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

September 26, 2010

WIGGLETAILS & TUMBLERS
Here during the peak of the rainy season nearly every afternoon it rains. If a bucket or tin can stands upright it stays full of water, and if you get down close enough to the water's surface inside these buckets and tin cans, you'll see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926wt.jpg.

As a kid back on the farm in Kentucky I spent a lot of time with my head hung over the rim of a large, wooden barrel bought cheaply from nearby Glenmore Distillery (Kentucky Tavern Bourbon). The barrel caught rainwater off the coal-house roof, for the washing of our clothes. During my whole childhood the barrel smelled agreeably of aging whisky, but I didn't stick my head over the barrel's rim for the odor. I was watching a seething metropolis of aquatic critters, among the most common and fascinating of which were the ones in the above picture.

My father told me that the larger white things in the barrel, like the one at the left in the picture, were "wiggletails," and that they developed into mosquitoes. They were called wiggletails because they swam through water by violently jerking their bodies back and forth, "wiggling their tails." Later in school I also learned that if we wanted to cut down on the mosquito population around our house the first thing we needed to do was to go around emptying all open containers holding water where mosquitoes could lay their eggs, for those eggs would hatch into wiggletails, from which later mosquitoes would emerge.

But, there was something missing in the above story, and the error didn't occur to me until I'd asked insect-identifier Bea in Ontario if she know what that dark, comma-shaped critter was to the right of the wiggletail in the picture. She shot back that it was a mosquito PUPA!

Of course. The thing wrong with the whisky-barrel story was that mosquitoes belong to the insect order Diptera, along with flies, and dipterids undergo complete metamorphosis, entailing these four stages:

egg --> larva --> pupa --> adult

Our egg --> wiggletail larva --> adult mosquito story accommodated only three stages. Bea's comma-shaped pupa supplied the missing link.

Over 2500 different species of mosquitoes are known throughout the world, and some 150 of those occur in the US. Therefore, there are many variations on the mosquito theme. However, what follows applies to most species.

Wiggletails, or mosquito larvae, frequently must rise to the water's surface where they poke their rear ends upwards and breathe air through a siphon tube, which is exactly what the one in the picture is doing. Happily, Anopheles larvae -- the adults of which convey malaria -- bear no siphon and must float parallel to the water's surface for air. Therefore, the wiggletail in the picture isn't a malaria-carrying Anopheles. Wiggletails feed on microorganisms and organic matter in the water. As they grow, they shed their skins four times. Usually they live in water between one and two weeks, depending on the temperature -- the hotter it is, the faster they develop.

The brown, comma-shaped pupas, sometimes referred to as "tumblers," don't feed. Even though as they move through water they jerk about as violently as the larval stage, in the mosquito's life cycle they constitute the "resting stage." After about two days of existence pupas rise to the water's surface, their pupal skin splits and the adult mosquito emerges from the pupa's old skin onto the water's surface. The newly emerged adult rests on the surface awhile as it dries, its parts harden, and its wings spread out and dry so it can fly away.

*****

DIRTY-BLUE SATYR
Since people with enough working vocabulary to talk about "satyrs" in the first place normally use the word to describe degenerate, lecherous men with strong sexual appetites, the name "Dirty-blue Satyr" evokes some stirring connotations. However, the being we are talking about here is clearly nothing like that, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926sy.jpg.

According to good ol' Bea in Ontario, our "Dirty-blue" is CEPHEUPTYCHIA GLAUCINA. In Mexico about 87 satyr species occur. Satyr butterflies are members of the Subfamily Satyrinae of the huge Brushfoot Family, the Nymphalidae. Among the satyrs there's a group of bluish species with eyelike spots on their wings called "blue ringlets," and the Dirty-blue Satyr is one of those.

This must be a pretty good species to have found, for I can't find anything about the Dirty-blue Satyr's life history on the Internet.

Therefore, as soon as the search engines catalog this page, at least we'll have announced to he world of science that Cepheuptychia glaucina flits about here in the central Yucatan in September.

*****

MARANTA IN A DITCH
Biking the road connecting Pisté with the toll road just to the north, the white flowers of a knee-high herb in the ditch beside the road caught my eye. You can see the grass-leafed, orchidy-flowered plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926ma.jpg.

In this part of the world if you see a terrestrial plant with broad, parallel-veined, grasslike blades like those in the picture, but bearing flowers that are too large and showy ever to be grasses, five plant families should come to mind: the Banana, Orchid, Ginger, Canna and Maranta Families. Orchids and Banana Family members have their own unique kinds of flowers, so if the plant isn't in one of those distinctive families you can quickly discard them as you try to ID the plant.

Of the three remaining families, the flowers in the Ginger Family typically are arranged in spikes or spike-like inflorescences in which one flowers or small grouping of flowers are subtended by a conspicuous bract, which is a modified, usually much- reduced leaf. You can see that our flowers are held loosely in a diffuse inflorescence, so the Ginger Family can be disqualified.

That leaves the Canna and Maranta Families. Canna Family flowers usually are over two inches long (5 cm) while Maranta Family flowers are usually less than one inch (2.5 cm). The flowers in the picture are a little over one inch long (3 cm). Therefore: Maranta.

If we had fruits, we'd see that in the Canna Family ovary cells contain many ovules per cell, while in the Maranta Family there's only one.

This is MARANTA GIBBA, a denizen of moist soil, thus at home in this ditch holding water in a land where rainfall usually seeps underground very fast, even in the rainy season. You can see one of the plant's snow- white, bilaterally symmetrical (zygomorphic) flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926mb.jpg.

Maranta gibba occurs from southern Mexico and the Yucatán, spottily through Central America and the West Indies, into northern South America.

*****

"DUCK BILL"
At the forest's edge just a few feet from the Maranta there grew a woody vine, or liana, with compound leaves and fairly large, purplish flowers, which I almost ignored. That's because at first glance the liana was so like Cydista potosina, which also is abundantly flowering right now. Two Newsletters ago we saw who that plant is taking over nectar- and pollen-providing services from its close relative the earlier-blossoming Cydista potosina. The two Cydista species are much used in this area by basket weaving Maya. You can review what one of them looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cydista2.htm.

Something about this roadside vine looked a little different, so I took a closer look. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926du.jpg.

Maybe you remember that stems of the two Cydistas were square in cross section. This vine's stems were hexagonal. Also, the Cydistas' blossoms opened widely at their mouths, but all flowers on this vine seemed to have the margins of their upper and lower lips fused together! Finally, this roadside liana's urn- shaped, green calyxes were unlike any I'd ever seen, looking like a calyx inside a calyx. In the picture you can barely see the two rims of the top flower's double calyx.

This new woody liana looks and behaves so like the two more common Cydista species that you wonder if some kind of co-evolution is going on here. It turns out that our closed-mouth species is a member of the Bignonia Family, the Bignoniaceae, same as the Cydistas, but it's a different genus. It's AMPHILOPHIUM PANICULATUM, which the locals call "Pico de Pato," which means "Duck Bill," because of the closed corollas' shape.

The margin of a corollas' top lobe bears a low, narrow rim which snugly fits inside the lower lobe's upturned sides. You can see a corolla's two lips forced apart, showing pollen-producing anthers flush with the top lobe's ceiling, and pollen on the bottom lobe's floor, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926dv.jpg.

How do these flowers get pollinated? Every blossom I could find was sealed. All would snap open with a little pressure, so maybe the flowers are adapted to keep out all pollinators except those who know how to pry the lobes apart. Several of the flowers I examined had been robbed -- holes had been cut through their corolla tubes so that the robbers could enter the corolla and take what they wanted without doing their pollinating job.

The sealed-flowers strategy seems to work for Amphilophium paniculatum, however, for my Maya friends tell me that the species is fairly common, plus the species enjoys a large area of distribution, being fround from Mexico through Central America and northern South America to Argentina.

*****

LANTANA BESIDE THE WALL
You can see one of the prettiest shrubs flowering in Pisté these days, one with its flower-laden branches tumbling over a stone fence beside a thatch-roofed hut at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926ln.jpg.

That's one of the most commonly planted ornamental shrubs in the world's tropical and subtropical zones. It goes by many English names, such as Spanish Flag, West Indian Lantana, Wild Sage, Red Sage, Yellow Sage and a host of other names. It's LANTANA CAMARA, and despite so frequently being referred to as a kind of sage, which belongs to the Mint Family, this pretty, six-ft-tall shrub (1.8 m) belongs to the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. An eye-pleasing close-up highlighting a multicolor flowering head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926lo.jpg.

You might recognize a strong similarity between these dog-faced little lantana flowers and those of verbenas, which belong to the genus Verbena. The big difference between the two genera is that Verbena's ovaries are four-celled and develop into four discrete sections, or nutlets, while Lantana's ovaries are two-celled and develop into two separate nutlets. Back in Chiapas in 2007 we ran into fruiting Lantana heads, which looked so much like blackberries that I plopped some into my mouth before realizing what I was doing. They were bitter! You can see those fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/lantanaf.htm.

Many cultivars of Lantana camara have been developed, including "flava" with sulfur-yellow flowers changing to saffron, the dwarf "hybrida" with yellow flowers, "nivea" with white flowers, and "mista" with yellowish outer flowers changing to saffron and brick-red, and yellow inner flowers.

This pretty species is native to Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and northern South America. Unfortunately, in warm countries where it's been introduced as an ornamental it tends to escape into the wild -- including the US Gulf Coastal Plain. It's listed as a Category One Invasive Toxic Species in Florida. The species is especially common in India, Australia and much of Africa. This is bad news for livestock growers since the herbage is poisonous. Livestock losses have been reported from the US, South Africa, India, Mexico, and Australia.

Still, Maximino Martinez's Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico reports that the cooked leaves are used against "rheumatism" and for making a stomach tonic. In Sinaloa a cataplasm of its cooked leaves has been used for snakebite.

*****

HOT COLDNESS AND THE ORGANIC GARDEN
I've mentioned that the Maya I speak with believe that when raindrops descend through the rainy season's hot afternoon air the droplets absorb the air's heat, then scald the leaves of plants they land on. When I pointed out to one person that these rains actually feel chilly on the skin he told me that it was "hot coldness, like you feel sometimes when you first touch ice." The belief in scalding afternoon rain is so pervasive that after such rains many Maya homeowners douse their plants with city water or water that has been sitting around cooling off, to save their rained- on plants from burning up.

If I had made the mistake of openly laughing at such an idea, right now the Maya would be laughing at me, for nearly every plant in the organic garden -- even the peppers who until now looked so promising -- have leaves that look like they've been scorched. To the Maya, that garden is absolute proof that afternoon rains burn plants.

I've given up offering an alternative explanation. My explanation is that the garden plants with their yellowing, crinkling leaves and crisp, brown, dead leaf margins are succumbing to a wide range of fungal diseases, because our hot, very humid days provide a perfect environment for fungi.

However, though I blame the garden's miseries on fungi and not scalding rain, I've begun thinking that maybe the practice of washing off our afternoon rains may not be such a bad one.

For, our overheated afternoon air certainly is full of fungal spores. Almost daily I enjoy a fine sneezing fit even though we're experiencing something of a flowering lull, so the air isn't particularly full of pollen. I'm guessing that my sneezing is caused by fungal spores. The entire landscape even smells moldy, as if you'd put your nose right next to the moist forest floor.

So, raindrops plummet through the air gathering into themselves untold numbers of fungal spores -- which they deposit onto plants on which they fall. This isn't just my guess. An interesting study by J. Gönczöl and Ágnes Révay of Hungary found spores from 71 fungal species in their local rainwater. That study, in PDF format, is accessible free online at http://www.fungaldiversity.org/fdp/sfdp/16-14.pdf.

Spores deposited by rainfall may germinate into disease-causing fungal communities infecting garden plants if they're not washed off, either by subsequent raindrops in a substantial storm, or city water from a Maya lady's dishpan.

It's often like this, I've found. Folks do something strange and their explanation is so unlikely that you simply can't buy it. However, that doesn't mean that the strange thing they're doing makes no sense, especially when it's done in a traditional society where everyday practices may have filtered through centuries of trial-and-error experience.

Actually, it's pretty impressive that the Maya, despite being unable to see and know about fungal spores, figured out for themselves that these afternoon rains cause problems for garden plants, and it's even more impressive that they learned that you might ameliorate the problem if you, counter intuitively, wash off rain that's just fallen.

By the way, Luis's milpa, or traditional cornfield, is doing just fine, since it's planted with traditional seeds -- corn, squash, beans -- developed in this area. Those plants are mostly resistant to the diseases my regular garden plants succumb to.

*****

DAWN RAIN
As the jog began Orion's familiar star-pattern twinkled overhead almost violently, but by the time I'd reached up to the highway already stars were fading as clouds moved in from the east. Rain hit just as I huffed past Mayalandia's horse stalls, where I ducked beneath a dense Bec tree hoping to avoid drenching my running shoes. If it hadn't been for the shoes, which already were falling apart, I'd have run in the rain, for the cold droplets felt good on my sweating skin.

In fact, that morning beneath the big Bec everything felt good. It felt good just standing in the darkness hearing rain move through the woods around me and listening as big water droplets cascaded down through the Bec. It felt good breathing in air that just a few seconds before had been heavy and muggy but now was saturated with chill, misty freshness, and charged with that electric tension that all rains carry with them when they first come upon you.

The horses whinnied through the darkness and I whinnied back to let them know who it was, and the rain carried their horsy odor over to me, and the odor of wet hay and manure, and mud. I liked thinking of the horses there in their thatch-roofed stalls calling to me, maybe twitching their ears as they smelled me.

Then all of a sudden a gust of wind burst out of nowhere, swirling the rain in under the tree and shaking the Bec's stored-up droplets onto me. There went my dry shoes, so now nothing kept me from running out into the rain, splashing and listening to my breath, and to the wind and the rain in the woods beside me, as dawn's first light started washing the sky.

Times like this, you feel alive, feel that maybe it's right that all we're supposed to do as humans is just live our lives moment by moment, paying close attention to all the details, until it's over.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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