttress roots. Their pig-sized bodies stand on long and rather thin legs, with long rat-like tails sticking out from behind. But the strangest thing about their appearance is the head of such beast. At the tips of the muzzles of these beasts, writhing continuously, long proboscises stick out. In total, three animals appeared from behind the trees: a spotted brown-and-white male and an almost entirely brown female, on whose back a dark brown cub with a white head sits. These are shaggy elephantine sengis, residents of the “ground floor” of the rainforest. They are omnivores, and false calao are undesirable competitors for them. Therefore, the elephantine sengi male first of all expels these birds away. He stands on his hind legs and makes several jumps towards the birds, like a kangaroo. Such a display is enough for the false calaos to leave this place. Massive birds run away, flapping their wings, and then one by one they take off heavily. False calaos hide behind the trees, expressing their displeasure with trumpet voices.
Birds have something to regret for: from one tree, small ripe fruits fall to the ground in abundance. Elephantine sengis love their taste, so they diligently search for them in the leaf layer. The sensitive proboscises of animals act like fingers: with their help, elephantine sengis rake the foliage, grab the fruits and put them into their mouths.
The cub sitting on the mother’s back uttered thready shrill squeak: it was also interested in what its parents were eating. Therefore, the female has to bend down so that her baby crawls over her head to the ground. After that, feeding of both adult animals turns into a problem for a while: the cub constantly steals the fruits right under their noses. However, it does not last for long: it becomes full very soon. But kids being kids: a stuffed cub tries to play with adult elephantine sengis. At first, it jumps around them in circles on its hind legs, and then arranges a hunt for dadэs tail. After several successful attacking attempts, the male’s patience is exhausted, and the cub gets a well-deserved punishment: the father presses it to the ground with its paw and slightly bites the back of its head. It instantly makes the cub quiet down.
Forest elephantine sengis feed together – a pair of these animals is formed for life, although “divorces” and “adultery” are very common. Sometimes even happen that a male has an additional female living on the edge of the breeding pair’s territory. But usually animals are bound by strong bonds for life: animals look for food together, clean each other of parasites and forest debris, drive out strangers together.
A cub sitting astride a forest elephantine sengi female is the subject of her tender concerns. The first days of life it hangs on her chest, clutching its fingers and toes in the wool, but later it clings to the mother’s back. From time to time, when there are no enemies nearby, the female removes the cub from her back and lets it walk under her vigilant supervision. While the cub, unsteady on its feet, tries to take the first steps, both adult animals turn all ears: they must learn about the approach of enemies before they attack, and have time to save the helpless cub.
Playing with parents, and on the borders of the territory with peers also, the cub learns a lot of things that will help it survive in the future. When a cub sticks its nose into a column of ants busily hastening to an anthill, it learns that “small” not necessarily means “weak”. When its mother or father pulls it away from a huge scorpion, it realizes that there are deadly dangers in the forest that are better not to be experienced. Gathering fruits with its parents, it remembers their taste, as well as the trees under which they should be searched. And sometimes it may encounter inexplicable things for itself.
Near a forest stream, where trees give way to shrubs, a family of shaggy elephantine sengis is looking for food – fat grubs. The cub, taking an active part in this occupation, suddenly notices some kind of movement in the bushes. Looking closer, it notices a round eye staring intently at it, and a huge pink growth above it. Once he had already seen a hussar crestbill – a black bird with a large pink crest. But there is no whole bird here – only its head is perching on the branch. However, the head is alive: it turns in all directions and even “nods”, as it is usual at these birds. This is a birdhead lanternfly that just happened to be here, having left the forest canopy above. A baby elephantine sengi, driven by curiosity, approaches a strange creature – it has never seen such animals before. The insect, seeing that the enemy is approaching, tries to escape – the lanternfly opens its wings and takes off. However, its flight is very uneven: one wing of the insect is half torn off. Obviously, some cocky hussar crestbill realized that he was being fooled and attacked the lanternfly.
With a few jumps, the elephantine sengi cub catches up with the insect and grabs it. Little beast crunches the lanternfly with its teeth before it managed to utter a sound, calling of crestbills for the help. Anyway, these birds would not have come down here from the relatively safe forest canopy.
A sharp yapping sound is heard from the bushes – elephantine sengis, mother and father, are looking for their cub. Spitting out a striped wing, the cub hides in the bushes with several jumps.
Continents can drift, split, sink and turn into islands. But any of their changes does not become fatal for life – some species of living beings simply disappear, but others evolve to replace them. Life goes on anyway.

Bestiary

Hussar crestbill (Ctenorhynchos militaris)
Order: Passerine birds (Passeriformes)
Family: Crestbills (Ctenorhamphidae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests.

Picture by Lambert

The mass extinction of species at the boundary of the Holocene and Neocene was largely provoked by changes in natural conditions. The most productive ecosystems, centers of biological variety – coral reefs and tropical forests, where the bulk of the species of living creatures known to humans were concentrated – suffered the most as a result of environmental disasters.
After the restoration of stable natural conditions, new species of living beings began to occupy the emptied ecological niches. Some of them, evolving rapidly, gave rise to new genera and families unknown in human epoch.
One of these taxa is Ctenorhamphidae family of birds endemic to the East African microcontinent. This family includes forest birds, for which the characteristic feature is a “helmet” – a bright large outgrowth of the keratinous cover of the upper mandible, entering the forehead and crown and similar to a rooster's crest. The shape and color of this outgrowth varies in various species – from small to huge, from dull green to bright yellow and orange-red. The “helmet” is used by birds to communicate and identify the representatives of their own species. Crestbills are typical forest birds ranging in size from a turtledove to a large rooster. Their wings are relatively short and wide, and their tails are long – this is an adaptation to maneuverable flight among the branches. The plumage of these birds, as a rule, is not bright. Their feet are very tenacious, equipped with long claws. The outer toe can turn aside and even partially back. Birds keep in the crowns of trees, but large species descend to the ground in search of food. Crestbills feed mainly on fruits and mushrooms, but they also add small animals – insects, worms and small vertebrates – to plant food.
They nest in open cup-shaped nests; clutch of large species numbers 2-3, of small ones – up to 5 eggs with a mottled shell of brown, gray or dark green color. A breeding pair of birds takes care of the chicks together and is kept for several years, and sometimes for life.
Crestbills are the descendants of certain representatives of the corvid family (Corvidae). This family includes many species that are remarkable in ecological plasticity; so the evolving of such specialized descendants is not surprising.
The hussar crestbill is one of the typical species of the family. It’s a jackdaw-sized bird. The body is dim-colored – chest, belly and lower part of the head are ash-gray, wings and tail are black with a greenish metallic sheen, the back is white and the top of the head is coal-black. A tall “helmet” sticks on the head – it is almost twice the height of the head (resembling shako – a hussar headdress). The beak and “helmet” are carmine pink, the back edge of the “helmet” is white.
The bird lives almost exclusively in the tree crowns and feeds mainly on soft fruits and mushrooms, as well as on snails, getting them from shells by breaking off pieces of shell edge.
Vocalization of hussar crestbill sounds like duck quacking.

Lemon crestbill (Ctenocorvus citrinoctenos)
Order: Passerine birds (Passeriformes)
Family: Crestbills (Ctenorhamphidae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

Small representative of the family, equal to a small pigeon in size. The characteristic features of this species are a small crest (not larger than the bird’s head) of lemon yellow color and coal-black plumage. It lives in the tree crowns and feeds on relatively hard fruits and seeds. Its beak is short, adapted to splitting of hard seed shells.
The identification ritual of birds of thei species is interesting: when it is performing, the head is slightly lowered, and the long feathers on the nape are fluffed up, like at rooster ready for a fight. Against the background of the raised feathers, a bright “helmet” is especially clearly visible. At this time, the bird shakes its head slightly and utters a sound similar to a buzzing.
This species is characterized by aggressiveness in relation to related species: a bird can single-handedly attack even an opponent twice its weight.
The voice of birds of this species is a staccato whistle uttered in series of 5-6 signals with short pauses.

Great false calao (Ctenogallopsis ctenopictus)
Order: Passerine birds (Passeriformes)
Family: Crestbills (Ctenorhamphidae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

This one is the largest representative of its family: body length up to 150 cm including the tail, its wingspan is up to 120 cm. The body has contrast coloration: head, wings and tail are brown with cross ochre-red ripples, belly and throat are white. The “helmet” is low, but wide and long – it stretches from the middle of the beak and ends with an outgrowth on the back of the bird’s head. Both beak and “helmet” have yellow background color with a red “mesh” pattern, especially clear on the top of the “helmet”.
The bird flies well, but prefers to search for food on the ground. The basic food items include fallen fruits and mushrooms growing on trees felled by the wind. Insects and frogs, as well as worms, are often an addition to this. The bird willingly feeds on carrion, picks up dead fish on the riverbanks, and ravages nests of ground-nesting birds and turtles.
It nests in trees and builds a nest of large branches and lines it with moss. It often occupies other bird’s nests, sometimes expelling their rightful owners.
Vocalization of this bird represents single trumpet calls similar to the cow bellow.

Homeless swift (Dendroapus scandens)
Order: Apodiformes (Apodiformes)
Family: Swifts (Apodidae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests, woodlands.
The nest-building skills in the swifts known to human varied greatly. Some species built elaborate nests looking like pipes glued of fluff and feathers, and others made a nest exclusively from their viscous sticky saliva. Still others are content with a carelessly stacked pile of garbage in a niche of a rock or a stone building. But there were also such swifts that minimized the worries of nest-building. In the treeswift (Hemiprocne), the nest-building skill is limited to making a tiny nest, where there is a room for the egg only. The incubating bird perches on the branch where the nest is stuck, covering it with its chest.
At homeless swift, the loss of nest-building skill has gone even further – it does not build any nest at all. A single egg is simply glued to a thin branch with viscous saliva that quickly freezes in the air – and the job is done! The incubating bird (in this species, both mates take part in the incubation of the egg) firmly clings to the branch with its claws, and after that even a fierce tropical hurricane will not be able to tear it away from the “nest”. A newly hatched chick first grabs a branch with its hooked claws and actually does not leave it until its first flight.
Homeless swift is a small bird: its body length is about 15 cm along with a long forked tail. The wings are very long and narrow – this swift does not differ much in flying abilities from its relatives, it also skillfully catches insects, making dizzying turns among the branches. The color of the bird’s plumage is soft – gray with brown and black longitudinal stripes mimicking the texture of tree bark. The paws are tenacious; the toes are equipped with strong hooked claws, which, if necessary, can be used for defense.
The mating ritual involves a joint flight of a male and a female, accompanied by a special call, similar to the ringing of a small bell. Mating takes place in the air. Mates choose as long and thin a branch as possible, which swings intensively from the wind. Male smears it with its abundant saliva, and female immediately lays an egg on the saliva, and egg shell sticks to it after a few seconds. Incubation lasts 13 days. The chick is covered with gray-greenish down with a striped pattern that mimics the growth of lichen on a tree branch. In case of danger, it tries to freeze motionlessly, relying completely on protective coloring. It hatches from the egg blind, opens its eyes only at the age of one week. Due to abundant nutrition, it grows rapidly and leaves its native branch and parents at the age of 8 weeks, immediately starting an independent life. It becomes sexually mature at the age of 6 months. Mating pair of birds can rear up to 3-4 chicks per year.

Ashkoko (Ashkoko sylvaticus)
Order: Damans (Hyracoidea)
Family: Ashkokos, or Climbing Conies (Ascendohyracidae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

Climate change has seriously affected such an ecosystem as the rainforest. At the boundary of Holocene and Neocene, rainforests almost disappeared almost all over the planet, remaining only in the form of small “islands” in river valleys. Many of the inhabitants of these forests have gone into oblivion along with the disappeared biotopes. But in the Neocene, when the area of rainforests began to expand, new inhabitants began to conquer them rapidly.
Among the species that survived the mass extinction and adapted to life in the rainforest, there were also tree hyraxes (Dendrohyrax). These primitivest Holocene ungulates were able to climb trees. Their descendant, ashkoko, brought this skill to perfection, becoming a kind of analogue of prosimians. Its name “ashkoko” means “hyrax” in the Ethiopian language.
Ashkoko looks massive and slow, but in fact it turns out to be an extremely agile beast. The proportions of this beast are more similar to prosimians, to loris, but it moves much faster. Swinging on a branch, it can make long jumps from one tree to another.
An adult animal weighs up to 5 kg; the female is a little bit smaller than the male. The fur of the beast is thick, brown with a white “mask” on the muzzle and black paws. The size of the “mask” may vary greatly: from rings of white wool around the eyes to a completely white front of the head. The belly of the beast is lighter than the back: bright yellow in females, white in males. The male also easily differs from the female in “decoration” – a short pointed rusty-red “tuft” grows on his head.
The animal belongs to herbivores, although it diversifies its diet with insects and bird eggs. Ashkoko’s muzzle is broad and flattened; large upper incisors are noticeable in the mouth. Due to them, ashkoko can easily crack the large nuts of some trees.
The anatomy features of the legs of this animal allow it to climb the trees easily. On the three-toed foot of the animal, the 2nd toe is able to oppose to the rests, acting as the missing big toe; a long “grooming claw” grows on the middle toe, which ashkoko uses to clean its wool. The sole of the foot is also adapted to tree-climbing – it is covered with a layer of spongy soft skin, which allows it to “stick” tighter even to the smooth bark of a tree.
The animal’s hand looks like a monkey’s one, although the little finger is missing on it, like at all damans. The thumb is opposed to the rest for better seizing of the support; on the palm there is soft skin and nail-like hooves grow on all fingers.
There is a large odorous gland on the ashkoko’s back – it is a common feature of all hyraxes (even a huge flathorn, a dweller of the African savanna and another descendant of damans, has it). With the help of this gland, the ashkoko family marks its territory, rubbing their backs against the trunk and branches on the way.
Ashkoko lives in families of male and female, litter numbers 1-2 cubs. They are born being well-developed, but at first they stay in a shelter – in the hollow of a large tree; a week after birth, they actively learn to move through trees. At the age of one year, ashkoko becomes sexually mature. Life expectancy is up to 10-12 years.

Shaggy elephantine sengi (Rhynchoporcus monstrosus)
Order: Elephant shrews (Macroscelidea)
Family: Elephant shrews (Macroscelididae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests.

Picture by Timothy Donald Morris

Strange beasts – elephant shrews (Macroscelididae) – were characteristic inhabitants of East Africa during the Holocene. Looking externally like shrews with long proboscises, they are anatomically and genetically related to primates, so their systematic position has long been a mystery to zoologists.
When Zinj Land split off from the African mainland, among the animals that inhabited it, there were also representatives of elephant shrews – large checkered elephant shrews (Rhynchocyon). When the climate became milder, tropical forests spreaded across the considerable part of an area of this microcontinent, and grassland-dwelling animal species had become extinct. But checkered elephant shrews survived and evolved to several species, among which the largest is the shaggy elephantine sengi.
This beast looks like some kind of hallucination that has come to life – so unusual its appearance is. It is an animal of the size of a large porket (body length is up to half a meter, except for the tail) with long thin legs equipped with short blunt claws. Its body is covered with short chestnut-colored hair with irregular white spots forming a pattern that varies in different individuals. Sometimes almost entirely brown or white individuals with a few contrasting spots are found. The hind legs are slightly longer and stronger than the front ones, so the animal’s back is inclined forward, and in case of danger, this animal can sometimes jump some distance only on its hind legs, like a kangaroo. The fingers on the front paws of the animal are movable – if necessary, the animal can dig out, grab and bring food to its mouth. The tail is very long (up to half a meter), covered with thin hair. The animal’s head is similar to a dog’s one, but is much wider and cheekboned. The eyes are large, large mobile ears stick up. The most remarkable feature of this animal is its muzzle. It is elongated, forming a long sensitive proboscis (up to 15 cm long), with which help the animal searches for food – large insects, spiders, worms and small vertebrates. It is also very fond of sweet berries, willingly feeds under trees where birds feast, and picks up scraps of fruit. If possible, the beast eats carrion and hunts wounded birds.
Forest elephantine sengis live in pairs that form for life. In a year, the female gives birth to one cub (it is born with opened eyes and covered with fur), which for the first days is held on the mother’s chest, clinging to her fur, and later on her back. It becomes independent at the age of six months, and at the age of 3 years it can already breed. Life expectancy is up to 20 years.

Mimicking swallowtail (Papiliopterus mystericus)
Order: Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera)
Family: Swallowtails (Papilionidae)

Habitat: Zinj Land, tropical forests.
Butterflies are surprisingly able to be bright and invisible at the same time. Their secret is entirely in the coloring of their wings. Two sides of the wing are colored completely differently, and then, by changing the position of its wings, the insect can easily disappear from view or reappear without moving. Zinj Land is the motherland of one of these butterflies.
Mimicking swallowtail is a large species: the wingspan of a butterfly is sometimes over 15 cm. The wings of this species have very short “tails”, common for other species of Papilionidae family. The coloration of this species is very different from the other species – instead of a deliberately bright pattern on the upper side of the wings of this butterfly, there is a pattern that artfully mimics a slightly rotten tree leaf. The main background of the wings is green with light nerves. The edges of the wings are bordered by a brownish-yellow stripe, simulating the dry edge of the leaf. When a butterfly is motionless with its forewings open to the sides and its hindwings pushed together, it is completely indistinguishable from a tree leaf. But when it raises its wings, it is also impossible to identify it as a butterfly, although it becomes noticeable from tens of meters away.
The underside of the wing of such a butterfly has a pattern resembling a profile of the head of a hussar crestbill. The underside of the forewing is bright pink with white strokes, but closer to the butterfly’s body, the pink color abruptly changes to black with a bright orange “eye” spot. The rear wing, on the contrary, is painted black with a greenish tint closer to the edge, and grayish–white closer to the base. When a butterfly is watched against a background of leaves with its wings up, it seems that a bird’s head is peeking out of the foliage. The impression is enhanced by the fact that the butterfly imitates the movements of the bird’s head, shaking its body up and down.
The caterpillar of this species is very large (about 10 cm long). The upper side of its body is colored green with small yellow spots. The integuments on the thoracal segments form two deep longitudinal folds, in which a hidden pattern is bosomed – huge ocular spots. Being attacked, the caterpillar inflates the thoracal segments with the help of an outgrowth of the pharynx, opening large false eyes. Releasing and pumping air into the pharyngeal bladder, it can “blink” these “eyes”, scaring off small predators. If the enemy is too persistent, the caterpillar turns out a double forked odorous gland on the back of its head, emitting an unpleasant smell. The secretions of this gland have an expressed irritating effect.

Birdhead lanternfly (Velumothorax ornithocephalus)
Order: True bugs (Hemiptera)
Family: Lanternflies (Fulgoridae)

Habitat: Zinj Land
Insects from various orders compete with the butterflies of the tropical forest in beauty and diversity. So, among the large representatives of insects of true bugs order (Hemiptera) there are species as bright as butterflies. There are a lot of artfully disguised species among them. There are several such species in the forests of Zinj Land. One of them is a birdhead lanternfly, a representative of lanternfly family (Fulgoridae). This large insect (its body length is up to 6 cm) perfectly mimics the appearance of the head of one local bird species – hussar crestbill – due to the combination of the bizarre body shape and coloring.
Unlike most related species, this insect has no outgrowths directed forward on its head, but a high discoid outgrowth sticks out vertically on its thorax, imitating an outgrowth on the head of a crestbill bird. It also serves as a resonator for the sounds that this insect makes. At the base of the outgrowth there is a large false “eye” of yellow color, and the outgrowth itself is bright pink with a dark base. The front pair of wings, folded at rest on the back, imitates the beak of a bird. They are light gray with a spot in the middle, mimicking a bird’s nostril. Under these wings wide hind wings, allowing the insect to fly, are folded. They are transparent with black cross-strokes and dark bases.
Imitation of a bird is not limited only to the shape: birdhead lanternfly can quite accurately imitate the warning signal of a hussar crestbill. The insect’s own vocalization includes long trills of frequent sounds similar to the bell ringing.
The insect lays eggs in the cracks of tree bark. From them, slowly moving nymphs hatch soon; they produce a large amount of wax formed in thin threads along the edges of the insect’s abdomen. Nymph lacks wings and an outgrowth on the chest, and its body is short, wide and flat. Nymphs gather on the bark of young branches, mimicking lichens with the help of wax covering the insect’s body with “rags”. After 3 months, they turn into adult insects.

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