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

March 13, 2011

SQUIRRELS ON A CHASE
This week our endemic Yucatan Gray Squirrels have been putting on a show -- or rather a chase. You'd see maybe ten of them filing through the trees, jumping from one tree to another, as if playing follow-the- leader.

The leader was a female in heat and the followers were males with aspirations. It was a thing to see. Sometimes the female would come to the tip of a branch in a bad position for jumping to another tree, she'd turn around, chatter and look menacing, the guys behind her would stop, stare, and then retreat enough to allow her escape, and then the chase would start again. It was as if they all understood that it was a chase for the chase's sake, and that it wasn't really for anyone to be caught, at least not right now.

I've seen chases like this up north among Eastern Gray Squirrels. In fact, in my online book "Mistletoe: One Year in the Life of a Gray Squirrel," such a chase is described in Chapter Two, downloadable at http://www.backyardnature.net/mist02.htm.

In that chapter I describe behaviors witnessed among park squirrels in Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee, where I lived for some years. Our Yucatan squirrels do everything the Centennial Park ones did, including the males gnawing on bark the female had just run over leaving her scent. Something I saw one hormone-intoxicated male do here that no squirrel in Tennessee ever did, however, was to rush up to a big iguana sunbathing on a limb and apparently nip the iguana's tail, causing a great tail-swipe at the squirrel's head. Who knows what that was all about? Maybe the squirrel was just so frustrated he felt he had to nip something.

Usually the way it works is that the males least at their sexual peak and physical prowess drop out of the chase after a few hours, but the real machos stick with it until late in the day. By that time the few individuals remaining are tired and really psyched up. Maybe there has to be a fight or two among the remaining males. Then finally the last one remaining has the honor of mating.

Our Yucatan Gray Squirrel page with pictures is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/squ_gray.htm.

*****

YUCATÁN RED-RUMPED TARANTULA UPDATE
This week Daniel of the garden crew brought me a tarantula he'd found beneath sod being removed from Hacienda Chichen's lawn. You may remember the small, pale tarantula we had last month, which an expert up North thought might be the endemic Brachypelma epicureanum. What was interesting was that this world-renown expert wasn't really sure what it was because tarantulas from this area are so poorly known to science, though we who live here see them all the time. You can see last month's small, pale one at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/red-rump.htm .

Daniel's tarantula this week was larger than the one before, and blacker. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313tt.jpg .

The ruler sizes it as about 7cm long, which is 2-¾ inches long. This is smaller than most similar-looking tarantulas in mainland Mexico, supporting the notion that it might be the endemic B. epicureanum.

Whatever it is, I'm tickled to be able to help the experts by posting my pictures and stories like this.

While I had this tarantula I flipped him over and shot his mouth area, where you can clearly see two black, shiny fangs in the center of the picture. That photo is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313tu.jpg.

*****

LEAFMINERS ON AN AGAVE
You might recall from back in Chiapas our finding leafminer "art" on a variety of leaves. Leafminers are insect larvae. An insect implants an egg inside a leaf, the larva hatching from the egg begins migrating through the leaf eating the leaf's tissue as it goes, growing as it eats and travels, until finally it splits through the leaf's skin and metamorphoses into an adult, who flies away to mate, and start the whole cycle over again. Tunnels left behind in the leaves by leafminers often show very clearly. You can see some at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/leafmine.htm.

I'd never thought about leafminers tunneling through very tough, thick blades such as those produced by our large agaves, but they do, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313lm.jpg.

That's a two-ft-long section (60cm) of blade. Notice how -- as with all leafminer tunnels -- one end of each trail is narrow (the point of egg insertion) while the other end is broad (where the adult escapes from). You can see the black escape hole at each broad end.

*****

DAMAGED BANANA CROP
Critters just love the bananas produced in our little banana plantation. Because of animal damage I can't recall a single good harvest since I've been here. Long before the green fruits ripen, woodpeckers, orioles and other birds as well as fruit bats hollow out the skins, leaving dark, moldy interiors, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313ba.jpg.

Down in Chiapas, Tabasco and Campeche where it's rainier and bananas are grown in large plantations they place plastic bags over each banana stalk. That not only keeps out animals but also encourages even ripening over the whole stalk.

Actually, here it's too arid to be growing bananas, other than as a novelty. Despite assiduous watering, our trees during the dry season look pretty raggedy.

*****

WILD BASIL
About a month ago I was deep in the forest when along a shadowy trail I noticed what appeared to be a two-ft-tall (60cm) member of the Mint Family -- a darkish herb with two leaves arising at each node (opposite leaves) and with square stems. Pinching a leaf to see if it smelled, I wasn't prepared for the intensity of the minty fragrance that exploded around me. The odor was like very strong, sweetish anis. The plant wasn't flowering yet, however, so I couldn't identify it.

Now it's flowering, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313oc.jpg.

Actually, those items looking like green flowers are nothing but calyxes, the white corollas having not emerged yet, or already fallen off. A close-up of some of the curiously "hooded" calyxes is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313oe.jpg.

It's strange about the corollas -- that on the hundreds of plants examined, only rarely were corollas seen emerging from their calyxes, though they did litter the ground below the plants. If a corolla was in place when the plant was slightly jolted, the corolla fell off. I've seldom seen such loosely attached corollas. I did find one still in place, though, its four violet-filamented stamens tipped with tan anthers, and a violet, fork-tipped style, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313od.jpg.

That picture also shows better the remarkable "cap" atop a calyx in its lower, left corner.

Locally this plant is well known by the Maya, who mostly use the Spanish name for it, Albahaca de Monte, which means "Forest Basil." English speakers are bound to call it "Wild Basil." It's OCIMUM CAMPECHIANUM, which means that it belongs to the same genus as Garden Basil, Ocimum basilicum, so our forest species is real basil and a real Mint Family member. Now that I think about it, its odor really is like very strong basil, with an herby undertaste.

Having the name, I could look up the plant on the Internet. I found pictures of the plant bristling with well formed corollas, so my observations about loosely attached corollas are even more curious. The literature reports that the species' preferred habitat is open, rocky, gravelly or sandy soil where sometimes it grows weedily. Our plants are in shady forest soil, so maybe their corollas fall easily because of suboptimum environmental conditions.

All the Wild Basil I've seen grows along forest trails so one day when some local Maya beekeepers parked their car at my hut before heading into deep forest I asked them outright if they'd sowed Albahaca del Monte along their trails. The head guy looked sheepish, as if he'd been discovered doing something bad, and admitted that he had, because bees love that plant, and if you sow it once it just keeps spreading itself year after year. What a pretty moment! I laughed so hard that immediately he knew I'd have done the same thing.

Ocimum campechianum occurs fairly regularly throughout most of the American Tropics, including southern Florida, where it is regarded as endangered.

Standley writes that in Belize a tincture of the plant's leaves in rum is used as a lotion to relieve rheumatism.

*****

OLD BEEKEEPER ALONG THE TRAIL
Speaking of the beekeepers, we're quite good friends. When they park next to my hut I give them potted plants and seeds and they tell me stories and give information like that above, though always only in brief spurts. Among the Maya, nowadays the beekeepers nearly always are older, smarter, more traditional men who husband their time and energies and have little time to shoot the breeze with useless gringos.

Anyway, recently early one morning I saw a beekeeper coming down the trail I walk each day soon after dawn to visit the garden, and I took his picture. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313bs.jpg.

The little man is carrying on his back an extractor, a barrel-like machine used to extract honey from its comb. You turn the combs inside the barrel around and around so fast that honey slung from them splatters against the barrel's walls and drains to the bottom where it's collected.

The extractor is heavy and must be carried several kilometers over irregular forest floor. These old guys are tough. And they do such things as sow Albahaca del Monte along their isolated trails.

*****

PULL-BACK-AND-HOLDS FRUITING
Maybe you remember back in Querétaro our running into that woody, super-spiny, vinelike bush so famed for its ripping and tearing of passers-by skins that in English it's known as Pull-Back-and-Hold. We profile it at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/pisonia.htm.

That formidable plant occurs here, too, and nowadays is laden with overlapping, spherical clusters of club-shaped fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313ne.jpg.

Three fruits sticking in my hairs are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313nf.jpg.

The special thing about the fruits is that that they bristle with stalked, sticky glands. The fruits stick to you as with glue. A botanist writing on the Internet says that even on fifty-year-old herbarium specimens the fruits remain sticky. It's reported that birds can become entangled in the sticky fruit-orbs, though it's hard to imagine an adaptive advantage that might offer the plant.

While photographing the above fruits I began noticing a certain fuzziness about the bottoms of my feet. In what is surely the first picture in human history of the phenomenon of Pull-Back-and-Hold fruits sticking to the bottom of a human foot, you can see what I felt at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313ng.jpg.

*****

XTABAY IN THE BONETE TREE
Bonete trees, a native, common component of the Yucatán's forest, are closely related to Papayas. They produce a torpedo-shaped fruit with a good Papaya taste, so the local Maya are often seen with long sticks knocking fruits off to eat. We discuss Bonetes at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jacarati.htm.

The other day my friend Luis and I were talking about this year's big Bonete crop when he casually mentioned that in his village behind his family's house there used to be an enormous one, one much larger than you ever see nowadays, but the neighbors started complaining about the Xtabay living in it, so they had to cut it down.

Well, everyone here knows that Xtabays (EESH-tu-BAIS), pose a singular threat: If you're a good ol' boy wandering home late at night drunk, you very well may meet up with a strange woman who'll entice you into a little fooling around, and then the next morning you'll wake up all tangled in a thorn patch, your clothes and skin torn to pieces and feeling awful. You'll have been afflicted with the viento malo, or "bad wind," that leaves you with a terrible headache and innumerable indefinable pains and miseries that no doctor can cure, only a traditional curandero, who knows the right spells.

Though many say that Xtabays live only in big Ceiba trees, others like my friend know they also are found in all kinds of overly large trees, such as the cut-down Bonete. Everyone in Pisté knows where the Ceiba is in which the local Xtabay lives. And all across the Yucatán if you're a tree that somehow has survived generations of hurricanes, wildfires and all the rest, you're going to attract an Xtabay, and then the local good folks will have to cut you down to get rid of that Xtabay.

I've been thinking about how such a practice could have arisen. Maybe the Xtabay-tree-cutting impulse arises from the urge for uniformity that traditional, tightly knit communities impose on their members, to keep problems from arising because of inequalities of any kind. Super big trees draw special attention to the property owners, so the culture, unable to articulate such an abstract and debatable premise as the need to for everything to be evened out, and being too dogmatic to make exceptions for trees, comes up with Xtabays, and cuts down the trees they live in.

Another way that belief in Xtabay might be adaptive is that by eliminating outstanding features such as super-big trees the community enhances it chances of avoiding dangerous, unpredictable influences of the outside world by being overlooked because of its mediocrity.

Anyway, even understanding why the Maya may need Xtabays in their culture, thinking of those folks cutting down such a big Bonete because it had an Xtabay in it, I just want to spit.

*****

MYSTERY PICTURE
What do you see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313un.jpg?

That's something I see every day, though usually I don't pause and savor the colors, pattern, and texture of the thing. Usually what's shown in the picture is just a small part of something larger that from normal distance doesn't look pretty at all.

You're seeing a maybe two-inch square (5cm) section of the edge of a banana leaf. It's an old leaf dying back from its margins, its margins dark brown and brittle where all the cells have died. Next to the brownness it's turning yellow where the cells' green chlorophyll has disappeared but the cells themselves haven't yet collapsed. Cells in the green area still contain chlorophyll and aren't dead yet. The narrow vertical bands are the leaf's veins -- parallel veins, as is typical of most monocot species, like the grasses and sedges -- and banana trees.

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WHERE THE FOLLOWING ESSAY CAME FROM
The following essay turned out moodier than I'd planned for it to, but when I consider where it came from, maybe I understand.

Maybe you can, too, if you visualize it being penned one late afternoon as I sat before the hut, beneath a slowly changing cumulus-cloud sky, in a white chair with a blue mug of lemongrass tea on its arm, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110313hu.jpg.

*****

BUDDHA'S CLOUD
In the tropical dry season, on a late afternoon, white cumulus clouds come and go in the blue sky. Each cloud is a perfectly composed Buddha. Sitting outside the hut, I admire the clouds' tranquility, silent dignity and perfect composure.

And yet, in small planes I've flown through such clouds, so I know about the updrafts in them. It always seemed to me that those interior winds revealed the clouds' urge to grow, to engorge on heat and humidity from below, ultimately to thunderhead into the very stratosphere. Inside every summery cumulus cloud, I think, there's the secret wish to make a storm, a storm so turbulent and full of itself that at maturity it must of needs erupt as lightning and thunder, wind and rain, violence and purification.

I think every cloud dreams of raining onto the Mother Earth, of summoning forth upon her plains vast swaths of lush greenness, of engendering untold life and growth, frogponds lustily calling at midnight, vast, seething swarmings of glisten-winged dragonflies and midges with hungry swallows darting among them, and those swallows' heartfelt symphonies of satisfied callings after the rain has ended, in the purple evening sky.

But, in the tropical dry season, no cloud fulfills its dream. Each cloud grows just so big, then begins vanishing, even as younger clouds with no greater destinies arise all around.

So, up in the summery sky you watch your chosen cloud's fringes grow diffuse, see whole parts of it disperse or fall away, all internal updrafts collapsing, all form and dream yielding to serene, sterile emptiness.

And then you think of Buddha again, whose central message was that to end suffering one must be finished with desire.

And then you sit there, looking at the sky, remembering desire.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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