Two extremes of the avian family tree (and of Aotearoa’s unique fauna) stand superimposed: a spectacled gobbler peers past two tangerines perched upon a p-Eucalyptus branch
The great archipelago of Aotearoa lies about 1,600 km southeast of Australia, separated by the Tasman Sea. The imaginatively named North and South Islands comprise about 99% of the total landmass, separated by the narrow Cook Strait. Together, these islands form a mini-continent of snow-capped mountains, lush temperate forests and sparkling lakes and waterfalls. With the boundaries of the Indo-Australian and Pacific Plates running down their entire length, Aotearoa is also a land of violent tectonic activity where no lifeform lives far away from potential disaster in the form of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
With regards to most of the flora and invertebrate fauna, Aotearoa is a snapshot of old Gondwana, brimming with clades that have become extinct or marginalised elsewhere. The situation with its assemblage of vertebrates, however, appears more complex. When Aotearoa separated from the rest of Gondwana in the Cretaceous, it carried away with it an arkloadof animals including sauropods, ornithopods and theropods. Whilst some modern groups, such as the primitive leiopelmatid frogs, are certainly relicts of those ancient days, it seems that most of the larger forms died out as the Cenozoic progressed, including all terrestrial mammals and non-avian dinosaurs, probably falling victim to fluctuating sea-levels and volcanic episodes. Taking their place were the true birds flying in from across the Tasman which, from a handful of volant species, evolved into a bizarre array of giant flightless herbivores and predators.
The multitude of smaller islands and rich waters that surround the main pair have also become a paradise for birds. Procellariforms, penguins, cormorants and waders flocked to these islands to feed and breed, making the region a cradle of seabird evolution.
The Bastion of a Lost World :
Aoteoroa's Thermal Fields as a Thermal Refugia
We see in the thermal lands of Aoteoroa, a landscape of constant change. Springs erupt forth from the ground,creating mud pools, geysers and cloudy pools of luxuriantly warm water. Sulfur terraces and mud rock faces are constantly warmed and re-formed from the earth, steam rises in columns from the very soil itself. This is Rotorua, a province where Aoteoroa's volcanic past haunts the land. Birds tend to dominate Aoteoroa's coll lanscape, but here, in the summerless north, it remains relatively mild and muggily humid. Conditions that discourage birds greatly encourage the land's reptillian refugees. Able to survive underground or underwater during the vulcanism that wiped clean the country's dinosaurs, these beasts were ruled truly by the heat around them. As the gondwanan fragments moved their separate ways, Aoteoroa became so cool that any reptile that was to survive became more physically robust and heavily adapted towards a changeable climate and metabolism.
In Aoteoroa, many stayed relatively small, frogs certainly did so, with one exception. The galumphing lump (Giganura pseudoanura), a very large, bullfrog-like aquatic frog, is as large as the balrog and very fierce. Being stumpy in build and dark in colur, it specialises in waiting in the bubbling springs and ponds, ambushing passing invertebrates and small vertebrates. The pools and even the much cooler lakes are home to turtles, Blackshells (Nigerotrionix medius). These relictual trionychids gained their metabolic defenses in the verdent streams of Pre-glacial Antarctica, and now remain only in Aoteoroa, stolic survivors of the old order of Gondwana, hudling and wallowing in the warm, sulfur mud.
More amazing is the tiny Murkodile (Paralligator 'chelophagus), a metre-long crocodile that takes any opportunity that presents itself. It constantly stalks the turtles that frequent the pools, and will chase basking lizards and sphenodonts, even eating the charred remains of other reptiles that fall to their doom by going too close to boiling mud and water. The croc is a cautious and wily beast, as they too often traverse to far into the heat, and find themselves in peril. This beast not only looks the survivor, but has an ancestry to boot, being a relict notosuchid, but having specialised in catching the more successful small reptiles.
Tuataras (Sphenodon sp) traverse the cold air of winter and the unforgiving islands to the south, being much similar to their Homeworld counterparts, with the exception of their warningly blue tongue. But one species, endemic to the warmer north, has transcended it's low and versatile metabolism in order to become a true monster.
Y Draig Goch (Erythrosphenus regalis), garbed in warning scales of bright red, and named by early Welsh spexplorers, is a truly draconic monster. Akin in size to a komodo dragon, it roams the northern fields and forests, subduing prey with a venomous bite. It can regularly be seen warming its body on the hot-rocks, like a primeval beast from an enduring nightmare. They will tussle for territory and mates in the primeval haze, even tossing eachother into the boiling thermal geysers and pools. Often their piercing cries break the eerie scenery as they strive for survival as reptiles always have.
The hot rocks and steaming wastes also host a real giant, the lumbering relic of noble ancestry. The Stagtoitle (Cervochelys cornatus), is descended from small meiolnaids that stolidly withstood the events of the land in burrows and cool wallows. They have since adapted to the harsh cool with changes in metabolism and size, being as large as a golf buggy and dark as ebony to absorb the heat. In the cooler times they huddle and wallow among the steaming undergrowth and sit like monuments on the flat, hot rocks. As with some of the larger reptiles of aoteoroa, they roam the warm northern meadows and forests, but must congregate in thermal areas in the cooler months. They eat constanly, bulldosing the bushes and small trees almost constantly.
Most reptiles here nest by burying their eggs in the warm soil, avoiding areas of too much steam and heat, lest their precious clutch be boiled. The stagturtles nest when the weather is beginning to warm, and they build a wall of heavy bodies and swinging mace-tails around their communal nests, as theirclutches of tennis-ball-sized-eggs incubate in the nurturing warm soil.
Tiny and insignificant, the geckoes and skinks, while somewhat larger than their Australian relatives, are at the mercy of tuataras and, remarkably, a snake. A garter-snake-sized burrower, as yet unnamed, is a descendant of Aoteoroa's Madstoiids, and slides through the topsoil, seeking unsuspecting small animals to sieze and eat.
The thermal fields played a very real protective role to the giant reptile's immediate acestors, the ice ages made many areas too cool for such large cold-blooded beasts. Such times made the thermal areas the only places to take refuge from the cold, but such adversity proved to the beast's advantage, as their metabolisms fine-tuned their constitutions to endure adverse weather.
As Spec's globe changes as the world always does, Aoteoroa's reptiles may succumb to anny number of unseen fates. However, as the worlds reptiles, ancestors of all warm blooded vetebrates, always have, they shall persevere and never fail to prosper.