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Submission for a speculative evolution contest

November 29, 2014

The Flyers At The End Of The World

The year is 777,000,000 AC.

The earth is unrecognisable, yet familiar, those that saw its history progress. For the last 900 million years, life has prospered in abundance, changing the planet’s landscape with a variety of plant and animal life, ranging from the tiniest microbes to the largest whales and dinosaurs, and no matter what catastrophy stroke the same pattern would always repeat. Life would always find a way.

But for the first time in its history, things began to look dim. 450 million years ago, the continents fused for the second and last time, casting the planet into a dichotomous world of ocean and desert. That was the beginning of the end. For though the continents began to split once a hundred million years after, it was too late: the Sun’s radiation began to drasticly increase, heating the planet further and further. Initially, life adapted with relative ease, but for the last 300 million years the heat has to increase to the point that day time temperatures on land are completely inhospitable, and the oceans began to evaporate. A 100 million years ago, only the poles supported what could even pass for a desert ecosystem, and by now they too are largely gone.

Now, most of the world is as it was in bygone Precambrian times: a mesh of sterile desert and azure water, with areas in between, a bizarre alien shore ecosystem that, in the absence of vegetation and rivers, is dominated by tidal plains with occasional vertical rocks, no clear end for land or beginning for sea. Life hangs both in the depths and in the shallows: reefs of strange bivalves and crustaceans and algae still hold on. Relitictual fish exist still, but for the most part the waters are dominated by multiple species of crustceans and other arthropods, their armours well suit to reflect the intense sunlight and in some areas the shallows even shine with alien silver glows. Many crustaceans waddle about, crabs and land lobsters grazing on algae and bacteria matts on the water and the shores.

In this strange world, where even vascular plants are a few relics mostly in the form of seagrass and occasional reeds, vertebrate life seems gone, only a few goby-like fishes hiding in the crevaces among false-corals, and the reliticual deep sea shark. However, one remnant of the past remains, a glorious reminder of what once inhabitted this planet. Crustaceans on land or in the water, have an inherent fear of aerial attacks, and for a good reason: whenever a shadow is cast, chances are that a pair of sharp toothed jaws will pierce the carapace and end the invertebrate’s life.

These predators are the Menes (Selenopterus spp.), the last representatives of Amniota as a whole. These creatures are mammals, the second lineage to develop powered flight, having evolved from didelphid marsupials some 650 million years ago. Their success has relied on their most unique feature that seperates them from most other mammals in existence: their fur has evolved into unique, feather like structures. In their distant ancestors, they evolved as tail fans to display, but some 5 million years after they extended them to the torso, and eventually the limbs. Once they did, it wasn’t long before they developed the ability to fly, as they motions used by their ancestors to capture prey with the forelimbs quickly produced an efficient flapping stroke.

Flight in fact is thought to have evolved at least three seperate times in these feathered marsupials, and an variety of wing designs has evolved across their existence. They co-existed with both birds and bats, outliving both of those groups by some 300 million years, and produced a myriad of species ranging from miniscule nectar drinkers to massive secondarily flightless predators and swimmers. When shit hit the fan and nearly all other mammals became extinct, both volant and flightless species governed the last terrestrial ecosystems.

Now, only one lineage remains, but even then they take the end of the world with stride. Some nine different species still exist, flying all over the world and making the best of the ecological niches offered to them.

All Menes are very aerial animals. They possess long, feathered wings, generally shaped optimally for dynamic soarers well adapted for hovering, like those of frigatebirds. They lost all forelimb digits except for their middle finger, turned into a rather larger and rigid mono-phalangic structure devoid of any claw, entirely covered by feathers; to serve as a “bastard wing”, a series of mobile feather tufts exist along this finger. The hindlimbs are proportionally small, but retain all digits and bear a pair of hindwings, that serve as the rudder like the tail of a bird. The animals spend nearly all their lives on the air, but if they land they walk about quadrupedally, most of the weight supported by the massive forelimbs, that waste no time in launching the animal quadrupedally back to the air. The tail has been entirely lost.

The face is largely unchanged from their distant opossum ancestors, except for the fact that their snout is entirely naked, being covered by a thick, leathery skin akin to the bill of a monotreme. They don’t have a rhinarium, but retain whiskers, imperial in detecting air pressures as well as prey. Sharp, largely homodont teeth are used to grab prey, often cracking the hard shells of arthropod victims. The ears are largely small, avoiding drag when flying, though one species, the Dumbo Menes (S. malevolens) has long, rabbit like ears, helping the animal in shedding off heat.

