Tour to Neocene


35. Caribbean Ark



Edited by Timothy Donald Morris.

In the history of the Earth, the boundary between Holocene and Neocene was marked by a catastrophic cooling. The polar regions have expanded, and the equatorial zone of humid forests has narrowed to an intermittent belt. In connection with these events, the fauna of the Earth has changed a lot. The species adapted to life in the “greenhouse” conditions of the equatorial climate either decreased in number or became extinct completely. And from the north and south they had been pressed up more and more by migrants from other natural zones – from savannas and dry woodlands. Many species whose numbers were undermined during the period of human domination failed to endure the changing conditions and became extinct.
But in some places, even during the Ice Age, rainforests continued to exist. Such places have became real shelters for thermophilic flora and fauna. One of these zones was the West Indies. The role of this region in the shaping of the fauna of the New World has proved to be truly invaluable. In the Late Holocene epoch, the connection between North and South America via the Isthmus of Panama broke completely and irrevocably: under the pressure of the expanding bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, North America slowly drifted to the north, and South America to the south. When the areas of warm regions of the Earth began to shrink, a flood of migrants poured into the islands of the West Indies. During the Ice Age, many of these islands were connected by land isthmuses, and due to tectonic processes, temporary “bridges” regularly appeared between separate islands, allowing populations of “refugees” from the mainland to settle further. The true “Noah's Ark” for the fauna of South America became the island that united Haiti and several neighboring islands into a single landmass, called Great Antigua. From time to time, it connected via isthmuses with Cuba lying to the northwest, and Cuba – with the North American continent. Therefore, in Great Antigua, it is possible to meet immigrants from both Americas. The climate on Great Antigua has never been cold or dry, and the island has always been covered with forests. The only inconvenience for the inhabitants of this island has always been represented by hurricanes that regularly come from the expanses of the Atlantic.
An island with a wonderful climate, Great Antigua has become a favorite wintering place for birds. Even in the Neocene epoch, the migration routes used by birds during the severe Ice Age, still persist.
Flocks of huge birds with a wingspan of almost three meters are flying over the coast of North America. These are northern crails from Greenland flying to their usual wintering grounds. The most part of these birds overwinter in the swamps of Florida, but part of the population flies farther, to Great Antigua. Lanky birds fly over mangrove forests and palm groves of the coast, and choose for landing an area overgrown with reeds and other grasses – wetlands at the northeast coast of the island. There are no large predators here, and birds tired during the migration can rest quietly. Crails land on the swamp in a whole flock. The first steps on the ground are made by them uncertainly, as if the birds have forgotten how to walk during the flight. But in fact they are just tired. Folding their wings, the northern crails, one by one, lie down on the ground and rest. The birds’ eyes close almost immediately, and the crails fall into a light, but very welcome sleep. One of the birds is usually on guard, but now, it seems, no one is trying to guard the slumber of the whole flock.
The slapping of wide paws on the water and the quiet rumbling that can be heard from the thickets of sedges are like the lightning striking from blue sky for resting birds. Crails wake up, and begin, without understanding, to vocalize loudly and anxiously, flapping their wings. But their anxiety turns out to be in vain: the first local inhabitant that meets them on the island is not a predator, but a harmless, though formidable-looking, prickly scaly porcupine. A predator would not so openly announce its approach, but this beast clad in corneous scales does not care about a flock of crails at all. Not being afraid of these birds, the beast moves across the marshland, slapping with its wide paws with small webs between the digits. Old birds calm down quickly: they know from their own experience that they should not expect any trouble from this creature. They go back to sleep. But young birds see this beast for the first time in their lives, and they do not know what to expect from it. Huddled together, they follow every movement of the prickly scaly porcupine. One young crail shows courage: it comes closer to the beast and tries to peck it. In response to this behavior, the porcupine snorts loudly and presses the scales tightly to its body. The crail is somewhat puzzled, and watches, with its head tilted, as the porcupine wanders on. At home, in Greenland, this crail easily could have put an animal of this size to flight, but here it sees for the first time that such an animal is not afraid of it. The corneous scales of the porcupine protect it from such accidental encounters, and long-billed birds do not often try to attack these rodents in order to cause any fear. The porcupine crosses the swamp where the crails stopped to rest, enters the river and swims.
The rivers of Greater Antigua are short, narrow and full of rapids. They begin in the mountains as crystal clear streams, but flowing through the forest, they appear saturated with tannins and humic acids, and in their lower reaches the water becomes slightly brownish, similar to weakly brewed tea. Mangroves grow in the river estuaries, and the shallow waters around Great Antigua are bordered by reefs.
Once in the Cenozoic, corals had a “monopoly” on the right of reef-building. But they had one physiological feature that prevented their settlement: corals could not endure lowered level of water salinity. Therefore, there were no reefs in the river estuaries. In the Neocene, when reef-building corals became extinct, the situation changed radically. The coastal shallows of Great Antigua are covered with reefs built by new species of living creatures, mainly mollusks and barnacles, the sessile crustaceans. Unlike corals, they are resistant to drop of salinity level and form life-rich communities opposite river mouths. Plankton is developing especially rapidly here: the river carries a large amount of substances necessary for the growth of microalgae into the sea. Also, calcareous algae receive additional organic fertilization from river water and in such conditions more actively cement the shells of animals into a solid body of the reef. The areas of the sea that are separated by a reef from the ocean are gradually filled with river sediments and become a favorable place for the development of another productive ecosystem of the sea – mangrove forests. Mangrove forests grow mainly in the estuaries of rivers where the salinity level is decreased, so they do not populate the entire territory occupied by reefs. When the river flowing into the sea becomes shallow, mangroves gradually thin out and degrade, but the reefs grow. This way the balance between different types of ecosystems is maintained, and none of them completely displaces the other.
Wide shallow deltas are formed at the mouths of rivers, and the coast gradually advances to the sea. Mangrove forests accumulate soil between their roots and gradually give way to salt-resistant palm trees, and they, in turn, are replaced by typical forest plants: first shrubs, and then trees.
At low tide, areas of sandy and muddy shoals are exposed, where a large animal can simply get stuck, as if in a swamp. But for small animals there is a real freedom here. Small crabs run sideways to and fro, looking for marine life trapped in pools of water. Their round eyes on stalks provide them with a full all-round view, so it is difficult to get close to the crab unnoticed. Crabs are busy with their own affairs, but they are constantly on the alert: when something suspicious flashes in the bushes or in the air and all the crabs instantly scatter. And this time they did not have to feed quietly for a long time: the crabs scattered when several birds flew over the shallows. In the manner of their flight, they do not resemble seabirds, majestically soaring over the waves, at all: some seconds of active work with their wings – and then flying literally like a bullet, with folded wings. Birds are on their way to the tops of the reefs exposed at low tide. When they land on the reefs, their “non-marine” origin becomes even more obvious: the birds move in kind of jerks, leap on the reef surface, but do not approach the water. When they begin to feed, all doubts about their origin disappear completely. The birds firmly cling to the reef with their toes and with quick powerful pecks of their beaks they crush snail shells and get various small animals from the cracks of the reef. There is no doubt – these birds are woodpeckers, typical woodpeckers! The amazing inhabitants of Great Antigua are called so – these are reef woodpeckers. On a lime fortress, stacked with shells of animals, they behave as if on a tree somewhere in the forest. The barred plumage of woodpeckers makes them poorly visible against the background of the reef. When the tide comes in, the birds will leave the reef and wait out this time in the mangrove forest.
At low tide, there is enough water left in the space between the reef and the mangroves. In shallow water, large shoals of small fish are noticeable. These are mainly fry of live-bearing fishes that dominate the Caribbean Sea. Occasionally, it is possible to see even quite large fishes swimming here from the open sea to hunt. But sea hunters have a very serious competitor. A long body wriggles and slides under the water. This is clearly not a fish: for a few seconds, the creature emerges to the surface of the water and takes a breath. At this point, scaly skin and spiky crest on its head become noticeable. Having waved its clawed front paws, the animal dives. This lizard is the not fully grown terraguana searching for food in the water. Terraguana is a terrestrial inhabitant, the largest predator species of Great Antigua, a kind of ecological analogue of the monitor lizard from Komodo Island. Adult lizards of this species reach a length of four meters, but this one, only one and a half meters long, also inspires fear among the inhabitants of the island. Terraguana hunting raid is spotted by reef woodpecker. The bird immediately raises the alarm, and its sharp call can be heard far over the reef. Upon hearing it, the rest of the reef woodpeckers take off and perch on the peaks of the reef. Usually these birds are loners who do not tolerate close proximity of congeners. But now, in the presence of a predator, a sense of collectivism takes over: the birds gather in groups on the highest parts of the reef and watch the terraguana. The lizard does not pay attention to them, although on occasion it can easily catch a careless bird. The reptile tracked down a shoal of small fish and began hunting: having driven the fish into shallow water, the lizard grabs one of them with a rush, turns around and swims away. While terraguana reaches the shore, reef woodpeckers accompany it with their calls. The terraguana gets out on the sandy shore, and the reef woodpeckers as if pass the baton to their relatives: the snail woodpeckers, residents of the mangrove forest, begin to mob the terraguana. Their gray backs and barred bellies flash among the greenery. Gathered in a small flock, snail woodpeckers fly out of the mangroves and chase the terraguana. They fly over its head, screaming continuously. To avoid annoying chasing, terraguana turns to the mangrove forest and crawls through the tangle of roots. Snail woodpeckers almost immediately stop their chasing. They calm down and begin searching for food. Birds leap on the roots of mangroves, tearing off snails stuck to them. Woodpeckers are unable to dive, and prefer not to go down to the water edge, where predatory fish sometimes hide. Therefore, only those snails that have crawled high enough become their prey. With well-aimed pecks of its beak, the woodpecker tears the snail from the root, and drags it onto one of the branches. Every bird has a favorite place for splitting shells. Usually this is a natural depression in the trunk, or a fork in the branches. Having stuck the shell in this place, the woodpecker breaks it with some blows of its beak and eats the meat of the mollusk. One of the birds is not searching for snails – it perched on the trunk of a mangrove tree next to a sandy beach, cautiously peeking out from behind the leaves. When several crabs appear on the shore, the woodpecker takes off. Like a hawk, it sweeps over the beach, and then a crab already shakes and waves its claws in its beak. The woodpecker treats it the same way as the snail: having stuck its prey into the fork of the branches, bird kills it with some blows of the beak, after which begins to eat it. A bunch of claws and shells of its prey has already accumulated under bird’s favorite “dining room”, and the crabs come here themselves to feast on the remains of their relatives.
The roots of mangrove trees are bored by a variety of animals, including special wood-boring bivalves – the so-called “shipworms”. They also have a hunter, and this is again a woodpecker. Mangrove woodpeckers, the largest of the “sea-dwelling” woodpeckers living in Great Antigua, feed in mangrove forests without flying to the reef or to the beach. At low tide, these black-and-white birds with red heads examine the roots of mangroves, looking for the holes of “shipworms” in them. Having found the opening of the hole into which the mollusk extends its respiratory siphons outwards, the bird opens the root of the tree with its beak pecks and takes out the body of the mollusk with its tongue. If the shipworm is large, the woodpecker acts in way that is more sophisticated: with light beak tapping, it examines the root, trying to find the place where the hole drilled by the mollusk ends. At this point, the woodpecker makes a hole, and through it takes the front end of the body of the “shipworm”, equipped with a small rudimentary shell. In addition to “shipworms”, these woodpeckers eat crustaceans boring the wood, and also adhere to a diet common to all woodpeckers: they eat insects that settle in the decaying wood of mangroves.
On mangrove trees, it is possible also to meet other former inhabitants of the forest – mangrove marmosets, a peculiar monkey species that have adapted to life in mangrove swamps. These primates came to Great Antigua from South America. Just like woodpeckers, they have adapted to life in an environment new for them due to increased competition at the island having a limited area. Before that, no species of New World monkeys had developed such habitats.
A family group of these monkeys with golden-yellow fur and black-and-white tails is searching for the fruits of mangrove trees. The most important thing here is to find in a proper time a fruit in which the seeds have not yet had time to germinate, but which is ripe enough. If there are no fruits, mangrove marmosets are just as willing to eat young leaves of mangroves. Old leaves are inedible for these monkeys: salt absorbed by the roots of trees is deposited in them. Shedding old leaves, mangrove trees get rid of excess salts at the same time.
The marmosets travel along the branches in groups: the dominant female moves first, followed by the male, and younger group members trail behind. Newborn cubs often sit on the back of the male – caring for them is the responsibility of the male for all marmosets, and this species is no exception here. The cubs are born helpless and the male spends a lot of time caring for them. When the group stops to rest, the male passes the babies to the female for feeding, but immediately takes them back when they are full.
At low tide, mangrove marmosets descend to the ground. Perhaps not a single species of these monkeys has done anything like this in their homeland – in the South American selva. However, on islands, where food resources are scarce, it is more profitable not to adhere to the old “traditions”, but to look for new ways of survival. Raising their tails vertically, the monkeys go out to the sandbanks exposed at low tide for fish and shrimp. These primates run freely along the shore: they weigh a little, so they feel safe – a large predator who decided to hunt them will simply get bogged down here. Monkeys find a lot of suitable food in shallow puddles – small fish, crabs and shrimps. But the danger can come not only from the forest, but also fall from the sky like a stone, so while hunting for fish, mangrove marmosets often keep eyes on the sky. It is not safe to stay on the shore for a long time, so the caught prey is hurriedly eaten or is hidden in the corner of animal's jaw in reserve. One of the teenagers caught a large fish in the puddle, and it just doesn’t fit in its mouth. The tail of the prey treacherously sticks out of its mouth, and the members of the group notice this. The male is too burdened with cubs to chase a successful fisher, but the dominant female rushes to chase the teenager and takes away its prey. The offended teenager screams, and the female begins to eat the taken fish nonchalantly. Nevertheless, she also fails to finish her meal: the male approaches her and simply takes away the half-eaten fish. When the female tries to protest, the male just grins his teeth, and his dearest wife walks away and sits off to the side resentfully. After the male, she is left with only the spine of the fish, almost completely gnawed, and a half-chewed head. Well, “you don’t like it, don’t eat it!”
The tide begins. Waves are coming in from the ocean, crab holes are gradually filling with water, and fishes swim more freely between the roots. Puddles merge with each other, and then become a part of the sea at all. The water level is rising higher and higher, and now fishes and other marine inhabitants dominate the coastal zone. Reef woodpeckers fly away from the reef, and mangrove and snail woodpeckers rise to the upper “floors” of the mangrove forest.
Shoals of fry are swim in the water. The juveniles of many species of live-bearing fishes grow in mangroves. It is safe here: marine predators either do not like water of low salinity, or are too big to squeeze between the roots of mangroves. Whole schools of live-bearing fishes enter the river from the sea to give birth to offspring. Fry of many species live in the river for the first time, and then move to the sea. It seems like memories of a distant Holocene epoch, when live-bearers were small fishes and lived in rivers and brackish ponds of Central and South America.
In the river, the largest inhabitant is the prickly scaly porcupine. The rodent swims well and confidently keeps on the water surface, despite the spiny armor. Its physique is robust and it swims very slowly. But it doesn’t need to be fast: this beast is a vegetarian, and its food won’t swim away. Sitting in shallow water, the spiny scaly porcupine enjoys food and safety. It has unearthed a whole bush of a small water lily, and now it is eating it. From below, the leaves of the water lily are dotted with snails and insect larvae, which are also suitable for food. Having finished with the leaves, the porcupine chewed the sweetish flower of the water lily and began to eat the juicy petioles of the leaves. In the end, only a starchy tuber remained of the water lily, and the porcupine dealt with it with some bites. The prickly scaly porcupine is protected from predators and behaves calmly – here, animals that it is afraid of are rare. But for some of its neighbors, constant caution has become the fact of life.
Mazamaras come to the river to drink. These are small creatures with a build resembling tiny deer without antlers. The spotted skin makes mazamara invisible among bushes and forest shadows. The animals are thirsty, but they stay alert, look around and sniff. A male with a thick white “beard” is the first to approach the water and begins to drink hastily. When he step away, having quenched his thirst, the other mazamaras fall to the water. The male constantly looks around and sniffs the air. When the porcupine began to scratch noisily, the mazamara male twitched his ears in displeasure. This is not a real danger – mazamaras are not afraid of scaly porcupines. But almost all mazamaras heard a rather loud noise in the bushes, and even the scaly porcupine paid attention to it: only the one who is not afraid of anyone makes such a noise. Before the scaly porcupine could notice anything in the bushes, the mazamara male uttered an alarm signal similar to the barking of a small dog, and the whole mazamara herd quickly disappeared into the forest. They had something to fear: an adult terraguana crawled out of the bushes. This is a real monster: more than four meters in length, a skin covered with numerous scars, pointed claws and a ferocious look. On the reptile’s back, a dragon-style jagged crest of numerous corneous outgrowths sways. It seems that terraguana is not hungry: it does not sniff the air and does not look at the tracks left by the mazamaras on the riverbank. The reptile enters the water and swims to the other side, wriggling with its whole body and having pressed its paws to its sides. Prickly scaly porcupine watches her go. As soon as the monster appeared from the bushes, it went ashore and shook itself. It was not just a desire to remove water from under the plates, but a warning about the intention to defend itself. If terraguana attacks it in the water, it can defeat the beast – this lizard swims as good as a crocodile. But on land, with solid ground under its feet, this porcupine is more mobile and can repel a predator. But this time, it seems, everything went well…
A tropical rainforest is a community in which all life is concentrated in forest canopy, at an altitude of several tens of meters above the ground. There is very little amount of food in the undergrowth – almost all sunlight is caught by the tree crowns, and vegetation is represented only by sparse grass. Only near the rivers, where the forest canopy opens, shrubs and giant broad-leaved grasses grow. In such conditions, large species become dwarfs, and mazamara is one example of this phenomenon. Its ancestors, cursorial deermara (Cervimara) rodents, penetrated into North America via the Antillean land Bridge, but part of the ancestral population remained to live on the islands. During the Ice Age, when the islands were covered with sparse forests, a population of large continental deermaras inhabited Great Antigua. When conditions changed, the animals got decreased in size greatly.
Mazamara herd feeds in the undergrowth. With their sharp incisors, animals browse leaves from shrubs. If mushrooms are found, mazamaras willingly eat them too – rodents perfectly understand which mushrooms are edible and which ones are better avoided. Small rodents constantly live in tension: they nervously shake their ears and often look around. A loud and unexpected bird call, heard from the bushes, makes them shudder and run away to the side. Mazamaras huddle together and look fearfully in the direction from which it was heard.
Two chicken-sized birds appear from the thickets of large-leaved plants. They are clearly not going to fly, but move on the ground by jumping. They have large heads and straight strong beaks. This is another species of unusual woodpeckers inhabiting Great Antigua – giant ground woodpecker.
In conditions of island isolation, species from the continent adapt to a new, sometimes atypical way of life. Ground woodpeckers have exchanged a relatively safe, but competitive life in the trees for sated, but more dangerous terrestrial life. They have very short wings, and these birds will not be able to take to the air with all their desire. But these are the largest birds in their order. Ground woodpeckers move on the ground with jumps, like small kangaroos. Their wings function as balancers and are very helpful if they need to make a sharp turn.
A pair of ground woodpeckers did not even deign to look at the frightened mazamaras. Birds are busy with their own affairs, and perceive these rodents simply as a certain part of the world around. Woodpeckers keep and forage together: they have chicks in their nest, which are voracious and grow very quickly. Therefore, since a recent time, both adult birds are busy almost exclusively in searching for food for their offspring.
Having found a termite mound, disguised artfully among the roots of a tree, the birds get to work. Pointed beaks easily crack the strong outer wall of the nest, which hundreds of blind soft insects come out to seal up. They represent the best food for young birds, and adult woodpeckers, like anteaters, begin to lick termites off, stuffing their stomachs. Along the way, several beetles and caterpillars of certain butterflies that have settled in termite nest are taken from it.
Due to such way of life, that is unusual for woodpeckers in general, the nesting method of ground woodpeckers has undergone significant changes. These birds no longer make holes in tree trunks, but dig burrows. The birds dug a burrow under the roots of a large tree. The burrow is initially directed horizontally, and then sharply bends down, repeating the shape of the hollow in which the ancestors of the ground woodpeckers nested. Over time, the walls of the burrow crumble, and parents constantly renovate the burrow, throwing out the earth. There are two hungry chicks at the bottom of the burrow. When the parents appear in the burrow, the chicks raise a cry, flapping their short wings. Parents regurgitate food, and feeding their offspring one after another.
In isolated habitats, evolution sometimes goes differently than on the mainland. The inhabitants of the islands sometimes occupy ecological niches atypical for them. A large number of species of lizards of iguanid family lived on the islands of the Caribbean Sea. They were mostly omnivorous or herbivorous forms, but in the absence of large predators, one of the species of these lizards turned into the Antiguan terraguana – the dominant predator in the island ecosystem. Terraguana will easily cope with any land-dwelling animal that it can catch.
One of these reptiles crawls through the forest in search of food, from time to time sticking out its tongue and probing the air with it. This reptile is completely indiscriminate in food, and will eat both live prey and half-decomposed carrion with equal pleasure. But it seems that hunting luck will smile on it today: the lizard senses a smell indicating the presence of a bird nest nearby. Having caught the attractive aroma, the reptile makes its way through the ferns and soon crawls out to a huge tree. The smell comes from a burrow located under one of its roots. There is no doubt: this is a nest of ground woodpeckers with grown-up chicks – a good lunch, which will be enough for a predator for a couple of days.
Terraguana sticks its head into the hole, tasting the air with a forked tongue. And at the same moment, the ground woodpecker female jumps out to meet the reptile. She has something to lose: two chicks are almost ready to leave the nest, and in the near future the birds will not have to nest. The female defends her offspring desperately, screams and strikes terraguana with her beak. The bird is locked in the nest, and it has nowhere to retreat. The male is far from the nest, and the female will have to rely only on her own force. The chicks have not grown up yet, and they do not take part in the fight. But they are screaming heart-rendingly, and their voices spread through the forest for tens of meters to the sides.
The ground woodpecker female began to get tired, but terraguana, it seems, has not yet given up on the idea of a delicious meal. Gathering all its strength, the bird rushes into a desperate attack and pecks the lizard right in its nostril. A strong blow stunned terraguana, blood gushed from its nostril and a sharp pain pierced the reptile’s muzzle. For a split second, terraguana recoiled, and this gave confidence to the ground woodpecker female. The bird began to pounce on the huge reptile obsessively, aiming its beak at the bleeding nose of the terraguana. The lizard began shaking its head desperately, trying to dodge the blows raining down on it. After all, it can’t stand the onslaught of the bird, turns around and leaves. Pushing through the thickets, the reptile hears a sharp, staccato cry of a bird behind him. Plants crushed by a lizard near the woodpecker’s burrow and a chain of blood drops reddens against the foliage are the evidence of the battle that had just taken place. When the footsteps of the huge reptile subsided, the ground woodpecker female felt how tired she was. Perhaps this was her first and last such fierce battle for the life of these chicks. They will soon leave their native burrow, and then leave the territory of their parents. But for now, they demand attention, and young birds require care. Their mother breathes heavily and lies down on the ground, resting after the battle with the monster. The chicks give the voice – at first timidly and uncertainly, and then they shout at the top of their lungs. Some minutes ago, they could have died – but life prevailed over death. And in order for life to continue, the chicks need to eat.
For about two days, the terraguana attacked by a ground woodpecker female lay in the bushes. At first, it was even difficult for the reptile to breathe, and the dried blood on the muzzle attracted clouds of flies. Good physical shape saved the reptile: terraguana recovered, although one of her nostrils will remain scarred for life. The reptile could have waited out a longer starvation, but the longer it starves, the less chances to hunt successfully it will have. Therefore, barely recovering from its injury, terraguana goes hunting. It sets up an ambush in the bushes near the animal trail, where it is easiest to ambush prey. Due to its discreet skin pattern, a huge lizard skillfully disguises itself in the shade of bushes and waits patiently. The physiology of lizards is not adapted for a long chase for prey, but it is excellent for a sharp and quick attack. It is not surprising, therefore, that the terraguana hunts from ambush: despite its size, it is only a lizard.
The path where the terraguana has settled leads to the river. Sooner or later, a suitable prey appears on it. A herd of mazamaras, about thirty adult rodents and a dozen more young ones, goes to drink. The rodents listen and look carefully around, trying to detect a possible danger. But terraguana sensed their approach much earlier: it heard the patter of their feet through the ground. Frozen in the shade of bushes, a huge reptile is waiting. And when the herd passes very close, the lizard attacks the mazamaras. It rushes at the rodents with a powerful dash, knocks down one of the mazamaras with a ramming blow of its head and finishes it off by locking its teeth on beast’s throat. The surviving mazamaras are fleeing rapidly. But they are no longer in danger: having put all its forces in the single rush, the lizard would not be able to get a second mazamara, even if it comes even closer than the first one. But rodents live a momentary life, not thinking about the past or the future. What happened half an hour ago is as far away for them as what happened six months ago.
Having got the long-awaited prey, the terraguana begins to eat. The reptile peels off the fleshy parts of the carcass and greedily swallows them. The teeth of terraguana are poorly adapted for thorough gnawing of prey, and are not suitable for chewing at all. Therefore, after the terraguana finishes its meal, it is possible to feed well on the remains of its prey. This is well known by ground woodpeckers, which are waiting for the reptile’s meal to end at a safe distance. A couple of birds rest, looking impatiently at terraguana from time to time. When the reptile goes away, leaving the remains of the mazamara carcass, they rush to the half-gnawed bones. With their pointed beaks, woodpeckers carefully peck the remains of meat from the bones, and then peck open the gristles and lick the bone marrow from the tubular bones with their long tongues. After such birds, only some small rodent will be able to find something edible on the bones of mazamara.
Rain forests occupy a significant part of the island, especially in the east, from the side of the Atlantic Ocean. But in Great Antigua, mountains rise, protecting the Caribbean Sea from ferocious hurricanes. Also, completely different vegetation dominates in the mountains. The dry mountain forest descending from the western slopes of the island is a sharp contrast to the gloomy rain forest. The Great Antigua mountain forest is a light sparsely wooded forest formed mainly of various species of palm trees and pines. If palm trees are residents of the hot south, then pine is a typical relic of the Ice Age. Above it, there is a peculiar mountain desert with cacti. The crowns of the trees of the mountain forest close rather weakly, and the ground here is covered with a carpet of various plants, mainly graminoids.
Hoarse calls are constantly heard in the pine crowns – small Caribbean pine parakeets feed here. From the ground, red breasts and white spots under the wings of these birds flashing in the tree crowns can be seen. The rest of the plumage of these parrots is green, masking them among the branches. These birds feed mainly on pine seeds. The beak of pine parakeet is perfectly adapted for getting seeds from under the scales of pinecones: a thin and curved upper mandible easily bends the scale and picks up the seed, and a massive lower mandible crushes the pine tree seed. But a significant part of the pine seeds just scatter when the parakeets pick open the cones. Sometimes the cones fall down, where the seeds from them are eaten by other animals. Pine is a favorite fodder tree of parakeets of this species. In addition, pine parakeets often eat small seeds of other trees that related species do not feed on in the rain forest.
Another inhabitant of Great Antigua wanders under the trees in the mountain forest. The mountain scaly porcupine, a slow-moving robust rodent, picks up the fallen cones and chews out the seeds remaining in them. It watches the parakeets and prefers to feed where they eat. If there are few seeds and fruits that have fallen to the ground, the porcupine supplements its diet with plant roots.
The mountain scaly porcupine is perfectly protected from large enemies: its scales, leaning on each other, form an almost solid shell. If the porcupine faces an attack, it can cause serious wounds to the enemy. Its scales are sharp at the edges, and during its attack, they work like many knives, causing incised wounds. But, being perfectly protected from large predators, the scaly porcupine suffers from small tormentors: many ticks settle under its scales, and some beetles even lay eggs on backs of porcupines. Their grubs help the beast get rid of unwanted guests, but still the porcupine is often overcome by itching from many parasites. The porcupine would have had a very hard time if it weren’t for the many helpers living in the neighborhood. It seems that pine parakeets do not make much difference between pine cones and a huge live “pine cone” – the scaly porcupine. Birds willingly provide cleaning services to the rodent. They attract the porcupine with their voices and bright plumage, perching on bushes not far from the beast. Parakeets swing upside down on a branch, open their wings and scream – in short, they do everything to make the rodent pay attention to them.
The porcupine has not been cleaned for a long time, so the beast willingly follows the calls of parakeets. The rodent lies down on the ground and slightly spreads its scutes, inviting the feathered sanitarians to start working. The birds land on the porcupine’s back and get to work. The rodent specifically relaxes the muscles that raise and lower the corneous plates, entrusting the birds with very delicate work. Parakeets stick their heads under the porcupine’s scales, carefully removing ticks and beetles that have settled there from under them. These parasites serve also as additional feeding for birds. An alliance with parakeets is beneficial for the porcupine: it has poor eyesight, and parakeets perform the duties of watchmen, warning of the approach of predators.
One of the parakeets walking on the porcupine’s back became agitated: the bird noticed a scaly skin flashed in the bushes. With a sharp cry, the parakeet took off from the back of the scaly porcupine, followed by its congeners. From a height, the birds can clearly see that an adult terraguana is wandering very close to the porcupine. These reptiles live mainly in the rain forest, only occasionally occurring in the mountains. But now the egg-laying season begins for reptiles, and terraguana females migrate to the mountains to arrange nests. The terraguana that appeared in the mountain forest is a female, one of the first ones to come here. During the breeding season, the feeding behavior of lizards is suppressed, but aggressiveness increases sharply, and the female is ready to rush even at an animal that she would not chase for food.
Confident in its protection, the scaly porcupine is in no hurry to retreat, and the terraguana attacks. The reptile circles around the beast, and then resolutely rushes at the porcupine, mouth agape. The beast defends itself – it presses the scales to the body, and the teeth of the terraguana only slightly scratched some protective plates. Terraguana failed to bite the beast, and now it fights back: having spread its spikes, the porcupine tries to strike at the head and shoulders of the terraguana with sharp rushes. The reptile retreats, carrying one porcupine’s scale stuck in its shoulder.
When terraguana goes away, the parakeets return to the disturbed porcupine. It is a sign for the beast: there are no enemies nearby. The rodent starts eating again: it searches for nuts that have fallen from palm trees, and bites them with its incisors. Porcupine’s cooperation with parakeets is mutually beneficial: parakeets cannot open the hard fruits of palm trees themselves, although they are fond of their oily flesh very much. When a porcupine eats a palm nut, its pieces fall to the ground and the parakeets immediately pick them up. Having sated, the porcupine goes to rest in the bushes, and the parakeets fly away. Now, there are the last days of peaceful life in the mountain forest…
Gradually, the number of terraguanas in the mountain forest begins to increase: lizards move here from the lowland humid forests. All these reptiles are females with bellies swollen from fully formed eggs. Terraguanas are going to lay eggs and are actively searching for places for nests. The best places for nests are ground areas with loose soil. In some suitable places, terraguana females lay eggs year after year. Having once found a convenient place, the female returns there every year, fiercely attacking competitors who decided to anchor here. Because of the huge lizards, life in the forest becomes simply unbearable. After suffering for several days surrounded by these monsters, the scaly porcupine leaves the forest and rises higher into the mountain desert. Here, among cacti and stones, its congeners roam – they are “refugees” from the forests, displaced from the inhabited territories by the invasion of terraguanas.
Terraguana females do not burden themselves with parental responsibilities for long: they only choose a territory, drive away rivals, arrange nests, bury eggs and leave them. Therefore, the inconveniences they cause to the inhabitants of mountain forests are only temporary. But after the invasion of these lizards, the inhabitants of the forest have a source of affordable and delicious food – the eggs of these reptiles. Perhaps if most of the terraguana nests were not ravaged every year, it would be impossible to live on this island because of the abundance of these predators.
A hole had been dug under the roots of a pine tree. It is not as wide as the burrow of a ground woodpecker, and it is not a mammal or a bird that lives in it. A young terraguana emerges from the burrow. It differs from its adult relatives in a brighter color – it is bright green with brown stripes. With its size, it does not inspire terror to the local inhabitants at all, and even on the contrary, it hides itself from its adult relatives so as not to become their prey. Fearing the cannibalism of adult reptiles, young terraguanas live in mountain forests and migrate to the rain forest, having reached a sufficient length to be able to defend themselves. There is less food in the mountain forest than in the rain forest, but when the adult terraguans leave, young lizards can feast in their nests. A young terraguana looks for a nest arranged by its adult relative by smell. Having found a place where the earth lies in a loose mound, it begins to dig with its front paws. Soon, eggs covered with a leathery shell appear from under a layer of loose earth. The young terraguana grabs the uppermost egg with its mouth and runs away to the side. Having looked around, it tears the shell of the egg and licks its contents dry. Having finished with the egg, it returns to the nest for the next one. The natural resources of the island are limited, so this behavior – cannibalism at all stages of development – regulates the number of predators.
A lizard ravaging the nest of its own relatives is watched from the branches of a tree by pine parakeets. They are also not averse to taking advantage of a free treat, so when terraguana drags away another egg, the parakeets descend from the tree and take an active part in the destruction of the reptile’s clutch.
The life of the inhabitants of Great Antigua is greatly influenced by the riot of natural elements. The Atlantic Ocean is the place where hurricanes, devastating the islands and the southern coast of North America, are born, so the animals from the island have learned to feel the approach of a natural disaster.
Anticipating the revelry of the elements, all living things hide. Terraguana will not be saved from the elements by its ferocity, and scaly porcupines will not be saved by their armor. The hope of salvation for any living creature is a good shelter. When clouds cover the sky, pine parakeets search for a safe haven: they hide in a whole flock in the hollow of an old pine tree, hanging on its walls. Birds snuggle tightly together, and they will be warm and dry even in the worst weather. A scaly porcupine hides in a hole under the roots of a tree upturned by a storm. It deepens the hole, curls up in it and calms down, waiting for the impact of the elements. However, its peace lasts not for long: before a hurricane, land-dwelling crabs living in forest streams moved about madly. They leave their native places and run all over the forest, looking for shelters. Several crabs fall into the pit where the porcupine is hiding. They run around its pit, try to get under the porcupine’s belly and from time to time pinch the beast with their claws if it turns awkwardly. The porcupine does not need such a neighborhood, so the beast gently pushes its restless neighbors away with its head.
The forest seems to be dying out: all living things are waiting for the elements to impact. The birds are silent, and only monkeys are calling to each other somewhere in the treetops. Gradually, the wind rises, and the tree crowns rustle alarmingly, drowning out the voices of living beings. A little more time passes, and it starts to rain. This is not the refreshing light rain that pours daily on Antigua, giving life to plants and animals. The rain falls on the island literally like a bucket. Water falls from the clouds in sheets, and visibility is reduced to several meters. Tight jets erode the soil, and the rivers and streams of the island turn into mad torrents. The water undercuts the roots of several trees, and they fall to the ground with a thunderous crash. Leaves torn from trees fly in the air, and several birds are unsuccessfully trying to resist the elements that are taking them to no one knows where. The rivers of Antigua overflow their banks, flooding the lowlands. The water, brown with clay, foams, bubbles and carries tree trunks and the corpses of drowned animals to the sea.
A family of mangrove marmosets, thoroughly soaked, is sitting on a branch, huddled together and clutching the branch convulsively with their paws. They protect two small cubs, which the male holds on his stomach, from rain and cold. When a hurricane shakes a branch, an adolescent sitting on the edge falls into the water with a plaintive cry. If he gets swept out to sea, he’ll just die. A young monkey is fighting for its life: overcoming the wind and waves, the adolescent monkey swims, gets out on the root of a tree and barely gets to the family.
The fury of nature continues for several days. Despite the catastrophic consequences, hurricanes are one of the factors to which local animals have adapted well. All biological rhythms and behavior of animals are consistent with annual weather changes. So, because of the annual hurricanes, terraguanas make their nests in the mountains, where the eggs will not be flooded with rain.
After a hurricane, many trees in the mountain forests are felled. Palm trees – trees with a relatively weak root system and wide leaves – are particularly affected by hurricanes. Under the palm trees that withstood the impact of elements, there are many nuts knocked down by the rain. The scaly porcupine can finally leave its hiding place and go out to feed. It hadn’t eaten for several days, hiding in its shelter, and now it can satisfy the hunger that has twisted its stomach. Pine parakeets also successfully endured the impact of elements, and now their red breasts are visible among the pine branches. Noticing that the porcupine is gnawing the fruits of palm trees, the birds fly to the ground and wait until some pieces of nut pulp falls out of the rodent’s mouth.
During hurricanes, lowland forests are completely flooded with water, and their inhabitants are forced to escape for several days in the mountains. Several pine parakeets walking near the porcupine suddenly begin to worry. Birds look around anxiously, take off at the same time and notify the rodent of danger with their hoarse voices. But this time the vigilant sentries clearly overdid it: they found not the real danger, but just a herd of mazamaras. Spotted graceful rodents are rare visitors in the mountains. Obviously, this herd had escaped from a flood caused by a hurricane, which is why these beasts appeared here. Animals feel scared when they get into the wrong habitat. Mazamaras constantly sniff and twitch their ears. It is obvious that they are afraid of almost everything in this area. When the scaly porcupine accidentally makes too sudden a movement, a mazamara male with thick white beard utters an alarm signal, and the herd quickly runs away. Mazamaras will not stay in the mountains for long: when the water subsides, they will descend back to their native rainforests.
The consequences of the hurricane are clearly visible in the rainforest. Everywhere on the ground, there are tree trunks that failed to endure the fury of the nature. Each old tree, when falling, tears the vines that connect it with neighboring trees and crushes the seedlings of other trees occupying the undergrowth. For a single tree, this event means death, but for its environment it is a chance for survival. When sunlight penetrates through a huge gap in the dense forest canopy, the surrounding plants begin to grow at breakneck speed, trying to be the first to take the vacant place under the sun.
The ground woodpeckers have safely survived the hurricane, and now they leap along the trunk of a fallen forest giant. With their pointed beaks, birds chip off large pieces of bark, peck rotten wood and scatter “flower baskets” of epiphytic plants, searching for insects. A family pair of woodpeckers safely endured the flood: these birds dug their hole under a tree that stood on a small hill, and the water did not reach the nest very much, although a puddle of water leaked from the soil accumulated at the bottom of their hole. But the most important thing is that the parents managed to save their chicks. The ferocious hungry terraguana could be driven away, but the birds were powerless against the elements. The life and health of juveniles is a worthy reward for caring parents. But sometimes it becomes downright punishment for them: juveniles do not suffer from a lack of appetite, and constantly harass their parents, begging them for food with loud voices. For a few days, adult woodpeckers will have to share food with their offspring too often, but then young birds will have to move on to independent life.
After the hurricane, changes also took place on the coastal reef: the river carried a trunk of a tree, whose roots failed to withstand the test of the elemental forces, into the sea. This trunk sways a hundred meters from the shore, having bumped into the limestone wall of the reef. Under the trunk, and especially in the roots and branches of the dead tree, there is a huge amount of small fish hiding. On the trunk, a lone “Robinson” – a prickly scaly porcupine – sits. During a hurricane, it fell into a raging river and did not die only because of its ability to swim. When the rodent was already losing its last strength, floundering in the water, this very trunk, which the river carried into the sea, became its salvation. So the forest rodent ended up on the reef. As long as the water is high, it has no way to escape. In addition, the tree is unstable on the reef. One strong wave is enough to carry it away to the open sea, and the porcupine will surely die of thirst.
But the tide is turning. The water level gradually decreases, and the tree falls onto the limestone towers of the reef. When the trunk stops swinging underfoot, the prickly scaly porcupine gains confidence. Other inhabitants of the island – reef woodpeckers – fly to the reef from the mangroves. The sight of birds leaping on the tops of the reef encourages the porcupine, and the beast prepares for the difficult journey home. The porcupine carefully walks back and forth along the trunk, then looks around, carefully descends into the water and swims. A flock of fish, frightened by the appearance of such a creature unusual for them, rushes into the shadow of a tree trunk, sparkling with their silver sides. Ignoring them, the scaly porcupine continues on its way. Soon it touches the bottom with its paws. Pushing off with its claws and leaving a path of churned silt behind it, the beast reaches the shore and goes out onto a sandy beach, scaring crabs away. Its deep footprints remain in the sand, and water quickly fills them. Having reached the mangrove forest, the porcupine gets out of the viscous sand on the roots and quickly disappears into the thickets.
Gradually, the tree trunk, swaying near the reef, will become soaked with water and sink to the bottom. But even being dead, it will become a place of accumulation of life for a long time: the wood will be bored by wood-boring crustaceans and shipworms, and at low tide large mangrove woodpeckers will come here to feed. In the meantime, these birds are pecking the trunk of another tree cast ashore. This tree trunk came to Great Antigua from the coast of South America, and during its voyage, “shipworms” managed to occupy it. Birds wield their beaks, chipping off large pieces of worm-eaten wood, pull out and eat these mollusks. Their meal is interrupted by a completely unwanted guest: a huge adult terraguana crawls past the tree. Woodpeckers feel safe: they are watching the reptile, and at any moment they can take off. They mob the reptile, but the lizard completely ignores them and crawls on. Its sense of smell leads it and promises the reptile a feast unprecedented in abundance and luxury.
On the shore lies the carcass of a guest from the depths of the Atlantic – a cachalot shark. It had died a long time ago, and now its body, which had become a toy of the waves, appeared decomposed in great degree. Terraguanas from the forest gather to the carcass of the fish and greedily tear off the skin and meat from its sides. On the top of the carcass, where the terraguanas have not yet climbed, reef woodpeckers leap. Birds peck shark meat and arrange short noisy fights if two birds appear too close to each other. Soon a couple of mangrove woodpeckers join the meal. They drive away their smaller relatives, and begin to fill at a leisurely pace.
Soon the carcass of the shark will be completely eaten, and even the cartilaginous vertebrae of the giant dried in the sun will be pecked and eaten by woodpeckers. The sea and land mutually feed each other, being part of a unite biosphere of the Earth.


Mangrove marmoset (Mangropithecia flava)
Order: Primates (Primates)
Family: Marmosets and Tamarins (Callitrichidae)

Habitat: Great Antigua, mangrove forest.

Picture by Pavel Volkov

Initial image by Alexey Tatarinov

During the Ice Age, the polar caps began to expand from both poles and push the thermophilic fauna into the equatorial regions. At this time, a true “reserve” of the fauna of the past era had been formed at the Caribbean Islands. Rains from the Atlantic provided ample opportunities for the growth of tropical rainforests, and the lowering of the ocean level connected the Caribbean Islands into an almost continuous land bridge over which land-dwelling animals migrated from South America.
There were monkeys among the migrants from South America. Large species of cebid monkeys failed to keep sufficiently large populations, and some local species became extinct completely. But the small marmoset monkeys have become the real owners of the forest canopy at the Caribbean islands. Numerous species and subspecies of these monkeys, often very brightly and bizarrely colored, have formed at the small islands. They usually lead a lifestyle characteristic of their ancestors, but one species among these monkeys has adapted to life in the mangrove forests on the coast of Great Antigua, thus avoiding competition with other primate species.
The mangrove marmoset is a small monkey: a large adult male of this species weighs about 1 kilogram, and the female is even smaller. In its physique, the mangrove marmoset almost does not differ from other species of its family: it has a large rounded head; front and hind legs are of almost the same length. The tail is long (about twice as long as the trunk) and non-prehensile. On the branches and on the ground, these marmosets move on four legs.
The wool has a bright color: golden on the body, reddish-brown on the head. The monkey’s tail is black with a white tip: it performs a signaling function. Descending to the ground, these monkeys keep their tails raised up so that their congeners can see it from afar.
The face of the mangrove marmoset is hairless, covered with smooth pink skin. This monkey species has well-developed facial muscles, and expressive facial expressions complement the sound “vocabulary”. In males, at the moment of irritation or excitement, the face turns red. In addition, males often have dark pigment spots on the skin near the mouth and between the nose and mouth, merging in some individuals into a kind of “mask”.
Mangrove marmoset leads a social lifestyle and lives in families of 5-10 individuals. As a rule, they include a parental couple and their cubs. After reaching puberty, males always leave the group, and females stay longer, and even bring an outside male into the group.
Most primates avoid water, and among the New World monkeys there were no species associated with aquatic biotopes at all. But the mangrove marmoset is not afraid of water and can swim. Its nostrils are placed wide, like in all New World monkeys, but adapted for life in the water. They are slit-like, and can close during the diving.
This species has another adaptation for life in mangrove swamps: it has large kidneys that remove excess salts from the body. But the kidneys cannot fully compensate for the drinking water needs of these monkeys, and mangrove marmosets drink rainwater from the leaves, or go to the rivers to drink.
The diet of mangrove marmosets includes many species of plants and animals that can be found in the mangrove forest. These monkeys usually eat young leaves of mangrove trees, supplementing their diet with fruits. From among foods of animal origin, monkeys prefer crabs, which are hunted at low tide, small marine animals that are gathered in puddles on the littoral zone, and insects living on mangrove trees.
Cubs are born twice a year. Usually they are twins, and often the cubs are of the same sex. The juveniles remain in the group until maturity. Usually, when an adult couple gets old, their cubs on the female line begin to lead the group and “inherit” the parental territory.

Mazamara (Mazamara sylvatica)
Order: Rodents (Rodentia)
Family: Deermaras (Cervimaridae)

Habitat: Great Antigua, rainforests and woodlands.

Picture by Sauron from FurNation

In the early Neocene, about 7-8 million years after the change of epochs, which appeared catastrophic for the fauna of the Earth, changes occurred in the geography of the New World: the Isthmus of Panama sank under water, and the connection between North and South America was disrupted. The faunas of these continents began to develop in isolation, and soon only single common species of birds and other flying animals remained on both continents. But the isolation of the continents was not complete. Two lithospheric plates, the Caribbean and Cocos plates, moving near each other, caused a chain of Antilles to rise from the ocean. A more or less permanent land bridge was formed, using which some species from South America began to penetrate to the north. Via this way, large cursorial deermara rodents (Cervimara) appeared in North America. These animals descended in the Ice Age from the Patagonian mara (Dolichotis) that lived in South America, but in the process of evolution they have changed so much that it is more expedient to classify them as representatives of a separate family related to the cavy family (Caviidae), to which the mara belonged.
Some migrants chose to stay on the islands, adapting to their new environment. Among them, there were deermaras also. When the climate became more favorable and humid, the herbaceous vegetation had been superseded by the shrubs, and then they had been replaced by a continuous selva. The cursorial animals of the plains adapted to these changes and became very small. So the mazamara – a forest-dwelling cursorial rodent from Great Antigua – appeared.
Mazamara is a tiny creature of graceful constitution. In its appearance, it resembles an antelope, but it weighs only about 5 kilograms and reaches a height of only 40 cm at the withers. Mazamara has a long neck, and the head in profile seems somewhat heavy because of the thick “beard”, especially well-developed in males. The legs of this rodent are thin, and the claws have turned into a kind of hooves. There are three hooves on the front leg, and two ones on the back. Mazamara runs fast and is able to make high jumps – up to 2 meters in height from the spot.
Mazamaras live in dense tropical forests and feed on relatively soft food. They eat fallen tree fruits, mushrooms and leaves of large forest grasses. The small weight and sharp hooves allow this rodent to even climb the sloping trunks of trees undercut by the river current. Due to the diet consisting of soft forest plants, the incisors of the mazamara grow much slower than those of its relatives from the plains, that eat hard cereals “flavored” with sand.
The lifestyle also left another imprint on the appearance of mazamara. Its color has become much brighter and more contrasting than that of its large plain relatives. The general coat color of the mazamara is reddish-brown. Cheeks, muzzle tip, chin and thick “beard” are white. A black stripe stretches along the sides of the muzzle from the nostril through the eye to the base of the ear, separating the white and brown areas on the head. The chest and belly are white; there are rounded white spots on the sides. Due to this coloring, mazamaras are difficult to distinguish among shadows and rays of light in the undergrowth.
These rodents live in small herds – 1-2 males and about a dozen females and cubs. Animals communicate with each other using sounds similar to the cooing of pigeons. The alarm call is similar to the yapping of a small dog.
2 times a year, the female gives birth to one cub, which can follow the mother a few minutes after birth. The cub differs from adult animals in darker coloration and fewer spots. It feeds on milk until the age of one month, but from the first days of life it tastes adult animal food. Mazamara has preserved the feeding posture characteristic of its ancestors: the nursing female sits on her hind legs, and the cub sucks milk while lying on its stomach.
At the age of four months, the young mazamara reaches a weight of 3.5-4 kg. Half-year-old females can bear offspring.

Mountain scaly porcupine (Squamodermus setosus)
Order: Rodents (Rodentia)
Family: New World porcupines (Erethizontidae)

Habitat: Great Antigua, montane dry forests.
Among the migrants used the Antillean Land Bridge to settle from South America, there were wood porcupines – slow tree-climbing rodents. This was their second attempt to colonize the north: in the Pleistocene and Holocene in North America, wood porcupines lived, that settled there earlier. During the Ice Age, the ranges of many northern species shifted to the south, so the new settlers encountered representatives of the previous wave of migration. Competition with them did not allow the southern wood porcupines to settle further north. When the Antillean Land Bridge broke up into separate islands, South American wood porcupines appeared in isolation and began to evolve into new species. Dwarf species of them appeared on small islands, and on the Great Antigua island, the evolution gave rise to a remarkable species that differs from both northern and southern continental species.
In the conditions of island isolation, porcupines from Great Antigua had got a very peculiar feature: their spikes transformed into wide pointed corneous plates similar to knife blades. Between them, however, there are separate spikes and relatively thin long hair. Defending itself, the scaly porcupine raises its scales and shakes its whole body. The edges of the scales are sharp, and an attacking predator can get multiple incised wounds from this rodent.
The mountain scaly porcupine left the humid tropical forests of the lowlands and moved to the dry forests in the mountains and the western part of Great Antigua. It also broke with its previous habits: now it is a ground-dwelling rodent that can weigh up to 20 kg.
The physique of the mountain scaly porcupine is robust: it has a large head, short legs and a powerful barrel-shaped body. The paws of the mountain scaly porcupine are equipped with pointed claws. The tail of this rodent is long, but not prehensile, like in its ancestors. It serves another important purpose: fat stock is accumulated in it.
The scales of this beast cover the back, sides, hips and the base of the tail. There is also a cover of thick scales on the crown and back of its head. The scaly porcupine has a characteristic menacing posture: it turns its head towards the enemy and stands on its hind legs, grumbling loudly. At this moment, the scales on its head are raised and erect. If the enemy does not retreat, the porcupine falls on four legs and strikes the aggressor with its head with a swift rush.
The body color of different individuals varies from straw yellow to brown. Scales can have different coloration: dark with white tips or vice versa, cross-striped and monochrome.
During molting, the old scales are gradually replaced by new ones. During this period, scaly porcupines are especially dangerous: the scales set not firmly in the skin and easily remain in wounds, causing severe suppuration. The scales do not change at the same time, so the porcupine is ready to repel the enemy at any moment. It usually gets rid of old scales by wallowing on the ground or among bushes. Shedding porcupines are very fond of scratching themselves against trees. In their favorite places, it is often possible to find the scales of this rodent stuck in the bark or soil.
Mountain scaly porcupine feeds on roots and grass. It prefers to live in dry sparse forests formed by pines and low-growing palms. With its strong teeth, the porcupine can easily open the hard nuts of palms and chew the seeds of pine trees, getting to their oily contents.
Once a year, the female bears offspring. There is one cub in the litter that is born well-developed and sighted. After drying off, it can immediately follow its mother. The newborn is covered only with short fur. Approximately at the 3rd day after birth, spikes begin to erupt, and at the age of one month, scales grow – at first narrow, then wider ones. A three-month-old cub is already completely independent, and at the age of 18-20 months it becomes fully adult.
Smaller related porcupine species inhabit neighboring islands:
Dwarf scaly porcupine (Squamodermus nanus) is a very small species of scaly porcupines: it weighs only 1.7-2 kg. It is characterized by a dark coat color, from which light, brownish-white scales protrude. The scales are sharper on the sides, and thicker and stronger on the back. The tail is about one and a half times the length of the body. Several parallel rows of scales run along the tail. This species has preserved the arboreal lifestyle characteristic of its ancestors, inhabiting palm groves of the Lesser Antilles. When attacked by a predator, this porcupine sits across a branch and wraps its tail around it, anchoring itself firmly. With the tip of its tail, it covers its head lowered to the branch. It behaves in the same way during hurricanes, tightly clinging to the leaves of palm trees.
This species feeds mainly on the oily fruits of palm trees.
Prickly scaly porcupine (Squamodermus semperspinosus) is an inhabitant of Great Antigua and some neighboring islands. This rodent is relatively large: it weighs up to 8 kg with a total length of about one meter. Being exclusively terrestrial animal, it prefers humid habitats: wetlands and riverbanks. This rodent species can swim well. The tail is short; there is a rudimentary swimming membrane on the paws between the digits.
It feeds on rhizomes and tender leaves of amphibious grasses and often escapes from predators in the water.
Porcupines of this species are distinguished by scales of a special shape: the tip of the scale is thin and curved upwards. When the scales are pressed against the body, their tips stick out, protecting the animal from attacks of terrestrial predators. The tail is naked; the body is covered with scales on the sides and back. There are only some small scales on the back of the head.

Caribbean pine parakeet (Pinopsitta caraibica)
Order: Parrots (Psittaciformes)
Family: Holotropical parrots (Psittacidae), subfamily Neotropical parrots (Araini).

Habitat: montane forests of Great Antigua.
In the Holocene, the West Indies was one of the centers of the greatest species diversity of birds. During the Ice Age, the islands became a refuge for birds from the tropics of the Americas, crowded by ice caps coming from the poles. On the islands of the West Indies, representatives of such typically forest groups of tropical birds as trogons, cuckoos, suboscine passerine birds and parrots survived the Ice Age.
One of the bird species from Great Antigua is the Caribbean pine parakeet. It is a small bird, slightly larger than a sparrow, except for the tail. Its total length (with a long pointed tail) is about 30 cm. This parakeet is brightly colored: the back is green with a large red spot on the chest; there are white spots under the wings, noticeable when the bird takes off or flaps its wings. There are rings of white bare skin around the eyes.
The male and female of this species differ well in the color of the beak: the upper mandible of birds of both sexes is coffee-brown, and the lower mandible is pink in males and white in females.
The upper mandible is noticeably longer and thinner than the lower mandible. The lower jaw serves as a kind of “anvil” for crushing seeds. The Caribbean pine parakeet has adapted to kind of food that other parrot species are reluctant to eat. Its main food is small hard seeds of woody plants. This parrot peels dry capsules of trees and deftly takes seeds from pine cones. Pine seeds are one of the favorite foods of the pine parrot. Because of them, meat of this bird acquires a resinous smell, and predators are reluctant to catch these birds, preferring other prey. In case of a poor harvest of pine seeds, this parakeet can migrate to tropical forests, but it does not nest there and does not stay for a long time.
The pine parakeet, like most species of the order, is a sociable social bird. It keeps in flocks of 10-20 birds. Inside each flock, there are formed permanent pairs of adult birds that breed regularly. At the time of nesting, the flocks break up.
Nest is arranged in a hollow; clutch numbers of up to 5 eggs. The female incubates mainly, but both parents take care of the chicks. The chicks stay in the nest for about a month, then their parents feed them for another two weeks. Families of parrots with grown-up juveniles unite in flocks and roam until the next nesting season.
This species has developed an interesting behavior: the pine parakeet can provide scaly porcupines with cleaning services. Birds wishing to clean the porcupine descend from the tree and attract the “client” by vocalization and displaying of bright spots on the stomach. Cleaning porcupine from parasites, pine parakeets simply eat them, filling the need for animal proteins.

Mangrove woodpecker (Thalassopicus mangrophilus)
Order: Woodpeckers (Piciformes)
Family: Woodpeckers (Picidae)

Habitat: mangrove forests of the Atlantic coast of America, Great Antigua, Lesser Antilles.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

What about a woodpecker at the seashore? It may seem unusual, but only at first glance. Where there are mangroves, there are, for example, monkeys – forest-dwelling animals. And in Neocene, when the climate became much warmer and the range of mangroves expanded, the development of mangrove forests became a solution of the problem of survival for many species that had not previously been found in these biotopes.
In late Holocene, when a wave of glaciation covered a significant part of North America, many species migrated to the south of the continent in search of suitable habitats. The ocean level has dropped, and areas that were previously shallow seas have turned into land. The area of the Caribbean islands has increased, and some migrants from the north managed to find their way to salvation in the south. Among them, were some species of North American woodpeckers. They have found their new home at the vast Great Antigua island. There were forests and a lot of food. But over time, the ocean level began to rise – the glaciers were melting. The collision of the Caribbean lithospheric plate with the North American plate gradually increasing in the Atlantic zone compensated for the immersion of island in water, but all the same, the area of Great Antigua decreased compared to that during the Ice Age. This event intensified the competition between forest dwellers, and some species faced a choice: to change their place of residence, or to die out. So, one woodpecker species had mastered a biotope new for these birds: mangrove forest zone, where it had evolved into several more species that have flourished in Neocene.
Mangrove woodpecker is a very large species among the woodpeckers: its wingspan reaches one meter. It is a bird of a characteristic “woodpecker” appearance, with a pointed tail of stiff feathers, of black and white coloration. The body is almost entirely black from above: there are only white markings on the wings, and the primary feathers are striated. The belly is entirely white. Against the background of the plumage, the red head of the bird with white “cheeks” stands out as a bright spot. Beak is black.
This bird feeds on wood-boring bivalves (so-called “shipworms”) that settle in the roots of mangrove trees and on floating wood. Having found a tree or coconut cast ashore, the bird explores it, looking for wood-boring invertebrates. Usually, the mangrove woodpecker keeps among mangrove trees, very rarely leaving such a safe place, protected by impassable swamps and a dense palisade of branches. At high tide, this bird feeds on insects living in the crowns of mangrove trees, and at low tide it moves down to the roots, where the mangrove woodpecker’s favorite food – wood-boring bivalves – lives. Their presence can be easily recognized: below the average tide level, round holes are drilled in the roots of plants. At high tide, the respiratory siphons of mollusks protrude from them. Having discovered the holess of the “shipworms”, the bird opens the root with blows of its strong beak. With strong blows, the bird chops off large chips from the root, and finally gets the desired food. The woodpecker swallows this mollusk together with its rudimentary shell, which is digested in bird’s stomach.
Adult woodpeckers of this species live in family pairs that persist for life. The mangrove woodpecker is a very territorial species. Each pair occupies a vast area of mangrove forest and actively protects it from its congeners. A pair of birds claims the rights to the territory with vocalization similar to hoarse laughter. Often the birds vocalize in duet, replacing each other in turns, and their voices last for ten to fifteen minutes almost continuously. If a stranger appears on the territory, the couple expels it, acting together and accompanying the attacks with menacing calls and flapping wings. Threatening their rivals, adult birds bristle red feathers on their heads, which makes them seem much larger.
Mangrove woodpeckers nest twice a year. A barchelor male, which is going to start a family for the first time, occupies a free territory, or expels a competitor from it. He carefully surveys his territory, choosing trees suitable for nesting. Another condition for its success is a good “musical” snag, resonating under the blows of its beak. On such snag, the male diligently drums mating invitations with his beak. If he is attractive to the female, she stays on his territory. The couple declares to possible competitors for some time that the rights to this area of mangroves are occupied: in the morning and in the evening, the birds vocalize for a long time. If the pair has formed successfully, the birds begin to build a nest.
For nesting, woodpeckers choose large mangrove trees located in the most inaccessible areas of the thickets. A couple hollows out together a large cavern (up to 15 cm in diameter and up to one meter deep), in which they rear two or three chicks. The eggs lie on a litter of wood dust, and the birds take turns incubating them for two weeks. Chicks hatch blind and covered with sparse down. They fledge completely at about five weeks of age, and then leave the nest. For about one more week they wander around the parental territory with their parents, and then their childhood ends: adult birds drive the grown offspring away. After about two to three weeks, adult birds nest a second time per season. There are no more than two eggs in the second clutch.
Young birds differ from adults in that the red color on their head is replaced by black. Due to this, they can feed relatively unpunished on the territory of adult birds. In the second year of life, they become adults, and red feathers begin to grow on their heads.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

A similar species lives along the Pacific coast of North America – the black-bearded mangrove woodpecker (Thalassopicus melanobarbus), differing by the black color of the throat and lower part of the head, as well as a brown back. It is less specialized in nutrition, and willingly feeds on any marine animals that can be found on the shallows at low tide.

Reef-dwelling, or oyster-catching woodpecker (Nanothalassopicus ostreophagus)
Order: Woodpeckers (Piciformes)
Family: Woodpeckers (Picidae)

Habitat: mangrove forests on the Atlantic coast of America, Great Antigua, Lesser Antilles.
The scattering of Caribbean islands with extensive coastal shoals and a long coastline provides abundant food for a variety of living creatures, both marine and terrestrial ones. Avoiding the competition, which has intensified due to rising ocean levels and a reduction in the area of forests on the islands and on the mainland, some woodpeckers have successfully mastered life in the coastal mangrove forests.
At low tide at the mollusk-built reefs of the Caribbean Sea, it is possible to meet agile birds scurrying along the tops of oyster beds that have emerged from the water. This is one more species of “marine” woodpeckers – the reef-dwelling woodpecker. For its predilection for shellfish meat, it received another name – oyster-catching woodpecker. Although, of course, not only shellfish make up its diet: it also willingly eats worms and crustaceans that hide in the crevices of the reef.
The reef-dwelling woodpecker is a relatively small woodpecker species: it is only a starling-sized bird. The pattern of the plumage of this bird is quite mottled: it is entirely barred, brown-and-white. The head is somewhat darker, and the brown stripes on the belly are narrower and denser. In its physique, this woodpecker is similar to its forest-dwelling relatives.
The beak of the reef-dwelling woodpecker is relatively long and thin. This feature is connected to its diet: the bird eats marine invertebrates hidden in the cracks of the reef. The woodpecker has a peculiar biorhythm consistent with the time of high and low tide. These woodpeckers spend the time of high tide in mangroves and rest. And with the outflow, the birds already fly to feed. They gather one or several birds at a time on the tops of reefs exposed at low tide, and as the water subsides, they begin to descend onto the reef, probing cracks and crevices with their beaks. Having found small bivalves, the bird opens their shells with beak blows. Also, this woodpecker attacks old mollusks whose muscles are not strong enough to restrain the blows of the bird’s beak. The favorite food of reef woodpeckers is shrimp. If these crustaceans get into a shallow puddle at low tide, the reef-dwelling woodpecker can easily catch and eat them. The coccygeal gland of this bird is well developed, so the plumage does not get wet, even if a random wave sweeps over the woodpecker. This woodpecker receives much more salts with its food than its forest-dwelling relatives. Therefore, the kidneys of the reef-dwelling woodpecker are relatively large.
When the inflow comes in, the birds leave the reefs and fly away to rest. They are relatively tolerant of each other during the rest, but when feeding and during the nesting season, each bird or pair jealously protects its lands from relatives.
After storms, reef woodpeckers, alongside with other seabirds, explore the coasts in search of fish and other marine animals washed up by the sea. Due to their pugnacious nature and pointed strong beak, they have significant advantages in prey sharing.
Pairs of reef woodpeckers are formed for one season, and the birds manage to make up to three clutches together. The couple makes a nest in a hollow, choosing trees in the forest closer to the coast. Nesting birds fly to feed alternately. The clutch numbers up to 6-8 eggs; chicks hatch 10 days later. After 4 weeks, they leave the nest and feed for a while on the parental territory. When they become completely independent, the parents drive them away and begin the next nesting cycle.
A close species – snail-eating woodpecker (Nanothalassopicus cochleophagus) – lives in the same places as the reef-dwelling woodpecker, but prefers to forage in the coastal zone, not going far out to sea. It is larger (pigeon-sized) and has a shorter and thicker beak, gray upper body plumage and a barred gray-and-white chest. This species feeds on snails and crabs, hunting them in the mangrove forest at low tide. Examining the roots of mangrove trees and rocks exposed at low tide, the snail-eating woodpecker tears them off the substrate with its powerful beak. Sometimes this bird hunts crabs like a hawk: it looks out for them from an ambush in the bushes, and chases them by attacking from the air. The bird kills the crab with a sharp blow of its beak, trying to immediately pierce the nerve center. The snail-eating woodpecker drags the found snails and crabs to the fork of the branches, where it pinches them and pecks their shells. Such places, that are similar, in essence, to the “working places” of woodpeckers known to people, are easily detected by the remains of shells and shells. It nests in the forest near mangroves.

Giant ground woodpecker (Antiguapicus apterus)
Order: Woodpeckers (Piciformes)
Family: Ground, or Antiguan woodpeckers (Antiguapicidae)

Habitat: Great Antigua, from mountain forests to tropical rainforest.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

Evolution goes on much faster at the islands than at the continent. The phenomena of isolation and gene drift are more pronounced here, and some free ecological niches are almost always available. Sometimes island-dwelling animals are remarkable in the quirkiness of their forms and unexpected directions of adaptation.
On the Great Antigua island, thermophilic species, which managed to migrate here from the continents (mostly from South America, although North American species also have their descendants here), found refuge from the glacier Among the inhabitants of this island, there are numerous woodpeckers, which are richly present in the New World fauna. Several species of woodpeckers have adapted to forage at the sea coasts, but one more species, although it has not broken with its former habitats, has also changed its way of life. It is the giant ground woodpecker. It became very large and lost the flight ability. The peculiarities of its anatomy and behavior distinguish it from other woodpeckers so deep, that it forms its own family.
This woodpecker is the largest species in its order: this bird weighs up to 3 kilograms and is a chicken-sized one. It is unable to fly; its wings are reduced, although they have not completely disappeared, because they play a special role in the life of the bird: they are used to keep balance during the movement. On the ground, this woodpecker moves by jumps, balancing with half-open wings: like all representatives of its order, it cannot walk, moving its legs alternately. Despite this feature, the bird has not lost the mobility and dexterity characteristic of its ancestors: a giant ground woodpecker can climb up sloping tree trunks, clinging with its claws. Its legs are relatively long; the first and fourth toes (turned back) are shorter than the second and third ones; the claws are relatively thick and short. The tail has lost the function of support, and its feathers have a peculiar shape: the feather shafts have become longer and thicker. Their tips protrude from the feather vane, forming spikes. The tail of this woodpecker turned from a support device into a weapon protecting the bird from a sudden attack from behind.
The plumage pattern is barred: narrow transverse stripes run on the yellowish-brown background. The stripes on the wings are wider, which makes the wings look darker. This coloration pattern helps the bird to disguise itself perfectly. In case of danger, this woodpecker hides in the grass, crouching to the ground.
On the throat and chest of adult bird, there is a red longitudinal “tie” stripe. It is formed of slightly elongated feathers. The male’s “tie” is longer than the female’s one: in females it rarely reaches the middle of the neck. During the courtship display or when threatening rivals, the male rises and pushes aside the feathers of the “tie”, which makes it seem much larger and noticeable from afar.
The beak of the ground woodpecker is large and strong. The tongue is very long: it can protrude from the mouth to 20 cm. The anatomical features inherited from its forest ancestors allowed the bird to master a peculiar ecological niche: the giant ground woodpecker feeds on ants and termites. Termites are famous for their ability to erect extra strong buildings, which in human times did not immediately succumb even to iron tools. The ground woodpecker copes with this obstacle perfectly, cracking termite mounds with beak blows. After opening the insect tunnels, the woodpecker sticks its long tongue into them, and the crawling insects stick to it.
In addition to social insects, this woodpecker willingly eats other food of animal origin: large solitary insects, spiders, small vertebrates and even carrion and the remains of prey from various predators.
The giant ground woodpecker is an aggressive and courageous bird: if there is no way to hide or escape, it attacks an enemy significantly larger than it is and inflicts deep puncture wounds with its beak. The attack is accompanied by loud screams.
Sexual maturity comes at the age of two years. A breeding pair of this species is formed for several seasons. The ground woodpecker nests in burrows, which a pair of birds digs together under the roots of trees, using their beak and legs. The burrow initially is directed up, then abruptly turns down, forming a “mine”, at the bottom of which eggs lie without litter. There is up to 5 eggs in the clutch; both parents incubate them alternately. Chicks hatch after two weeks of incubation. They are naked and blind, but they quickly fledge and leave the burrow after 3 weeks. Juveniles keep in a group in a dense bush, and one of the parents is constantly watching them, being nearby. If necessary, it is ready to attack any animal that gets too close to the brood. When young birds are fully fledged, parents begin to regard them as competitors, and soon drive them away from their territory.
The color of the plumage of young birds is the same as that of adults, but it lacks red “tie”. It will appear only at the time of puberty.

Terraguana (Terraguana monstrosa)
Order: Squamates (Squamata), suborder Lizards (Lacertilia)
Family: Iguanas (Iguanidae)

Habitat: Great Antigua, forests from mountainous ones to rainforests.

Picture by Alexey Tatarinov

During the Ice Age, the temperature contrast between the polar and equatorial regions increased on Earth. The climate has become more arid, and large areas of grasslands have appeared in the equatorial regions. In such conditions, the number of mammals decreased, but reptiles gained a great advantage. In some places of the Earth, they have achieved success and even turned into the dominant species in their ecosystems. This trend is especially evident in the isolated island worlds.
In Great Antigua, the situation that took place on Komodo Island in Indonesia during the human era had been approximately repeated. In the Holocene, a giant monitor lizard – the largest predator of the island – lived at that island. In Great Antigua, the top of the food pyramid is also crowned by a reptile – it is terraguana, a huge predatory iguana reaching four meters in length and weighing more than 200 kilograms.
The ancestor of the terraguana is one species of ground-dwelling iguanas of the Cyclura genus, widespread in the Holocene across the Caribbean Islands. In the hot climate of the equatorial zone, they gained an advantage over mammals, which are less hardy in high temperatures. In Great Antigua, in the absence of large ground-dwelling predators, these iguanas have adapted to feeding on large animals, occupying the ecological niche of monitor lizards and large snakes.
Terraguana looks like a large monitor lizard – the similarity in lifestyle affects. It has a slightly flattened body, a large head with strong jaws, and its tail is covered with longitudinal rows of large relief scales forming an excellent shock weapon. Along the back the crest of horny thorns characteristic of many iguanas stretches.
Jaws of the terraguana are relatively short, equipped with sharp leaf-shaped teeth.
The tail makes a little more than half the total length of the reptile. It is the main weapon of terraguana used for attack. Terraguanas, like other lizards, are not able to chase prey for a long time, so they hunt from ambush and overtake prey with a single rush. Usually, the terraguana hides in the bushes or in the tall grass and patiently waits for the prey. When an animal of a suitable size approaches, the reptile attacks it. It grabs small animals with its mouth, but the reptile uses a different tactic against large prey items. Attacking a large animal, the reptile knocks the prey down with a blow of its tail, then turns around, snatches the fallen animal with its teeth and holds it in a death grip until the prey dies.
Body coloration helps terraguana hide. The reptile’s skin is colored gray-brown with vertical green stripes.
In their way of life, terraguanas are solitary creatures. Each lizard occupies a certain territory, which it protects from its congeners. If two lizards meet at the border of their territories, they begin to display themselves to each other. They rise on their paws, darken and inflate the gular sacs, demonstratively opening their mouths. Usually it doesn’t come to a duel, and the weaker lizard leaves without a fight. But if two approximately equal rivals meet, especially males in the mating season, the fight cannot be avoided. At first, the rivals evaluate each other’s force: they approach head to head, stand at the small angle to each other, and begin swinging their tails. At this time, they hiss menacingly and shake their heads from side to side. If it is not possible to determine the strongest one in this way, the fight can go for real. Pouncing on each other, the reptiles roll in the grass, scratching each other with their claws. Teeth do not go into use – they can cause serious wounds to each other. Adult males sometimes sport a grid of white scars covering their sides.
Terraguana reproduces like other reptiles: the female lays eggs in a hole up to half a meter deep, dug in loose forest soil, buries the nest and does not return to it anymore. There are up to 50 large eggs (of the size of a goose egg) in a clutch.
After 2 months, young lizards up to 30 cm long hatch from the eggs. They differ from adult relatives in a brighter color: they are bright green with narrow brown stripes. With age, the brown stripes expand, and the lizard gets an adult coloration.
The offspring differ from adult reptiles not only in color, but also in behavior: the juveniles often climb trees and feed on small arboreal animals. This weakens competition with adult relatives and protects them against attacks of adult reptiles. Gradually, with age, the terraguana ceases to climb trees and turns into a completely terrestrial reptile.
Most reptiles of this species die at an early age, falling prey of predatory animals and birds. Also, clutches are often ravaged. However, the surviving terraguans can live up to 80-100 years.


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