Tour to Neocene


31. The land of stones and dust



Edited by Timothy Donald Morris

The Middle Eastern lands in the Neocene period remained similar to the world that was known to people 25 million years before that time in many ways. But still, during the absence of people there significant transformations of the Earth’s crust have occurred here. The movement of Africa and the Arabian Plate to the northwest “closed” the Red Sea, and young mountains now rise in place of the Persian Gulf. This area is seismically active – earthquakes are frequent here, and volcanic eruptions sometimes occur.
The weather is still dry here in summer, although in winter it rains much more often than before. The climate of these lands is largely determined by the peculiarities of the surrounding areas. From the south, these places are washed by the Indian Ocean, and from the north – by huge brackish landlocked Fourseas lake. The vast salt marshes of the Mediterranean lowlands stretch to the west, and the Himalayan Mountains stretch to the east.
In winter, cold northern winds bring rains from the Fourseas, giving moisture necessary for plant growth. Here, trees and grasses fall into a dormant state in summer: the above-ground part of the grasses dies off, and the foliage of the trees is very thinning. It is easier for plants to keep alive in this way, when the sun heats up this area like a huge frying pan.
The west wind here has its own special bitter-salty taste: it carries clouds of salt from the salt marshes of the Mediterranean lowlands, so the flora of the western regions of the Middle East is rich in plants resistant to the accumulation of salts in the soil. In the mountains, where the salt carried by the wind cannot get, dense evergreen forests of tree-like junipers, cypresses, pines, plane trees and laurels grow. In humid river valleys, there are thickets of poplars and willows. A significant part of the mountain slopes is covered with shrubs and grasses, but especially steep slopes lack vegetation cover.
Many herbs in arid climates have developed a special structure to survive the hot summer: they have tubers and bulbs. Such plants spend the summer months at rest, without wasting moisture reserves. But at the end of winter and at the beginning of spring, they begin their rapid growth.
At this time, even seemingly bare and lifeless rocky slopes transform: after heavy warm rains, grasses grow in a few days. Long leaves of onions and cereals, fluffy incised leaves of poppy and tall stems of lilies – all vegetation tries to make the most of a short time that is especially favorable for growth.
At this time, the dull brown, gray and yellowish shades of the surrounding landscape are replaced by bright colors. Against the background of juicy greenery, large scarlet poppy flowers, on which bees and beetles stained with abundant pollen swarm, look spectacular. Butterflies and bees carefully visit the pink globular inflorescences of onions of various species, harvesting abundant nectar. In the spring, a dull landscape becomes brightly colored, but all this splendor does not last very long – at the beginning of summer, many plants will complete their vegetation and hide underground until next spring.
The inhabitants of the mountains, taking advantage of the short season of abundance of food, try to make the most of this time. Some of them have a mating season in the spring, while others give birth to cubs.
In a mountain valley among the bushes, the armored back of some rather large four-legged creature is moving. From time to time it stops, and the branches of the bushes begin to move – a mysterious inhabitant of the mountains feeds on young leaves. Gradually, the creature comes out of the thicket, and now it can be seen in details. It has a broad flat body resting upon thick clawed paws, a very large head and a short wide tail. The entire body of the creature is covered with transverse belts of bone plates, protecting it from enemies, but at the same time allowing it to move freely. When the creature yawns, it is seen that its mouth is very wide, but the teeth are small and are of the same conical shape. This is a reptile – a large pangolizard.
After looking around, the pangolizard continues browsing the foliage of shrubs. At this time, the amazing tail of this creature becomes noticeable – being wide and short, it is bordered from the edges with long scales sticking out to the sides, like a peacock’s tail. Without these scales, the tail and head of the pangolizard could easily be confused. But this is a male, and its tail scales are especially well-developed.
A second male comes out of the bushes. Noticing the opponent, the male browsed the foliage calmly, transformed: he rose up his short tail so that it became even more like a peacock’s one. Having raised his head, he inflated the bright striped gular sac and turned to his opponent, squinting at him with one eye. The rival also began to display his force and power – it’s the courtship season now, and no one needs extra competitors.
Two armored creatures are circling each other, as if dancing a waltz. But each of them literally hypnotizes the opponent with its look. Sometimes they open their mouths, intimidating a competitor with a loud hiss. The alien male is smaller, and he soon gives up: he lowers his head and tail, tucks his paws under his body and closes his eyes. When the winner approaches, the defeated one displays the highest degree of submission: he curls up into a ball. Clutching his head with his paws, he covers it with his tail, using it as if a lid. The plates along the edge of the tail are movable: there are muscles at their bases. They work like latches, holding the lizard in a curled shape without unnecessary effort. The winning reptile simply rolls the defeated competitor out of its territory like a ball, hitting it with its head and pushing with its sides.
The aggression of the pangolizard male is easy to understand: there is a female eating grass in the thickets not far from here. She’s not ready to mate yet, but the breeding season is coming soon, and there’s simply no need for extra males next to her. This pangolizard is slightly more robust than the male, and its throat has not so contrast coloration. From time to time, the male approaches her and tries to impress her by displaying a brightly colored throat and a fan-like tail. But the female only turns away from him, or even tries to bite the groom too. However, the sun warms hotter and hotter, accelerating the life processes of reptiles, and soon she will accept the male’s courtship.
Arid and hot areas are a paradise on earth for reptiles of various species. In this area they are very numerous, and some of their species have got a completely unexpected appearance.
A shrill, rolling trill is heard from the branches of one of the bushes. In response, the same sound is heard from a nearby bush. It is seen how a certain creature jumps among the branches. But it’s not a cricket or a grasshopper – the size of this animal is too big for an insect. When the creature climbs to the highest branch, it becomes clear that it is a vertebrate animal. It has large, shiny eyes, a broad flat head and tenacious limbs. The animal’s hind legs are much longer than the front ones: may it be some kind of frog? But what should it do in arid terrain in the midday heat? Any frog would dry up in the sun and die here in half an hour. But this animal feels great in the sun. It is not alone here: when a clumsy pangolizard wanders through the bushes, several creatures of the same kind jump out from under its feet. At this time, their resemblance to frogs increases to an extreme: they escape from the pangolizard with long jumps. One of these creatures jumps up on a sun-warmed stone, and it is possible to examine it closer. The body of this creature is covered with scales, and it has a short straight tail sticking out from behind. This creature is a lizard – a desert froglizard.
Loud trills are uttered by males of this species, claiming their rights to the territory. Having climbed on the highest branches of the chosen bushes, the desert froglizard males call, trying to attract females of their kind. To be more noticeable, they shake branches on which they are sitting. Froglizard females see such males, and prefer to mate with the one who vocalizes louder – such a heartbreaker has a larger territory, and he is much stronger than rivals. In addition, it occupies the safest place – in the middle of a thicket of bushes. This is very important in order to stay alive: sometimes exceptionally unwanted guests come to the males’ voices.
A large grey bird was hiding among the rocks. Its round yellow eye is closely watching the thickets, where the desert froglizard males swing on the branches like tiny monkeys. The leg muscles are tense – the bird is ready to rush at the proper moment. But for now, it’s waiting.
The courtship season of the froglizards is in full swing: the air is filled with the chirping of the males’ voices, and the females are moving between the bushes with jumps or a strange clumsy trot. Near some bushes, where especially vociferous beaus sit, crowds of their female fans gather. Lizards are engrossed in courtship games, and it seems that none of them are watching the surroundings.
The lizards paid severely for their carelessness: a gray bird, which had been watching them for a long time, jumped out from behind the stones. On its long legs, it rushed straight at the gathered froglizards, who noticed the appearance of the predator only at the last moment.
Escaping from a predator, the froglizard relies heavily on its speed, but, like most lizards, tries to find a suitable shelter from the enemy. Its muscles are not able to work for a long time – it is a common feature of all reptiles. Therefore, making long jumps, the desert froglizard tries to find some kind of shelter. But their pursuer can run tirelessly for a long time – birds have powerful red muscles on their legs.
Froglizards make desperate jumps, trying to escape from the feathered monster. Some of them manage to hide under bushes, others get into holes. One froglizard failed to escape: a powerful blow of the beak knocks the reptile down in a jump, and an already dead body falls to the ground.
One of the reptiles found an excellent shelter in a narrow gap between the rocks, but the bird’s keen eye noticed it when the desert froglizard wedged into the shelter, convulsively twitching its hind legs. The long-legged bird walked around the rocks, peering into the crevice with one eye. Then it jumped on a rock and tried to roll the next one away from it with its leg. But the bird’s strength is clearly not enough to push apart the weighty cobblestones. Therefore, the feathered predator leaves the froglizard alone, at least for today. The bird roams the battlefield, searching for the killed prey. The attack was not very successful: it managed to get only one jumping lizard.
When a large gray bird finds it, it is possible to guess from what ancestor it inherited the manner of eating prey. Standing on one leg, the bird brings the prey to its beak, and begins to pinch off small pieces of meat from it. In the same way, its ancestors – gallinules (Porphyrio), wading birds of the Holocene epoch – ate food. This large bird – garuda – is their descendant. It prefers to search for prey on the ground, although it flies well, and can even search for carrion, like a vulture, hovering in the updrafts. But while small prey is plentiful, the bird does not need to fly – it quickly catches up with small mammals and reptiles, running fast. Sometime in the Early Cenozoic, ancient gruiform birds made the same evolutionary path, turning into Phorusracidae – flightless predators of South and North America. These birds flourished for many millions of years, and had become extinct on Earth only shortly before the appearance of Homo sapiens.
In the Neocene, similar birds appeared in Eurasia. The largest of them live in the grasslands, occupying the ecological niche of the wolf and cheetah, and the garuda, the smallest species of running birds of prey, lives in the mountains. It is not profitable to be large here – it would be very difficult for a giant to move over rough terrain, and prey is not so abundant here: large animals are relatively rare. The main food of garuda consists of small mammals and reptiles.
Despite the hunting by feathered predators, desert froglizards survive and even thrive. This lizard species is one of the most numerous in this area.
Spring is in full swing, and desert froglizards begin egg laying. In some places, the trills of males can still be heard, but most females are no longer interested in them, searching for places for egg laying. Different species of lizards lay eggs in different places. Geckos prefer to hide them under the bark of trees and in tree-trunk hollows; other lizards simply bury them in the ground. But the froglizards found an excellent incubator for their posterity – the leaves of one of the most interesting plants of the mountain desert.
On the rocky slopes green leaf fans of one of the most important plants in this area grow. These leaves can serve as a real compass: they are arranged almost exactly in the same plane along the north-south line. It protects them from the hottest midday rays of the sun, but allows full use of the morning or evening sun rays. For its peculiar shape, the plant was named “desert syrinx”. And it partly justifies its name when, under the blows of mountain winds, a sound is born in its leaves – a soft humming.
The leaves of this plant are extremely amazing: they have a peculiar goblet-like shape. Such leaf shape simultaneously allows it both to increase the surface of gas exchange and photosynthesis, and reduce the surface of the leaf under direct sunlight. A special microclimate is forming inside the leaf: a little more humid and cool than outside. This feature is willingly used by a variety of small animals: solitary wasps, large beetles, spiders and scorpions settle in the leaves of the “desert syrinx”. And sometimes a small lizard – a skink or a gecko – settles in the leaf of this plant too.
At the end of spring, the midday sun mercilessly shines from a cloudless sky, heating the stones to such an extent that the desert froglizards have to run over them carefully on their legs spiked from below, without risking touching the stone with their belly or short tail. However, they are not afraid of the sun. Quite the contrary, reptiles willingly bask in the hot rays of the sun. At the same time, the colors of the surrounding landscape pale and fade: plants suck out the remnants of spring moisture by their roots, storing it for the future for the period of aestivation. The leaves of the poppy have long since withered and long stems with poppyheads atop of them stick out of the soil. During the wind, the poppyheads rattle with ripe seeds, like rattles. The onion leaves have long dried up, and only the spherical umbels on the dry peduncles indicate the place where bees and butterflies fed in the spring. These insects have flown away long ago to the places where fresh flowers rich in nectar still grow – to river valleys.
But the greenery on the mountain slopes still remained – the leathery leaves of the “desert syrinx” are able to resist dry winds and hot sun. The roots of this plant play an important role in maintaining the natural balance in the mountains: penetrating the rocky slopes, they strengthen them, reducing the risk of landslides and accumulating soil. After severe landslides in the mountains, the plants of the “desert syrinx” appear first on barren rocky rubble. Over several years, from few first-settler bushes, strong fibrous rhizomes spread out in all directions, on which affiliated plants appear.
A few years later, the talus is covered with an almost continuous carpet of hard leaves of the “desert syrinx”. But it will not last forever: this plant is very light-loving plant and does not tolerate shading. Therefore, when enough soil accumulates in the thickets of this species, tall grasses and shrubs will supersede this species.
On the southern slopes of the mountains, this plant species thrives: no other plant can gain a foothold here for a long time. Even on very steep slopes, the roots of the “desert syrinx” fill the cracks of the rocks, and fans of tubular leaves of this plant spread in niches filled with scraps of soil. Here and there, tall flower stalks rise between the rosettes of plants, on which fragrant flowers gathered in a raceme bloom, attracting bees and rare butterflies.
Not only small animals show direct interest in this plant: in the thickets of the “desert syrinx” it is possible also to meet desert froglizards. These strange creatures appear in the thickets of the “desert syrinx” in late spring and early summer, having the only goal – to leave offspring. The leaves of the “desert syrinx” represent an excellent incubator for their eggs. There are no such temperature fluctuations as in the upper layer of the soil, and the humidity is much higher than in the sand, where reptile eggs can completely dry out and die in a particularly dry summer.
Desert froglizard females choose the widest leaves of the “desert syrinx” for laying their eggs. But first of all, they would make sure that the leaf is not occupied by anyone. The desert froglizard female carefully looks inside before entrusting her eggs to the plant for incubation. It’s good if one or two frightened beetles rush out of the leaf. A small lizard may well find a pleasant snack, but if a gray shaggy spider or a scorpion glistening with its powerful claws is hiding in the shade, then it’s better for the froglizard itself to retire. But sooner or later, the lizard finds an unpopulated leaf, or expels the former guest from it.
First of all, the froglizard carefully examines the leaf from the inside, making sure that it is really empty. Having climbed on top of such a leaf, the female clings to the edge of the tubular leaf with the tips of its hind legs and accurately lowers the back of the body inside the leaf, after which she lays small eggs in a lime shell in it.
When all the eggs are laid, the desert froglizard female does not leave them: during the entire incubation period, she will be on guard of her offspring. It will have to protect the eggs from numerous uninvited guests: insects or lizards of other species can eat the eggs. Large beetles with strong mandibles are especially dangerous. It will not be difficult for them to break through the shell of a reptile egg. Therefore, the froglizard pounces with a furious hiss on a beetle that has encroached on its clutch.
And sometimes the female has to protect her clutch even from her own relatives.
A young desert froglizard female laid her eggs in a large leaf of the “desert syrinx”. She is keeping on top of the leaf, showing her determination to protect the nest with all her appearance. When a huge broad-winged garuda soars in the sky, or swift birds of other species rush by, the reptile hides in a leaf adjacent to the one hiding her clutch. When the danger is gone, she carefully crawls out of hiding and takes up guard again.
The bush of the “desert syrinx”, which this froglizard has chosen, is slightly larger than the neighboring ones: it grew up where the groundwater comes close to the surface. And its wide deep leaves are very attractive for froglizards. However, this female managed to drive away all possible competitors from it... except one.
A very large mature female of the same species moves along the ground with short jumps. She has not laid eggs yet, and is still looking for a place to lay eggs. She is not attracted to the small bushes of the “desert syrinx” growing on dry rocky places. But a magnificent bush, towering like a medieval castle above the surrounding plants, attracted her attention. And the female is not discouraged by the fact that the bush is already occupied. With one leap, she jumps to the leaf at the edge, and as if on a ladder, she climbs to the top, where she is already met by a young competitor.
At first, both lizards try to intimidate each other: they hiss and chirp, hoping to impress a rival. But time is running out: the older female needs to lay eggs. She attacks the young one, trying to expel her. The young female has something to protect: her clutch is hidden in one leaf. So, the fierce fight occurred between the reptiles.
The older female appears to be a winner in this battle: she is stronger than the young one. Young female leaves her former home: she is seriously injured. And the winner female first of all tries to get rid of competitors: she climbs into the leaf of the plant and eats the eggs of a young female one by one. Only one of the eggs of the former bush owner survived: it laid at the very bottom of the clutch, and the broad head of the older female simply could not reach it. Before being hatched, one of the juveniles has already won its first fight in the struggle for life, but this fight is clearly not the last one: the surviving egg of a young female turns out to be literally buried under a dozen eggs laid by an adult female.
Despite the active protection from the side of parents, not all clutches of desert froglizards survive. Sometimes eggs are destroyed by animals that not specifically search for them. But they are so large that the froglizard female just can’t do anything with them.
A huge pangolizard grazes at the edge of the thickets of the “desert syrinx”. This giant lizard loves the sappy leaves of the “desert syrinx”, and characteristic signs of former feeding of pangolizard sometimes remain on the plants: it breaks out young leaflets from the middle of the “fan” of the plant, leaving the coarse fibrous old leaves intact.
The imperturbable giant walks unhurriedly through the thickets, biting off juicy leaves of the “desert syrinx” along the way. But on the next plant, the pangolizard meets resistance in the face of a desert froglizard, which seems tiny compared to an armored reptile. Froglizard is desperately trying to protect the clutch of eggs: she chirps loudly, and her congeners echo her from the neighboring bushes. And when the pangolizard, completely unperturbed by these voices, comes close, the little reptile jumps on its head. But she is powerless to do anything, having appeared on the armored head of a giant that can resist even the attack of an enraged garuda. When running over the head of the pangolizard, the froglizard touches the sensitive eyelid of an armored reptile, and it drops the froglizard to the ground with one movement of its head.
If the invasion of a pangolizard into its territory is an out-of-the-ordinary event for a froglizard, then the pangolizard perceives the froglizard’s desperate attempts to protect its nest as some kind of minor misunderstanding. The armored reptile approaches the bush of the “desert syrinx”, where the eggs of the froglizard are laid, and eats with pleasure the young leaves of the plant along with the clutch. It did not specifically search for the eggs of the froglizard, but they made a pleasant change in the menu of the pangolizard.
The pangolizard, covered with armor to the very tips of the toes, is not the only herbivore in the mountains. In cooler places, in high-altitude forests, quite large representatives of herbivorous mammals live.
At altitude, the rocky desert, scorched by the southern sun, softens its temper, allowing trees to grow. Here in the morning there are thick fogs, settling on the stones, which have cooled overnight, with abundant dew. Due to it, the tree seedlings can get stronger in a calm atmosphere and develop enough to successfully withstand the heat of the day. The mountain peaks are covered with dense forests of coniferous trees. Giant tree-like juniper is especially numerous in such forests. The lower margin of such forests is occupied by drought-resistant pine, and at the upper borders, at a high altitude, pine grows again, but of already another kind: a dwarf creeping form that withstands the cold winds of mountain peaks.
Reptiles are not numerous in the shady mountain forests, but mammals find shelter and food here. The ground here is carpeted with creeping shrubs and broad-leaved grasses – abundant food for small herds of goat-sized animals. Their fur is brown, and a dark stripe runs along the long muzzle, forking on the forehead. Their hind legs are longer than the front ones – so it is more convenient to graze on the slope. These animals are not ungulates, which diversity reduced greatly in Neocene, but the descendants of the lagomorphs. They are close relatives of the Himalayan snowlopper, but, unlike that species, they do not change the color of their fur for the winter, and their wool itself is not so thick and long – the hot climate affects it. These are stoneloppers, ecological analogues of mountain goats and sheep.
In part, mountain forests develop so luxuriantly precisely because they are inhabited not by ungulates, but by the descendants of hares: they lack sharp pointed hooves that damage the roots of plants, so trees and grasses can develop a superficial root system, accumulating dew from under the stones.
A herd of stoneloppers moves through the forest, eating grass and bushes. The animals leave the juniper alone – its bitter twigs are clearly not to their taste. However, when the blue “berries” ripen on it, the stoneloppers will willingly eat them, spreading the seeds of the plant.
A hierarchy is observed in the herd of stoneloppers, which has to be maintained from time to time. Sometimes, males of this species arrange small fights among themselves: rearing on their hind legs and bending their forelegs, they push with their breasts and snort noisily. Outside of the breeding season, females watch their fights very indifferently: they have more important concerns. Some of them are pregnant, and cubs are already frolicking near other ones. Therefore, females try to eat well: they choose the juiciest leaves and grass. Some cubs, being only a week old, are trying to feed on grass. But so far it is clearly not to their taste: fatty mother’s milk is a much more delicious and nutritious food. Due to it, they quickly gain weight, preparing for a future independent life.
Cubs still have a lot of things to learn: they should have a good idea of who is a friend and who is an enemy in the mountains. And life teaches them one such lesson.
In search of coolness, a huge armored pangolizard wanders into the thickets of tree-like junipers. The lizard’s large body can easily overheat, so pangolizards prefer to spend the hottest time of the day in shelters. A large lizard found a suitable place in the shade of a huge juniper tree, and stretched out on the cool ground with pleasure. It does not pay attention at all to the stoneloppers passing by – from experience, pangolizard has learned not to panic once again when these animals are walking around. Adult stoneloppers also do not pay attention to the harmless reptile. But the cubs, seeing that adults are not afraid of a strange creature, decide to get acquainted to it more closely.
When two particularly curious cubs approached the pangolizard, the reptile opened its eye and began to watch them sideways. Seeing that it is motionless, stonelopper cubs sniffed the bone armor, and then one of them poked the lizard’s side with its foot.
Instantly jumping up on all fours, the huge lizard turned its head towards them with amazing agility, opened its mouth and hissed. The frightened cubs rushed headlong to the protection of a herd of adult stoneloppers, screaming desperately. Several adult animals became alert, raising their ears in hare manner, but calmed down immediately when they saw that the cubs were only frightened by a slow reptile.
At the hottest time of the day, the desert seems to be dying out: the buzzing of flies and beetles over the rare flowers of plants is perhaps the only sign of life at this time. They are attracted by one plant that blooms in the middle of a dry hot summer – a huge stone-bulb onion. In some places, bulbs of this plant stick out among the stones. They are covered with dense armor formed of dried scales of the past years, which protect the bulb from overheating. In summer, the leaves of the plant begin to turn yellow and die off, but, as if in defiance of fate, the stone-bulb onion blooms, growing up a tall peduncle with an umbel of huge fragrant flowers. Numerous silver-gray wasps and beetles shining with gold and bronze hurry to feast on their nectar, and in the evening they are replaced by hawk moth rustling with their wings.
Large animals hide in the shade during the day and try their best to cool off. An adult garuda rests in the shade of rocks, emitting the excess heat through swollen wattles. It is a very effective way to cool down – when the wattles at the corners of the beak are filled with blood, their surface increases, and the blood circulating in the vessels under the thin skin radiates heat. If necessary, the garuda can increase the cooling efficiency in another way: with powerful legs, the bird turns over flat stones, and lies on them with its neck and chest. The bottom of the stone is cold, and the bird lies on it with pleasure, half-opening its wings. However, its suffering is not eternal: when the sun goes down, the air freshens up noticeably, although the stones remain hot for a long time. In the evening, garuda has a few hours to search for food.
Garuda does not ignore either live prey or carrion. Even a body of a lizard or rodent mummified in the heat will be eaten with appetite by this voracious bird. But fresh prey is much tastier than old dried carrion. Therefore, when a pangolizard appears on the way of a hungry garuda, the bird attacks. Once again, the speed of the bird and the response of the reptile come into conflict. And it seems that the reptile will win this time: noticing the long-legged bird in time, the lizard falls sideways and instantly curls into a ball. The legs protect the body from the sides, the head covers the stomach, and the tail descends from above, like a lid. The edge shields of the tail are pressed against the head and legs – and a resolutely attacking garuda is met by something like a bone ball.
Pangolizard does not try to escape: with its short legs, it is very difficult to do it. But it feels completely safe from garuda. The bird walks around the curled lizard several times, carefully examining its shell. If there are wounds on it or a sore spot where the corneous layer has sloughed off due to infection, the garuda will easily peck the wound and the pangolizard will die bleeding. So, garuda will get enough of such prey for a few days. And tender white meat of pangolizard is a treat for garuda.
But now the bird is clearly unlucky: it can’t find the slightest crack in the reptile’s shell. Pushing the pangolizard with its foot, the bird rolls it to the other side. But there is not the slightest vulnerable spot even there. Jumping on the pangolizard from above, the garuda pecks the reptile’s armor several times, but it does not have the slightest effect. Precious evening hunting time is wasted while the bird is trying to crack this living strongbox. So, garuda leaves the pangolizard – for today the lizard was lucky.
The moment when garuda leaves did not go unnoticed: the lizard was watching the bird from under its own tail. Therefore, when the garuda had gone far enough, the bone ball began to move: first the tail lifted a little bit, then the body unwrapped, the tail arched and rested against the ground, and the lizard easily stood on all four legs. After making sure that garuda was not nearby, the lizard trotted into the bushes.
There is shade and coolness in the mountain forests. But there is not enough of water, the most important thing for the inhabitants of the desert. Therefore, once every few days, stoneloppers have to leave the forest and descend into valleys where streams flow and small lakes still exist.
Having quenched their thirst in a half-dried lake with muddy water, stoneloppers rest before returning home. Some of them eat leaves from the coastal willows sticking out in the dried mud, while others eat the remains of reeds, and one of the stoneloppers stands guard over the herd. It is the dominant male, and his top position in the hierarchy obliges him. And the juveniles continue to explore the world, and the craving for knowledge leads several adolescents to stone-bulb onion bulbs, on the tops of which quite fresh-looking leaves stick out. One of the animals tastes this greenery, which seems so seductively fresh. And the young stonelopper understands immediately why no one ate these leaves.
From the leaves damaged by the teeth of the beast, a liquid with an acrid smell begins to ooze. And volatile substances cause pain in the eyes of nearby animals. A real “firestorm” begins in the mouth of an inexperienced stonelopper who has tasted an onion leaf. The animal rushes to the water right through the mud, and begins to drink greedily in order to somehow calm this feeling. And its congeners, who were nearby, shed tears profusely: the acrid volatile vapors of onions caused them to shed copious tears.
Young stoneloppers move away from the plant, but the stone-bulb onion does not let them go away so simply: the plant clings to the wool of one of the animals with its drooping peduncle. And when the animal manages to escape from the tenacious “embrace” of the onion, several small aerial bulbils remain hanging on its wool. Sometime during the rest, the beast will comb them out of the wool, giving the plant a chance to settle down in a new place.
The stonelopper cubs were already running after the desert froglizards in plenty. When they first saw these strange lizards, they caused them fear when they suddenly jumped out from under their very feet. But then, having made sure that the froglizards were not dangerous at all, the young stoneloppers began to play with them willingly, chasing the ill-fated lizards from one bush to another.
But near the next bush they found something more interesting, which made the froglizards instantly forgotten (much to the delight of the froglizards themselves). Branches covered with yellowed leaves stirred, and a young pangolizard emerged from under the bush. It has not reached half the length of an adult reptile, and therefore is very vulnerable and cautious. When the young stoneloppers approached the pangolizard, the lizard instantly curled up into a hard armored ball and froze, hoping for the strength of the armor. But stoneloppers do not feed on pangolizards, so nothing threatens it. But for a while the lizard becomes the object of games for the young stoneloppers. The cubs jump on the curled lizard one by one, trying to stand on it. In addition, when it turns out that it can be easily budged, the reptile turns into a soccer ball. Pushing it with their chests or sides, young stoneloppers roll the pangolizard between the bushes, forgetting all about. While the adults are grazing the grass not far from them, the young ones are playing carefree.
But the game ends in the most tragic way: a hidden garuda jumps out of the bush like a gray lightning. It had been watching the herd of stoneloppers for a long time, waiting for the proper moment. And while the stoneloppers were drinking water on the drying lake, the carnivorous bird noticed young animals in their herd, which represent a nice prey. In general, garuda can easily cope with an adult stonelopper, but these animals have powerful incisors and strong hoof-like claws on muscular legs.
In a matter of seconds, everything was over: garuda killed one of the stonelopper cubs on the spot with a powerful blow of its beak, and the others fled.
At the appearance of the ferocious bird, the herd of stoneloppers was seized with panic. With loud alarm calls, the adult animals ran up the slope. They know from their own experience that this trick makes it harder for a predator to chase them. While fleeing, they signal a “general alarm” by raising their tails on their backs. At this time, the white underside of the tail becomes visible from afar. The females, whose cubs were so close to the carnivorous bird, are in no hurry to run away: they alternate an alarm call with call notes, giving their cubs the opportunity to find their parents. Gradually, pairs of animals reunite and run away following the herd. And only one female surveys the surroundings anxiously, trying in vain to find her cub.
Garuda feasts: after several unsuccessful attacks, the bird is fully rewarded with a hearty lunch. Like a butcher’s knife, its sharp beak cuts off all the meat that is more or less suitable for food from the bones of prey. And those scavengers who find the remains of a stonelopper cub will get only the head and some meat between the ribs.
Pangolizard, which appeared to be a toy for young stoneloppers, lies in the bushes. At the last moment, it rolled away there, and now it watches the garuda’s feast. When the bird is sated and leaves, perhaps the pangolizard will have a chance to eat the meat of the one who played with it like a ball about half an hour ago.
A herd of stoneloppers moves into the mountain forests. Of course, it’s not safe there either, but there they have a wide choice of places to hide from predators. The stoneloppers are also saved by their agility: it is easy to escape from garuda among the rocks, where the bird cannot accelerate great speed. And if it attacks from the air, it is better to hide near large stones, which the massive bird will fly around, so as not to crash when landing unsuccessfully. But there is one danger from which it is not so easy to hide – it is nature itself.
The mountains of Southwest Asia are young, so earthquakes often occur in these places. In some places, hot springs flow from under ground, and their water smells of sulfur fumes; some mountains are true volcanoes. All these signs are external manifestations of colossal tectonic processes taking place deep under the continental lithospheric plates.
By imperceptible signs, living beings feel the approach of earthquakes ahead of time. Fishes leave mountain streams in schools, migrating into wide lakes and lower reaches of rivers. The birds fly away to safer places, and the beasts try to hide on the plains, where there is no danger of a landslide.
On the night before earthquakes, the mountains seem to cease: there is a total silence in the air. Mosquitoes and midges swarm in the air; grasshoppers and crickets do not chirp, but keep silently on the stems of grasses. Only in some places a lonely desert froglizard jumps among the grass, or a pangolizard wanders through the bushes, fully relying on its armor protection.
And shortly before dawn begins what almost all living beings have been preparing so hard for – an earthquake. At first, one weak shock followed, then as if a convulsion passed through the earth’s crust – a seismic wave shook, it seems, the entire mountainous country, rolling from the area that was once the Red Sea to the eastern shores of the Fourseas. During the pre-dawn hours, several more powerful tremors shook the mountains, and soon everything was quiet.
An earthquake in the mountains is a significant disaster. During the tremors of the earth’s crust, entire mountain slopes slide into valleys, blocking rivers and cutting off centuries-old forests, like a huge stone razor. During such natural disasters, many animals die.
After this disastrous night, the landscape in some valleys was transformed beyond recognition. The mountain juniper forest on one of the ridges literally “slid” down the slope for several tens of meters. The layer of soil permeated with tree roots has almost not crumbled, and the roots of ancient trees have mostly been preserved. Therefore, such a forest will take root in a new place, although it will take about five years. In a mountain valley, a landslide blocked the path of a rivulet, and where a stream of crystal clear water ran among the stones, a muddy lake will form in a few years.
Despite the wisdom of instincts, some animals still became victims of the earthquake. In the morning, the stones on the new talus began to move, and a wide triangular head appeared from under them: the pangolizard was captured by the landslip, but managed to escape. Working with its paws, the reptile crawls out of its stone prison. It got off quite easily: a large bruise is visible on the side of the lizard, several scales on the edge of the tail are broken, and the right hind leg is dislocated. But the lizard is alive, and that’s the main thing.
And a lone stonelopped was unlucky: during the way to the safe mountain valleys, he fell into a trap, stuck its foot between the stones. And during the tremors of the earth, a landslide swept it away along with several large boulders and a pile of bushes. Now, the crushed body of the stonelopper is just a lure for numerous flies. Several beetles also fly, being attracted by the smell of death, but they hide under the stones when the long-legged garuda, who survived the earthquake on the plain, returns to its territory and finds abundant prey there. With its strong legs, the bird rakes small stones, and begins to tear off pieces of meat of the dead stonelopper with its beak. Anything it doesn’t eat will go to the beetles. And the descendants of these beetles may someday eat this very garuda, when it dies of old age or from an accident. Mountains are a dangerous world, but for numerous species of animals and plants it is a home.


Peacock-tailed pangolizard (Manisoma pavonipyga)
Order: Squamates (Squamata), suborder Lizards (Lacertilia)
Family: Skinks (Scincidae)
Habitat: highlands of the Middle East.

Among the deserts inhabitants, there is always a significant number of various reptiles – snakes, tortoises and lizards. Due to the features of their physiology, they easily get along with a small amount of food, are able not to drink for a long time and easily resist the heat, which will kill a mammal of a size comparable with them.
Among the lizards of mountains and deserts, representatives of the skink family (Scincidae) are characteristic. And one of their representatives, the peacock-tailed pangolizard, inhabits dry and hot Middle Eastern highlands. It represents a real apotheosis in the development of lizards – this animal resembles pangolin (Manis), the fossil Glyptodon armadillo and the Ankylosaurus, armored dinosaur at once.
The lizard’s body length is about 1.5 meters along with the tail. The reptile has a huge, wide and flat head, a broad body on strong legs with well-developed digits and a very short tail. The body is covered with belts of thick ossified scales, and the head is covered with an almost solid shell of ossified skin. The lizard’s belly is covered with rather thin and elastic skin. A notable feature of this species is its tail. It is flat, and when viewed from above it looks almost like an equilateral triangle with slightly convex sides. It is bordered by movable massive scales 15-20 cm long each, diverging to the sides and forming a similarity of a fan. Such a tail is used by males of this species for courtship displays; in spring and early summer it accumulates a stock of fat, but its main role is protective.
When attacked by large predators, the lizard curls up into a ball: first it presses its paws to its belly, then covers them with its head, and presses its tail on top. The tail scales sticking out to the sides are covered with grooves and spikes from below. When the muscles press them against the body of the curled reptile, they act like locks, so it is absolutely impossible to uncoil the lizard.
The coloration of the upper side of body of this reptile is discreet, of “desert color”: yellowish-brown. The tail scales are darker in color. But the bottom of the body is colored bright – blue longitudinal stripes on a white background. The mucous membrane of the male’s mouth is colored bright red and is used for courtship displays. The reptile has pointed conical teeth in its mouth.
This lizard species is predominantly vegetarian, but if possible, it willingly eats invertebrates, ravages bird nests and eats carrion.
This species is viviparous: after mating at the beginning of the dry season, the female bears for a long time and at the end of winter next year gives birth to two large juveniles (each up to 30 cm long), completely independent from the first minutes of life. After 4 years, they become sexually mature. Life expectancy is up to 50 years.

Desert froglizard (Ammobatrachus saltatus)
Order: Squamates (Squamata), suborder Lizards (Lacertilia)
Family: Hopping agamas (Saltagamidae)

Habitat: highlands of the Middle East.

In the deserts of the Holocene period, there were only few species of frogs and toads, which were remarkable by their peculiar adaptations for survival of the dry season, lasting sometimes for several years in succession. But the change of geological epochs caused the extinction of their species, and they had been replaced by hardier creatures.
The desert froglizard is not a frog, as it may seem at first, but a kind of lizard of a distinct family Saltagamidae – hopping agamas; it is a descendant of a certain agamid species (Agamidae) of the Holocene epoch. It has a short flat body, a broad head and strong hind legs. It moves mostly by hopping – it is an adaptation in order to minimize the time of contact with hot desert sand and stones. During the jump, the animal’s body is blown by the wind and manages to cool down a little. In addition, the scales on the feet of this lizard form spikes sticking down, that help it to avoid contact with hot sand and stones. It is easy to distinguish this lizard from a frog: it has claws, short thick tail (half the length of the trunk) and scales. A fat stock, which helps to survive in the cold season, is accumulated in the tail. A ridge of large scales stretches along the reptile’s back. Front legs of the froglizard are strong – with their help, the lizard can climb bushes and dig holes. The hind legs are more than twice as long as the front ones.
The body coloration is sandy yellow with brown specks, and there is a brown V-shaped spot on the head. During the breeding season (in early summer), males of this species become more noticeable: head becomes coffee brown, and the body and legs become pale brown in courtship dress. The male climbs onto a bush and displays itself, accompanying it with sounds similar to the cricket chirping.
After mating, the female lays 4-6 large eggs in a place protected from the heat, sometimes choosing for this the leaves of a desert syrinx growing in a place inaccessible to herbivores. The juveniles hatch in autumn and spend winter in the crevices between the stones. At the 2nd year of life, they become sexually mature.

Garuda (Gharuda montana)
Order: Crane birds (Gruiformes)
Family: Rails (Rallidae)

Habitat: highlands of the Middle East.


Picture by Alexey Tatarinov

The extinction of a large number of species of predatory mammals and birds in the early Neocene led to the fact that their place was taken by the descendants of completely different living creatures, which, perhaps, were themselves the prey of these predators. One of these creatures is a descendant of the gallinule (Porphyrio) – a large carnivorous bird, named after Garuda – the king of birds in Indian mythology. Gallinules first settled at the dry meadows, and then some of their descendants settled along the river valleys into the mountains, where they developed into large carnivorous birds.
Garuda is a very large bird weighing up to 15 kg. It is built like a bustard: it has a large body on long muscular legs – the height of the bird reaches 150 cm. It is one of the largest birds of the Neocene Earth capable of flying. In the hot climate of the mountains, strong updrafts easily form, allowing the bird to soar on wide wings (wingspan up to 2 meters) effortlessly, looking out for carrion or small animals that can be easily preyed. But in order to get into the air, a heavy bird has to accelerate by running.
Due to its muscular legs, the bird can run fast, and its wide wings help it make sharp turns, hunting swift prey like lizards and snakes. With the help of its feet, the bird eats – after killing the prey with its beak, it brings it to its mouth, holding it in its toes. It inherited this habit from the gallinules.
Plumage color of garuda is light (on the contrary to its ancestors): this feature reduces the risk of overheating. The general coloration of the plumage is gray with a bluish tinge; the feathers on the head are darker. Legs of garuda are purple-red, brighter in the male than in the female.
Head is very large, and neck is long and movable. Beak is deep and strong; leathery lobes grow in the corners of the beak, looking like chicken’s wattles. It is an adaptation for enhancing heat exchange: in the heat, the lobes swell with blood and stretch out in length. In addition, the bird’s “face” is featherless, covered with yellow skin – only on the crown, there is a tuft of movable feathers, and the back of the bird’s head is covered with small feathers. The front part of the head of garuda is covered with a thick red corneous shield. The tip of the black beak is also bright red.
Garuda live alone or in pairs. The nest is made in a rocky niche or between rocks, where it is shady for a significant part of the day. There are 3-4 eggs in the clutch, both parents incubate and take care of the chicks. The chicks hatch sighted and covered with black down. They spend a few days after hatching in the nest, after which they leave it and keep near their parents. The parents feed the chicks from their beaks for the first few days – at this time the red tip of the parent’s beak serves as a food pointer for the chick. Bird feed their chicks first with insects, later with pieces of large prey. Chicks begin to fledge at the age of one week, and three-month-old birds are already becoming independent.

Stonelopper (Lepotragus saxicola)
Order: Hoofed lagomorphs (Ungulagomorpha)
Family: Harelopes (Lagolopidae)

Habitat: highlands of the Middle East.

Picture by Alexander Smyslov

Picture by Cossus

Due to the mass extinction of herbivorous ungulates in the late Holocene and early Neocene, their place in Holocene ecosystems was taken by descendants of representatives of other mammalian orders. In the New World, these are descendants of South American caviomorph rodents, and in the Old World – of hares. In Eurasia and Africa, lagomorphs have formed a variety of species convergently similar to antelopes, deer, and even bulls. The present species is an analogue of mountain goats, a close relative of the Himalayan snowlopper. It is a cursorial goat-sized mammal, but with longer legs.
Living in a dry and hot climate has left its mark on the appearance of the beast: it has a shorter coat than its Himalayan relative. In addition, the coat of the stoneloper does not change color for the winter, retaining its rusty-brown color. On the nose bridge of the beast, there is a longitudinal coffee-brown stripe, forking Y-shapedly on its forehead. The eyes of stoneloper are shifted to the upper part of the head, allowing the grazing animal to see far around itself. They are surrounded by a ring of yellowish-white wool. The belly is gray, and the inner part of the buttocks and the underside of the tail have a bright white color. This feature is used to signal an alarm: the tail up pressed against back exposes a patch of white wool, clearly visible from a far distance.
The ears of stoneloper are wider and longer than those of the Himalayan species: a dense mesh of blood vessels enhancing heat transfer penetrates them. This species also lacks characteristic “sideburns”, but in males, a mane of long blond hair grows on the withers, being used to establish dominance relationships.
The hind legs of the beast are slightly longer than the front ones: they make it easier to graze on the slopes. It is a digitigrade animal; the claws are directed downwards, forming a reliable support when climbing steep mountain slopes. The head of the stoneloper is quite long and narrow, and the eyes are shifted upwards, allowing it to survey the surroundings easily when feeding.
Animals keep in groups of 10 to 20 animals, within which families of one male and 3 to 5 females are formed, as well as immature and single animals live.
The mating season takes pace in mid-summer. In the spring, the female gives birth to two developed sighted cubs covered with a plain beige coat. At the age of one year, the female is already ready to mate. The male matures at the same age, but he has a real chance to leave offspring only at the age of 3-8 years, until young strong competitors appear. Life expectancy does not exceed 12-13 years.


Desert syrinx (Sansevieriopsis tubifolius)
Order: Asparagoid lilies (Asparagales)
Family: Asparagus (Asparagaceae)

Habitat: highlands of the Middle East
Among the unpretentious and ecologically plastic plants of the arid regions of Africa and Asia, there are species well known to human lovers of floriculture – these are snake plants (Sansevieria). Thick rhizomes and rosettes of firm leathery leaves are their characteristic features. Endurance and the ability to reproduce even by the pieces of a separate leaf allowed them to restore their numbers quickly after the ecological crisis at the turn of the Holocene and Neocene.
The desert syrinx is a descendant of a certain species of this genus. It differs from ancestral forms primarily in the shape of the leaves. The leaf of this plant is rolled up like a tube – this shape avoids overheating of the leaf surface, and during rain directs water right under the roots. New leaves grow, breaking through the lower part of the previous leaf. It is because of the shape of the leaves that this species got its name: the tube leaves are arranged in the same plane along the north-south line, resembling an antique reed syrinx. Such type of growth leaves only a few leaves at the edge open to the hot midday sun. The height of the vertically positioned leaf is up to 80 cm, but on barren mountain slopes the plant forms a bushy dwarf form only about 25-30 cm tall.
The stem of this species is a long branching creeping rhizome. It grows at a depth of about 10-15 cm, producing lateral shoots with rosettes of leaves. Due to this form of growth, one plant and its offspring quickly occupy an area of about 20-30 square meters. This species performs a very important role of mountain slopes fixer that prevents landslides.
The plant blooms in the middle of spring. Large white flowers gathered in a raceme on a 2 meters tall peduncle bloom at night and emit a pleasant strong aroma. At the same time, nectar oozes abundantly from them, attracting moths and even small mammals. But in the morning, the flowers wither and dry up soon. The fruit of this species is a dry pod; the seeds are spread by birds and mammals.

Stone-bulb onion (Petroallium petrops)
Order: Asparagoid lilies (Asparagales)
Family: Amaryllids (Amaryllidaceae)

Habitat: highlands of the Middle East
A special strategy for survival in the desert is the ability to accumulate water and save it. For this purpose, some plants use leaves, others – thick roots and tubers, and the third ones – thick stems. And the desert is also a habitat for a variety of bulb plants.
Stone-bulb onion is a typical inhabitant of the desert. This plant does not hide underground in drought; its huge ribbed bulb is up to half a meter thick and almost a meter tall, sticking out above the rocks and soil. In spring and summer, it is decorated on top with a bunch of long drooping tubular leaves. Dried bulb scales of past seasons form a dense multi-layered cover, almost impenetrable for large herbivores. In addition, they perfectly mask the bulb, making it look like a large stone. If any mammal or lizard tries to get to the sappy contents of the bulb, it will be met literally by a curtain of pungent-smelling substances that irritate the mucous membranes – the onion not only did not part with chemical weapons in the process of evolution, but also increased its effect significantly. Even the leaves of this plant already smell from afar in a way characteristic of onions.
In the middle of summer, in the time of the hottest weather, the leaves die off. But the plant is not going to fall into a state of rest: on the contrary, it blooms in summer, growing a huge umbel of bright pink fragrant flowers from the middle of the bulb to a two-meter height. Flowering lasts about a week; then, the flowers quickly fade and dry. But even when no flower has turned into a fruit, the plant has a chance to multiply: dormant buds begin to grow at the base of the dying flowers, turning into tiny air bulbs. Their leaves and roots are modified to strong hooks that allow them to cling to the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals.


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