JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Mayan Beach Garden Inn 20 kms north of Mahahual
on the Yucatán Peninsula's eastern coast just north of the Belize border,
in the state of Quintana Roo, MÉXICO
(N18°53'16.36', W87°38'27" )

June 5,  2011

AGOUTIS
On an average day at least once I see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605ag.jpg.

That's a Central American Agouti, DASYPROCTA PUNCTATA, a rodent member of the mostly South American Agouti Family, the Dasyproctidae. The species is distributed from southern Mexico south through central South America.

The picture shows a small one about the size of a rabbit nosing around our compost heap, as usually it does early each morning. Adult agoutis are as big as small pigs and from a distance look just like pigs with rodent heads. Despite their rabbity manner of sitting they run like pigs, too, stiff-legged and fast, their bodies high off the ground, not hopping. However, if you scare one by quietly biking up behind him on a calm morning, he can make an amazing leap with those rabbity back legs -- more than six feet from a standing position.

Agoutis bear five toes on their front feet and three on their hind feet. They walk on their toes, not flat- footed like many rodents. The tracks I've seen show only three toes on each foot, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605ah.jpg.

Getting a good picture of an agouti has been hard because either they're grazing in morning light too dim for a sharp picture, or else in broad daylight they're zipping across roads too fast to get a camera ready. Judging from the daily collection of new prints in dust along the road, there are lots of them. When I hear animals crashing through the underbrush as my bike glides by, I'll bet that most of noise is caused by agoutis. Agoutis are diurnal -- active during the day. Mostly they eat fallen fruit, and one way to find them in dense vegetation is by listening for their gnawing on hard seeds.

One thing I'd like to photograph is their courtship ritual in which the male sprays urine on the female, who then goes into a "frenzy dance," leading up to mating. Agouti young need about 487 days to reach maturity, which seems a long time for a rodent, and the average agouti lifespan is nearly 14 years, which also seems long for a rodent.

*****

IMMATURE BOOBY
The sun was going down at the rocky point below us as I sat watching especially big waves break onto the beach. Movement in weeds not far away caught my eye. I walked over and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605bb.jpg.

At first I thought he was a seagull, but then I noticed the unusually slender, 4½-ft-across (1.4m) wings bent sharply at the wrists, and the long, straight, thick-based beak. It was an immature booby, and why wasn't he flying away? You can see a head shot at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605bc.jpg.

He just more or less sprawled atop the weeds but then he seemed to summon strength and resolve. He pulled his wings around his body and perched more birdly. He held his head up and looked around, showing his orange-yellow feet and white chest, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605bd.jpg.

No monofilament fishline or broken netting entangled is wings or legs, no plastic beer-can collars straight-jacketed his body, in fact no outward signs at all indicated why he wasn't flying away. Then it seemed that the question of why he wasn't flying away also came to him, for he squared himself a little, peered into the sky, seemed to take a big breath, he tensed himself as if about to launch into the vast, windy, ocean-smelling blueness... and fell forward, his beak sticking ingloriously into the sand. And then he just lay there, his wings sprawled as before, his beak in the sand.

I had to look away. Maybe he had a piece of plastic in his gut he'd confused for a fish. This time it looked as if he was really giving up. What could I do but walk away, damning to eternity all this plastic washed up on the beach, and every other pollutant and piece of junk that could have caused this?

Despite having such a close look, it was hard to figure out which booby species this was. In our area we have the Masked, Brown and Red-footed Boobies. The Red-footed species has a "white morph," and I figured that that's what we have here -- an immature white morph of the Red-footed Booby. Among the field marks indicating this are the bird's white chest and neck, its brown eyes surrounded by a slight bluish tinge, and the "dusky-flesh" beak with a dark tip -- all features mentioned in the "fine print" of Howell's "A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America." Happily, my friend Dave in Bermuda, a real expert on aquatic birds, agrees that it's a Red-footed Booby.

Howell also writes that Red-footed Boobies are rarely seen near mainland, and that they skim low over water chasing flying-fish. What our bird was doing among the weeds at the windy rocky point that day, I can't say.

Red-footed Boobies breed and wander widely in all the Earth's tropical waters. This week I've seen a couple of small booby flocks heading northward just offshore, even though the species permanently resides in this area.

*****

IBISES AWING
This week I've also seen a couple of flocks of White Ibises wing past our part of the beach, both flocks heading northward. You can see a flock of eleven at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605ib.jpg.

With their long, downcurved beaks and white wingtips they were easy to identify. Saying why they were so deliberately looking flying northward is harder to know, since White Ibises are permanent residents here, found year round in mangroves, brackish lagoons and even sometimes freshwater marshes. Ever since I've arrived here I've seen occasional flocks over the mangroves. Maybe the ones in the pictures were just some local folks with a hankering for fresh ocean breezes.

*****

PURPLE PINCHER
Crossing the road from the mangrove swamp to the beach, in the middle of the day, was the critter seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605hc.jpg.

Obviously the shell was produced by a snail, but snails just have one fleshy, undulating "foot." So, what we have here is a joint-legged crustacean pulling a snail shell behind him, and nearly everyone knows that that means we have a hermit crab. Hermit crabs are famous for being special crabs with asymmetrical, spirally curved, relatively soft abdomens, which they protect by moving into empty gastropod shells -- such as snail shells -- which they then drag behind them as in the photo. When threatened, they withdraw into the shell.

About 1100 hermit crab species are recognized, so which one is this? Volunteer identifier Bea in Canada found it hard to be sure, but she thinks that probably the photograph shows the most common species of the Caribbean area, which goes by several English names, including Caribbean Hermit Crab, West Atlantic Crab, Tree Crab and Purple Pincher. It's COENOBITA CLYPEATUS.

Bea was wary of this identification, however, because she couldn't see purple pinchers, a feature listed as one of the species' field marks. I had her doubts in mind the next day when another one wandered across the sandy lawn of a neighbor where I was sitting, and this one let me get right in front of him with my camera and take the purplish-pincher-showing picture seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605hb.jpg.

Larger Purple Pinchers are terrestrial, found mostly in humid woods. However, females release their fertilized eggs into the ocean, from which emerge tiny, free-floating "zoea," which float freely in the seawater for some two months regularly metamorphosing until they become "megalopas," which constitute the last of a crab's larval stage. The tiny megalopas find their first shells and begin living both on land and in the water for a month before completing their first molts. After molting the crabs emerge as juveniles and become completely terrestrial. Then as they grow they periodically shed their exoskeletons, each time abandoning their old gastropod shell, and moving into a bigger one.

Purple Pinchers are generalist omnivore scavengers that eat anything from carrion, dead fish, and fallen fruit to rotting wood and sea turtle eggs. The species ranges well inland and can climb high. You might enjoy reading much more about its complex life history here

*****

ORCHID FLOWERS TEN FEET HIGH
Here at the end of the long dry season much mangrove swampland is dry or at least has caked mud dry enough to walk on. In most places mangrove trees are so dense and entangled with one another that a human just can't get through them without cutting a path. Sometimes you find trails apparently cut by hunting or firewood-gathering locals and then you can penetrate the mangroves a little.

Inside one such mangrove a dead palm stump gave me a high perch for viewing the surrounding swamp. You can see my view across a sea of Red Mangrove at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605or.jpg.

In that picture if you look closely there are several clusters of white flowers atop slender, bamboo-like stems rising high above the mangrove. I tried to reach the flowers but the mangrove was too dense. I did get a little closer, though, so you can see what the flowering stems look like from inside the mangroves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605ot.jpg.

Happily the sunlight was intense so I could shoot at 1/1500th of a second, then in PhotoShop enlarge a tiny part of a high-resolution picture to get the shot at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605os.jpg.

Once that image was on my laptop screen it was clear that we had an orchid! But who's heard of an orchid with stalks soaring ten feet high?

The best I can determine, this is the endangered orchid MYRMECOPHILA CHRISTINAE, endemic just to coastal Yucatán. It's a rare species first noted by science only in 1998. I'm taking pains to keep the plants' location secret because many orchid fanciers would pay big money for it, and drive a long way to rob it from its habitat.

In the flower picture, notice the ants. This orchid's pseudobulbs -- egglike, water-storing growths below the blades found in many orchid species -- are hollowed out so that they provide homes for ant colonies. The ants collect nectar and presumably protect the plant from herbivores who'd eat it.

The mangroves were so dense that I couldn't get close enough to the plants to see the leaves. However, I read that the plants grow epiphytically on mangrove stems and aerial roots. Thus I can't say how long the flowering stalks are, but judging from the arcs they made heaving in the wind I'd say that the stalks were at least eight feet long (2.4m), maybe ten (3m) or more.

What an honor to see this gorgeous plant, and what a pleasure to find it growing so lustily and healthily there deep in the mangroves.

*****

LOVE-IN-A-MIST
One of my tiny triumphs here is to have introduced Marcia and some other folks along the beach to the red-fruited, three-lobed-leafed, twining vine shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605ph.jpg.

Actually, folks here already were familiar with it, knowing that it grows weedily into roadside trees and sprawls across sandy lawns that have been scalped and abandoned. They just hadn't looked closely at the red fruits and, especially, the flower's complex, pretty, 1-½ inches across (4cm) flowers, one of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605pf.jpg.

If you're a North American wildflower enthusiast you recognize the blossom as a passionflower, though those ferny appendages around the corolla won't look right. A closer look at those, showing that each needlelike section is tipped with a sticky gland, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605pg.jpg.

The ferny items are much-divided bracts, or modified leaves, subtending the flower. When something is as finely dissected as that it's said to be "fimbriate." Insects get caught among the sticky bracts, and laboratory analysis shows that the bracts' glue contains digestive enzymes. The stickiness repels flower-eating insects, but it's not known whether the plant absorbs nutrients from digested prey.

So, what we have here is truly a passionflower, one so widely distributed throughout the world's tropics that it goes by many English names, among them Stinking Passionflower, Mossy Passionflower, Wild Passionfruit, Running Pop, Wild Maracuja, and then there's the painfully evocative Love-in-a-mist. The binomial the whole world agrees on is PASSIFLORA FOETIDA, "foetida" being the Latin for "stinking," because of the odor of the vine's crushed leaves.

The kumquat-sized fruits produce a tasty pulp similar to that of market-bought passionfruits, just in much smaller portions.

Love-in-a-mist is native to the American tropics but has become a pretty weed in many Old World tropical countries.

*****

LITTLE GREEN BALLS ON THE BEACH
Lately little green balls with granular skins with the consistency of dried gelatin have been washing up on the beach. You can see one held in my fingertips at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605al.jpg.

When the ball in the picture was shaken, a bubble taking up about 1/5th of the ball's volume was clearly visible sloshing back and forth. Some balls had been broken open. You can see one of those at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605am.jpg.

Also sometimes wavy or contorted sheets of the same type show up. You can see some of that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110605an.jpg.

Clearly, there's a lot of this offshore, and something is knocking some of it loose.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario figured out what it is: One English name for it is Green Bubble Alga. It's DICTYOSPHAERIA CAVERNOSA, characterized as "an opportunistic green alga which is invasive in overfished, high nutrient reef communities." Waters off our shore are definitely overfished.

The green balls are young, budlike growths while the irregularly warped and lobed pieces are from older bodies. I read that older plants can form convoluted mats from one to ten cm thick (up to four inches) covering large areas of rocks or coral rubble in shallow, calm reef flats and in tide pools.

In fact, such solid sheets have been documented overgrowing and displacing coral on reef slopes and outer reef flats that they kill the coral by smothering. I don't know that that's happening here, but judging from the abundance of washed-up Bubble Alga bodies, I'd say that it's very possible.

At first I was excited by finding such a novelty, but now seeing so much of it has become a bit troubling.

*****

TEN YEARS OF NATURALIST NEWSLETTERS
Ten years ago, on June 10, 2001, my first Naturalist Newsletter was issued from southwestern Mississippi, USA. Back then it was called the Natchez Naturalist Newsletter because I lived as a hermit in the piney woods south of Natchez, a pretty town on high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. You can see that first Newsletter, describing the end of an outbreak of periodical cicadas we'd just experienced, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/01/010610.htm.

You can see me at that time, fixing breakfast in the outside kitchen beside my hangdog little trailer, at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/jimscamp.jpg.

During the eight or nine years of my Mississippi hermitdom, sometimes entire months passed without my saying a single word. Though it felt as if my abstract thinking grew sharper every year, it was also true that gradually I was losing my ability to think sequentially, which one must do to speak coherently. I was losing my ability to speak. One reason I began issuing the Newsletter, then, was to provide daily exercise for the communicating part of my mind. After a few months of issuing Newsletters, I did find my ability to speak effectively slowly returning.

Ten years ago I thought I might stay in that little corner of the woods forever. I was happy there.

However, in 2003 I had to leave. Fortunately, Hillary, a Newsletter reader, invited me to spend another year in the Natchez area, in his barn. Then in 2004 Newsletter reader Ana María in the Yucatán invited me to her place not far from Mérida. At the end of a winter there, Fred in California invited me for a summer up there. Then Katharine invited me back to the Yucatán. Then Ruth in Kentucky offered a summer in the Bluegrass Region. Then Diego in Río Lagartos in the Yucatán invited me to his place, and then came an invitation from Querétaro, central Mexico, to spend nearly a year there. Then there was about half a year in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, then a few weeks back in Mississippi (We're up to 2008 now), then...

Well, my wanderings are charted on the color-coded index page to all Newsletters issued since June 10, 2001 at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/index-wk.htm.

When I review the above color-coded page, randomly sampling Newsletters from this or that location, I astonish myself by having lived it all.

But, even more amazing is that, so often, just when I needed someplace to go, someone came along with an invitation that was just right.

So, on this tenth anniversary, that's the main thing I celebrate. I celebrate, and thank, all those who invited me to stay with them, from the plantation owner back in Mississippi in 2001 to Marcia here on the beach north of Mahahual, and the folks at Hacienda Chichen before Marcia, and Anita in Oregon before them, and the Maya villagers of Yokdzenote and Sabacché before Anita, and Karen in Mississippi during various in-between stays there, on and on...

Thank you!

*****

ON LIVING THE NEWSLETTER LIFE
When you run into someone who's lived a different kind of life -- such as the one the past ten years of my Newsletters describe -- it's natural to ask, "What's it like being that way? What have you learned?"

One insight into the first question is provided by this fact: The trajectory of my last ten years was directed less by intelligent and wise decision making, than by the process of elimination. During those ten years I wanted a simplified existence focusing on Nature so badly that I didn't mind ending up living in tents, unused trailers, people's barns, the ruins of buildings, Maya corncribs, thatch-roofed huts and the like. And though I wouldn't have chosen such homes over more comfortable ones if I'd had a choice, somehow once I began living where I was I always found my home experience happy and enriching in ways I hadn't anticipated.

With regard to what I've learned, the first thing coming to mind is that I've been mightily impressed by the irrepressible diversity of people, their societies, and the natural environments people and societies are rooted in. The all-encompassing evolutionary drive toward diversity is so compelling that it's clear to me that the Universal Creative Inspiration wishes it. In my system of spirituality, then, that makes diversity "sacred." I have learned to think of myself as a disciple of diversity.

Finally, what does it mean to me that I've been the one seeing, thinking about and having feelings about all the things chronicled in those ten years of Newsletters? More than anything it's this:

That, exactly in proportion to how much I've experienced and learned, I feel that much dumber and inadequate. All around me, all the time, the ever-more mysterious and majestic Universe increasingly leaves me stunned, feeling immature and unsophisticated.

If I manage to live a few more years of this Newsletter life, I can hardly imagine how utterly ignorant I'll become, and how useless and embarrassing normal humanity will come to regard me as being.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net