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

July 11, 2010

TOAD AMONG THE BANANAS
During the dry season, all around the Hacienda grounds, we scatter black plastic troughs filled with water for wild animals. Now that the rains have begun they're not really needed, but nobody has bothered to take them up. The other day as I passed such a tray in the banana plantation something was rippling its water so I took a look. You can see the ripple-maker at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711td.jpg.

That's a Gulf Coast Toad, BUFO VALLICEPS, about the size of a smallish Bullfrog. Jonathan Campbell in Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize reports that this species' dorsal (back) coloration is highly variable, and may be orangish, tan, yellowish tan, reddish brown, brown, or pale gray. I think that our frog's apparent greenness is mostly caused by algae in the water. The only other large toad it could be confused with here is the much larger Giant or Cane Toad, whose parotoid glands -- tumorlike bulges behind the eyes -- are proportionally much larger. You can see our Gulf Coast Toad's head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711te.jpg.

I hear lots of frogs and toads calling at night, especially after rains. Back during the dry season it was easy to believe that we had no frogs around here, but now what a pleasure to hear all their different calls filtering between the hut's pole walls as night comes on.

*****

MUD TURTLE
The Yucatán is a vast, low slab of limestone. Over great periods of time rainwater dissolves limestone so the Yucatán's bedrock is honeycombed with caves and other erosional fissures. In some places caves have collapsed causing sinkholes to form on the surface. Here sinkholes are called cenotes (se-NO-tehs). In the arid north and somewhat less arid central Yucatán, rainwater is drained away by subterranean rivers. In fact, except where sinkholes are deep enough to dip below the groundwater level, forming circular, very swimmable pools, in the Yucatán's interior there are no rivers, streams, lakes or ponds.

Therefore, imagine my delight the other day when as I sat in my hut's door watching the end of an afternoon rainstorm a Creaser's Mud Turtle, KINOSTERNON CREASERI, wandered right in front of me. It's shown above.

This is a narrowly endemic species restricted to the northern and central portions of the Yucatan Peninsula in the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, Mexico. It's smallish, and beyond its dark color, two good field marks seem to be the the way the back of the top shell, or carapace, is suddenly flattened, instead of being gradually sloped like the front, plus the mouth's top mandible is hooked as shown.

Creaser's Mud Turtle specializes in drier habitats, which is a bit unusual for a mud turtle. Apparently little is known about it, except that you're likely to see it after rains, and during the rest of the long dry season probably lies dormant beneath layers of debris in the forest.

What a pleasure to meet such an uncommonly encountered species right outside my door!

*****

LEAFWING IN THE COMPOST
On Saturdays when I hike into Pisté to buy bananas as soon as I walk through the frutaría's door I know whether it'll be a good week for the butterflies who visit my compost heap. Sometimes the frutaría offers half-green bananas, and that's great, because green bananas bought that Saturday will be perfectly ripe the next Friday when I eat the last of my purchase. Usually, however, there are no green ones. I buy a lot, anyway, hoping for cool weather or maybe a miracle, so most of the time by around the next Wednesday my remaining bananas are mushy and sour. Those end up in the compost heap, and that's when it's good for the butterflies, for butterflies like nothing more than mushy bananas.

The most common compost-heap butterfly these days is the Malachite, a little like the North's yellow-and-black Tiger Swallowtail, just that its yellow is more greenish and the black more faded. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/malachit.htm.

This week something new turned up, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711lw.jpg.

That's the Red-striped Leafwing, SIDERONE GALANTHIS, a member of the big Brush-footed Butterfly Family, the Nymphalidae, the same family that holds the North's checkerspots, buckeyes and the like. There's a whole group, or tribe, of butterflies known as leafwings. As soon as they alight they close their wings over their backs, displaying cryptic patterns of mottled brown tones, and looking very much like brown, dried leaves. However, from time to time they nonchalantly spread their wings and then you see where the Red-striped name comes from, for the upper wing surface, in profound contrast to the lower surface, is very boldly blotched with red and black.

You can imagine how this combination of colors and patterns might benefit the butterfly. Let's say a bird is chasing the butterfly through the air, its red- flashing wings making it easy to see. Then the butterfly lands, closes its wings, and the bird, looking for its red-winged prey, overlooks the dingy, dry leaf. Also, if you're a predator on the lookout for a meal and suddenly out of nowhere a pair of red wings opens up, looking a little like a hungry mouth aimed at you, your sudden jump and moment of hesitation may be all the butterfly needs to fly away.

Red-striped Leafwings are distributed from Mexico through Central America and the Caribbean to southern Brazil, so here's another species that's emblematic of the New World Tropics. It's a favorite of visitors to the Amazon rainforest.

*****

MORAS FRUITING
Back in Yokdzenot just west of here, in November of 2008, I introduced you to the Mora, MACLURA TINCTORIA, a member of the Mulberry Family, the Moraceae. You can see the page we made then, when long, catkin-like aments of male flowers dangled from the trees' limbs, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mora.htm.

Nowadays the Moras are fruiting, often littering the ground below them with green, softish "fruits." You can see some half-sized, immature ones on a limb at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711mo.jpg.

In Spanish the word mora means mulberry. The North's mulberries belong to a different genus, but the same family. Thus, Mora "fruits" are very similar to mulberries, but not really the same.

Mora trees are "dioecious," which means that their flowers are unisexual, and each plant bears flowers of only one sex -- there are male and female trees. Back in Yokdzenot we got a boy tree, and here we have a lady. The greenish "hairs" on the above "fruits" are styles, which are the "necks" connecting pollen- receiving stigmas or stigmatic surfaces with the ovaries. Each of the three "fruits" in the picture is technically a collection of many actual fruits packed very closely together. If this arrangement reminds you of the much larger, harder, green, bumpy fruits of the US's Osage Orange trees, that's because Osage Oranges belong to the same genus, Maclura. Osage Oranges, then, are much closer related to Moras than the North's mulberry trees.

The white droplets on a couple of the "fruits" in the picture are milky juice, just like what exudes from vegetative parts of mulberry trees and Osage Oranges when they are injured. The droplets already were visible when I arrived so I guess an insect had tried for a snack and probably the milky sap gummed up its mouthparts and drove it away, which is at least one service the sap provides the plant.

Mora's fruits are edible, and not bad, but not really tasty enough for people around here to go gathering them. If there's a nice one on a branch before them, they might plop it into their mouths. Once Moras were highly regarded because their wood produces a bright, yellow dye. During World War II Mora contributed to the Allied cause by producing a dye used to color soldiers' khaki uniforms. Its commercial name was Fustic.

*****

GRONOVIA'S HOOKED SPINES
Beside the long, straight road cutting through the scrubby forest leading to Hacienda Chichen nowadays there's an herbaceous vine with yellow flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711gr.jpg.

At first I thought it was one of several species of stickery "wild cucumbers" found in this area. However, this vine didn't bear the cucumbers' tendrils, so I took a closer look at the flowers. A blossom showing an inferior ovary (calyx and corolla arising above the ovary) invested with long, sharp hairs which later might develop into spines covering the fruit is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711gs.jpg.

These flower details also suggested various "wild cucumber" species, yet when I compared the plant to every member of the Cucumber Family found in this area there was no match. Now I had to get technical. You can see what finally set me on the right path at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711gt.jpg.

See those tongue-shaped, orangish things? They're corolla lobes, or petals. That means that the much larger, star-shaped, yellowish white thing that looks like a corolla actually is a calyx. Most calyxes are green and inconspicuously hidden below the colorful corolla, but in this flower the calyx takes over the corolla's work. Also, it's unusual how one petal and one stamen stand side-by-side at the base of each sepal. This is all very uncucumberish.

Still, I couldn't think of anything I've ever seen like this, and drew a complete blank, until I took a close look at the hairs. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711gu.jpg.

Those sharp hooks explain why the stems stick to your hairy legs as you push among them. There's a family containing a number of climbing herbs without tendrils, and famous for its many kinds of peculiar hairs, especially stinging and barbed ones, and that's the little known, mostly neotropical Loasa Family, the Loasaceae. Checking now for members of that family to be expected in this area, it was easy to come up with the scratchy, wild-cucumber-like vine's name.

It's GRONOVIA SCANDENS, with no English name I can find, but sometimes called Ortiguilla in Spanish. Here they call just about anything with stinging hairs "Ortiga," and "illa" is a diminutive suffix, so Ortiguilla just means "Little Ortiga." In Maya it's Laal-Mux. It's found in weedy places from Mexico through Central America into much of South America.

*****

SPIDERLILY
Jogging before dawn one morning, along the roadside I noticed a ghostly paleness about the size of a dog. On previous mornings there'd been nothing there so this was either new trash, or a plant with pale flowers just opening. I got close enough to see that it was something flowering, so later in the day when the sun was up I returned and found the plant shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711hy.jpg.

You can see how large and ornate the flowers are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711hz.jpg.

In that picture the long, slender items are the flower's "perianth segments" (undifferentiated calyx and corolla lobes). The dark green, hairlike things are the stamens, except for the one arising from the blossom's very center, and that's the style (ovary neck) tipped with a blunt little stigma (where pollen germinates). Notice how the stamens are T-shaped. The long bottoms of the Ts are the stamens' filaments and the tops of the Ts are the anthers, which are baglike things that split open and spill out pollen. Notice how at their bases the filaments turn white, flair out and unite into a "staminal cup."

The plant was a Spiderlily, genus Hymenocallis. When I was learning my plants many years ago back in Kentucky in late summer I'd find Spiderlilies like this flowering in the bottom of drainage ditches and out in the swamps. I can't think of any other native Southeastern plant with such large, exotic-looking flowers, so finding one always thrilled me -- just had to sit awhile and soak up the flowers' strange structure and general beauty. That was Hymenocallis occidentalis. This roadside Hymenocallis was different from that one, though, its white staminal cup being smaller than that of occidentalis, and its petals longer and more slender -- more spidery.

The genus Hymenocallis contains 70-80 species, all native to the Americas, with most species occurring in Central America, and several found here in Mexico. The only one I can find listed for the Yucatan is HYMENOCALLIS LITTORALIS, which is what this probably is. We've seen this species before, a couple of years ago when we were on the Costa Maya, on the beach just North of Belize at Mayan Beach Garden Inn. Then we learned that H. littoralis, like the US species, likes to have its feet wet -- is found in swamps and the like. This week's spiderlily grew along a dry roadside in front of a billboard. I'm guessing that someone planted its bulbs there long ago.

*****

A SMALL, COLORFUL BROMELIAD FLOWERING
Bromeliads are mostly-epiphytic (growing on trees), non-parasitic, usually tufted members of the Bromeliad Family, the Bromeliaceae. In the US Southeast, Spanish Moss is a bromeliad, unusual in that its small plants link together in picturesque, dangling chains. Pineapple plants are unusual bromeliads in that they grow on the ground. In the American tropics, in general, the more humid the air, the more bromeliads you find on trees. In the Yucatán, the farther southeast you go the rainier it gets, the lusher the vegetation, and the more bromeliads there are. Here in the central Yucatán we have a fair amount of them -- more than around more arid Mérida, but less than farther southeast in Belize.

We've already looked at our three most eye-catching bromeliad species -- the big, red-bracted Aechmea (http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/aechmea.htm), the abundant, medium-size "Cardinal Airplant" (http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tilland1.htm) and the ground-growing Piñuela with its sweet fruits (http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/pinuela.htm). The other day I was macheteing stakes to tie the tomatoes to in the garden when one of the dead, dried- out poles I'd cut turned out to have a fourth species on it. Its reddish leaves and bluish flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711br.jpg.

A close-up of two flowers with bluish, tubular corollas, blue-filamented stamens, yellow stigma and pale style turning bluish below is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100711bs.jpg.

That's TILLANDSIA BRACHYCAULOS and there's not much information about it on the Internet. Probably I'm doing a future graduate student a service just by showing that we have the species here beside the ruins of Chichén Itzá.

*****

YEARNING
I've been yearning lately. It's beside the point for what or for whom. Here I'm just talking about yearning itself.

Yearning is different from hungering in that when you hunger there's a fair chance of the hunger being satisfied. In contrast, one yearns for fulfillments of the distant future, or of never. I'm expert in the never-to-be-fulfilled kind.

Hunger and yearning are subsets of desire. Of the two, hunger is the most necessary, elemental and crude. In contrast, you yearn only when an elaborate, obsessively constructed and fragile world of reasoning, imagination and/or illusion has been conjured. A robin can hunger for a worm, but human yearning requires a vast mental theater to exist.

You could say that I've not yearned since 1996. One can train oneself, I found, not to yearn at all. Not yearning is conducive to good sleep and excellent digestion. But, having returned to yearning lately, now I must say that yearning imparts a softness, a gentleness, to reality, and a sense of communion with the rest of the yearning Universe that somehow enlarges and enriches me. My recent life before yearning now rings a bit hollow.

I think that birds must yearn -- not to fly higher or to sing more lucidly, but actually to become one with the air they fly in. I think the forest must yearn, not to grow higher or greener, but to embrace and subsume itself into the very sunlight that gives it life. Right now I'm too close to my own feelings to say exactly what I'm yearning for, only that the feeling both blesses and hurts.

The Universe began not with a bang, but with a yearning. All things were so scattered and so lonely that an irrepressible universal yearning arose for coming together and becoming something of a higher nature. That yearning continues today.

Someday, maybe, this Universal yearning will be consummated when all things knowable have evolved to the point that their identities have melded into the Ultimate Unity.

And then, judging from how I imagine I might feel if somehow my current yearning should be satisfied, the sheer pleasure of fulfillment will be so joyous that the result can be nothing less than an explosion of infinite dimensions -- just as was the case the last time, with the Big Bang.

And then -- if I understand the true nature of this thing called yearning -- the whole long yearning process will start all over again.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim