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

December 26, 2010

SEVEN-COLORED BUNTING
Surely the most colorful of all songbirds is the Painted Bunting. The other day as I sat reading next to my black, plastic-trough birdbath one landed on the trough not six feet away, and I was ready, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226bu.jpg.

In Spanish the bird's name is Colorín Sietecolores, or "Seven-colored Bunting," though contrarians might count more or fewer than seven colors. The Painted Bunting's binomial is PASSERINA CIRIS, with Passerina being the same genus in which the Indigo, Lazuli and other Northern-breeding buntings are found.

As with Indigo Buntings, Painted Buntings are only winter residents in the Yucatan. Comes spring they'll migrate north to nest, and then for colorful birds we'll have to settle for motmots, trogons and parrots.

*****

FUZZY COATI
For the last week or so in early mornings a little troop of about seven Coatis, NASUA NARICA, has been orbiting around the hut. For over a year I've been trying to photograph one but it's been hard. They stick to the brush, obsessively move about snuffling the ground, and usually they're in such dim light and so far away that photographs turn out bad. This week I finally got at least a poor shot, the critter blurred because of the slow shutter speed required by the dim light, and he was moving fast. The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226ct.jpg.

The first time you see a Coati (coh-AH-tee), because of its bushy, ringed tail and the way it ambles on the soles of its feet, it's easy to recognize that it belongs to the same mammal family as Raccoons, the Procyonidae. One big difference between the two species is that the Coati's snout is long and slender. Also, often Coatis walk with their tails held straight up, though the one in the picture wasn't doing that.

As often is the case with Coatis I located this group by sound. They seemed to make no effort to be quiet and were constantly snapping twigs as well as snorting, grunting and chirping to one another like a family of little piglets rooting in mud. One of them must have entangled himself in something for suddenly he flopped onto the ground rolling and squealing piteously, his cohorts paying no attention at all, until suddenly he stopped, then continued foraging as if nothing had happened. Like Raccoons, Coatis are omnivores, so they're looking for roots, insects, fruits, lizards, eggs, garbage...

You can see that our Coati is reddish and soft-fuzzy. Often they are slate-gray and not nearly as fuzzy looking, and therefore more slinky in appearance. Though I haven't seen enough over several seasons to be sure, my impression is that the current reddish, soft-fuzzy look is their coat for the cooler dry season, while the dark, slinky appearance is for the hotter rainy season.

You may have heard the name coatimundi. That term should be applied only to male Coatis over two years of age who become solitary, joining female groups only during the breeding season. Hormone-juiced-up coatimundis bulk up to nearly twice the size of the females, lumber about like bears, and there's nothing slinky about them. In fact, some of my Maya friends insist that there are two Coati-type species here, just shaking their heads when I claim they're all the same thing.

Coatis are distributed from southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas south through here all the way to northern Argentina. Here we also have Raccoons, the same species as in North America, but Coatis seem to be more common.

*****

PINE FERN IN A PINELESS LAND
Here's an important truth I've learned in this life: It's always a good idea to check out any bedrock outcropping in the area. Cracks and seams in weathered bedrock provide microhabitats unlike those of the surrounding area. Plants and animals capable of living there will display special adaptations for extremes of temperature, water availability, nutrient deficiencies and toxicities, extremes of lighting, and more.

So, I wasn't surprised the other day a few kms north of Pisté when I got off the bike and walked over to a limestone outcropping and found a species of fern not noticed here yet, the so-called Pine Fern, ANEMIA ADIANTIFOLIA, whose curious fronds are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226an.jpg.

Northern fern-lovers will recognize similarities of the Pine Fern to the North's Rattlesnake Fern, Botrypus virginiana. Both species have thrice-pinnate, triangular fronds, and spores produced on brownish items poking skyward from the point of attachment of the green blade with its petiole. One profound difference between the two species is that Rattlesnake Fern fronds bear just one skyward-pointing thingy while Pine Ferns have two. Other more profound but less noticeable differences exist, because really the two species aren't closely related, being in different fern families. In fact the Flora of North America places the Pine Fern genus Anemia in its own family, the Anemiaceae.

Pine Fern fronds are three-times divided. First the frond is divided into three large segments. Of those three segments the first two bear spore-producing sporangia, and they form the two brown, sky-pointing parts of the fern. The center or outer of the three primary segments is sterile, and represents itself as a normal, frilly fern frond. Then each of these three segments is divided into separate segments, and then each of those segments is further divided, then each of those ultimate segments is lobed, but not further divided.

A close-up of a cluster of sporangia can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226ao.jpg.

Pine Fern sporangia are very different from last week's Asplenium sporangia. In last week's photo, remember how the drying, shrinking annulus ruptured the sporangium's walls? That microphotograph is still at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219sp.jpg.

Pine Fern sporangia are larger and a line of annulus cells lies along each side of each slit atop each spherical sporangium -- barely visible as beaded rims on the pores in our Pine Fern sporangium photo. Sporangia are formed with closed slits. As their annulus cells lose water and shrink the slits gape open and spores fall out.

Also in that photo, at the center, bottom you can see how the stalkless sporangia are attached to the undersurface of a brown blade segment, or pinna.

Back in Querétaro we met another Anemia species, Anemia phyllitidis, whose blade was only once-pinnate. You might enjoy comparing our Pine Fern with that one at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/anemia.htm.

Though the genus Anemia is represented by only three species in North America, occurring in Texas and Florida, it's actually a fair-sized genus embracing around 117 species, with two centers of diversity -- 70 species in Brazil and 20 in Mexico.

Despite our fern being called the Pine Fern, no native pines occur here in the central Yucatan. They're called Pine Ferns in English because in Florida and on some English speaking Caribbean islands they do occur in pine woods. However, they also occur on limestone outcrops, as here, and open to lightly shaded rocky slopes from Mexico and Florida south to Ecuador and Brazil, always near sea level.

*****

JACK-IN-THE-BUSH
Several times we've noted species that begin growing as woody shrubs or trees, then when they get larger start leaning on or scrambling over other vegetation, and end up twining more or less as vines, sometimes herbaceously so. I suspect that this is an adaptation to the region's hurricanes. In our dry, scrubby woods nowadays such a semi-woody bush/vine is bearing white flowers that look familiar to any Northern wildflower fancier who knows the thoroughworts and bonesets -- members of the genus Eupatorium, of the Composite or Sunflower Family. You can see our bush/vine at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226eu.jpg.

A close-up of several flower heads, each flower with two white, thread-like style-branches emerging, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226ev.jpg.

A split-open flower head showing slender, white corollas packed side-by-side, each corolla topped with five tiny teeth representing five petals, with the corollas atop their future one-seeded, indehiscent fruits, or "achenes," and very slender, white, hair-like bristles (the "pappus") atop the maturing fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226ew.jpg.

This plant is known by several English names, though none seems commonly used. Jack-in-the-Bush, Fragrant Boneset, Fragrant Mistflower, Siam Weed, Bitter bush, Devilweed... Even the plant's technical binomial is a little tricky because traditionally our plant was placed in the huge genus Eupatorium (over 1200 species), but in the 1970s when King and Robinson split up the genus it became known by the less memorable name CHROMOLAENA ODORATA.

One reason Chromolaena odorata, which is native from Mexico and the Caribbean south to Paraguay and Argentina, bears so many English names is because it's spread as a weed into much of the world's tropics. The accepted view is that the species turned up in Singapore and Malaya in the 1920s via ballast in ships from the West Indies, then spread into much of the rest of Asia. It first appeared in Africa, in Nigeria, in the 1940s, probably via contaminated seeds of a forest tree being introduced from Ceylon, and now inhabits several African countries. In many countries it's become a serious weed.

Here the plant is typical of woods edges and along trails cut through the scrub. It's a native wild plant with a slight tendency toward weediness, but certainly in no place does it "take over" or exclude the rest of the community. It doesn't appear in long-established forest, nor in very recently abandoned fields. It fits into the community of plants and animals typical of a young, semi-weedy forest, maybe one that was a cornfield 20 years ago. As such, you could say that it's well adapted for the slash-and-burn shifting agriculture that for centuries has been practiced here by the Maya.

*****

SHAGGY MANES
The Yucatán is no Mecca for mushroom pickers. For one thing the long, severe dry season is hard on moisture-loving mushrooms. For another, the soil here is too thin and low in organic matter. Still, from time to time mushrooms do pop up, and then there's yet another frustration for the mushroom picker: How do you identify them? There are no field guides here and not many mycological studies have been made in the area.

So, I was tickled the other day when I stepped from the hut and saw what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226cp.jpg.

Not only were they robust young mushroom caps soon to expand into even more photogenic parasols, but I knew what they were, more or less. From their large size (already about 3.5 inches tall, or 9 cm, despite their early stage of development), white size, conical cap shape and shaggy cap covering, these were just like emerging Shaggy Manes, COPRINUS COMATUS, I've so often seen in North America and Europe. It's a worldwide species.

By mid afternoon of that same day, already the mushrooms had grown to about six inches (15cm) and the caps had prettily expanded, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226cq.jpg.

Shaggy Manes are recognized as deliciously edible mushrooms. Mycologist Clyde Christensen once wrote a popular book for mushroomers in which he introduced the "Foolproof Four" -- four very easy to identify, consistently safe and tasty mushrooms species, and the Shaggy Mane was one of those species.

However, I didn't eat these next to my hut. For one thing, I'm still a bit skittish after getting poisoned by the Green-spored Parasol Mushroom back in Kentucky in 2006. You can read all about that incident at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/green-sp.htm.

Also, the taxonomy of the genus Coprinus is in a royal mess. There are look-alike species, and who knows what lives in the Yucatán? You might find it illuminating to read how recent genetic sequencing has really screwed up the taxonomy of a once-simple and easy-to-identify group of common mushroom species at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/may2004.html.

In mushroom identification no field mark is more important than that of spore color. I already knew that Coprinus mushrooms produce black spores, but I thought I'd make a spore print to show you just for fun. You can see what came into being when I placed the cap of a newly opened one onto a sheet of paper at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226cr.jpg.

The "black sun" at the left is the cap itself flipped onto it top. The dark, diffuse "clouds" are untold numbers of spores that dropped from the cap's radiating gills during no more than 15 minutes. The wet-looking black splotches result from the cap's margins "melting." Members of the genus Coprinus often are known as inky-caps because soon after their caps open they begin melting, or "deliquescing," black spores mingling with the juice, forming "ink."

An arresting picture shows the stem attaching to the cap's inside center, surrounded by radiating gills at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101226cs.jpg.

In some mushroom groups gills extend down the stem, in others there's a notch between the gills and continuing ridges on the stem, but here there's a conspicuous empty zone, like a moat around the stem.

On the Internet I read that researchers in China have found that the Shaggy Mane is one of several fungi (another being the common, well known and highly edible oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus) whose hyphae exude compounds that can stupefy and kill soil nematodes, which the fungi then digest with invasive hyphal threads. The Shaggy Maine is a carnivore!

*****

A BRUSH WITH MAYA HERBAL REMEDIES
In most Newsletters I mention the traditional medicinal usage of one plant or another, though my information is never firsthand. Hardly ever getting sick, there's no chance to test these remedies on myself.

However, nearly a month ago I began having diarrhea, lots of intestinal gas, low-grade fever, loss of appetite, tiredness and a worse sense of balance than usual. I diagnosed it as intestinal parasites, either "worms" or the protozoan disease Giardiasis, which is endemic to this area. Before I could begin treatment, however, I got a very bad cold, which lots of people here have since cool weather has arrived. I think the intestinal problem lowered my resistance to diseases in general so that's why I got the cold. After the cold went away, the diarrhea worsened.

I asked my shaman friend José if he could cure me. He seemed to wonder why I'd waited so long to ask. Mainly, it took me awhile to diagnose things, and then I was too sick to go to him.

First he wanted to control the cold, which by then was deep in my chest, and he told me to make teas of Ramón leaves, about a dozen leaves per tea. Ramón is a very multipurpose, important native tree, as described at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ramon.htm.

I brewed my tea one evening, then the next morning saw no difference with regard to my chest congestion, but my sinuses were completely dry for the first time in weeks. Maximino Martinez's classic Las Plantas Medicinales de México only very briefly mentions Ramón, saying that its bark has certain value as an astringent -- it puckers things.

That same day, for my intestinal "worms," I was presented with two liter bottles of still-hot, dark green herbal "tea," based on Epazote, an herb we've already used for worms in Chiapas, as described at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/epazote.htm.

Brewed with the Epazote were Spearmint leaves, stems and roots, and leaves of Hoja Santa, the common, aromatic member of the Black Pepper Family described at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/piper-au.htm.

Plantas Medicinales de México mentions no such use for Hoja Santa, but does say that certain mints are good for intestinal worms and gas.

The next morning, for the first time in days, my diarrhea, gas and woozy feeling were gone.

Well, this proves nothing. Maybe the illnesses had run their courses. Still, it's worth remembering that this one time when I've used treatments prepared by a Maya shaman, the results at least appeared to be quick and positive.

*****

POTTING BABY AGAVES
Tuesday, December 21st, the Winter Solstice, initiated Earth's natural New Year here in the Northern Hemisphere. As such it was the most appropriate day of the year for reflecting on how things are going in general, and what new beginnings are needed and possible. I spent the whole day consciously moving at a slower pace, paying more attention than usual to what it's like being a human on Earth, a spiritual being in an animal body.

It was a good day. Warmer than usual, cloudless, nice breeze, a soft, moist feeling in the air, like spring in the North. I even had a long talk with José the shaman, who with the conviction of a rural Kentucky preacher talking about Jesus on the Cross declared that Quetzalcoatl/Kukulcán was half man, half reptile, and from this mixed ancestry his great wisdom and power had arisen. A Keel-billed Toucan was spotted in the big Piich next to the garden, and yellow butterflies flitted among my pink Cosmoses. Late in the balmy afternoon I sat in the sun potting baby agaves savoring the whole day's words, thoughts, colors, perfumes, the cadence of my work, the beat of my heart as I listened only to things rooted nearby.

No new profound insight arose during that special day, in fact nothing unusual happened at all -- except for the big thing that José and I agreed on, which was this: That one cycle had ended and another like it had begun.

And that by defining what that means to us, we also define ourselves.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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