JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

March 2, 2007

RACCOON/ MAPACHE
Last Saturday Roberto called across the parking lot: "We have a Raccoon over here." Of course he spoke in Spanish, and called the Raccoon a Mapache (ma-PACH- eh).

Mapache was in a cage and he had bright purple paws. With a stick Roberto was trying to pen the growling critter into a corner so that the veterinarian could inject rabies vaccine into his rear end. The purple was an antiseptic they'd been trying to spray onto a leg that jutted out the wrong way because it was broken, and cut badly. He'd been caught in a leg trap.

"A neighbor caught him and wanted to kill him, but his kids talked him out of it and then they brought him here. I'm about to drive him into the country to release him, so do you want to come along?"

On the way to drop off the veterinarian in town I asked the veterinarian about releasing a critter with a leg in such a bad shape.

"If he's kept in a cage he'll lose weight, get weak and die. But if he's in the wild he can walk on three legs, get the food he needs, keep up his strength, and eventually the wound will heal, though probably he'll always have a crooked paw."

Roberto and I took Mapache a good bit northwest of town, down the hot, dusty, oversized canyon of the Río Jalpan to a place well off the road, down some very rocky tracks, to a secluded spot called El Sabinal. It had permanent water with fish and frogs, and big trees with holes in them, so it looked like a perfect place for a raccoon. We let Mapache go there, and you can see him exiting the cage into the water at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302mp.jpg.

If you look at that picture and you know what a North American Raccoon is supposed to look like, see if you notice anything different about this one. He's the same species, PROCYON LOTOR, which is distributed from southern Canada to northern South America, so there shouldn't be major anatomical differences. However, about 35 subspecies are recognized, so there's room for noticeable regional differences. You may be interested in a student-constructed page called "The Biogeography of the Raccoon," with a map showing the distribution of 31 subspecies recognized in 1950, at http://bss.sfsu.edu/holzman/courses/Fall00Projects/raccoon.html.

What about Mapache's tail? Have you ever seen such a slender tail on a Raccoon? Roberto says that all Raccoons he's seen around here have slender tails, and he's sensitive to Raccoon tails because when he was a kid he wanted a Raccoon-tail cap like Davy Crockett's, but never got one.

*****

THE BALDCYPRESSES OF EL SABINAL
The name "El Sabinal" means "Place of the Baldcypresses," the local Spanish name for baldcypress being "Sabino." They're also called "Ahuehuetes." In English we call the species at El Sabinal "Montezuma Cypress." It's TAXODIUM MUCRONATUM we're talking about.

Though few Montezuma Cypresses grow in English- speaking territory (only southernmost Texas, which also is mostly Spanish speaking), this species has an English name because it's so extraordinary that even English speakers talk about it. If you look at the picture of me sitting at the base of the one beneath which we released Mapache you'll see why. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302sb.jpg.

Montezuma Cypresses aren't particularly tall, but the bases of their trunks are enormous! Moreover, I've seen them with trunks even larger than ours. Near Mitla Ruins in Oaxaca a tree known as the Tule Cypress is 140 feet tall, with a trunk between 35 and 40 feet in diameter. It's listed as "The world's widest tree," though there's a debate about whether the Tule Cypress is a single tree. You can see the Tule Cypress at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Mexico.Oaxaca.ArbolTule.01.jpg.

Unlike closely related Baldcypresses of Southeastern US swamps, Montezuma Baldcypresses aren't necessarily swamp trees. They need plenty of moisture, but often you find them on mountain slopes, frequently as individual trees in sheltered, moist coves.

This is Mexico's National Tree. I don't think Mexicans give this species such status only because it's so big. Wherever the trees grow there's always a special feeling. The feeling at El Sabinal last Saturday was one of profoundly lush, summery restfulness. One of my pictures captures a little of that feeling. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302s2.jpg.

*****

A MEXICAN UNICORN MANTIS
My little hut being in former times the gate-man's office, its outside walls are furnished with bright security lamps that burn through the night. Each morning I check beneath the lights to see if any interesting nocturnal insects have been attracted there. Until now there's not been much to note -- until Sunday morning.

That morning, the critter to be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302ma.jpg turned up.

That's the Mexican Unicorn Mantis, PHYLLOVATES CHLOROPHAEA, a male. At first glance it looks a lot like the big Praying Mantises most of us in North America have seen. But, notice the slender "horn" atop its head and, even more spectacularly, the curiously upturned rear end.

So, having no field guide to Mexican insects, how did I identify this creature, and even determine that he was a male?

Of course the answer is my usual one: I Googled it.

Using Google's image-search feature I searched on the keywords "mantis mexico," then looked at thumbnail pictures. There I found a photo of an obviously closely related species, but not mine. That related species was known as a unicorn mantis, so now I Googled "unicorn mantis," results from which helped me zero in a bit more. Looking for more info on unicorn mantises I discovered an online forum on mantises, at http://mantidforum.com/forum/.

I joined that forum, posted my picture, took my Sunday hike, and when I returned found that at the forum there'd been a fine discussion going on about my find, involving people in North Carolina, Houston, Germany and the UK. And after some debate these mantis- connoisseurs had decided I had a male Phyllovates chlorophaea.

What a grand tool this Internet is for naturalists!

Also it seems to be a good place for selling tropical mantises. On my first day I got two offers for my critter, but I told both buyers that my mantis was going to stay where he was until he flew off, or was eaten by some bigger critter needing a meal. He was gone on Wednesday morning.

*****

BONPLAND WILLOWS FLOWERING
On Sunday morning I hiked around the reservoir again. It's a perfect hike, taking about three hours if you're in a rush, about five if you gawk at things. There's a lot to gawk at. You can see a view of the lake with Jalpan in the background at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302ja.jpg.

In that picture I spend most of my time at Reserve HQ in the cluster of buildings along the lake's farthermost shore, more or less in the photo's center. The hilltop building looking like a castle is the cathedral. You can see the wide earthen dam at the lake's far end. On hot afternoons when I need a break I can be on the dam in three or four minutes, enjoying breezes off the lake and watching coots and tilapia. At the right of the lake you can see an orange plantation. Note how brown the scrubby slopes are getting.

Here and there small marshes have developed along the shores of this manmade reservoir. As you might expect, water-loving willows are prominent among the woody species. Those willows are flowering now. You can see a summery-looking picture of male willow catkins at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302sa.jpg.

This is the Bonpland Willow, SALIX BONPLANDIANA, distributed from Arizona and New Mexico through all of Mexico into Guatemala. Among the 450 or so willow species, Bonpland Willows are somewhat unique in that instead of being early deciduous in the fall like most willows they drop their leaves irregularly throughout the winter dry season. Ours have passed through their leaf-dropping and you can see how fresh and so-far-un-bug-eaten the new leaves look.

In the shadowy, cool cove where I took that picture, Northern Parula warblers were calling their heads off, reminding me sharply of early spring days back in Mississippi when parulas were the first warblers to announce spring with real vigor.

*****

WILD TAMARIND/ GUAJE
The other day Don Gonzalo ambled past my door nibbling on a thin, flat bean pod. You can see the whole thing at: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302gg.jpg.

The Don flashed that big smile of his and asked me if I knew what he was eating. I surprised him by saying, "Sure, that's Guaje (GWA-heh), grows all over the place." I only knew this because Guaje, LEUCAENA LEUCOCEPHALA, was one of the most common roadside trees back in the Yucatan, where the Maya called it Uaxim (WA-sheem). In English it has a host of names, including Leadtree, White Popinac and Wild Tamarind.

This is the very season for nibbling Guaje beans, for the full-size beans are soft only for a brief time. Most of the year the trees with their twice-compound (bipinnate) leaves bear neither flowers nor fruits, or have only flowers, or else the fruits' matured seeds are too hard to eat. Now Guaje trees are heavy with soft-seeded, semi-mature legumes, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302gu.jpg.

That picture also gives a good idea of the ragged appearance of many trees in our area right now, here in the heart of the dry season: Mostly leafless, but with a few old leaves, and a few new leaves, and often loaded with brown fruit pods.

Semi-mature Guaje seeds such as Don Gonzalo is eating have a sharp, almost bitter taste you need to be in a particular mind to enjoy. A kid wouldn't bother with it. However, good cooks know how to use the pungency when preparing special soups and sauces. On the Internet I find a gourmet site praising a meal of "Gunthorp duck breast with guasmole (Pueblan mole of roasted tomatillos and guaje seeds), bacon-studded sweet potato torta and cava-dressed Bayless Garden spicy greens."

I'll bet Don Gonzalo would sniff at such fancy fare, preferring his Guaje beans straight from the pod, and I have to say that I'm of the same mind.

*****

MARK-AND-RECAPTURE
My birding friend Jarvis in North Carolina wrote that he was continuing his long-term study of the box turtle population of a certain plot of land at Fayetteville. He said he was using mark-recapture data to estimate the total number of turtles. That technique works like this:

You capture a number of organisms, mark them, wait until the organisms have dispersed, then you conduct another capture, see what percentage of those were captured during the first sample, and then you can use a formula to estimate the total population.

Jarvis sent me his formula. It was:

N = (n/r)M

where

For example, if on the first visit you capture and mark 50 animals and go back later and find 10 marked animals in a sample of 40, then

N = (40/10) 50 or N = 200

In other words, we estimate a population of 200 animals.

What an elegant little formula.

It's called the "Lincoln-Petersen method of analysis." Another forumla accommodates a third sampling visit using the "Poisson Regression," which is explained at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisson_regression.

The Poisson Regression is a bit unapproachable for me but Jarvis's formula is so elegant that thinking about it is like looking at a lotus blossom.

*****

CORAL TREES FLOWERING
Nowadays one of the most striking flowering plants in peoples' yards, in fencerows and along roads is the crimson-blossomed Coral Tree, sometimes called Naked Coral Tree, probably because often the trees are leafless when they flower. They're ERYTHRINA CORALLOIDES, and you can see one I pass each time I visit Jalpan's market -- one retaining its leaves -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302er.jpg.

The 20-ft-tall trees' large, three-leaflet leaves look a lot like snapbean and Kudzu leaves, but the branch-tip-clustered, scarlet, slender, slightly arced, two- inch-long flowers are very distinctive.

I've always heard that Coral Tree blossoms are edible. I asked Don Gonzalo about it and he agreed that they were. Therefore, this week on my return from the market I gathered a handful of flowers from the tree photographed above. I ate one raw and it tasted like raw beans, and that seemed to me a good sign, knowing how great cooked beans taste.

The next day I topped my solar-oven pot full of shredded cabbage, sliced jalapeños, onions, and two eggs looking at me from atop a crisp taco -- all atop a bed of pulque bread -- with my handful of scarlet Coral Tree flowers.

By noon the whole area smelled like baked onions and my meal was cooked to perfection. The blossoms had turned brown and leathery looking. Beyond that I couldn't see that they had much taste at all. Maybe Coral Tree flowers are one of those things that take on the taste of what they're cooked with, or maybe I cooked them wrong.

Whatever the case, from now on I'll just let them stay on the trees where they can make bees happy.

*****

ORANGE BLOSSOMS, AZAHAR

We're at the peak of orange season here, large bags of oranges being fairly cheap in the market. It's good to see all the dark green orange trees so loaded with big, shiny, somehow friendly-looking oranges.

Even before most of the fruits are ripe, many orange trees are producing waxy, white blossoms among the oranges still on the tree. If you have ever smelled orange blossoms you know that their fragrance is painfully wonderful. If you viewed the above picture of Jalpan Reservoir with its orange plantation over on the right, you can just imagine how it smelled on the hot, humid Sunday morning I walked passed there. Maybe even sweeter and more nostalgia-evoking than honeysuckle in Mississippi in April.

In English we say "orange blossom" or "lemon blossom" the same way we might say "dandelion blossom" or "chickweed blossom." In Spanish there's a word in common usage applied just to orange, lemon and citron blossoms. It's "azahar." If a language tells something about the people who speak it, then azahar probably says something about Spanish speakers. And maybe in English the lack of such a word for these spectacularly fragrant, dream-evoking blossoms reveals something about us, too.

Azahar came into Spanish from Andalusian Arabic. Andalusican Arabic was spoken during the Muslim occupation of southern Spain, which lasted from 711 to 1492.

This time span roughly approximates the Western world's "Dark Ages," reckoned as being from about 476 to 1000. During our "Dark Ages," Muslims in Spain created a society in which art and science flourished, and other religions were treated with tolerance. By the tenth century Muslim Cordoba throve with a population of half a million, compared to Paris's 38,000. Cordoba had Europe's first street lights, 60,000 palaces, and 70 libraries, one reportedly housing 500,000 manuscripts.

"Azahar," the odor of orange blossoms on a warm, spring morning, and of art, science, and a general good will...

*****

RUNNING TOWARD ALPHA CENTAURI
The road I jog on each morning before dawn is aligned north and south. When I'm heading southward, just above the mountaintops I can see two of the Southern Cross's four main stars. If I were on level ground or atop a mountain the whole constellation would be visible.

The Southern Cross's stars aren't particularly bright or colorful, and the constellation itself doesn't exactly mark the South Pole, but rather circles around it.

At this time of year, however, a couple of stars to the Cross's left really are bright, scintillating in the cool morning air, their brilliance cutting through mountaintop haze. After seeing these stars a few weeks it finally occurred to me to fire up my computer's star chart to see who those stars were. If you don't have your own astronomy program or star chart, at http://www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky/ you can plug in your latitude and longitude or choose a nearby large city, and print out a sky-chart for your location.

My computer program labeled the brightest of the radiant pair of stars to the left of the Southern Cross as Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri! I remembered folks on Sky Trek talking about Alpha Centauri but I'd forgotten why Alpha Centauri, of all the stars, gets mentioned so often. Therefore, I Googled it.

So, Alpha Centauri is part of the star system that's closest to our own star, the Sun, only 4.35 light- years away. It's not really the closest other star to us, but that's the way it's usually thought of. Also, it's said that if any other known star supports Earth- like life, Alpha Centauri is the best candidate. Finally, since from Earth Alpha Centauri is so far south that it's not visible in most of the Northern Hemisphere, it, like the Southern Cross, is something you look for when you go south, when you want to confirm to yourself that now you're WAY south.

You can read reasons why there may be life on planets around Alpha Centauri and why that star isn't really our closest other star at http://homepage.sunrise.ch/homepage/schatzer/Alpha-Centauri.html.

As the name indicates, Alpha Centauri belongs to the constellation Centaurus. My sky program showed a galaxy in Centaurus called NGC5128. Using the same Google Image Search function, searching on the keyword NGC5128 I came up with the amazing picture seen at http://www.mindspring.com/~dhanon/ngc5128.jpg.

To really get a blast from that image you need to first let it sink in that NGC5128 is a whole other galaxy. The stars in our night sky are members of our own galaxy, the Milkyway, but NGC5128 is another galaxy, one of billions and billions of others in the Universe, the stars in them often bigger than our own sun, but at this distance no more significant than molecules of a puff of gas wafting by... Think about it...

When I think about it as I run toward Alpha Centauri on these starry mornings, often I reflect on how I came to know Alpha Centauri, came to see it in a mind- bending context, and I come up with the notion that the Internet and other people-interconnecting media are making us humans into a new kind of animal.

For, these media don't just gratify our cravings for networking, for knowing more, for feeling like parts of a much greater thing, they also extend our senses and enlarge our thinking ambiance.

We humans have always matured basing our development on what's been seen, heard and thought about, and now that process is profoundly expanded and speeded up, all in the context of a growing awareness of just how enormous, complex and majestic reality is. Maybe we've reached a certain threshold where educated humans can now evolve into something completely new, where our social and biological evolution will be more influenced by insight and good will than by the consequences of warfare and disease.

Jogging just before dawn, Alpha Centauri and NGC5128 glimmer above the mountaintop and I run toward them hardly wanting to turn back, hardly wanting to divert my trajectory from these proofs of the grandness of things.

Yet... How beautiful to be a sweating, deep-breathing animal on this moist Earth thinking all these things, evolving into something new as I run through tropical air, azahar-perfumed, toward Alpha Centauri.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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