Stylinodons Learn to Eat Amphisbaenids
A mother fights to save her baby
This is a story about an Eocene mammal and an Eocene reptile and a robot. The Eocene mammal is the Stylinodon, the largest mammal of its time and one of the largest land animals of its time; it was a burrowing mammal with large digging claws that is thought to have eaten roots. The reptile is the Amphisbaenid which is still extant today but may have been more common in the Eocene. It is now very rare, living only in South America and Africa. It is closely related to Lizards but like the snakes it has lost its limbs. However unlike the snakes it is adapted to burrowing through loose soil like an Earth worm. It even has ring like scales similar to those of an Earth Worm. Unlike an earth worm it is an insectivore. It is presumed that Amphisbaenids lived in much the same way in the Eocene as they do today. Fossil Amphisbaenid burrows have even been found in the North West United States. The robot is entirely fictional and is included as an observer in order to make the story more understandable.
Walker 569 climbed to the end of the branch. Walker 569’s orders were to observe, record and report. It was a member of an automated expedition to this planet, third from its yellow sun. It’s observational target was a fur-bearing root-eater walking through the grasses below. The muscular female was carrying its nearly helpless baby on its back. Walker 569 tried to estimate the creature’s vulnerability. It was a member of the largest currently extant species of its class, Mammalia. Its class was vying for dominance of the large-land-form niches on this planet with another class; Aves. Not long ago, maybe 25 million years, Aves had clearly held the more favorable position. That was before the Impact. At Impact, Aves had included herbivores nearly a hundred meters long and massive carnivores which could have swallowed this mammal whole. The contemporary mammals didn’t even include any forms as large as 569’s target. In that past age, Mammalia had scurried and burrowed and hid in Aves shadow. Then the asteroid had hit to the south nearly at the equator. It wouldn’t have mattered where it hit; the destruction was world wide. All of the large-land-forms on the planet had been cleared away. Expedition had been a leviathan coasting sleepily through the interstellar night not far away by interstellar standards.
By chance, this planet had transited its sun shortly after Impact from Expedition’s point of view. The sun’s light filtered through the planet’s atmosphere and reached Expedition’s sophisticated and powerful array of telescopic sensors. From that filtered light, Expedition harvested libraries of useful information. The light told of a planet with a Biosphere richer than any Expedition had detected in all its existence, and yet a Biosphere that had just suffered grievous injury. Expedition’s core programming determined that this was a target worthy of long term observation, a target for which it had been launched millions of years before. It took more than a hundred thousand of the planet’s years for Expedition to bring its bulk into close orbit. By then, much, but not all, of the damage had healed. It would take millions of years for replacement forms to evolutionarily radiate from the survivors. Expedition worked through the eons, reconstructing what had been before by carefully examining fossils and geological outcrops, and observing and recording developments by watching the life forms that came afterward. It dropped probes on to the surface which spread walkers and floaters. Expedition was careful not to interfere; its programmed role was to observe, record and report.
Walker 569 had been born in one of those probes only a few days ago. He had been instructed by the probe’s core mind to watch the root-eater and her baby and report. Just now Walker was trying to estimate her vulnerability; what probability did she have of producing at least two offspring which would then survive to reproductive age. The probability seemed reasonably high. Her life expectancy was seventeen years and the probe estimated her to be less than eight years old now. Indications were that she had already raised one offspring to reproductive maturity. She had nine years to succeed with a second. And considering she was a member of the largest species of land-form on the planet it seemed unlikely that predation would be a problem. The most likely problem would be getting enough food and the region had a plentiful root tuber supply. Barring a drought, what could possibly go wrong?
Mother strode through the grasses. She was hungry. Baby clung to her back mewling; he wanted to nurse. The last two tangle bushes she had dug out had been covered by the fungus carried by the Worm Lizards. The little legless creatures with their sharp beaks and burning bites had squirmed out of the light as she exposed them and the ruined roots they had made their home. She had caugh one; she had stabbed it with one of her long digging claws and flung it in frustration onto a stony hillock nearby. It had squirmed in the hot sun bleeding onto hot dry rock, trying to find a way down into cool moist soil. That had been at the first Tangle Bush. At the second Tangle Bush she had just buried the creatures again. There was no point in killing them. There were always more; the ground seemed to produce them like it produced Tangle Bushes. It seemed to her that the Higher Forests, while they had fewer Tangle Bushes also had far fewer Worm Lizards. She had decided to head toward the Higher Forest, even though it meant crossing into Other Ribbon Tooth territory. If she was fast, she could climb into the territory, dig up a Tangle Bush, gorge herself on its roots and be back down before the Other Ribbon Tooth even knew she was there.
