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Spec: North America

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A small herd of valley singers browse the vegetation near around bay on North America's southwestern coast. In the background, bay-gulls flock over grazing hmungos.

The other part of Laurasia, North America, is narrower than its sibling, Eurasia, although it harbors the same range of climates, from rainforest to windswept desert to sprawling grassland. Two great mountain ranges flank the coasts of the continent---the ancient, weathered Appalachians to the East and the youthful, craggy Rockies to the West. Between these mountains was once solid forests (punctuated here and there by rain-shadow deserts) but the recent drying and cooling of the world has resulted in vast grasslands that stretch from the heart of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The richest land is to be found in central and southern North America, along the banks of the continent’s largest river, the Mississippi, where soil was dropped by melting glaciers at the end of the last the Ice Age. Glaciation is the most noticeable geological force acting upon northern North America, although the west coast, which rubs against the Pacific tectonic plate, is also volcanically active.

Flora in North America is similar to that of Eurasia, although there are a few differences. There is no bamboo in North America, this grass being replaced by a wider diversity of deciduous trees such as poplars (p-Populus), birches (p-Betula), ailas ( Alia) and many others. Northern forests are dominated by spiny conifers such as pines (p-Pinus) and giant sequoias (p- Sequoia ), while southern forests are composed mostly of deciduous hardwoods like the oaks (p-Quercus), with an underbrush composed mostly of prickly Deinorubus (thornest) brambles. The plains are covered in grass, which may grow to two meters in height and is heavily fortified with silicates, making it is un-digestible to all but the most resilient herbivores. Few softwood trees can resist the grazing of dinosaurs, and so tend to be small and bushy. In the more arid portions of the continent, spiny cacti are the dominant flora. The wood-urchin cacti (genus Hursutis ) can be found as far north as Canada.

Although North America’s plant life may seem fairly familiar, the animal life diverges strongly from that of Home-Earth. Spec’s North America emerged from the Mesozoic with a full compliment of fauna, from tyrannosaurs to ceratopsians, and animal diversity remained high throughout the Tertiary, although the species have changed somewhat. Several Cretaceous lineages have under gone changed and displacements (ceratopsids (minus the exception of the Everglades Tuskhorn aka Parajugaloceratops americensis), but sightings of creatures similar to the likes of ceratopsians have been reported in the colder regions, ankylosaurs (though they have adapted to an aquatic lifestyle here in the Americas while other traditional ankylosaurs thrive in other areas), troodonts (which thrive in Central America, South America, Asia and possibly Africa)) and other lineages which have now vanished forever from the fossil record (ornithomimids and pachycephalosaurs), while others (such as the viriosaurs) have arisen, but life goes on. In the north, North America’s principal herbivores are the therizinosaurs (Therizinosauria) much like their counterparts in Eurasia. Hunting these creatures are errosaurs and sabretyrants (Tyrannosauroidea) and draks (Boreonychidae), again the same as in Eurasia. Further south, a biologist begins to encounter differences between these two halves of Laurasia. Formosicorns are unheard of in North America, minus the exception of the recently discovered Yata which is a recent immigrant from the Pliocene epoch. Neohadrosaurs (Neohadrosauria) such as the as the hmungos, stellosaurs and some species of kritosaur exclusively, are now employed as the large and medium herbivores, though it is more likely to see the small stellosaurs are more likely to fulfill the role of the small grazers and browsers. Viriosaurs (Viriosauria), basal ornithopods from South America, take up most of the small herbivore niches, mirroring the image of various ornithopods that roamed North America in the past like Thescelosaurus. Birds are either South American forms or old North American. Mammals are mostly eutherians such as insectivores, spec-rodents (Xenotheridia), metherians (Metatheria) and bats (Chiroptera), although there are representatives of other, stranger groups present.

For the most part, North America is still very much a part of Laurasia. A North American deciduous forest will look very much like a Eurasian deciduous forests, often with exactly the same species occupying the same niches. The reason for this similarity is Beringia, a landbridge connecting Alaska to Siberia. Throughout the Tertiary, Beringia has been an intermittent link between the Old and New worlds, rising from the ocean at every sea-level drop only to be inundated by the next sea-level rise. The bridge was stable enough however, to act as a conduit for Asian and North American fauna, and has only recently disappeared after the end of the last Ice Age.

Until recently, the extent of North American biological diversity was Asian migrants plus a handful of odd endemics, but that changed in the late Miocene, when a new landbridge opened. This was not the familiar Beringia route from Siberia to Alaska, nor was it the Newfoundland/Scandinavia link that existed during the Eocene and (possibly) during the glaciation of the Pleistocene, but the southern bridge, Panama, a pathway to Gondwana. South America, a chunk of the great southern continent Gondwana, broke away from the parent body some fifty million years ago, and sat in isolation until it linked up with North America via the Panama landbridge, which exists to this day. The formation of the Panama landbridge sparked off the Great Faunal Interchange, an event which, in our home timeline, took place as a shuffling of mammalian populations. The Interchange entailed the introduction of llamas, big cats, and rodents into South America, while ground sloths, armadillos, opossums, and many bird groups made their way north. In Spec, of course, different groups of animals were present to make the transition. The late Miocene marked the introduction of the viriosaurs , which now occupy every small herbivore niche throughout central and southern North America. Other new-comers included the opossums and their kin, armadillos and theirs, hummingbirds, swoops, parrots, and the enigmatic torrent raptors .

