A Pleistocene Ecosystem
by Wesley Gordon
page 33


The First Scene

Between reed and willow-lined banks, clear waters of the stream flowed northwesterly toward the sea. High winter waters had eaten away the banks of the stream in places, forming crescent-shaped indentations that widened the stream bed and produced deep backwashed. Bits of wood and leaves circled on the surface of the backwashes until they sank to the bottom, waterlogged. On this unnamed day unnamed because there were no men to use the names of gods for divisions of time ducks and geese conducted their quacking and honking affairs on the surface of a backwash and among the reeds that lined the banks.

Three olive-tan, 6-inch turtles sat in a line on a half-submerged log, their legs and heads drawn in, their eyelids shut. Even when waves from a rapidly swimming Canadian gander moved their log, the turtles remained immobile.

A female mallard spotted a thumb-size frog scrambling from the water onto the log. Without a quack the duck rushed toward the amphibian. Several other mallards instantly converged behind it. The duck neared the log barely ahead of the competitors and, with an extra burst of speed, made a splashy jab at the frog. Apparently this morsel of food was waiting until the last moment to make its escape; it dived into the water inched ahead of the mallard’s open bill and kept going until it buried itself among the leaves at the bottom.

The turtles, meanwhile, had opened their eyes without exposing their heads. Not afraid of the mallards, they just sat; however, some of the ducks failed to see the frogs disappear, and they swam about so wildly that the log rolled over and the turtles slid beneath the surface. One of the reptiles swam directly to the bottom and flushed the frog from its hiding place. Swimming along, the frog saw the open jaws of a foot-long fish an instant before being swallowed.

The fish’s dash for the frog stirred up rolling clouds fine, dark sediments. Had the fish followed its usual pattern of behavior, it would have continued swimming at considerable speed away from the point of capture. Its failure to do so brought disaster.

For three days two seals had been swimming up the stream from the sea, catching fish along the way. They entered the pool just as the turtles were sliding into the water. Seals, it is believed, are less playful than otters, but these two apparently saw at a glance possibilities for fun with the noisy ducks. The strategy was obvious. Their glistening heads disappeared beneath the surface, and with great speed they slithered underwater toward the birds. One seal burst from the depths with joyous barks amid the panic-stricken birds, which shot into the air in all directions.

The others seal saw through the clear water to its right the commotion caused by the frog-catching fish. Instinctively, the seal slowly circled the disturbed, murky area. It spotted in the darkness the white gullet of the fish as the fish opened and closed its jaws. In a split second the fish was brought to the surface held firmly in the seal’s jaws.


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