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

November 7, 2010

A BLUE MORPHO CRASHES
Morphos may be the best known of all tropical butterflies because of their big size (about 4.5 inches, or 11 cm, across), their commonness and their beauty. With their metallic-blue upper wing surfaces they're unforgettable as they brightly flutter through sunlight, the dark forest providing a somber backdrop.

Last June we met our local Common Blue Morpho, MORPHO HELENOR MONTEZUMA, but then I could only show you the species' drably brown wing-undersides, for as soon as a morpho landed on my compost heap he'd fold his wings over his back, camouflaging himself against the brown litter. You can see one doing exactly that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100613bm.jpg.

I figured I'd never get a shot of one's dazzlingly blue upper wing surfaces, for the blue only shows during flight, and when the butterflies are at rest and unexpectedly and briefly spread their wings. Then their surprising display possibly shocks potential predators into moving, revealing their presence so the butterfly knows to escape.

Morphos are common here, but unless they find a mushy banana atop the compost heap, inevitably they just flutter through and never land. Also I see them when I bike quiet little backroads around Pisté. Then, as I ride down the road it's typical for a morpho suddenly to appear right in front of me, matching his speed with mine, flying before me as if he were my guide. Then with each flap those wings absolutely detonate with blueness, one explosion after another. This happens so frequently that surely it's no coincidence. I'm thinking that for some reason morphos simply like flitting along in front of a larger traveler.

So, last Sunday as I returned from Pisté, a big morpho flitted from the shadowy woods onto the main highway near the ruin entrance. Maybe it wanted to guide a car awhile...

The poor morpho quickly got smashed right in front me and crashed onto the pavement, able to flap but no longer capable of flying.

At first I just pedaled past him, experiencing a pang of melancholy. But then it occurred to me that at least the creature's ruin could serve to bring a moment of reflection and gratitude to you who read this, so I turned back and got out the camera.

Here it is, the dying morpho with its exquisite wings spread not fleetingly against the forest's dark, welcoming shadows, but for a minute or two against hot, hard graininess of the highway a kilometer east of Pisté, before the ants arrive to tear it apart: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107mo.jpg.

*****

GILBERT'S FLASHER
Skippers are butterflies of the family Hesperiidae. The family's main fieldmarks are the massive heads, thoraxes and abdomens, in comparison to the wings, which are proportionately much smaller. Their antennae arise far apart atop their broad heads and their antennae are often tipped by a slender, tapering, hook called the apiculus. Mexico is home to about 788 skipper species.

Skippers normally are fairly dark, unornamented, hard-to-identify butterflies. However, that wasn't the case with the skipper photographed this week, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107sk.jpg.

Bea in Ontario, delighted to work with such a handsomely blue-blotched species, quickly figured out that we had ASTRAPTES ALECTOR HOPFFERI, the Gilbert's Flasher.

Adult Gilbert's Flashers rest upside down under large leaves. They feed on flower nectar and bird droppings. Their caterpillars feed on trees and shrubs of the Bean Family, of which the forest here has an abundance. The species is distributed throughout Mexico, rarely straying across the Rio Grande into Texas.

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A BIG, GREEN CATERPILLAR THAT STINGS
While shuffling around bagged palm saplings I saw a curled up green leaf fallen into a pot, grabbed the leaf, and got stung. My eyes don't focus at arm length so I'm surprised by lots of things I pick up. I figured that a scorpion had gotten me because already one had jumped from a bag (see next story). What my green, curled-up leaf turned out to be is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107ca.jpg.

You can see the caterpillar's compound-eyes-dominated head and three of its six yellowish jointed legs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107cb.jpg.

In the above picture also you can see tiny liquid globlets, presumable irritating chemicals, at the tip of many spines, plus some spine tips have been broken off, probably into my hand. Where the spines pricked my hand it burned like the dickens -- worse than fire ant stings but not as bad as those of honeybees or wasps. Hairs that sting like that, whether they're on animals or plants, are said to be "urticating" hairs.

Bea in Ontario quickly let me know that this was the larval stage of a moth of the genus Automeris. Probably the best-known member of that genus is the Io Moth, Automeris io, which occurs here. Automeris moths are big -- the Io has a wingspread of about three inches (8 cm) -- and their back wings bear large eyespots looking very much like the eyes of a watchful owl.

Neither Bea nor I could figure out with certainty which species we had so I sent the picture to Kirby Wolfe with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who has the best collection of Automeris pictures on the Internet. Kirby was afield in Costa Rica and didn't have his notes with him but he wrote back that he'd done work here and that he could remember there "... not being any difference between Automeris tridens and Automeris moloneyi larvae, either of which I believe could occur there."

From collection information found on the Internet, Automeris maloneyi seems more likely to be found here, plus pictures I find of their caterpillars look more like ours than A. tridens, so I'm parking the picture on the Internet under the name AUTOMERIS cf. MALONEYI, the "cf." meaning "confirm," used when you think you know what species it is, but you're not too sure. We used "cf." a lot when I worked in the herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.

All Automeris moths are nocturnal. Adult Automeris moths live so briefly that they don't even have functional mouthparts. Their whole lives are dedicated just to having sex, the female laying eggs, and then they die.

*****

"BLOND" BARK SCORPION
I was piling bagged palm saplings into a wheelbarrow when a two-inch long (6.5 cm) scorpion jumped out of a bag, skittered over the wheelbarrow's edge and hid just beneath the rim on the outside. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107sc.jpg.

Earlier we met the Brown Bark Scorpion, Centruroides gracilis, which is very common here. You might like to compare our wheelbarrow scorpion with that one at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/scorpion.htm.

The two scorpions are about the same size, found in similar places, and have similar shapes, but the wheelbarrow one had pale legs. Was it just a phase of the Brown Bark Scorpion, or was it something new? From what I can tell from pictures on the Internet it's a new species, CENTRUROIDES OCHRACEUS, though it's in the same genus as the Brown Bark Scorpion. I can't find a generally accepted English name for C. ochraceus, but in Spanish it's been called the Alacrán Güero, which means "Blond Scorpion." Since all members of the genus Centruroides sometimes are called bark scorpions, Blond Bark Scorpion seems like a good name for this one.

That word güero, by the way, is an odd one, because it's not in most Spanish dictionaries. Apparently it's one of those words endemic just to Mexico. When certain Mexicans see an Anglo-Saxon kind of person often they call us güeros (GWEH-ros), explaining when asked that güero means "rubio," or "Blondie." When I had hair, however, it was brown and I'm always deeply tanned, yet they still called me Güero.

Anyway, I was struck by how this scorpion didn't seem the least interested in stinging or even threatening to sting, so I wrapped my finger with a bandana and harassed the scorpion to see if I could get a picture of the stinger in action. But this scorpion only wanted to run away, hide in the darkest shadows, and lie with his coiled tail flush with the ground.

*****

PICA-PICA'S PURPLE FLOWERS
Late last December we met the Pica-pica vine's legumes bristling with rusty-colored little hairs that stick in your skin causing you to itch all day, still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227mu.jpg.

Then this August we saw poor Luis who'd just cleared his milpa ground after only two days find thousands of Pica-pica seedlings lustily turning his milpa into a green ocean. Luis still shows his frustration at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829pp.jpg.

Now those Pica-picas, MUCUNA PRURIENS of the Bean Family, are issuing handsome, dangling, ten-inch long (25cm) racemes of violet-purple flowers, reminiscent of climbing Wisteria and Kudzu vines, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107pp.jpg.

Since Pica-picas belong to the Bean Family, their flowers share the basic structure of other Bean Family members: A large petal called the standard or banner stands above the rest of the flower, two petals called wings are arranged along the sides, then the two bottom petals are joined along a common side to form a boatlike scoop called the keel. You can see all this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107pq.jpg.

In that photo the largest, dark petal is a wing, the standard or banner above it is slightly paler, and the whitish keel barely extends beyond the wing.

After the flowers have been open awhile the petals wilt and fall off, leaving the sexual parts stiffly poking into the air. You can see what that looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107ps.jpg.

