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

February 25, 2006

PORTUGUESE MAN-OF-WARS
The beach could not have been more pleasant -- a warm, moist breeze off the water, white seagulls, terns and puffy clouds in the blue sky, and the water temperature just right. Deep in the beachcombing frame of mind I'd been walking for a mile or two, hardly ever looking up, absorbed in the variety of seashells and other washed-up flotsam and jetsam, when something new appeared at the water's edge:

It was a fairly transparent, blue bladder about two inches long and shaped like an overstuffed tamale. On the tamale's flat side ran a sort of seam with a mess of blue, soft-plastic-like, stringy affairs dangling from it. At first I thought it was a half-squashed balloon, but then I realized that with such a fishy odor it had to be an animal. Thanks to years of browsing pictures in National Geographic magazine a name for the thing gradually come to mind: Portuguese Man-of-war.

Back in Hotel Reef's computer room I confirmed it. It was a small one, for Portuguese Man-of-wars grow up to a foot long. Here we're talking about PHYSALIA PHYSALIS. Sometimes Portuguese Man-of-wars are known as Bluebottles. The animal mostly consists of an oblong bladder filled largely with nitrogen, floating atop the water. Below the bladder long, slender tentacles dangle catching food.

Farther up the beach a second specimen appeared (both dead). I dropped them into a plastic bag, brought them home in order to photograph them, but the next morning the bladders had collapsed into smelly mush. You can see a webpage about Physalia showing pictures of washed-up blue bladders such as I found at http://www.aloha.com/~lifeguards/portugue.html.

Notice that the above address leads to a page for lifeguards. That's because sometimes lifeguards deal with the very painful consequences of encounters between swimmers and Physalia.

For, those blue, stringy items attached to the "seam" along the flat side -- the bottom -- were the remains of tentacles. When the tentacles had been fresh they'd borne stinging "nematocysts" capable of paralyzing small fish and other prey, or raising painful whelps on the skin of swimmers. The tentacles on large Man- of-wars can dangle up to 165 feet below the water's surface. They are equipped with weak muscles enabling them to contract and drag prey such as stunned fish up to the Man-of-war main body floating at the water's surface.

As a kid Vladimir spent a lot of time on Bermuda, out in Physalia's main home area in the Atlantic, so I asked him what people there did for first aid when they got stung.

"They poured vinegar on the stings, or peed on them," he said. Sounds like Physalia nematocysts inject highly alkaline stuff.

Associated with the floating bladder are short, thick "digestive polyps" which secret enzymes into the prey, breaking it down into a simple, mushy state that can be absorbed into the Physalia body. Physalia eats not only small fish but also small crustaceans, algae and just about any other organic matter floating beneath it.

Amazingly, Portuguese Man-of-wars are not just one organism, even though they have their own scientific name and classification. Like lichens, whose bodies are composed of two distinct and unrelated species -- a fungus and an alga symbiotically living together -- the Portuguese Man-of-war is actually a COLONY of four different kinds of highly modified animal polyps. One polyp consists of the gas-filled bladder, another of the tentacles, one cares for eating and digestion, and the fourth for reproduction. Physalia are "dioecious," which means that they come in male and female editions.

Physalia's sexual cycle isn't completely understood, largely because it takes place far at sea wherever large numbers of the animal congregate. In our part of the world mating occurs in the fall, so that large numbers of young appear in the northern winter and spring. Thus my finding these small ones now makes perfect sense.

Man-of-wars larger than the ones I found bear a low crest serving as a sail. The organisms don't swim, but rather float wherever the wind blows them. Some individuals are bent so that they are blown 45 degrees to the right of the wind's direction, while others are bent to float 45 degrees to the left. This keeps large numbers from all being blown to the same place.

Though poorly illustrated, the University of Michigan's page on Physalia has well-organized information on the organism here.

*****

TURKEY WING SEASHELLS
Usually the most eye-catching items washed up on the beach are seashells. In places, wave action has piled 20-ft-long and longer heaps of them -- nothing but ten-inch-deep deposits of mostly small and white shells that crunch beneath one's feet.

As the picture above shows, maybe the most distinctive and easy-to-identify shell is one a little over two inches long, oblong, with one side bulging out and the other side more or less straight. Low, narrow ridges radiate across the shell and, most strikingly, the whole shell is zebra-striped with white and rusty-red bands. Because the shells vaguely look like outstretched bird wings they're called Turkey Wings, ARCA ZEBRA.

Once you have the name of something, then you can look up the name in books and on the Internet to find out more about it. In Hotel Reef's computer room I did just that. I learned that living Turkey Wings attach themselves to coral rocks and wedge themselves into crevices. They occur from the low tide mark to as deep as 20 feet.

Also I found information that made this landlubber's face burn with shame. Without thinking much about it I'd been assuming that Turkey Wings were bivalves -- having two shells like clams -- but in the Computer Room I read that they're mollusks, and  all the mollusks I know (basically snails and slugs) have either one or no shells. So, I jumped to the conclusion that Turkey Wings, being mollusks, just have one shell, and I wrote that in my Newsletter.

Sometime later Thomas E. Eichhorst, Editor of the American Conchologist magazine, wrote me this:

Turkey wings are indeed mollusks, bivalved mollusks. Your turkey wing shells are bivalves consisting of two shells. The ones you find on the beach are long dead and have been separated into two separate valves and washed ashore. The odds of finding matching valves are not very good. If you find a live animal you will note that the valves fit together perfectly. The phylum Mollusca is divided into seven classes (and a couple of fossil classes): Aplacophora (about 250 wormlike species), Polyplacophora (the chitons, about 700 species), Monoplacophora (primitive limpet-like "living fossils," about 10 species), Cephalopoda (squids, octopi, and cephalopods, over 1,000 species), Schaphopoda (tusk or tooth shells, about 400 species), Bivalvia (also called Pelecypoda) (clams, scallops, mussels and the like, over 1,000 species), and Gastropoda (snails, slugs, nudibranchs, etc, over 30,000 species).   Thus a shell can be both a bivalve (the class) and a mollusk (the phylum). Your turkey wing shells are bivalves consisting of two shells.

So, I really messed up that one. Probably it's a good thing I'm an inland naturalist not an marine one. Anyway, Turkey Wings are distributed from the shores of North Carolina south to Brazil and out to Bermuda. In Bermuda and Venezuela its flesh is often eaten.

A website with many identified pictures of seashells found on beaches from the Carolinas to Texas, therefore with many shells also found here, is at http://www.seashells.org/seashells/sanibelseashellident.htm.

*****

ORIOLES OF NORTHERN YUCATAN
By "orioles" I mean members of the bird genus ICTERUS, in the Family Icteridae. That family is a big one embracing not only orioles but also meadowlarks, blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds and the Bobolink. Orioles are brightly colored birds with bold patterns of orange or yellow with black and usually some white. In North America, except locally along the Mexican border, orioles are strictly summer residents who migrate south for the winter. In North America the best known orioles are the Orchard and Baltimore in the East, and the Bullock's in the West.

North America's orioles overwinter in Mexico and farther south. Mexico is home to about eleven oriole species. Because of the several species and the fact that the orioles' female, juvenile and first-year plummages are often similar, in the field it can be hard to impossible to identify certain individuals to species level. The birder just hopes to see a mature male singing, for the differences between songs and mature males' plummages usually are great enough to enable solid identifications.

At Hacienda San Juan two permanent-resident species are seen and heard in equal abundance each day at this time of year, and they are so similar that at first it's hard to distinguish them. The Altamira Oriole is larger and usually has an orange wing patch, while the smaller Hooded Oriole lacks the patch and has a slightly curved upper bill. Though these features are often hard to note in the field, the birds' songs are very different.

In this area we also have the uncommon and endemic Orange Oriole. I saw it last year at Komchén but so far not here. It lacks the black back of the Altamira and Hooded but otherwise looks pretty much like them.

Howell's field guide indicates that in this area we also host Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles as permanent residents, but I've not seen them at the hacienda. Orchard and Baltimore Orioles migrate through here, wintering farther south. Just a bit farther inland, to the south, Black-cowled Orioles turn up.

Orioles keep a birder here head-scratching much of the time. You just need to look at every individual to make sure it's one of the common ones, and in the process you see more Altamiras and Hoodeds than you really want to.

But, all the species are so gaily colored and musical that you don't really mind. Seeing a brightly orange, black and white bird in a glossy, dark-green tree with the deep blue sky behind, all animated with windblown boughs or fronds and the graceful flittings of the orioles themselves... what could be more agreeable?

If you want to see our orioles and just imagine how much fun they are to be with, here are some links:

ALTAMIRA ORIOLE:
http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmsl/h5031pi.jpg

HOODED ORIOLE:
http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmsl/h5050pi.jpg

YELLOW-TAILED ORIOLE: http://www.mangoverde.com/birdsound/picpages/pic204-45-3.html

YELLOW-BACKED ORIOLE: http://www.mangoverde.com/birdsound/picpages/pic204-41-2.html

BALTIMORE ORIOLE:
http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmsl/h5070pi.jpg

ORCHARD ORIOLE:
http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmsl/h5060pi.jpg

*****

TAMARIND TEA
For months I've been eyeing the Tamarind trees' abundant, dangling legumes wondering when they would ripen so I could make tamarind tea. The time has come. We now have more tamarind fruits than we can deal with. You can see what they look like on a tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tamarind.jpg  

The legumes are like large snapbeans, but brown and very plump. Their brown skin is hard and brittle like thin plastic. You know the legumes are mature when you can squeeze them with your fingers and the skin shatters revealing a honey-colored, gummy mass inside which are embedded several very hard, dark-chestnut- colored seeds the size and shape of baby lima beans. You can see a picture of a fruit with its brittle, shattered shell revealing the pulp inside at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tamarin2.jpg  

Whenever I'm conducting a tour of the hacienda we stop beneath a Tamarind tree. Sharper visitors often remark that the Tamarind's feathery, doubly compound leaves remind them of the Mimosas or Albizias back home, or of the acacias they've seen during travels in other lands. It's true that Tamarinds are closely related to those trees, all being members of the Bean Family. In the Tamarind's dense shade we pull off a few Tamarind legumes, pick away the brown rind, and snack on the honey-colored, gummy pulp. It's pleasantly sour with a slight taste of raw snapbeans.

Local people here also snack on Tamarind fruits right from the tree but mainly they make a lemonade-like cold drink. They crush fruits in the bottom of a large pitcher, pour in water, let it sit overnight or at least two or three hours until the pulp softens and can be smushed, and then the hard parts are strained out. What's left is an acidy, somewhat murky looking, honey-colored liquid which, when sweetened and kept cold, really hits the spot on a hot afternoon.

Tamarinds are very commonly planted in towns and haciendas here, as well as all through the world's tropics. They're grown for both their fruits and the tree's pretty form and shade. The species is thought to be originally from Africa and maybe southern Asia. Its Latin name is TAMARINDUS INDICA. "Indica" means "from India," and "tamarindus" is from the Arabic "tamar-Hindi" meaning "date-fruit from India."

*****

BALCHÉ
What a family the Bean Family is! Out in the scrub probably most of the trees and bushes are Bean Family members, and at the hacienda ever so many ornamentals belong to it, not just the Tamarind. At the hacienda yet another Bean Family tree at its fruiting peak right now is Balché, of the genus LONCHOCARPUS. You can see Balché's leaves and unusual legumes at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lonchoca.jpg  

Balché's legumes, as seen in the upper right corner of that picture, are unusual because typically they contain only one seed. Nearly all other Bean Family legumes contain two or more seeds. The tree's once- compound leaves also are unusual because, as you can see at the lower left in the picture, they are dispersed evenly along the stem instead of clustering at the stem's tip, as with most trees.

Balché's fame, however, doesn't arise from the tree's botany. Several species of Balché -- of the genus Lonchocarpus -- are famous because the ancient Maya made from the trees' bark a mildly fermented drink also called balché. Often balché was at the center of important Maya ceremonies. Balché was to the ancient Maya what wine is to Catholics and mead was to early Anglo-Saxons. In fact, I'm told that in town Balché still is made from time to time. Also, if you can't find enough bark or don't want to hurt the tree, leaves also can be used. The slightly intoxicating drink is quite bitter, I've heard.

*****

ORANGE CIRICOTE FLOWERS AGAINST THE BLUE SKY
Our bright, blue-skied afternoons highlight a certain small, native tree blossoming now with orange-red blossoms about 2½-inches across. It's the Ciricote, CORDIA DODECANDRA, a member of the Borage Family, in which we also find Bluebells, Forget-me-nots, Comfrey and Borage itself. In the North this family is nearly always herbaceous but in the tropics it breaks out with woody species.

Ciricote's keep flowering for months at a time. During the wet season the flowers' intensely orange color erupts against a dark, green landscape. Now during the dry season Ciricote trees have lost their large, sandpapery leaves but the trees' flower clusters at the tips of scraggly branches are almost shockingly vivid against the deep, blue sky. You can such some blossoms on a tree just outside my door at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ciricote.jpg

Many Ciricotes have been planted at the hacienda but out in the scrub they are not common, though once they were. One problem for the tree is that its wood is famous for holding up under wet conditions, plus the wood is pretty enough for being used in making furniture. I read that it has been placed on a list of plants in danger of disappearing from the wild.

*****

HOT, BREEZY AFTERNOON THOUGHTS
Sometimes an afternoon's heavy glare and dry heat gets to you and you just have to lie down. However, you never nap for long. By early afternoon the wind has grown beyond being just a friendly, cooling breeze. Always, just as you are about to doze off, it blows over a potted plant, a heavy wooden window-shutter comes undone and crashes against a wall, or a gust simply blows through the room so rudely that you have to get up and look around.

On such drowsy afternoons when the wind keeps you awake, you feel that the whole rest of the world must be quietly at siesta, somehow more at ease with the wind than you. You look around, the palm trees gyrate, dust swirls through the bougainvillea gate, iguanas keep their heads low atop the ruin walls, and you think, think, think...

This week on such afternoons I´ve been thinking about an insight that has grown in me over the years. Of course I can't be sure that I'm seeing things clearly. I only know that the insight feels harmonious with how I perceive Nature to be. Certainly I'm not the first to come up with the thought. However, I did come to it in my own way. I feel a responsibility to share the insight, for it provides a possible answer to a kind of question I have heard many ask in desperation. Here is one form of that question:

"Why do innocent, beautiful people suffer and die, sometimes horribly?"

The insight is very simple, yet it is based on an assumption not very popular or understandable in our culture. In fact, the assumption is almost the opposite of what our culture imagines. Here it is:

When a human or any living thing is born, it is not a matter of something unique arising from nothingness. Rather, everything is one to begin with, just that now there's another ephemeral opaqueness or maybe a tiny hole in the Great Unity's fabric. From the Unity's perspective, this opaqueness or hole is characterized by its lack of information, its lack of understanding, and it lack of senses arrayed so that the fabric and design of The Whole can be perceived, understood, and loved.

Why does the Universal Creative Force bother causing uninformed, clumsily equipped beings to arise and evolve?

I think it may be so that the Universal Creative Force can examine and know Herself by way of what we living things see and feel. We are not only words She uses in Her poetry, tones in Her music, but also we are nerve endings with which She experiences Her own being and Her own evolution. We must be made simple and crude, and made so that we must die before we understand much, else the opium of enlightenment would blunt our pains and end our fears, and the Universal Creative Force's nervous system would be anesthetized.

When the innocent child dies of leukemia and everyone hurts in so many ways, then the Universal Creative Force feels through our pain the value and beauty of that child. The sharper our pain -- as well as the greater our joy over other things -- the more exquisite is the Creator's sense of self.

Many insights can blossom from believing this. One important to me is that surely there's no greater responsibility for each of us living things than to perpetually struggle to sharpen our own senses, sensibilities and understandings, so that we may hurt more, feel greater joy... so that the Universal Creative Force may do the same.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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