JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in the community of 28 de Junio and issued from a ciber in
Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT 16° 18'N, LONG -92° 28'W.}

May 12, 2008

NORTHERN BOBWHITES CALLING
For the last couple of weeks during early morning hours when it was still cool but the sun was shining brightly I've heard bobwhites calling, hu-WHEET! hu- WHEET! Or bob-WHITE! To my ears the calls are identical to those heard in fields up North.

However, if you're lucky enough to spot a male you can see that this bird looks very different from the bobwhites heard up north. Northern Bobwhites are white-throated and have white eye-stripes, and their sides and chests are heavily spotted. Male bobwhite heads down here are totally black except for the white eye-stripe, and their underparts are solidly cinnamon- rufous.

Despite the big difference in looks, it turns out that our bobwhites are the very same species found up North, the Northern Bobwhite, COLINUS VIRGINIANUS. Here is a bird with a huge distribution. The bird's advancement across the continent probably was helped when humans converted North America's forests to broad open areas producing lots of weed seeds, which is the Bobwhite's habitat.

Our birds being members of the same species accounts for their calling like the northern ones, but how come ours look so different from the northern ones?

It turns out that in Mexico four Northern Bobwhite subspecies groups are recognized: texanus in the northeast; graysoni in central Mexico; pectoralis along the Atlantic Slope and disjunctly in south-central Mexico, and; coyolcos on the Pacific Slope south and inland to here and northwestern Guatemala.

You might remember that in the Yucatan we had the Yucatan Bobwhite, Colinus nigrogularis. Some say that the Yucatan Bobwhite is just another subspecies of the Northern Bobwhite while others insist that it's a full species all by itself. Being a full-blown species implies that the Yucatan Bobwhite population is for the most part reproductively isolated from the rest of the Northern Bobwhite gene pool. In contrast, genes flow among the four subspecies, so that often where distributions meet birds appear with intermediate features.

It's all evolution in progress. The current Bobwhite taxonomical situation presents a snapshot of one big species fracturing into several subspecies, and maybe one of those subspecies already has crossed the threshold to reproductive isolation, and is a full species.

If you could see our black-headed, rufous-cinnamon-bellied bobwhites you might think that our subspecies already is different enough to be considered a separate species. However, when you hear that crystalline hu-WHEET! Hu-WHEET! on a sunny morning, you know it can't be anything other than the pure bobwhite of the northern countryside.

*****

A FEMALE STRIPED BASILISK
We've already met a male Striped Basilisk with its slender, very long tail, very long legs and flaplike crest atop its head. Its story and photo is archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/basilisk.htm.

Saturday I got a good picture of a female, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512bk.jpg.

I'm glad to have a female's picture because the species is sexually dimorphic -- males look different from females. You can see that the female lacks the male's crest and his conspicuous, yellowish, solid line running from the eye down the sides and tail, plus the female's back is checkered instead of plain. This female in the picture is about a foot long.

You can also see the very long back legs and toes characteristic of basilisks, features hidden in my picture of the male. Those expansive feet enable furiously running basilisks to run across water.

*****

TIED PIGS
Something that people here do that's seldom or never seen up North is to tie pigs to certain spots, where they stay tied until they're moved someplace else. Usually the spot is beneath a tree. People bring food to them. If you need to see a tied pig, there's one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512pi.jpg.

It's the same with burros.

*****

MYSTERY BEETLE
The other day Eliezer brought me the big beetle shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512bb.jpg.

That critter is 3.0 inches long (7.5 cm) not counting the antennae, and I wish its iridescent colors showed up in the photo as prettily as beneath the tropical sun. On the Internet probably it's impossible to identify most of the insect species we have here, but maybe this one is so spectacular that the enterprising and artful search-engine sleuth can figure it out. Anyone want to try?

*****

THE SAPOTAS
Up at the cascades, beneath a certain large tree with dark green, magnolia-like leaves, the ground is tinged yellow with the fallen, neat little items shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512-s.jpg.

In that picture the erect, matchstick things are stamens, each stamen consisting of a sticklike, pale filament and a brownish, baglike anther, which splits open to release pollen. Notice that -- unusual among flowers -- this flower's stamens arise opposite its petals; usually stamens alternate with petals. Also, notice the tiny, triangular things the same color and texture as the corolla between the corolla lobes. These are staminodia, or sterile, modified stamens. Finally, notice that the petals or corolla lobes sometimes bear tiny teeth along their margins. They're "lacinate," or cut.

Any flower displaying these distinctive features just can't be from anything other than a member of the Sapodilla Family, the Sapotaceae. In North America the best-known members of the Sapodilla Family are the US Southeast's bumelias. Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists 27 species names for the family here and most of them are trees producing edible, often transcendently delicious fruits.

In fact, some of tropical America's most cherished native fruits are produced on trees in this family. The most famous are the Chicozapote or Sapodilla produced by the Chicle Tree (natural chewing-gum base), Manilkara zapota, and the Mamey or Marmalade-Plum, Pouteria sapota. If you're ever in a good traditional market in tropical America, ask for Chicozapote and Mamey fruits.

Sometimes the names vary from region to region, and even the Latin names have been changed so frequently that often it's hard to figure out what's what. Moreover, you're always running into seldom seen but wonderful fruits of this family. For example, the other day Don Andrés came to my door with the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512-r.jpg.

Here this fruit is called Sapote Colorado but I think it's the same as what I know from Guatemala as Caimito Amarillo, Latin name Pouteria caimito. The fruit tastes like a slightly dry but sweet yam or sweet potato.

In the field, trees in the family bear alternate, simple, smooth-margined (entire), leathery leaves, often clustered toward branch tips. Typically they exude white latex (like Chicozapote's chewing-gum base) when injured. An immature Cicozapote with leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512-q.jpg.

*****

GUAPINOLE'S BIG BEAN POD
Don Andrés also brought me the humongous bean pod at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512hy.jpg.

By referring to it as a bean pod I mean to say that the plant producing it is a member of the Bean Family, the Fabaceae. The plant is a tree known around here as Bacú but in much of Mexico as Guapinol or Huapinol. In Latin it's HYMENAEA COURBARIL, a name given my Linnaeus himself, so America's first botanical explorers must have noticed this tree early.

Don Andrés told me that inside the six-inch-long pod (15 cm) big beans were suspended in a kind of dryish powder, and that that powder made good eating. The pod's woody shell was so hard I couldn't crack it with the handle of my Buck Knife. When the pod finally broke I was disappointed to see that most of its contents were moldy and inedible. In the picture, the white, lower part of the contents is fungusy but the yellow, upper part is still at least marginally edible. It tasted like sweet, custard-flavored chalk. Maybe a fresher pod wouldn't have been so powdery.

Holding the broken pod in my hand while taking the picture, the pod's fracture surfaces glistened in the sunlight as if crushed glass were embedded in the brown shell matrix. My hand lens revealed the source of the glistens: hardened globules of resin.

I'm not the first to notice this tree's resin. Plantas Medicinales de Mexcio says that resin from Guapinol can be burned to produce a smoke which, inhaled, alleviates asthma. It's also used against rheumatism, colds, ulcers and other ailments.

****

BANANA TREE FLOWERS
Can you identify the futuristic-looking thing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512bf.jpg.

What's seen above makes more sense when you see http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512bh.jpg.

The last picture shows a stalk of ripening bananas. Or, more technically, it shows a drooping, spike-type cluster of flowers, or inflorescence, with female ovaries maturing into bananas at the base of the spike (top in the picture) and male flowers subtended by broad, colored bracts at the spike's tip (bottom in the picture).

Therefore, in the first picture you see fifteen or so functionally male flowers that will never produce bananas, just pollen. The peeling-back, hoodlike thing above them is a bract, or modified leaf. The stem, or rachis, at the top of the picture shows many scars of previous bracts, so over time there's been a lot of male flowers shedding pollen from their anthers, then falling off, along with their bracts.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512bg.jpg you can see a male flower. The flat, long item with powdery lines along its margins, extending from the center of my thumbnail, is a stamen. The powdery lines are pollen issuing from elongate anther sacs along the anther's margins. The blunt, yellow-tipped thing below that is a sterile staminode, probably evolved to give pollinators something to hold onto as they pull themselves into the flowers' throats dusting themselves with pollen.

So, banana flowers are unisexual, though when they first start developing sometimes you can find stamen- bearing flowers with ovaries. However, in flowers whose stamens eventually produce pollen, the ovaries abort and don't develop into bananas.

*****

BEA'S MYSTERY LOG
Countering my occasional "mystery picture" with her own, Bea in Ontario sent me a mystery picture to figure out. It showed a log with strange markings across its face. You can see her mystery log at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512su.jpg.

Bea gave me hints. First, remember that she's in eastern Canada. Second, the log is from a Sugar Maple tree...

Well, you shouldn't need more than that. Those are scars resulting from tapping the tree for maple-syrup sap. Bea says that people up there swear the tapping doesn't hurt trees, but after seeing the extensive scarring both of us wonder if that's really true.

*****

METATE & MANO
In most backcountry homes of Mexican indigenous people you can still find items that haven't changed for centuries. The other day in Don Bartolomé's house I photographed the traditional metate and mano shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080512mm.jpg.

A variation on the mortar and pestle, the three-legged, flat-faced, slightly curved mortar typically is carved of the black, volcanic stone called basalt. It's about a foot across. The mano, or submarine-sandwich-shaped stone lying across the metate in the picture is held in both hands while grinding corn, cacao, and other basic foods beneath it.

*****

NEW BUTTERFLIES OF AMERICA WEBSITE
Folks at the University of Florida producing the Mariposas Mexicanas website (Mexican Butterflies) at http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/ and who identify my butterfly pictures taken here have opened up a new website called Butterflies of America. The site's Interactive Listing includes about 2938 species and just over 5000 subspecies occurring from Alaska and arctic Canada through Panama, Hawaii, and all but the southernmost Caribbean Islands.

See http://butterfliesofamerica.com/list.htm.

*****

ACQUITTAL
Last Monday as I issued my Newsletter in a dark little ciber near the bustling outdoor market in Carranza an International Human Rights Observer from Maine sat next to me checking the news on her hometown newspaper's website. Suddenly she became excited. About a year ago she'd been arrested in Bangor for protesting the war in Iraq. Her group had expressed its opposition by refusing to leave a federal building at quitting time. After being arrested she and some others had paid their fine but six protestors chose to bring their case to court, arguing that they were obeying a higher law. Now a year later her friends had won their case. The jury had acquitted them.

Everyone had been surprised, including us, for it was clear that they'd really broken the law. Apparently the jury had been so disgusted with US foreign policy that they'd sided with the protesters.

Was this good or bad? A law clearly had been broken, so shouldn't laws be enforced? What if the jury had been composed of bigots considering charges against a minority member whom public opinion already had fingered as its scapegoat? Shouldn't honest interpretation of plainly written law guide court opinions, not people's moods and prejudices?

On the other hand, wasn't protesting an unjust war a responsibility of any good citizen?

Whenever I'm faced with such a conundrum I seek guidance in Nature.

First I reflected on what "higher law" the protestors might have been appealing to. I'm guessing that it was that no nation has a right to attack another that shows no sign of being a real danger to the first nation.

How high that "higher law" is, however, is debatable. In politics everything is seen through filters of biases arising from genetic and/or social preprogramming, past experience and even rational thought.

In contrast, in Nature we find the ultimate authority on how high "laws" are. That's because since the beginning of time the things of Nature have evolved in a certain way, and the general trends characterizing this evolution are obviously sound, since Nature has always hung together and continues doing so today. Nothing else in the Universe has such a track record.

Therefore, in Nature, is there some standard or principle to help me evaluate the soundness of the Bangor protesters' argument that they were obeying a "higher law?"

I think that there is. Consider the natural paradigm I've so often alluded to that "diversity is sacred." Here's how my thinking works:

Since one nation imposing its will on another lessens diversity of cultural expression, diversity of political organization, and diversity of philosophical orientation, then that imposition is inharmonious with the way Nature generally struggles toward diversity.

The same conclusion can be reached applying the natural paradigm of "really big things fracture into smaller parts," as demonstrated by our Bobwhite species breaking into several regional subspecies. Maybe Mother Nature thinks that if a country is big enough to start discretionary wars in somebody else's land, it needs some fracturing, and protests can be the beginning of that.

On the other hand, in Nature there's also the paradigm of "big fish eat smaller fish." Therefore, the Bangor protestors don't have all the paradigms of Nature on their side.

In the end, each person decides which set of paradigms he or she identifies most with.

Whichever choice is made, two things are clear: One, even ambiguous political questions become more solvable when we apply Nature-paradigm tests to them, and; two, you define yourself by which paradigms you regard as "highest."

*****

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