The upward-arcing item at the picture's extreme top. left is the stigma, which receives pollen during pollination. The stigma stands atop a necklike style, which leads to the ovary hidden inside the flower. The numerous black, curled items just below the stigma are drying-up anthers and filament ends, the filaments joining below to form a cylinder surrounding the ovary and style. All these details are just like you find in the flowers of thousands of other Bean Family species.

One unusual feature of the Pica-pica flower, however, is the calyx's covering of sharp, slender, reddish hairs. The calyx is the cuplike thing from which the rest of the blossom emerges. You can see what happens if you just touch the tip of your finger to that calyx at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107pr.jpg.

If you get those little hairs down your shirt when you're hot and sweaty, you have a miserable day before you.

*****

A TAME BALCHÉ
Balché is a handsome, purple-flowered tree famous among the Maya for the drink made from its bark, much used in ceremonies. A while back I attended a ceremony during which we all drank balché from a jícara, a traditional bowl made from the spherical, gourdlike fruit of the Calabash Tree. The balché was made from shredded Balché-tree bark, cinnamon and a watery honey. Traditionally balché drink was fermented, but for our ceremony it wasn't. It was slightly bitter but sweet and cinnamony, with a little taste of woodsmoke. The table on which the shaman conducted his ceremony was covered with thickly strewn Balché-tree leaves.

By the way, all the books I've seen use the spelling "balché," which with that accented e is obviously the Spanish way of presenting it, and that means that it's pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable. However, the shaman always placed his emphasis on the first syllable, pronouncing it "BAL-che."

Balché is a member of the Bean Family genus Lonchocarpus, and eight Lonchocarpus species are listed for the state of Quintana Roo just to our east. With no literature on the genus, I haven't been able to confidently identify the species we have here, though I've found at least three.

I'm guessing that the Balché very prettily flowering in Pisté right now is none of the locally native species of Lonchocarpus. Rather it seems to be a species native to the Lesser Antilles and Northern South America, LONCHOCARPUS VIOLACEUS. My reason for choosing that ID is that my picture matches others of that species found on the Internet, and Lonchocarpus violaceus is much planted in the tropics. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lonchoc2.jpg.

This species' individual flowers are worth a close look, not only because they're pretty but also because they are good examples of the Bean Family's "papilionaceous," or butterfly-like flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107bb.jpg.

As with the above Pica-pica's papilionaceous flowers, Balché's flowers a big petal at the top called the "standard" or "banner"; the two side petals with their bottoms curing outward are the "wings", and; the two bottom petals are joined along one edge to form a boat-shaped, scooplike structure called the "keel."

*****

YELLOW COSMOS
Two or three months ago when I had to visit Mérida several times with my visa problems -- I have an FM3 good until April now -- one day I was walking up the grand boulevard called Paseo de Montejo when I noticed pretty, orangish flowers planted in the green spaces between the two broad, one-way streets. The plants were fruiting so I filled a shirt pocket with some "seeds" -- technically indehiscent, one-seeded fruits called achenes. Back at the Hacienda I sowed them next to my hut, and now the plants are flowering, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107cs.jpg.

This is the Yellow Cosmos, COSMOS SULPHUREUS, native from Mexico to Brazil but planted worldwide, even in the Temperate Zone, where sometimes it escapes from gardens.

Yellow Cosmos, which grows seven or more feet tall, is distinguished by its yellow-orange flowers and ferny, twice- or thrice-pinnately compound leaves. A further neat little fieldmark is that its pollen-producing anthers -- which are united by their edges to form a cylinder around the style (normal for the Composite or Daisy Family) -- are black with orange tips, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107ct.jpg.

An important fieldmark for the genus Cosmos is that the achene-fruit is topped with a slender neck, or "beak." A broken-open flower with an achene beside it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101107cu.jpg.

Not long ago we looked at a rosy-pink-flowered Cosmos, Cosmos caudatus, which also was planted at the Hacienda. You might enjoy comparing it, remembering to look at that species' "beaked achenes," at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cosmos.htm.

On that page we report that Cosmos caudatus had edible leaves and that in parts of the world it's grown as a salad ingredient -- even though I found the leaves a bit strong. I read that our Yellow Cosmos also has edible leaves, so of course I've nibbled on them to see if they taste any better than the other.

I find the Yellow Cosmos's leaves with a more interesting flavor, not quite as much like eating Marigold leaves as the other, but still a bit too pungent for my taste. If one has garden lettuce and Chaya leaves, which I do, there's no need to eat Cosmos leaves.

*****

BORN TO RUN
I've read nearly every book in Hacienda Chichen's take-one-leave-one library, even though mostly what's there is the kind of junk reading you'd expect people to bring on vacation. However, there's a handful of fine titles there, and every now and then someone leaves a real gem. The other day, with Christopher McDougall's 2009 Born to Run, as soon as I started reading I knew I had one of the latter.

It's about "ultrarunners" who run very long distances under very difficult circumstances. Much of the story takes place among the Tarahumara people of Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, in mountainous northwestern Mexico. A central theme of the book is that as the human species arose we were doing a lot of running, especially during hunts, so we're literally born to run.

It turns out that, surprisingly often, fit humans can chase down animals capable of running much faster for short distances. Fast-sprinting animals like deer and antelope overheat at the end of a chase and simply can't run another step as much slower humans with greater endurance approach for the kill.

The point is made that we'd all be much healthier and happier if we started running again -- but not in fancy running shoes, according to the book. Our feet are evolved to be bare or almost so when they carry us. Running shoes cause our feet to grow "lazy," setting us up for later running injuries.

Born to Run's story is so compelling that by the book's end you're wondering why more people aren't running marathons along mountain trails. An answer can be provided in terms of energetics, and our programmed brains.

Dominant species are those who most efficiently take advantage of the energy their ecosystems make available to them in their particular niches. In the struggle for existence, successful organisms just don't waste energy. Therefore, even though humans evolved running, our brains were wired to predispose us to rest, or conserve energy, whenever the chance arose. Our ancestors' margin for survival was so slim that resting opportunities were rare. So today "resting" is the preferred state for most of us, even when we've done no work to rest from.

So, even a book about ultrarunning returns us to a topic we've touched on a lot: Our genetic programming urges us to behave in ways appropriate for humans evolving in the African savanna, but not necessarily for the lives we live today.

*****

MAYA ENERGY
Often visitors to Chichén Itzá ruins, about a five minute stroll from my hut, return to the Hacienda speaking of the "energy" they felt when standing next to big Kukulkán Pyramid, the ruin's impressive centerpiece. I personally don't feel any special energy when I walk by the pyramid each week on my fruit-buying trip to Pisté, but I'm curious about this matter of "spiritual energy." I asked my shaman friend José about the Maya concept of spiritual energy, and how it relates to pyramids.

"There's just one spiritual energy," he said, "but it has two faces, day energy, and night energy. During the day energy descends from the sky onto the pyramid's apex, then spreads out along the pyramid's flanks to enter the Earth all around. In the night, the opposite occurs, energy flowing from the Earth up the pyramid's sides and shooting out of the top, skyward. Your Maya hut is shaped like a pyramid, with energy coming and going off the roof's crest. Over a twenty-four hour period the day and night energies equilibrate. If you live in a traditional Maya hut, the result of the daily and nightly ebb and flow of energy is peace and contentment. When you dream, that's energy gathering from the Earth all around you, passing through you up into the hut, then shooting off the roof's crest, carrying your spirit far away, where you have experiences you recall as dreams... "

At this point we'd only begun getting into the matter. We hadn't even addressed how the shaman heals by harmonizing the body's energies, or how standing water loses its energy, but its energy can be restored with a certain ritual, holding the hands a certain way above the water, seven turns one way then seven the other...

But, though we'd only begun, that day at this point I stopped José, saying that, for the time being, that was enough to think about.

For, already I was looking forward to going to sleep that night, there in the hut's calm darkness visualizing the Earth's stored day-energy gathering in from all directions around me, concentrating in the ground below my Cedro-plank bed, gushing up through me, up through the silent hut, the hut's sloping roof sides focusing the energy at its peak, then that energy like a flame in pure oxygen exploding into the night sky, drawing up unknown parts of me inside its dazzling, swirling currents and waves, diffusing parts of me out into the unified world of pure, loving energy...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim