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

May 23, 2010

CANIVET'S EMERALD
Normally I don't even try to photograph hummingbirds because they're too fast for me. However, last Sunday a particularly slow one showed up prettily sipping nectar from red Royal Poinciana flowers atop a tree near my hut. You can see it hovering above a flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523hu.jpg.

At first I thought that this was a female or immature Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a species that overwinters here. However, that species should be back up North by now. Here in the central Yucatán we have six or seven hummingbird species and of those if it's not a Ruby- throat it must be a female or immature Canivet's Emerald, CHLOROSTILBON CANIVETII.

There's also a small detail barely noticeable in the photo confirming that it's a permanent-resident Canivet's and not a late-leaving Ruby-throat. The detail is the pale patch behind the eye. The female Ruby-throat's pale patch is exactly behind the eye, the forward part of it touching the eye's back side, nearly forming a crescent behind the eye. In the Canivet's the patch is more like a white eyebrow extending from above the eye to down the neck. Still, with this picture it's a hard call to make. Canivet's Emeralds are regarded as fairly common to common in this area.

Canivet's Emeralds, in some books called Fork-tailed Emeralds, are endemic to eastern Mexico, Belize and northern Guatemala. Their habitat is described as brushy woodland and scrub, overgrown clearings, and forest edges mainly in arid to semihumid areas, which is just what we have here.

*****

FROG EGGS
Last week I told you about that Saturday's San Isidro fiesta and how the Maya traditionally regard San Isidro as the Rain God, and pray for rain during the church part of the ceremony. Twenty-four hours later our first good rain for weeks fell, and the next evening another couple of inches fell, and for the rest of the week each day there was at least a little to wet thing up.

Frogs went crazy. All night their callings filtered between the poles of my hut's walls, and it was good hearing them. By Monday morning puddles were full of frog eggs. You can see eggs in a garden pool at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523fg.jpg.

Those eggs -- the four dark spheres -- in real life were only about the size of a stickpin head. The smaller, silvery spheres are air bubbles. The water was full of algae so the bubbles probably are oxygen produced by the algae.

Something interesting about a frog egg is that it's a single big cell -- like a chicken egg, for that matter. A typical frog's egg-cell occupies a volume over 1.6 million times larger than a normal frog cell. Moreover, as the frog embryo develops into a tadpole containing millions of cells, it continues to occupy about the same volume of material. The cells split and split again and again, thousands of times, but the developing organism doesn't increase in size. In the photo you can see how each dark, future tadpole is suspended inside an almost transparent gelatinous mass.

It's also interesting that frog eggs can be identified almost like the frogs that produced them -- characteristics vary from species to species. American Toads lay long strings of eggs while Bullfrogs lay egg masses containing 1000-5000 eggs. I'm guessing that the eggs in the picture were laid by treefrogs because the eggs were so tiny and most eggs floated unattached to others, or with only three or four other eggs, and I've seen treefrog eggs doing that.

The amazing thing about the eggs in this particular pool was their number -- hundreds of thousands of them in a pool the size of a small car. Thousands had splashed onto the pool's concrete walls, where they dried out and were being collected by ants. After that rain we had about a month ago the same thing happened, but then it stopped raining, the pools dried out, and every egg and tadpole in this pool and others died.

If it keeps raining, though, before long we should have lots of tadpoles. I'm going to enjoy watching them develop, and I'll keep you updated.

*****

DARK & PALE VERSIONS OF THE SAME BUTTERFLIES
Butterflies have loved these rains, too. Soon after they began the land just danced with butterflies. I took a walk to see if I could photograph some new species and returned with good shots of at least two I thought I hadn't yet seen.

Once I had the pictures on the laptop screen, however, the first one I looked like, though much lighter than the dark Common Spurwing I told you about last week, seemed to have exactly the same patterns. You can see a comparison, last week's dark individual on the left and this week's paler one on the right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523bw.jpg.

With the second "new species" the very same situation seemed to be repeating itself. The second new species turned out to be a much paler individual of a much darker Checkered Skipper identified earlier. These two different color phases can be compared at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523bx.jpg.

These comparison shots show us how individuals can at first glance look very different from one another, but, with closer scrutiny, you can find that their basic structure (such as wing venation) and color patterns are identical. If two or more dark spots are close together in a pale individual, they may merge into a single large, dark splotch in a dark one.

I just don't know whether these pictures show shade variations within single species. That might be the case with the Common Spurwing, but it may also be that individuals darken or turn paler as they age. With the Checkered Skipper, there's a cluster of species only distinguishable by dissection, so I may be showing two different species, even though their patterns seem identical.

Whatever the case, these photos reminded me of a classic study almost obligatorily included in any textbook on basic ecology, the one describing "industrial melanism" among Peppered Moths in England. When the Industrial Revolution covered tree trunks there with dark soot, dark-tending Peppered Moths became more common than lighter forms, which earlier had been best camouflaged for paler, pre-Revolution, lichen-covered tree-trunks.

When I went onto the Internet to refresh my memory of the Peppered Moth study I was surprised to find that now that whole study is regarded as flawed. The basic theory may be correct, but data for the study may have been incorrectly presented and interpreted. You can read all about the matter, and gain an insight into how science works, always questioning itself and trying to be honest and clear thinking, in that paper at http://www.origins.org/articles/wells_pepmoth.html.

*****

MONKEY-COMBS FLOWERING
Passing across the lawn suddenly numerous whitish-yellow, two-inch long (5 cm), Dutchman's-pipe-like corollas began prettily littering the fast-greening grass. You can see how thickly they'd fallen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523ph.jpg.

Picking up a corolla and splitting it longitudinally, the flower's four stamens and corolla shape made clear that this was a member of the Trumpet-Creeper Family, the Bignoniaceae. The corolla-half is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523pj.jpg.

That picture tells a story. A pollinator lands on the corolla's flaring lower lip, enters the tube, its back dusted with pollen from other flowers scrapes against the roundish stigma at the tube's ceiling, thus pollinating the blossom. As the pollinator continues down the tube to nectar polled in those little flaps at the base, anthers also held near the ceiling dump pollen onto the back to be carried to the next flower. The anthers look more decomposed than the style and stigma, so I'm guessing that first the anthers matured and released their pollen, then when they were empty the stigma matured, thus keeping the flower from self-pollinating. Just a guess.

Sixteen or so mostly vine members of the Bignonia Family have been listed for the Yucatan, so which was this? In the first picture there was an important clue. Did you notice that brownish, black-stubbled thing lying among the flowers? That's a fruiting pod-half and we've run into such a thing before. Back in Querétaro we met the Monkey-Comb, PITHECOCTENIUM CRUCIGERUM, so called because the brown pods so bristled with short, stiff tubercles that you could comb your hair with them. You can see the pods and their butterfly-like seeds (called palomitas, or "Little Doves" in Spanish), and read about the species at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/monkey.htm.

So, Monkey-Comb occurs here, too. The plant producing them is a woody vine, or liana, that climbed so high into a Cedro tree above the dropped flowers that really I couldn't see them with my naked eyes. I focused my camera at a cluster of leaves at the tree's crown, where I suspected the flowers to have fallen from, and you can see what developed from that effort at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523pi.jpg.

After publishing the Querétaro piece an ecologist in Australia wrote saying that this was an invasive weed over there. So here's a plant native to the American tropics that's gone wild in other parts of the world, where away from its natural enemies that keep it under control here it's displacing native flora.

*****

BEADVINE DROPPING ITS SEEDS
On the trail to the organic garden suddenly I've begun spotting BB-size, spherical things that really show up on the shadowy forest floor because the look like bright red eyeballs with large, black pupils, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523ac.jpg.

Those are beans falling from clusters of pods adorning a ferny-leafed, somewhat woody vine climbing high into a big Piich tree. They're beans because the vine is a member of the Bean Family. Sometimes it's called Beadvine or Rosary Pea. It's ABRUS PRECATORIUS. You can see a small part of the vine about 20 feet up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523ab.jpg.

The beans are said to be poisonous. Still, they're hard and last for a long time so people string them to make necklaces and bracelets. The leaves have a grassy-licorice flavor.

Beadvine is a widely distributed species in much of the New World Tropics and because of its pretty seeds a well-known species. With the seeds being so unusual I figured the Maya would have a special use for the plant, and I was right. My shaman friend José, who calls the plant Oxó, told me all about it.

He says that when an adult works out in the sun and gets all hot and thirsty, if he goes home and happens to look at an infant, that infant might get sick. Diarrhea, vomiting, whatever. The problem is that out in the fields the sun's energy builds up in the adult and when the adult carries that energy home it can be bad energy. Then the adult has the ojo malo, the "evil eye," and you can hurt an infant just by looking at it.

When this happens, take the leaves (not the fruits) of Beadvine, combine them with leaves of Ruda (Common Rue) and tobacco and brew a tea, add some alcohol, and bathe the infant in it. It'll undo the evil eye.

Another Maya friend, Fernando, told me that really there are two kinds of this form of evil eye. One comes from someone getting hot and thirsty out in the sun, but a drunk looking at a little kid can cause the same kind of damage.

I've heard José talk enough about these matters to know that the root of the problem is "disequilibrium." In one case, the sun's energy being stored up is not counterbalanced by anything inside the person, so things get unbalanced inside. In the other case, the drunk loses parts of himself, messing up his natural inner balance.

How wonderful that the Maya can cure such mysterious problems thanks to a simple little vine who drops flaming red eyeballs onto the forest trail to remind us that's it's always there, ready to help us when the evil eye enters our lives.

*****

A TINY INKY CAP
One thing making the rainy season so much fun is that mushrooms come out. On the third morning of our current series of daily rains a pale, slender-stemmed, four-inch tall (10 cm) little mushroom shot up overnight right beside my hut door. You can see its cap from below, its gills black-rimmed, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100523ik.jpg.

In that picture you might notice at the left where gills have touched my finger leaving inky goo from the rims. This shows that the black gill edges are wet. In fact, this whole mushroom cap is in the process of melting into a heap of wet, black gunk. The blackness is supplied by the gills' black spores.

There's a large group of mushrooms called the inky caps. They appear overnight, are delicate, and as the day progresses their bodies liquify, or "deliquesce," into an inky mess.

Among the inky cap mushroom group there's a complex of species looking like the one in the picture. Sometimes you know which species you're seeing because of where it's growing. Inky caps break down organic material of various kinds, some species occurring on decaying wood, others on dung, some in sand or straw, etc. Some species can only be distinguished by microscopic examination. This one looked like it was sprouting from the ground, but I'll bet it was rooted in decaying wood below.

A common, evanescent, wood-decaying species of this size and form occurring globally is the species COPRINOPSIS LAGOPUS, called Coprinus lagopus in books older than ten years. Therefore, we'll file this photograph under Coprinopsis lagopus on the Internet, and let some expert someday figure out if it's really that species.

*****

ON BEING A MACHINE
My shortwave radio died so now I get my news through a daily email from the BBC. Friday one of the nine headlines sent was entitled "Scientists in the US make "artificial life." The story reported that human- formulated genetic code had been inserted into a cell that produced over a billion decedents that inherited the manmade genetic information. This is scary stuff when you remember that bioweaponry research gets a lot of money. You can read the article yourself here.

This got me to thinking about the gray area between life and death. For instance, scientists debate whether viruses are living or not.

For my part, I've long accepted that I myself am basically a machine. My basic predispositions were programmed at birth in my genetic code, and my everyday behavior consists mostly of responding to stimuli in ways profoundly influenced by my body's electrochemical state (especially hormonal), and the history of how my brain developed its network of neurons, and what experiences my brain has registered throughout life. Only sometimes is there a little more to me than that and, of course, that "little more" is what's important to me.

A lot of people regard this as a "mechanistic, deterministic philosophy" conceiving of humans as nothing but slavish, unspontaneous robots. My experience has been exactly the opposite.

For, accepting the premise that I am a machine made it easier to abandon an enormous burden of cultural and psychological baggage that once really did enslave me and deny my spontaneity. What a relief it was long ago when I could accept that my "evil thoughts" were rather normal yearnings for a young man, and that my "craziness" was the same confusion that besets any innocent computer when conflicting commands are received -- and society sends us all plenty of conflicting commands. A good thing about being a machine is that just about any problem can be sorted out if you get together all your information, then approach the matter rationally and systematically.

Abandoning those features of my cultural and psychological baggage that once kept me down cleared my mind to such an extent that finally I saw just how exquisite the Sixth Miracle of Nature really was -- the Sixth Miracle being the one magically enabling living things with complex brains to be inspired and to behave in ways NOT dictated by their genes, hormones and the rest.

Maybe our genes tell us to eat all the greasy, fattening stuff we can get our hands on, because that was a good strategy when we were evolving on the African veldt, or wherever it was, but in our mind's eye we carry an image of the beautiful body we aspire to, and something in us empowers us put away the greasy stuff and work toward that gorgeous body... That's the Sixth Miracle of Nature entering our lives. When we want the air conditioner on but don't flip the switch because we love Life on Earth and don't want to use electricity produced by burning air-polluting fossil fuels, or by nuclear plants that produce waste and have accidents -- that's the Sixth Miracle, too.

The Sixth Miracle is inspired behavior as opposed to preprogrammed behavior, though there's a lot of gray area there, too. Much wisdom is encoded in our genes; it's just that inspired behavior often requires actions not provided for by our largely African-evolved genes.

It looks to me as if the whole Universe is on automatic pilot, except for a few sparks of miracle- making here and there, such as the Sixth Miracle when it comes into our lives here on Earth. These miracles (six according to my own estimate) represent instances of the Creative Impulse evolving the Universe toward ever higher states.

In fact, I like to think of the Sixth Miracle of Nature as humanity's invitation to enter into communion with the Universal Creative Impulse. And, could there be anything freer, more dancing and jubilant than communing with the Spirit evolving the Universe?

To enter into this communion no ritual is needed, no secret mantra must be learned, no dues paid or book bought, and there are many paths.

The path I took was to sensitize myself to the things of Nature, then when inspiration engendered an inner voice, I listened to it, and began conducting my life accordingly.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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