-Daniel Bensen



Perdition Lost:

The Great Black Swamp of Eastern North America


Stretching 120 miles along the southern Lake Erie shore and extending 40 miles inland lies Great Black Swamp, a huge area of marshy, woody, boggy habitat known to few and studied by almost no one. Its forests are dark and maze-like and its deceptively solid-looking ground hides deep, black pools of stagnant water, which spawn clouds of mosquitoes to swarm through the dense, dark columns of towering trees. In RL, the Great Black Swamp was so abominable, that no human--not even the Native Americans who had lived in the area for thousands of years--dared to enter it until the late 1800s, when the swamp was drained and converted into farmland. As the Great Black Swamp had never been formally studied, its memory faded quickly, and we will never know what kinds of plants and animals may have dwelt within its depths.

RL's Black Swamp has been lost forever, but its Specworld counterpart lives on, bridging the gap between universes to hint at what our own timeline's Great Black Swamp might have been like in its heyday. Ironically enough, the Great Black Swamp is one of the few places where biologists can study the Specworld version to speculate on Home-Earth's lost environments.

The Great Black Swamp is a dynamic and forbidding environment. Water levels are constantly fluctuating, reaching a maximum depth in spring, rapidly plunging in early August, and filling again during the fall and winter. Even in late summer, the Great Black Swamp is not completely dry, however. The ground is saturated year-round and thick with black, smelly muck. Because of the the amount of biological detritus dissolved in it, the swamp's water is also fairly acidic, black with tannin from moldering leaves, and quite deadly to many organisms.

As well as the acidity and water level changes, the aquatic animals of the Black Swamp must deal with extremely low levels dissolved oxygen, as is the case in many marshy environments. The water is stagnant, and there is little wind to mix atmospheric oxygen in. What little oxygen is released into the water via the photosynthetic labors of green algae is quickly gobbled up by bacterial colonies during their feeding frenzy upon the decaying swamp muck. During the winter, when the trees are bare, even the meager amounts of oxygen produced by the algae shrinks to nothing as the water ices over and light from above is cut off. As the snow melts in spring, the swamp floods to its maximum depth (never more than three meters). During this time, the swamp experiences a sudden flush of oxygen as aquatic plants quickly grow to take advantage of the first warm rays of sun, but the bacteria soon multiply to bring oxygen levels back down. As the trees overhead leaf out, pockets of shade spread to cover the soggy ground, and from late spring to early autumn, the Great Black Swamp earns its name. Across an area almost equal to that of Connecticut, hardly a ray of sunlight reaches the ground. The huge trees growing throughout the swamp create canopies upon canopies in an attempt to consume every bit of solar energy. The aquatic plants die in the months of darkness, and the bacteria die down and wait for the autumn, when the trees will drop their leaves.

The harsh conditions of the Great Black Swamp have fueled the evolution of many strange creatures. Fish are the most common vertebrates of the swamp's waters, most belonging to the family Umbridae, related to the mudminnows of our home timeline. Umbrids first appear in fossil record in the Paleocene, and today have taken grabbed many of the niches reserved, in RL, for their cousins the pike. The reason for this switch from the RL standard is unknown, but in the Great Black Swamp, at least, the umbrids' advantage over the other salmoniforms is clear: they can breath.

Umbrids get most of their oxygen, not from the choking, acidic waters of the swamp, but from the relatively fresh air above. This advantage has allowed the umbrids to dominate most niches in the Great Black Swamp. They range from small species resembling minnows and darters to large predatory species like the mudpike. In clearer water, umbrid diversity falls off, and in many of the streams of North America, they are replaced by their more familiar cousins, the trout.

Another dominating force within the swamp are the trees, which are the originators of most of the biological material in the environment. The dormant tree species of the Great Black Swamp, and the most influential ecologically, are the endemic swamp-chestnuts (p-Castanea belli), part of the large radiation of Spec's North American p-Castanea species. P-C. belli can be found only on Spec, although some botanists argue that there may have been swamp chestnuts in RL, now destroyed along with that timeline's Great Black Swamp.

The success of the swamp-chestnut tree is tied to its reproduction. Like their dry-land relatives, these trees produce countless billions of nuts each year, a strategy meant to overwhelm the other trees sharing their environment by sheer numbers. During the peak of the nut-glut (late September) there are simply too many nuts for the animals in the area to consume. Some animals try to save nuts in buried caches for later, sometimes forgetting to dig them up, and thereby helping to spread the trees. Other nuts simply get lost in the muck and germinate when conditions are right.

Among the animals specialized to take advantage of this sudden bounty is the cracker-carp, a large stocky umbrid, resembling the true carp (order Cypriniformes). This large, slow-moving fish typically feeds on a variety mollusks and crustaceans, smashing through shells and exoskeletons with its powerful jaws. During nut-glut, the snails, freshwater clams, and crustaceans can breath a sigh of relief as the cracker-carp turns its attention to the nuts raining down from the trees. Cracker-carp eagerly swarm around the base of a fruiting tree, grasping the spiny nuts in their their powerful, beak-like mouths and bearing down to crush the nut's shell with a loud CRACK! These gluttonous fish are actually the principal limiting factor in the chestnut trees' expansion, as they eat far more nuts than any other animal. However, their very gluttony makes the cracker-carp vulnerable to predation, themselves. As they rise to the surface to grab a floating nut, many a cracker-carp has fallen prey to the snatching talons of a drak or mattiraptor.

One of the cracker-carp’s usual prey items also exploits the abundance of food pouring from the trees, but the chestnut lobster is not always patient enough to wait for the chestnuts to fall on their own. This large crayfish will occasionally haul itself out of the murky water and clamber onto low tree branches, where it snips off bundles of immature chestnuts. After the nuts have fallen into the water, the crustacean (wary of flying predators) plunges in after them. The chestnut lobster's strong claws make short work of outer casing, and the little crustacean happily devours the nutritious goo inside. After finishing their meal, chestnut lobsters often carry around empty chestnut shells in a manner similar to hermit crabs.

Various species of multituberculate have learned to harvest the food to be found in the trees of the swamp. Two of the most notable and frequently seen of these are the golden flying multi and the larger, more cryptic castor. The golden flying multi is an flamboyant relative of the eastern flying multi, which can also be found swamp during the chestnut season. The golden flying multi is slightly larger than its close relative, with thick, dense fur to ward of the cold and mosquitoes. Only the males are actually golden in color and are quite conspicuous in the dark swampy forest. As with the eastern flying multi, females golden multies typically raise only a single pup per year, inside some hollow tree. The flashy male acts as a decoy, luring predators away from the nest and gliding to safety before it is caught itself.

The other common multi in the swamp is of an entirely different sort. Sightings of the castor have been reported since the first explorations of Spec, but since they are rare outside the swamp, the existence of these creatures has been a matter of some debate. Originally reported to be a beaver-like creature (the earliest sketches of the animal even inaccurately showed the animal with a flattened beaver-like tail), the castor (a relative of the digga-dumdum) is more like a muskrat or a nutria. Only the animal's hind legs are truly modified for its aquatic existence, being webbed and possessing a large claw on the first toe, used to anchor the animal while it nests in the trees. Castor nests are large, spherical structures made out of branches and leaves cemented by mud to the middle boughs of the swamp-chestnut trees. This behavior places the castors out the reach of ground-dwelling predators, and allows them to raise their young away from the wet.

The multituberculates form only a fraction of the Great Black Swamp's mammalian diversity. Spiny hellrats are small weasle-like predators, one of two species of Erebusolens, a strange genus of the widespread order Insectivora, part of the widespread solenodont radiation. The spiny hellrat spends most of its time probing the muck with its long mobile snout for buried invertebrates, fishes, and other edibles. These vicious little predators also tackle snakes, and often sneak into the arboreal nests of multis to eat their young. Hellrats' sharp claws and toxic bite tend to ward off would-be predators.

American harracks are also seasonally common in the swamp. The fall nut-glut attracts large numbers of these little dinosaurs, every harrack in Great Lakes region makes its way to the Great Black Swamp, where the uneven ground guarantees an absence of larger predators. During their stay, the harracks compete with and prey upon the local hellrats (which are quarter of the size of the little mattiraptors). Too avoid too much contact with the harrakcs, hellrats adopt a temporary semi-arboreal mode, which unfortunately brings them into competition with North America’s only pokemuriod: the not-a-coon.

The not-a-coon is a recent addition to the Neartic fauna, arriving via the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene. From their stronghold in western Canada, not-a-coons quickly spread across the entire continent. Like its close cousin, the pikachilla, the not-a-coon carries out a very raccoon-like existence, but their arboreal primate legacy allows not-a-coons to spend much of their time in the trees, out of the way of most predators. During most of the year, not-a-coons and hellrats eat similar foods, and so the little solenodonts would have a difficult time finding enough food in the trees. By the time the harracks arrive in the swamp, however, the not-a-coons are already gorging themselves on swamp-chestnuts, leaving the hellrats to dine on a carnivore's fare.

Amphibians abound in the Great Black Swamp. The largest of these is the Eerie crocamander (arguably a sub-species of the great crocomander), which lacks the streamlined contours of others of its kind. From all over its body, the head in particular, sprout a variety of fleshy lobes, camouflage against the leaves that carpet the the swamp's bed. The Eerie crocamander does not lie dormant during the short “dry” period in summer, but merely buries enough of itself in the thick mud to lie in ambush, prepared to strike at any animal that comes within range. This crocamander is quite a bit more ambitious in its prey selection than most, with small dinosaurs a significant part of the menu. There have been some reports of humans being attacked as well, but the Eerie crocamander apparently has yet to develop a taste for rubber waders.

Another large amphibian of the region is the balrog. This large species of frog resembles a ranid bull frog, but this resemblance is convergent, as ranids never evolved on Spec. Balrogs may grow to half a meter in size, and dine upon a variety of invertebrates and even small fishes and mammals. Lacking the extendable tongue of true ranids, balrogs instead catch their prey with their hands and then stuff the hapless creature into their mouths, which are wide and bristle with tiny teeth. The balrog's true classification still under investigation, as are other ranid-like species found across the globe. They seem to share many features with RL ranids, and current theory dictates that balrogs and their kin evolved in the Cenozoic from the same ancestor of Arel-ranids.

The Great Black Swamp is a densly-packed web of life, as rich, in its way, as a coral reef, with thousands of species churning through their lives, redistributing energy up a vast pyramid of life. Our understanding of this swamp, of the biological intricacies that keep it running, is still very fragmentary. Entire groups of animals and plants no doubt still reside there, unknown to humans, waiting in the dampness and gloom, to be discovered.

(Text by Clayton Bell and Daniel Bensen)

The Land of the Sun:

Sonoran Desert

The great North American desert stretches in Spec as it does in HE from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevada, encompassing the  Arizonan, Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan desert, as well as the infamous Death Valley. While the Sahara remains a practically empty desert, the deserts of Spec's Western North America are home to countless animal species, including many unique forms of dinosaur. Colossal p-saguaro cacti cast long shadows as they stand, lone sentinels, in an arid world of sun and all-pervasive heat. They are flanked by ocotillos, paloverde, creosote bushes, and other hardy shrubs that exist in both timelines. The spines of barrel cactus and hedgehog cactus gleam golden in the rays of the morning sun. No plant here has evolved the same arsenal as can be found on the paintree or the death-thorn in such an unforgiving land, there is little to fear from large grazers.

But animals do exist in here, and when the sun comes out, the day shift comes crawling, skittering, slithering, and hopping out of the ground. These are mostly small animals that revel in the sunlight, but which are driven back into their cool retreats as the sun reaches its zenith.

One of the first out is the Swellsaur (Tetrodosaurus spinosus), a small iguana that has come to emulate the pufferfish's act. Usually found basking on rocks, the swellsaur instantly runs into a crevice when danger threatens. There it gulps in air, inflating its body and raising the stiff spines that normally lay flat on its body. When fully-inflated, it is almost inextractable. Accompanying the swellsaur are nimble drallocs (Bipedodraco sp.) and drazils (Callicursor sp.) that race on the dunes after small insects. Once the sun has heated up the earth sufficiently, the reptilian giants of the desert come forth. The Celestial Zallingersaur (Acanthozallingersaurus bonestelli) is one of these, a one-meter long lizard armed with six shoulder spikes and a tail bristling with barbs. Heaving out of its burrow, the lizard, bedecked in dark blue-black speckled with white dots, crawls out to feed on cactus blossoms, leaves, and the occasional small animal. He is a polyglyphanodontid, a member of an ancient lineage that survives  today on Spec as several giant Zallingersaur species and far more burrowing, mole-like glyphons. Accompanying him on his vegetarian forays are other gentle giants: the Gopher Panzer (Geolorica rugosa)  and the Tiger Tank (Striatochelys difficilis), both desert meiolaniids. Viriosaurs, the most common and widespread herbivores of the desert, are soon on their feet. They are active during the cooler hours of the day, resting under paloverde bushes when the sun grows too hot. The Mojave Viri (Viriosaurus aridophilus) is the prince of these viris. With an ornate-patterned tawny hide, these dinosaurs can be seen hopping around the desert in search of food. They rarely drink water; instead, most of their humidity is taken from prickly pears and other succulent cacti. Other viris include smaller Gray Viris (Viriosaurus minor) and tiny, dainty Brocket Viris (Merycoviriosaurus callipodus). On the other end of the scale, Spiny Vans (Aridovanguarda paiweiae) and Hoplite Vans (Aridovanguarda armatus) trundle across the plains like overgrown, spiky peccaries, digging up roots and foraging for plant matter. Hogbirds like the Yraccep (Tayassuornis priscus) and the Anilevaj (Tayassuornis mexicanus) are also common.

Eventually, the largest animal of the desert appears, ambling sedately in search of greenery. It is a Rhamel (Sonoraonychus pallidus), a heat-loving ceronychid that thrives in the Great American desert. While the driest regions are the realm of viris, rhamels can subsist on meager nutrition for long periods at a time, storing nutrition in a fatty hump on the back. Its large claws are handy for safely slashing into cacti to get at the succulent pulp,  but they also are use to delineate territory. Rhamel land can easily be noted by the gashes left in saguaros, made by the resident male. The gashes, incidentally, never seem to kill the cactus either the segno checks itself, or Spec's cacti have developed thick epidermises in response to such actions. Rhamels, like most other daytime animals, come out only during the cooler parts of the day. During the afternoon, they are forced to find some shade. Predators, too, come out during the day. Snakes are the rule, slithering across the flats with predatory intent. These include colubrids like the handsome Yellow Racer (Flavoserpens sonoriensis), Blue Streak (Agilireptophis azul), and Greased Lightnin' (Atercoluber lumina), all of which are fast predators of lizards and small mammals. Larger snakes prefer to sleep underground till nightfall, safe from the burning sun, with the exception being the Mesquite Boa (Arizonaboa mesquitei), which can be found hunting birds in creosote bushes and chollas. Mattiraptors stalk the desert like hungry coyotes, and are themselves stalked by occasional wandering draks. The daylight hours also see the appearance of Chucks (Toxicanalis sp.), ground-dwelling tweeties that have evolved along the lines of roadrunners. Unlike roadrunners, however, these unique birds have a sharp bill lined with a channel down either side. Venom glands at the base of the beak secrete tweety poison into the channels, from which it flows down to the tip of the beak. Chucks use this venom-channel system to easily dispatch their fleet-footed prey, and to dissuade potential predators. Meanwhile, high up in the endless sky, the feathered jackals soar: harpies, kronks, and horrows. Harpies are the dominant scavengers here, taking precedence at a carcass. Kronks, the southerly icevens, are omnivorous and opportunistic, and the horrows will dive at anything that moves.

Endemic to the desert are Sponge-birds (Spongioplumia sp.), allocolumbids that carry water to their young in their chest feathers. They are preyed upon by Windlords (Avisaurus gwaihiri), golden-brown avisaurs that approximate HE's golden eagles. However, it is at night that the desert truly comes to life. The animals which enjoy the sun have retreated to the safety of their burrows, leaving the night shift free to appear. By day, most animals, fearing the power of the burning sun, hide in their burrows; by night, they emerge and go about their business. Xenotheridians peep cautiously out of their holes. They are preyed upon by practically every predator in the desert, and so a degree of vigilance is in order. Pack-xenos (Pararidorattus sp.) go around gathering dead matter and plants for their nest. White-footed unmice (Albapodamys sp.) hunt out small insects. Naked Sweat Mice (Sebaceomus vomitorius) are among the less savory of xenos; these nude, hairless unmice seem to be secreting a nauseous liquid from every pore and opening in the body, which gives them a foul stench and fouler taste, and renders their bald skin permanently wet and glistening. When directly attacked, a Naked Sweat Mouse will void the contents of its stomach at the attacker to further drive its point home. Despite this defense, unowls and ultravipers seem unfazed, and happily gobble sweat mice up. Viris, too, will come out at night. Several species are active during  the morning hours and at dusk and the early portion of the night, sleeping in between. Such viris include the elusive Obsidian Viri (Viriosaurus ater), known only from scattered reports and one badly mangled carcass.

All of these are preyed upon by the predators. Bat-eared Hoeks and other deltatheroids hunt the xenos. The Desert Brock (Proparameles deserticus) tunnels underground, hoping to find a sleeping daytime animal. Nimble, undersized Stripetailed Draks (Paraboreonychus arizonensis) seek out a variety of small beasts, and will gang up to take on viris. Reptiles also come out at night. The Z-shadow Lizard, a powerful heloderm, crawls sluggishly, confident in its venomous defense. The enormous Rubyback Viper (Paracrotalus adamanteus), a mighty desert ultraviper, also surges forth at this time. Skunkos, geckos, sausagetails, and many more all belong to the host of the dark. Beetles such as the Executioner (Cybridoscarabeus sinistrus) also crawl out; the Executioner in particular buries dung and carrion alike. There are scorpions, too, centipedes, and dinner-plate-sized spiders, the Shelob (Daspletotarantula tolkieni) and Aragog (Daspletotarantula rowlingsi). Both Daspletotarantula spiders are easy prey to the gleaming-blue Sting wasp (Arachnodestructor samwisei). However, the Shelob in particular has an ace up its sleeve: its own army of ants. The Sonoran desert is home to Mordorants (Mordormyrmecia terribilis), omnivorous mound-builders that will eat almost anything. Castes range from the tiny Goblins that scurry over the larger comrades, Orcs which carry out most menial tasks, and the massive-jawed Uruks that defend the colony and are recruited to finish off difficult prey. However, the Shelob circumvents all of this. If a Shelob encounters a Mordorant, it quickly flutters its palps against the ant's antennae, stimulating it to care for the much larger spider. The Shelob also exudes secretions from its abdomen that soothe ants and induce them to protect it. As a result, Shelobs may be found living happily in Mordorant nests, feeding on the eggs, larvae, and even adult ants in total impunity, while the hoodwinked ants protect it and bring food to its mouth. The biggest killer in the desert is the noble Sonoran Strider (Errosaurus saguarorex). Moving gracefully between cacti and scrub, it preys upon anything that cannot run away fast enough. Small draks and rubybacks are taken, as are the mammals which are run down or dug out of their nests. Nevertheless, the hardy strider will not disdain unmice it the opportunity presents itself. High over its head, above the flowering cereus and the yucca blossoms, bats flit, overshadowed by the Frilled Unowl (Peudobubo cristatus). Distinguished by an exceptionally prominent ruff, frilled unowls are the largest nocturnal desert birds, the equivalent of HE great horned and eagle owls. The desert can be a harsh and arid place, but to the animals that live there, it is home. And at no time is it more beautiful than during the brief rainy season, when the sudden downpour cues thousands upon thousands of hidden seeds to germinate. Then the desert blooms with glorious, colorful life, and, for a brief while at least, it looks like an earthly paradise. (Texts of -Emile Moacdieh)

Flame Forest:

Spec's Great Lakes Region 

Spec's North America has a Great Lakes region that has some parallels to HE.Although the exact number of water bodies is disputed on HE, in Spec, five Bodies are recognized according to relative surface level above the Global Datum i.e. sea level and interconnecting direct flow to the St. Lawrence Seaway.Lake Superior,The Michigan-Huron-St. George's bay Lake Complex,Lake St. Clair,Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.The Great Black Forest Swamp has already briefly touched on this realm.Now we proceed to another aspect of the area that has a more bizarre parallel to HE, the Flame Forest.

HE's Great lakes region is anchored by the Michigan peninsulas,two  large domes repeatedly scraped clean by glacial movements and the site of large amounts of moraines,eskers and  dropstones.Water is abundant,with thousands of lakes,streams,rivers, and wetland swamps. As in HE, in Spec's Michigan, you are never more  than seven miles from surface water.Much of the area is not truely exceptional,there are lots of regional varieties of plants and animals, but relatively few spectacular endemics.Most of the two peninsulas are covered in  conifer woodlands of varying types, from dry windswept lakeshore stands of Blueblood Pines (p-Pinus sangreazulis) Named for their pale white bark with a faint blue tint;to deep swamps of Snow cedar(p-Thuja specoccidentalis nivalis), named for the large  piles of snow that remain hidden in their dark shade well into the  heat of summer.The southeast has Oak(p-Quercus) savannahs  reminiscent of pre-columbian HE.The southwest encompasses the northernmost limits of the Great Black Forest Swamp.From small yet seasonally ice-rugged mountains in the northwest, to gently rolling hills and vales in much of the south, it is an interesting microcosm of the northern areas of north america at large.In this respect, HE and Spec only really diverge in terms of Fauna and to a somewhat lesser extent, Flora.All in all, a fairly beautiful but conservative place..........

.....Until you encounter the dry sandy soils of the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. In OTL they are one of the homes of the very widespread Jackpine (Pinus banksiana).Here in Spec, there is a p-pinus in the same general area,with much of the same attributes.Fire-resistant and  dependant,it's cones will only open in intense heat. The life-span of both species is similiar,roughly 30-50 years, with  a similiar height, roughly 10-20 meters.Here the similiarities end.For the Spec p-pinus is native largely to this  area and is charasmatically unique.Behold, the Bloodfire Jack (p-Pinus pyrosangris).Impossibly blood-scarlet red needles taper to pale orange flame tips. When the first spexplorers came upon these, they thought they were in the midst of a bizarrely beautiful infestation plague. Ironically, this is the reason for the bloodfire jack's very  existence.DNA studies shows the p-pinus underwent a genetic bottleneck within the last 500,000 years.Apparently, an ancestral  horde of insects that gave rise to the Pine Fire beetles (Pyrocantharia pinus) are responsible for such glory.Arriving from eurasia,eventually wiping out every Ancestral Specjack(p-Pinus specbanksiana) with the sole exception of a single mutant individual with excessive tannins linked to red pigments in it's needles.Over time, this individual's descendants became ever more tannic and consequently, red pigmentated.Today, the pine fire beetle is exclusive to bloodfire jacks,the only insect capable of dealing with  such a massive tannin load.The larvae burrow into the bark, but can't access the inner heartwood which also uniquely, has very large  loads of tannins and pigments.The dead outer bark contains much of this as well, which the the larvae can just stomach.The result is that bloodfire jack trunks have a wine-dark coloration.

Unfortunately, a heavy price is exacted for the bloodfire jack.Having so much investment into largely unplatable tannins and  pigments,photosynthesis is somewhat more difficult to perform.Switching largely to red chlorophyll has helped.Yet competition with other trees with more efficient green chlorophyll,  a need for dry sandy soil,cold winters,hot summers and frequent fires has led a spiral into the present day intensely maquis-like tree we know today.Bloodfire jacks not only thrive in fire, they actually encourage it with heavy oils exuded from their thin leaves, abundant, frequently shed bark and needles creating a litter dry as tinder.They also absorb the surface moisture with their roots. Bloodfire jack stands and forests routinely experience fire every two to eight years.This is a regime that virtually no other tree in the area can tolerate, especially in the well  drained sands.While bloodfire jacks are found in smallpockets across much of the northeastern portion of north america, only here do conditions conspire to create a large forest area of predominately (p-Pinus pyrosangris).

This has had an interesting effect on the resident faunal population.Red color morphs of many species exist to blend into the forests.Red Cusith(Apatoepicuon azul  v.rufus) have brindled red coats.Most of the local segnosaurs,streks and spelks have a fairly reddish tint to their plumage and pelage.Climbing mammals such as multis,paradidelphids,and polydolopoidmorphids have a rust coloring  not known elsewhere.Notable exceptions,the not-a-coon and  the Pine Bastardsloth (Eunothusasimius pinus) have not developed red phases.

Most of the terrestrial predatory niches in the area have been partitioned between tyrants and metacanids. Only four deinonychosaurs are known for the region.The American Drakhan (Barbarovenator ohioensis), essentially like their Asian cousins,occasionally make an appearance  in the flame forest. Adolescents meander from the more open oak savannahs further south. Fendraks very rarely show up, preferring the open Arctotitan Steppe much farther north.The other two are residents,such as the Eastern Drak (Paraboreonychus appalachiensis),as well as the Kitbit (Vulpessaurus canadiensis), an abundant half-meter long mattiraptor found throughout the forests of North America.The grisly vulgure is absent, but it's primitive cousin, the red vulgure, is very much in evidence.Also present are the very successful Pine Gollums (Noctivagus pinus) which together with the red vulgure, are the dinosaurian equivalent of HE bears.They rarely climb trees though, leaving that to the mammals and birds.Even so, they fish,grub, and scavenge with gastronomic gusto.The gollums are  one of the very few dinosaurs other than scowls and vulpessaurs that routinely hunt at night.

The remaining terrestrial predatory dinosaurs are tyrants such as the Wendigo (Paraerrosaurus marjanovici), a 1 m long strider weighing 15kgs and the Yarper (Errosaurus latransoides) and longer, but more light weight species of strider as well. The Yarper is known for hunting in a speckled dun and red ochre coat, it preys on the abundant Hy-O Dogbunny (Cynolepus minilaborispealeaus) which has a warning call of "hiiyye-O!" repeated in quick fashion seven times.Unwary young belch pigs may also end up down the strider's gullet. Snow honas have their southernmost range here, changing from solid red coats in summer to mottled red and white in winter. They are preyed upon by eastern draks and Shunka Warak'in (Contusisaurus rodloxi), 2 m long bruisers.The Paul Bunyan (Smilotyrannus billi mississippiensis) preys on the larger segnosaurs such as the Blue Babe (Kentroynx azulirhinus) and the ever  present common trig (Seculasaurus vulgaris).

Last, but not always least,the metatherian carnivores of deltatheroida has two groups represented in the area.Thylamustelidae, with 3 species.The Wabasso (Metamartes nivus), is an ermine-sized thylamustelid with very much the same habits. As fierce tiny hunters of small mammals and birds,wabassos also devour Eastern Ice Skinks(Cryoscincus occidentalis) and Punk Frogs (Specerana igniculus) as well as taking juvenile Nanabozhos (Arctohyrax sylvus). The Stole (Metamartes grandis) hunts for frogs,crawfish and other aquatic goodies in the flowing streams,still lakeshores and clear springs in the forest region much like HE minks.Quite large for a possum-weasel, the stole averages 4kgs. The Grumbler (Thylodachius saskatchwannensis) is the largest possum-weasel. This 10 kg digger is the deltatheroidan answer to OTL's badgers.Grumbling to itself as it trundles along day or night in search of invertebrate and vertebrate prey.Grumblers have  incredibly powerful bodies contained within very loose skin to help them slide through the tunnels they rapidly  excavate.This ability, combined with it's extremely aggressive temperament keeps predators well away.More than one adolescent paul bunyan or drak has unwisely snapped or scooped up a grumbler in play,only to promptly spit or toss it out after having it's tongue savaged or arms smarting.One encounter is enough as far as most predators are concerned. Wendigos occasionally follow grumblers and catch whatever flushed prey escapes the unbrock's attention.

The other deltatheroidan group is the famous and fearsome metacanids.the red cusith hunts for streks and spelks mostly at night singly or in mated pairs, trilling to keep in contact. Baskervilles are metacanids trying to be Spec gluttons and succeeding admirably.The 20kg american race is a frequent visiter here from more northernly climes.The ubiqitious Undhole(Enanticuon enanticuon) of global fame races through the flame forest.Whooping and trilling long whistles, this intensly social, 22kg globe-trotting hypercarnivore takes larger-sized prey such as Stagfowl (Cervavis acteaonius),Spepiti (Specerotherium gigas), Ultraviolet-tails (Neocervavis excedeoviolacauda) and snow honas among many others. The Homba (Auritobeastia urocyonoides) is a crepsecular 2kg hunter of  xenotheridians.Silently stealing through the dusk, many a piedpipingrat (Vociferomys sp.) and reedmouse (Caudomys sp.) has had her life ended with a snap of homba jaws.Hombas also may take nesting tweeties and minnies, as well as galliforms such as the  Turkey-Lurkey (Allopavo Allopavo).The final tally of metacanids includes the Amarok (Thylatanukides canadiensis), living much like it's eurasian cousin, this is a massively muscled 210kg animal that  roams the flame forest in mated pairs.

The sole shofixitiidae representative is the Sugarclaw (Shofixitii sucronychus).This is an omnivorous climber much like the paradelphids and not-a-coons that shares it's range. Sugarclaws however, have a trick up their sleeve,or rather, in their very powerful,ripping claws.Every spring, after they emerge from winter  torpidity, sugarclaws tear open small,patterned scars into the trunks of p-birch and p-acer for the flowing sap throughout their home range.Like HE sapsuckers, it usually makes more sap collection tears than it needs with similar results.Many birds and small  arboreal mammals will visit these sap tears for a quick energy  fix,essential during the lean early spring conditions.Migratory p-Trochiliformes in particular, will often arrive many days, even  weeks before flowers become abundant.These hummingbirds could not survive without the sugarclaw's generous gift.Like most shofixitiidae representatives, sugarclaws are monogamous.Mated pairs build balled nests of leaves and twigs within evergreens to hide from view.Here in the fire forest, they are  limited to permanent water sources, where the higher summer humidity and constant moisture for the roots allows the sugar-sap trees to flourish. The skies are ruled by the pentagon chickenhawk and the golden flanker.Winging after otherdoves is the Morgana(Antifalco fae), a swift flyer, most birds are simply killed outright by the impact of it's talons.One such bird is the American NutCracker-Soarer (Nucicida floridus), which migrates to the area during the warm months to eat flame-cones.Scowls such as the bob, big enough to surprise a careless hombra, and the spotted, wing their way soundlessly through the evening hours hunting otherrodents and dogbunnies. Other bats such as the common red (Alloemballonura rufus) flit through the trees and skim the waters for insects.The Piasa (Apatomacroderma brazilensis) is a large otherworld ghost bat that migrates north from south america every year to feed and breed  amidst the abundance of prey such as the chestnut doves and spectacled mice (Opthalmomys sp.) that strip grains from the grassy  forest floor, to it's fellow otherbats.

Perhaps the two most endearing creatures of the flame forest are the  Fireball Minnie (Paramicrofugia ardor) which nests exclusively within  the branches of bloodfire jacks, and the Flamepuff (Flagroalloscuiris  moacdiehi), a scarlet-orange coated multituburculate which feeds  near-exclusively on flame-cones.The fireball minnie and flamepuff  are near-endemic to the flame forest, with scattered regional  populations in the Appalachian bloodfire jack pockets.Pine fire  beetles and their grubs are the main foodstay of the little  minnie. The fireball is unique among minnies in extracting  distasteful tannins from the beetles through it's digestive tract  and harmlessly depositing them into it's feathers. Flamepuffs rely on  their scarlet-orange coat to disguise them from morganas and  wabassos.

