Ao-Oni: The Lonely Shore Fauna Picture

The next part of our journey through the land of Triberia is one significantly further north, near the actual ice caps, where the enormous lakes or ‘freshwater seas’ are found. </span> One of these lakes is much smaller than the others, and further south. Even so, it is still similar in size to the nation of Belgium. In this region, a climate that is cool and similar to that of Western Europe during the age of man triumphs. Far away from other aquatic environments, the fauna living in this giant lake and around it are unique to their circumstances, and create a fascinating diversity of organisms as a result. The cool waters provide a rich source for life to dwell, and even in winter, life abodes here.</p>

Around the edges of the lonely shore, shallow waters hold home to a wide range of small insects, crustaceans and nematode worms, feeding upon sizeable quantities of algae that grow throughout the summers. Most of these are similar to the normal varieties that are found all across Ao-Oni in aquatic environments, being metaphorically as ‘common as dirt’. However, one of these forms, unique to the Lonely Shore has taken up a more interesting position. These creatures are known as swarm shrimp (Ordigarides borealis), for the fact that they gather around in large groups in a strong social structure. Their feather like arms help guide tiny algae and larvae towards their mouths, and they will often herd strategically to maximise concentrations of food. Swarm-shrimp have an organised social structure which involves the adults swimming around the young for defence, something almost unheard of among arthropods. As well as the feathery feeding limbs, a pair of pincer limbs among the larger males help protect the group from rival predatory shrimp. The animal’s eyes are highly compound, though not as extreme as a mantis shrimp of the age of man, enabling them to detect predators and food from great distances. Swarms of these creatures tend to vary in size depending on what time of year it is. They live in small groups or even alone during the harsh winter, but can organise into swarms of thousands during the rich spring and summer, though the former only lasts about 1 month or so due to how close the lake is to the North Pole. 5 months of summer and 5 months of winter, with only a couple of months as intermediaries has an interesting effect on fauna, with these shrimp completely changing their social structure in response. Their colour scheme tends to be a dull grey, though they are often coated in algae resulting in a green appearance. Adult males measure around 5cm in length excluding the pincers and weigh in the region of about 11g due to their robustness, whereas the smaller females are around 3cm and weigh less than 4g. Larvae are almost microscopic to the human eye for much of their time maturing.

Along with these various smaller shrimp, there also a number of forms of insects adapted to this habitat. Some of these are your normal diving beetles, midge larvae and the young of normal mayflies and stoneflies. However, there are some other much stranger creatures here that would not find analogies anywhere else. This is the swaggot Icthyodiotropis jeffersonni), a strange creature adapted to the aquatic lifestyle. The animal has a paddle like tail that undulates chaotically, while a smooth body with hardened hairs acting like a dorsal fin moves around. It lacks eyes and instead has sensors somewhat similar to antennae, which help it as it looks for detritus to feed on. And it is huge. Swaggots measure up to 80cm excluding their antennae, which can be almost 30cm long themselves, and weigh almost 7kg. This would be impossible further south due to competition from chordateuths, terrateuths and small xenothallasiotheres and other aquatic onis, but here it is different. It is too cold in the winters for chordateuths to make a living, and too isolated from the oceans as well, save for streams and the odd river flowing in. the cold environment and lack of competition allow this incredible creature to exist. As its name suggests, it is actually a neotonic maggot evolved distantly from the house fly, having likely evolved around 30 million years ago and in the absence of competition developed into an open detritus feeder. Their reproductive habits consist of them doing body-to-body contact, which is not seen in the crustaceans, and a symbol of their metamorphic ancestry. They are incapable of moving into shallow waters, never mind the surface due to there being not enough pressure to support their bodies. While they are relatively fragile, their antennae are filled with barbs that allow them to defend themselves from predators, and they are capable of quick bursts of speed when necessary. Not much can come stranger than a place where flies take the role of whales.

With no aquatic vertebrates or cephalopods around to hold them back, the shallow algal areas are ripe game for gastropods, particularly bear-snails (ursocochlidae); a group of bottom dwellers feeding off the large deposits growing throughout the region. They get their name from the fact that they will feast on large amounts of food during the summers and spring, and hibernate during the winter, during which their food stock is gradually exhausted. They are fairly diverse throughout all of the fresh water seas of Triberia and northernmost Hyperborea, but the ones on the Lonely Shore are particular in the way that their shells have a blade like extention, which makes it difficult for them to be attacked by flying draconians or hungry saurodonts. This defence form makes them even more prolific than normal, and herds of them may migrate around the shallows, consuming huge amounts of algae and vascular plants alike. Reeds, aquatic ferns and dandelions and the ever present crabgrass (usually in much smaller forms than their tropical kin) form an excellent source of nutrients for these snails, and their ability to live either underwater or above the surface means they can maximise this effort. In terms of size and colouration, this varies significantly between species. The smallest species is no larger than a bead and tends to have brightly coloured shells that litter beaches when discarded. The largest species are fully aquatic and have shells as big as a size 12 shoebox, never coming above the surface and feeding on the roots of plants, with dull brick-like colour schemes. All these snails are herbivorous in their habits, and tend to be social animals.

Along the surface of the rivers and lake lies a predator which is thriving in these summer times, feeding on the legions of dead mayflies and stoneflies around the water, along with tiny flies and aphids unlucky enough to get trapped there. The Lonely-skaterbeast (anuragnathus giganteus) is unusually large by skater standards due to this bountiful supply, and as a result requires extra sensitive hairs and webbing around its 8 feet as its sifts across the water surface. Measuring up to 8cm from snout to tail, it is still small by normal vertebrate standards, but it has a proportionally large head and even pouch for it to store left over food that it wishes to store for later. They often are alone but will mob up to catch smaller insects or sift for corpses during the mating seasons of the mayflies. Unlike others, they have the frog like tendencies of using pouches to produce a popping noise that allows them to compete with other members of their kind for mates. This is present in both genders, as there is an egalitarian role between the two in terms of searching for mates. They have purple pouches for communication, which are usually hidden under the neck in order to avoid aerial predators, while the fur is a dark brown colour. They are quite territorial due to this loud nature, and roam territories as large as an acre mostly to themselves and their offspring.

One predator that can take on snails, as well as beetles and even small saurodonts that wonder too close to the water’s edge is a relatively small but deadly creature known as the Hidden Dragon (suchonymphus primitivus), a neotonic dragonfly that has stayed in its larval form and become a deadly ambush predator as a result. More basal than some of its smaller equivalents elsewhere, it lacks the eurypterid like forelimbs in favour of sharpened mandibles, while retaining the compound eyes of adults. Without any competition from crayfish and the like, they are able to be quite numerous and unusually large. A hidden dragon will wait in ambush for hours or even days at a time, with hairs around the legs detecting changes in the vibrations of the surrounding soil and water. When an organism approaches, the beast will know quickly, detect it with its eyes and grab it with lightning speed. They do very little, if any active swimming when adults, while the young will move around more freely. Adult forms are similar in size to the ancient Brontoscorpio of the Silurian oceans, or about 90cm in length, thus being fairly deadly towards smaller animals. They will often bury themselves under reeds in order to be more inconspicuous, while their brown armour camouflages well with the mud and soil at the bottom of the riverbed. Their excellent ambush strategy means that they have a relatively high rate of success for predators, allowing them to flourish around the edges of this lake.

Near the bottom of the floor, which can extend up to 200m below the surface in the case of this, fallen food of animals, plants, fungi and other forms of waste makes its way down. In this environment, little is left to waste. Just like on earth, this environment is home to amphipods, like the paratriles (pseudotrilobitus communis), relatives of woodlice adapted to a bottom feeding lifestyle. The cold and dark conditions here mean they have minimal use of their eyes, and use sensitive feelers to move about instead. They retain their family-centred activities of their ancestors, moving around the bottom floor in groups. They get the name from the fact that they appear very similar to the ancient trilobites that once roamed Earth’s oceans in the past, and they appear to hold a similar ecological position to some of them. The sheer amount of rich decaying matter that reaches here allows their numbers to reach in the thousands, if not millions at the bottom of the lake. Their heads are shovel like in design to make their way through thick debris or shovel in the dirt through the surface for anything underneath. Ever the generalists, they are thus capable of eating almost anything that comes their way. Once again, the relatively empty waters allows them to reach unusual sizes, though what this is depends on their location and individual well-being. Normally individuals range as adults from about 8 to 35cm in length, though exceptional specimens exceeding 50cm are not uncommon either. Family units usually consist of two parents and their offspring moving around. They are quite territorial towards other families and actively care for their young until they reach the sub adult phase, determined by a change in their armour structure as their shovel head begins to form, by which they become independent. The food here is plentiful for all.

With such a bountiful supply of insects and crustaceans around of all different forms, there has to be an apex predator in this environment, and once again it is an arthropod- a shrimp to be precise. The wereshrimp (Charybdis tartarus) is the closest thing the aquatic environment has to a top predator, vastly dwarfing everything else here in a Cambrian sense. It is an open water creature and thus consumes large quantities of swaggots, smaller shrimp, snails and larvae on a regular basis, even using its forelimbs to grab draconians out of the sky. In a way similar to the ancient anamolicaris, they face little challenge from any other aquatic animal bar their own species, as no vertebrates or cephalopods are present here, thus allowing them to reach great potential. Their anatomy is adapted well with a powerful fluked tail moving them around, while the normal legs have developed along the lines of flippers. The front limbs are somewhat like pincers, though much thinner and more numerous than in eurypterids, along with a less flat body. One exception is a pair that have fans, which are used for sexual display and communication with other members of their kind. The antennae are useful in finding food, as they detect electrical currents from the other animals roaming the area, being much more cursorial than the dragonfly larvae near the ‘coasts’. The young of the animal start out life living nearer the bottom of the lake, and as they mature and their food demands grow, they move upwards into the water, taking their role as predator, though often trying to hide from more mature individuals, who will not hesitate to cannibalise. Adult females are the larger, measuring up to a staggering 3m in length and weighing up to 300kg, while the males tend to be around 1.8m in length and weighing 80-90kg. this is possible due to a combination of factors; that being a lack of competition, similar to how giant eurypterids like jaekelopterus and pterygotus evolved, cold conditions which favour large sluggish arthropods, and the lower gravity conditions here. Only a few oceanic shrimps surpass this in size, and they are primarily tropical filter feeders, unlike this macropredatory beast. Wereshrimps have a dark blue, almost ceramic black colouring to their armour, though their fan arms have bright blue signals due to blood being pumped into them for mating or intimidation purposes.

On the shores of this bountiful lake lie a number of different plant types descended from those that man introduced many millions of years earlier. Smaller grasses, thistles and dandylions coat the nearby areas, while bright pink poppies thrive in the temperate conditions, flowering as summer comes and going underground during winter, living off supplies of nutrients. The larger plants in this particular region are of more unusual forms, consisting of a mixture of conifers and descendants of ailanthus, with the odd dandylion tree poking through sometimes. In the distance, a more plains based environment gives way. Either of these is home to one of the most prominent animals living around the lake side, known as the scaghound (Harpecheirus borotriberiensis), a generalistic form of scythebeast, more specifically of the fork-claw clade, which have prongs in their singular claw. In the case of the scaghound, these resemble a harpē, an ancient form of weapon in Greece mixing a sword with a sickle. These allow the claws to have a more varied functionality, either to slice or stab something, or hold it in place as it feeds. This fits an omnivorous diet which allows it to consume a wide range of food items, ranging from leaves, fruits and berries, through to grasses, fungi and insects, up to crustaceans, saurodonts, small draconians and even the young of centaurs living on the plains. Their stripes work in a somewhat similar way to those of zebra, with no two individuals possessing the same pattern on them, as well as confusing any predators or prey that try to track them. Like bears they will spend a significant amount of energy into feeding themselves up during the summer so they can go through extended sleep during the winter. While not going into full hibernation like bears, they do spend considerably more time in their burrows than usual, often trying to nurse their whelps. Another bear like feature is their exceptional sense of smell, which allows them to distinguish a wide variety of circumstances, such as identifying the position, age and even health of other individuals, or even detect whether or not a particular plant or fungus is poisonous. They can smell blood in the air from up to 2km away, and stronger smells from even further distances. The lack of external ears is quite useful in cold winter conditions, where temperatures can drop well below -20C, with their fur coat growing thicker during this time as well. They shed this coat during the summer, where temperatures reach in the 20s, occasionally even the 30s, and are more active in lifestyle. They are medium sized animals, similar in body-size to a golden retriever, except for a long, almost theropod like tail which reaches around half of its body length. They have a lighter tone on the end of this, which they often use to signal to other members of their kind when in the local vicinity of one another. Their temperament to other members of their kind depends on the season. They are quite sociable towards each other during the spring and most of the summer, but during the autumn and long winters, they are much more solitary and hostile due to a higher demand for finding food. They are certainly one of the most successful of all the animals in Triberia, being found in almost every habitat.

Yet another creature ever present in this habitat comes not from the surface, but mainly from the skies, usually in flocks. These insectivorous creatures are the lesser griffs (Griffotherium minus), a thriving type of draconian which migrates in a way like swallows of the time of man. In the summer, they will move up to these latitudes to feed and thrive, while in the winters, they will go south into the Slugface Peninsula, Hyperborea or even occasionally Valinor to stay away from the colder temperatures. They get a name from being members of the clade that resemble the gryphons of ancient mythology, as well as the creatures that flourish across the southern hemisphere. They are one of the few members of their group that live in the northern parts of the world, and they differ significantly in many ways. For a start, they are much smaller animals, with adult females having wingspans of no more than 40cm and 28cm respectively, with males even smaller at 30cm and 22cm respectively. Another is that their proportions are more compact, with smaller legs and a longer tail, indicating a more flight-orientated lifestyle. Their migratory habits are certainly the cause for this. They also mostly lack the fighting canines their relatives have, instead favouring beak like incisors and grinding molars, which suit their mainly insectivorous diet. Griffs are quite sociable creatures, rarely being seen on their own due to being relatively vulnerable. In groups they are able to watch out for one another, and effectively deal with threats such as predators or bad weather. One of their particularly most exploited food items comes in the form of the great swarms of mayflies that occur in the early summer as their mating season occurs. While either flying or as dead bodies, they are a highly numerous and nutritious source of protein for the griffs, who will feed in vast numbers on both this and any other insects caught in the fray, along with the occasional unlucky skater-beast that didn’t manage to get away in time. A central part of Triberia’s aerial fauna, and a remarkable example of convergent evolution with the swallows, the griffs certainly cannot be ignored in such an ecosystem.

And that my friends is the ecosystem of the Lonely Shore. Check in next time for a surprise entry, one which has been touched on in the past, but not gone into full detail for. See you then!

Continue Reading: Charybdis