JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Written in the community of 28 de Junio and issued from a ciber in
San Francisco Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{I'm at about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT 16° 18'N,  LONG -92° 28'W.}

February 11, 2008

BARRED ANTSHRIKES
The other day I found the feather shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211ba.jpg.

Not many bird species possess the spectacular black- and-white, Zebra-stripe barring such feathers impart. I could think of just two local candidates. One is the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, closely related to the North's Red-bellied Woodpecker, whose back is bared with narrow, black and white stripes. The other possibility is the Barred Antshrike. Since Barred Antshrikes were calling like crazy that morning with their 6-8 nasal kyow notes, rising then falling, my guess is that that's a Barred Antshrike feather in the picture.

As feathers go, it's an impressive one. Note the black streak at the feather's upper, left. Just think of the evolutionary trial-and-error needed to position that streak perpendicularly to all the others. Nature employs all kinds of tricks for creating ornamentation in systematic ways, but coming up with something running counter to already existing patterns can be an extra challenge.

Antshrikes themselves belong to the neotropical Antbird Family, the Formicariidae. In Mexico the family is represented by four antshrike species, one antvireo species, four antbird species, one antthrush, and one antpitta. The "ant" part of the names comes from the tendency of some of the family's species to accompany army-ant swarms and prey upon fleeing insects.

Evolutionarily the family appears to specialize in "radiating" -- emulating species in other birds groups, thus eventually looking and behaving somewhat like shrikes, vireos, thrushes, etc. Many families specialize in efficiently exploiting just one general niche, such as woodpeckers on tree trunks, or wood warblers foraging for insects among tree branches, thus a certain conformity of appearance and behavior unites the whole family. The Antbird family takes the opposite approach.

One of the most striking features of our Barred Antshrike species is its sexual dimorphism; males and females look so unlike one another that it's hard to believe they're they same species. The male has his intense Zebra-striping, but the female is mostly a plain, rusty-red or rufous bird, with only modest striping on her cheeks.

The species is distributed in second growth, forest edges, thickets and such from Mexico's north-central Gulf lowlands south to northern Argentina.

*****

A DEAD URRACA
Friday morning Don Andrés came to my door bearing a dead Urraca -- the White-throated Magpie-jay, CALOCITTA FORMOSA, I told you about last week. It was the most gorgeous bird on my list of the first fifteen bird species noted while exploring my new home. The dead Urraca with its upside-down teardrop crest is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211ur.jpg.

The picture is a disappointment because usually the jaunty crest conveys a feeling of bird savoir-faire, but this bird's crest is messed up. And of course there's nothing of the feeling you get seeing a small flock sailing in like elegant Chinese kites. In real life the bird's neck is more extended, emphasizing the white face.

Don Andrés didn't know what killed the bird. The previous day I'd seen a farmer fumigating his field with insecticide, so probably that's the answer.

*****

ROSEBELLY LIZARDS AGAIN
You might remember one day back in Querétaro when a Rosebelly Lizard, SCELOPORUS VARIABILIS, rushed into my casita and parked beneath my chair long enough for me to take the photo that's still archived online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505lz.jpg.

I think I've found the same species here, this time actually showing a somewhat rosy belly. You can see it parked on the trunk of a Ramón tree in a shadowy woods at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211sc.jpg.

You can see that this one is a little different from the Querétaro one, but not much, especially for someone with a species name like variabilis.

The species is abundant here. I'm parking the picture here for that eventual graduate student who might come along someday trying to clean up the mess the genus Sceloporus is in, and who might like to see some of variablilis's variations I've run into.

*****

PINK TABEBUIAS
Sometimes a flowering tree imprints its presence on a landscape so definitively that the landscape would be a whole other thing without it. Think of the Kentucky landscape in spring without dogwoods, or Mississippi in late spring without magnolias. These days Chiapas's parched, rural landscape is ennobled with pink Tabebuias -- medium-size trees, largely leafless for the dry season, covered with pink flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211t_.jpg.

I'm sort of making up that name "Pink Tabebuia," Tabebuia being its genus name, because the species is planted in many places, and it's always so admired that people give it its own local name: Pink Poui, Pink Cedar, Pink Trumpet Tree, Roble Blanco, Poirier, Poirier Rouge, Kibra Hacha, Hok'ab, Maculiz, Palo de Yugo, Roble, Palo de Rosa... On and on the names come. However, the whole world recognizes its Latin name of TABEBUIA ROSEA. It's a member of the Trumpet-Creeper Family, along with not only Trumpet Creepers but also catalpas and jacarandas.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211ta.jpg you can see its trumpet-shaped flowers as well as its digitately compound leaves (leaves with leaflets arranged like digits, or fingers, on a hand). One distinctive feature of Tabebuia's leaflets is that each leaflet has its own long stem, or "petiolule." Many pink Tabebuias are completely leafless now during the dry season but others near water are fully leaved. One of the tree's frilly, yellow-eyed blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211tb.jpg.

Antonio told me that the flowers could be eaten so I went and nibbled on a few. I found them perfumy but somewhat bitter. I guess that when the chips are down you might be glad to have them, though.

These trees are very conspicuous in towns all over tropical Mexico. Back in the Yucatán I remarked on how pretty they were along streets in Mérida. Sometimes you see them so pink beneath a deep blue sky that they look unreal, almost like too much of a good thing. But not only are they real, here they are also living well inside their original homeland, which extends from Mexico to Venezuela.

Being a native tree, it's mentioned in my Plantas Medicinales de México. A tea brewed from its bark and leaves has been used to bring down fevers.

*****

RAMÓN REVISITED
You may remember last year's November 26th Newsletter at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071126.htm in which I introduced you to the hard, black, oily- fleshed, nutlike fruits sold in markets in the Yerba Buena area under the name of Cacaté. I called them Ramón fruits because that's the name I learned for the plant and its fruit in northern Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan.

In certain parts of this community's small reserve Ramón is the most common tree. They're old, stately trees, too, producing enormous quantities of fruits, which in some places cover the ground as if someone had spilled a big bag of brown marbles. You can see several fruits in various states of maturity at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211rm.jpg.

In that picture a dry Ramón leaf displays its typical herring-bone pattern venation. Ramón is a member of the Fig Family so it's looking like a leaf from an American strangler fig is no accident.

Also you can see that the fruit's hard, nutlike part is covered by a warty skin that's orange when mature. That covering is mildly sweet and not bad to eat, but the main eating is in the nut part.

People here call the tree and its fruit "Talcoít" and have never heard of my name of Ramón. When I asked a fellow if he'd heard of Yerba Buena's name Cacaté he said he had Cacaté on his land, but it wasn't the same as my Ramón. He took me to a small tree heavy with orange fruits, each fruit subtended by a persistent, leathery calyx. He told me to take a bite, and I did. Puckery! I'd expected that, because with those leathery sepals it had to be the local persimmon. I'd hoped it would be ripe, but it hadn't been. Later the fellow said that his "Cacatés" eventually get sweet, too, just like our northern persimmons in late fall.

Anyway, when my friend Antonio saw me carrying the Ramón fruits to photograph he told me he'd fix me a meal by boiling the hard nuts with ashes, the ashes needed to help the hard fruits soften. Later that day he brought me what he'd promised, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211rn.jpg.

They tasted a little like boiled peanuts and had the same texture. Antonio eats them and other things he finds in the forest, and tells about a famine that came through here years ago, maybe in the 20s he says, when all the crops failed but people kept alive eating this fruit. I think I've read that the ancient Maya depended on them the same way, often storing them for long periods. The tree's leaves and young branches are much used as livestock food.

My Plantas Medicinales de México says that the white-latex-producing fruits are used to encourage new mothers to lactate, but around here the trees and their fruits aren't regarded as medicinal. I read that the fruits can be roasted, ground, and the resulting powder used to make a drink rather like coffee.

This is simply one of the most useful and wonderful trees I know and should be planted throughout the world's tropics in anticipation of a collapse of the international trading system. As we've seen it goes by a host of local names. The name to remember is its Latin one, BROSIMUM ALICASTRUM.

*****

BUTTRESSED TREE TRUNKS
While gathering Ramón fruits I photographed the base of a Ramón tree trunk in order to show something of which you see a lot around here, a buttressed tree-trunk. Buttressed trunks have widely flaring supports rather like the fins on a rocket, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211bt.jpg.

Buttresses help big trees remain upright in soggy ground. Having buttresses must be very effective, because they develop among many unrelated tree species. You see them on certain species of strangler figs, on Ceibas, Mahoganies, Cedros (Spanish Cedars) and many other large and noble trees of the hot, humid lowlands.

