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

April 10, 2011

GROUND-DOVE PEACE DISRUPTED
So, two Ruddy Ground-Doves, Columbina talpacoti, were peaceably perched beside one another in the big, dry-season-leafless Cedro tree next to the Church, preening in early morning sunlight, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410gd.jpg.

Lots of birds called that morning, but none more loudly, shrilly and sometimes downright nerve- gratingly than the little flocks of Social Flycatchers, Miozetetes similis, who drifted from tree to tree, nervously flitting up then landing again for no apparent reason, excitedly twittering and bickering, like hyperactive little kids -- behavior fairly normal for them. Two or three flycatchers landed in the ground-doves' big Cedro, the female ground-dove appeared to decide that the moment's tranquility had ended and flew away, but the male remained, preening, maybe in macho defiance.

More flycatchers arrived and some began darting at the male, apparently trying to drive him away. If one seemed about to dive, the ground-dove would spread his rufous wings defiantly in a high, broad V as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410ge.jpg.

He'd hold his wings like that for five to ten seconds, looking around, and only when no one seemed about to attack would he put them down. Presumably the wing-spread defensive behavior makes the bird look larger and less vulnerable. But those flycatchers just wouldn't leave him alone. Again and again they'd dart near, first one on one side, then another from a different direction, and even the local Boat-billed Flycatcher got involved. You can see one flying right at the poor male despite his wings being spread at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410gf.jpg.

That attack is the one that drove the male away. It all happened so fast I couldn't decide whether actual contact was made, but you can see that the fast-moving flycatcher was well positioned for a blow.

Ground-doves feed mostly on the ground while flycatchers catch flying insects and eat small fruits and such so, really, the two species aren't competing for resources. Why would Nature produce a species like Social Flycatchers, then, who habitually go about, every day, loudly and shrilly antagonizing not only ground-doves but also many other species?

In human society we have the same thing, certain individuals and families habitually and inevitably -- even when there's no reason for it -- stirring things up, bringing confusion and disharmony wherever they go. I wonder: Could it be that in every complex, evolving system there must be, for some mysterious reason, a little random mischief and chaos? Maybe, among birds, humans and other social beings, some disruptive behavior is necessary for society's long-term maintenance.

Whatever the case, I felt sorry for the little ground-doves, who that morning seemed to want nothing more than to be left alone so they could preen together in the sunshine.

*****

IONOPSIS ORCHID FLOWERING
Most orchids need a good bit of humidity, so the Yucatán with its long, severe dry seasons isn't a particularly good place for them. So far we've documented four species around Hacienda Chichen, and I figured that that was about all I'd find. Then this week, along a forest trail, I noticed what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410io.jpg.

That's the smallest, most fragile-looking orchid found here yet, one that had grown attached to a tree twig that broke and fell, catching in weeds at a trail's edge. You can see its thick, white, nitrogen-fixing, mycorrhiza-coated roots wandering over the dead twig and a dried leaf, and groping in the air for any support at all -- as well as a small, flattened pseudobulb emerging between the bases of the two leaves at the right in the picture -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410ip.jpg.

Seeing the orchid's small size, its roots' vigorous growth, and how the plant had attached itself to a small, too-flimsy twig to begin with, I figure that this species needs less protected and stable habitats than do most orchid species. I think it's a more opportunistic, drought-tolerant species than most.

You can see one of its pale, pink-striped flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410iq.jpg.

One of the most distinctive features of that blossom, helping in identification, is the small, rounded "spur" at the bottom, rear of the flower.

One English name for this orchid is The Delicate Violet Ionopsis. It's IONOPSIS UTRICULARIOIDES, found from Mexico and southern Florida through Central America and the Caribbean south to Paraguay and Brazil in South America.

*****

WILD BASIL'S CURIOUS CALYX UNDERSTOOD
Maybe you recall the Wild Basil, Ocimum campechianum, we looked at in last month's Newsletter. The page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/wildbasl.htm.

At that time we commented on the plant's strange calyx, with its upward flaring "hood" and its lower calyx teeth's long, slender points. Now the plants have gone to seed and you can see a dried-up calyx at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410bs.jpg.

Now I think I can interpret what's going on with that calyx. In the calyx's depths, the four-parted ovary produces four little black, seedlike "nutlets." I'm guessing that the hood atop the down-tilted calyx catches breezes, shakes the calyx, and helps the nutlets dislodge and slip to their position at the calyx's lower lip where the spines begin pointing upward. Not only that, I suspect that sometimes puffs of wind hit against the hood knocking the whole calyx upwards and backwards. This causes the nutlets to jump forward where the spines below them effectively lengthen the "arm" that's throwing the nutlets out of the calyx. The extra length provided by the spines produces greater tossing power, and the nutlets are dispersed farther from the mother plant, which is desired.

Therefore: In Nature when you see something that's weird, just study it long enough and eventually you understand what's elegant and beautiful about it.

*****

LITTLE ORANGE CUCUMBER-THINGIES
Dangling from trees at the side of the road south of Pisté I spotted the strange cluster of fruits shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410cy.jpg.

The fruit cluster dangled from dead, dried-up, twining vines on which the leaves had long fallen off. I opened up a 2/3-inch long (1.7cm) fruit and saw what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410cz.jpg.

Note the scar at the far left. That's where the calyx and corolla fell off, so this fruit has developed from an "inferior ovary" -- an ovary with floral parts arising atop it, not at its base. Also, inside the little fruit it's spongy, as in a luffa gourd.

So, since this was a non-woody vine whose flowers produce inferior ovaries, and fruits with interiors like certain gourds, I figured that this was a member of the Squash/Cucumber/Gourd Family, the Cucurbitaceae, even though I'd never seen a squash, cucumber or gourd like these little orange thingies.

Knowing the family, it wasn't hard to find out which species this was by Googling all the cucurbitaceous species I didn't recognize listed for this area. The vine turned out to be CAYAPONIA RACEMOSA, sometimes given the name Mountain Melonleaf, but here in the Yucatán we have no mountains, and lots of vines have leaves similar to those of melons, so I prefer just to call it Cayaponia, which is pretty enough a name.

This species is native to the humid lowland tropics from northeastern Mexico and southern Florida south through Central America and the Antilles into northern South America. However, its flowers and fruits are seldom photographed and there's not much information available about it, so I'm tickled to contribute what we have here.

*****

EPAZOTE FLOWERING
Beside the pretty bed of Yellow Coreopsis some Epazote (eh-pa-ZO-teh) sprang up. You may recall that back in Chiapas I brewed Epazote tea to treat myself for an infestation of intestinal worms, as described at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/epazote.htm.

Here as in much of Mexico most village homes have Epazote growing nearby, not only for worm treatment but also because the strong-smelling herb tastes good in beans and is said to keep the flatulence down that normally accompanies bean eating. Up North Epazote often is called Wormseed and Mexican Tea. It's a common weed in the Southeastern US and throughout tropical America,

The Epazote next to my coreopsis was so green and luxurious looking that I couldn't bear to pull it up, so each time I watered the coreopsis I watered it, too, not caring what visitors thought about my hut- area "weediness." I like my weeds, which often are more interesting and useful than the planted things. You can see a sprig of my waist-tall Epazote plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410ch.jpg.

Those little pagoda-like things arising from leaf axils are clusters of flowers. As with other species in the Goosefoot/Beet/Spinach Family, Epazote's flowers are tiny. You can see some individual blossoms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410ci.jpg.

In that picture the yellow items are pollen-bearing anthers. Epazote flowers bear no corollas, just four or five green sepals surrounding the sexual parts like a bowl. The ovary with its single ovule is flattish and embedded in the calyx bottom. This configuration matures into a one-seeded fruit enclosed in a dry, persistent calyx. Such a bladdery, one-seeded fruit that doesn't split open when it's mature (it's indehiscent) is said to be a "utricle."

I've always known Epazote as CHENOPODIUM ABROSIOIDES, of the Goosefoot/Beet/Spinach Family, the Chenopodiaceae. But now I see that gene sequencers have shifted it to a different genus and lumped the Chenopodiaceae into the Amaranth Family, the Amaranthaceae. Now Epazote is known as DYSPHANIA AMBROSIOIDES.

*****

AMARYLLIS/ HIPPEASTRUM
At Hacienda Chichen's entrance a small gathering of knee-high garden flowers bearing clusters of nodding, orange-red blossoms is flowering nowadays, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410aa.jpg.

With so many websites dedicated to garden flowers, I thought that finding a name for our plants would be a simple matter of running a Google image-search on the keywords "orange amaryllis," then matching a resulting thumbnail picture with our flowers. However, it turned out to be harder than that.

First of all, I recognized the plants as amaryllises by their large, colorful, fleshy blossoms arising in clusters atop stiff, hollow stems, or "scapes." Also, stems and leaves arose from bulbs, which could be felt with fingers probing in the soil at the plants' bases. Similarly it was "typical amaryllis" how the plants' orange perianths (undifferentiated calyxes and corollas) were funnel shaped, with long, recurving stamens attached high on the funnels' walls, not atop the ovaries. An opened flower showing this is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410ac.jpg.

In that picture you can also see the oval ovary atop which the perianth arises, at the far left of my hand. A close-up showing ovules in the opened ovary is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410ae.jpg.

All that was pretty straightforward. The challenge arose trying to match our Hacienda plants with a Google-found, identified amaryllis.

One problem was that the vast majority of plants I've always thought of as amaryllises turn out to be members of the genus Hippeastrum. The genus Amaryllis does exist, but it's much less represented in Nature and gardens than Hippeastrum. How this confusion arose is too complicated to dwell on.

A second reason it was hard to match a picture is that the genus Hippeastrum, native mostly to Mexico and South America, embraces about 90 species, from which more than 600 hybrids and cultivars have been developed.

Still, just by matching pictures, it looks like what we have here at Hacienda Chichen is what's known as the Barbados Lily -- even though it's not a lily -- with the binomial Hippeastrum equestre. It appears that our plants may have little or no hybridization in their histories, and thus may be pure or almost-pure representatives of the original parent species. Most Hippeastrum species are disappearing in the wild.

In fact, nowadays among serious gardeners there's a sort of backlash taking place, whereby the old, relatively plain-looking Mexican and South American "species" -- not-hybridized or perpetuated mutants -- are "rescued" by being planted instead of the gaudy, gene-manipulated, miniature-poodle-like flowers flooding the market today.

*****

SIAMESE-TWIN TOMATO
At the frutería in Pisté as I was picking this week's tomatoes from a big tray I did a double-take when I came across the unusual item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410x2.jpg.

I've seen lots of twined squashes but this was my first Siamese-twin tomato. You can see a cross section at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410x4.jpg.

On the Internet I see that others have encountered the same curiosity, and the phenomenon, which occurs in a wide variety of plants, is known as "fasciation," or "cresting." The technical explanation is that it occurs when the growing tip of something -- the "apical meristem" -- spreads perpendicularly to the direction of its normal growth, producing flattened, ribbon-like, or elaborately contorted tissue. It can occur in stems, roots, fruits or flower heads, and among its causes are random mutations in growing cells, bacterial, viral and fungal infections, mite and insect attacks, frost, and chemical and mechanical damage. Fasciation is rare overall, but has been observed in at least a hundred different plant species.

You may be familiar with various forms of Cockscomb plants producing solid, broad, convoluted flower heads. Those heads are said to be "fasciated."

*****

GOOD-SMELLING COMPOST
As the dry season got underway our deciduous trees began losing their leaves. The garden crew worked hard to rake the leaves up, to maintain the Hacienda's lush, green look.

Then we ran the leaves through a shedder and as the shredded leaves mounted up layers of dusty cow manure from a local rancho were thrown atop them. Then each morning I began treating the pile as a compost heap, first making it into a forty-ft-long windrow, then periodically shoveling through the whole thing aerating and adding water.

Now we know the answer to the question, "Can you compost in the tropics?" You can see our compost at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410cm.jpg.

What a miraculous change our heap microbes have wrought! Sometimes the heat created as the microbes decomposed our organic matter was so intense you could hardly hold your hand inside the heap. From tattered leaves and cow manure now we have moist, spongy, nutrient-rich material that smells wholesome enough to bed down into. Some smart folks in Mérida even have bought some for their thin-soiled gardens.

*****

ALTOCUMULUS UNDULATUS CLOUDS
Here in the late dry season cold fronts from the north no longer are making it this far south, bringing us cooling "nortes," nor are rainstorms forming, so I was afraid that for this Newsletter I'd have no new cloud type to report on. However, just after dawn one day this week I looked up and saw the nifty sight shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110410un.jpg.

Within two minutes most of those cloud-roles had dispersed, and within ten minutes the whole thing was gone. It was an ephemeral phenomenon, apparently made possible by a fleeting confluence of conditions.

These rolling kinds of clouds are known by two names, depending on how high they are. There's Stratocumulus undulatus at lower levels, and Altocumulus undulatus at higher levels. On the Internet, Hui Tai-wai of Hong Kong Observatory writes:

"To casually distinguish a stratocumulus undulatus from an altocumulus undulatus, stretch your arm and point your hand towards the cloud strips that are well above the horizon. If the strip exceeds the width of the middle three fingers, then it is most likely the former."

Using that criterion -- apparently based on the concept that the farther away something is the smaller it looks -- what's in our picture is high-level Altocumulus undulatus, for our cloud-rolls were smaller than three fingers across.

Undulating cloud patterns are formed in various ways. Often I've seen them where flowing air masses encounter mountain ranges. Sometimes they're generated at the boundary between two air layers with different densities and traveling at different velocities. Maybe the latter condition caused our undulations, for that morning a cold front from up North was stalling out to our north, held back by southerly winds blowing up from Chiapas and Guatemala.

However undulating cloud patterns are formed, the same meteorological physics is involved. Up and down motion of air somehow is induced in the atmosphere. When enough moisture is present, a cloud will form where air rises above the condensation level, but dissipate where it dips below the level. Eventually cloud strips and gaps arrange themselves in alternating patterns.

*****

DECEMBER 21, 2012
Some say that the end-date of the current 5,125-year- long cycle of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, or Mayan Calendar, occurs next year on December 21st, and that that will coincide with the end of the world. Astronomical alignments have been evoked to support the theory, envisioning catastrophic earthquakes, collisions with black holes, and more. Bring in the Seven Signs of the Apocalypse and Nostradamus's predictions, and you get "unabashed doomsday hype and the worst kind of inane sensationalism," as one critic framed it.

Other than a daily visit to the BBC International News Page on the Internet, I've missed out on the "2012 Phenomenon," as Wikipedia calls it -- their fine page on it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon.

Still, I was curious what real Maya think about the matter, so I asked my Maya shaman friend José. He says that, yes, it's the end of a Long Count, but that only means that it's the beginning of another. I asked José if people should be doing anything in preparation for the event, and without skipping a beat he told me this:

"In preparation for the new beginning, we need to be cleansing and purifying our bodies and spirits."

He was thinking about ceremonies needing to be conducted, about fasts and sweatbaths to be undertaken, and about people getting their minds and spirits in order for the big change.

I don't buy any of this "2012 Phenomenon" hype.

However, I do agree totally with José's notion that at this time in the evolution of humanity it's the exact right moment for each of us to undergo physical and spiritual cleansings and purifications. That's because most of us pollute and abuse our bodies, and so much of what we've become as human beings falls far below our potentials. And December 21st, 2012 is as good a target date as any for our having exorcized our demons and deficiencies, and to start over with renewed energy and vision.

Many paths can help us cleanse and purify ourselves. One randomly encountered but well thought-out path available on the Internet is suggested by Abraham Maslow's ideas on "self-actualization," outlined here.  

For my part, I'm renewing my efforts to understand and to harmonize my life with the teachings of the Six Miracles of Nature, as described at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

And on December 21st, 2012, I suspect I'll celebrate some kind of renewal and rebirth with anyone who wants to celebrate with me.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim