JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

August 24, 2007

HURRICANE DEAN
On Internet "regional-radar animations" I'd watched Dean since it was a gathering of peaceful-looking clouds over central Africa. Wednesday morning when it came ashore on Mexico's Gulf Coast after crossing the Yucatan Peninsula and the southern Gulf of Mexico, it had regained strength so that it was again a Level II hurricane, and its projected path carried it exactly over us in eastern Querétaro state.

Still, the Reserve's workers who were scheduled that day to go into the mountains to visit isolated villages didn't change their plans at all. Despite forecasts of up to 20 inches of rain in the mountains, I didn't hear of any evacuations around here. In fact, I didn't see any precautions being taken by anyone at all, everyone saying the mountains to the east would protect us.

In the end, they were right. At the last moment I think the storm's center jagged a bit southward, just grazing us. Only occasionally during the storm's passage did we have a breeze strong enough to move tree leaves. But we did get rain -- five inches of it (12 cm) -- which was exactly what we needed, because our rainy season hasn't been nearly as rainy as normal.

For us in the Jalpan Valley, Hurricane Dean was something wonderful.

Don Gonzalo asked me why the revolucionarios don't do something about hurricanes. I said that apparently the hurricanes are more powerful than they are, and he seemed to like that answer, walking away smiling and pointing at the sky.

*****

BAT FALCON
Sunday morning Roberto called saying he had a Bat Falcon in his office. Some kids had found it at the town's racetrack, it couldn't fly, and they'd brought it here. It held one wing slightly lower than the other so maybe it'd clipped a wire. When Roberto fed him some ground pork he gulped it down as if he were starved. Later the bird was put on our gravel road in the hope he'd fly away, but he just stood there, not even attempting to fly when prodded. You can see him then at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824bf.jpg.

Bat Falcons range from northern Mexico south to northern Argentina, preying on other birds, bats and insects. They're small, about the same length but bulkier than North America's Kestrels.

*****

BEYOND GRIKES & CLINTS
The other day I had a good hike over at Cocos, the little mountain town serving as a jumping-off point for visitors to Sótano de Barro, at 1312-ft-deep (400 m) one of the world's most impressive sinkholes. People at Cocos are looking for ecotour attractions to keep visitors in town after they've seen the sinkhole, and the Reserve is trying to help them.

During much of the five-hour hike I followed the crests of limestone mountains mantled with oak-juniper forest. The terrain consisted of innumerable hippopotamus-size, white limestone rocks emerging from rusty-red soil. You can see my guide, Don Marcelino, standing with his mule along a typical stretch of the trail at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824ka.jpg.

UPDATE: Crash Kennedy in Texas tells me that this kind of karst topography is called cutter and pinnacle topography, "Pinnacles being the rock sticking up out of the soil, of course.  Pinnacles can also be entirely soil-covered.  You see good examples around the Mammoth Cave area in Kentucky, where they have been exposed in roadcuts along the interstate.  These are actually quite common in karst areas of the world, differing only in scale.

I suspect there's a good term for describing this particular kind of karst topography (see right), karst being "An area of irregular limestone in which erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns."

If you start with a flat layer of exposed limestone, inevitably it'll be crisscrossed with fractures. Natural rainwater is slightly acidic, so where it enters the fractures it dissolves away the stone, eventually producing deep fissures. These fissures are called "grikes" and the flat, often rectangular slabs between them are called clints. Collectively such systems are referred to as "karren" or "lapiez."

Atop Cocos's mountains the emergent limestone is much too irregular and the spaces between the outcrops are far too wide to be called "grike & clint" topography. However, I wonder if once the wide spaces might have been grikes, and the irregularly shaped rocks, clints.

Whatever the technical term for such physiography, the landscape is a pretty one to walk through, each sculptured rock expressing its own history and view of things, and the area as a whole constituting a very special ecosystem.

*****

ADDER'S-TONGUE FERNS
Often in the thin, red soil accumulating in any limestone outcrop's pits and hollows you find rare and unusual plants. That's because any plant growing there must be able to survive extreme conditions. Most of the time the soil there is dust-dry, but after rains the depressions may hold water, submerging the soil. Also, derived from limestone, the soil can be a bit alkaline.

Therefore, as I hiked along I kept an eye on rock depressions filled with soil. It wasn't long until I was rewarded with a fine little colony of adder's- tongue ferns. Though the plants were immature and hard to identify, I figured they were Limestone Adder's- tongues, OPHIOGLOSSUM ENGELMANNII, which I've often found in exactly such limestone depressions in Kentucky's "Mississippian Plateau" region, which is a karst landscape developed upon Mississippian-age limestone. You can see my Cocos finds in one of our own Cretaceous-age limestone depressions at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824op.jpg.

Adder's-tongues are very primitive ferns famous not only for their curious appearance but also for this: Of all known living things on Earth, they have the highest chromosome number.

Pea plants have 14. Mice have 40. Humans have 46, pigeons have 80 and carp have 104. The adder's-tongue fern Ophioglossum reticulatum possesses 1260.

How did adder's-tongues get so many chromosomes? Through "polyploidy" -- a process by which the cell nuclei of an organism somehow end up with more than the usual two complete sets of chromosomes. It's thought that through evolutionary history adder's-tongue species may have undergone the polyploid-making process up to ten times. One of the most interesting features of polyploidy is that sometimes organisms of two different species, maybe even species from different genera, mate to produce polyploid offspring, and those offspring constitute completely new, self-reproducing species -- "instant evolution" as noted geneticist Doug Soltis explains in an online article at http://www.wsu.edu/NIS/Universe/instant.html.

Therefore, one reason adder's-tongue ferns have so many chromosomes may be that, because they as a group appeared so early in evolutionary history, they've been around long enough for the polyploid-making process to have occurred several times among them.

In fact, adder's-tongue ferns are so primitive that genetic-sequencing studies indicate that they're not even "true ferns" -- members of the taxonomic Division Pteridophyta. Instead, often they are now placed in their own division, the Ophioglossophyta.

*****

NIPPLE CACTUS
Another species beautifully adapted to the special dry limestone environment above Cocos is the nipple cactus shown tightly wedged into a limestone crack at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824mm.jpg.

That's probably MAMMILLARIA PROLIFERA, in English usually designated the Texas Nipple Cactus. However the species' distribution area covers much more of Mexico than Texas so the name seems a bit unjust. In the picture the pinkish, oblong item protruding from the lower cactus body is a fruit.

That genus Mammillaria is a big one, with about 170 species currently recognized. The genus is fairly easy to identify in the field because Mammillaria bodies appear to be composed of numerous rounded, green "nipples," or mammary glands. Of course the Mexicans, instead of seeing green breasts, make out lots of round-topped chili peppers stacked side-by-side. Technically the green bumps are referred to as tubercles. One pleasant feature of Mammillarias is that, though they're obviously very spiny, they lack the tiny glochids that almost invisibly stick into fingers thaat probe into some other kinds of cactus.

There's a whole website just on Mammillarias at http://mammillarias.net/.

*****

COWBOYS EATING AGAVE FLOWER BUDS
During the hike above Cocos, next to a large pond and beneath a big tree, we came upon a couple of cowboys watching their small herd of cattle and finishing off a meal of roasted corn on the cob. They'd picked the corn from a neighboring field and roasted the shuck- enshrouded ears in their campfire's embers. The charred-black ears looked unpalatable on the outside but, inside, the tender corn was baked to perfection.

My eye caught on three immature agave inflorescences -- the longest one about three feet long -- lying on the ground next to the campfire. You can see them yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824f5.jpg.

When I asked why the inflorescences were lying there one of the men retrieved from his saddlebag a blue plastic bag, opened it, and showed me its contents, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824f4.jpg.

Those are unopened agave flower-buds. The man had spent some time removing them from the inflorescences. I could almost have guessed what the man told me next:

"You put oil in your skillet and when it gets hot you add a little onion, a little garlic, some chili peppers and pour in these flower buds, stir them around for a while, and you have yourself something really good!"

You should see the tender looks people here get on their faces when they tell you to start with hot oil in a skillet, and then, as if recalling a prayer taught them by their mother, "add onion, garlic and chili pepper... "

You may remember from this year's June 29th Newsletter (http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629.htm) my telling about eating Maguey flowers. Magueys are agaves, so it's not surprising that these agave flower-buds should be edible, too.

The agave species producing the flowers is abundant on and around the ubiquitous, white limestone rocks along mountain crests above Cocos. You can see some young plants, about a third grown, perched on a rock at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824f6.jpg.

I'm not sure which species this is. Local folks call it Lecheguilla. It's similar the Lecheguilla so common in the Chihuahuan Desert to the north, Agave lecheguilla, but it doesn't look like the same thing to me, nor does it match any of the species listed for the Reserve.

*****

BOUQUETS OF SANTA MARÍA
Agave flower buds weren't the only delectables Mama Nature was serving up that day. As soon as we reached a pasturing place near our hike destination Marcelino's son, Marcelo, began gathering the bouquet he's holding at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824mc.jpg.

I didn't need to ask Marcelo why he was collecting such a colorless bouquet, for I could smell the reason twenty feet away: A wonderfully sweet fragrance like that of anise with a touch of tarragon suffused the warm, moist mountain-air. These plants were destined for making tea.

I could have almost guessed as well what the plant's name would be, for it's Santa María. Around here anything smelling so sweet and good automatically gets named after the Virgin! The mushroom-picking lady I told you about last week saw a perfectly amorphous lump of limestone protruding from the ground and exclaimed "Oh, it's just like The Cross!" Anyway, that name Santa María didn't help much to let me know what the plant was botanically. Mexico is overpopulated with good-smelling herbs called Santa María.

Most stems Marcelo had collected were too young to bear flowers, but a few did, so I got them and surprised myself when I saw that they exhibited the unmistakable anatomy of marigold flowers, as outlined on my marigold flower-anatomy page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_marig.htm.

Most people don't think crushed marigold leaves smell very good, and you know how gardeners deploy them for their insecticidal property. Therefore, I'd expected this fragrant, tea-making herb to be just about anything other than a stinky, pesticidal marigold.

When I say that it was indeed a marigold species I'm referring to the fact that it was a member of the genus Tagetes. It was TAGETES LUCIDA, in much of Mexico known as Pericón, and often marketed commercially in English as Mexican Tarragon, Mexican Mint Marigold, and by other names as well. A list of several companies in the US selling seeds or plants of this species is found at http://davesgarden.com/products/ps/go/318/.

The main use my Plantas Medicinales de México gives for the plant is that of making the water smell good that children are bathed in. I can just imagine being a kid in a shadowy little hut in the mountains while roosters crow and Mamá sings a little song, being washed with springwater smelling this good. Maybe experiences like that account for why Mexican country people are often such agreeable folks.

At least one source claims that particularly strong infusions of Tagetes lucida "produce similar closed-eye-images as Peyote or a very mild state of euphoria and has been used since pre-Hispanic times."

By the time we began our return trip Marcelo had picked two large bouquets of Santa María. He needed to position the woven-plastic bag he used as a saddle on his mule's back so he had to lay one of the bouquets on the ground. Well, all that day Marcelo's mule had given the impression that he was the most dull-witted, lethargic creature on Earth. However, the very instant Marcelo's back was turned that mule, quick as lightning, snaked his neck around and in half a second most of the bouquet disappeared into his mouth. When Marcelo saw what had happened he rushed back beating his sombrero against the mule's ribs.

"¡Qué bárbaro!" he exclaimed.

*****

CRISTEROS IN A CAVE
I visited Cocos to check out a trail that might be interesting to ecotouring campers and backpackers. Near the trail's end there's a small cave whose small, vertical, partially closed entrance can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070824cr.jpg.

The men we found camping beside the pond told me that back in the time of the Cristeros some local people and their priests had hidden in the cave, to protect themselves from marauding Cristeros. When I returned to Jalpan I heard the same story from someone with an aunt who'd lived through the Cristero times.

This story doesn't make sense to me because the Cristeros fought to protect Catholicism at a time in Mexican history when the government was trying to suppress it. Why should priests hide from Cristeros? I think this is an example of people misremembering history. They don't want to admit that their government not long ago tried to suppress their religion, but they do remember that Cristeros were fanatics who killed a lot of people, so a "false history" has become easier and more pleasant to remember.

Mexico's Cristero War took place between 1926 and 1929. About 90,000 people died in it, some two-thirds of them on the government side. Basically the conflict arose because Mexico's liberal 1917 Constitution contained five articles particularly aimed at suppressing Catholicism in Mexico. The religion was deemed as an influence keeping the country from modernizing, plus the government didn't want the Church to own so much property. Especially in the conservative countryside religious people rebelled on behalf of the Church.

The Cristero War is one of the most amazing events in Mexican history and it's remarkable that today people talk so little about it. One effect of the War was that as much as five percent of Mexico's population fled to the US.

The Wikipedia page on the Cristero War, with photos, is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cristero_War.

*****

IT'S REALLY BEAUTIFUL, ISN'T IT. ISN'T IT... ?
Back to that adder's-tongue fern. I'd hiked over an hour through very pretty terrain before finally spotting something that caused me to call a halt to the march so I could photograph it. When Marcelino dismounted his mule and came back to see what I'd found, the disappointment in his face was clear as he realized that my interest was in such a plain-looking sprig of greenness. He said:

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

I nodded my head and tried to explain why finding Limestone Adder's-tongue Fern was so exciting, but I could see that his mind just wasn't accustomed to dealing with concepts like distribution patterns, evolution, unusual ecological niches and genetics.

"It's beautiful," he repeated rather dubiously. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Here's the subtext of that conversation:

Marcelino knew that plants can have an esthetic value, they can provide sustenance and medicine, they can invade cornfields, they can sting and scratch... But none of those characteristics could account for my photographing that plain-looking thing, unless somehow I regarded it as "beautiful."

In other words, from the several perspectives Marcelino could see the plant from, its being "beautiful," despite the plant's obvious lack of beauty, was the most likely attribute to explain my interest.

Of course the explanation is that, just as he had some perspectives I didn't, I also had some perspectives he didn't.

This is worth thinking about.

For, in everyday life, what perspectives do we lack in order for everything we see and experience to seem extraordinary and worth knowing?

By learning more about the world around us, cannot we automatically equip ourselves with more perspectives from which to behold the ordinary things around us? And, by having more perspectives, won't we automatically be more likely to draw from ourselves more enthusiasm, more zest for living, more elemental gladness to be alive?

And is there anything more diverse, more esthetically pleasing and spirit-nourishing than Nature?

In other words, can't studying Nature make us happier?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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