JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

March 10, 2007

THREE DAYS IN SAN JUAN DE LOS DURÁN
The Reserve is helping several isolated communities in the region set up ecotourism programs. As part of that effort, last Tuesday I joined four folks from Washington State on a three-day visit to the mountain- slope community of San Juan de Los Durán, at about 4500 feet (1360 m) in elevation, among pines and oaks.

It was an ecotour, which means that the emphasis was on nature and local culture and traditions. On our first morning as soon as breakfast was over we were met by our local guide, Don Tacho, and his mule, the latter packed with food and drink for our midday picnic in the mountains. Perhaps to break the ice everyone wanted to know the mule's name. It was Mula.

"A woman who can't produce children," Don Tacho explained with a grin," we call her 'mula.' Well this mule will never produce offspring, so the name is Mula."

This must have been a backcountry joke, for Don Tacho laughed heartily. Maybe for some of us this marked our initiation into real backcountry Mexico. You can see Don Tacho and Mula on the trail leading out of town at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310dt.jpg.

*****

STALACTITES, SPELEOTHEMS & MORE
Our main destination that day was a cave near the top of a limestone ridge not far from town. It was a typical cave with stalactites, stalagmites and other such features. Since it seemed to plunge downward more than to continue horizontally and we weren't really equipped for serious exploration, we didn't range far from the entrance. Still, it was good seeing the formations, despite many of them having been destroyed by past visitors. You can see a typical inside view at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310c6.jpg.

Another view directed toward the cave's ceiling, showing almost-wavy formations known as speleothems -- and a lot of snapped-off stalactites -- can be viewed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310c7.jpg.

Actually, that fancy word "speleothem" is a vague one, almost like calling something a "thing." A speleothem is "a secondary mineral deposit formed in caves, most commonly calcite." In other words, just about any solid cave deposition, including stalactites, curtains (wavy or folded sheets hanging from the roof or wall of a cave) and the half-formed curtains in the above picture are "speleothems."

If you'd like to see a long list of terms applying to cave and limestone-landascape (karst) features, go to http://wasg.iinet.net.au/terminol.html.

Some people have problems remembering which is which with regard to stalagmites and stalactites. Just note the middle g in stalagmites, which reminds us of "the ground" from which stalagmites arise, and the middle c in stalactites, which might as well mean "ceiling," from which stalactites hang.

Though caves and sinkholes are abundant in this area, they're fairly typical of the karst topography that develops anyplace where limestone is the bedrock -- which usually is the case here in the Eastern Sierra Madres. One feature that still amazes me, however, is the "hoya," which is a level plain completely surrounded by mountains. You can't get out of an hoya without climbing upslope. From atop a cliff along our trail to the cave we had a good view of a beautiful little hoya, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310ho.jpg.

If you look at that picture, notice the brown splotches on the otherwise green, pine-and-oak-clad slopes. The brownness is from dead and dying pine trees. It's the bark-beetle infestation I told you about in last year's December 29th Newsletter. All during our stay men were chainsawing pines to salvage the wood. You may remember the bark-beetle markings on the debarked trunks I showed you at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061229bb.jpg.

*****

OAKS FLOWERING AS IF IN SPRING
Some trees flush with a diffuse redness weren't dying at all but rather were oaks issuing fresh, reddish leaves, and dangling, yellow catkins of male flowers. Reddish oak leaves among yellow catkins on black, gnarly stems against a dazzling blue sky has always been one of those sights I can't get enough off. Maybe that's because the sight poignantly reminds me of my young naturalist days roaming the Kentucky landscape during warbler migration. In Kentucky the peak of warbler migration generally coincides with oak flowering. There's no better place to see enthusiastically calling, anxious-to-move-on warblers than in a big oak full of catkins loaded with yellow pollen and the bugs the pollen attracts.

But this week atop limestone ridges in the heart of our dry season with summery air flowing around us and with only a few overwintering warblers not singing at all, the oaks were flowering anyway. I can't say that their flowerings seemed out of place, for the oaks were species unlike any in the North, so I don't have preconceptions about how they should behave. You can see one flowering oak, probably QUERCUS AFINIS, with slender catkins blowing in the wind, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310oc.jpg.

A more staid oak, possibly QUERCUS LAURINA, with gnarlier, blacker twigs and heavier catkins, but nonetheless voluptuously flowering, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310o2.jpg.

I almost felt sorry for these flowering oaks. When northern oaks flower they do so amidst the heady drumbeat of spring's untold numbers of flowerings, and I like to think that somehow they sense how they are part of spring's grand blossoming. But these oaks flowering in the middle of the dry season, with weeks and weeks of more to come of exactly the kind of dusty, dry days they've already experienced for weeks and weeks, are lonely islands of spring, and no hormone-saturated warblers grace their limbs with celebratory song.

*****

BUTTERWORTS
One plant I always look for when I head into the higher elevations in eastern Querétaro State is the butterwort. Actually, four Butterwort species are listed for the Reserve. A purple-flowered one that's probably PINGUICULA MACROPHYLLA is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310pi.jpg.  

In that image, notice the long, slender spur extending behind the blossom and holding nectar for pollinators with long proboscises. It almost looks like a violet flower, but the plant's leaves are very unlike any violet.

Butterworts are insectivorous plants -- they "eat" insects and other tiny invertebrates, and even plant debris that gets stuck in the abundant, gland-tipped, sticky hairs mantling the butterworts' broad leaves. After catching something, butterwort leaves slowly curl around their catch to form a bowl below it or to increase contact. The complex "eating" process is described very well, and a fine diagram is provided showing a gland-topped hair and other leaf-surface digestive organs, at http://www.pinguicula.org/pages/culture/Overview.htm.

As that page explains, one feature enabling butterworts to soak up nutrients from disintegrating prey is that their pretty leaves are profusely perforated with tiny holes called cuticular gaps. These holes allow digestive secretions inside the leaf to exude onto the leaf's surface where digestion takes place. It's very rare in the world of flowering plants for a plant's interior juices to come into direct contact with the outside world.

You can imagine that having leaves filled with holes means that the plants can very easily dry out. That's the reason you don't find Butterworts anyplace but where the air stays humid most of the time -- as in shady sites in the Eastern Sierra Madre highlands, where rising air cools and moisture in the air often condenses. Pinguiculas here typically occur in or near mountaintop cloud forests.

Notice that the web address given above is at a website dedicated to nothing but Butterworts. You might enjoy browsing it from its front page at http://www.pinguicula.org/pages/pages_principales/content.html.

*****

OLD-TIME WOODEN LATCH & GATE-HINGE
Don Tacho guided us along paths that sometimes skirted little ranchos, pastures, fields, corrals and such. Passing by one little rancho an old man was nailing a board. When he noticed us he broke into a broad smile and came walking stiffly toward us singing a ballad about going north to work, and how beautiful everything is up there. He spoke with us briefly welcoming us, then broke into song again, this time about the pleasure of having good friends. What an incredible experience, and how honored we were to meet the old fellow.

In San Juan there are there were places to buy beer and in the streets you could see a few young people with pierced eyebrows and motorbikes. Still, we saw other things that could have been seen centuries ago. There were fields being plowed with oxen, for example and the homemade gate hinge shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310w2.jpg.

Notice how the hinge is kept from slipping out of the fencepost by a wooden peg. You can see the lichen- encrusted stone wall in which the gate was placed leading away from the post. Such stone walls are very common in and around San Juan de Los Durán.

Now look at the amazing latch one of our visitor friends is testing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310w1.jpg.

Often I've mentioned the pleasure I derive from walking past people's homes around which all kinds of ornamental plants are kept. At the end of one day Don Tacho invited us to his own house and I thought you might enjoy seeing how his wife -- just like some plant-loving country folks in my own family -- crowd plant upon plant in the yard. The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310pp.jpg.

In the picture, the trees with large, green fruits are papaya trees, and the plants growing in broken pots, rusted-out buckets and wooden boxes are just too numerous to list.

*****

CREOLE BEANS
The other day my friend Margarita, in charge of Ecotourism here, brought me a neatly tied blue plastic bag filled with dried beans from her own garden. What a pretty sight those beans were, a rainbow of colors, and with so many different designs, so shiny, rounded, and making clicking sounds when I shook the bag, it made me happy to look at them. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070310bn.jpg.

The next day as I was pouring a handful into my solar oven's black crock my friend Don Emeterio came along. He agreed that they were pretty and said that these were what everyone around here grew, "frijol criollo," or Creole Beans. I asked if so many kinds of beans would be harvested in an average crop. He looked at my beans closely and told me that I only had four different kinds, but that there were others.

My black beans were "frijol negro," the tan ones "bayo," the reddish kidney-bean-colored ones "relumbrantes," and the black-and-white striped ones were "ojos de cabra," or "goat's-eyes." Don Emeterio said that in former times you'd find "shimates," the very best, but now shimates are grown only across the mountains, in Huastec territory, I think he motioned toward.

The wonderful thing about these beans isn't that they are so colorful, however, but that they cook relatively quickly and taste so good. Until now I've avoided cooking beans here because I've assumed that it would take as long to cook them as it does our dried beans bought in plastic bags in the north. But these cook in a fraction of that time. The secret may be that they're not as thoroughly dried as ones sold up north, but I'm not sure.

*****

THE WORD "CREOLE"
According to the etymology remarks at http://www.yourdictionary.com/ahd/c/c0739900.html our English word "creole" derives from the French "créole," which was borrowed from the Spanish "criollo" exactly as Don Emeterio said it, but the Spanish got it from the Portuguese "crioulo," which is the diminutive form of the word "cria," which refers to a person raised in another person's home, especially a servant or a slave.

"Cria" in turn was based on Latin "creare," which arose from the ancient Indo-European root "ker-," meaning "to grow." Other words sprouted from this root include "create," "cereal," "concrete" and "recruit."

*****

ONE REASON INTRODUCED SPECIES BECOME WEEDS
I've added automatically updated, nature-oriented news feeds from several organizations at my web-page called "The Internet as A Tool for Backyard Naturalists" at http://www.backyardnature.net/internet.htm#online.

This week my feed from Science Daily Magazine reported on a study that sheds light on why many plants, fungi and animals behave normally in their homelands, but become very aggressive and take over large areas when transported to other countries. The explanation of "left their predators behind" never seemed to explain the whole business to me.

At the University of Vermont Jane Molofksy and her student found that the European invasive called Reed Canarygrass was aggressive there because of repeated introductions into Vermont from widely separated areas of Reed Canarygrass's native distribution.

In nature, individuals living close to the edge of their species' distribution tend to show less genetic variation than individuals living at the population's center. A plant living at the northern extreme of its distribution, for example, may have evolved special defenses against frost but at the same time will tend to lose the genetic expressions needed by its more southern ancestors dealing with summer heat-waves. Individuals at the population center may retain genetic information for dealing with both extremes. This lessening of genetic variation at a species' naural distribution boundary hinders the species' ability to adapt and expand into new territory.

This is much in contrast to the situation with Reed Canarygrass introduced from widely separated places in Europe. Each time a new introduction took place, Reed Canarygrass's genetic pool was enriched, and the species' genetic diversity never diminished toward its distribution boundary. Therefore their ability to adapt and expand into new territory was never diminished by the phenomenon that genetic diversity is reduced toward the edges of a species' distribution.

"The problem is that these invasive species at the range margin are maintaining most of the genetic diversity which represents a substrate for future evolution," Molofsky says.

You can read the Science Daily story at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070227105553.htm.

*****

TOUGH MONTH FOR WILDLIFE IN THE NORTH
The National Wildlife Federation is making the point that right now is the time to be paying special attention to the food needs of wildlife such as the birds who visit your backyard. Last year's seeds, fruits, berries, insect eggs and larvae are at their lowest levels after months of birds feeding on them, yet it's too early for a new crop of seeds, fruits, berries, and insects to be available.

Studies show that birds glean 75 percent of their daily food from the wild, even when feeder foods are available.

*****

LAST WEEK'S MANTIS & JALPAN-VIEW LINKS
I messed up in last week's Newsletter providing links to the Mexican Unicorn Mantis and the view of Jalpan and its reservoir. The unicorn mantis can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302ma.jpg.

The view of Jalpan and its reservoir is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302ja.jpg.

Even when I triple check it seems that this can happen. Typically the online edition is quickly corrected, so the next time this happens, if you really want to see a picture, please go, with my apologies, to http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

*****

"LOOK AT ME..."
I mentioned the striking juxtaposition of primitive technology on display in and around San Juan, with some young folks in the streets looking and behaving as if they were downtown in any large city anywhere.

While at Don Tacho's house I sat on a rock while several teenagers stood around. I offered to let them look through my binoculars, something they'd obviously never done before. A young man looking very stylish nonchalantly leaned on the fence, watching us all from the dirt road passing by Don Tacho's house, and when he saw his friend raising my binoculars to his eyes he blurted out "Look at me!" Instantly he realized how uncool he'd been, and did his best to act as if he couldn't care less about anything. Somehow his behavior struck me as being almost as innocent and in a sense abandoned as the wooden latch I'd just photographed.

Later that night I had supper with the guests from Washington State. They were the best educated, most sophisticated folks I've been around in a long time. One topic we talked about was changes in university graduate curricula in the biological sciences. It seems that the trend is for classes such as ornithology and local flora to be phased out, while studies and degrees based on principles of information transfer and biological synergisms are in. Now you can get a Ph.D. in biology without knowing your common local plants and animals, but not without emphasizing a great deal some disciplines I didn't even know existed.

More and more it seems to me that our human species is fragmenting into two mutually incomprehensible subspecies. The young man aching to be looked at, with as much potential as anyone but without much hope of ever realizing it, represents one subspecies, the parent species from which the new one emerges. We who enjoy a perspective broad enough to understand what's going on, and have information and tools such as computers for acquiring much more information -- and therefore power, goods and services -- are candidates for the second.

I'm not sure what to think about it all. Having just returned from the mountains, the images of the young man at the fence mingled with my new understandings about where university science classes are headed haven't yet matured into an insight.

And maybe that's where one has to leave it -- unless we are willing to get up from our computers and go help our neighbors catch up with us.

*****

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