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

June 6, 2010

BOA WITH AN AUDIENCE
Tuesday morning my friend Alex came running toward the hut yelling my name and I figured he and his pals on the grounds crew had run into a snake, and such was the case. "It's a big one, Jim, over a meter," he said. When I got to the snake spot and saw how many people were standing around wide-eyed with their mouths open I knew it'd be a good one.

It was a Boa Constrictor, BOA CONSTRICTOR, not a particularly large one, only five or six feet but big enough to terrorize the Maya who are as hysterical and ill informed about snakes as they knowledgeable and artful in the use of medicinal plants. Despite the snake's absolute harmlessness to humans, the critter had to be relocated from the tourist area, so I approached for a capture. After a few feeble strikes at my hand, clearly all bluff, I grabbed him behind the neck, he opened his mouth and hissed in a way that sent his audience jumping back, he coiled his thick body around my arm (he's a constrictor, so he does that very well), and you can see what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606bo.jpg.

Jonathan Campbell in his Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize says that most boas he's come across in South America tend to be rather mild mannered and easily handled but "many Central American boas are easily aroused and aggressive when first encountered. They hiss loudly, mouth partly opened, and readily strike at any intruder." Campbell also says that the largest boas he's seen in Guatemala were a little over 8 feet long (2.5 m), though he's seen a collected and preserved one 10.5 feet long (3.2 m), and of course every village has someone with stories of one thick as a Mahogany tree and an eater of cattle.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606bp.jpg there's a close-up of the head. One distinctive feature of a Boa Constrictor is that its head scales are much smaller than on most other snakes. You may remember our recent picture of a snake head where I labeled the various scale types -- it's still at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/snakscal.jpg.

Our boa's head scale pattern is nothing like what's in the picture. That's because a boa's head scales aren't really scales at all, but rather intricately folded skin that helps the snake tightly grip surfaces and aid in locomotion. Boas do have true scales on their bellies, the ventral scales.

Notice the narrow, vertical pupil (like a cat's eye). Northerners used to thinking in terms of venomous pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads) having vertical pupils find this a bit unsettling, but in this case it doesn't mean anything. The above head picture also shows what appears to be a spurlike scale projecting from the lower lip. If anyone knows what that is drop me a line.

I carried the non-struggling boa about a kilometer into the forest, to a clearing where they'd planted fruit trees. Most of the trees had died because of a heavy infestation of root-eating "Tuzas," or pocket gophers. You can see the boa moments after his release, on his way to eat pocket gophers, I hope, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606bq.jpg.

*****

BROWN VINE SNAKE
Two hours after the Boa made its appearance I was sitting at the computer typing up the report when one of the kitchen crew came in asking if I wanted to see another snake. This time the critter was cornered on the grass outside the kitchen. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606vs.jpg.

A close-up of the very long, slenderly pointed head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606vt.jpg.

That's a Brown Vine Snake, OXYBELIS AENEUS, famous for it incredible slenderness. The one in my hand is about is about three feet long (1 m) and when it's stretched out it's hard to believe that such a thin body would have enough muscles for it to move about.

He did have enough musculature, though, to offer some quick strikes at my hand, which made a great show but never made contact. Once he was caught he became very tame, not squirming at all.

Brown Vine Snakes specialize in moving through branches of shrubs and trees, feeding mostly on lizards, especially anoles. Campbell says that during the day the species usually stretches out on vegetation two to six feet off the ground (0.5-2 m), and at night hangs loosely coiled, head-down, a little higher off the ground. Brown Vine Snakes tend to wait for victims to come near them, depending on their camouflage. Who knows what he was doing on the lawn outside the kitchen?

The species is distributed from Mexico through Central America to southern Brazil, so it's an iconic species of the American Tropics.

I released the snake inside a dense thicket beside the hut, draping his body horizontally atop some branches before letting go. The moment he was free, it was amazing how fast he shot through the three-dimensional world of green stems and leaves, dodging up and down, right and left, like a fish in water. How beautifully this species is adapted for an arboreal life!

By the way, you might remember that back in Yokdzonot about 15 minutes west of here we met the closely related Green Vine Snake. That encounter led to one of my favorite pictures, one clearly showing the snake holding an immature or female oriole in its mouth, but the snake is so well camouflaged that most people don't see it until it's pointed out to them or they spend several minutes looking. That picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/greenvin.htm

*****

RED-BLOTCHED RATSNAKE
Last Sunday a little after dawn, before the sun was above the trees, I was admiring the dozens of potted garden plants sitting on the ground before the hut, waiting to be transplanted in the organic garden. Then a strikingly patterned snake silently slithered from between two pots and looked around, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606rs.jpg.

I recognized the species because we've met it twice here in the Yucatan. He's the Red-Blotched Ratsnake, ELAPHE FLAVIRUFA. Earlier pictures of the species are at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ratsnak1.htm.

It's good to have this new picture because this species' patterning varies a bit from snake to snake. Especially interesting on last Sonday's snake was the perfectly round spot atop the head, which I've not seen in other photos of the species.

This was a young snake, only about two feet long, but he sure was a snappy one. When my camera lens got too close he'd strike with his mouth flashing open for an instant, though he never did make contact. Of course ratsnakes aren't venomous and do a great service by eating rodents. This snake eventually disappeared among the stones forming the foundation of my hut, and I'm glad to know he's there, keeping mice out of my stored food.

*****

SCORPION STINGS FOR RHEUMATISM
The same day Alex took me to see the Boa Constrictor he walked into the computer room carrying in his hand the bottom half of a plastic, liter-size Coke bottle that'd been used for cleaning paintbrushes. Inside the container was the 2.4-inch-long (6 cm), black scorpion at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606sc.jpg.

In Florida where this scorpion species also occurs it's known as the Florida Bark Scorpion, the Brown Bark Scorpion and the Slenderbrown Scorpion. It's CENTRUROIDES GRACILIS.

When Alex made no signs of offering the critter to me for photographing I asked him what he planned to do with it. Turns out that he was taking it home to someone with bad rheumatism in his knee, with I assume to be arthritis, and have the scorpion sting the knee to ease the pain. "It hurts at first, like a wasp sting," Alex said, "but in the long run it helps with the rheumatism."

I asked why honeybees weren't used, which I've read about, and he said that they're also effective, but not as good as a scorpion.

While the scorpion was handy I took a close-up of the head area nicely showing the eyes atop the head. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606sd.jpg.

Besides those two eyes atop the head most species bear two to five pairs of eyes along the front corners of the head. Still, they don't seem to see well and rely mostly on their sense of touch.

*****

MALACHITE
Malachite is an opaque, semi-precious, greenish stone often found in copper mines, consisting of about 57% copper. Often malachite is set in silver to make jewelry. That's not the malachite I'm talking about, though. The Malachite I'm thinking of is a pretty butterfly, SIPROETA STELENES, about the size of a Monarch Butterfly, and fairly closely related to that species. You can see a Malachite on my belt buckle at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606ma.jpg.

That individual, with its rear end nipped off, probably by a hungry bird, is on my belt buckle because when I took that picture I was working in the organic garden where usually my clothing gets drenched with sweat, and lots of butterflies love sweat. Sometimes as I work several sup on my back and legs, their tickling somehow a relief from the heat. A lot of sweat collects at the belt, on its way down.

Malachites are common here, as well they might be because often I've commented on the abundance here of prettily flowering herbs of the genus Ruellia (often called Wild Petunias in English), and Ruellias are the favored food of Malachite caterpillars.

*****

A REMARKABLE ENDEMIC ACACIA
Jogging along the entrance road in predawn moonlight vague smudges of paleness glowing along the dark walls formed by the roadside forest. By the jog's end there's enough light to see what the smudges are: They're watermelon-size clusters of tiny, yellowish- cream flowers. You can see some during the day at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606ac.jpg.

You can see how tiny the many-stamened flowers are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606af.jpg.

You can see how the flowers are arranged in spikes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606ae.jpg.

A twice divided (bipinnate) leaf typical of the acacias and the size of a hand with spread fingers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606ad.jpg.

Some old legumes still hanging on the flowering trees are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606ag.jpg.

All these features -- the tiny, yellowish flowers with their many stamens clustered in large panicles on ferny-leafed branches (also the branches are protected by short, recurved spines) -- are completely typical of the huge, mostly tropical, mostly Australian, genus Acacia. What's noteworthy about this species is its growth form.

I became aware of the growth form one afternoon when I noticed the species' big panicles of flowers and ferny leaves overtopping the Spanish Plum tree behind my hut -- a good forty feet up. Curious about what this acacia's trunk might look like, I scanned the surrounding forest for a trunk appropriately thick for a 40-ft-high tree. The only thick trunk around was the Spanish Plum's. When I traced the high acacia's stems to the ground, its trunk at chest level turned out to be no thicker than my arm, which was incredibly slender for such a tall tree.

So, here's an acacia that's almost but not quite a woody vine. In the forest it leans onto or even reclines on other woody species. At the woods' edge it rises up, then cascades back, maybe touching the ground. Some trees standing alone do develop regular trunks. However, if there's something to lean on, this species seems capable of growing high while maintaining a slender trunk. I know of no other Acacia like this.

We're talking about ACACIA GAUMERI, apparently bearing no English name, so we'll call it the Gaumer's Acacia. In the whole world it's found only in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, in the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. The thought arises that a tree especially adapted to this part of the world might do well to have a slender, relatively limber trunk... during hurricane season.

In the Chichén Itzá area Gaumer's Acacia is abundant, yet it's listed as "Near Threatened" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That listing appears at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/38928/0.

Surely the reason it's of concern to the IUCN, despite its being so abundant here, is its tiny distribution. If something bad happens to the species in our area it's in trouble, and in fact there's reason for a bit of concern. My Maya friends point out that Gaumer's Acacia grows only on the region's rich, black soil, not the poorer red soil, which predominates. Of course campesinos looking for good ground for their cornfields prefer rich, black soil, so clearing ground for cornfields impacts Gaumer's Acacia much more severely than one might expect.

In Maya, Gaumer's Acacia is called Box Katzin. Katzin or Catzim is a general name applied to several spiny acacia species. "Box" (pronounced BOSH) means "black," so this is "Black Acacia." "Black" because the stem's heartwood is blackish.

What a pleasure to meet a new tree, especially such an unusual and distinctive one, and one so exquisitely adapted just to the Yucatán that it grown nowhere else on Earth.

*****

RED DRAGON FLOWER
About six months ago I got to visit a little Maya village south of Xcalacoop. You just can't get more into the traditional Maya backcountry than that. Therefore, I was surprised when we came into a little village where before one pole-walled, thatch-roofed home there grew a bathtub-size patch of the plant seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606hu.jpg.

That plant definitely was an alien here. I recognized it as an African member of the Milkweed Family, the very family I collected on an expedition in Madagascar twenty years ago, so it was even more of a special finding for me. How on earth did this African plant ever find its way into such an isolated corner of the Yucatán?

My friend Ulli at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, who specializes in the family, steered me toward the name HUERNIA SCHNEIDERANA, sometimes known as the Red Dragon Flower, cautioning that these plants have been under cultivation as ornamentals for so long that I may have a hybrid or something like that.

In the genus Huernia this species, schneiderana, is recognized as having one of the smallest and least interesting flowers of the genus, but the plant itself thrives under cultivation, so it's a favorite among gardeners looking for something exotic looking but easy to grow. Most people assume that it's a cactus, though of course cacti are in the Cactus Family, not the Milkweed Family, and have completely different flowers and fruits. The spines mantling the plants are so soft that you wonder how they provide any protection at all. As you might expect of a member of the Milkweed Family, fresh wounds issue copious juice, not the usual white in this case, but clear or greenish and mucilaginous.

When the lady of the house where we found the plant saw our interest she generously gave us a handful of stems -- for stems they are, no leaves being visible in the picture. On the Internet I read that the Konso peoples of southwestern Ethiopia cultivate this plant on rock walls of their terraced fields, to serve as a famine food if the regular crops fail, so I stuck most of the stems in cracks of our parking lot's stone wall. Now six months later the stems have rooted, budded new stems and seem set to produce interesting colonies later on. Unfortunately, those stems planted too close to the wall's top have been chopped off by foraging Black Iguanas who don't seem to notice the soft spines.

In the above picture you may have noticed the little maroon-colored flower at the lower left. A close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606hv.jpg.

An even closer look at the sexual parts is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100606hw.jpg.

That last image should convince anyone knowing their milkweed flower anatomy that Huernias are genuine milkweeds. You can review milkweed flower anatomy at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

*****

UPDATED FLORA OF THE SOUTHEASTERN US
Alan Weakley's free, online Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States has been updated and expanded for the first time since early 2008. That's good news for me because I use it a lot when I'm in the US, as well as here, since many of our weeds also occur in northern Florida and thus are "keyed out" and described in his flora.

You can download the flora, which is very technical and void of illustrations, in PDF format, at http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm.

*****

MY FRIEND JOSÉ
Often I mention my Maya shaman friend José. An extensive interview with José, with pictures, is at http://www.viewfromthepier.com/peertopier/josetamay/.

Here José goes into detail about the Maya spiritual and cosmological belief system, including the matter of the Maya Long Count coming to an end at the Winter Solstice in December, 2012.

*****

NOTES ON THE MAYA LANGUAGE
I've learned just enough Maya to exchange pleasantries with my friends. As such, I've developed some general impressions about the language you might enjoy knowing about. If you'd like a much more detailed understanding there are several pages just on Maya grammar at http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/.

My Maya friends are fond of saying that Maya is more like English or German than Spanish. What they're referring to is that in Spanish a preponderance of words end in soft vowel sounds, especially a, e, i and o, and you seldom hear the hard fricatives and stops of English and German. Maya does have those hard sounds, however.

The other day I was watching tadpoles with my friend Santos, who asked me what a frog is called in English. In Spanish it's "rana," a name a little girl would give her imaginary, pink-winged fairy godmother. When I told Santos it was "frog," after not speaking English for days, that word "frog" sounded so harsh and alien to both of us that as soon as the word was out we both had to laugh. But, in Maya, a frog is a "mutsh," which is just about as harsh sounding.

An important feature of spoken Maya is that, like French, a lot of words are contracted. Also like French, certain letters, especially the l at the end of a syllable, are dropped in speech. I've often thought that word contraction and the dropping of letters in French help make that language sound pretty and elegant to many ears, by smoothing it out. I suspect it's the same with Maya, though with the Maya my guess is that the thrust has been toward making the language sound dignified, not pretty and elegant.

For me one of the most disconcerting features of Maya is that certain pairs of letters in many words are basically interchangeable. The most conspicuous habitual letter exchange is between the n and m when they occur inside a word or end it. When I'm teaching English, my students are likely to call the moon the moom and the thumb a thun. In their minds it's completely irrelevant whether a word ends in an m or an n. They also habitually exchange the c and k, the a and o, the a and u, and the o and u.

In Maya there's no word for "yes." If you ask someone if it's raining, the reply will be a rephrasing of the question. If you ask "Is it raining?" the reply may be "It is raining," but there's just no way to say "yes" unless you slip into Spanish. Maya seems to be a language assuming that you have the time and will to spell out your replies. Maybe it also reflects a society that enjoys the details of everyday life so that it doesn't mind repeating what's said about them.

In fact, there's a certain feeling to Maya that to me evokes oriental philosophy. For example, each morning when my friends greet me with a "good morning," they say "Bix a bel," which literally means "How is your road?" A formal reply is "Hach toh in uol," which literally means "Very straight my spirit." An "evil doer" is a "lob u bel," or "bad his road." To be undecided is to be "ca ye ol," or "two-pointed spirit." To contemplate something you "nen ol," or "mirror spirit" it.

Habitually referring to their "road," the Maya at least rhetorically conceive of themselves as on a journey which, in an evolving Universe, we all are. By regularly referring to one's spirit, the role of spirituality in one's life is recognized, at least a little. Of course the Maya no more think of themselves as being on a spiritual journey when they speak everyday Maya than we really hope that the person we meet is having a good morning when we say to them "Good morning." Still, Maya consistently refers to people's "roads" and "spirits," while our Western languages don't, so there's something to think about there.

Maya strikes me as a profoundly more complex, richer and nuanced language than Spanish, maybe even more so than English and German. It's a shame that most young Maya are opting for Spanish with all those fleet-footed little words so predictably ending in a or o.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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