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

October 31, 2010

LUIS'S TALL, COATI-RAVAGED CORN
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031mz.jpg you see Luis standing in his milpa, or traditional cornfield. The picture tells two interesting stories.

First, as any North American farmer can tell you, that's mighty tall corn, about twice the height of what's grown up North. Notice the purplish ear of corn on the stalk at the left of Luis, about eight feet high (2.4m). Since Luis is about 5'2", that corn stands over 13 feet tall (4 m). By the way, notice the squash vines with their orange-yellow blossoms carpeting the milpa floor. Elsewhere bean vines twine up the stalks.

In the Mexican uplands we've seen that kernels of traditional corn, ZEA MAYS, planted by indigenous people typically is colored -- especially reddish to very dark purple. Luis tells me that in the Yucatán maíz criollo -- the Mayas' traditionally planted corn -- is predominantly yellow or white. The yellow usually is preferred because it contains more oil than the white, he says, and thus is softer and makes better tortillas.

The second informative feature of our photo is Luis's face. Usually Luis is a smiley person but here he's just entered the milpa in early morning and his face is registering disgust because during the night a big Coatimundi had ravaged his crop, robbing all his best ears.

Now, there's a difference between the names Coati and Coatimundi. Coatis are like Raccoons with long, slender snouts and tails. A Coatimundi is a mature male Coati roaming about looking for females. Regular Coatis are social, slender, rather graceful critters. The hormone-dazed Coatimundi is much larger and plodding, hardly seeming the same species at all. Luis's big Coatimundi the previous night had climbed one cornstalk after another, rode the stalk down until it broke, and then ate just enough of the corn ear to ruin it before heading to the next stalk. In the picture, there's a splintered, broken stalk in front of and to the right of Luis.

Coatis have been only part of Luis's animal problem this year. As the corn seedlings were first sprouting Melodious Blackbirds came plucking at the tender shoots. Later Yucatan Jays tore into developing ears, and it seems that when the big Coatimundi isn't in the milpa, Raccoons are. Rabbits have been working hard on the beans, and I haven't had the heart to ask who's been gnawing into his watermelons.

All milpas have such animal problems, but here it's especially frustrating for Luis because we don't want him to shoot the critters. He says he understands, but from the look on his face in that picture I'm not sure he does.

*****

OCELLATED TURKEY
A small band of "wild turkeys" orbits around the Hacienda, sometimes providing fleeting glimpses to visiting birders wandering the trails. In dim light of early dawn or late afternoon turkeys might even cross the grassy area below the church. Sometimes I see them every day, other times a month or two pass without their showing up. Whenever they do appear they're so restless and the light is so dim that I can't get a decent picture. This Friday morning, though, one tarried in a clearing long enough for me to get a shot only a little blurry because of the low light and consequent slow shutter speed. That picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031tk.jpg.

This is a different species from North America's Wild Turkey, which is Meleagris gallopavo. That species does occur in northern Mexico, but in the Yucatán, northern Guatemala and northern Belize what we have is the endemic Ocellated Turkey, MELEAGRIS OCELLATA. Note that it's the same genus but a different species as the North's Wild Turkey.

A few times I've heard a male gobble but more often I find unmistakable blue-green turkey feathers along trails where either males have fought one another or a predator has made a grab. Such feather leavings are so frequent that it must be rough being a tom turkey.

Of course Maya hunters think it's a great day if they bag a turkey, and they recognize no legal hunting season. In most areas turkeys are rare or nonexistent. However, an effort is made at the Hacienda to protect them from poachers -- with the consequence that sometimes visitors get to see them.

*****

MARCHING METALLIC-GREEN BUGS
Often the word "bug" is used to signify any insect. However, here a "bug" is a member of the True Bug Order, the Hemiptera, of which stinkbugs and milkweed bugs are among the best known. True Bugs have sucking mouthparts, their forewings are thickened at their bases, and they undergo simple metamorphosis in which no pupal stage occurs. Immature bugs, called nymphs, resemble the adults but usually their wings are reduced, though they grow larger with each successive molt.

With that out of the way, now I can tell you that one late afternoon I was reading in front of the hut when motion inside the Chaya bush next to me caught my attention, I looked over, and I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031bu.jpg.

A fast-moving line of metallic blue-green bugs ascended a stem while bugs who'd already reached leaves at the stem tips were fanning out atop the leaves. Having never seen true bugs with a metallic sheet, I thought they were beetles. But Bea in Ontario says they're bug nymphs. A close-up of an individual is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031bv.jpg.

Though Bea can't identify them, she says that the most similar thing she can find is a stink bug in Australia, of the family Pentatomidae. Can anyone do any better?

The bugs didn't seem to find what they were looking for atop my Chaya leaves, so within two or three minutes they'd regrouped and in single file started down the stem they'd just come up, and then on the ground they continued their wanderings.

*****

THE VARIABLE ORANGE BANNER
Throughout September it rained every afternoon, then one day the rain didn't come and since then we've not had a single decent downpour. I've never seen a rainy season end so abruptly. Already the ground is cracking and each day I must water many plants.

After watering, butterflies gather on the moist soil, and I always watch for new species. You can see a bright orange one that landed outside my door at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031ob.jpg.

I thought it was probably a repeat, the Julia, which also is almost entirely orange with few markings, but I didn't have the Julia's side view so I photographed the visitor, sent the picture to Bea in Ontario, and was surprised when she replied that it something new. It's TEMENIS LAOTHOE, sometimes called the Orange Banner.

Orange Banners are distributed over a very large area, from Texas's southernmost tip all the way south to Bolivia. Within that distribution two distinct color forms are recognized. Ours is the most common, occurring throughout the distribution. However, in Columbia and Peru a small percentage of each brood develops a very striking red and blue coloration.

It's unusual for such a conspicuously different form to arise as "a small percentage of each brood" in a small part of an area of distribution. That isn't how new species generally arise. Really it's not known what's going on here genetically. This is someone's PhD dissertation waiting to happen. You can see how different the red and blue form is at the top of the page here.

The above page also says that the species occurs mainly in primary rainforest and transitional rainforest/ cloudforest habitats in Peru, while ours landed on a barren spot outside my door, surrounded by scrubby, semiarid forest. The species seems to have a good bit of ecological flexibility, too.

The Orange Banner's caterpillars feed on Serjania, Paullinia, Cardiospermum, Urvillea and other shrubs and vines in the family Sapindaceae, all very common here.

*****

BEAUTYBERRIES
You can see a roadside bush fairly common around here at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031ca.jpg.

Actually, that picture of flowers was taken in early September. Now the bushes are fruiting, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031cb.jpg.

I've put off introducing this pretty, frequently seen bush until now because I was uncertain about its ID.

From the first I recognized the bush's similarity to Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, which is so conspicuous nowadays in the US Deep South, with its gaudily pink-violet clusters of pithy fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/beauty-b.htm.

So, is there a Beautyberry -- a member of the genus Callicarpa -- listed for the Yucatan? Yes, CALLICARPA ACUMINATA. Moreover, the description of Callicarpa acuminata fits our bushes in every respect... except this: Callicarpa acuminata nearly always is described as producing very dark purple or black fruits, while our bushes' fruits have been white for two months and show no sign of darkening.

However, the US's Beautyberry has produced a white-fruited cultivar, and I find at least one mention on the Internet of our shrub sometimes producing white fruits, so I'm going ahead and calling it a Callicarpa acuminata. If you need an English name for it, "White-fruited Mexican Beautyberry" would be good as any.

I read that the Maya take a cold-water infusion of the crushed leaves to halt diarrhea and dysentery.

By the way, our beautyberry's leaves are interestingly rough (scabrous), wrinkled (rugose), and bear tiny, star-shaped (stellate) hairs. A close-up showing a little morning dew gathered among the hairs is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031cc.jpg.

*****

ABUNDANT UNORTHODOX VINE
Nowadays a very common vine crowning the tops of tall trees is issuing slender racemes of tiny, white flowers. You can see some racemes about 20 feet up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031an.jpg.

A close-up of racemes arising from their pink stem is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031ao.jpg.

A close-up of some flowers appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031ap.jpg.

Thing is, I've never seen anything quite like this. Most of the time I can at least recognize a plant's family, but this time at first glance I drew a blank. The blossoms look like they're six-parted, which would indicate that they're monocots, and in fact the flowers look a bit like hyacinth flowers, but the leaves are net-veined, while the vast majority of monocotyledonous species are parallel-veined, like the leaves of grass.

I had to bring that last flower picture onto my laptop's screen before seeing what makes the flowers unusual. First of all, instead of the blossoms bearing six cream-colored petals, they had the usual five, but a sepal was cream-colored camouflaged to look like a sixth petal. Most flowers with five petals have five calyx lobes, or sepals, while this one only had two. It took a bit of studying before I understood that while one sepal was wedged between the top two petals looking like a petal, the other sepal was hidden exactly beneath and flush with the bottom petal. In the last close-up, on the flower at the upper right, you can see what this looks like. One final curiosity is that the five stamens each arise opposite a petal, instead of alternating with it, which is the more common arrangement.

Once the flowers' atypical anatomy was grasped it was easy to key out the family using my old Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants. It was a family I'd not run into before, the Basella Family, the Basellaceae, a small, mostly Tropical American family in which most species are climbing, perennial, fleshy herbs -- like ours.

Our plant is ANREDERA VESICARIA, found from southern Texas and southern Florida south through most of tropical America, plus in much of the rest of the world's tropics it's invading as a weed. Often it's planted for its showy inflorescences and fragrant flowers, the odor reminding me of cut hay. The species specializes in disturbed habitats, so here's one species poised to proliferate and expand its distribution as the planet warms and ecosystems are further torn apart.

There's no commonly accepted English name for Anredera vesicaria, though species in the genus Anredera often are referred to as Madiera Vines.

Another curious thing about this species and other members of Anredera is that its flowers present themselves in two morphologically distinct forms. All flowers in both forms bear both male and female parts, but there's a "functionally male" form in which the stamens are a little larger and there's less likelihood of the flowers producing fruits, and then there's a "functionally female" form, with smaller stamens, and a much greater likelihood of producing fruits. The impression is given of a species in the process of evolving into a dioecious state -- with completely male or completely female plants. I assume that I've photographed a functional male.

Both forms produce subterranean tubers, which José tells me are too hard to be edible.

The online Flora of North America says that in Mexico the species has been used to treat broken bones and flesh wounds.

Luis tells me that in Maya the vine is called Baax and that it's used against "bad winds," which afflict us with all kinds of aches and pains, and the evil eye.

We've encountered so many plants used by the Maya this same way that one gets the impression that folks here are uncommonly plagued by "bad winds" and evil eyes. I can only guess why Anredera vesicaria has gained a reputation as an antidote. Somehow it just seems that the vines' slender, sunlight-charged spikes of white flowers crowning treetops are about the opposite of the formless, dark, heavy, depressing aspect of undefined aches and general bad luck.

*****

PANAMA ROSE
Once again while biking Pisté's backstreets keeping my eyes peeled for interesting plants something new and gorgeous came along, its branches cascading over a stone wall. You can see a limb of the much-branched, ten-ft-tall bush all aglow with pink flower clusters at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031ro.jpg.

A close-up of a single flowering head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031rp.jpg.

In the tropics there's a very commonly grown bush with similar opposite leaves and clusters of red flowers with four petals flaring from atop slender tubes, the Crimson Ixora, which we've met before, and you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/ixora.htm.

Our new thing clearly is different, but the similarities at once had me guessing that the two species were members of the same family -- the huge, mainly tropical Coffee or Gardenia Family, the Rubiaceae. When you suspect a plant of belonging to that family the first thing you do is to check if conspicuous stipules connect petiole bases at stem nodes where leaves arise. You can see what I saw there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101031rq.jpg.

In that picture's center, can you see the yellowish appendage that is slenderly triangular, but with a deep cleft at its top? That's the stipule and it's arising from a "stipular line" connecting the opposite leaves' petiole bases. To firm up the family ID I confirmed that the flowers had "inferior ovaries" -- the corollas arising from atop the ovary, not with the ovaries nestled inside the corolla's cuplike base -- and indeed they were inferior. So: Rubiaceae.

Simply by using the Google Image Search feature on the keywords "Rubiaceae tropical red," very quickly a selection of thumbnail pictures popped up matching what I'd found. It was the Panama Rose, RONDELETIA LEUCOPHYLLA. Of course northern roses are unrelated.

Panama Rose is native Mexican, though not native to the Yucatán. It's distributed from Mexico to Panama. The flower is designed so pollinators can cling to the spreading lobes as they insert their slender bills or proboscises into the corolla tube, probing for nectar at the tube's base. From that you can guess that Panama Rose is a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.

*****

WENDELL BERRY & THE MAYA
Eric in New York sent an essay by Wendell Berry, a much respected professor, writer and farmer in Kentucky. In the essay Berry describes his agrarian economic perspective this way:

"I would put nature first, the economies of land use second, the manufacturing economy third, and the consumer economy fourth."

You can see the wisdom in this. Since all things humans need derive from Nature, Nature's welfare should be humanity's first concern. More than anything, manufacturing and consumption should reflect what Nature sustainably can provide. Moreover, some resources, such as clean water and rich agricultural soil, should be protected as priceless.

Today's dominant economies practice exactly the opposite of this wisdom. Today Nature is destroyed by economies geared to provide what people want, not what they necessarily need, and everything has a price. And often that price is way out of line with the resource's actual value.

Wendell Berry states his wisdom clearly and artfully, like many others, yet this wisdom goes unused. For every person enlightened and changed by lucid thought, ten thousand others just want more, more, more.

Can anything be done to cause the generous, life- saving messages of Wendell Berry and others to take root in today's world?

Most of my life I haven't thought so. However, living among the Maya, now I'm starting to wonder. The reason is that every day I see how a "basic assumption about life" profoundly affects everyday behavior.

For example, Maya society is rooted in a basic assumption about proper human interactions that is completely different to what motivates us Northerners. To the Maya, nothing is more important than solidarity with family, friends and community. We Northerners say we believe in those things, but you know how we let our families split up, or friends drift away, and our communities decay as individually we work very hard for money and status, or at least for conformity with those around us.

So, is it possible that one or more changes in basic assumptions about how humans should interact could cause the philosophies of Wendell Berry and the Maya to become more attractive to humanity in general? Could such a paradigm shift save Life on Earth?

Maybe. Such changes in basic assumptions occur all the time. For example, the belief system of the old farmers I knew in rural/small-town Kentucky back in the 1950s was more like today's Mayas' than that of today's rural Kentuckians. During my 63 years of living I've witnessed a profound cultural paradigm shift take place in rural/small-town Kentucky. I think that the messages of TV mainly caused it. Maybe heightened awareness arising from the Internet will engender the next big change.

If such a profound change happened once, maybe it can happen again. And maybe this time the change will trend toward the wisdom of Wendell Berry and the Maya, not against.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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