JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

December 11, 2006

SCRUB EUPHONIAS IN THE MISTLETOE
These mornings when I arrive at Biosphere Reserve HQ a little after dawn usually I hear high-pitched, rather tentative and shy bird-peeps. If your computer can digest WAV files you can hear them yourself at http://www.naturesongs.com/sceu2.wav.

The calls emanate from Sweet Acacia trees, ACACIA FARNESIANA, which grow abundantly on the slopes around Jalpan, just as they did in the northern Yucatan scrub. The Sweet Acacias are flowering now, their tiny mimosoid blossoms clustered into orange, spherical inflorescences about the size of large peas, on the ends of peduncles about 3/4-inch long. You can see this wiry little tree at http://www.floridagardener.com/FLNatives/acaciafarnesiana.htm.

At first I thought the peeping birds must be chasing insects among the acacia's flowers but the binoculars showed that BB-size, orange, succulent mistletoe fruits were being sought. Our acacias are heavily parasitized by mistletoes, and our main mistletoe species produces gummy fruits similar to North American mistletoes, except that they're orange instead of white. The fruits are so juicy and pretty that I ate a couple before I remembered that fruits of our North American species are regarded as poisonous. Well, you'd have to eat quite a few before getting sick.

Through the binoculars I could also see who the birds were. They were four to six chubby-looking, smallish birds with thick beaks and black and yellow plumage, reminiscent of northern male Goldfinches in nesting plumage. They were Scrub Euphonias, which you can see at http://www.bafrenz.com/birds/Belize06/ScEuX01.htm.

These pretty little birds occur from Mexico to Costa Rica and they're fairly common. I do find them in scrub but also two months ago they'd sometimes flit around my breakfast table at Ek Balam in the Yucatan. I've also seen Scrub Euphonias on rather humid but weedy mountain slopes, so the species is somewhat flexible in its habitat requirements.

We also have Yellow-throated Euphonias here who are very similar, except that their throats are yellow instead of black. I find this species more in the scrub however. Looks like they'd have called this one the Scrub Euphonia.

Taxonomists have had a hard time figuring out where euphonias belong on the evolutionary Tree of Life. When you want to know how an animal is classified scientifically a good place on the Web to go is to the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/index.html.

When I plug the Euphonia's scientific name, Euphonia, into the search box there I'm led to a page placing them into "Family Genera Incertae Sedis." That's a fancy Latin way of saying "Genus-position uncertain." Tanagers also appear here so neither is their ancestory known. One of my field guides refers to euphonias as "stubby little tanagers."

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MEXICAN SYCAMORES
One of my tasks at the Biosphere Reserve is to visit all the region's ecotouristic destinations and take notes and pictures. I don't get paid for it but I'm given a place to stay and I like doing it. Last Monday I was taken to the Río Escalones where a tiny community of campesinos hopes to entice visitors to use its picnic area set along a pretty little stream, and take a guided hike to see where the stream runs beneath a natural stone bridge. You can see the Río Escalones cascading among boulders at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211s.jpg.

Things in that picture may look awfully familiar to you, especially because leaning out over the stream are large trees looking very much like the sycamores we have in North America. They are indeed sycamores but not our North American ones. The gringo trees are American Sycamores, Platanus occidentalis, while the ones in the picture are Mexican Sycamores, Platanus mexicana.

Right now our Mexican Sycamores still bear green leaves but the leaves are turning brown and starting to fall. It's curious that this species who doesn't have to worry about water or even frosts is losing its leaves. Maybe losing the leaves is a vestigial, genetically fixed trait inherited from a northern or Ice-Age ancestor who lost leaves during cold winters, or maybe it's a way of ridding the trees of insect- and fungus-infected leaves and starting all over with healthy new ones.

Though the Mexican and American Sycamores are a lot alike you can see in the picture that the Mexican species tends to produce a massive trunk base that soon splits into smaller two to several smaller trunks. I read that here the species flowers from December to February, then the fruits mature from April to August.

In Spanish this tree is called "Álamo." Our English name "sycamore" is a pretty word. One interpretation of that name's etymology is that it came into English around 1350 from the Old French "sicamor," which derived from the Latin "sycomorus," which came from the Greek "sykomoros," which was based on "sykon," which means "fig," and "moron," which means "mulberry." Well, sycamore leaves are a little similar to mulberry leaves, if you think about it. Other ideas about the origin of "sycamore" are at http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sycamore.

Sycamores are often called "plane trees." The word "plane" passed through various languages from the old Greek "platanistos," the "plata" part associated with "platys," which means "broad," referring to the tree's large, wide leaves.

Mexican Sycamores are native to northeastern and central Mexico. Mexico also is home to the Chiapas and Oaxaca Sycamores in the south, Gentry's Sycamore in the west, Rzedowski's Sycamore in the east and the Arizona Sycamore in the northwest. On the whole planet only about ten sycamore species are recognized so a good bet is that the first primitive sycamores arose in Mexico. Sycamore species also occur in Asia and Europe. It's interesting that when European species are crossed with American ones fertile hybrids are produced.

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A KIDNEY-FIXING SELAGINELLA
Yesterday, exploring a trail leading up the mountain through the scrub I saw a man across the valley wandering along the wooded slope obviously looking for something, occasionally stooping and placing what he'd found into a bag. I had to go see what he was collecting.

The only thing I could see unusual about the spot he'd been in was that here and there thin, stacked layers of slate rock outcropped, and on those rock faces grew a sizable colony of a special kind of Selaginella, probably SELAGINELLA LEPIDOPHYLLA.

Selaginella is a non-flowering, spore-producing, moss- like, branching plant that usually creeps over the ground or climbs things, or is sometimes erect. We have them in the North, especially in moist, protected spots such as at cliff bases, mossy areas next to streams, etc. Most Selaginella species are tropical, though. Selaginellas are their own kind of thing, having their own plant family.

What's special about the Selaginella I found yesterday was that it was so large, made a pretty rosette with its ferny leaves, but dried up into a ball when dry. Then when it's wet again it opens up like a huge, green snowflake. For this reason the plant is often known as the Resurrection Plant. You can see two plants with their tips still expanding outward after a rain we'd just had at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211d.jpg.

So, why had the fellow been collecting this plant? All over Mexico I see it sold in its dry, balled-up state in "Indian markets" as a medicinal plant, so when I got home I looked up Selaginella lepidophylla in my Las Plantas Medicinales de México and, sure enough, it's regarded as powerful medicine. I translate:

"Dr. Cuevas recommends it against cystitis and irritation of the liver and kidneys, straining out a tea from five or six plants cooked in 700 grams of water, sweetening it, and concentrating it to the consistency of syrup."

In Spanish Selaginella lepidophylla is known as Doradilla.

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CHALICE-VINE
My trail up through the scrub took me through a lush little valley where folks lived in every kind of house, from fairly nice ones to real hovels, all looking as if they'd been constructed haphazardly over many years, and that's probably the case. However, one couldn't emerge from that valley without having gathered one inevitable impression:

No matter how desperately poor and stinking a living area might look, it was always set among the most delightful plants. One nostril smelled pig manure or worse, the other the sweetest perfume, and the eye was always catching on one gorgeous flower-color-eruption or another.

Surely the most spectacular plant currently flowering in that valley is the Chalice-vine, SOLANDRA GUTTATA. You can see a flower -- keep in mind that the ochre-yellow, funnel-shaped blossom is NINE INCHES (23 cm) long and fragrant -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211y.jpg.

One is just not accustomed to seeing such huge, colorful blossoms unless they're growing from a bulb in a pot, like an amaryllis or lily. But Chalice-vine is a much- branching, climbing shrub (not twining enough to be a vine). The ones I saw were at least 15 feet tall.

Chalice-vines are native Mexican plants, and members of the Nightshade or Tomato/Tobacco Family, the Solanaceae.

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ACAHUAL THE PRETTY SUNFLOWER
A plant looking more familiar than the above to eyes most accustomed to the eastern North American landscape also is flowering now along roads and in fields. The plant looks a good bit like the North's multi-flowered sunflower species, such as the Jerusalem Artichoke, except it has larger flowers. It's the Acahual, TITHONIA TUBAEFORMIS. You can see one at the Reserve's entrance at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211a.jpg.

Beyond the fact that the plant is so big and colorful -- on overcast days the three-inch-wide (7.5 cm), yellow- orange flowers just explode with cheerful brightness -- one reason the species is interesting is because usually weeds are alien invasives, but Acahual is native to here, northeastern Mexico. In fact, the species has begun showing up as a weed in other tropical countries, such as northwestern Argentina. One reason for Acahual's success is that it produces prodigious numbers of little black seeds -- to the delight of seed-eating birds.

The name Acahual is from the Náhuatl language and I'm told by Native American employees at the Reserve that the name is applied to several very different weedy plants that appear when the ground is disturbed.

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NÁHUATL, OTOMÍ, CHICHIMECA & PURÉPECHA
I miss the lovely Maya people I've grown to know and respect in the Yucatan. Here most people probably have as much Native American blood as the Yucatan's Maya, but I think that here native traditions have succumbed more completely to the Spanish influence (and now the North American influence) than in interior Yucatan. Very unlike at Ek Balam where I was two months ago, here young people seldom know any of their ancestors' language. Only a few old people speak the old tongues.

Querétaro is one of Mexico's smallest states, yet I read that originally Native Americans speaking languages from four language groups -- Náhuatl, Otomí, Chichimeca and Purépecha -- lived here. In fact, Mexico is home to 62 living languages and only India, with 65, hosts more.

Náhuatl was the language of the ancient Aztecs. The Náhuatl-speaking Nahua people are thought to have originated in the southwestern United States, split from other Uto-Aztecan peoples and migrated into central Mexico at some point around 2000 BC. They settled in and around the Basin of Mexico and spread to become central Mexico's dominant people. The Aztec civilization was just one of several important Mesoamerican civilizations with Nahua roots.

In pre-Columbian times the Otomí people, sometimes known by the unlikely name of Hñähñu, were conquered by the Aztecs and thereafter often used by them as mercenary warriors. In this area Otomí speakers live almost exclusively at the highest elevations.

Sometimes the Otomí are lumped with the Chichimeca because originally "Chichimeca" was a Náhuatl name applied to a large number of nomadic, northern-Mexico ethnic groups with various linguistic roots. The name carried a pejorative connotation because the Aztecs regarded the northern nomads as primitive and barbaric compared to their own advanced civilization.

When the Spanish began subduing the north the various tribes resisted and the resulting conflict is known today as the "Chichimeca Wars." The northern tribes were obliterated or absorbed into today's mestizo or "mixed" culture. Many "Chichimecas" were sent to the Yucatan as slaves to work on henequen plantations. Now almost nothing is known of many of the former "Chichimeca" tribes -- the Guachichiles, Caxcanes, Zacatecos and Guamares, for instance. The Otomís are among the former "Chichimeca" peoples who still retain some of their former identities. Others include the Cora, Huichol, Chichimeca Jonaz, Pame, Yaqui, Mayo, O'odham and Tepehuán.

The Purépecha people used to be known as the Tarascan, and in historical accounts are referred to as coming from the Tarascan state. However, today the people refer to themselves as P'urhépecha, in Spanish simplified to Purépecha. At the time of the Spanish Conquest the Tarascan state was Mexico's second largest, incorporating many of the groups mentioned above as belonging to the Chichimecas. (Through history subsets of people merged with and overlapped others, and many disappeared.) Mexico's largest state at the Conquest was that of the Aztecs. The Tarascans and Aztecs were mortal enemies.

If you'd like a taste of pre-Spanish Mexican history, take a look at Wikipedia's page on the Tarascan state at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarascan_state.

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CHICKENS WITH FEATHERLESS NECKS
During my earliest days of traveling in Mexico mostly I visited the southernmost states, especially Chiapas, because down there is where you find the most ecological and ethnic diversity. I've quit traveling there mostly because it's grown too dangerous -- for reasons too complex to go into here, other than to say that overpopulation lies at the root of it.

One feature of the small, Native American villages in the south that always intrigued me was that the chickens running around people's homes had featherless necks. At first I assumed that they were a special kind of "Indian chicken" and over the years as I began noticing them being replaced by more familiar races I figured that they were just going the way of other Native American traditions.

But then it occurred to me that poultry ancestors arose in Asia and didn't come to the Americas until the very late 1400s or early 1500s. At that time Europeans introduced into Mexico a whole range of plants and animals never seen here before, including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. The Spaniards likewise introduced nuts and grains such as almonds, rice, wheat, and barley; and fruit and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflowers, potatoes (these brought from Peru), and sugarcane. These chickens with featherless necks must have been introduced here then, too.

My best Googling on the Internet suggests that the featherless-necked fowl may be a race sometimes called "Naked Necks," first developed in Hungary, then refined in Germany, and now popular in some tropical countries, especially the Far East. They are known as hardy, vigorous birds who are good layers, producing brown eggs, their main weakness being an intolerance to cold. However, that is compensated for by their ability to thrive in the tropics. They were introduced into the US during the 1920s under the name of "Churkeys," some believing they were crosses between chickens and turkeys.

I've been thinking about these chickens lately because I've seen some running around the streets of Jalpan. Just seeing a featherless-necked old hen running across the road makes me happy.

You can see some Naked Necks yourself (and browse links to pages describing many other poultry types) here.  

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CHURCH BELLS AND ROCKETS
At 4 AM Friday morning the local cathedral began ringing its bells. I was told it was to celebrate the Creator of the Universe getting Mary pregnant, immaculately.

At 2 AM on Saturday and through the rest of the morning and all day long pretty loud explosions detonated all over town often enough to be constantly on the mind. I was told that they were rockets being set off by a parade of people wandering the streets carrying a small statue of the baby Jesus wearing a golden crown. The statue is taken to people's homes where atole is drunk, tamales are eaten, there's friendly talk, and the statue is venerated. The statue is so popular that copies circulate among neighboring communities receiving the same treatment.

I see nothing more peculiar about these goings on than with any other religious beliefs. I just wish they were quieter.

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SATELLITE VIEW OF THE RESERVE
I'm working on maps for the reserve and as part of that job I've drawn the Reserve's boundaries on a NASA satellite image of the region. On the map you can see a white smudge down in the lower left corner, which is the capital city, Querétaro. Last week when I bused here I traveled northeastward from Querétaro to Jalpan. On the satellite image you can clearly see how at first I passed through light-colored desert, then abruptly entered the green mountains.

The mountains are the Eastern Sierra Madres and the arid land is the high-elevation Central Tableland, or Altiplano. The white spots are clouds. The image resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211j.jpg.

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BURRITOS UPDATE
You can't imagine the controversy unleashed by my last Newsletter when I described how to make a burrito. Most people around Jalpan swear that what I ate that day at Peña Blanca was just a big gordita. They say that real burritos are made with tortillas, not cornmeal, and that the tortillas are folded over the contents, not stuffed with them. Other people say I got it just right, and still others say that no such thing exists as I ate that day in Peña Blanca.

Finally I met a lady with a steady, wise look in her face -- she was preparing tacos over a portable grill herself -- and she said: "Señor, the concepts change from place to place."

It's clear to me that that's true. What really interests me about the controversy, though, is how certain everyone was of his or her information, and unwilling to believe the opinions of others.

After talking with the taco lady awhile, as well as I can figure out there was one big difference between all the disputers and her. That is, the wise lady seemed to keep straight in her mind the world's three kinds of information:

I think that most people make little effort to robustly keep straight their beliefs relative to these three categories. In a single conversation you can see some people's opinions drift from mere hunches to vigorously defended beliefs.

This is dangerous. With regard to the planetary environmental crises, with Life on Earth in the balance, we can't indulge in such lazy thinking.

For example, two years ago I first directed readers to the Union of Concerned Scientists' paper entitled "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science," which still can be accessed here.

That report beautifully documents the manner by which the Bush Administration consistently distorts information, suppresses other information, and some would say outright lies with regard to important scientific matters, particularly information relating to the environment.

You should see the mail I get each time I mention this report, and the corresponding dip in Newsletter subscriptions. One fellow in Mississippi has suggested that if I keep this up I may suffer physical consequences.

But, rigorously vetted, documented and confirmed facts are magical and powerful things, and I honor them and will not abandon them. If more people had seen the implications of having a president who systematically distorts profoundly important information relating to the public good, maybe we would have avoided an awful war and certainly we would have made more progress toward confronting global warming and the world's population explosion, and stem-cell research would be more advanced.

I wonder if humanity will ever evolve to the point where we all possess the steady, wise-looking gaze of the taco- selling lady? I wonder if we'll ever be able to keep straight in our minds the three kinds of information, and be capable of identifying and appropriately honoring those facts that have been rigorously vetted, documented and confirmed by responsible and capable individuals -- always keeping in mind that it's awfully hard to know with absolute certainty ANYTHING!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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