The shortest route to the Higher Forest took her past the first Tangle Bush that she had dug up that day. The smell of the Worm Lizard blood drying on the stony hillock caught her nose. It smelled rich and her tummy gurgled in response to the smell. Ribbon Tooths like herself did not usually eat meat but if the opportunity came up it could be a windfall of easy sustenance. She sniffed the air again taking in the smell of blood. Cautiously she approached the hillock. Ancient herbivorous instincts railed against this course of action. Surely a predator or scavenger will already have found the corpse and be willing to protect its find with tooth and claw. But she could smell nothing else on the air. The sweaty tang of predator or scavenger would have alerted her to such a presence. Besides, there was no predator that she knew of that would face her. They all fled at her approach. The corpse was still fresh and warm in the sun. It’s wound smelt intensely of blood. Again her ancient instincts railed and she nearly fled. But her tummy gurgled and her mouth salivated and Baby mewled and somewhere in her mind a calculation occurred at a subconscious level; she could produce milk with the calories from this broken body and that milk would calm Baby. Suddenly she grabbed the Worm Lizard by the tail, flipped it into the air and swallowed it in one gulp without chewing. A few seconds later she burped and her lips went numb; she began to suspect she had made a mistake.
Walker 569 videoed the root-eater as she sniffed at the dead soil reptile. Its onboard memory core told it that the soil reptile species represented an example of convergent evolution. Soil reptiles had lost their limbs as had their not-to-distant relatives, the Snakes but in truth it was not with the Snakes that soil reptiles had converged. The almost completely unrelated annelid form, the Earth Worm, was their ‘convergence-mate’. The soil reptile had developed ring-like scales similar to those of the Earth Worm and used an almost identical locomotory method to propel themselves through the soil. Like the Earth Worms their most important sense was hearing and the feeling of vibrations in the soil. There was a critical difference, however, between the Earth Worm and the soil reptile. Earth Worms mostly used their senses to detect and evade predators while they used the soil to provide resources to bacteria which they bred and consumed in their guts. Soil reptiles used their senses to detect and stalk prey. If the prey were too large, then they killed them with a venomous bite.
As Walker 569 thought about this, videoing its targets movements on automatic, it failed to notice its target’s display of agility as it flipped the little soil reptile corpse into the air and swallowed it. When 569 noticed that the reptile was missing from the scene, it quickly analyzed the content of the last few seconds of video and was astounded by what it saw. It began to calculate the effects of the venom in the reptile’s salivary glands on the large body of the root-eater. Of course, it couldn’t be certain of every variable but it could estimate some of the effects ….
Mother crawled back to her den. Baby’s mewling was getting more desperate all of the time, but Mother was oblivious to it. She ached all over. Her throat stung like Worm Lizards were bitting it over and over again from the inside. Her lips were numb; her limbs were weak. She was dizzy. She lay down in the cramped but familiar softness of the nest in the bottom of her den and fell to sleep. She would be safe here until this passed.
Baby slid down Mother’s side to her nipples and suckled. Soon the milk flowed and he felt deep relief and contentment. The milk tasted different than it usually did but its taste had changed many times over the course of his short life as Mother ate different foods. The Worm Lizard was an unusual food and maybe it accounted for this unusual taste.
Walker 569 skittered down the tunnel to the root-eater’s underground den. The effect had been drastic and as powerful as it had predicted. Probe would want the details but it hadn’t dared follow the root-eater too closely. Its powerful limbs, even addled by the soil-reptile venom could easily have crushed 569 beyond functionality. 569 now carried video of great enough interest to Probe that self-preservation became an important parameter for his programming. But it needed the whole story so it was following the root-eater into its den. There it would record the full effects on the root-eater and its infant. Carefully 569 peaked round the tight curve in the burrow’s tunnel entrance. Its optical sensors returned an image of a wall of barred teeth taller than 569 entire walker-body. 569 pulled back around the curve quickly. It analyzed the rest of the image recorded by its optical sensors. Beyond the curve, the tunnel widened only slightly into a chamber barely large enough to fit the root-eater and its baby. The root-eater lay with its eyes rolled back. Its teeth were barred and it was panting through them. The Infant was suckling vigorously from its mother. 569 made its way quietly to the darkest corner of the burrow and settled down to watch.
Baby woke to a scratching sound. He opened an eye lazily. He was still full from suckling and his body was enjoying the sleepy sugar low that that comes of an intense feeding. He found that he was in his den with his mother. It was comforting and he closed his eyes again. Whatever the scratching sound was, Mother would deal with it if it represented a danger. He slipped back into sleep.
569 froze. The infant had stirred in his sleep. Only when the infant fell back to sleep did 569 begin to move again. It carefully approached the mouth of the female root-eater. A thick greenish foam had formed on the creatures lips. 569 extended a sampler and captured a small amount of the foam. Then it retreated back to the dark corner to analyze it chemically and biologically.
Baby woke and mewled loudly; he was hungry. His eyes popped open and to his delight his mother’s belly was in front of him; an engorged mammary gland was very nearby. He suckled. The milk tasted even weirder than before and he had to suck hard to get it to come out. But it was filling and soon he was asleep again.
The hours ticked by and 569 watched. It could be patient without fear. It was accumulating a good story which would be accepted by Probe as valuable. It was fulfilling its purpose. It was contributing to Expedition. It watched as the infant suckled and slept and woke and suckled again. It watched as the female slept and slowly the foam on its lips dried and no more appeared. It watched as the infant drained each mammary gland of milk and moved to the next. It monitored as the hours passed and the depleted mammary glands did not replenish.
Mother woke to Baby mewling loudly. She felt dreadful, dried out, achy, exhausted, hot. She wanted to get out of the burrow and breath some fresh air and drink some clean water but Baby was mewling even louder now. She had to deal with him first. She tried to get him to nurse, first at one nipple than another. But she quickly realized that all of her glands were deflated. Her heart froze as she looked at her young Baby and knew that she had no way to nourish him. Then Anger flamed through her lower mind engulfing her upper mind. She charged from the burrow. At least she charged as best she could given how weak she felt. From the exit of the burrow , she could see a Tangle Bush she had dug up and reburied months ago. It had been infected with Worm Lizards and their awful fungus. The cool evening air made her head feel clearer and her legs feel stronger. She loped to the Tangle Bush and tore at the ground around its base with her immense sharp claws.
Soon she could see the Worm Lizards shrinking back from the exposed soil into the deeper soil and the protection of the Tangle Bush roots. She impaled one on with a claw, skewering its thin snake-like body. As it writhed on the end of the claw, she roared at it. She roared out all the pain and anger in her heart at the creature and its kind. She roared until she was too exhausted to roar any more, until the pain over her baby’s imminent death passed.
Walker 569 hid behind the stump of a dead tangle bush. The root eater noise and violence worried it. 569 already contained a valuable story for Probe. If 569 was destroyed before it could deliver its story that would be a loss. As the data it contained grew its survival algorithms grew stronger. When the root-eater finally collapsed, exhausted, 569 considered leaving. But the story didn’t seem to be complete and perhaps now that this new dangerous behavior was over, it was worth staying and collecting the next chapter.
When mother was finished roaring, Baby frightened as he was, needed comfort. He approached her sleeping bulk and nuzzled her belly. There was no milk right now but if he kept nuzzling it would come; it always had before.
Mother woke slowly. She could hear Baby mewling but that only made her more reluctant to wake. She could feel that her milk had not come back; her mammary glands were still comfortably empty. When she allowed one eye to open, she could see down the length of her front limb to the corpse of the Worm Lizard pinned to ground by her claw. It had died there while she roared at it and grown cold while she slept. To clean her paw of it she instinctively bit the tail off of her claw allowing the head to fall away from the other side of the claw. Only after she had swallowed did she realize that she had just repeated the mistake that had gotten her sick in the first place. She wanted to spit out the Worm Lizard tail but it was too late. She had swallowed it. She wanted to make herself vomit. But then she looked at Baby and the energy went out of her. Nothing was worth the effort; her Baby was going to die. She licked her lips nervously. She felt the cool saliva on them and it seemed strange for some reason. She licked them again and realized that they had not gone numb. So she wasn’t going to be sick after all. She looked at the Worm Lizard head lying in the torn soil around the Tangle Bush base. The sickness was there, in the Worm Lizard head. The tail was nourishing; only the head was sickening.
She pictured Sister, who had always protected her after Mother-Mother had disappeared. Sister had a baby of her own, Sister-Baby. A vision of Sister-Baby mewling at Sister’s belly and of Sister sick with no milk passed through her mind. Mother knew that she must not let that happen; Mother had to teach that that Worm Lizard tails are nourishing. She stood up and began to dig around the tangle Bush base again. She could smell the Worm Lizards. But they withdrew as quickly as she dug. She dug with desperation like she had in her fury of a few minutes before. Soon she caught two Worm Lizards, skewed on her claws.