*****

A LOCAL CURE FOR SORE KNEE-JOINTS
There's a tree here with pretty fruits like dwarf oranges and I can't figure out what it is. The other day I was looking for at least one flower, which surely would cue me as to the tree's family and genus, when Armando approached and began talking.

"We use the spiny tips on this tree's leaves to alleviate aching knee joints," he said. He took some leaves and showed how to quickly prick the aching knee's thick, wrinkled skin. You can see some of the leaves' needle-pointed, or "mucronate," tips at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080211mu.jpg.

I wonder about this cure. My bet is that the punctures encourage endorphin production which temporarily does relieve a sore knee's aching pain. Or maybe there's some kind of chemical on the spiny tips.

Most folks in this community know a good bit about traditional medicine and seem appreciative of an outsider's interest. I asked one man, whose father is a real curandero, or traditional healer, if he had anything for my ear infection, which has been plaguing me intermittently for years and is currently bothering me again.

"Take a woman who is lactating," he told me matter-of- factly, "and have her squeeze warm milk into your ear... "

*****

POCKET-GOPHER FEEDBACK
I was tickled with all the feedback I got about the January 28 Newsletter's picture of a pocket gopher.

John in California's central Sierras said that pocket gophers are the favorite food of his cats, and he quoted an authority saying that pocket gophers "act like little rototillers, loosening and aerating the soil."

Jarvis, a zoology prof in North Carolina, writes, "There are numerous species of them in Mexico and I don't feel up to the task of identifying it to species, but it sure looks like the family Geomyidae."

Casey somewhere in Cyberspace wrote "There's three genera in NA. From what I can tell from the photo its Pappogeomys -- one groove on the incisor as opposed to none (Thomomys) or two (Geomys).

John in New York worked with a search engine using the keywords "Mexican pocket gophers" and finally decided that "specifically MEXICAN pocket gophers get named Pappogeomys castanops." John also says that his daughter in Colorado can't grow a garden without losing most of it to pocket gophers.

Finally, Bea in Ontario actually sent a description and illustration of John's Pappogeomys castanops from her Peterson Field Guide. Peterson calls the species the Mexican Pocket Gopher and states that the species "may be distinguished from other pocket gophers by the distinct single groove down middle (front) of each upper incisor." You can see the single grooves again at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080128pg.jpg.

Therefore, thanks to all the above mails, which arrived in my INBOX in the order presented here, the final identity was gradually revealed as in a Sherlock Holms mystery, ending with Bea's picture. I'll bet my pocket gopher really is the Mexican Pocket Gopher, or a very closely related species, probably of the genus Pappogeomys, if such exists.

Thanks to everyone.

*****

KNOWLEDGE IS SACRED
Since the pocket-gopher experience I've been thinking about the nature of knowledge. What got me started on the subject was being here stripped of most of my field guides, old college texts, and having no internet to browse. Not even being able to confirm that the animal was some kind of pocket gopher, it came home to me that much knowledge I thought resided in my brain really isn't there. I knew where to find that knowledge when I needed it, but that's not the same as having it as part of me.

Moreover, it seems that my knowledge is tied up much more intimately with "who I am" than I ever thought. The important part of "who I am" arises from knowledge I've acquired since being a baby. "I am" someone who grows gardens, uses computers and writes, and none of that would be possible without knowledge I've had to work hard to acquire.

I'm not surprised that knowledge turns out to be at the root of what I am. The most spectacular thing I see the Universal Creative Force doing on Earth is evolving life by perpetually crafting living things' genetic information into ever more sophisticated, ever more refined and subtler configurations. That genetic material is knowledge about how to survive. It was acquired by living things' experiences over the eons. From Nature's perspective we living things are merely ephemeral carriers of continually evolving genetic knowledge that never dies until a species goes extinct.

I'm toying with the idea that the more accurate, usable, insight-giving knowledge an individual acquires in life, the more that person "is." A mystical way of seeing it may be that the more knowledge you have, the closer you are to merging with the All-Knowing, the All-Being, the Unity.

I imagine bits of knowledge as something like magic eggs, glowing, humming and pulsating with potential, produced on rare trees in a dark, hard-to-navigate forest.

If ever I get back with bookshelves and the Internet, more than before I'll regard my library and computer as alters before which I enter into communion with the information-generating, knowledge-offering Universal Creative Force.

*****

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