JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Komchen de Los Pájaros
just outside Dzemul, Yucatán, Mexico

February 13, 2005

ARMY ANTS & TARANTULA
Approaching Komchén's main living area on Monday morning I found a bit of commotion. A dark smudge of army ants was swarming across the shop's walkway into the bushes before the library. Ana María and Lino were on hand and I heard Ana María exclaim "Pobrecita" ("Poor little thing...") as she rushed to the ant- smudge front and scooped something into her bare hands.

She'd saved a mature tarantula somewhat larger than the top of a coffee cup. It was a black one with long, stiff, red-orange hairs mantling her abdomen. The creature had been chased from her nest by the ants and at that point 20-30 ants were still on her, tearing at her body. Ana María carried her to a quiet spot, put her down, and set about squirting water on the ants, trying to redirect them away from where guests were sleeping.

The tarantula remained where Ana María placed her for at least 20 minutes, moving not at all as the ants continued trying to dismantle her. However, the ants couldn't get past the creature's stiff, sharp hairs. The ants did manage to cut two small bunches of hairs from her, fashion them into rough balls, and begin moving the hair-balls through the grass.

However, now those ants had been separated from the main ant swarm and were receiving no chemical instructions from their peers, so they really had no idea where to go with their booty. Eventually they just wandered off individually, directionless. As the tarantula found herself more and more free of ants she began twitching her legs, clearly getting ready to move on. Sad for her, even if she could find her nest again, her babies had surely been cut to pieces and carried off by the ants.

So, that morning, both army ants and tarantula had had their lives drastically rearranged. Ana María had interviened on behalf of the tarantula, but I had just stood there watching, feeling equally allied to ants and tarantula.

One other thing -- as the army ants continued advancing through the herbage, some Hooded Warblers and Ovenbirds overwintering here from North America appearead to be having some fun. They fed on many small insects abandoning their hiding places as they tried to escape the ant hoards.

*****

BANANA TREES IN HOT, DRY WIND
Here's a mental image that'll stay with me long after I leave Komchén. The afternoon sky is cloudless, the temperature in the shade lies between 85° and 90°, the wind is furious, and everything is dry, dry, dry. That's the way it now nearly every day.

In fact, nowadays the banana trees along our entrance road are being dried out and beat ragged by the scorching wind. Some of the older leaves look like spears projected skyward, strung with narrow, dun- colored ribbons agitating like tinsil on a used-car- dealer's sky wires. The "spears" are the leaves' midribs, and the narrow ribbons are torn-apart sections of what once were single, broad, green blades.

One afternoon the glare from the road's white limestone gravel was so intense and the sunlight on my skin so unrelenting that I sought shelter inside a banana-tree thicket. While among the bananas I studied them closely and saw just what strange and wonderful beings they are.

First of all, it's almost misleading to call a banana tree a tree. If you think a tree needs a solid, branching trunk, then banana trees are not trees because their "trunks" are neither very solid nor branched. Banana plants rise from underground stolons. A stolon is a horizontal stem giving rise to a new plant at its tip. Therefore, the banana "tree" is actually an ephemeral banana "shoot," while the part of the plant living on year after year, issuing one shoot after another, is the underground stolon.

To understand what the banana shoot consists of, you need to know how average leaves are constructed. Typical leaves consist of a broad BLADE connected to the plant STEM by a PETIOLE. I provide a whole page helping beginning naturalists understand what's a leaf and what's not at www.backyardnature.net/whatleaf.htm.

The thing that looks like a banana-tree trunk consists of many LEAF PETIOLES nestled inside one another. Each leaf emerges from a kind of slit or groove atop the leaf petiole beneath it. When the shoot is mature enough a large inflorescence of flowers emerges from within the petiole of the last-produced leaf at the top of the plant. Once fruits are produced, the whole shoot dies.

Banana flowers are arranged on a drooping spike up to five feet long, with male flowers at the spike's tip, and female ones -- the ones that will form bananas -- located between the male flowers and the banana-shoot body. The male flowers consist of six stamens (one of them sterile) and each flower is subtended by a red-to- violet, scooplike bract. The pistils of the female flowers look like tiny, green bananas from the beginning. Fruits of wild banana species bear seeds, but fruits of horticultural varieties are seedless. Next time you eat a banana, notice the soft, dark, sandgrain-like affairs inside the fruit. Those are aborted seeds.

From what I can see, Komchén's black-and-blue Yucatan Jays and orange-and-black orioles eat far more of our banana fruits than we do. Long before the fruits start turning yellow the birds tear into them leaving brown gashes from one end to the other of the green, leathery fruit.

You may enjoy viewing a series of photos taken by a fellow chronicling the flowering and fruiting of his banana plant at www.wagonmaker.com/bananas.html.

*****

GIANT TOADS & FISH-FRIES
A highlight of many visitors' stay at Komchén is taking an early-morning jaunt up to the dock at Telchec Puerto just northeast of here where, at incredibly low prices, some very fine fish can be purchased directly from fishermen returning from their night's work. Then that night back at Komchén the fish are baked over a small campfire next to the big fishpond. As the sun sets and bats begin flitting above the pool, you hear something a bit like a boat motor chugging along at a distance, and you see certain dark forms gathering at the pool's edge. You are hearing and seeing Giant Toads (also called Cane Toads and Marine Toads), BUFO MARINUS.

Giant Toads look just like average American toads except that, by comparison, they are... gigantic. They grow up to 9 inches long from snout to rear end, and can weigh more than two pounds. When you catch one, sometimes it keeps calling. Its big belly is flabby-fat and pulsates as the toad calls, so holding such a toad is an experience unlike holding any other kind of creature. You can't keep from laughing.

The toad does not just passively rejoice in being held, however. If it thinks it's in danger, you'll find your hands smeared with a milky substance issuing from the parotoid glands behind its head. This milky stuff, called bufotoxin, is toxic enough to burn the eyes, inflame skin if it's not washed off, and a good dose of it can kill a dog or a cat. I asked my Maya-speaking friend Don Elías if he'd heard of dogs getting sick after attacking Giant Toads. He said he'd never heard of any problem at all with them, but that he's seen dogs die after chomping down on another toad species we have here, about the same size as our US toads. Well, all the toads I know of produce bufotoxin to some degree or another, and it sounds like Mexican dogs have more sense than to bite a Giant Toad, but not enough sence to not bite a little toad.

Giant Toads are native from Mexico to South America's Amazon region, but they've been introduced into southern Florida, the Caribbean, Australia and other places. A lot of people now wish they'd never seen them. The main problem with them is that they are so omnivorous and they eat so much that they tend to either out-compete or simply eat many other forms of life. Wherever they go, species diversity generally diminishes. If you're only concerned about your garden you may be happy to have Giant Toads eating your bugs but if you're concerned about broader ecosystem stability, Giant Toads make you worry a lot.

Still, on a warm evening sitting next to the fishpond as dusk comes on, it's very pleasant hearing the Giant Toads motor-boating all along the bank.

You can see Giant Toads and read more about them at www.floridagardener.com/critters/BufoMarinus.htm.

*****

"GOOPIES"
Several fishponds are scattered around Komchén and most are provided with Guppies -- pronounced here "Goopies." I read that Guppies are native to South and Central America, so maybe Guppies are hometown fish here. Ana María says they're typically found in swamps, sinkholes and ponds here, but that may be because people release them. In Latin the Guppy is known as either LEBISTES RETICULATUS or POECILIA RETICULATA, depending on which expert you listen to.

Our Guppies live outside year-round and right now the waters are teeming with babies and pregnant mamas. Ana María keeps a special pouch filled with homemade bread for feeding them, and they like crumbled-up tortillas, too. I think their main diet is the algae covering the pools' sides and bottoms.

Apparently we have the "wild type" of Guppy, since the females are plain brown, and the smaller, more slender males typically bear no more than a few small spots of color on their tails.

Many Internet sites are dedicated to "show Guppies," which are gaudy with rainbow colors and possess huge, flowing tails. Also there are forums for folks eager to share their Guppy experiences. For example, there's www.guppies.com with an informative FAQ page about growing guppies at www.guppies.com/PAGES/FAQ.html and more guppy info with interesting links at the bottom of the page at www.fishpondinfo.com/guppy.htm.

Taking care of Guppies can be a fun, educational experience for kids -- especially once the aquarium becomes overpopulated and the adults begin eating their babies. That's a lesson in population dynamics that stays with a kid for a long time...

*****

ROADSIDE HAWKS ALONG THE ROADSIDE
I've been surprised by the scaricity of hawks here. Rarely you see an overwintering Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk (actually a small falcon), but really the only hawk appearing on a fairly regular basis is the Roadside Hawk. That's its real name, what the books call it. It's BUTEO MAGNIROSTRIS, found from central Mexico to northern Argentina. And it's true that you usually see it along roadsides. It's a brownish bird, a bit more lanky than, say, a Red-tailed Hawk, but otherwise fairly similar. You can see one at www.angelfire.com/bc/gonebirding/images/roadside_hawk_B.JPG.

This is one species that surely has benefited from man's arrival. My fieldguide gives its habitats as "Roadsides, woodland borders, open woods, plantations, clearings, savannas." Before humans arrived, maybe this was the hawk that came after a hurricane or a big fire.

Often I'm alerted to a Roadside Hawk's appearance when suddenly the songbirds in a tree go quiet and the Yucatan Jays erupt with raucous complaints. The hawk may arrive silently, but the other birds say plainly enough that a predator has come into their midst.

****

ON SEEING LIKE A CAVEMAN
This week I've been reading a collection of essays entitled "Vision and Design" by British art historian Roger Fry. Fry's main period of influence was between the two world wars, so his work is a bit dated but still it's a pleasure to experience his clear and incisive thinking.

Fry addresses a question in art I've often wondered about. The 14,000-year-old drawings of animal forms on the walls of Spain's Altamira Cave and other caves are vividly alive and invested with dynamic tension. They convey the feeling the artists must have experienced when seeing those things in real life. So, why does so much art of later times show very little of that vitality? Remember those Byzantine works so painfully stiff, so choked with ostentation, and void of feeling other than desiccated, formalized religious sentiment.

Granted that religious fanatics being in control of the government were responsible for the Byzantine aridness but, still, just how could humanity's artistic impulse have withered so dramatically after such an auspicious beginning as is on display in Altamira Cave?

I interpret Fry as arguing that Paleolithic artists saw images and portrayed them with an immediacy and intensity that became unavailable to Neolithic people (people like us) simply because our greater mental capacity made it hard for us to see images without immediately analyzing them. Once the analytical process interposes between what the artist sees and the artist's portrayal of that thing, the thread of immediacy that enlivens any work of art is severed. It's revealing that when a modern child first tries to draw a human body, probably the child sketches a head and hands, but leaves the torso reduced to a single line. That's drawing what's in the mind, not what's actually seen. What a struggle it must be for an adult artist to absolutely dominate the analytical impulse.

In fact, much of the art of modern times can be interpreted as trying to reclaim the artist's ability and right to portray what he or she actually sees, not what the artist's brain insists ought to be seen, or has forgotten what was seen in the first place.

This is a matter appropriate for a nature-lover's newsletter because artists who can really SEE and convey to others what they are seeing are among the most important people to be enlisted in the fight to save Life on Earth.

For, I'm convinced that the following three-step process has to be part of any effort to save Life on Earth:

  1. Artists working in all media shall reveal to us the profound beauty in all living things, and the great dignity inherent in a rainbow of sustainable and ethical human lifestyles.
  2. Once people truly see the essential nature of these manners of being as revealed by artists, the public will grow to love them.
  3. Loving those things, people will become less willing to continue their destructive, unsustainable behaviors. Blind, self-indulgent consumerism will wither and entire ecosystems and sustainable philosophies will flourish. This will come about as the consequence of less pollution, fewer extractive processes of non- renewable resources, and more willingness to respect people of other shades and notions.
You can see the Paleolithic art of Altamira Cave at www.veu.unican.es/arte/Ingles/prehist/paleo/b/Default.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net