The key feature of the Menes as a whole is their plummage. Though it varies in colouration, it is consistently iridescent, thanks to their structuring and special secretions from their sweat glands. This allows the animal to deflect most of the solar radiation, both preventing them from being harmed by UV light as well as cooling the body down, something helped by the very structure of the feathers themselves: like in birds, the feathers help shed off heat. Like in most marsupials, Menes can see in colour, and as such their iridescence works in the animals’ favor, producing a variety of spectacular colours in daylight.

However, as the name implies, most Menes are nocturnal in habits. During the day, they rest at high altitudes, sleeping on the wing, but at nighttime they descend, hunting when it’s coolest. Their eyesight is suberb in the dark, though this isn’t a mean accomplishment as the nightair is much brighter now thanks to Rayleigh scattering. Additionally, their vibrissae are very sensitive to air pressure, thus allowing them a form of “tactile sonar”. Once they spot a prey item, on water or on land, the animal flies in circles, calculating an angle of attack, and swoops down to capture with the jaws, often hovering to get a better grip. The Menes then carries it off into the air, eating on the wing, though some do occasionally land on tall rocks and other place where launching is easy.

Of course, several crustaceans have developed countermeasures. Thicker shells, lethal pincers, even toxins. But 777 million years was sufficient to greatly advance didelphid intelligence – already very intelligent mammals in the era of Man -, especially in a clade specialised for flight. So Menes are capable strategists and tool users, resorting to methods like dropping the prey from miles above, throwing rocks, pack joining forces with other individuals to tear the victim apart. Some have even been reccorded to carry prey to inland locations, letting the daytime heat finish them off before the marsupials return at night to feast. Similarly, many engage in kleptoparasitism, stealing prey after another one’s hard work.

With abundant crustacean prey on the sea or on the shallows, the nine Menes species prosper, huge flocks darkening the skies during the day time and spreading out at night. Survival is harsh; Menes obtain water primarily at night, either from their food stuffs or directly drinking sea water, expelling the salt via their tongue sweat glands and massive kidneys, and during the day they are largely vulnerable. If dehydration is toos evere, the animal is forced to descend and drink sea water, a process that can be lethal on heat spells. Some are also victim to marine predators, though admitely very few specialise in Menes. Overall, the normal life expectancy is somewhere between 13 and 20 years. Like some long gone bats and marsupials, both parents possess pouches and lactating nipples.

The Blacktip Menes (S. vulgaris) is the most common species of living vertebrate, enjoying a global distribution. With a wingspan of a meter, it bears a predominantly white/silver plummage, except for the very tip of the wing feathers, which are black, as are the hindwings; the snout is of an yellowish colour. With huge beady eyes, this animal is among the few Menes to hunt during day time, invididuals venturing down at morning and late afternoon in higher latitudes. They are opportunistic, feeding mostly on whatever crustacean they can grab, and occasionally also on other prey like cephalopods, fish and carrion. Occasionally, entire flocks may harass larger targets, including other Menes. Breeding year around, they are sequentially monogamous, both parents holding the pups in the air.

The Dumbo Menes (S. malevolens) is endemic largely to the inland lake complexes, pretty much the only vertebrate alive that can in any way be considered “terrestrial”. Its plummage is largely light gray in colour, as is its snout, and it bears massive, pink bunny ears full of blood vessels, in order to better regulate temperature in this particularly extreme environment; a rather small Menes, its wingspan rarely exceeds 97 centimeters. It specialises in hawking over these inland lagoons, feeding primarly on the native giant fairy shrimps and lancelets. It mostly hovers above the water, an extremely enegy demanding lifestyle, but rather productive, thanks to the sheer abundance of prey. Some individuals in particular appear to use the little vegetation around to help capture prey, leading them to the shallows where they can easily be picked off. During the breeding season, rookeries congregate on the nearby cave systems, males maintaining harems which raise their single pups communally. It is one of the two species in which the normal monogaous behaviour has been replaced by polygamous lek breeding.

The Auk Menes (S. thalattodroma, S. minor and S. eurynomous) are three different species that evolved convergently towards the same lifestyle, neither being particularly closely related to each other. All of them have black-and-white colour patterns, the black reflecting colour when above the water line, making it look especially exuberant:

– the Blue Auk Menes (A. thalattodroma) obviously shines blue, the black/blue covering most of the body except for the belly and wing undersides;

-the Purple Auk Menes (A. minor) shining in bluish violet, the black/violet extending along most of the upperside, but with a white throat and face;

– and the Green Auk Menes (A. eurynomous) shining in a deep green, the entire head aside from the very top white except for a brown band beneath the eyes.

All Auk Menes are the smallest of the Menes, with wingspans rarely exceeding 50 centimeters. As the name implies, they’re the only members of their clade that have forsaken aerial foraging in favor of underwater aquaflight, having shorter wings for this job. The Blue Auk Menes hunts in coastoal waters, the Purple Auk Menes in intertidal pools and the Green Auk Menes in the open ocean. All are more vulnerable to predators than their relatives, but have less harsh lives and thus a higher life expectancy. They all form rookeries on the polar areas of the planet, taking advantage of the darker winter months to breed. Both parents raise two or three pups for a few weeks on land, before the youngester develops waterproof plummage and follows the parents out at sea.

The Courageous Menes (S. fortitudo) is a 1,20 meter wingspan species that occurs along the world’s open seas. Coloured primarily in white with black ears, eye patches and snout and orange windwings, the Courageous Menes is so called thanks to its sheer tenacity, thriving on the hottest latitudes on earth, and hunting at daytime no less. It is a specialist in cephalopod prey, as opposed to the crustceans favoured by other Menes, catching them on the wing by striking the unsuspecting victim at high speed. Occasionally, individuals may rest in the oceanic surface, though most preffer to remain on the wing, to avoid predators. It is unsurprisingly one of the Menes most vulnerable to aquatic predators, but regardless it thrives, being the second most common vertebrate alive today. Both parents raise their single pup on the wing, well protected from the water thanks to the particularly muscular pouch. Alongside the Skua Menes and Albatross Menes, pairings can last for a lifetime, though “divorces” can occur for multiple reasons, like sterility.

The Skua Menes (S. pterursus) is a large Menes at a wingspan of 2.3 meters. Coloured primarily in a golden brown, it is a resident of the polar regions, conductive a long planet-wide migration every year from pole to pole, being the organism that spends the most time in darkness, as it travels in accordance to the polar nights. A ferocious opportunist, it eats pretty much everything its jaws can catch, from crustaceans and squids to other Menes, often hawking them on the air, often attacking when they’re carrying prey. During migration, it travels at high altitudes, reaching the reccord for the highest flyer in a clade already notable for high altitude flying at reccords of 20 kilometers. It is notable for forming small family groups, the pups staying with the parents for the first year of their lives.

The Albatross Menes (S. magnificens) is the largest and rarest of all Menes, and thus the largest living vertebrate, at a wingspan of 3.4 meters. White with black wing uppersides and an orange snout, this titan is too large for hovering, and bears particularly long and thin wings, entirely specialised for dynamic soaring, spending most of its adult life soaring with minimal wing movements. Spending the days at high altitudes, it forages during the night, having a foundness for krill and other small crustaceans, but also capable of feeding on large pelagic prey and carrion; unlike the smaller Skua Menes, it is a bad aerial hawker and usually does not bother attacking other Menes other than Auk Menes, and in fact is often harassed by other species. The single pup is taken care of by both parents by a whole year, leaving only when it is too heavy to be carried and when its wings are fully formed.

The Black Menes (S. nigricolis), as the name implies, is almost entirely black, though in actuality it simply reflects light almost exclusively in the UV spectrum; its eyes are of a cunning bright yellow tone, giving it a rather panther like appearence. With a wingspan of 2.2 meters, it is an opportunist like the Blacktip and Skua Menes, feeding on whatever animal prey it can get its jaws on, with a special prefference for large crabs, which it often dismembers by attacking in small groups. The main peculiarity of the species lies in its polygamous lek breeding behaviour. During times of specific productivity, the animals gather in massive rookeries, often well inland in mountainous regions. The males land on large open spaces, bellowing and screeching to attract passing females. Fights occasionally ensue, but for the most time the exhibitioners keep to themselves, which keep on exhibitioning and mating until dehydration takes its toll, forcing them to retreat for good or die. The females raise their pups alone, usually on rock crevices and caves. With the rare exception of the occasional passing Skua or Blacktip Menes or particularly desperate male, the pups are seldomly at danger from predators, but they keep themselves hidden to avoid the intense heat.

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