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

November 13, 2011

CEIBA BORER
Last Sunday Newsletter reader Harald from Mérida came with his family to visit so we could talk about plants. At the hut's door instead of bowing beneath the thatch to enter he glanced down at a big tuft of Boat Lilies, asked "What's that?", stooped, and retrieved the 2¼-inch long (6cm) beetle shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113bt.jpg.

That's the longest and one of the prettiest beetles I've ever seen. Its yellowness was powdery and came off onto our hands. A view from below is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113bu.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario had a good time IDing this one as the Ceiba Borer Beetle, EUCHROMA GIGANTEA, a member of the Jewel Beetle Family.

Having the name, we found out lots of good stuff about it. For example, its larvae feed on decaying timber and prefer wood from the tropical Bombax Family, to which our big Ceiba or Kapok trees belong. Also, Tzeltal-speaking Mayans in Chiapas, southern Mexico, sometimes roast and eat the beetle, and it's used as a colorful decoration or as jewelry throughout the Americas. To the Shaur or Jivaro people of the Amazon region such beetle-ornamentation is said to symbolize wealth, well being and personal power.

On the Internet a website is selling a single beetle, one that's lost its yellow dust, for 25 Euros, or about $34US.

When the yellow wax dust wears off the beetle displays metallic colors. When I first saw the yellow dust covering I thought it was pollen. The dust is secreted only once.

The beetle's larvae, which can reach half a foot long (15cm), mine through fallen timber. I read that often you can spot the adults by walking around fallen Ceibas. No fallen Ceibas lie near my hut, so ours must have flown awhile to get beside my door.

While being handled he behaved as if he were cold or stunned, except when he bit my hand with his pincerlike mouthparts. The bite didn't hurt or cut, though. You can see a close-up of the head area at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113bv.jpg.

*****

WHAT'S THAT CATERPILLAR?
The other day I found climbing up a Frangipani trunk the handsome, 3½-inch-long (9cm) caterpillar shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113cp.jpg.

At its rear it bore what appeared to be the stub of a "horn," or spiny appendage, so I figured that this was some kind of hornworm and would be easy to identify. However, volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario couldn't peg it. She uploaded the picture to the WhatsThatBug website at http://www.whatsthatbug.com, whose expert soon replied:

"We disagree that this is a Hornworm. It looks to us like an Owlet Moth Caterpillar in the family Noctuidae and it has markings similar to species in the genus Cuculia known as the Hooded Owlet Moths, many of which are very brightly colored."

But Bea and I both have looked for pictures using this information, and still we can't come up with a matching species.

Therefore, does anyone out there want to take up the challenge? If you figure it out, we'll heap glory on your name in an upcoming Newsletter.

*****

A TRICKY COMPOSITE
I like it when an organism teases me with very inaccurate first impressions, then toyingly yields first one little secret, then another, until maybe finally I can figure out its identity and look it up. That's what a certain common, shoulder-high weed with yellow, pea-sized flowers growing along a trail here did to me the other day. You can see a branch of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113ml.jpg.

The tricky thing this species did is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113mo.jpg.

That picture was taken above the two blossoms, so you're looking down on what appears to be two flowers, each with a three-lobed "lip" serving as a landing pad for pollinators. When you see such lower lips you're supposed to think of the Mint, Verbena, Snapdragon or a handful of other families. However, I couldn't think of anything in those families even coming close to this. When I focused my magnifying glass on just one blossom, though, suddenly I understood, seeing what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113mm.jpg.

What you're seeing there isn't a flower at all! It's a cluster of four flowers emerging from a cuplike receptacle, which means that this plant is a member of the Composite or Sunflower Family. It's a composite flower composed of three male "disk flowers" at the top (the blackish items being pollen-producing anthers fused along their edges into cylinders, which is typical for Composite Family anthers), then at the bottom there's a single "ray flower" serving as a landing pad for pollinators.

Typically a composite flower with both disk and ray flowers possesses several to many ray flowers. In my whole life I've not met a composite flower habitually producing just one ray flower. This is a weird plant!

The plant's fruits also are unusual for belonging to the Composite Family. You can see some, not at all like fruits of Composite-Family members such as sunflowers, dandelions, asters and zinnias, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113mn.jpg.

Usually when you encounter organisms with such outlandish features and you know which family they belong to you can identify it pretty easily, if only by Googling keywords such as "composite" and "3-lobed rays." However, the Yucatán is home to 80 or more genera belonging to the gigantic Composite Family, and there are hundreds of species, so this plant turned out hard to nail down. In fact, after a couple of hours of fruitless internet browsing I had to resort to a secret weapon: Newsletter reader Paul, a biologist with the Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán in Mérida. He figured it out using the Flora of Guatemala, which I don't have.

Apparently this plant has no English name. In Spanish it goes by Cocolmeca and Hoja Ancha ("Wide-Leaf"). It's MILLERIA QUINQUEFLORA, Milleria being a genus I'd never heard of.

Looking up the name reveals that the species occurs from southern Mexico through Central America into northern South America. Beyond that, its main claim to fame appears to be its medicinal qualities. An online scientific paper states that in Central America the plant's leaves and stems are used traditionally as remedies for skin infections. The study goes on to report on the helpful effects of "thirteen sesquiterpene lactones" (chemicals) found in the plant. Another website selling medicinal herbs makes so many claims for the plant that you don't believe any of it. Its main effect there is said to be against obesity and the accumulation of cholesterol.

*****

INDIAN BLUEGRASS
Here at the end of the rainy season many grasses are flowering. One knee-high species often forming dense communities in dry soil along roadsides is the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113gr.jpg.

At first glimpse it looks a lot like crabgrass. However, up close, you see that the flowers are arranged in a completely different way, and bear long spines, or "awns," as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113gs.jpg.

In that picture the clothespin-shaped items dangling on slender filaments are baglike, pollen-produce anthers while the purplish, fuzzy things are stigmas, the part atop a flower's ovary that catches pollen. The brown, needle-shaped things are the awns.

You can see two long-awned fruits, or achenes, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113gt.jpg.

The achenes are unusually hairy, and the awns are spectacular for their length and the way they bend and twist several times at their centers. Such long, twisted awns on a grass achene always remind me of a Walt Disney program I saw back in the 60s showing sped-up movies of such achenes fallen onto the ground. As they underwent humidity changes the awns unwound or wound up, and if the awn caught on something nearby such as a plant or a rock, instead of the awn twirling round and round as it unwound or wound up, the achene screwed itself into the soil!

Another curious thing about the achenes in that last picture is that the one at top, left has a pit in it. I figured it was a bug-eaten hole until I noticed that nearly all the flowers bore them, as shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113gu.jpg.

I'm guessing that these tiny pits contain glands producing chemicals that repel herbivorous animals. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that if you wad up and squeeze several flowers they emit a medicinal odor that well might repel a hungry bug.

This grass, native of southern Asia, now occurs throughout the world's tropics, so it goes by many names. Among its English ones are Indian Bluegrass, Indian Couch Grass, Sweet Pitted Grass, Pitted Beardgrass, Hurricane Pitted-Bluestem, and Hurricane Grass. It's BOTHRIOCHLOA PERTUSA.

In our area basically it's a roadside weed, plus its found in heavily grazed or frequently mowed areas, and open woodland on clay and clay-loam soils. An Indian website relegates it to "cracking clay soils," and that's an apt description for here, too. Agronomists regard the species' presence as indicating declining soil fertility and excessive grazing.

*****

PEPEROMIA AT THE FISHPOND
For the last two years there was no plant growing in cracks between the fishpond's cemented-together stones like the dainty, hand-sized one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113pp.jpg.

Those slender, green flower spikes atop the plant immediately reveal the plant as a peperomia. Peperomias are often sold as indoor potted plants in the North. They belong to the Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae, of strictly tropical and subtropical occurrence. The genus Peperomia embraces 1500-1700 species. Seven Peperomia species occur in southern Florida and about as many are known from the Yucatán. A close-up of our Peperomia's flower spikes is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111113pq.jpg.

Peperomia flowers are much simplified, lacking the usual calyx, corolla and whorl of stamens. They consist of two male stamens and a single ovary subtended by a single scale, or bractlet. The picture shows mature ovaries about to become fruits, the more mature ones arising toward the bottom. When you buy peppercorns for grinding into black pepper, those are fruits from Piper nigrum, a member of the Black Pepper Family, so the similarity of the darker Peperomia fruits to peppercorns isn't incidental.

Our fishpond peperomia was easy to distinguish from other species found here by two striking features: First, its leaves are broadly heart-shaped and; two, the ovaries on the spike rachis are very widely spaced from one another. The flowers of most Piper and Peperomia species are so congested that their ovary or fruit tops form a solid, mildly bumpy surface.

This is PEPEROMIA PELLUCIDA, native to humid tropical America and cultivated and naturalized throughout the rest of the world's tropics. That's also unusual for a Peperomia species, for most peperomias are much more restricted in distribution. You think of peperomias as being fussy about where they live, but Peperomia pellucida verges on being a weed.

Being so widespread, it goes my many names. Among its English ones Shiny Bush seems common, though the bush part hardly seems to fit. The USDA calls it Man-to-Man, and sometimes it's called Pepper-Elder, which seems the least inappropriate. Fact is, this plant just doesn't have a decent English name.

The other big thing about Peperomia pellucida is that in many places it's regarded as very medicinal. In fact, so many uses are listed for it that, again, you beginning doubting them all. I find mention of the plant being used for abdominal pain, abscesses, acne, boils, colic, fatigue, gout, headache, kidney problems, and rheumatic pain, and to treat breast cancer, impotence, measles, mental disorders, high cholesterol, coughing, heart flutter and smallpox. Scientific tests have indeed documented anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties exhibited by crude extracts from it. There are reports of exposure to the plant causing asthma-like symptoms in certain people.

Some authors say that its crushed herbage emits a strong mustard-like odor, but to me it smells sweetly minty with a only a hint of slightly oily, mustardy smell.

*****

WALKING THROUGH THE RUINS
We hotel workers on this side of Chichén Itzá ruins are permitted to pass through the ruins when going to and from work. I go that way when I shop in Pisté. Inside the pay zone I pass right by the main attraction, "El Castillo," or the Temple of Kukulkan. It was built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, stands 79 feet high (24m) and stretches 181 ft across (55m). It's shown and discussed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Castillo,_Chichen_Itza.

Wikipedia's page on Chichén Itzá ruins itself is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chichen_Itza.

El Castillo is about a seven minute stroll from my hut. Sometimes when I pass beside it I imagine what it must have been like being there a thousand years ago. It and surrounding buildings would have been stuccoed in gaudy colors, the cleansing odor of copal incense would have wafted through the air, and I bet that all around, for as far as could be seen, the land was deforested. They would have needed lots of firewood for preparing the lime for making stucco, and for their homes and ritual fires.

All nationalities and races turn up in the pay zone wanting to see what since 2001 has been considered one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World." Even more attention-getting than the tourists are the many vendors selling tourist items along both sides of the walkways among the ruins -- carved wooden masks, colorful woven blankets, flowery designs painted on sheets of brown leather, miniature stone pyramids.

Some guidebooks warn visitors not to buy what's sold inside the ruin proper, calling the vendors there "pirates from the outside." There may be some pirates and some handicraft having nothing to do with the Maya, but the ones I know are real local Maya who do their own carving and artwork, and have done so for generations.

When I arrived here two years ago already certain visitors complained about the crush of vendors; now they're more numerous than before. Because of bad press about gang violence along the US/Mexican border, and despite the Yucatán statistically being safer than France, tourism throughout Mexico is down, including here. Many locals who lost their jobs in hotels and restaurants have ended up hawking trinkets along the ruin's walkways.

When I meet my Maya friends who once worked as waiters or gardeners now selling trinkets sometimes I feel funny about it. Sometimes I visualize intertwining strands of history, one strand with El Castillo being built a thousand years ago at one end and my Maya friends selling trinkets at the other; another strand begins with Europeans coming to the Americas conquering, taking over, and pushing others aside, and at that strand's end there's me, whether I like it or not.

What I do then is to look around at the lovely trees shading the walkways and think how tall, bounteous and lovely the original forest must have been 2000 years ago, before the Maya migrated up from the South to build Chichén Itzá. Then during Chichén Itzá's heyday vast deforestation took place, but when Maya civilization collapsed the forest returned. And then yet again during colonial times and later the forest was cut down, this time for commercial purposes. And now, at least right around the ruins, some land is protected and at least there the forest is returning yet again.

With this in mind, I walk down the long line of Maya vendors with their carved masks and woven blankets thinking how things come and go but the urge to carry on never dies. And I wonder where the strands of history will take us all now.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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