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

September 19, 2010

BONES IN PIGS' FEET
As a very fat kid on the Kentucky farm back in the l950s I always got excited when my mother brought home a jar of pickled pig feet. Anyone seeing how I devoured them then wouldn't have imagined that I'd spend the adult part of my life as a vegetarian. So, I had conflicting feelings last weekend during my bike ride south of Pisté when I entered the municipal garbage dump to snoop around for interesting fugitive plants, and saw that someone had dropped quite a few chopped-off pig feet all along the entrance road.

Black Vultures clustered around every severed foot pecking, stabbing and tugging. Most feet by now consisted of nothing but bones and a little hairy hide and flakes of brittle hoof. It was the bones that got my attention. I remembered how during horse evolution each foot lost four toes, so that now nothing remains inside a horse's hoof except a much enlarged middle toe. Horses and their relatives run on the tips of their feet's single toe bones -- a condition zoologists refer to as having "mesaxonic" feet.

But the grizzly remains of pig feet on the road that day clearly showed more than one big toe inside each hoof. If you can bear to look at the vulture-pecked remains of a pig foot, you can see what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919pg.jpg.

It almost looks like the remains of a human hand daintily closing its fingertips around something small.

It turns out that the evolution of the feet of pigs and horses took very different paths. Instead of pigs having mesaxonic feet, they have paraxonic ones. That means that instead of losing all but the middle digit, which then became much larger, pig feet lost their "big toe" completely, but kept the remaining four, and of those four the two middle toes developed to be much larger than the two side toes. Besides pigs, deer, bison and elk have paraxonic feet.

So, in the picture, the two top sets of bones are the large toes while the lower one is one of the small toes, the other small toe being hidden, or maybe vulturized.

I ate my last pickled pig's foot many years ago, but it seems as if I don't remember having bones left after finishing off a jar of them. (After eating my first artichoke I didn't have anything left over, either... ) Trying to remember whether I ate the bones, which must have been soft and crumbly, I asked my Maya friend who goes by the name of Cancún if people around here eat pig's feet, and, if they do, whether the bones are soft.

He replied that if the pigs are cochinas americanas, meaning pigs raised in pens and fed special food so that they grow fast and are killed after only about six months, the foot bones are fairly soft. However, if they are cochinas Mayas, who roam around and eat squash, roots and what's left over from people's meals, they're killed only after several years, and then their foot bones are hard.

That's interesting, but I'm still left wondering whether back in the 1950s after eating a jar of pickled pig's feet I had any bones left over, or at least should have had.

*****

AMAZING CATERPILLAR PICTURE
Victoria Ciau of the Yucatán was touring Chichén Itzá ruins when she spotted the remarkable thing shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919cp.jpg.

Vicki sent the picture to her friend Susan in Chuburná Puerto, Yucatán, and Susan, a Newsletter reader, sent it on to me. I relayed the picture to Dr. Terrence Fitzgerald, a specialist in social caterpillars at the Cortland campus of the State University of New York, and he responded:

This is a Papilio, most likely (Papilio) anchisiades idaeus. It would appear to be in the second to last instar in a molting aggregation. I have not seen this species in the field but judging by the way they aggregate, it may be a processionary... the caterpillars following each other head to tail.

The butterfly PAPILIO ANCHISIADES IDAEUS is known as the Ruby-spotted Swallowtail, a pretty, black species with large, red spots on the hindwing. I think I've seen them here but haven't photographed them. Several photos, plus caterpillars in other instars, appear here.

Why might caterpillars aggregate in this fashion? Several reasons can be thought of, including being part of a collective or cooperative foraging behavior, and thermoregulation, but in this case I'd guess that aggregation mainly serves for group defense against predators and parasites. The number of caterpillars might dissuade some predators, and the pattern created by the massed bodies might confuse others.

Thanks to Vicki Ciau for sharing her picture with us, to Susan for thinking of us, and Dr. Fitzgerald for the identification.

*****

FANTASTIC SKIPPER
Skippers are members of a family of thick bodied, big headed, stubby winged, fast-flying butterflies that for the most part are dark and void of bright colors and striking patterns. A skipper not fitting that profile at all -- the undersides of its hindwings shining ivory white to silver with veins outlined in reddish brown -- is making its rounds here these days. You can see how prettily it's decked out at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919sk.jpg.

Volunteer insect identifier Bea in Ontario pegs this as the Fantastic Skipper, VETTIUS FANTASOS, a member of the Grass Skipper Subfamily (Hesperiinae) of the Skipper Family (Hesperiidae).

It's clear why we have so many here. The species' adults take nectar from Bougainvillea, morning glories and Yellow Oleanders -- all growing here in abundance. The caterpillars feed on grasses, especially the genus Lasiacis, which is a black-grained, woody, climbing grass also very common here. Since the species is distributed from northern Mexico (rarely straying into Texas' lower Rio Grande Valley) through Central America to Paraguay in South America, it could hardly not be here.

*****

WILD FRANGIPANI
The Frangipani page is one of the most visited pages of the Mexican Flora section of my backyard-nature website. That's because Frangipani flowers are gorgeous and when I was among the Tzotzil speakers of the community 28 de Junio, Chiapas in 2008 I helped the villagers prepare for an important celebration by stringing together Frangipani flowers into garlands, and got some fine pictures. You can see that page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/frangipa.htm.

Frangipanis are members of the genus Plumeria, and several species are involved. The most-planted Plumeria species, with flowers ranging in color from white to red, and planted in the tropics worldwide, is Plumeria rubra, native to the West Indies.

However, on my bike ride last week south of Pisté I passed by several fruiting Frangipanis apparently well established in the forest. I'm thinking they must be PLUMERIA OBTUSA, native to the Greater Antilles, northern Central America and southern Mexico, including here. It grows to about 25 feet tall (8 m). You can see its green, upside-down-V-shaped fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919pl.jpg.

*****

ANGEL HAIR CALLIANDRAS
At forest edges along roads a small, acacia-like tree is flowering in the interesting manner shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919mm.jpg.

Of course the droopy white things are stamens, and even fairly early in the morning when you might expect them to be more perky they dangle like that. I had to see numerous trees at different times of the day to convince myself that this is the flowers' normal condition. A close-up showing filaments flowing en masse from tiny, green corollas crammed into a head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919mn.jpg.

The tree's bipinnate leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919mo.jpg.

In much of Mexico this little tree is known as "Cabello de Ángel," which means "Angel Hair." It's a member of the Bean Family genus Calliandra, probably CALLIANDRA CAPILLATA, distributed across lowland southern Mexico into Guatemala.

That genus name, Calliandra, nicely describes the various species it includes, for the "calli" is from ancient Greek meaning "beautiful," while "andra" refers to the flowers' stamens -- "beautiful stamens." You might remember the pretty Calliandra we met in Chiapas in 2007 with many red, stiff, slender stamens. For comparison you can see that one at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/calliandr.htm.

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TROPICAL GRAPES FLOWERING
Last November in these parts a very common liana, or woody vine, was bearing clusters of grapelike, purple fruits. Our page showing the liana's fruits and leaves, and how its limber stems were used to bind together poles in the hut I'm now living in, is found at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cissus.htm.

The lianas in question were members of the genus Cissus, in the Grape Family, the Vitaceae. "Real" grapes are in the genus Vitis, so somewhat arbitrarily I call Cissus species "tropical grapes."

With about six species of Cissus listed for this area, and not having flowers to work with, I've been hesitant to say which species we have. Now at least two species are flowering and I find that it's still hard to name them.

One species, with hand-sized, red flower clusters, or inflorescences, showing up brightly against dark-green forest backgrounds bears simple (not compound), very variable-shaped leaves. A flowering branch is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919cs.jpg.

An interesting close-up of some flowers that already have lost their four petals and four stamens, leaving only developing ovaries submersed beneath shiny droplets of nectar, with slender, stigma-bearing styles poking up through the nectar, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919ct.jpg.

From very scant information and limited images on the Internet, I'm guessing that this is CISSUS GOSSYPIIFOLIA, sometimes named C. formosa.

A second Cissus species, this one with trifoliate leaves and yellowish inflorescences, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919cu.jpg.

A close-up of this species' flowers, this time with a blossom bearing four turned-back, yellow petals and four anther-bearing stamens, with no nectar globule, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919cv.jpg.

I'm guessing that this is CISSUS ALATA, sometimes listed as C. rhombifolia.

Really I hadn't realized that Cissus blossoms are so pretty and interesting. To discover this, first I had to get so blind that I could no longer focus up close or use my hand lens well, and thus had to photograph small things and see them on my laptop screen!

*****

WHITE FOUR-O'CLOCKS FLOWERING
Here and there in moist, shaded spots at woods edges and along trails there's a lanky, waist-high herb with slender, white, four-inch-long (10 cm) blossoms that open at dusk and wither the following dawn, just like Northern garden Four-O'Clocks. In fact, the herbage is very similar to that of normal Four-O'Clocks, and the flowers have similar structure, except that they're longer, narrower, and white. Since Northern garden Four-O'Clocks, Mirabilis jalapa, are native to Mexico, the first thing I figured that this fragile-looking wildflower might be a different species of the genus Mirabilis. See what you think in the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919mi.jpg.

A closer look at the flower better showing the stamens' purplish, remarkably curling filaments is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919mj.jpg.

This is indeed a different species of the four-o'clock genus Mirabilis. It's MIRABILIS LONGIFLORA. Distribution accounts I find say that it's native to much of Mexico and a little of the contiguous US, but not to the Yucatán. Apparently it's been introduced into Europe where it escapes into the wild, so maybe years ago it was grown in our garden area and now is escaping here. Or maybe it's also native to the Yucatán, just never noticed by botanists.

The stamens' purplish filaments seen in other pictures of this species on the Internet don't curl -- often they stiffly jut straight out. Maybe our stamens are curling because by the time I had enough morning light to photograph it the flower already was fading. You can see the corolla's curling-in edges, so maybe the curling filaments were just following suit.

This tuberous species should be planted in northern gardens where they'd blossom on late summer nights, issuing sweet fragrance and making night-pollinating moths very happy. I read that it's deer and snail resistant.

*****

HOCTÚN'S CHURCH
Last Monday my long-enduring visa saga took me to Mérida again so once more I found myself on a rumbling Oriente bus heading west, stopping at all the little towns along the way, Holca, Kantunil, Xocchel... nice little places, so much color, so many random juxtapositions of incongruous elements, lush vegetation, scroungy dogs and smiling faces.

Several towns along the route are home to colonial churches that seem far too large for such small places. I've been told that usually such big churches mark centers which once served to "concentrate" the Maya, so the clergy and Spanish-blooded landlords could easier control them.

Hoctún, with about 4700 inhabitants, of which a third are children, has one of the largest churches. You can see it in a picture taken through the bus window at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100919ho.jpg.

The earliest mention I can find of something happening specifically to the people of Hoctún was dated 1722, when the lady Doña Angela de la Fleguera Castillo was granted, under conditions of the Encomienda System, 269 Maya citizens of Hoctún.

With such a big church I thought that maybe Hoctún had served as an especially important concentration center, but I couldn't find reference to such an event, if it existed. However, in Terry Rugeley's 1996 book Yucatán's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War, with most pages online via Google Books, there's a revealing story about an event in Hoctún in 1829, eight years after both Mexico gained independence from Spain, and the independent entity of Yucatán joined the Mexican Republic.

In 1829 the Yucatán had been divided into parishes. The home office of Hoctún Parish surely was the church in the picture. That year some Maya farmers needed new pastureland so they sent out scouts, who found good land in adjacent Cacalchén Parish. Wanting to proceed legally, they applied to Cacalchén's authorities for permission to relocate there, and permission was granted. Since in those days the Maya were obliged to work for the creole population -- creoles in this case being people born in Mexico but mostly of Spanish blood -- the Maya who moved onto the new land transferred their "fagina" (or fajina, pronounced fa- HEE-na) obligations to their new parish. The Church-sanctioned fagina was a set of obligations each Maya worker was forced to fulfill for their creole overlords.

When Raymundo Pérez, priest of Hoctún, got wind of the situation, he wrote to the bishop asking that the peasants be restored to his own jurisdiction and his own tax rolls. The Church sided with Pérez, who'd argued that if Maya peasants could go where they wanted it would constitute a fundamental threat to Church/creole authority and the tax base. Pérez's argument had been based solely on issues of power and money, with no reference to the welfare of the Maya.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim