JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written at Hacienda San Juan Lizárraga
one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo, Yucatán, MÉXICO
and issued from Hotel Reef Yucatan 13 kms to the north

January 28, 2006

A YUCATAN DWARF CENTIPEDE-EATER
Having the gardeners Roberto and Francisco calling me whenever they turn up an interesting critter has been wonderful. While they machete weeds and dig up new beds for flowers they stumble across amazing organisms every day. This Wednesday they grinningly called me over to check out what they'd demobilized beneath a cup.

It was the smallest snake I'd ever seen, even smaller than snakes I've seen just emerged from their eggs. I got a picture of it and you can see it lying in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/snk_cent.jpg.

It was a Yucatan Dwarf Centipede-eater, TANTILLITA CANULA. Adults of this species grow to only about 7 inches (18 cm) and this one was a juvenile 3 inches long (7.5 cm). Using my hand lens I could hardly see the eye and mouth but finally I managed to confirm its distinguishing features -- 15 dorsal scale rows, 6 or 7 infralabial scales, divided anal plate, and other such esoterica. Among snakes, scales aren't randomly scattered. They are arrayed in specific and distinctive ways, and many scales, especially those around the face, have their own names. Snake identification is often a matter of counting scales and verifying their relative positions.

What a find! The species is distributed only from lowland northern Guatemala north through the Yucatan Peninsula, and it does eat centipedes and other small invertebrates, though this young one was smaller than most centipedes I've seen. It's so secretive that usually you never see one unless you blunder upon it. Typically they're beneath logs and rocks along the edges of clearings. Roberto saw this one escaping from beneath a plank on the ground, after he'd poured some water there.

Seeing this little critter just made my week!

*****

CORAL ON THE BEACH
Last week I told you about the white, rocklike fragments of calcareous bryozoa I find washed up on the beach near Hotel Reef. On my beach walk this week mostly I found chunks of coral. You can see one such piece held in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/coral.jpg.

You might be interested in comparing the general form of that with the calcareous bryozoa found the week earlier, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bryozoa1.jpg.

Googling on the hotel's computer I found out that most coral species are either soft corals, which look rather spongy, or the hard, or calcareous, ones, such as the rocklike item in my hand.

You can see that the surface of the chunk in my hand is conspicuously ornamented with many shallow craters inside each of which appear calcareous, nipplelike structures with slender arms radiating from them. These craters and nipples began making some sense when I viewed the coral-anatomy page at http://www.undersea.com.au/corals/coral_structure.htm.

When the chunk of coral in my hand had been part of a living community of coral organisms, each crater had been occupied by a coral polyp -- the individual coral animal. Coral polyps are much simpler affairs than the bryozoa zooids described last week, but they do have tiny tentacles, like an octopus. The arms, or septa, radiating from the nipple (columella) serve as low partitions which help keep the tentacles in place and provide sheltered slots into which they can withdraw when they're disturbed. When a crater is occupied by a living coral polyp its tentacles usher food into the mouth at the crater's center. The stomach resides below the mouth. There's a more detailed description of polyp anatomy, but without illustrations, at http://www.uvi.edu/coral.reefer/anatomy.htm.

I mentioned last week that often the limestone of central Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as much of North America, is full of fossil bryozoa. The same is true of fossil coral. More than once in geological history large areas of North America were submerged beneath the waters of shallow tropical seas, and bryozoa and coral were abundant in those seas. However, over the eons both the land and the seas sometimes rose and sometimes fell, and the continents drifted across the globe as climates changed and changed again.

So now fossils of tropical marine organisms outcrop on mountaintops, the oceans are filling with ground-down mountains as they always have, and here I am thinking about it all on a Yucatan beach.

*****

KAPOK
Several collections of books cluster in this and that corner at the hacienda. Many books were left by the previous owner and many more have been ruined by flooding from one or more hurricanes and thrown away. What remains is almost like a random collection in a Salvation Army used-book bin, everything from science fiction to classic novels and technical works.

Right now I have open next to me the "Hand Book of Tropical Plants" by HF Macmillan, published in New Delhi, India. The book's pages are yellowed and smell as you'd expect them to after moldering for many years in heavy heat and high humidity. It was written with a focus on tropical gardening in India and Ceylon, back in the days when English functionaries and plantation managers maintained palatial estates there. Its "Proposed Plan of a Garden" includes a garden house with a spacious verandah and a drawing room, with a building apart for the kitchen and the "boys" to live in, and a tennis court.

I have this book out because right now a young Ceiba tree next the hacienda's entrance gate is bearing on its stout, leafless branches several cantaloupe-sized wads of what look like cotton. You can see some of those wads, which is the Ceiba's fruit splitting open to release very hairy seeds, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403fz.jpg.

Macmillan's book was written back when Ceiba "cotton" was regarded as having value. He wrote:

"Until lately, kapok fibre has been used chiefly for stuffing pillows, cushions, etc., and during the war for life-saving waistcoats and similar articles. Recently, it has been employed for mixing with other fine fibres for textile purposes."

The war Macmillan mentioned was the First World War, and his kapok was the fuzz on our Ceiba tree. Our Ceiba (pronounced SAY-bah) tree is CEIBA PENTANDRA, a member of the tropical Bombax Family.

Ceibas are native to the American tropics and when they grow old where there's plenty of rain they can be gigantic, growing 100 feet and more high, with immense horizontal, far- reaching branches, and wide-flung, thin buttresses extending from the trunks for 30 feet or more, like fins on a rocket. In rainier country the Ceiba's spreading branches bear airborne gardens of orchids, bromeliads, ferns, mosses, peperomias and the like. If any tree possesses a majestic, even spiritual, presence, it's the Ceiba.

But, our little Ceiba next to the gate exhibits none of that majesty, and only a handful of its pods are releasing kapok. Actually the tree makes a rather awkward- looking presence, its naked, stubby branches bristling with broad-based spines, and the tree hardly rising above the surrounding scrub.

But, I have seen enough grand old Ceibas farther south to know to tip my hat to this little tree whenever I pass him by.

*****

SOCIALIST FUNGI
Sometimes Katharine also brings me books to read from the "Merida English Library" in Merida. The other day she came in with "Liaisons of Life" by Tom Wakeford. The book focuses on symbiotic relationships between microbes and other forms of life. Among the amazing facts he brings to light is that 10% of a person's weight is contributed by bacteria -- and that's bacteria we need, especially for aid in digesting our food. Wakeford makes a good case for the idea that many human illnesses are caused by our abuse of our bodies' microbes. Our affinity for "cleanliness" may be making us sick.

Even more interesting is what recently has been discovered about mycorrhiza, the fungal hyphae encasing many kinds of plant roots. Mycorrhiza help plants acquire nutrition and other necessities, as described on my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/mycorhza.htm.

In the early 1990s mycologist Suzanne Simard and her team at Oregon State University discovered that cobwebby networks of mycorrhiza could connect the roots of not only many trees of the same species but also trees of different species. They found birch connected to fir trees by up to ten different species of fungi. Over these mycorrhiza networks, nutrients could flow from tree to tree. In fact, birch trees growing in bright sunlight seemed to be subsidizing fir trees in the shade by sharing sugars over their mycorrhiza network.

Clearly, over time, the genetic codes of birch, fir and fungi -- their genomes -- evolved to accommodate the wisdom that each species' survival was enhanced when each member of the community got what it needed.

This symbiotic element of the evolutionary process contrasts to the way Darwinian evolution is perceived by most people, as being a pure competition between discrete species, with predation and extinction representing ultimate expressions.

Just reflect on the elegance of a system that over time can detect and accommodate itself to the wisdom of "to each according to his needs, from each according to his capabilities." How pretty it is to have this wisdom crystallized and enshrined in the genetic codes of each of the community's members. And how vulnerable must be this system to anything such as herbicide, acid rain or changing climate that might harm the invisible microbial components.

*****

ON THE JOY OF STUDYING FLOWER ANATOMY
Most mornings Vladimir drops by with a handful of flowers and for two or three hours we sit at a big table in the semi-open "Pavilion" next to my lodging. With our books open and using a hand lens (jeweler's loupe), we dissect and analyze the blossoms, figuring out which species they are. You can see a splendid picture of Vladimir furrowing his noble brow over the identity of a roadside blossom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060128.jpg.

It's enormously gratifying to see Vladimir getting hooked on the experience, and learning his lessons fast. However, "learning" isn't what I regard as the main purpose for the exercise. To me, the process itself is what's important. What's important is that two people sit for awhile on a pleasant morning filling their minds and spirits with the stuff of flower anatomy.

Part of why doing this is important is simple to explain. It bears upon my belief that nature study is therapeutic and soul nourishing. The main way that works is this:

Instead of occupying our brains with the affairs of everyday life -- the body's hungers and woes, concerns about status and identity, broodings about what did and did not happen or might happen -- we are immersing our psyches into the mystery of the mustard flower's curious four long stamens and two short ones, or maybe the richly brown basal cross-markings of the white-flowered Neomarica's obovate outer perianth segments. Just imagine how a day's general feeling is transformed by a vagrant scent of dissected gardenia blossom lying on a wooden table.

To a certain extent the brain is like a box that can hold just so much. You start filling it with flower stuff, and other less agreeable stuff starts toppling out. The end result is a brain that's more flowery than before.

Another way of saying this is that we are displacing self-centered, often unsustainable and even self-destructive thinking patterns with cogitations suggested by universal, sustainable, natural paradigms. Seeing an unusual pollination strategy designed to assure that a blossom will have its bee, we are confirming the interdependency of all things. Smelling the gardenia on the table, we are assured of the fundamentally benevolent nature of the Universal Creative Force.

A mustard flower is the true prophet.

Of course the average person is bound to reply, "Sure, that's nice, but this is real life, bills have to be paid and work must be done."

So, that's the crux of the matter. The matter is that the definitions of "real life" and "what must be done" are more open to debate than the vast majority of us recognize.

I profoundly believe that most of us most of the time are doing things not really needing to be done. In fact, most of what most of us do most of the time is ultimately destructive in terms of maintaining a sustainable living space, and often self-destructive as well in terms of our enjoying healthy bodies and souls.

Where did the idea come from that we all need to buy so much and live such neat, antiseptic lives? Why do so few of us experiment with lives that are voluptuously yet somewhat ascetically feral? Is there not a mellow, microbe-friendly, flower-sniffing Middle Path between neurotic cleanliness and orderliness on the one hand, and lazy rottenness and degeneration on the other? Cannot "real life" be a Middle Path coursing through a field of flowers, and "what must be done" be the sniffing of those flowers?

I would be honored if you would browse the links at my web page "Understanding Backyard Flowers" at http://www.backyardnature.net/pollen.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