It was time to see Sister. Mother rolled onto her side presenting her back to Baby. He mewled loudly; he wanted to nurse. But he obediently climbed onto her back.
Walker 569 watched as the infant climbed onto the root-eater’s back. The story in 569’s memory banks had just grown in importance. The root-eater’s behavior was highly unusual; the motivations for her actions were difficult to discern, too complicated for 569 to simulate. 569 hurried after the root-eater.
Baby whimpered as the smell of Sister’s urine reached its nose. Deep instinctive reactions reduced Mother’s anxiety a little. Baby was old enough to know that crossing into another ribbon tooth’s territory, even a related one’s was dangerous. That meant he was maturing; soon he would be mature enough to eat root, but he would only finish maturing if he had milk for many more days.
Sister’s burrow was between two large rock outcrops, more of a cleaned-out crevice than a burrow. Mother entered it with only the slightest hesitation. As she entered, Sister roared and stood to face Mother. Sister-Baby mewled loudly; his suckling had been interrupted when Sister stood up. Mother flicked a Worm Lizard tail forward so that it bounced to a stop between Sister’s forelegs. Sister sniffed it cautiously. Sister-Baby’s mewling caused Sister to lie down instinctively. Sister-Baby began suckling again. The sound of Sister-Baby suckling was too much for hungry Baby. He leapt down from Mother’s back and joined Sister-Baby, finding one of Sister’s mammary glands and latching on.
Sister was fascinated by the Worm Lizard tail. It smelt nutritious. But Mother’s presence and the Worm Lizard tail confused her. Sister was paralyzed by her confusion. She should be chasing Mother out of her den. But the Worm Lizard tail might be worth eating. But was it dangerous. She looked at Mother and growled. But her growl was not heart-felt. Mother had been an ally many times. Her smell was the smell of a close relative. Some deep seated instinct knew this and made Sister want to trust Mother. Finally she ate the Worm Lizard tail. It was satisfying. It made her feel strong and energetic. It made her feel aggressive. Now she would chase Mother from her den. She growled again and began to rise.
Mother flicked another Worm Lizard tail at Sister. Sister froze at first thinking this was some kind of threat and then recognizing the smell of the Worm Lizard flesh. She sniffed it. It smelt just like the first one. She ate it this time with little hesitation.
Walker 569 caught up with the root eater just as its sister ate the second soil-reptile tail. It was nearly trampled as the root eater turned and left the den while its sister was eating. The root eater’s baby was alongside its cousin, suckling and its aunt hadn't seemed to have noticed. Walker 569 watched the babies in fascination. The aunt quickly fell asleep with both babies suckling.
Mother needed to get back to Baby; she needed to be certain he was safe. But she couldn't stay in Sister’s den. Sister would never allow it and a fight in the den would endanger Baby. Mother headed back to the infected Tangle Bush.
Walker 569 watched as the two babies suckled. Perhaps this was the end of the story. Perhaps it was time to bring the story back to Probe. 569 slipped from the crevice it had been hiding in and began to creep toward the exit. Then a shadow filled the exit way. The root-eater was coming back. 569 slipped back into the crevice. The two adult root-eaters exchanged growls. Then the milkless-one flicked another soil-reptile tail at her sister. Once again the sister ate it after some hesitation and then growled at the intruder. But this time the milkless root-eater didn't just have two soil-reptile tails. She had one impaled on every claw plus several dangling from her mouth. She flicked one after another to her sister who ate them with less and less hesitation until finally she fell asleep, bloated with meat.
The days passed and the root-eater kept her sister fed on soil-reptile tails. Her sister had noticed the root-eater’s Baby quite a while before but also seemed to understand that the root-eater would keep her fed as long as she let the baby suckle. Finally the sister lost patience. It weaned the baby rather suddenly and there was a loud and nearly-violent exchange between the two adult female root-eaters. The milkless root-eater backed down and left with her baby. But the baby was old enough now and began to eat roots and soil-reptile tails with his mother. Walker 569 kept recording the whole story until its memory was full. Then it brought the story back to Probe who eventually carried it up into orbit to Expedition. There the story was combined with complex analysis of this planet’s story and then beamed back to Origin. What Origin made of the story was not understood by Expedition or any of its components and the creatures being studied had no idea that they were being watched.