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

January 1, 2012

TERMITES
The outside shower is surrounded on three sides by walls of lashed together, vertical poles cut from the nearby forest. After showering I drape my washrag atop the pole wall to dry. The other morning when I retrieved the washrag for bathing, it came away encrusted with ant-size, ant-shaped, white, scurrying-about insects. Atop a pole where the washrag had lain overnight, dozens of the same ghostly insects emerged from tunnels inside the pole and tumbled over the wall's sides. A few of them can be seen at that moment at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101tt.jpg.

Of course despite their anty appearance they were termites, and it's apparent that for a long time they've slowly been eating the shower's wall poles as they tunneled through them. In the picture the white-headed ones are workers while the amber-headed one peeping from a crack is a soldier. You know that these are not some kind of white, wood-burrowing ant because of their thick bodies. Ant bodies have hair-wide constrictions between their three main body sections, but termites display only a modest narrowing behind their heads.

This got me to wondering whether the poles forming the walls of the hut I live in similarly are slowly being devoured by termites. I had reason to think that maybe they weren't because when the poles had been tied together they'd been set with their bottom ends atop limestone rocks precisely to keep the poles' ends off the ground. Once I started looking inside the hut, however, I found several instances of what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101tu.jpg.

That picture shows several wall-poles atop a white limestone rock upon which not only a little dust and a spraddly-legged harvestman or daddy-longlegs have settled, but also there's a dark, slender tube snaking from the ground, up the rock's face, to the bottom of a pole. That tube is a termite shelter tube much like the ones seen ascending big tree trunks here, connecting large termite nests built on the trees' limbs with the ground.

Termites need to stay moist to survive, plus they're relatively weak and fragile insects vulnerable to ants and other predators when exposed. Shelter tubes, which generally are made of termite feces, plant matter, saliva and soil, maintain a termite-congenial humidity inside the tubes, and hide the termites from their enemies. There's even a shelter tube running across the tile beneath a leg of the table on which I'm typing this, and then up the table's leg, ending where the leg and tabletop meet.

Well, about 4000 termite species are estimated to exist, and they're particularly common in the tropics where their recycling of wood and other plant matter is of major ecological importance to every local ecosphere, so this is no big surprise.

I'm just glad that that morning I'd glanced at my washrag before soaping it up and scrubbing my armpits.

*****

A FANCY TREEHOPPER
The other day a pea-size insect turned up on a Chaya leaf right beside me as I read a book. He's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101th.jpg.

That's one of the prettiest and most bizarrely ornamented organisms I've seen in a long time. Still, there's something familiar about the critter despite his psychedelic, spiky covering. With those oversized, widely spaced, goggly compound-eyes and long, backwardly swept wings, he's reminiscent of a cicada or aphid. That makes sense because he belongs to the cicada/aphid "order," the Homoptera.

This is a treehopper, which I know because in many other places, all my life, I've been running into many treehopper kinds. And one thing I know about treehoppers is that they're likely to turn up with surprising shapes and patterns, and wearing gaudy colors.

In fact, you might enjoy doing a search-engine image search on the keyword "treehopper," and just look at the rainbow of treehopper types turning up in the thumbnails. Many treehoppers protect themselves with "disruptive patterning," like a soldier's camouflage uniform with its random splotches breaking up the body's contour lines. Others employ bright colors, taking advantage of a predator's notion that "Anything this garishly colored must be dangerous." Many bear spines causing them to look plant thorns. I can't imagine, though, the prime motive behind our treehopper's zebra-lined, honeycombed, spiny look.

On the Internet you might enjoy playing with the "Illustrated interactive keys for identifying treehoppers," which keeps track of the treehopper's features you feed in, reducing the list of possible names until you have just one name left. Cick here.

Actually, I "keyed out" to some species very similar to ours, in the family Membracidae, but I never did get an exact match. If you have better luck than I, let me know.

*****

DOMBEYA FLOWERING
With this being my third winter here it's amazing that on my bike wanderings of Pisté on Sunday fruit-buying mornings I'm still finding exotic plants in people's gardens I never dreamed might be here. In the old days hacienda owners competed with one another to bring beautiful or unusual plants from the farthest corners of the world. I bet that eventually many of those plants died off in the haciendas themselves, but managed to survive in the backyards of generation after generation of attentive Maya families, whose distant ancestors may have worked on the haciendas, and maybe occasionally sneaked cuttings or seeds from "the big place."

You can see part of a 15-ft-tall tree (4.5m) jumping out at me from a very modest hut's corner this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101mv.jpg.

The pink flower-heads are grapefruit-size and the leaves about a foot across. A single flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101mw.jpg.

The first thing to notice in that blossom is that the brown-anthered stamens have their white, threadlike filaments united into a cylinder at their bases, and that white cylinder encircles the ovary's slender neck, or style, for most of its length, until it ends in backward-curving, white stigmas. We've seen again and again that typically this is the prime field mark for members of the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, and that's the case now. Knowing that helped a lot, because my first impression had been that this was surely a hydrangea, though I don't recall seeing a hydrangea in tropical Mexico.

Simply by doing an image search on "malvaceae pink" -- pink not being a particularly common color in the Hibiscus Family -- I quickly found a match informing me that we had a member of the African genus Dombeya. Wikipedia then informed me that Dombeya is now regarded as one of the Hibiscus Family's largest genera, embracing about 225 species, so, without technical keys, any ID to species level has to be thought of as only a best guess. However, ours looks very much like DOMBEYA WALLICHII, which is a frequently planted species. Dombeya wallichii is native to Madagascar, the big island off Africa's coast in the Indian Ocean.

I wish I could shake the hands of the long line of gardeners who over the generations have nurtured the Mexican ancestors of this wonderful tree found in Pisté this week.

*****

SLIME MOLD FRUITING BODIES
In last month's Dec. 4th Newsletter we looked at the intricately reticulated plasmodium -- a slow-moving gelatinous mass of protoplasm -- of a slime mold growing up the wall of my wash basin. That story is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/slime.htm.

That plasmodium now has practically disappeared. I'm unsure whether it's dried up and crumbled away or if snails grazing on dewy mornings have eaten it.

I'm beginning to think that this is the right time of year -- the early dry season -- to look for slime mold fruiting bodies. During the rainy season slime molds must creep unseen through leaf detritus, up perpetually moist walls, and such, and now that rain has all but disappeared the dryness is stressing them, causing them to reproduce.

For slime molds producing plasmodia, the reproduction process begins with the plasmodium stops wandering and fractures into many small, scattered units. Each individual unit then develops a fruiting body, or stalked sporangium, which is where spores are produced. It's those stalked sporangia I'm seeing now.

For example, near the hut a certain pile of firewood needing to be split has been lying in a dank, shady spot beneath a Ceiba for so long that the pieces are beginning to decay. You can see part of that pile, with a slime mold's stalked sporangia appearing as clusters of tiny white spots on log ends -- as in the lower right and left corners in the picture -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101sl.jpg.

A close-up of some stalked sporangia, which tend to droop downward from their points of attachment at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101sm.jpg.

A close-up of a single stalked body, the largest one I could find, on a ruler graded in millimeters is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101sn.jpg.

That sporangium's white head is about 3mm tall (1/10th inch). The heads aren't mature yet. When broken open, inside they're like diffuse white cotton.

A couple of logs away grew another little slime mold colony of a different species, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101so.jpg.

These heads were smaller still, only about 2mm tall.

I have no idea what species these are. I read that identification of sporangia to species level is only possible when the sporangia are mature. Then they're likely to develop distinctive colors, and internal features that show up under a microscopic.

*****

CACTUS LEAVES
I planted some Nopal Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, in front of the hut so visitors can learn about it. Nopal is important because many Mexicans eat the cactus's paddle-like pads. You can see Nopal pads prepared and ready for slicing and sautéing, and a recipe for cooking them, at the bottom of our Nopal page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/nopal.htm.

My planted Nopal quickly rooted and now its upper pads are sprouting what later will become new pads, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101cd.jpg.

One of those pineapple-like sprouts is shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101cc.jpg.

The green, sharp-pointed, recurved items are leaves. They're the only leaves this cactus has, and in a few days will fall off. From the cactus's point of view, these leaves are mostly vestigial and apparently don't do the cactus much good. The first cacti bore flat, broad, much larger leaves that performed the same services as regular leaves do for regular plants today. However, during evolutionary history the vast majority (not all) of cactus kinds found it more adaptive to lose their leaves than to retain them. Still, recent studies show that cactus genes retain all the information needed to produce the complex plumbing and chemistry of regular leaves, but that information is "turned off."

In most cacti, including the Nopal, photosynthesis is performed in the cactus pads, which are modified stems, not leaves.

In our picture notice that the lower leaves appear to reside atop tiny, green platforms. I'm not sure whether the platforms are vestigial leaf stems, or petioles, but you can see what happens to them a few days after the cactus pad has enlarged a bit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101ce.jpg.

Basically the bases widen as the pad expands beneath them. By the time the conical leaves fall off, they've practically spread until they've merged into the pads, leaving hardly a trace.

Many if not most cacti can be eaten if the spines are removed, and the wonderful thing about Nopal is that it produces few or no regular spines. However, cacti produce two kinds of spines, big ones and tiny ones, and even Nopal bears some of the tiny ones, which are called glochids. In the picture you can see some. Touch your fingertip to them and they'll come off and you'll want tweezers for removing them.

*****

ALTOCUMULUS PERLUCIDUS CLOUDS
One morning the sky above the hut was covered with the luminous, highly fragmented cloud formation shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120101c0.jpg.

The morning had begun with a light overcast and now the overcast was breaking up. I visualized a high, thin layer of cloud forming in the night where warmer air next to the Earth met colder air of the high atmosphere, and now early sunlight was warming the entire atmosphere, causing modest turbulence throughout, and shattering the thin cloud-lens.

Since the clouds were white and puffy like summer's cumulus clouds, and appeared high up, I guessed that they were altocumulus clouds, so that's what I looked up Wikipedia. In Wikipedia's image gallery various kinds of altocumulus clouds were shown and one picture matching ours was tagged as ALTOCUMULUS PERCULIDUS, the name ascribing to the Linnaean binomial system as if they were living organisms. Despite the "alto" in the name, altocumulus clouds are regarded as mid-level formations.

On other Web pages I learned that Altocumulus perlucidus clouds are made of water and ice, and that they're the most common form of altocumulus clouds. They often arise when shallow convection begins in a previously unbroken layer of clouds, as happened above the hut. Up North they say that seeing Altocumulus perlucidus clouds indicates that precipitation is likely within 15-20 hours if winds remain steady from NE to S, but here in the tropics that's not necessarily the case.

Also I read that Altocumulus perlucidus clouds indicate that the air on a regional basis is undergoing a gradual ascent, which often is due to a region of warmer air advancing into a region of cooler air, as when a low pressure system approaches.

*****

THREE WAYS TO SEE BEAUTY
During these short days and long nights, since I tend to go to sleep not long after sundown, each morning I awaken well before sunrise with plenty of time for thinking. Nights were just as long this time last year but then I went jogging as soon as I awoke, in the dark. However, during the last rainy season the hotel zone's entry road developed potholes deep enough to break an ankle, so now I wait for enough light to see them.

This week during one predawn thinking time inside the mosquito net I thought about esthetics. The subject is important to me because after rejecting so many of the usual reasons for staying alive, looking forward to a day's beautiful moments still strikes me as reason enough to get up and live another day.

The thinking period began with the observation that a person's opinion about what's beautiful depends on his or her sense of esthetics. Further, it seems that in my life I started out with one sense of esthetics, developed a second one, and now am glimpsing yet a third.

As a child I rejoiced in bright colors, sparkling light, boom-boom music, sharp flavors... Things with those attributes were beautiful to me. I was simply hungry to have all my senses stirred up and titillated.

As a young adult my perspective about what was beautiful shifted, mainly in reaction to what I had become by overindulging my childhood senses -- a very fat, mediocre, undisciplined young person dissatisfied with my body and mind. My new sense of esthetics was grounded in college experiences with oriental philosophy, literature, and classical music -- which I studied and experienced on my own, despite my classwork...

What a delight to know the exquisiteness of a single golden chrysanthemum in a simple blue vase on a low table in the center of a small, bare room. Lush, symphonic orchestration was good but, somehow, little fugues and string quartets were even more powerful. I saw and felt most deeply during extended fasts.

Eventually I began following a kind of esthetic Middle Path. Nowadays mostly I experience the world from the second, fugish, domain of clarity and simplicity, but sometimes I make symphonic forays into lushness and abstraction, just for the heck of it.

That third esthetic perspective, though providing transfixing glimpses of beauty, I can experience only rarely, for visiting it requires focus, tranquility and openness of a kind the world seldom affords. The most salient feature of the third esthetic perspective is that from it everything... everything... turns out to be beautiful.

For, in this third domain it's the Yin-Yang principle again, where every knowable thing is married to its opposite, and can't exist without it. No hot without cold, no life without death, no pleasure without pain. If something discomfits the mind, spirit or body it's because it's the necessary negative side of something we imagine to be positive.

The esthetic buzz, the sense of beauty, arises in glimpsing the whole Yin-Yang system evolving forward, blossoming ever new diversity, forever engendering new ways to be beautiful.

The beauty emanates from the process, see, not its parts.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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