JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Mayan Beach Garden Inn
20 kms north of Mahahual on the Yucatan Peninsula's eastern coast just north of the Belize border, in the state of
Quintana Roo, MÉXICO
(N18º53'17", W87º38'27" )

October 2,  2011

LEAF-FOOTED BUGS
On Wednesday next to a passionflower vine I saw what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002lf.jpg.

Since I was a kid I've been familiar with leaf-footed bugs but never have I seen a species with such hugely expanded, colorful hind tibias -- leaf-feet. In the picture the bugs are mating and the one on the right has lost one of his leaf-feet, suggesting certain disadvantages to being a leaf-footed bug with super big hind tibias.

When volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario received the picture she used the Google Image Search feature searching on the keywords "leaf legged bug Mexico" and the first page of results came up with several pictures matching ours, labeled Affinis Leaf-footed Bug, ANISOSCELIS AFFINIS.

But, Bea is a fastidious person in these matters and when she checked around she realized that there are similar species and genera, and in the end could only be certain that we had a member of the Leaf-footed Bug Family, the Coreidae.

However, the bugs in our picture match other pictures of Anisoscelis affinis, plus the passionflower vine our bugs were sitting on is listed as the host plant for Anisoscelis affinis, and Anisoscelis affinis seems to be fairly common from southern Texas through Central America into South America, so I'm filing the picture under that name.

By the way, the word "bug" often is used for all insects, but technically it applies only to the "Order" of True Bugs, the Hemiptera. Our bugs belong to that order, so they're real bugs. Other true bugs include cicadas, leaf hoppers and aphids, all with mouthparts designed for sucking -- as opposed to chewing -- plus they undergo "simple metamorphosis," during which no larval or grub stage occurs. What emerges from the egg is a replica of the adult, except it's far smaller, and wingless. When a true bug feeds, its sucking, strawlike, "proboscis" is inserted like a hypodermic needle into its host plant's tissue. You can see our bug's sucking proboscis neatly stowed out of the way beneath its abdomen while not in use at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002lg.jpg.

On Wednesday I saw just our two Affinis Leaf-footed Bugs but already by Thursday the species was common along the white sand road, each and every individual near or on a passionflower vine.

*****

OWL-BUTTERFLY
Bea had a harder time tracking down the identity of the handsome, fairly large butterfly shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt098.jpg.

One problem was that we began with the assumption that, with those conspicuous circular "eyes" on the wings, we had a Buckeye butterfly or a close relation, Buckeyes being common, eye-winged butterflies up North also found here. But Bea looked at all Buckeye variations and close relatives and none were exact fits. Eventually she made a match under the name Split-banded Owl-Butterfly, OPSIPHANES CASSINA, a somewhat common species throughout much of the American tropics, specializing in disturbed areas especially near palms, which fits us exactly.

Adult butterflies feed on rotting fruits and wet dung but the green caterpillars feed on palm fronds, and it's true that ours was photographed on a Chit Palm frond petiole. Females deposit one egg each at the base of several palm fronds in late afternoon. When the larvae hatch they crawl up the fronds and begin eating the leaves. When the caterpillar is ready to pupate it builds a shelter by folding a frond section over itself.

While here I've only seen this one Split-banded Owlet, in monoculture oil-palm plantations the species' caterpillars become so abundant that plantation managers use chemicals to kill them.

The genus Opsiphanes is home to several species which in general are considered to be almost mothlike in behavior -- active nocturnally, and during the twilight of dawn and dusk, when they are "crepuscular." Ours was found in dim dawn light.

Owl-butterflies are closely related to the big Blue Morphos we've admired so in the past, despite owl-butterfly wings not being blue inside.

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WILD TURKEY DOMESTICATION
The other day Glenn outside Washington, DC wrote asking what I knew about the South Mexican Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, one of several Wild Turkey subspecies, and one which most authorities seem to regard as extinct in its native southern Mexico. Subspecies are usually geographically isolated populations displaying genetically based differences between them and the rest of the species, but the differences aren't so great that individuals from the two populations can't mate and produce viable, usually intermediate-looking offspring. The South Mexican subspecies appears to have been smaller than all other Wild Turkey subspecies occurring throughout North America.

Glenn directed me to the Domesticated Turkey's Wikipedia page where I read the following:

The Aztecs domesticated the southern Mexican subspecies, M. g. gallopavo, giving rise to the domestic turkey. The Spaniards brought this tamed subspecies back to Europe with them in the mid-16th century; from Spain it spread to France and later Britain as a farmyard animal, usually becoming the centerpiece of a feast for the well-to-do. By 1620 it was common enough so that Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts could bring turkeys with them from England...

No references were provided for the above story, plus I knew that the Aztecs didn't domesticate the turkey, since most of the turkey's domestication process took place centuries before the Aztec culture formed. Therefore, I need to confirm the story from other sources. It turned out that the Mexico --> Europe --> North America history is essentially true, plus I turned up a little extra information.

First, Wild Turkeys in southern Mexico initially were domesticated not to be eaten, but for their feathers, which were used ceremonially and for feather robes and blankets.

Also, the Anasazi of the US Southwest independently domesticated turkeys from a wild subspecies in their own area, but those birds -- both the wild and domesticated ones -- appear to have gone extinct.

You might be interested in looking over the study detailing the genetic methods used to discover that there were two centers of domestication. It's online at http://www.pnas.org/content/107/7/2807.full.

*****

WHITE MANGROVE
Mangrove swamps are the Earth's main wetland ecosystem found along tropical and subtropical coasts. The dominant woody species in mangrove swamps -- usually there's more than one -- vary from region to region. In our part of the world four tree species are regarded as mangrove indicators: Red Mangrove, Black Mangrove, White Mangrove and Buttonwood. In mangroves along the Yucatán's northern coast I've seen all four species commonly growing.

However, here 20 kms north of Mahahual on the southeastern coast, until this week I'd found only two of those four mangrove species. In deeper water and where water stands for longer periods there's the Red Mangrove, distinguished by its flaring "stilt roots" and fruits that germinate daggerlike roots while still hanging on the tree. At the water's edge or on dry land where the water table lies very close to the surface, you find the second mangrove species, Buttonwood, abundantly bearing pea-sized, cone-like fruits.

This week I found a small population of a third species, White Mangrove, LAGUNCULARIA RACEMOSA, a member of the mostly tropical Combretum Family. From just a few feet away, dense and much-branching White Mangrove looks like a green wall, but up close you begin seeing distinguishing features such as its three-inch-long (7cm) leaves with rounded or notched tips, and long, roundish petioles jutting from the stem almost at right angles. Also there are clusters of half-inch-long, thick-ribbed, leathery, roughly wedge-shaped fruits. All this is shown on a branch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002mv.jpg.

At the top of many of the stiff petioles there are two wartlike glands such as those seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002mx.jpg.

In other species often such glands exude chemicals that attract ants which protect the leaves from leaf eaters, or maybe the glands produce chemicals that themselves repel leaf-eating insects. However, I read that the White Mangrove's petiole glands help the plant excrete excess salt. In the above picture maybe we see crystals of salt shining in the crater of the nearest gland.

Last week we saw that Red Mangrove's seeds germinate while the fruits still are attached to the stems -- the seeds are "viviparous." That's advantageous for wetland trees where seeds can root and begin growing as soon as they fall. With a White Mangrove fruit in hand, I wondered if it might do something similar. You can see a fruit, crowned by the former flower's calyx, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002my.jpg.

A fruit with its top broken off, and another fruit with one side stripped away, are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002mw.jpg.

The dark green item inside the fruit is the sprout's future green leaves wrapped around one another. In typical seeds we'd find a small, hardly noticeable embryo that would remain dormant for a season but here we have a living shoot that once it's formed never stops developing inside the fruit on or off the tree. This green-leafed shoot will have a head start rooting and growing as soon as the seed is deposited on mud or in water. Since the seeds aren't germinating while still on the tree they're not viviparous like those of the Red Mangrove, but some experts would say that the White Mangrove's seeds are "semi-viviparous."

Our White Mangroves are only about eight feet tall (2.5m) but I read that in Mexico they may grow up to 60 feet tall (18m).

Why are White Mangroves so rare in this particular area? It may have something to do with Marcia's observation that before the 2007 super-Hurricane Dean, the fourth mangrove, Black Mangrove -- the one with slender, pale, witch's-fingers-like "pneutamophores" rising from the water to absorb air for the tree -- was common here, but now it's not to be seen.

*****

"WILD SAGE"
Just about any much-branched bush with aromatic, crinkledy leaves is likely to be called "Wild Sage." Dozens of species must go by that name, and that's the case with a hippopotamus-size, woody-stemmed bush commonly growing along the white sand road these days. You can see the woody bush's leaves and flower heads at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002lt.jpg.

A close-up of a dog-faced, little corolla that when fresh is practically white with a yellow center, but pinkens as the day progresses or when broken off, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002lu.jpg.

A cluster of juicy, short-hairy, purplish fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002lv.jpg.

We've seen shrubs, flowers and fruits like this before, on lantanas and lippias of the Vervain Family, but they were slightly different from what we have here. The "Wild Sage" along the white sand road is LANTANA INVOLUCRATA, differing from most other lantanas by their small heads of white flowers. Crushed leaves are fragrant with an odor like minty marihuana.

A website dealing with modern herbal medicine claims that Lantana involucrata is good for treating measles, chickenpox and hypertension.

The species is native from southern Florida south throughout our area into South America. It does best on well drained "ridge soils."

*****

TROPICAL ALMONDS FLOWERING
Tropical Almond trees, TERMINALIA CATAPPA, are native to the Old World tropics, but they're common street and village trees throughout tropical Mexico and are very common here in the Yucatán. You recognize them by their large (±8 inches, 20cm), leathery leaves that are widest above their middles (blackjack shaped), by how leaves cluster at the ends of branches, and by how the tree's branches are arrayed like horizontal fans, giving the tree a layered look. Often some or many of the older leaves are completely bright red, providing a nice counterpoint to the background of deep, green leaves. You can see a typical Tropical Almond tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/almond-t.jpg.

A Tropical Almond's leaves and long, slender flower spikes (±8 inches, 20cm) are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002ta.jpg.

A close-up of a single flower showing five whitish calyx lobes (no petals), ten stamens, and a fingerlike style arising from the flower's center amidst many outward-pointing hairs is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002tb.jpg.

I'm guessing that the hairs dissuade insects from entering the blossom to eat the ovary (future fruit) exposed at the flower's base.

The flower in our picture bears both male and female parts. The ten pollen-producing stamens are the male parts, and the slender style in the center is the female ovary's "neck," atop which -- on the stigmatic area -- pollen from other flowers will germinate. Most flowers in the spike are strictly male but a few female flowers, which in the end will produce fruits, cluster toward the spike's base. A study in Florida found that most Tropical Almond flower spikes bore about sixteen times more male flowers -- flowers bearing only stamens, with no ovary and style -- than "hermaphroditic" flowers bearing both male and female parts.

*****

EATING TROPICAL ALMONDS
Tropical Almonds are NOT closely related to the North's Almond trees. Northern Almonds are members of the Rose Family while Tropical Almonds belong to the Combretum Family, the Combretaceae, a family little known in the North, and allied with the myrtles.

Despite their not being related, Tropical Almond fruits are a lot like northern Almonds.

Beneath any mature Tropical Almond tree usually you can find some rather shaggy, often dirty looking, "almond-shaped" fruits. They're shaggy because the seeds are encased in a fibrous husk so tough that the fruits can lie around for weeks or months being trod upon, gathering dinginess. As with northern Almonds, to get to the edible kernel you need to break open the seed inside the fibrous husk. And that seed is very hard.

My Maya friends who grew up playing "crack-the- tropical-almond-nut" make cracking the nut with a big rock look easy, but it's not. If a beginner cracks the nut at all, usually the kernel ends up so smashed and mingled with dirty husk and shattered rock that it's useless. Nevertheless, it can be done, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111002tc.jpg.

That picture shows a perfectly cracked fruit in the hands of my Maya friend, Martín, who cracked it. The edible kernel is the rusty-colored item nestled in a cavity in the right half of the fruit.

That kernel looks like a northern almond, tastes like one, and has a similar texture and oiliness. A paper on the Internet reports Tropical Almond seeds as containing 24% crude protein and goodly amounts of minerals, especially potassium. Oil expressed from the seeds contained high levels of unsaturated fatty acids, and that's the good kind.

So, Tropical Almond seeds are good to eat and in most towns and villages in our area they're free for the having. The problem is getting through that hard shell.

*****

TWEETING
At first I had no interest in "tweeting" -- of issuing 140-character-long messages to subscribed "followers" via the twitter.com website. "Few thoughts worth sharing can be expressed in only 140 characters," was my predictable first reaction.

But then I remembered Haiku, in which complex feelings and insights are conveyed in 5+7+5, or 17, syllables. Therefore, over a year ago I got a Twitter account.

"Inside my hut, up where the thatched roof crests, a firefly flashes on and off, as a distant storm's lightning flashes between my pole walls," I tweeted early on, trying to get the hang of it.

"Turquoise-browed Motmot croaks MOWK! MOWK! looks over shoulder, yanks tail sideways showering cold dew off morning-glory vine into sunbeam," I added later.

After several months and over 80 tweets I'd gathered only a handful of followers. In the spring I stopped tweeting and all summer I haven't tweeted once. Then, this week, maybe because shorter days stir up Li-Po fallish feelings, I tweeted:

"Gray Fox on the white sand road, house-cat size but long pointy ears and snout, sparkling eyes, wet nose, so alert and alive... and GONE!"

Maybe tweeting is one of those Yin-Yang things; it can be enormously wasteful of time, but also there's something beautiful about the human urge to be noticed, to be connected, to contribute. Maybe someday regular tweeting will become more haiku-like. And then, there's this:

Nature tweets. In fact, Nature is the original tweeter, tweeting Her creative impulses in exquisitely concise and delimited terms of birds, rocks, neutrinos, fugues, rainbows and people, including people doing their own tweeting. Throughout the Universe tweeting seems to be the general direction the evolution of things eventually takes.

My early attempts to tweet are still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/twitter.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim