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

February 6, 2011

THE ANI'S ZYGODACTYL FEET
This week among the birds quenching their thirst at my birdbath was a small flock of Groove-billed Anis, a species widely distributed from southern Texas through tropical America to northern Chile and Argentina. Common in ranchlands, they're only occasional around the Hacienda. This week's birds may have come looking specifically for water, for they drank deeply and long.

Being so close, I got a good look at their zygodactyl feet -- feet with two toes pointed forward and two backward, like a woodpecker's. But anis aren't closely related to woodpeckers. They're in the Cuckoo Family, along with roadrunners, the whole family having zygodactyl feet. You can see two thirsty anis at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206zy.jpg

When anis fly around they issue loud, squeaky notes, so you know when they're in the neighborhood. They drank quietly but when my camera made a whirring noise one of them issued a soft, two-note k'-IP!, and off they flew in a flash.

*****

A MIDDLE AMERICAN SMOOTH-SCALED RACER
One afternoon the fishpond contained a two-ft-long, slender snake with the tip of his tail wrapped around a snapped-off tree limb. He didn't float the way a watersnake does, though, but rather was awkwardly kinked and his head was mostly underwater. He was drowning. You can see him retrieved and revived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206ra.jpg.

Since head-scale patterns are so important in snake identification I took the head-top picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206rb.jpg.

As well as the shot of the side of the head seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206rc.jpg.

It was a Middle American Smooth-scaled Racer, DRYADOPHIS MELANOLOMUS, a species less likely to have fallen from a tree than to have tumbled into the pool and been unable to escape. The species is considered a denizen of the forest floor.

Back in 2006 I ran across this same species behind a potted plant on a patio near Telchac Pueblo 56 air-miles (90km) northwest of here. That snake is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ss-racer.jpg..

That picture shows a snake that's basically dark red, while our snake is grayish brown. It turns out that the species comes in several color variations. Jonathan Campbell in his Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize remarks that in Guatemala he's seen olive-brown and deep reddish orange phases occurring side by side. That's unusual because sympatric races generally interbreed and blend. No one knows what's going on here -- what's keeping the color phases distinct. Whatever is happening, now we can report something similar in the Yucatán. Someday a graduate student someplace in the world will be tickled to read these words.

Middle American Smooth-scaled Racers mostly feed on other reptiles, especially lizards, as well as reptile eggs, frogs and sometimes small rodents.

*****

BEIGE COTTON
In an abandoned lot at the edge of Pisté I saw a leg-tall cotton plant with opening bolls releasing wads of fluffy cotton. Back in Mississippi we had lots of that at a certain time of year, but this was unlike any plant I've ever seen up there. The plant appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206ct.jpg.

A close-up showing what was special about it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206cu.jpg.

What's unusual is that the cotton fibers aren't pure white the way cotton up North is. It's light brown, or beige, so here was something to figure out.

Cotton plants belong to the genus Gossypium in the Hibiscus Family. Several Gossypium species naturally occur in both Eurasia and the Americas. Our Pisté plant probably is GOSSYPIUM HIRSUTUM. Happily, my questions about beige Mexican cotton were more than answered by a wonderful, illustrated article by James Vreeland entitled "The Revival of Colored Cotton," from a 1999 issue of Scientific American freely accessible on the Web at http://www.perunaturtex.com/scientif.htm.

Pictures in that article show handsome, multihued textiles displaying a rich variety of natural cotton-fiber shades, including dark chocolate brown. Vreeland writes, "It appears that these colors were intentionally differentiated and bred by ancient Peruvian fisherfolk, who made nets and lines from the darker shades because they were less visible to fish."

I figure that our Pisté plant is nothing less than a relict of ancient cotton populations, harkening back to a time before humans began thinking that all cotton needed to be white.

By the way, Fray Diego de Landa, in his 1566 Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán often mentions how the Maya, both before and after the Spaniards' arrival, slept under cotton blankets and in war wore cotton jackets as body armor. In his Chapter 49 he writes that two kinds of cotton were planted: an annual dying after its first year and; a small tree that produced cotton for five or six years.

In 2006, not far from Telchac Pueblo near the Yucatán's northwestern coast, we met a "Tree Cotton," Gossypium hirsutum. You can see the Telchac Pueblo Tree Cotton at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/treecott.htm.

*****

POEPPIG'S ROSEMALLOW
Not far from the beige cotton, also in an abandoned lot in Pisté, stood a head-tall plant with bright red flowers 1-1/3 inch long (3.5cm) shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206mv.jpg.

With stamens arising from a cylinder surrounding the five-branched style like that, you probably recognize the plant as a member of the Hibiscus Family. In fact it's a member of the genus Hibiscus itself, HIBISCUS POEPPIGII, though its English name usually is given as Poeppig's Rosemallow. The species is limited to Mexico, Guatemala, The Antilles, and southern Florida. In Florida it's listed as endangered.

In the picture, the fuzzy items below the flowers are seeds affixed with long hairs, the hairs surely aiding in dissemination by wind. Seeing such seeds you can easily imagine how the cotton plant evolved its fiber-embedded seeds, and cotton also is a member of the Hibiscus Family. If you look closely you can also make out the Hibiscus's open capsule which, before it opened to release seeds, was shaped somewhat like a cotton plant's boll.

A field mark distinguishing Poeppig's Rosemallow from other Hibiscus species is that many of its vegetative parts are thickly invested with sharp, branched hairs -- "stellate" hairs -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206mw.jpg.

*****

TREE CALLED "SPRING"
Nowadays along Pisté's backstreets and in abandoned lots there's a small, leafless tree dazzlingly flowering and when I see its six-inch-long (15cm) racemes of glowing-white flowers against the blue sky, shaking in the wind, I'm filled with nostalgia. You can see a small part of one of these trees at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206cc.jpg.

A close-up of a ¾-inch long (2cm) flower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206cd.jpg.

The flowers may remind readers in the US Northeast of those of Redbuds, and that's appropriate because this tree like the Redbud is a member of the Bean Family. We've seen that most flowers in the Bean Family are "papilionaceous," with a big "standard" petal atop the blossom, two "wings" along the sides, and two petals below joined along their common margins to form a scooplike "keel." With that in mind I removed a flower's nearest wing and the near side of its keel so you can see how the flower's ten or so stamens' filaments are fused into a cylinder split at its top. The cylinder envelops the ovary, which has a slender, upturned style with a tiny, blunt stigma, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206ce.jpg.

Though here during the dry season most of these trees are leafless, a few are sprouting new foliage. You can see a tree's once-pinnate leaves, which look a lot like those of the US Northeast's Black Locust, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206cf.jpg.

This is GLIRICIDIA SEPIUM and while it's a native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America, it's also one of the most widely planted of all trees in the world's tropics -- explaining why it has a world of common names, including the English ones Quick-Stick and Cocoa Shade.

The reason this tree is planted so often is that it's one of the most useful and welcome of all tropical trees. Cut a leg-long stick of it, shove it into the ground, and it grows into a new tree in a single season. Place many sticks in a row and in a few months you have a "living fence." Livestock love eating its leafy branches, and it's good for them, having a crude protein content of 18-30% and a high digestibility.

In Spanish sometimes the tree is called Mata Ratón, or "Mouse Killer," because leaves and bark mixed with ground corn can be used as a rodenticide. You can read a great deal about this very multipurpose tree here

Many years ago the first time I saw Gliricidia sepium so audaciously prettily flowering and abundant outside my south-moving, wintertime bus window I scooted toward the next seat and asked the straw-hat-wearing, stubbly-chinned old fellow there what the tree was called. "Primavera," he smiled... "Spring." It was a perfect name, for seeing it has always meant, to me, the end of that's season's winter.

By the way, usually "Spring's" flowers are pinkish, very reminiscent of the US's Redbuds, but flowers I've seen here are white as in the picture.

*****

HOW DO PEANUTS GET UNDERGROUND?
Before Wilfrido the milpa man left for a job elsewhere he planted some peanuts. Now the plants are up and flowering, and when one passes them it's hard to escape the question, "If the plants have flowers on their branches, and peanuts with their shells are regarded as actual fruits, or legumes (and they are), then how do peanut legumes get underground?" Wilfrido's plants show us.

First, take a look at the pinnately compound leaves, broadly based green stipules at the petioles' bases, and a small, yellow flower in the crook of my index finger of a Peanut plant, ARACHIS HYPOGAEA, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206pn.jpg.

Peanut plants are members of the Bean Family and have papilionaceous flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206po.jpg.

Since the unit comprising the Peanut's shell with its two or three "nuts" inside is actually a legume-fruit with the "nuts" being beans, or seeds, the shell with its contents began as an ovary in a self-pollinated flower such as the one above.

But such flowers wither quickly, leaving only their stalks, or pedicels, and at the tip of each pedicel an ovary. The purplish pedicel quickly begins enlarging and elongating. You can see such a pedicle at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206pp.jpg.

In that picture, the slender stem curling into the lower right corner is an old pedicle that shriveled and died for lack of water. The new pedicle is the purple, sharp-pointed thing atop my fingertip. Eventually this pedicle will reach the ground and burrow into it, driving the ovary before it. But, in the picture, where is the ovary?

With a razor I made a longitudinal section of the pedicle, cutting right through the tip, and I saw nothing looking like ovules or anything to do with an ovary. Therefore, I just have to take the expert's word when he or she writes, "After fertilization, the flower stalk of the peanut curves downward, and the developing pod is forced into the ground by the proliferation and elongation of cells under the ovary."

It's amazing that such a common plant as the Peanut behaves so outlandishly. In fact, its genetic history as outlined on its Wikipedia page also sounds a bit unusual. There it's stated that the Peanut plant is...

"... an amphidiploid or allotetraploid, meaning that it has two sets of chromosomes from two different species, thought to be A. duranensis and A. ipaensis. These likely combined in the wild to form the tetraploid species A. monticola, which gave rise to the domesticated peanut. This domestication might have taken place in Paraguay or Bolivia, where the wildest strains grow today."

In the 1530s when Spanish conquistadores entered Montezuma's capital city Tenochtitlan, known today as Mexico City, peanuts were being offered in the metropolis's vast, well provisioned marketplace. Since the plant is thought to have originated in the Peruvian Andes, there must be a good story about how peanuts got from the Andes to here.

*****

TITTY FRUIT
Several times I'd biked by the stonewall-encircled, little thatch-roofed hut in Pisté, hoping to see someone outside it. This time there was, the señora hanging laundry. So I asked her if I could take a picture of the crazy-looking fruit on the knee-high, straggly, spiny-leafed plant next to her hut. She seemed tickled that I'd be interested, so the picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110206tt.jpg.

Titty Fruit is one of many names this semi-woody perennial goes by. Also Nipplefruit, Cow's Udder, Apple of Sodom, and others. Just looking at the fruit obviously stirs the imagination. It's SOLANUM MAMMOSUM, a member of the Black Nightshade or Tomato Family, and it's fairly closely related to the Tomato -- though its fruit is poisonous. It's native to South America but has escaped cultivation in much of tropical America and probably other tropical countries as well.

Since it's not native to our area the Maya don't recognize uses for it other than as a curiosity, and it's true that the Maya enjoy growing unusual plants and animals. Other cultures, however, have been documented using Titty Fruit for athlete's foot, irritability and restlessness, plus sometimes juice from the fruit can be lathered up and used as a detergent.

*****

MÉRIDA'S SEWER SYSTEM
The other day a European NGO asked me to write an article about the Yucatán to be included in a book about Mexico's freshwater biotopes. While doing my research I found something interesting:

Mérida, Yucatán's capital city of about a million inhabitants, has no sewer system. Maybe that explains why the several times I've been there when it rained the streets overflowed with deep water.

It also puts into a new light such questions as to whether the area's groundwater is being polluted, and why establishments fancy enough to have flush toilets always ask that you drop the used toilet paper into a basket beside the commode, and not flush it. Theoretically, toilets lead to septic tanks, and toilet paper can clog up septic tanks.

A retired US blogger living in Mérida, "Merida Mikey," offers a fine description of what's going on here.

*****

MYSTERY <--> HAVING THINGS EXPLAINED
When Newsletter readers Eric and Mary from New York stopped by I showed them inside the traditional Maya hut in which I live. I told them about the mystical Maya concept of feminine threeness and masculine fourness, and how those elements were embodied in the hut, its triangles and quadrangles, pointing out the three stones upon which the woman bakes tortillas on a comal, the hut's four muscular corner posts, etc.

Eric wistfully wondered what we'd lost as modern people no longer living in a world of potent symbols and magic. It was an interesting question. Has knowledge bequeathed us with a sterile, uninspiring, mechanistic world not as interesting, enriching and beautiful as a world filled with traditional magic?

Half a second of thought reminded me that such isn't the case. In fact, when you think about it, what we have here is another of those beautifully symmetrical, seemingly paradoxical, married points of reality we've sometimes spoken of. Here it is:

On one side there's symbolism and magic, and, on the other, explanations developed through rational thought and experimentation. The two points are married because in every community there are people who recognize their ignorance and seek to understand what they don't know. This mental effervescence very slowly gathers facts and draws conclusions, and the whole community is lead from the world of fantasy into one of explained phenomena.

But, the lovely paradox is that -- as any scientist will tell you -- the more we understand of any complex subject, the clearer it is that there's so much more we don't understand. The more information at hand, the more mysterious and magical everything proves itself to be. And, overall, the more amazing it is that even the most brilliant among us can never answer the most fundamental question of all: Why things exist in the first place...

MAGIC --> KNOWLEDGE --> MAGIC

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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