Lords of wetlands

 

Tour to Neocene

 

29. Lords of wetlands

 

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In epoch of a warm and humid Neocene plains in territory of China represent a kingdom of rivers, wetlands and lakes, among which evergreen woods grow. Here it is an ideal place for wintering for various birds living at the north – in vast spaces of Siberia.
In Neocene Eastern Siberia has still remained rather dry hilly terrain, cut by river channels, and Western Siberia is an extensive woody and marshy plain. But changes of climate and an inclination of Eurasian continent in Neocene epoch have resulted transforming of Western Siberia from Sayan Mountains and Altai up to spurs of East Ural to extensive marshy plain cut by channels of the rivers flowing slowly to Arctic Ocean. The direction of river channels had been affected in great degree with the extensive congelation took place in this area about 20 MY before this time, marking the transition from Holocene to Neocene. The climate of this area in Neocene epoch is still strictly continental: hot summer and cold winter. In summer from the surface of continent the huge mass of warm air rises and is replaced by the cool air carrying rain clouds from Arctic Ocean. Therefore local summer differs in high humidity, resembling tropical conditions. But winter in these places is very rigorous, though sharp frosts, characteristic for Holocene epoch, are not present here. Only in very cold winters the temperature falls up to -20°С, but even in this case frosts last not so long. However the snow cover reaches the great thickness and only few species of animals can search for food under it. Someone runs into hibernation in winter, others search for new sources of food, and many species of birds of Siberia spend winter in warm areas.
Wetlands of China represent one of favorite places of wintering for various species of shorebirds and waterfowl living in Siberia. The largest among them are motley long-legged birds with black necks and red napes. Walking in swamps, they take prey – fishes and frogs – with exact impacts of long beaks. Having seized prey, such bird throws it up and catches, trying to seize from a head – it is more convenient to swallow it this way. It is Siberian redhead crail. Though the bird looks very similar to cranes, it is not a true crane (these birds had died out at the end of Holocene), but its distant relative, the descendant of one species of rails. These birds had quickly occupied free ecological niche, having evolved forms having convergent similarity to ibises and cranes.
Crails spent about four months in these places, but now biological rhythms prompt them, that it is a proper time to leave this area and to return home. More and more often birds fly up above swamplands hover in sky for a long time, gathering in small flocks. And soon the day comes, when they fly up and head for northwest, to Siberian wetlands. Flocks of birds fly by above plains of Central Asia overgrown with bush, above mountains, and soon flocks scatter, and birds one by one land on native marshes.
When crails fly home, snow is not melt entirely, and in lakes large pieces of ice float here and there. Inside them it is possible to find victims of winter cold: frozen fishes and insect larvae. Having landed on such ice block floating in lake near to coastal dry cane, crail tries to pick off this poor food. Striking impacts by beak, it breaks away pieces of friable spring ice and soon takes and eats several larvae of insects. But keen eye of bird notices rather large fish inside the next piece of ice floating on surface of water. It is an ice sleeper, one of local species of fishes. Crail tries to get such tempting catch: bird pecks ice, trying to split it. However it is not so simply to do: from impacts of the bird’s beak the piece of ice containing the frozen fish floats off farther from coast, turning absolutely inaccessible for crail.
Fish in ice is not as dead as it looks: when the spring sun heats up its skin, ice around of sleeper’s body thaws, and metabolism of fish accelerates. Ice sleeper moves in piece of ice, and then bends its body sharply and splits it. Getting out from ice captivity, it pulls convulsively and makes often stops, having a rest. The fish gets tired strongly because of features of its physiology: during the wintering in body of ice sleeper the great amount of lactic acid and nitrogen products of metabolism is accumulated. Having got out, ice sleeper stretches fins and falls on bottom slowly. Fish will spend some hours in immovability here: an intensive removing of surplus of decay products through gills and skin. Only having cleared blood and muscles, ice sleeper begins search for food.
Spring in Siberian swamplands passes roughly: from south-west, from Fourseas, masses of warm humid air rush. Mixing up with cold air above wetlands, the southern air mass is cooled, and on the ground snow falls, and then, as the air is heated with new waves of heat from the south, snow turns to rain, and numerous rivers, swamps and ponds overflow shores, forming almost continuous water space interrupted here and there by small islands of coniferous forest, and in southern areas with extensive thickets of willows of various species. But spring goes farther to the north, and lower reaches of Siberian rivers free from ice soon. After that abatement of water begins, and life of forest and marsh dwellers gradually returns to normal condition.
Females of fantail hazel grouse restore forces after wintering, pecking cranberries at the wetland. Cranberry is a true gift for wetland inhabitants: its berries perfectly keep for all winter and even spring, serving as good vitamin supplementary food for birds and small mammals. Fantail hazel grouses should restore the physical conditions: their nesting begins early, and somewhere in forest courtship displays begin, arranged by males of this species.
In early morning on islets of wood not filled with water of bogs during the flood, courtship displays of fantail hazel grouses begin. Males of this species start to gather here long before the beginning of the show, trying to take to themselves better place in the middle of lekking ground. But not all of them succeed to do it: between heavy males fights for more preferable place flash regularly. Meeting each other in fight, males ruthlessly collide breasts, beat the contender by wings and spurs. Sometimes stronger contender seizes the unlucky applicant’s feathers on nape by beak and drags it here and there. But duels seldom reach up to such final: more often they are short and contenders quickly come apart, having sorted their relationships.
Gradually a certain hierarchy is established between males, and they take their places at the lekking ground: the strongest mature males in the center, surrounded by older, but still full of forces, applicants, and the edge of lekking ground is a haven of young inexperienced birds taking part in courtship display for the first time. At the edge of colony any predator can easily attack them, therefore they frequently interrupt courtship rituals at suspicious noise.
The males occupied their places at the lekking ground start calling females. Having stretched bodies vertically, they clap wings intensively. Thus tips of wings flap against each other behind the back and in front of breast of displaying bird, and therefore it seems, as if among faded last year’s grass someone is playing on numerous small drums. Females are not visible yet: they gather in forest near the lekking ground, but keep secretively in branches of trees and wait, until the sun will rise high enough. Besides they should be convinced that predators do not wander near to lekking ground.
Gradually females appear from branches one by one: they are numerous now. Males one by one stop “drumbeat” and begin displaying the next part of courtship ritual.
At the presence of the female male bends tail on back so, that white undertail covert feathers are seen, and stretches wings down to the ground. From excitation rings of skin around of its eyes swell from blood overflow and red feathers on “eyebrows” rise upright. Male bends neck back and pushes head between feathers of long tail. Head of bird with bright red “eyebrows” and rings around of eyes is clearly visible against the background of white undertail coverts. At this moment male utters resonant clicks audible far, serving as a signal for the female: “it is permitted to come nearer”.
Females especially willingly choose for pairing males from the middle of lekking ground, though it is rather difficult to make the way there: young males bar the way to females, forcing to attract attention to them. Someone succeed to take advantage of the moment and to pair, but the majority of young males will not receive any attention of females. Sometimes, avoiding the meeting of too young “grooms”, female simply flies up and lands at once in the center of lekking ground.
For the brief moment of pairing the male interrupts its impressing display, but after the next female leaves him, its display renews. For one morning the successful male can couple with three, and even with five females.
After pairing female leaves the interest to lekking ground. It chooses for herself a secluded place in bush, where builds a simple nest looking like bowl on the ground. The best places for nest building are located at small islands of sickly wood among marshlands, unreachable for ground-dwelling predators.
When snow melted completely, and the ground is warmed well enough, rough growth of local plants begins. The ground on coast of water bodies is penetrated with rhizomes of cane and very tall reed. And in shallow waters at the half meter long depth huge tubers of the most impressing green inhabitant of wetlands are hidden – the Siberian false arrowroot. All these rhizomes and tubers literally blow up with green shoots: for night rolled and spear-like leaf of Siberian false arrowroot can grow up to third of meter. Certainly, the first leaf is not the largest yet, but, having unwrapped, it already reaches almost half meter width. Banks of rivulets bristle with green shoots of reed, obstinately punching their road through the packed last year’s stalks and leaves. And in water wintering buds of various water plants sprout, stretching in rivers and lakes green lace of stalks and leaves.
At the small island among last year’s grass from ground strange curve trunks rise, covered with brown rests of long leaves. But they are not dead: on tops of trunks bunches of peaked green leaves appear. They grow very quickly: for one week leaves reach one meter length. They clearly show the relationships of this plant: leaves are very rigid and sharp on edges. It is giant treelike sedge, the prospering species of wetlands of Neocene Siberia. Sometimes it forms the continuous thickets lasting for tens meters. Such sedgy “forests” are almost impassable for large tetrapods, therefore birds, including red-headed crails, willingly nest there.
Large forest-dwelling tetrapods seldom come to wetlands of Siberia, but nevertheless here there are ones worth to be afraid of them. Water in one marsh turns muddy: near the bottom someone very large swims. When the creature emerges at the surface to breathe, someone may think involuntarily, that on Earth there is not Neocene, but the continuation of Carboniferous or Permian period. The underwater dweller looks like a certain hybrid of European catfish and crocodile: it has blunt catfish-like muzzle, tiny eyes and muscled tail bordered by skinny fin. But instead of fish fins it has two pairs of weak four-toed paws. Its nature is precisely specified by three pairs of feather-like gills growing on back edges of head – it is a giant amphibian.
Epoch of giant amphibians was finished in Triassic period of Mesozoic era, when archosaurs have finally won a planet. Separate species of giant amphibians existed on Earth in Jurassic and early Cretaceous, but in Cenozoic their rule was finally terminated by other groups of animals.
Gluttonous swamper is not the direct descendant of giants of Mesozoic, but a newt evolved to giant size, and more precisely its neotenic larva. When the glacier had exterminated fauna of fishes, cold-resistant newts have received fleeting chance, and have taken advantage of it to the full, having occupied freshwater reservoirs. And later, species of fishes settled in these places faced the terrible predator, to which, probably, their former prey had turned.
Giant gluttonous swamper spent the whole winter in hibernation, having buried deeply in silt at the bottom of the marsh. The spring high water has woken this giant, and now it prepares for breeding. This amphibian is huge mature male, and under influence of hormones its body began to change: fins become much wider, on back high skinny crest grows, and the stomach gets bright coloring. On head of this amphibian two large skin glands are swollen now, and from them liquid leaks, having pleasant musk smell, which is clearly felt even in air above wetlands. This smell is a signal for congeners: the marriage advertisement for females, and the warning for males, telling that this territory is occupied. Male occupies shallow flowing pond, overgrown with cane along the coast. In water thickets of pondweed with large curly leaves wave – these plants have grown for last two weeks from rhizomes wintered at the bottom. Perhaps, it is the most important part of reservoir from the point of view of the male ready to spawning.
One female involved with this smell, already hastens along the stream running into the pond chosen by male. At the border its possession the gallant groom about two meters long meets her. It displays its force, sending to female waves with short jerks of tail. Then male swims around the female, showing the bright belly to her. As a sign of submission female lies down on bottom of the pond and trembles. This sign is understood and accepted by male, and he drives the chosen female to thickets of pondweed, and around them intricate courtship dance of amphibians begins.
Male lays on leaves some large jelly-like spermatophores one by one, and female takes them by aperture of its cloaca. And after about half an hour she starts laying on bushes of pondweed portions of large eggs. Sticky coverings of eggs allow them to keep on a bush when huge parent swims near the nest.
When ovaries of the female have become empty, she all less willingly answers the advertisement movements of the male made about thickets of pondweed. And gradually its goodwill is replaced by indifference, and then by frank aggression. From desired guest female turns to stranger: male is moved by mighty parental instinct, ruling to protect the clutch. And, having darkened, it drives off the female from bushes, where lumps of precious eggs wave. Pale female concedes to furious impact of the male and swims out. But it seems, she makes it insufficiently quickly from the point of view of the male of gluttonous swamper, as he rushes after her and bites the tip of her tail.
Gluttonous swamper is an exemplary daddy: any congener has inopportunely appeared near the nest will be expelled, and too impudent fish would be simply eaten. However the lovers of another’s eggs will always be to found, and if they have at least a shred of cunnings, it is very simply for them to regale themselves with tasty eggs.
Long-legged crail cautiously comes nearer to the creek, where gluttonous swamper rears posterity. Bird knows that eggs of this amphibian are very nutritious and tasty, but it sees also a huge guard swimming beside. All cunning is to drive it off from the clutch. To distract the predator crail chooses flat coast and intentionally finds out itself: bird loudly slaps legs on water and flaps wings. And it seems cunning has succeeded: the monstrous amphibian speeds up, moving its tail, and takes off on the coast in splashes of water. But when the wave rushed back, gluttonous swamper shows a wretched show: thin paws can’t turn around its bulk on the ground, gills stick together and droop, and hard breath of amphibian is audible. The creature, had been a prompt predator some seconds ago, creeps in jerks on the coast, making efforts to return to water. And at this time grail fills craw with eggs literally in the view of the guard of this nest.
As though well any gluttonous swamper male protects its nest, some part of eggs all the same appears in stomachs of various predators. But when larvae will hatch, male will lose simply interest to clutch and will leave larvae to the mercy of fate.
Other parents are not so careless: they will protect posterity until it will grow up. Fantail hazel grouses nest at the small islands of coniferous trees and among evergreen marsh bushes. The nest of this bird is arranged on the ground in thicket of plants. As a rule, it is not necessary to be afraid of large tetrapod predators at wetlands: they simply not can make the way here. And when the female hatches its clutch, the masking of nest becomes even better: her motley feathering merges with the color of wood litter. Therefore the nest of fantail hazel grouse is in relative safety. However in nature the full safety never happens…
One female of fantail hazel grouse arranged nest in thickets of bushes at the edge of forest. But this place appeared not too good: here unwelcome guests from wetlands frequently come. Certainly, gluttonous swamper will not creep to the forest, but crail, the enterprising, clever and omnivorous bird, frequently gets to the margin of forest in searches of large insects and anthills. Using its powerful beak, this bird is able to split rotten trees, searching for grubs of capricorn beetles. But this time crail has to found another catch to itself: having been frightened of it, the female of fantail hazel grouse has flied up and has given out a location of her nest. However, she has not flied out far: the parental instinct induces her to protect the future posterity. Bird runs near crail looking over bushes crying loudly and diligently simulating being wounded. But crail does not eat other birds, therefore such demonstration is simply useless. It has to found what it searched for: under bush in small hole about ten spotty eggs lay. Followed by calls of female of fantail hazel grouse, crail takes eggs one by one, cracks them by beak and swallows entirely with shells. Having swallowed the last egg, crail moves out from bushes, leaving the female of fantail hazel grouse alone with its problems.
By the end of spring wetlands turn to true “green hell”: on all available patches of land, and also in shallow waters wide “burdocks” of leaves of Siberian false arrowroot, or rich bunches of rigid sharp leaves of treelike sedge rock. Only at higher sites of islands among continuous area of wetlands coniferous trees grow. Deciduous trees, such as willows, do not grow here: their sprouts will be choked by giant grasses before they will grow tall enough. As if marking their triumph, giant grasses bloom plentifully. Siberian false arrowroot grows long peduncle, on which end there is an inflorescence – spadix surrounded with striped white-and-red spathe. From spadix the overpowering smell of rotten meat is emitted, involving hundreds of flies. Insects hover in dense swarms near such inflorescences, pollinating them successfully. In summer and an autumn on Siberian false arrowroot plants fleshy red berries will ripen, on which birds willingly feed, distributing seeds of this grass. And treelike sedge starts blossoming a little bit later, growing long peduncle from the middle of crown. On its tip spikelets form semiglobose umbel. This plant does not involve insects: it is pollinated by wind. However its fruits – firm nutlets in strong shell – are willingly eaten by bird. Even fantail hazel grouses fly to regale themselves with such food: muscular stomachs of these gallinaceous birds cope with shells of nuts of treelike sedge. But these seeds will ripen not soon.
In thickets of treelike sedge and cane crails arrange nests. These birds are monodins, but their pairs are formed only for one nesting season. Nest of this species represents a heap of branches and dry leaves, densely tramped by male’s legs. In general, quality of construction determines the appeal of the male to females. If the female likes the nest base made by male, pair completes top of nest of grass and rods, and soon in nest clutch numbering 2-3 eggs appears. At the end of spring in nests of crails first chicks are ready to hatch. Spending a short time in nest, chicks dry, learn to walk and soon leave nest forever. Until an autumn they will wander with parents at the wetlands, training in getting food and preparing to the migration to swamps of China, where they will spend their first wintering in life, and where they will return for many years later.
The nature has prepared great amount of food for them: water in ponds literally swarms with larvae of gluttonous swamper. Hundreds of creatures similar to large larvae of newts or salamanders hunt for insects. Larvae of mosquitoes and midges of several tens species develop in water, consuming in total hundreds kilograms of infusorians and bacteria daily. Some of their species eat dying off vegetation, and other species are predators. But all of them easily can become food for larvae of gluttonous swamper. These creatures still have no legs, and they behave as small fishes, swimming in shoals in thickness of water and among floating plants. In any measure it is possible to explain the poverty of ichthyofauna of these wetlands with the presence of gluttonous swampers here: this species at various stages of development occupies ecological niches of different species of fishes. And ice sleeper managed to survive here only due to endurance and unpretentiousness.
However few larvae of huge amphibian can survive: in first summer of life up to 80% of total number of gluttonous swamper posterity perishes. Wintering not always passes easily also: in hard frost reservoirs can freeze through deeper, than usually, and then in spring on surface of water pieces of ice with young gluttonous swampers or their heads and paws, frozen inside, float frequently. And gluttonous swampers successfully passed mouths of predators and ice captivity, are frequently trapped and devoured by adult congeners.
While gluttonous swamper larvae are small, ice sleeper represents serious danger for them. This predator especially likes to arrange ambush in places where adult gluttonous swamper can’t get: in extensive shallow waters, overgrown with marsh horsetail, and in canes. Fish buries itself in half in plant dust, and waits patiently, when fussy larva, hunting for worms and infusorians, swims up too close. And then fast attack follows, and convulsively wriggling tail already sticks up from mouth of predator. Other larvae promptly rush to plants and hide for some time. But their memory is very short: after some minutes they leave their shelters one by one, and soon in water the school of fussy creatures with feather-like collarets of gills rushes again.
In summer one more danger traps all inhabitants of reservoirs: heat. Right in the sun water gets warm at times up to +30°С. The contents of oxygen in it decreases, but rotting of plants occurs to the double force. Animals breathing with oxygen of air, easily survive this time, but gill-breathing creatures have very difficult time.
In dense schools young gluttonous swampers, at which front paws already appear, swim near the surface of water. Inhaling air, they utter smacking sounds, but, as there are lots of them, above wetlands quiet crackling is audible from afar. And other swamp inhabitants have developed another way to escape the asphyxia.
Everyone survives, as it can. While the majority of water inhabitants literally struggles for a gulp of oxygen, ice sleepers have taken advantage of the richest source of oxygen, of air. Coasts of reservoir are overgrown with marsh plants with wide leaves and floating stalks creeping on surface of water. From time to time stalks move: fishes lay on them. These are ice sleepers creeping out on stalks of floating plants and respire with oxygen of air through wet skin. Fishes lay in shadow of wide leaves; therefore they are not threatened with danger to get sunstroke. From time to time any fish moves, rolling from one side to another – it wets sides and back which start drying up. At this time skin on its body appreciably reddens – underskin blood vessels extend and fill with blood, providing fish with oxygen to the full. Sometimes one of fishes slips from stalks with splash and dives to hunt: in heat appetites of fishes grow appreciably. Here it is a lot of prey: larvae of various water beetles, small fish, including its own posterity, and additionally larvae of the most malicious enemy of adult fishes, of gluttonous swamper. Though they have grown up appreciably, they are still small enough, and easily can fall prey of ice sleeper. But the next year ones managed to survive will not be afraid of this fish any more, and at the fourth year of their life it will be better for ice sleeper itself to hide from them in reed or under driftwood.
Hot weather expels inhabitants of depths from their refuges, making them accessible for crails. Couple of these birds accompanied with three fluffy chicks walks in shallow water, taking for their meal helpless aquatic animals with exact impacts of beaks. Water beetles, larvae of dragonflies, fish fry and larvae of gluttonous swampers make their basic food in summer. Sometimes the adult bird, having deafened fish or small gluttonous swamper with impact of beak, casts them ashore, enabling chicks to finish and to swallow prey independently. In this way chicks learn how to feed independently. They compete between each other, though their struggle does not happen so sharp as at cranes or birds of prey of Holocene epoch, when one chick could kill another one easily. However each of them tries to push congeners away from especially tempting catch, flapping scanty wings. Less successful chicks had to polish the hunting receptions independently, coming in water. And it can be rather dangerous…
When crail chick slaps on water, these sounds frighten off any small aquatic creatures, but draw attention of the wetland inhabitant, absolutely undesirable to birds – of gluttonous swamper. Giant amphibian slowly and cautiously emerges from bottom, as if a log. Its eyes appear from under water, but it is practically impossible to notice it from the coast: the duckweed and other floating plants mask a giant.
Crail male, not having suspected any danger, comes deeper into water – it was very much involved with fat snail, creeping lazily on leaves of floating plants. But one its step appeared fatal: from an ambush enormous gluttonous swamper rushed to it, has seized its leg and promptly dragged bird in water. Shrill cry of bird, broken sharply, as if had overpowered all sounds of wetland. The warblers hidden in bushes stopped chirping, and for some seconds there has come such silence, that the flapping of wings of fantail hazel grouse frightened somewhere far away was clearly audible.
The place where crail was lost was quickly covered back with duckweed and other floating plants, and already nothing reminds of the danger hidden under water. However this incident has turned the life of one inhabitant of reeds: the crail chick, one of three in brood, was lost in thickets, when the brood has rushed in all directions at an attack of huge amphibian. Its chance to survive at this age is minimal… Chick wanders in reeds, peeping plaintively. But nobody responds to its voice – its mother is far away already.
In this place not only animals can eat animals. In deep cool creeks not overgrown with horsetail and cane, the surprising wetland predator lives. Its presence is given out by bright yellow flowers with red spot in the middle, sticking up from water. And under water shoots of surprising plant – giant bladderwort – stretched widely. They form the true trapping net near the surface of water. On light green branches laciniate leaves of light green colors are gathered in whorles, and among them there is main weapon of plant – large trapping bladders are visible there.
Above water flowers of this plant involve many diverse insects – flies, beetles and bees. But only largest of them can open labia of flower densely pressed to top petals to regale themselves with nectar. Sometimes, when large insect opens flower with its body, smaller ones follow it also. But they can pay the high price for the appetite: the plant plentifully sticks round with pollen everyone getting into its flowers. It happens, careless fly, which wings are stuck together by sticky pollen of bladderwort, falls in water. Insect circles on water surface, but can’t grasp any support. Sometimes victim of flower succeeds to climb on stalks or peduncles and to clean itself, but such insects more often get for dinner to aquatic inhabitants.
One of flies, having got dirty in pollen, falls in water. Buzzing helplessly, insect spins on water surface. Waves spreading from it signal to inhabitants of water that there is an opportunity to eat. And one gluttonous swamper larva, having tempted with easy catch, tries to catch this fly. However the road to the target is blocked with branches of bladderwort. But the larva is strong and quick enough to pass them. It creeps resolutely among branches, and casually touches a hair on “neck” of bubble. Bubble immediately turns from flat to spherical, sucking in water, and also tail of larva. Having got in trap, the gluttonous swamper larva begins pulling, and then touches one more concerns one more hair. The second bubble grasps its head. Both bubbles of plant gradually meet on body of victim. After some minutes larva have choked and have lifelessly hung, and inside bladders digestive enzyme begins to be secreted. In some days bubbles will be ready again to catch and to digest the next victim.
The crail chick lost its family makes the way through canes. It has not lost hope yet to find mother, but this hope is fading with each minute passed. It does not stop desperate calls, occasionally becoming silent and listening. But its attempts are vain.
And suddenly it hears in the distance voices of crails. Having gathered the last forces, the deserted chick passes through some meters of canes and leaves to thickets of water lilies. Among them the family of crails is feeding: female, male and couple of nestlings. But it not its family…
Chick tries to join them, cautiously moving sideways, but its attempts are stopped at once by the entire family of crails: adult birds inflate throats and hiss like geese, and chicks chirp awfully, having hidden behind legs of their parents. The stranger should retire. The orphan chick is so small and lightweight, that runs from the annoyed adult birds directly on leaves of water lilies. And unexpectedly from under them flat slimy head jumps appears, seizes its legs and drags under water.
Young gluttonous swamper no more one and half meters long has seized that chick. Having drowned it, amphibian swallows its prey entirely. One more convulsive movement of head – and legs of chick disappear in wide gullet of gluttonous swamper. Now it can cease hunting for three or four days, digesting this catch.
By the end of summer, shortly before the beginning of autumn rains, in one almost dried out marsh old gluttonous swamper had died. Its three-meter long body lies in pool of dirt, surrounded with large leaves of Siberian false arrowroot. Wind carries smell of decay many meters around, and a plenty of flies hovers above the carcass. And the flesh of gluttonous swamper swarms with their white headless maggots. Large red-heared crail, walking around its territory, has decided to take advantage of this find. Bird makes the way on dirty to decomposed carcass, and with exact movements of beak pecks off maggots from meat. From the point of view of this bird it is very accessible and nourishing dinner.
For other inhabitants of the Siberian bogs more essential prey is required. Some fantail hazel grouses have fled from forest to watering place. Birds land at the riverbank and start drinking like chickens, lifting heads to the sky after several drinks. These are males – out of courtship season they behave very tolerant relatively to each other. In summer birds spend a lot of time at wetlands: here berries and the seeds of different plants begin ripening, making the most part of diet of fantail hazel grouses. But here there are also dangers, which have no way to avoid them…
Large, two-meter long gluttonous swamper emerges from hole at the bottom of river. It observed of this site of riverbank for a long time, and now, it seems, is planning to have quite good dinner. Birds do not notice it: they keep an eye on coastal vegetation more, because these are terrestrial birds. But gluttonous swamper has chosen prey to itself, and now creeps to it cautiously at the bottom, helping itself with the tail. And when the distance to its prey is about one meter only, huge amphibian makes the final jerk forward… but the reaction of fantail hazel grouses appears faster. Huge gluttonous swamper had managed to seize one bird by a tail, but prey has escaped from it safely, having left for the memory of it only some absolutely inedible feathers.
After that incident fantail hazel grouses will become more cautious – but for some days only. They will not leave wetlands – here they find a lot of food, and danger is minimal. Fantail hazel grouses wander in thickets of treelike sedge, gathering seeds of this plant covered with firm shell and fallen to the ground. Muscular stomach of this kind of bird, in which food is frayed with the help of gastroliths (gastric stones), is a true mill for firm seeds. But berries, ripening here plentifully, represent much more tasty food, than ligneous seeds of treelike sedge. Bilberry, cowberry and cranberry, and also berries of giant Siberian false arrowroot are the gifts of summer willingly eaten by birds of various species. Even crails would like to peck up juicy red or bluish berries, relieving the monotony of their diet.
Some seeds will be digested, but nevertheless some of them will manage to keep viability after passage through the bird’s intestines. Not all seeds of sedge will be found and eaten; therefore reserves for renewal of this species of plants will stay. Besides it this sedge breeds good with the help of root offsprings. For summer one bush gives up to five large shoots and set of small young growth. The part of it will be eaten by insects and herbivorous animals, which occasionally penetrate into this world, and the part will be choked by other plants. But in any case survived plants will generate powerful impassable thickets.
Sooner or later warm summer comes to an end. Though days are still very hot, at night it becomes cold appreciably. Plants begin preparing for long winter. From their leaves there is an intensive outflow of nutrients to trunks, roots and tubers. No one gram of precious starch or sugar must be wasted – sometimes wintering may be rigorous. Leaves, starting from oldest ones, begin turning yellow and die off gradually. Approximately in middle of October light frosts begin, and the surface of water in the mornings is covered with thin ice.
When the temperature of water falls, inhabitants of swamps and lakes begin preparing for long hibernation. Gluttonous swamper spends the whole winter, having buried in layer of dirty and vegetative rests at the bottom of swamp. And individuals hibernating in river channels, choose for hibernation deep holes where from underground springs well out. For huge amphibian the most important task is not to freeze in ice. And its neighbors, ice sleepers, are not afraid of it at all. However during an autumn they become languid. Fishes swim slowly in thickness of water and near the bottom, occasionally getting in thickets of turning brown and dying off marsh plants. But they do not eat any more: fishes have saved up enough fat, and before winter colds their vital processes will be slowed down even more. When huge gluttonous swamper swims near to them in searches of shelter for wintering, fishes rush away, but, having swum some meters, return to the bottom again.
Leaves of underwater plants also turn brown and dissolve to slimy mass. There are only rhizomes in ground, which will give new shoots in spring. Giant bladderwort floating near water surface had stopped flowering for a long time, and in axils of its leaves dense balls of light green colors – wintering buds of this plant – are formed. They do not die being frozen in ice – on the contrary, they can sprout in spring only after good chilling in ice. Floating ice floes will carry this plant to other bogs and lakes, where with the beginning of warm days buds will sprout and will develop to two-meter long stalks.
Some of local birds stay to spend winter in forests, and someone must fly off for wintering to far areas. Fantail hazel grouses are not afraid of colds: their feathering becomes denser, and on legs long feathers grow, which act like original “snowshoes”. Birds gather in small flocks and migrate in forest, gathering seeds of coniferous trees. In winter their diet will include conifer tree needles also: this species is one of few ones able to digest this difficultly digesting food.
Crails gather at the marshlands in numerous flocks. Birds call loudly and frequently flap wings – they prepare for long flight. At last one days of an autumn marshlands as if become deserted: early in the morning birds rose on wing and numerous flocks departed to south-east, head to warm swamplands of China. They will spend in way approximately one and a half or two weeks, having rest in numerous groups at plains or small river islands – in places where predators will not find them unawares. At warm swamplands they will spend about four months, and at this time at their native land the true winter will reign.
Siberian winter is very snowy and rather rigorous. Humid air from the south and cold one from the north, mixing up, form extensive snow clouds. Thickness of snow cover at the wetlands reaches two meters sometimes.
It is difficult for fantail hazel grouses to search for food in winter: above snow for everything edible in the slightest degree various species of birds and beasts compete. But the great bulk of food is hidden under snow, and fantail hazel grouses belong to few birds able to get it. Using beaks and claws, they dig wide tunnels to reach the sources of food hidden from another forest inhabitants in snow: berries kept from an autumn and insects hibernating in wood litter. Strong beak of this bird in case of need can break rotten wood to reach grubs sleeping in it. Therefore fantail hazel grouses do not go hungry.
Besides under snow birds are protected from penetrating icy wind and bitter cold. And other inhabitants of this area do not search for shelter from cold, because cold itself will protect them. Ice sleeper slowly moves its fins, swimming under surface of ice. Ii is colder here, and metabolic processes of fish slow down, that allows saving the fat accumulated for wintering. Gradually fish gets in captivity of long ice crystals growing on floating branches and reed stalks. The only thing helping ice sleeper to protect itself is a layer of jelly-like slime secreted by its skin. Slime prevents the formation of ice crystals on body of fish, forming an original protective capsule around of ice sleeper. After that fish can spend the most part of winter in ice prison, and will thaw out without any harm for itself in spring.
Closer to end of winter other inhabitants of wetlands can get in ice prison. When warm air from the south breaks to wetlands of Siberia and there comes a thaw in daytime, fantail hazel grouses dive in snow in searches of habitual food. But at night the frost comes back, holding down snow to thick layer of ice crust. And then birds appear in captivity. Their forces are not enough to punch firm crust of ice, and one by one some of fantail hazel grouses perish. Among them there are approximately fifty-fifty one-year-old and old birds, insufficiently strong to free themselves independently. However some strong birds succeed nevertheless to punch ice crust with strong beaks, and they safely leave ice captivity. And in spring, when snow will thaw, bodies of the dead birds, maybe, will serve as food to any forest-dwelling scavenger. And if flood will wash them to swamp, enormous gluttonous swamper will not miss such dinner.
Life in wetlands of Siberia, caused by glaciers of past epoch, is unique. It develops according its own rules, and will never repeat anymore and anywhere, because any ecosystem is unique in space and time.

Bestiary

Ice sleeper (Cryoeleotris rapax)
Order: Percoid fishes (Perciformes)
Family: Sleeper gobies (Eleotridae)

Habitat: wetlands of Western Siberia.

Picture by Ilia

Due to human activity small fish Amur/Chinese sleeper (Perccottus glehni) had been widespread in Eurasia: it could be met both in Central Asia and in Eastern Europe. The native land of this species is Far East, the Amur river and its tributaries. Unpretentiousness and endurance of this predator has resulted in settling of it in the reservoirs unsuitable for life of other fishes. Having successfully survived in human epoch, this kind has given rise to numerous new species adapted to various habitats, down to waters of Baikal and hot springs of Kamchatka. In wetlands of Western Siberia ice sleeper lives, adapted to endure rigorous winters in unusual way.
Body length of this fish is about 30 cm, usually smaller. As this kind prefers to live in thickets of underwater grasses, its coloring is appropriate: green background with vertical brown strips and silvery spots on sides. Skin of fish is covered with small scales and a thick layer of slime. The survival of this species kind depends on surprising properties of skin in extreme conditions of Siberian wetlands. Under skin there is a plenty of blood vessels providing to fish skin breath as addition to branchial one when in summer the contents of oxygen in water is decreased. Because of their dilation skin can get an appreciable reddish shade. And in winter thick layer of slime, rich in proteins and glycerin, interferes freezing of skin of fish. Due to such feature ice sleeper can freeze in ice without harm for itself, surviving through short, but rigorous Siberian winters.
This fish has short and wide fins: ice sleeper is rather slow swimmer. It is able to make short rushes for prey capture, but this fish spends the most part of time, slowly swimming among plants and avoiding open water. For protection against predators in back fin of fish there are eight strong hollow spikes in which basis poisonous glands are located. This fish inhabits benthic layers of water, therefore its large convex eyes are shifted upwards – such feature allows tracking prey, having dug in the rests of plants at the bottom of bog. The mouth of ice sleeper is superior – fish attacks prey from below. Favourite food of this fish includes larvae of aquatic insects, small fish (including its own fry) and larvae of gluttonous swamper.
This fish breeds in spring, when water in reservoir is well warmed. Spawning is preceded by rough courtship games, when male turns emerald-green with white spots and opens fins widely, showing itself to female. Female lays on roots of plants some tens eggs, and male protects clutch and larvae against predators during approximately two weeks. At one-year-old age fish becomes sexually mature. Life expectancy may reach over 20 years.

Gluttonous swamper (Pseudoandrias silurops)
Order: Caudates (Caudata)
Family: Swampers (Pseudoandriidae)

Habitat: wetlands of Western Siberia.

Picture by Alexey Tatarinov

Time of giant amphibians has passed – they undividedly ruled planet in far Carboniferous and have taken revenge in Triassic temporarily. But later, when reptiles have appeared on land, and crocodiles and turtles in water, amphibians had been displaced to subordinated roles. Appearing of birds and mammals among terrestrial animals has completely closed to amphibians way to tops of food chains. The largest amphibian of Cenozoic was giant salamander (Andrias) lived at Far East. But at Neocene wetlands of Siberia the animal far surpassing it in force, weight and ferocity has evolved. This giant is gluttonous swamper, titanic amphibian, spending the entire life in water of bogs and river creeks of Siberia. What was the reason of its success?
Summer at wetlands of Neocene Siberia is very hot – water gets warm at times up to +30°С. Such conditions of life perfectly fit for turtles and other water reptiles. But in winter famous Siberian frosts come back, though do not reach such force, as earlier in Holocene. And because of it the way to Neocene Siberia is closed to turtles. But amphibians are much more cold-resistant creatures. Incubation of their eggs takes place at lower temperature, than is necessary for eggs of turtles, and adult animals easily endure “cold” wintering in non-freezing water of springs at the bottom of rivers and lakes.
Gluttonous swamper is a monstrous descendant of the most usual newts (Triturus). Body length of this animal reaches almost 3 meters, of which about half is made of muscled tail bordered by fin plica stretching to the middle of back. Head of animal is flat and wide, and almost square at the look from above. Eyes are very small, located near edges of wide mouth with several lines of small pointed teeth. On both sides of heads there are three pairs of external gills up to 30 cm long, looking like ostrich feathers. They allow this animal being under water for a long time, trapping its prey – fishes, crustaceans and terrestrial vertebrates. In addition to gills swamper has also underdeveloped lungs, allowing breathing air, when water gets too warm and contents of oxygen in it decreases.
Gluttonous swamper almost never appears on land – swamps of Siberia do not dry up completely. Therefore its four-toed paws became very short and weak. As at the majority of amphibians, gluttonous swamper lacks claws on its toes. If it animal needs to overcome any distance overland, it chooses night time for this purpose to prevent drying up of its skin – skin of gluttonous swamper is wet and slimy. On land it moves, bending the whole body and helping itself with short paws.
Top part of body of gluttonous swamper is colored unremarkable camouflage color – greenish-brown with brown spots. In addition to it on skin there is a lot if overgrowths and warts giving its masking additional persuasiveness. Belly of this amphibian is colored yellow with black spots, in courtship season at males it turns orange-red, and spots become smaller.
Male is almost half-meter larger, than female, and in courtship season it has high skin crest on back. In courtship season males occupy sites of river gulfs or bogs, where involve females by emitting in water musky substance from special gland on throat. At this time between them severe fights may take place. During the caring female displays to male full stomach (at this time it turns pale), that is a sign of submission. Eggs (up to 20-30 thousands) are laid in lumps in thickets of floating plants with long roots, and male protects clutch. Larva up to 2 cm long hatches at 10-12 days and lives for about one week, having attached to plants. Male protects young ones until they will swim. Young animals reach sexual maturity at 5-th year of life at length of about 1.2 m, and lives up to 60-70 years.

Red-headed crail (Rallogeranus rubicephalus)
Order: Gruiform birds (Gruiformes)
Family: Crails (Neogruidae)

Habitat: wetlands bogs of Western Siberia, wintering at swamplands of China.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

True cranes (Gruidae) in Holocene epoch already were birds for which heyday remained far in the past. Therefore to the beginning of Neocene epoch true cranes disappeared from the face of planet – these birds had not sustained anthropogenous pressure and destruction of habitats. But numerous birds “stood in shadow” of their majestic relatives earlier – rails (Rallidae) – survived. They have filled in the ecological niches became empty after ice age and evolved to forms similar to cranes. Representatives of crail family had widely settled across the territories of Eurasia and North America; these are large birds occupying various habitats.
One of representatives of this family is Siberian red-headed crail. It is a bird of about one and a half meters tall, weighing up to 5 kg. In constitution crail resembles long extinct true cranes – it has long beak, flexible long neck and long legs allowing wading easily across swamps or shallow rivers. Legs of crail are strong – in case of need bird is able to run quickly. Skin on legs is bright yellow. Plumage of bird has yellowish-brown color (like color of dry reed), but head and neck are colored more appreciably – it is necessary for recognition by birds of each other. Neck has coal-black color, male’s head is covered with short feathers of bright red color (at female feathers on head are brown). Gular sac at this bird can inflate like a bubble – it is one of elements of courtship games. It is covered with thin naked skin of white color and is visible even at quiet bird.
The basic food of birds of this kind includes small aquatic and terrestrial animals; sometimes they eat carrion, mainly because of larvae of insects settling there.
Courtship games begin in middle of spring, when warm enough weather is established. At this time males begin calling of females, inflating gular sacs and uttering lingering hooting calls. When female accepts male’s courtship, birds cry a duet for some time, notifying possible contenders that the territory is occupied. Nest in thickets of marsh plants represents simple heap of dry grass piled up above broken and densely stamped stalks of reed with addition of rods and dry leaves. In clutch there are 2-3 spotty brownish eggs, incubated by both birds. Incubation lasts about 3 weeks.
Chicks hatch, being well advanced: they are covered with down and have eyes opened. At the 2-nd day after hatching they leave nest and feed near parents. At first parents small animals and give them to chicks from beak to beak, then young birds learn search for food independently. At the age of 1 month young birds become fully fledged. To an autumn they become independent, and their coloring becomes similar to coloring of adult birds, but heads at young males become bright red only at the third year of life, when they begin sexually mature. Female is able to breed already at the second year of life.
Red-headed crail is a migrating bird. It spends winter at the swamplands of China, flying there with the approach of steady cold snap.

Fantail hazel grouse (Pavonasia paludiphila)
Order: Gallinaceous birds (Galliformes)
Family: Grouses (Tetraonidae)

Habitat: Western Siberia, woods and bushes at the highlands among wetlands.
At the end of Holocene the extensive congelation, as if a plough, has ploughed up continents of Northern hemisphere – the basic center of variety of birds of grouse family. The area of taiga had strongly reduced, and many kinds of these birds, especially large ones, had become extinct. Until that time they were threatened to disappearance because of intensive hunting for them from the side of people, and the ice age had only sped up their extinction. But smaller species of grouse birds managed to survive. Among them there was a hazel grouse (Bonasia bonasia), an ancestor of new, larger species of birds of Neocene epoch.
Its descendant, fantail hazel grouse, lives in forests bordering wetlands of Siberia. It is a large bird – weighing up to 2 kg, it resembles somewhat a capercaillie externally: it has wide fanlike tail used by males in courtship season. This species is colored a little bit brighter compared to ancestor: the most part of body is rust-colored with cross black strips – wider on wings, thin and dense on back and breast. At females rust color is replaced by grayish-brown. The yips of tail feathers at males are black. Also birds of this species have white undertail coverts and characteristic red feathers on “eyebrows”. Around of eyes at males there are areas of easily extensible naked skin of red color. During the courtship games they are filled with blood and increased in sizes, becoming well seen from afar. In time of courtship ritual head of fantail hazel grouse becomes similar to heads of some breeds of domestic pigeons like English barb, carrier and dragon. Male accompanies female attraction with “drumbeat”: it holds body in vertical posture and claps wings; their tips flap against each other behind back and in front of breast of bird. On legs of males long straight spurs grow, used for fights against contenders. When winter comes, on legs of birds of both genders long feathers grow, allowing walking on snow without falling down. In winter fantail hazel grouse can spend the night, having buried in snow and can search for food under snow, digging long tunnels near the surface of the ground among bushes.
Breeding season is the middle of spring. Courtship games are accompanied by fights between males and noisy displaying: males simultaneously start “drumming” their wings, involving females. In clutch it may be up to 10-12 spotted gray-brown eggs. They are hatched by female only (at these birds permanent families do not form) within 20 days. Chicks hatch covered by rusty down with brown longitudinal strips. At week age at them feathers grow on wings, and they begin flying. At bi-monthly age they become almost independent; at this time families may unite for feeding to small flocks numbering up to 30 birds. Sexual maturity comes at females in 2 years, at males in 3 years. Life expectancy of birds is up to 12-14 years.

Herbary

Siberian false arrowroot (Pseudocolocasia calla-titanica)
Order: Arales (Arales)
Family: Arums (Araceae)

Habitat: Western Siberia – wetlands, river shallows.
One of the widespread kinds of marsh plants in Eurasia in Holocene epoch was calla (Calla palustris) – wetland plant with long creeping stalks, wide leaves and inflorescence surrounded with white spathe. This representative of mainly tropical family appeared rather steady against climate cooling, and has survived in epoch of Holocene congelation.
In warm and humid Neocene from this kind completely new plant evolved. Siberian false arrowroot is a giant grass with wide leaves. The height of an adult plant is about 2 meters, length of leaves may reach 1 meter and more. Leaves are heart-shaped with deep cut for leafstalk and tip extended as a characteristic “dropper”. Annual leaves are gathered to rosette and grow each spring from thick tuber-like rhizome, which is hidden at the depth of half meter under the ground. When morning frosts come, the overground part of plant dies off, and it falls to condition of winter rest.
At the end of spring, after the growing of three or four leaves, plant grows a flower stalk. The inflorescence is a spadix surrounded with white spathe with meat-red strips from outside, and it rises to the height of up to 2.5 meters. It emits unpleasant smell of rotten meat, attracting hundreds of flies pollinating this plant. Flowering proceeds up to the middle of summer. At the end of summer and in autumn fruits ripen – these are bright red berries with pleasant sweetish taste, which are eaten willingly by birds carrying seeds of plant. These berries are poisonous for mammals.
Siberian false arrowroot settles on marshy soils and easily endures flooding during the flood of the rivers. This species forms extensive and almost impassable thickets along the coasts of shallow reservoirs.

Giant bladderwort (Megautricularia antirrhiniflora)
Order: Scrophulariales (Scrophulariales)
Family: Bladderworts (Lentibulariaceae)

Habitat: wetlands of Western Siberia.
At the wetlands not only animals can be predators, but also plants. Among terrestrial carnivorous plants the most known one is sundew (Drosera), and in water various species of bladderworts are widely settled. In swamps of Neocene Siberia one small species of bladderwort evolved to true monster among carnivorous plants, to giant bladderwort.
This plant is similar enough externally to the usual bladderworts, growing beside. However it is remarkable among representatives of its family in enormous size. Stalks of this giant grow to two-meter length, branching plentifully. On stalks bright green laciniate leaves grow in whorls, and among them trapping bladders are visible. But if traps of the majority of bladderworts reach only several millimeters in length and are dangerous unless to smallest fry, crustaceans and infusorians, enormous 5-centimetric trapping leaves of this giant represent obvious threat for live creatures from 3 up to 6 cm long – dragonfly larvae, young fishes, tadpoles and larvae of gluttonous swamper. They simply do not react to small prey – sensitive bristles near to trap entrance feel only strong enough touches. Therefore mosquito larvae and the smallest fish fry feel like in safety among thickets of this plant.
This plant blossoms from the beginning of summer, producing large yellow flowers with red spot on labium – the bottom petal. Flowers of this plant are very beautiful – they are similar to flowers of some cultivars of snapdragon (Antirrhinum major). They are gathered to friable raceme and rise on vertical flowerstalk to 50-60 cm above water. This plant is pollinated by bumblebees and bees though seeds ripen rather seldom – on the average, only 5% of flowers turn to fruits – dry capsules. But the plant breeds actively in vegetative way – in leaf axils special short branches with fragile bases and tenacious hook-like tips of leaves are formed. Hooking against the plumage of waterfowl and wool of mammals, they easily come off and are transported to significant distances. The stimulus for the further growth of these branches is short-term drying in air.
To the beginning of winter the significant part of plant dies off, but before it in leaа axils special wintering buds, representing very short shoots with dense short leaves, are formed. They easily endure freezing and sprout in the spring, reaching one meter length in few days.

Treelike sedge (Pandanocarex arboreus)
Order: Sedges (Cyperales)
Family: Sedges (Cyperaceae)

Habitat: wetlands of Western Siberia.
In summer wetlands of Siberia become somewhat similar to tropical swamps – hot sun and abundance of moisture cause rough growth of plants. But in winter the temperature falls at times up to -20°С and ground freezes through rather deep. Not each plant will manage to adapt to such climate, but among sedges (Carex) one such species has appeared, which has formed an original treelike vital form.
Treelike sedge is a perennial plant with branching ramified lignifying stalk of about 1 meter height. Stalk can grow thick a little due to an original friable tissue of core. On tips of stalks the rigid annual leaves impregnated with silica and having sharp cutting edges are formed annually. The rests of leaves keep on trunk for very long time – up to 2-3 seasons, forming fibrous “case” around the trunk. In addition plant gives root sprouts, therefore large animal not always can make the way through its thickets. In thickets of treelike sedge various marsh birds willingly nest.
Treelike sedge grows on well humidified soil along the coast of lakes, former river-beds and marshes.
This plant blossoms in the beginning of summer, forming long flower stalk, on which the umbel of friable spikelets grows. Pollination takes place with the help of wind. Fruits of this species represent small nuculae in strong shell. Basically they are spread by birds though the fallen seeds can be spread by streams of thawed snow. Seeds sprout only after the influence of strong cold, therefore shoots appear only the next year, and when winter is warm – after 2 years of rest. The plant forms short trunk at the third year of life and then begins to blossom for the first time. Life expectancy reaches 50 years.

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