Prelude: AntarcticaThe Symbiotic Isles - Antarctic Archipelago - + 150 M.Y.
While highly divergent from their counterparts today, the biota of the world one hundred and fifty million years in the future have a relatively small biodiversity. Some of this owes to the magnitude of disaster produced by the H-G extinction, and some owes to the fact that almost all the continents are connected into Novopangea. But that is not to say all are. Antarctica is the exception to this rule, the continent that has remained separated from the rest of the world since our time. The combined effects of millions of years worth of ice pressure and rising sea levels have reduced the continent to an archipelago, dominated by the two primary islands of Wilkes and Ellsworth. When one thinks of Antarctica, one thinks of a frozen wasteland, the only fauna dependent on its biodiverse coasts. But here Antarctica also differs from its modern counterpart. Antarctica has advanced slowly toward the Indian Ocean since our time, growing slightly warmer with each passing millenia. By now, most of the continent has a subtropical climate, aided in that part with the warmth originating from one one the massive ocean currents that lay scattered across the sea, distributing hat from place to place. And with wet and warm conditions comes biodiversity, aided by the geography of the area, with scattered islands constantly swapping and isolating species, turning the Antarctic Archipelago into a biological hot spot.
A biological hot spot that happens to be in possession of biota not found anywhere else on the planet. For while no plants survived on Antarctica, that is not to say that no flora did. Lichen, always the hardy survivors, slept in crevices under ice, the relatively fresh air of Antarctica allowing many to survive. And as the clouds cleared, a warmer Antarctica greeted them. And with no flying herbivores to spread seeds from South America, and too great a distance once their were, they were free to diversify. Although they grew at tremendously slow rates, natural selection still acted upon them. They expanded across the ground, and so a member that grew faster could over take and cover his neighbors. The faster they could grow, the more intense the selection processes were against slower growers. Soon great swaths of Earth were covered in roughly circular patterns of brilliant shades of teal, orange, tan, green, and even black. When two met, they tried to grow over one another, forming short ridges. Eventually one would overtake the other, flowing down the other side and growing over the rival lichen, digesting the parts that slowly withered without sun. But there was a point at which a plant couldn't grow faster without overtly spending hard-earned materials, and so new strategies emerged, changing the landscape of the archipelago forever.
Now when two lichens met, the result was more ferocious than a simple tug-of-war between the two competing flora. Fungi have always been proficient in the art of digestive acids and antibiotics, and this came into play as competition between lichens became more intense. The short ridges at the meeting of two lichens now didn't last long; their opponent infiltrated the structure of the other, intermingling hyphae, pumping out digestive acids and preying on the other's algae and mycelium until the fabric of one began to fall apart. It was simpler to digest the other if you overlay it, and from that point on the victor would precede to grow over and consume the other. The competition between lichen became a biochemical arms race, each developing an arsenal of digestive acids and enzymes to break other's apart. A pharmaceutical company would have given half their fortune to be able to take samples from this Antarctica, the bounty of which would have provided hundreds of venues for defeating diseases resistant to existing antibiotics.
It was around this time that the first flutterfrogs capable of traversing the now vast distances between South America and Antarctica evolved, and were swept to the islands by freak chance. Many began to make a habit of migrating south-east every year to take advantage of the predator-less conditions in which they could safely raise youth. Seeds dropped in their feces. Some even survived, for a time. But they were not adapted to the massive toxicity of both the soil and the lichens. But the flutterfrogs were luckier. Some could persist year-round on the bounty of the sea, and made their homes on Antarctica permanent. And some found creative ways to feed on the lichen. Unlike the crusts of today, these lichens were thick and porous, most around two cm thick, compressing easily under weight. The centers of the lichens didn't produce many antibiotics, and were therefore relatively safe to eat. Small, 4-cm long frogs adapted to walking, scuttling along on modified fingers, two per modified wing giving the organisms a total of eight appendages for movement. The lichens were quick to adapt, though, producing the same toxins in the centers at those on the end. The scuttlers didn't mind that much, though. A brief die-off was soon followed by a diversification of forms far vaster than that before. Algae wasn't the only symbiote that fungi could take, and with the scuttler's diet of fungi, some species of its prey were sure to take advantage of the constant intake of half-digested food. Some took up residence in the scuttler's digestive track, and they broke down the poisons that would have otherwise sickened the frogs, in return obtaining part of the harvest. They were superior in other areas as well, and soon took over the functions of the entire digestive tract, producing enzymes to break down food, ridding the need for such cumbersome organs such as the pancreas and liver. And as some scuttlers inevitably took predatory niches, the fungi spread over their skin, producing toxins that would harm the predator if it didn't have an up-to-date symbiont of its own.
And as the fauna diversified, so did the flora. The tiny ascocarps of the lichens became more pronounced, and began to specialized. Conical ascocarps up to a meter tall and spread out at seemingly random intervals over the base collected rainwater, flat ascocarps elevated on tall stalks photosynthesize, and a coat of filaments forming a sparse "hair" on the surface of the lichen gathered water from the atmosphere and spread spores to any organism passing over it. Pustules formed of ascocarps folded in on themselves, blending in with the surface of the lichen. An unwary scuttler that was unfortunate to step on one would be sprayed with potent toxins, which would likely penetrate through their fungal "skin" before the symbiote could break it down. Centimeter-tall ridges extended in a circular pattern from the base; each, like the interior of a tree, represented a year of growth, and provided a line of defense to any invasive rival.
The biodiversity provided by the warm climate and isolated environments would prove to be localized to Antarctica for only a short time. Not all scuttlers had lost their wings, and some began to migrate between Antarctica and Southern New Zealand, and then from Antarctica to Madagascar as the continent moved steadily north. Already, these islands were beginning to fall under sway of the toxic, fast-growing, and highly adaptive lichens, and this was only the beginning. Antarctica was steadily creeping north-west, and it would only be another ten million years before the northernmost islands came into contact with the peninsula composed of what was once Indonesia. A great exchange of species is certain once this happens, and the resulting extinction may well topple the domination of grasses, ushering in the Ascogene and creating a range of new, diverse forms.