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

August 8, 2010

LONG-TONGUED BAT
Once again during my weekly banana-buying jaunt into Pisté I came upon a bat lying motionless on the ground. You might recall the big Jamaican Fruit Bat we found like that and reported on in last year's December 6th Newsletter. That piece is still at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/fruitbat.htm.

That bat was special not only because of its size but because it was a leaf-nosed bat -- bore a fleshy, leaflike appendage above its nostrils, clearly seen in the photo at the above page.

This week's bat was much smaller, dark gray instead of the Jamaican Fruit Bat's rusty color, but it also bore a leafy flange above its nostrils. You can see it dangling from my fingers ("up" is at the left) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808bt.jpg.

A close-up of the head with its slender tongue sticking out (the bat turned out to be still alive) is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808bu.jpg.

For all I know this could be an immature Jamaican Fruit Bat, but my best guess is that it's the Common Long-tongued Bat, GLOSSOPHAGA SORICINA.

I came to that name rather tenuously. In the Google Books presentation of Fiona Reid's 2009 book A Field Guide to The Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico, I looked at all the leaf-nose bat distribution maps available and found only the Common Long-tongued Bat in our area, though Google left out a few pages so you'll buy the complete book. There I also read that Common Long-tongued Bats have long, slender tongues, and are the most commonly encountered nectar-feeding bats in Central America. Also it looks like other Common Long-tongued Bats shown on the Internet. Therefore, without examining teeth and other obscure details, "Common Long-tongued Bat" is a decent bet.

Common Long-tongued Bats, Fiona Reid reports, eat moths and fruits in the wet season and nectar and pollen in the dry season. They roost in small to large groups in caves, tunnels, culverts, hollow trees and buildings, usually not in complete darkness. Individuals hang singly or in clusters.

I have no idea why this bat appeared to be almost dead. Maybe he was just drunk from sipping too much fermented sap. Whatever his condition, I left him in the angle formed where a Sabal Palmetto frond attached to its trunk, and wished him the best.

*****

CALTROPS FLOWERING
That word "caltrop" is a fine, old one, going back at least a thousand years. One kind of caltrop is an iron ball equipped with four spikes disposed so that when the ball lies on the ground one of the spikes always points upward. Caltrops are strewn before advancing cavalry, armored vehicles and the like. The word caltrop derives from the Old English Calcatrippe, based on the Latin "calci," referring to a spur or heel, and "trœppe," which became "trap." It's a trap for the heel.

The word also applies to various plants bearing spiny heads or fruit. One of those caltrop species is in flower here now, though not yet producing fruits, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808zy.jpg.

That's Big Caltrop, KALLSTROEMIA MAXIMA, pretty common here in the partially shaded grove set aside for local Maya ceremonies. Big Caltrop's ant-attracting, yellowish-cream blossoms at first glance are uninterestingly similar to a host of other five-petaled, yellowish flowered, weedy herbs, mostly members of the Hibiscus Family, but just look at those leaves. Arising at the right of the flower is a pinnately compound leaf with six leaflets.

It's a little unusual for a pinnately compound leaf to bear an even number of leaflets, for usually there's a "terminal leaflet" arising at the tip of the leaf's rachis, making an odd leaflet number. Also, note the form of the two terminal leaflets, something like a cloven hoof. This is one of those rare times when a plant's leaves are more distinctive than the flowers. The fruits, if we had them, would be seen to be covered with blunt tubercles, not sharp spikes as the word caltrop implies.

A close-up of the flower with one of its ants is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808zz.jpg.

The bumpy fruits, the odd leaves and certain slightly irregular features of the plain-looking flowers seem to have been enough to relegate Kallstroemia to a small, usually overlooked family, the Lignum Vitae Family, the Zygophyllaceae. However, recent genetic sequencing has banished several genera from the family, and called into doubt the validity of the family itself. On the Evolutionary Tree of Life, caltrops turn out to be one of those kinds of plants not really fitting on any of the major evolutionary branches, a kind of in-between evolutionary notion that hasn't led to much, or maybe it's the remnant of an older branch whose close relatives mostly died out. They used to think that Big Caltrop's Lignum Vitae Family was closely related to the Citrus Family, but now they think it's closer to the Rose Family.

Greater Caltrop occurs along the coast in the US from South Carolina to Florida, in Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the West Indies. In some places it's regarded as marginally edible, and has been receiving attention because it's reported to contain the presteroid diosgenin, which means that some would regard it as an herbal Viagra.

*****

PURPLE CYDISTA & "BAD WINDS"
For some time a high-climbing, woody vine, or liana, has been dropping its 1½-inch long (3.8 cm), purple blossoms along woodland trails and at woods edges. You can see the vine's flowers and opposite leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808cy.jpg.

This is CYDISTA POTOSINA, with no good English name, so I just call it Purple Cydista, even though that name could apply to other species as well. If you're familiar with the North's Trumpet Creepers probably you can guess that Cydista is in the same family as those pretty vines, the Bignoniaceae. Features of that family include its plants bearing large, tubular flowers and opposite leaves (two arising at each stem node) and the leaves being compound. Many Bignoniaceae are vines, too. A shot into a Cydista potosina blossom is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808cx.jpg.

As with Trumpet Creepers, four stamens arch upward with their anthers hugging the flower's ceiling so that pollen will be daubed onto the back of any entering pollinator. Also as with Trumpet Creepers, the stigma, the female part receiveing pollen from other flowers, is held beyond the anthers, and looks like the palms of two hands held open.

Purple Cydista's compound leaves, however, are very different from those of the North's Trumpet Creepers. Trumpet Creeper leaves bear 9-11 leaflets while Purple Cydista's have only two, its terminal leaflet being modified into an unbranching, coiling tendril, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808cz.jpg.

Two other features distinguishing Purple Cydista, visible in the last photo, are that the vine's stems are square in cross-section with fairly sharp corners, and, at least on new growth, at the base of each compound leaf's petiole, where it attaches to the stem, there are conspicuous, leafy stipules. Stipules are modified leaves that usually help protect tender, emerging new growth. Often they fall off after the new growth hardens, sometimes they stay on the stem, and in many species and plant families they don't exist at all. Cydista potosina's new stems bear stipules but the stipules fall from older stems.

Cydista potosina is one of several slender, woody vines in this area traditionally used by the Maya for weaving baskets. When I ask José the shaman about it, though, instead of talking about basket weaving he says that it's medicinal, used against "vientos malos," or "bad winds." Bad winds inflict you with various pains and ailments and are caused when you come into conflict with certain lines of energy.

Well, with José you never know where your discussion will lead when you ask a simple question about a common plant.

*****

GOOSEGRASS
There's a tough little bunch of grass right outside the hut's door which I know is tough because usually when I leave the hut I step on it, yet the plant remains in pretty good shape. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808gg.jpg.

Notice flowering heads at the tuft's periphery. A close-up of one of those heads is to be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808gh.jpg.

So, this is one of those grasses that arrays its flowers along one side of its flower-head branches, and the flower-head branches are clustered toward the top of a stiff stem holding the flower-head above the leaves. Crabgrass is the best known grass doing this, plus Bermuda Grass does it, and a few other grass types as well. What we have here is Goosegrass, ELEUSINE INDICA, a native of the Old World, but flourishing in hot and warm places worldwide, including much of the US, to about 50 degrees latitude.

Goosegrass differs from crabgrass and Bermuda Grass in that in Goosegrass each "spikelet" contains two or more "florets," not just one. If you don't know these terms you can see how they relate in a bluegrass flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/gr_flort.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808gi.jpg you see two views of a Goosegrass's flower-head branch, or rachilla. The shot at the left shows the branch from above, and you can see how flowers are densely packed below the rachilla. The shot at the right is shot from below. The oval, brownish things are anthers from which pollen is released.

You just have to admire Goosegrass's survivability. It's an important weed in cultivated crops, lawns, and golf courses, where its low-growing stems set seed even when the mower is set very low. Some populations have even evolved resistance to certain herbicides.

Another trick Goosegrass uses to survive is that during photosynthesis it uses the C4 Carbon Fixation Pathway instead of the less efficient C3 pathways. C4 plants have a competitive advantage over plants using C3 carbon fixation pathways under conditions of drought, high temperatures, and limited nitrogen or CO2 access. Only about 1% of the Earth's known plant species use the C4 Pathway, which is assumed to have evolved more recently than the C3 pathways. If you want to see the C4 Pathway's chemistry, it's covered at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C4_carbon_fixation.

*****

ALMOST A FOXTAIL
I recognized the above Goosegrass as soon as I saw it because I grew up with it in Kentucky. Wherever sunny ground was trampled hard and nothing else would grow, Goosegrass would be there.

The grass growing a few meters just beyond the Goosegrass, however, struck me as something new. You can see it, the inset at the right showing soft, slender bristles in the narrow flowering head, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808st.jpg.

More than anything, because of the slender bristles arising below each group of flowers, it reminded me of the foxtail grasses, so I figured it was one of those I'd not met yet. I photographed some flowers up close and when the image was loaded onto my computer screen I was amazed. You can see the florets' strange form at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808su.jpg.

The very unusual feature seen here -- especially in the flower at top-center -- is that the "first glume" bears flaring, upward curved wings or "auricles," which cause the floret to look like a potbellied penguin shrugging his shoulders. Again, this spikelet/ floret/glume business is diagrammed at http://www.backyardnature.net/gr_flort.jpg.

Foxtail grasses are members of the Grass Family genus Setaria, but this grass with the shrugging penguins is SETARIOPSIS AURICULATA, with no common name I know of. Setariopsis is very closely related to Setaria. In the name Setariopsis the "opsis" means "in the form of," so our penguin plant is "in the form of the foxtail genus Setaria."

Setariopsis auriculata is distributed from southern Arizona through Mexico and most of Central America.

*****

AN EDIBLE COSMOS
Next to one of Hacienda Chichen's bungalows a rose-pink-flowered, ferny leafed member of the Composite Family luxuriantly grows over six feet tall, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808co.jpg.

You can see an inch-broad (2.5 cm) flower head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808cp.jpg.

The opposite, ferny, pinnately lobed leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808cr.jpg.

The deeply pinnately lobed leaves, the long-stemmed heads, the pink "ray flowers" surrounding the yellow "disk flowers" in the heads' centers, and the way the pink ray flowers are "toothed" at their tips, all may remind you of the common garden Cosmos, and in fact this is a Cosmos, COSMOS CAUDATUS. However, this species is found in few Northern gardens, since it prefers the tropics.

Cosmos's fruiting heads are dark, spiky affairs that most people say detract from the plant's beauty, but they're worth looking at. You can see a head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808cq.jpg.

Northern wildflower fanciers might see the similarity between this fruiting head and those of Spanish Needles, genus Bidens, which in late summer and fall up North often create brightly yellow fields and roadsides. You can see a fruiting head of a Bidens similar to our cosmos, one living here in the Yucatan, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bidens3.jpg.

Notice that the "needles," or awns, atop the Bidens/Spanish Needle fruits stick upward, while those of our Cosmos are backward-pointing. If you've only seen Spanish Needle awns, these hooked-back ones of Cosmos caudatus look very strange.

About 26 tropical and semitropical species of the genus Cosmos are recognized, all being native to the Americas, with Mexico seeming to be the center of evolution, hosting the most species. Cosmos caudatus is one of those species that's so pretty that it's planted throughout most of the world's tropics.

In fact, Cosmos caudatus may be more popular in Southeast Asia than it is here in its Mexican homeland. In Southeast Asia often it's called Ulam Raja, which literally means "King’s Salad." The plant was carried by the Spaniards from Mexico to the Philippines, from where it spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. The word Ulam is Malay and is used to describe a preparation that combines food, medicine and beauty. In that part of the world Cosmos caudatas is a widely popular herbal salad.

Learning this I made a return trip to the plant beside the bungalow, found some young sprouts, and tasted them. The taste reminded me of the overpowering, pungent and not altogether agreeable odor of crushed marigold leaves. I won't be adding this to my salads.

However, juice of the plant is considered to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial effects. The Malay people believe that the herb is good for health and contains anti-aging properties, that it enhances blood circulation, strengthens the bones and promotes fresh breath.

*****

THE FOUR POINTS OF BEING A MAYA MAN
Last week I mentioned the Maya belief explained to me by José the shaman that Maya women are associated with the number three while Maya men are associated with the number four. This week I asked José , "Why three and four... ?"

The three points about Maya women, I learned, are that they are born, they bring forth life, and they die.

The four points about Maya men are that they are born, they take charge, they listen to and learn from Nature, and they die.

Though many up North would find this thinking unacceptably sexist -- I personally believe that with today's realities women are better equipped by genetic predisposition to "take charge" than men -- I was blown away by the notion that one of the four things Maya men are supposed to do is to listen to and learn from Nature.

I asked José how this listening to works. He looked at me as if I'd asked how a dog barks and then explained:

"You go into the fields, into the forests, you listen, and things talk with you... "

José had told me before about plants and animals talking to people, as when that mysterious little snake sometimes curls on a limb beside a trail speaking human words. Plus there are aluxob (ah-LOOSH-OHB, the "ob" being the plural suffix for the singular "alux"), or fairylike beings, who are guardians of specific parcels of land such as a cornfield, and must be kept happy with offerings if the land is to prosper, and those aluxob certainly speak if they want. However, this isn't the kind of Nature-talking José is referring to.

The communication just comes into one who listens, like a feeling or sensation, José says.

When asked what plants and animals talk about, José says that they say we must respect and protect Nature.

Well, "listening to and learning from Nature" is something that one of us insufferably idealistic and impractical people relegated to the fringe of society might come up with, so what a hoot that these down-to-earth Maya -- at least their religious people -- somehow have come up with the same notion, and give it such importance in their spiritual lives.

I don't try to reconcile these very welcome and right-feeling Nature-talking beliefs with other beliefs of the Maya I just can't accept or even visualize. For one thing, these days it's too hot and humid, and the horseflies are too bad, to do much of this kind of thinking to begin with.

Still, it's all quite beautiful, this soup of sensations and concepts simmering around me all the time, during moonlit nights, afternoon storms with lingering thunder and ubiquitous mud, the luxuriant greenness, the ever-shifting lines of leafcutter ants, iguanas perpetually watching but rushing away if you make eye contact, the swallows who in pairs swoop through the hut in one door and out the other, and now those tricky lines of energy with their vientos malos, the talking snakes, those aluxob always judging our respectfulness, and the Earth-nurturing understandings that just blossom in you when you listen, blossom like feelings, feelings a little like falling in love, but falling in love with everything.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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