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

June 13, 2010

A MORPHO'S FOLDED WINGS
No other butterfly evokes the beauty, mystery and biodiversity of the American Tropics more than the Blue Morpho. Mention one, and those with a little tropical savvy visualize a very large, slowly flapping butterfly with resplendently powder-blue wings flitting in and out of beams of sunlight, the forest's dark green lushness as a backdrop, each flap of the butterfly's wings a veritable visual explosion of dazzling blueness.

I didn't know whether we'd have Morphos here -- mostly I've seen them in areas with more rainfall -- until this week, when one settled on my compost heap, then couldn't leave his deliquescing banana peeling as I inched forward with the camera. About the size of a saucer, as soon as a Morpho lands it folds its wings over its back, hiding its wings' blue upper surfaces, displaying only the much more muted undersides, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613bm.jpg.

As Morphos rest with their wings over their backs ever so often for an instant they spread their wings, the sudden detonation of color maybe meant to disorient predators. Wikipedia shows the top, blue, view at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morphohelenorhector.JPG.

There's more than one kind of Morpho. My compost one can be identified as the Common Blue Morpho, MORPHO HELENOR, a species first described by science in 1776. Morpho helenor is distributed from Mexico through Central America to Brazil and Argentina, occupying habitats ranging from our dry, semideciduous woodlands to Amazonian rainforests and Andean cloudforests. Being present in so many habitats over such a large distribution, it's not a surprise that this species is fracturing into many populations especially adapted to their local conditions.

In fact, the name Morpho helenor often is used as a catch-all name representing a "species group" -- many very similar populations, the species status of which may be much disputed by the experts. Nowadays about 29 populations are recognized as different enough from one another to merit their own species name. So, is my compost Morpho the "real" helenor? The best we can do now is to file it under that name on the Internet and let some later expert figure it out.

Morpho caterpillars feed on trees in the Bean Family and woody vines (lianas) in the Bignonia Family -- both families very well represented here.

*****

MATING DEAD-LEAF MOTHS
Sometimes the most interesting discoveries are made in the most unexpected places. That was the case one morning as I was returning a wheelbarrow to its place at the shop, passing some large plastic drums holding chemicals. At first I thought that somehow a brown leaf had gotten stuck to the drums but then I wiped the sweat from eyes, drew closer, and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613mo.jpg.

Bea in Ontario tells me that those are mating Dead-leaf Moths, DYSDAEMONIA BOREAS, members of the big, flashy Saturniidae Moth Family. They're good-sized critters, with wingspans of about 5-3/8 inches (13.7 cm). I was fascinated by the holes in the wings and the way the bottom one's back wings curl down. Bea points out, though, that several species in that family do the same thing, some even more spectacularly.

Judging from the large number of pictures of this moth on the Internet, Dead-leaf Moths must be fairly common throughout their distribution, which is from Mexico to the Guyanas in South America.

I left the moths in the picture alone but I was interested in the remarks of one fellow who had photographed the species in Central America. He said that when he touched his resting moth it fell in a slow, zigzag pattern, just like a falling leaf.

Could that be why the hind wings are curled, to cause the falling moth to zigzag like a falling leaf?

*****

SNAKY CATERPILLAR
The rainy season's advent engenders lush greenness, and caterpillars to eat the greenness. The sheer numbers and kinds of caterpillars is mind boggling. From one day to the next leaves of every kind, from the ground to the forest's canopy, grow more tattered. A gentle shower of sandgrain-like caterpillar poop falls everywhere, all the time. Birds alight in random places and there's a juicy worm right there waiting for them.

Among all the caterpillar types at hand I choose just one to admire and think about. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613ct.jpg.

In that picture the top inset shows a much smaller, younger instar (instar being a stage of development between five or so skin-molts a caterpillar goes through), camouflaged rather like a bird dropping. The larger caterpillar below, maybe in the last instar, has abandoned the bird-dropping look for a more threatening one. If you unfocus your eyes and look from a distance, and if the disturbed caterpillar raises its front end (lower right) and waves it back and forth, as it does in real life, the banded coloring on the caterpillar's top looks a good bit like a yellowish snake with a big head and black eye, almost like a hooded viper with his head curved forward.

Bea in Ontario writes, "That caterpillar looks like it might be a swallowtail caterpillar, because of its large 'shoulders' and the colors and pattern." On the Internet we can't find a photo of the Dark Kite Swallowtail's caterpillar, the Dark Kite being our most common swallowtail, but Bea did find caterpillar pictures for the closely related Mexican Kite Swallowtail, which are almost identical to those in the picture.

Therefore, since I've not seen Mexican Kite Swallowtail butterflies here, but Dark Kite Swallowtails flit by every day, I'm guessing that the caterpillar in the picture is a Dark Kite Swallowtail.

*****

MYSTERIOUS HELICOPTER TREE
Items appearing in this Newsletter appear because I've been able to figure something out about them. There's an awful lot of very interesting stuff you never hear about just because I can't figure out what I'm seeing!

Since early March that's been the case with a certain tree species growing in Hacienda Chichen's Reserve. In the first or second week of March I came upon several thick-stemmed, dry-season-leafless, smallish trees about 15 feet tall (4.5m) in full flower, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613gy.jpg.

I'd never seen anything like that so I knocked down some flowers, of which only one was open. It was a tiny, unisexual male flower with three obvious stamens. Each stamen's two emptied anther cells were topped by roundish "ears" of a kind I've never seen -- maybe in wind they cause the anthers to shake out their pollen. Between the stamens were brown tings I couldn't figure out. The whole thing is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613gz.jpg.

I spent hours on the Internet using all my botanical sills but finally I gave up. Then in early May -- along with many trees that had lost their leaves for the dry season -- the mystery trees appeared with both fruits and leaves, as mind-bogglingly shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613gx.jpg.

The leaves looked rather familiar, like the Chaya I eat each day, which is a member of the Euphorbia Family. But have you ever seen fruits anything like those? Each one-seeded, samara-type fruit bears two rabbit-ear wings, presumably to help with wind dispersal. Even with this extra information and more hours on the Internet, again I had to give up.

Finally this week the trees began dropping their mature, one-seeded fruits, some of which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613gw.jpg.

Also, now the leaves are expanded, revealing that they are "palmately lobed" -- with segments like thick fingers radiating from the palm of a hand -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613gv.jpg.

Having a mature fruit in hand, finally I've figured it out, and it's wonderful. The trees belong to a family I've never seen before, apparently referred to in English as the Hernandia Family, the Hernandiaceae. On the Phylogenetic Tree of Life the Hernandicaceae usually is placed near the Laurel Family. The tree itself is GYROCARPUS JATROPHIFOLIUS, and the only English name I can find for it is Helicopter Tree, referring to the way fruits spin in the wind as they fall. My Maya friends have nothing to say about it.

Helicopter Trees are spottily distributed throughout much of southern Mexico and Central America, but apparently nowhere are they common. Little is known about it. It's a great find, right here on Hacienda Chichen's Reserve.

And if anyone out there is an expert in weird tropical American trees, I have another species I'm stuck on as well... I'll gladly send pictures.

*****

ACANTHOCEREUS CACTUS FLOWERING
At dusk the other day I was about to call it a day when I looked across the gravel trail running before my hut and saw that the Acanthocereus cacti were just loaded with opening flowers. Until then I'd not noticed flower-bud formation and growth, so that must have taken place very fast. You can see how the large, white flowers glow in dusk's dim light at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613ac.jpg.

A picture the next morning, after they'd flowered all night, showing the ovary and flowers -- the flowers about seven inches in diameter (18 cm) -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613ad.jpg.

This is one of several species often known as Night-blooming Cereus; it's ACANTHOCEREUS TETRAGONUS. In this area we have two common species likely to be called Night-blooming Cereuses, though the species belong to two entirely different genera. The one in the picture, Acanthocereus, grows on the ground while the other, discussed below, is epiphytic on trees.

You might remember that we ran into this cactus when it was fruiting back in Sabacché, Yucatan, in August of 2008. You can still see a fruiting stem from then at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/acanthoc.jpg.

All the ones here in my general area bloomed on the same night and by the next afternoon the flowers had been reduced to droopy, brown messes. I can't find mention on the Internet of such synchronous flowering, so maybe all the plants in my area drive from the same clone, or maybe it was just a coincidence. To be honest, it was too hot to go make a real study of the issue.

I read that the flowers are pollinated by nocturnal hummingbird moths.

*****

HYLOCEREUS CACTUS BLOOMING AND FRUITING
As if it weren't enough to have gloriously blooming Acanthocereus cactuses this week, our "Night-Blooming Cereus" species that grows epiphytically on trees, HYLOCEREUS UNDATUS, also put on a show, both flowering and fruiting. You can see a nice thicket of them dangling from a big Piich tree, the slender, three- angled stems bearing softball-size, crimson fruits, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613hy.jpg.

A close-up of a fruit, rather like a red artichoke, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613hz.jpg.

You may have seen fruits like that in supermarkets up north as well as in traditional markets here. In the North they're often marketed as "dragonfruits." Cut open, inside they're mostly a white, sweet pulp in which many small, dark seeds are embedded. Sometimes here in the Yucatan you see dragonfruit plantations. You can see what the fruits look like in supermarkets as well as when they're grown commercially on Wikipedia's page about them, where they're called pitayas, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitaya.

You might recall that we ran into this species flowering in Querétaro, in May of 2007. You can see what the big flowers looked like one early morning at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/cereus.jpg.

Here I've found numerous flowers of this species about to flower or recently flowered, but so far I've missed them on their "big night."

*****

CUCUMBER FLOWERS
We're developing an organic garden here and nowadays that's where I spend most of my volunteer time, which is fine with me. Not only does watching the garden develop day by day please me (I must be programmed to serve family and community by growing food for them so gardening gives me enormous satisfaction) but also it enriches my days esthetically.

For example, this week the cucumber vines began flowering. Just look at the pretty designs, textures and colors a little cucumber vine can produce, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613cu.jpg.

Think of being greeted by that in the cool early morning when dew still clings to the vines, the odor of freshly worked, rich, moist earth suffuses the air, robins are singing and chachalacas in the distance are calling, swallows are skimming the tall grass around you... And of course there's the thought that someday soon you may have sun-ripened cucumbers for your salads.

At first the vines produced only male flowers. I'm guessing that one reason for that is to habituate pollinators to visiting the vines for nectar, before the more valuable and more energy-demanding female flowers are produced.

An interesting feature of a cucumber vine's male flowers is that they are "syngenesious," which means that their baglike, pollen-producing anthers adhere to one another by their sides, so that all together a circle of anthers forms a closed cylinder. Also, at first glance each male cucumber blossom appears to bear only three anthers, but a closer look, with magnification, shows that in two cases two anthers are partly merged, so really there are the usual five anthers. Actually, these are all features of the entire Squash Family, the Cucurbitaceae, to which cucumber vines belong. I've torn away one side of a male cucumber flower to reveal the above features at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613cv.jpg.

In that picture the anthers are the white-fuzz-outlined, banana-shaped items extending upward just beyond the throat of the corolla. At the right you can see an upward-pointing arrow motif, which is two of the anthers grown together. You might make out another such pair opposite it, and a single one-anthered stamen between them. The crownlike affair above the anthers is joined, twisted anther connective. One thing to notice about the male flower is that there's nothing there resembling a cucumber.

That's not the case with the female flower shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613cw.jpg.

There the corolla and sepals arise atop the prickly inferior ovary, which is the future cucumber. Ovary and corolla are no more than an inch long (2.5 cm) so that ovary has a long way to go before it's a cucumber.

The big Squash Family embraces not only many kinds of squashes and cucumbers but also pumpkins, gourds, watermelons, and many other things most of us have never heard of (squirting-cucumbers and balsam-pears, for instance), so what features distinguish the cucumber species from all others?

Unlike gourds, cucumbers are "pepos" -- fleshy, mostly edible fruits that don't split when mature. Unlike the spiny, one-seeded squash much eaten down here, the chayote, which also is a pepo, cucumbers contain many seeds. Unlike squash and pumpkin flowers, whose corollas are bell-shaped with grown-together corolla lobes, cucumber corolla lobes are separate from one another almost or quite to their bases. There are some other technical details, but another distinguishing feature of cucumber vines is that their tendrils are "simple " -- instead of being branched as in some genera. Tendrils of vines of pumpkins and squash, for instance, are branched.

*****

HORSE MANURE TEA
The organic garden got off to a rough start because we had no manure, compost material or other good source of organic nutrients, plus we had none of the usual insect-battling basic tools such as diatomaceous earth and BT (Bacillus thurengiensis). The seedlings I started from seeds, as expected, turned out spindly, yellowish and disease-ridden.

But then one afternoon this week my friend José drove up to the hut with seven big bags of dried, dusty horse manure, and that marks the beginning of our getting serious about having an organic garden. The first thing I did was to fill a bucket with manure, overtop that with water, and let it all sit overnight. The next morning I had manure tea. You can see what a bucket of manure tea looks like in my garden at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613mt.jpg.

Tea being poured onto an anemic pepper plant is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613mu.jpg.

One day after dosing each plant in the garden with tea already the plants were a little greener than the day before, and experience tells me that within a week the garden will look much different from its current sorry state.

Serious organic gardeners already know about manure tea, and there's a world of different recipes for it. Most recipes I've seen advise using either cooked manure or manure composted at temperatures high enough to kill disease organisms. Also, most recipes call for putting the manure into a bag, then soaking the bag for two or three days as nutrients seep from the manure into surrounding water. After two or three days the bag is removed, leaving behind pure tea. Hort-Pro On-line Magazine's special Manure Tea page is at http://www.rittenhouse.ca/hortmag/Bruce/ManureTea.asp.

I just let my loose manure soak overnight, using no bag. What results is a watery slurry that when poured around the plant leaves atop the soil something like wet coffee-grounds. I've happy for that organic matter to accumulate there, knowing that during later waterings and rains, more soluble nutrients will be leached from it and made available to the plant's roots below.

My tea is surely full of microorganisms that should never find their way into a salad. However, I'm not growing lettuce and the like. All plants producing potential salad ingredients are staked or trellised so that their edible parts remain well above water- splashing level. And I wash my hands real well each time I come in from working in the garden.

Here few horses are kept in stalls with floors covered with hay to absorb the horse's nitrogen-rich urine. Most Maya horse manure falls onto a limestone-derived, rocky mineral soil. When manure dries, it loses much or even most of its usable nitrogen. Sill, I expect that José's horse manure will provide the garden with a good nitrogen jolt.

Some people avoid using horse manure in gardens because horses don't chew their food as well as cows and most other livestock, so their manure contains a relatively high amount of weed seeds that can germinate in a garden. Our garden plants so desperately need nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and the rest, though, that I'm not too worried about weed seeds.

A page discussing various angles of using manure in gardens, and comparing manures from different animals, is at http://www.ecochem.com/t_manure_fert.html.

On that page maybe the most important insight passed along is that "The principal value of manure is its extended availability of nitrogen." In other words, you put it on your garden, then for a long time it keeps releasing nitrogen.

*****

CUTWORM WARS
During the organic garden's first days I was in a rush to set out my many potted plants so I didn't have time or resources to take the normal precautions. We lost a lot of plants then to cutworms. Cutworms cut a plant's stem off maybe half an inch above the ground, just as neatly as if done with a pair of scissors.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613co.jpg you can see one way I put an end to that. Our guests leave behind many plastic bottles that once held purified water, so from those bottles I've been cutting "collars" to put around the seedlings. In the picture the blue thing is the collar. It forms a wall that keeps out cutworms roaming across the ground looking for juicy stems to cut.

Another cutworm-fighting technique sounds almost too simple to be true, but I tried it during my hermiting days in Mississippi and it really works. Just stick a toothpick next to a seedling's stem. To do its work, a cutworm must encircle a stem with its body. Apparently a toothpick rising flush with the stem's surface confuses the worm, or messes up its cutting technique. Whatever happens, toothpicks work.

*****

102.5° F, WHALES & VISITORS FROM OUTER SPACE
Monday it may have gotten hotter than the 102.5° F (39.2°C) registered on the thermometer inside my hut, for there was a long stretch that afternoon when I just didn't have the energy to get up and look. That's a humid 102.5°, too.

Such hot days here have a different feeling to similarly hot, early August afternoons back in Mississippi. Up there the heat stuns all living things into silence but, here, the birds, still in their early-rainy-season nesting period, sing dawn to dusk, no matter how hot, especially the Clay-colored Robins. And you just can't get a good ol' bluesy Mississippi feeling going when a robin's bubbly song filters through the hut's pole walls.

The worst thing about the hot afternoons is the horseflies. The Hacienda's visitors in their trimmed and landscaped cabin zone may not have to deal with them but here at the genuinely organic woods' edge the moment you sit down horseflies start sawing on your legs. Our horseflies aren't as large as the ones up North, but they're more persistent and hurt just as much.

So, it's 102.5° F on a super-humid afternoon, you don't want to move a muscle, but the horseflies keep going for your legs. You grow philosophical, and your philosophy darkens. You've already worked through "Why would the Creator create a world with wars, diseases and horseflies" so you dig deeper than that...

On this particular afternoon I have a story in mind read earlier that morning on one of my famous updated-each-day, nature-focused RSS news-feeds from many sources at http://www.backyardnature.net/i-rss.htm.

That story dealt with the fact that many researchers now recognize that cetaceans -- whales, dolphins, porpoises -- live in very complex societies, have sophisticated social skills, and in many cases display levels of intelligence and self awareness similar to those of humans. The debate every day becomes more heated about whether humans should respect cetaceans (as well as higher primates such as chimpanzees) as fellow intelligent, self-aware beings -- or keep on eating them.

At this news-feed about smart cetaceans, the public was invited to comment on the matter. One person posed a hypothetical question: "If someday beings from outer space should come to colonize Earth and in most ways they are a little smarter, have a little more advanced technology than humans, and are a little more aware of what's going on in the broad Universe than we, would it be immoral for them to treat us as now we treat cetaceans? Would it be OK if they ate us?"

About at this point in my cogitations, a horsefly begins eating me.

And this brings forth a revelation:

For, horseflies, like beings from outer space, are agents of a higher intelligence... No, not agents, but the very thing itself, a part of the profoundly wise, evolving planetary ecosystem, the biosphere, whose enlightened (sustainable) governing philosophy exquisitely articulates itself in terms of birds, rocks, grass, clouds, me... all continually evolving, interrelating, in the long run getting ever smarter and feeling ever more intensely... And that horsefly is eating me, just as humans continue eating cetaceans...

By the time I get all this straight in my mind, a crimson streak of blood runs down the sweaty calf of my leg, and the horsefly, with admirable premonition, is long gone.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim