Great Lakes Earth: Wildlife
(For simplicity’s sake, I’ll skip the chlorophytes and head straight to the gymnosperms and the angiosperms.)
As testament to the Great Dying, angiosperms make up over 390,000 species on Great Lakes Earth today, 90% of the total. In the place of the waterlogged and non-vascular ferns, mosses, hornworts and liverworts are grasses and ivies. Some of them have evolved into shade-loving varieties that pollinate via getting stuck in the fur or feathers of any passing animal drawn to their alluring odor or their large, succulent roots. In fact, the equatorial rainforests of Africa are under attack from Hedera watkinsiana, the Strangler Ivy, a plant that steals energy from its prey tree.
Five million years ago, the tropical rainforests had suffered severely as a result of the Big Freeze. No new genera or species evolved in the aftermath. Instead, the survivors had simply found room to spread. As a result, the canopy is more evenly spaced than tropical rainforests back home, which means more light reaches the forest floor, which means a much thicker understory.
Within the tropical latitudes, no seashore or riverbank is spared the onslaught of dense groves of mangroves, which help to shade the freshwater wildlife and even provide them with food.
Most of the familiar fruits, nuts, beans and spices can still be found on Great Lakes Earth, but they would look very different. What grows in herbs, shrubs and lianas back home grows in trees on Great Lakes Earth (and vice versa.) So don’t be surprised when you see roses blooming on the tops of a tree. Cocoa exists on Great Lakes Earth, but as members of the true bean family, Fabaceae.
The bottoms of lakes have often been called “pond forests” because of the density of fully aquatic alismatalid plants, which supports a great diversity of aquatic animal life. The story is the same in tropical waters where the clarity is clear enough for sunlight to penetrate through and proximity to currents too far for the formation of heterotrophic reefs. Under these two conditions, the seafloor may be a vast, vivid green expanse of “seagrass prairies”, which, like true prairies, support a vast diversity of animal life.
All that survived of Pinophyta are confined to highland areas, where the hardier conifers have an edge over the angiosperms. In fact, whatever the continent, whatever the mountain range, the alpine tree line will always be a super-dense forest of pines, spruces, plum-yews, yews, larches, Douglas-firs, golden larches, firs, cedars and hemlocks. They are so dense that a very small percentage of sunlight can ever hit the forest floor. The story is the same in the subpolar lowlands, where summers are too short and winters too cold for non-poalid angiosperms to take root.
Nothofagaceae, the southern beech family, has been a global sight since the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum, but Sahul’s genera are all that survive of the ancestral southern beeches, genera that have grown unchanged for at least 120 million years. As a result, they make up the primary percentage of trees growing on Sahul’s forests. The rest are those colloquially referred to as “pineapples”, “spruce”, “cedars” and “blueberries”, though they have no close relation to the northern hemisphere varieties.
On Great Lakes Earth, the total number of vertebrates make up only one percent of all animal life, the rest lacking a backbone, or any bone for that matter. It doesn’t sound much compared to the three percent back home, but it’s still a hell of a lot!
The Great Dying put quite a dent on invertebrates we would have recognized back home. Beneath the surface, you’ll find no corals, no sponges and no sea lilies creating reefs. Finding out who are the primary reefbuilders instead depends on where we are talking about. In tropical waters with crystal, nutrient-free clarity and within proximity of warm currents, between the seagrass prairies and the continental shelves, are dense forests consisting of Sabellidae (feather duster worms), Serpulidae (“Christmas tree” worms) and Siboglinidae (beard worms), all varying in height from four to twenty feet. In such waters, all have symbiotic relationships with red or green algae, providing the worms food through photosynthesis. In tropical waters near the edges of tropical shelves — where the walls force deep-sea nutrients upward — or within proximity of cold currents, the “worm forests” have a higher diversity — by the worms’ feet are rudists, bivalves that bear the shapes of boxes, tubes or even rings, the basket stars and the barnacles. In temperate and polar waters, the worms are smaller and less photosynthetic, and although the basket stars and barnacles are still present, the rudists are not. In their place are dense carpets of clams, mussels and oysters. These reefbuilders can be found on every ocean floor — hot and cold, shallow and deep, light and dark. Their presence, however, discourages the evolution of kelp forests.
To the naked eye, the spiders of Great Lakes Earth might be identical to the ones back home. But Great Lakes Earth’s special exception is over a thousand species of the family Pseudohymenopteridae — the colonial spiders, so named because of how similar their social structures are to ants, bees and wasps. Each colony can occupy a single tree, cloaking it with silk to trap prey and drag them to feed the queen. The largest of the colonial spiders, a Sri Lankan species, has a queen with a legspan of two-and-a-half inches.
For whatever reason, Lepidoptera, the order consisting of butterflies and moths, never existed on Great Lakes Earth. Not a big deal for the pollinating cult as a whole, but it still denies Great Lakes Earth the opportunity of a leaf-eating insect that makes good food for multitudes of predators, including humans. That is, if it weren’t for Stenopelmatoidea. This raises a question, because back home, this superfamily is exclusive to the islands of New Zealand. So how did these insects, colloquially called “wetas”, become popular sights in Great Lakes Earth’s temperate and tropical zones? One theory is that they were around when Pangaea decided to split apart and diversified during the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum. They avoid competition with their fellow crickets and katydids by becoming omnivores. Their nymphs feast only on leaves, but upon maturing to adult form, they give up the soft leaves in exchange for fruit and meat. In fact, some species are hypercarnivorous, from birth to death, as the females lay their eggs on carcasses so that their nymphs can feast on the rotting meat.
This sort of behavior discourages the evolution of another major order of insect — Diptera, consisting of flies, gnats, midges and mosquitoes. With these biters out of the way, life on Great Lakes Earth would still have to contend to ticks, lice, fleas and especially oodles after oodles of worms.
The Great Dying created a huge vacancy among millipedes and centipedes. Filling in the void quickly are Megadrilacea — earthworms. On Great Lakes Earth, some species compete with cockroaches and wetas for rotting fruit, while others have developed a taste for rotten meat.
The world of the fish is alien compared to our own. Circumstances on Great Lakes Earth made the ocean even more alien. Some shapes and names are familiar, but the basic sensation is plunging down on some primordial, prehistoric seascape. Indeed, the oceans of Great Lakes Earth in the 21st century are alive with fish we used to have but been extinct for millions of years.
Of all the sharks on Great Lakes Earth, 56% of them come from Squatiniformes, the angel sharks, or monkfish. The reason for this kind of success is their flatness. They can be found everywhere — worm forests, tidal pools, brackish deltas, locomotional rivers, lake bottoms and even the eternal darkness of the deep. If they weren’t so flat enough to discourage the evolution of the rays, skates, sawfish, sawsharks (there IS a difference), flounders, soles, turbot, plaice and halibut, they might not have conquered every possible aquatic habitat. Nor, in fact, could they have ever survived the Great Dying, let alone unaffected.
The Jaws of Great Lakes Earth isn’t a lamniform, but an overgrown member of the genus Galeocerdo, the notorious tiger shark.
On Great Lakes Earth, there are 30,000 species of bony fish, 88% of the overall total.
The last survivors of the ancient lobe-fins are what we call the “African lungfish”. They survived the Great Dying simply because they could withstand complete drought, unlike the other group of lungfish, the Australians. On Great Lakes Earth, they are common sights in rivers and lakes of the tropical and temperate zones.
Back home, Perciformes is the most diverse of all the vertebrates, making up 41% of the bony fish. On Great Lakes Earth, it never existed. Most of the open-ocean big game fish instead belong to the salmon, pycnodonts, macrosemiids and paleoniscid orders.
Tselfatiformes, and despite making up only four percent of the whole bony fish total, ranks highly as the most extravagant. They can best be compared to angelfish, butterflyfish, cichlids and dories. They also join the salmoniform, beryciform and myctophiform fish at being diverse members of the sparse deep-sea ecosystem.
At 34%, Scorpaeniformes, the “mail-cheeked fish” — lionfish, scorpionfish and stonefish — is the most diverse of Great Lakes Earth’s bony fish. Just like the salmon and the angel sharks, they are indisciminate in regards to environmental demands — every trench, reef, delta, swamp, river, lake, bay, sea and ocean have these mail-cheeks. They are active predators and passive herbivores, prospering in warm, sunlit waters and cold, dark bottoms.
Back home, beach sand is done by, believe it or not, digested coral and rock excreted from parrot fish. But no such behavior exists on Great Lakes Earth, so popular beaches are muddy, rocky, red-sandy (where volcanic rock and iron deposits stand vulnerable to the constant pounding of waves), seashell, orange-beach (high in iron, but low in volcanic rock), green-sandy (olivine crystals chipped off basaltic rock) and black-sandy (the eroded remains of volcanic lava and ash).
On Great Lakes Earth in the 21st century, there are 6200 different species of amphibians. However, the circumstances of the different mass extinctions demand that we take a closer look.
Back home, the sirens are simply eel-like, herbivorous salamanders. However, on Great Lakes Earth, they are not just confined to the fresh waters of Mexico and the American Southwest. They can be found cosmopolitanly in fresh, brackish and salt water within the boundaries of the tropical and temperate zones. They are only marine amphibians. Their alternative names are “congers” and “eels”, taking niches that back deal would have been occupied by the real deal. They deal with the issue of salinity by excreting a gelatinous coat of slime which also doubles as defense against predators.
Anura, the order consisting of frogs and toads, makes up 73% of Great Lakes Earth’s amphibians, and there is a clear ecological distinction between the two names. Frogs thrive on closed, moist environments — forests and swamps. Toads thrive on open, drier habitats — grasslands and deserts. Savanna and bush are the only habitats in which both frogs and toads hop together.
Because of their thin, waterlogged skins, the amphibians were the hardest to get hit by the Great Dying 65 million years ago. 97% of the entire class was wiped out, and they were the slowest terrestrial vertebrates to recover — small handfuls of species started to spread in the thousands as recently as 40 million years ago.
Sahul could very well be considered an amphibian haven. The continent used to have a lot of reptiles overruling their amphibian prey. But 45 million years ago, the Sahulian reptiles bore the brunt of the Icing of Antarctica. For 30 million years, Sahul’s only surviving reptiles were the meiolaniids, the “horned turtles” (though they might not be that closely related to their namesakes) before another sudden big chill froze them to extinction five million years ago. But the amphibians seem to be better suited to cold weather than reptiles. With no reptiles left, they took over. The Eyre watershed is now alive with salamanders as big — and as mean — as crocodiles, sirens that slither to its prey like pythons and frogs no bigger than two and a half feet long or 20 pounds.
342 million years ago, the ancient amphibians became subject to the Great Amniote Explosion, in which two major groups — Reptilia and Therapsida — made their immediate divergences.
Back home, most reptiles splay their legs completely out of their bodies. On Great Lakes Earth, that is not so popular. Tortoises arrange their legs semi-erect for better support of their heavy, carapace shells. Monitors arrange their legs semi-erect to make them more efficient hunters. Crocodilians arrange their legs semi-erect for the same reason.
On Great Lakes Earth, sea turtles have been extinct for 65 million years, and given the chance, some other group of reptiles might have filled the void. But sharks, birds and mammals beat them to the punch, and with the exception of the sea snake and marine iguana, no reptile on Great Lakes Earth is marine. Giant tortoises can be found in the tropics and subtropics of Africa and Asia, the largest weighing one ton.
On Great Lakes Earth, crocodiles are exclusive to the tropics — no species can be found outside latitude 23.5 degrees. Alligators are more adaptable and are therefore common in the temperate zone. That’s not to say that there are no tropical gators, though — just that they are small, arboreal nighttime hunters, safe from the teeth and claws of raptors, cats, monkeys, crocodiles and monitors.
Squamata, the order consisting of lizards and snakes, makes up 80% of the Great Lakes Earth total of 8,240 species of reptile. In sub-Himalayan Asia and the equatorial forests of Africa and South America, the monitor lizards rank high on the list of top predators. Perhaps it is their presence that explains why the mainland giant tortoises aren’t just armored with their conventional shells, but also on their skin, as well! Some snakes have a kind of antifreeze in their bodies which allows their ectothermic bodies to function properly for a few hours maximum before returning to hibernation, which may explain why the mainland Arctic is full of them.
As with back home, there just isn’t much agreement on who was the birds’ one true ancestor, but one thing is certain — the split between ancestral and avian dinosaurs coincided with the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum 144 million years ago. During that time, the global hothouse climate created an evolutionary explosion, ultimately resulting in specialization — to the extent that most did not stand a chance against the Great Dying. As a result, the 10,000 species of birds on Great Lakes Earth may look similar to birds back home, but make no mistake — there ARE physical and vocal differences, none of them being obvious enough for the naked eye — or ear — to see. Or hear.
For starters, there never are any toucans on Great Lakes Earth — just hornbills that colonized South America after getting blown out of Africa by storms. Actually, that’s exactly how birds reached South America — not just hornbills getting blown in from Africa, but also parrots, corviforms, cariams and owls. With no other birds for competition, these castaways not only survived, they prospered, diversifying into a variety of forms. Since the bridging of Panama, the only feathered migrants from North America to come South are merely winter visitors.
On Great Lakes Earth, hummingbirds, rheas and eagles are exclusively Northern Hemisphere. The hummers aren’t that good at migrating, and dense forests are not ideal for the rheas or the eagles. So the “snake eagles” of equatorial Africa actually AREN’T eagles.
Speaking of rheas, some species can actually be seen grazing alongside bison and camels. They join the bison during the migration process, looking for warmer southern pastures while fighting to avoid the winter chill. Which means that rheas would have to go in heat before the autumn equinox, so that when we’d get to the spring equinox, they’d be ready to brood.
Back home, two separate groups of scavenging birds have been called “vultures”. On Great Lakes Earth, this singularity is genuine. They can be seen soaring above the skies of every continent except Sahul or Antarctica.
The penguins of Great Lakes Earth have been around for 25 million years, but their diversification is actually very recent. They couldn’t have done that while still under the shadow of the hesperorns, marine birds that could have moved more like seals than penguins. However, they were extremely sensitive to cold, and so they were driven to extinction five million years ago. The penguins, on the other wing, stand upright, which makes them more competent to build sturdy nests, and having a sheet of blubber underneath their plumage makes them better-suited to the cold. For five million years, penguins are popular sights in waters south of the equator.
As with the amphibians, Sahul is the place where bird evolution has no limits. There are no eagles, no hawks, no falcons, no buzzards, no harriers, no vultures, no owls and no gamebirds. Instead, we have Strigopidae, the Sahulian parrots, a family that includes the kea and the flightless kakapo. No songbirds is no problem, either, for the parrots and nightjars already had those bases covered. On the riverbanks and lakeshores of Sahul, there are no ducks, no geese, no swans, no rails, no moorhens, no crakes, no coots, no cranes, no plovers, no snipes, no limpkens, no stilts, no avocets, no oystercatchers, no lapwings and no anhingas. All those niches have instead been occupied by only one family — Anseranatidae, the magpie-geese. The moas have been extinct, though that seems no problem for the ratites, for this die-off seemed an opportunity for the current giants to come from the cassowary and emu orders.
There are 5500 species of placental mammals on Great Lakes Earth, 90% of the total. Of that, the rodents are the most diverse of the placentals.
Being small means that rodents, bats, shrews, moles, hedgehogs, lagomorphs and monkeys managed to cross the land bridge to South America. Being adapted for mountain life means no problem crossing for the tapirs, caprids or camelids, either.
On Great Lakes Earth, there are no giraffes, no antelope and no hippopotamus — just camels, three-toed horses and rhinos. Lots of them. In fact, Africa is the last stronghold for most of its mammals. Running and swimming rhinos and three-toed horses used to have wider distributions, but the nothern hemisphere varieties had lost the gamble five million years ago. As a result, single-toed horses, cattle, bison, buffalo, pantherid cats, dogs and deer are exclusively northern hemisphere, while rodents, lagomorphs, bats, monkeys, hyraxes, felid cats, elephants, camels, tapirs and advanced rhinoceros do fine on both.
Back home, lemurs are actually a recent addition, existing since the Pleistocene. On Great Lakes Earth, they have been in existence for 45 million years. They used to exist on mainland Africa as well as Madagascar, but rising pressure from competing with monkeys drove the mainland lemurs to extinction, leaving the survivors stranded in Madagascar. Since they are dry-nosed, unlike the lemurs back home, they look more like miniature macaques or baboons or even tarsiers. The only ape on Great Lakes Earth to ever leave Great Lakes Earth is of the genus Homo. Which means you won’t find any orangutans or gibbons on Great Lakes Earth. (Just as well — competition from the monkeys would be too much.) On Great Lakes Earth, mammals are trichromatic (three color receptors) with the sole exception of the primates, who have evolved a fourth color receptor. This seems pretty advanced in comparison to our mammals, most of whom see the world with no knowledge of red or green.
The only pantherid in Africa is the Neofelis, the leopard. In our eyes, it is a Clouded Leopard enlarged from 25–51 pounds to 62–198 pounds, large enough to hunt down the horses and camels of the African plains. Tigers, lions and jaguars are very common in North America, Asia and Europe. Just as common is a felid under the genus Puma.
The tallest and heaviest land mammal on Great Lakes Earth is the Greater Rhino, Paraceratherium afarensis. Males stand 20 feet tall at the shoulders and weigh 20 tons.
Because it took so long for marine ecosystems to recover from the holocaust of the Great Dying, today’s marine mammals look awfully primitive compared to the marine mammals we have back home.
In the absence of pantherids and canids, hyenas and tremarctinid bears duel to become Africa’s top predators.
The only placental mammals on Sahul are bats, seals and whales. Even so, prepare to be disappointed if you expect to find marsupials on Great Lakes Earth. They have been extinct for 65 million years. Instead, the majority of Sahul’s mammals are the next best thing — the egg-laying monotremes.