Winter in the flame forest is a surreal experience, a "Blood on the snow" effect as a spexplorer stated.Actually, it's more of a snow on blood situation as the storms of the Old Crone howl down their crystal burden.Much of the xenotheridian population is in hibernation.The amarok are sleeping their winter bliss, the females waking up momentarily to birth the 2-4 cubs of the pairs.Winter torpor affects the sugarclaws and most of the other arboreal mammals with the exception of flamepuffs. Baskervilles and Kitbits hunt pseudovoles (Pseudovaricola sp.),dogbunnies, and scavenge the remains  of drak and undhole kills.Paul bunyans seek out the secret yards of bluebabes and other winter-sluggish herbivores such as streks and spelks to make their lives more intersting. Thylamustelids also roam the winter forests, hunting for flamepuffs and winter-chilled tweeties such as the Jukakykyky (Ojibwayavis morrisi) and the allospizid Imam (Imamavis pinophagus), looking like a wise old muslim scholar in flowing white head and torso feathers with a grizzled beard. Wendigos race ostrich-like through the undergrowth,sporting thick leg and toe feathers to act as snowshoes.Virtually all herbivores smaller than a dogbunny are either secreted in nooks and crannies, or hidden in shrub and snow.The larger herbivores such as the spelks and the streks must retire to winter yards in the isolated stands of snow cedar and p-birch.Here, they are relatively safe from predators in massed numbers, and can feed on the succulent boughs of snow cedars, as well as the bark of p-birch.Winters are hard, with temperatures routinely dropping -20 F and occasionally -50 F.The evergreen snow cedars and bloodfire jacks help slow windchill, the single largest killer of the winter season.

For the flame forest's only two ornithischians, the winter is a time of slumber.The Beautiful Viriosaur (Viriosaurus bellus),is virtually the only terrestrial ornithischian found outside of the mejico-tejas region.Digging out vast underground communal hibernation dens,this 1.5m long scaly dinosaur shares the dens with many species of snakes, some quite poisonous, who act as a guard against any predatory intruders.The other ornithischian is aquatic.The  engineer duckgong (Prolaticanatis mikanikos) is the only laticanatid, and the only ornithischian to have developed insulating blubber to  withstand winter's chill.They feed on their stored stockpiles of twigs and roots in the dikeswamp bottoms, and enter through underwater burrows into their massive communal nesting isles roofed  over with branches and sealed with mud and dung.They often live in association with afancs.

Old Woman Winter fights and claws to remain in the door, but the Summer Consorts eventually evict the Snow Crone. However, spring and early summer are turbulent, stormy seasons.As Wakinyan (Tonitriavis stupfidens) circle above on 6 meter wingspans, electrical storms shoot lightning down into the bloodfire jacks.The Flame Forest truly lives up to it's name,fierce hot winds whip the crackling orange tongues  through the woods, burning any flammable fuel unluckyenough to be in it's way.The eerie spectacle of waving bloodfire jacks and licking flames can momentarily confuse one,where does the  forest end and the blaze begin? Every year, as much as a full quarter of the forest will undergo trial by fire.For the predators, it's a bonanza.Yet they must be careful, or the red hand that feeds them may swiftly become the red tooth that bites them.Nevertheless, wendigos, kitbits, gollums, deltatheres, and even paul bunyans will readily snap up fleeing or cooking  animals.High above, the birds of prey alight on the wing, waiting their serving.One such bird is the Blue Jet (Milvianas tiina),spoils-duck relatives that live similiar lifestyles as HE  kites.Nonbreeding blue jets come here every year from their normal great plains haunts.

In spite of the devastation, this annual ritual is a very necessary boon to the flame forest.Because bloodfire jacks actually encourage such hot blitzkriegs, they encompass far more area than the HE jackpines in the same region of OTL. The mature flamecones split open and release their bounty by the  millions.Most will be consumed or rotted,but a rare few will struggle up past the shade,to begin the cycle anew.

(Text by Raymond Tobin) 

The Mississippi Castle Ecosystem:

The following is a collection of notes taken for an account of exploring Spec’s Mississippi River. Note: this paper is still in production and will not be released until some time in the near future. However, here is a brief sample of the findings.

Part one: the Champs:

The ruddy champ (Megagnathis paradoxis) fills the last niche one would expect a champsosaurid to fill: the role of shellfish-eater. The overbite which made the group so famously recognizable, has by now become little more than a vertical boss which the males use to engage in shoving matches during territorial disputes. One of the early suggestions for naming this species was Scuteoplatus, only for Spexplorers to remember that that name had not long beforehand been given to a Mississippi eutriconodont (Scuteoplatus wellsi, named in an obscure publication). But like their duckgong neighbors, the ruddys have to be on the alert for a champsosaurid that prefers more lively game, as of this publishing.

While at first Spexplorers thought that Sapiengnathus hydroensis was two species -- one being a small, needle-snouted fish-eater; the other being a broad-snouted duckgong eater; preying on the chicks because taking on an adult would be a waste of time on behalf of the champsosaur. A closer examination revealed that these are actually one and the same species. Like the avisaurs, S.hydroensis fills different niches at different points in its life. Only the largest of the carnosaurs dare challenge this pack hunter on its turf. It may be that the presence of S.hydroensis has prevented hybodonts and other freshwater hunters from setting up shop in the Mississippi, and thereby allowing the existance of the ruddy champ.

Part two: the eutriconodonts' circle:

Scuteoplatus wellsi, named for the famous Briton, actually has no scutes on its body. Its fur coat, however, bears a pattern that gives the impression of scutes. The "plated rat" as some came to call this little predator, starts its territory wherever the 

champsasaurids can't reach, particularly in the denser forests and drier land -- though it doesn't go too far from the wet ground, as it does not fare well against draks and bruisers. Plated rats are  moderately good climbers, their thumbless hands wrapping around all 

but the slenderest of branches as it goes in search of prey. In  late spring, the trees along the Mississippi River resound with a  little animals' attempt at a foghorn. It's sister species,  Scuteoplatus bradburyi, has a similar call, though it bellows in the  middle of spring.

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Among the creatures preyed upon by the Scuteoplatus, are Microloris gracilis, among the smallest of primates anywhere on Spec. Some Spexplorers argue that Microloris should be split, into one species that makes spherical nests out on the thinner branches, and one  species that makes no nest.

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