JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

January 10, 2010

HOOKNOSED SNAKE
Last week I invited help on a snake ID, the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100103un.jpg.

Both good ol' Sleazel in Florida and Bruce at Florida State pegged the snake as a red morph of the Blotched Hooknosed Snake, FICIMIA PUBLIA.

Even though the snake had been illustrated in my Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize by Jonathan Campbell, I hadn't recognized it because here we have a color variation not shown in the book and the species is not mentioned as being present in the Yucatán. The ground color is described as "pale tan, pale brown, yellowish tan, orange-tan or reddish brown," while our snake was red. Maybe we're contributing new information to the scientific community here.

Blotched Hooknosed Snakes are egg-laying (oviparous) and eat mostly spiders and insects. When they feel threatened they coil into a ball, gape wide their mouths and readily strike, though they're perfectly harmless. With such behavior and colors similar to our venomous Variable Coral Snake, they really look dangerous, though it's all bluff.

They're called "hooknosed" because their snouts are sharply edged and upturned, probably helping them root in forest-floor debris as they forage for spiders. I hadn't noticed this when I examined my roadkill because he was somewhat flattened all over.

Blotched Hooknosed Snakes occur in lowland southern Mexico and Belize to northern Honduras.

*****

TULCIS CRESCENT BUTTERFLY
Currently during the early dry season as the leaves of certain herbaceous trees and bushes are turning yellow or brown, curling up and falling, while relatively few plants are flowering, you just don't see many butterflies. Still, from time to time one flits by, as proven by the 1-¼-inch wide little critter shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110tc.jpg.

Bea, my volunteer butterfly-identifying expert in snowy Ontario, has been suffering butterfly-ID- withdrawal pains, so she jumped at the opportunity to tell me that what's shown above looks like the Tulcis Crescent, ANTHANASSA TULCIS, a species distributed from Argentina north through Central America and Mexico to southern Texas, sometimes straying to western Texas and southern Arizona.

Tulcis Crescents lay their eggs in batches on the undersides of leaves of plants in the Acanthus Family, especially the genus Dicliptera. Several members of the Acanthus Family are common in our local forest. The butterflys' caterpillars feed in groups at night, its adults take flower nectar, and mainly the species is found in open fields and second growth.

Anthanassa is a big genus in a big tribe (Melitaeini) in a very big subfamily (the True Brushfoot Butterflies, the Nymphalinae) in a huge family (the Brush-footed Butterflies, the Nymphalidae). During our wanderings we've run into several species in this same group.

So, I go to my Newsletter Butterfly Index page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/ins-butt.htm and click on the names of other crescents I've seen and photographed. There's the honey-spotted Field Crescent from last summer in Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains, and the bruised-orange Pearl Crescent found on a levee in a swamp in Mississippi last March. Seeing and remembering these, I savor "variations on the Crescent Theme." It's like hearing a Bach fugue where a stated melody is shifted into different keys, toying with this and that note. In the end the whole variation-on- the-theme experience leaves me dazzled by Nature's general exuberance and the sheer delight She takes in jazzy experimentation, ornamentation and fooling around.

*****

LONG-LEGGED FLY
Bea also figured out the metallic-green, big-headed but small fly shown sun-basking on a leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110fy.jpg.

The best she could do was to come up with the fly's family, the Long-legged Fly Family, or Dolichopodidae, possibly the genus Condylostylus. This family is so enormous and the species are so similar that it's hard to identify to genus level, much less to species. Many species are distinguished from one another by examining the male genitalia, which not only requires a microscope but also is hard on the male.

The Long-legged Fly Family embraces about 230 genera distributed worldwide and over 7,000 described species, so no matter where you are the species in the picture probably looks familiar to you, even though our species surely is different from yours. The genus Dolichopus by itself holds about 600 species.

Even not being sure what genus we're dealing with, we can state generalities about the fly in the picture because of features shared by members of the family. For example, adult Long-legged Flies are predatory on other small animals. That may explain why the fly in the picture not only sought sunlight to bask in but also darted away frequently, seeming to examine every tiny creature that flew by, then returned to or near his perch. Long-legged Fly larvae exploit a huge diversity of environments, both terrestrial and aquatic, and can be predators or scavengers.

If you've seen chunks of amber containing fossilized critters you may have seen long-extinct species of Long-legged Flies entombed in them. The family has been widespread since at least the Cretaceous Period, which began 145,500,000 years ago as flowering plants arose and Archaeopteryx -- part bird, part reptile -- was taking to the air.

With their smallness and delicate hues, Long-legged Flies look delicate and vulnerable, but their antiquity, diversity of habitats and sheer numbers tell that they're tough little beings that might even survive if we destroy our own and most other species.

*****

PIICHES DROPPING LEAVES
Most of our regenerating forest here is very dense and grows only 20 or 30 feet high. However, here and there big trees occur. They're species that by nature rise above the general forest canopy, plus some were left standing for shade when maybe 30 years ago most of this area was covered with cattle-grazed ranchland.

One of the giant tree species is the Piich, as they're called in Maya, or Guanacaste in Spanish; I can't find a good English name for it, though some authors call it "Ear Tree" because of its legumes' shape. It's ENTEROLOBIUM CYCLOCARPUM, a member of the Bean Family, and it's one of the three or four largest trees inhabiting the forests of Central America and southern Mexico.

Piich leaves are doubly pinnately compound, rather like acacia or mimosa leaves, which belong to the same family. During the dry season Piiches drop their leaves, and this week has been their main leaf-fall time. You can see a couple of largely defoliated Piiches along our forest trail, with the ground below covered with dried-up leaflets, and their big branches bearing gardens of bromeliads, orchids and the like (and a dangling, baglike Altamira Oriole nest) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110pi.jpg.

Thumbnail-clipping-size leaflets litter the ground alongside a fallen silvery Cecropia leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110pj.jpg.

Leaves still bearing some shriveling leaflets are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110pk.jpg.

The Piich tree trunks in the picture are about 3 feet thick (1 m) but some here are twice that thick. When a big Piich drops its leaves, suddenly light floods into a large area where earlier it was very shadowy. However, the shrub and herb understory species below the Piich can hardly take advantage of the bounty of light, for it's so dry they can't sprout new growth.

*****

RANDIA FRUITS
For weeks I've been waiting for the spherical, June- apple-size fruits of a certain small, spiny-twigged, semi-clambering tree to mature, and this week those fruits have begun yellowing and falling, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110ra.jpg.

In figuring out what family this plant belong I needed to notice these three features:

  1. Opposite their points of attachment with the stem, the fruits bore the remnants of their old calyxes, which means that the flower's ovary had been "inferior" -- the calyx had arisen above the ovary instead of below it, as in most flowers.
  2. The leaves are "opposite," which means that two leaves arise at each node on the stem.
  3. Between the petioles of each pair of leaves there's a dark, triangular stipule.

This combination of features informed me that I had a member of the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae, a modest family in the North containing Buttonbushes, bedstraws and a few others, but an enormous one in the tropics.

The plant is RANDIA ARMATA, and I can't find a good English name for it. "K'ax," the plant is called in Maya. "Crucetilla," Standley says it's called in Honduras, which means "Little Cross," referring to limb side-branches that emerge at right angles, as observed in the above photo. Randia armata is fairly common in the forest here, and eye-catching because of those hard, round fruits. Does its roundness help it roll downhill to disseminate seeds? Nearly all the fallen fruits I've found had had their hard husks opened by birds and emptied before any rolling could be accomplished.

In the old The Forests and Flora of British Honduras, Standley's writing usually is pretty dry, yet he describes Randia armata's fruit pulp as "black and slimy and of most repulsive appearance."

The pulp I examined was puddingy and dark brown but turning black with time. It tasted like the slightly bitter "honey" from the backbone of a mature Honeylocust legume up north, combined with the taste of water that's been in a wooden cask for far too long. There was plenty of pulp in each fruit and I could see why it would be worth the efforts of a bird or rodent to gnaw and gnaw until the hard shell was opened.

The ancient Maya may have been impressed by the fruit, too, for in rituals usually closed to outsiders I've seen the fruits placed strategically on altars, and was told that their presence was important, though it wasn't explained exactly what their function was.

*****

CASEARIA'S PELLUCID DOTS & LINES
Few woody plants are flowering during our early dry season. The small, white flowers and wavy or crenate- margined leaves of one tree bucking the trend is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110cs.jpg.

A close-up of that tree's B-B-sized flowers, which are a little unusual because they lack corollas so that their scoop-shaped, white sepals, or calyx lobes, perform petal service instead, is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110ct.jpg.

I'm not sure why so many of the flowers are turning brown and shriveling up. I suspect it's a disease or insect damage because other flower pictures on the internet don't show anything similar.

The plant at hand is a shrub or small tree commonly and weedily growing throughout humid, lowland Central America and southern Mexico. It's CASEARIA NITIDA, for which I can't find an English name. It's a member of the Flacourtia Family, the Flacourtiaceae, a family practically unknown to temperate plant-lovers but well represented in tropical regions. Casearia nitida is such a modest-looking, Plain Jane kind of tree that I wouldn't have bothered bringing it to your attention but for one thing:

If you hold one of its leaves up against the sun, you see the interesting details revealed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110cu.jpg.

There you see a typical leaf's venation, but within the green areas between veins, the "lacunae", you see lots of bright dots and streaks. Several plant families display such dots -- the Citrus Family (Rutaceae), the Myrtle Family (Myrtaceae) foremost among them. However, those curved streaks are extraordinary. Botanists say that such translucing points are "pellucid." This pellucid dotting and streaking is fairly common in the Flacourtia Family.

Usually pellucid dots are glands filled with aromatic oils. Crush such leaves and typically they emit a pungent fragrance. Casearia nitida's leaves aren't particularly fragrant, though. Still, I suspect that they're filled with chemicals anathema to insects.

*****

YELLOW BARLERIAS
Caterpillars of the Tulcis Crescent we talk about above feed on the undersurfaces of leaves in the Acanthus Family, and it happens that nowadays members of the Acanthus Family are among the most eye-catching wildflowers along trails in the drying-out forest around us. Most conspicuous are the very common, crimson-blossomed Aphelandras I told you about at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/apheland.htm.

Recently a pretty, knee- to waist-high herb, also a member of the Acanthus Family, has begun issuing crowded spikes of brightly yellow flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110yb.jpg.

If you compare the red Aphelandra blossoms at the first link with these yellow flowers you'll see that they both arise from thick, conical clusters of sharp-edged bracts, or modified leaves. However, the plants' blossoms are different. For one thing, Aphelandra flowers bear four pollen-producing stamens while our yellow flowers bear only two. In the Acanthus Family stamen number is important. You can see our yellow flower's two frankfurter-shaped stamens with pollen-coated anthers framing the slender stigma and style at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110yc.jpg.

Our yellow-flowering wildflower is the Yellow Barleria, BARLERIA MICANS, a plant much prized in many gardens as a "tropical exotic." It's native to southern lowland Mexico south to Colombia.

I wasn't familiar with the genus Barleria. It turns out that Barleria is a pantropical (worldwide in the tropics) genus of herbs and shrubs comprising some 300 species, mostly found in Africa and Asia, and with its center of diversity in tropical East Africa. On the evolutionary Tree of Life it lies closest to the genera Justicia (the North-s Water-Willow) and Ruellia (the North's Wild Petunias).

What a pleasure to run into something completely new!

*****

USING CISSUS STEMS FOR BUILDING
In November we met the "Tropical Grape," CISSUS SICYOIDES, which climbs high into trees, then issues ropy, dangling "aerial roots" that reach the ground and root. Pictures of the whole thing are still at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cissus.htm.

Hacienda Chichen's Maya workers are erecting a typical Maya house for visitors to see. Later we'll plant medicinal and edible plants around it. As part of the traditional building technique, the stems of Cissus sicyoides are being used where modern builders would use nails, bolts, metal braces and the like. You can a beautiful example of such handiwork at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110r2.jpg.

There the branches of a forked pole are secured because later the pole will bear the roof's weight and if the forks are not bound together downward pressures will force the forks apart, possibly splitting the pole. The Maya workers who do this certainly have no training in physics or engineering. They just know where stresses and strains are in a building, and they know how to deal with them using materials from the forest.

Note that I'm referring to the plant's stems, not its aerial roots. I've often read that the roots of this woody vine, or liana, or used for construction, but here the men are using the stems, saying that the roots soon decay and aren't really used for anything.

On the ground nearby lay coils of Cissus stems seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110r0.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100110r1.jpg Don Paulino is using a block of wood to tamp stem coils tighter around the poles.

*****

THE COLD, & GLOBAL WARMING
The cold weather experienced in the northern Temperate Zone these days fits nicely into projections based on most models of global warming. The BBC points out that while middle latitudes are colder, areas closer to the Poles are warmer, so overall the planet right now probably is continuing the warming process documented during recent years.

I doubt that anyone knows what the immediate cause of the current intense cold is, but I can visualize how global warming might be causing it. First remember the great general circulation of planetary air that rises at the hot Equator, flows north and south, and at both Poles descends to rush back toward the Equator. As more and more energy in released into and trapped within the planetary biosphere, this general flow is further energized -- it functions more vigorously than before. Thus cold fronts from the Poles penetrate ever nearer the Equator. By the same token, air moving faster over the polar zones has less time to cool off, so temperatures at the Poles are warmer.

Does this mean that next year also will be cold? Not necessarily, because Earth's climate consists of cycles within cycles, and some cycles are of longer duration than the yearly ones. We just don't know how all the interrelating cycles will be affected.

In the end, however, we can be sure of these two points: 1) Readings all over the planet show that the Earth is warming; 2) When you add energy to a system of circulating air, as by warming it, the circulations tend to grow more vigorous.

*****

NORTE NOSTALGIA
Each day this week on the Internet I've checked the US weather map and looked at temperatures around the country. One day I saw low 20s forecast for the high in Kentucky as it snowed in Natchez, southern Mississippi. I was so glad to be here.

It was much cooler than normal here, too. On Wednesday morning it was 50 degrees at dawn (10° C), which people here found painful. The same coldwave griping eastern North America extended across the Gulf of Mexico to here, arriving as a "norte" -- cold wind from the north -- causing me to exchange my shorts for trousers for only the second time since being here.

This week's dusty norte breezes caused dry-season- yellowing, fingernail-sized Piich-tree leaflets to snow onto the ground. The odor of dry leaves hung in the air and though a body might feel chilly even wearing a sweater, glaring sunlight stung naked skin with sharp intensity. All these sensations evoked in me a powerful nostalgia, for when I used to experience them in late fall up north they presaged comforting feelings to come: Resplendent autumnal colors, cozy times in snug places during the cold months, the looming holiday season. Also, somehow when I was younger my most desperate love affairs always came along in late fall, and I wrote the best poetry then, so the Norte evoked nostalgia for those times, too.

But, down here, though the next months will offer their own charms, there is nothing cozy or snug to look forward to, no radiant colors soon to brighten the forest, no upcoming holidays, and no loves or anticipated flights of poesy to come. All those nostalgia-evoking cues experienced this week simply were out of place and disorienting. During this week's walks I've thought a lot about this.

What happened is that on those crisp, sunny norte afternoons when dry wind swept dust and leaves around the old stone church's corner my brain's left hemisphere recorded the data and the right hemisphere dutifully generated stories corresponding to that particular assemblage of stimuli. You can see how such a reflexive mental procedure would be adaptive to a thinking organism. It's the same process that causes my stomach to cramp when I see mushrooms looking like the Chlorophyllum that poisoned me in Kentucky in 2006.

Some would say that by dissecting and explaining my feelings like this I'm abandoning part of my humanity, wringing the poetry and romance from my life.

Maybe there's something to that. During most of my life I've aborted such thoughts as soon as they arose for that exact reason. However, the Sixth Miracle of Nature enables us to think and behave in ways our genetic programming does not dictate. It seems that Nature beckons us forward into such thoughts, even if it means abandoning part of our humanity. Maybe there's something grand beyond "being human" as we think of it.

But, why even bother considering such thoughts? It is because our genes and their dictates do not offer solutions for saving Life on Earth. Yet, mysteriously and beautifully, at this very moment in humanity's long evolution, we are granted the Sixth Miracle of Nature, which enables us to think and behave in ways not dictated by our genes. Exactly when we need help, the Sixth Miracle grants us the gift of being able to contain our population growth, to restrain our greed, to tame our aggressions, to escape the bondage of our superstitions and half-baked creeds, and to neutralize our vulnerability to the herd instinct.

The gift consists of using our minds, even if it means losing some of our humanity.

Or, maybe a better way of saying that is that the solution consists of redefining -- of enlarging -- what it means to be human.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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