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

January 15, 2012

BEETLE PUZZLE
Can you figure out what's going on with the beetle at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115x3.jpg?

It's a beetle because it has four wings and the front pair, the "elytra," are thick and hard, cover the body, and, in this case, are colorful. Visible just beneath the top pair of wings is a second pair, but these wings are very thin and transparent. But, what's going on lower down, behind those four wings?

The deal is that the top four wings belong to a female beetle while the bottom ones are borne by two males with mating on their minds. Only male is having success. The one at the bottom right tries and tries but simply can't find his target.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario immediately recognized this as some kind of Net-winged Beetle because up there she's seen the same thing or a very similar species -- something in the genus Calopteron. However, she reads that 149 species of Calopteron are recognized for the New World, so it's a good guess that we have a different species here. Beetles in the family to which Calopterons belong are distinguished by their elytra bearing elevated lengthwise ridges and cross ridges.

Calopteron larvae are reported to live in rotten logs, under loose bark and, less commonly, in soil or leaf litter. They're said to feed on slime molds, fungi and fermenting plant juices. As often is the case with brightly colored insects that seem like they'd make a good bird-snack, Net-winged Beetle adults produce chemicals that probably make them smell and taste bad. The bright colors warn predators of their undesirability.

*****

A SMALLER, SPINIER CEIBA
In the American tropics no forest tree is better known and recognized than the Ceiba, Ceiba pentandra, which grows to be a giant tree. Some books claim that the Maya regard them as sacred, though no Maya I've asked has ever confirmed that. Our Ceiba page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

In Mexico we have four species of Ceibas of which three occur in the Yucatan. There's the famous C. pentandra, plus C. aesculifolia and C.schottii. C. aesculifolia is limited to the western side of the peninsula, probably appearing in the Mérida area. Here at Chichén Itzá I think we have only two species, the big C. pentandra and, for lack of a better name, what I call Schott's Ceiba, CEIBA SCHOTTII. I've seen the name Vanilla Silk Cotton Tree used for the species but I'm not sure anyone really recognizes that. Schott's Ceiba is endemic to the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Guatemala.

Nowadays Schott's Ceiba is fruiting, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115cc.jpg.

In that picture the four-inch-long (10cm), nipple-bottomed fruit suspends from the tip of a limb from which nearly all the leaves have fallen in advance the dryer part of the dry season. Enough leaves remain on other limbs, though, to see that like the giant Ceiba the Schott's Ceiba's leaves are "digitately compound," its three to seven leaflets arising from the petiole's top like fingers from a hand.

Beneath the tree lay a fruit half-eaten by a rodent, apparently, overflowing with white fuzz, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115cd.jpg.

Here you see that Schott's Ceiba, just like the giant Ceiba, embeds its small seeds in abundant kapok fiber. Giant Ceiba kapok I've seen is brown-tinged, however, while Schott's fuzz is pure white. Also the giant's fruits are round bottomed while the Schott fruits I've seen are broadly nippled at their bases.

Schott's Ceiba's trunks are even spinier than the giant's, as shown on a 10-inch wide (25cm) trunk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115cb.jpg.

Schott's spines sometimes have multiple teeth, show clear layering, and bark between spines is gray -- as opposed to the giant's single teeth with no layering, and often with green bark between spines.

Though Schott's Ceiba grows much smaller than the giant, only to about 26 ft (8m), Schott's bears much larger flowers. Giant Ceiba flower petals are only about two inches long (5cm) while Schott's grow to about seven inches (18cm).

What a treat to meet this interesting local variation on the famous giant Ceiba theme. Also it's good, and unusual, to have found for free on the Internet a comprehensive technical paper in PDF format reviewing all 17 recognized Ceiba species, even including distribution maps for 16 of the species and several drawings. The paper is entitled "A Taxonomic Revision of the Genus Ceiba Mill. (Bombacaceae)." It's available here.

*****

GINGER LILY
Around most homes in backstreet Pisté there's an impressive diversity of ornamental plants, but mostly it's the same species again and again. However, in one family's tiny front yard, right beside their stone wall along the road, nowadays there are two famous garden ornamentals I've not seen elsewhere in town. They're closely related species and planted beside one another, and both are so robust that each day they must be watered together. I'll bet someone bought them at the same time, set them close together, and now their intermingling stems produce a gorgeous, hippopotamus-size display. One species is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115gg.jpg.

That's the Ginger Lily, sometimes also called Garland-Flower, Butterfly-Lily, Butterfly-Ginger and other names. It's HEDYCHIUM CORONARIUM, originally from the Himalayan region of Nepal and India but now grown in the tropics worldwide. In Cuba it's so admired that it's the national flower. Not only is it very pretty, but also dizzyingly fragrant. In the past its flowers were favored adornments for ladies.

The flowers have a peculiar construction, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115gh.jpg.

In that picture the calyx is hidden within a curved bract in the lower, left corner. The corolla does have clearly visible petals, but they're much narrower than the broad, flaring items that look like white petals, but which in fact are staminodes. Staminodes are modified stamens.

Along the picture's right margin the upwardly bent item is very unusual. Atop the near-vertical, banana-shaped part you see a green, globular thing. That's the stigma, which means that the "ovary neck," or style, is enclosed within the banana-shaped structure. The banana-structure is the single anther -- the baglike thing in which pollen is produced -- of the flower's single fertile stamen. The anther consists of two cells, and here the style is clasped between them.

So, one wonders why this flower evolved so that its stamens ended up doing the job that corolla petals usually do, even though it had perfectly good petals to work with. Also one wonders why most flowers seem to think they need five or more stamens, but this one decided to get along with just one.

Whatever the case, Ginger Lilies are one of the tropical world's most precious ornamental species. Besides their beauty, another reason they are grown so frequently is that they survive just about any frostless place where there's plenty of sunlight and water. In fact, in many countries with cool, rainy habitats similar to their native Himalayan-foothills they've escaped into the wild, becoming "weeds."

Despite being in the Ginger Family, apparently the roots aren't used like garden Ginger. However, the flowers and young buds can be eaten and used as flavoring. The roots also can be cooked and eaten, though they're not flavorful or nourishing enough to be considered anything other than a famine food.

*****

CREPE GINGER
The closely related species beside the Ginger Lily, with similarly large, fleshy, white blossoms arising in stem-tip, cone-like inflorescences, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115zz.jpg.

A close-up showing the white flowers' crinkled corollas, said to look as if made from crepe paper, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115zy.jpg.

That's the Crepe Ginger, COSTUS SPECIOSUS, native to Southeast Asia and many Pacific Islands, especially the islands of Indonesia. It's become an invasive on other Pacific Islands, including the Cook Islands, Fiji and Hawaii where it lives in low-lying forests and the wet bottoms of roadside ditches.

Long after the Crepe Ginger's flowers fade, the red, cone-like clusters of bracts from which the blossoms earlier arose remain atop the stem, continuing to put on a show. Several cultivars have been developed from the species, including 'Variegatus' with green and white variegated leaves, 'Pink Shadow' with the white flowers blushed with pink, and the 'Nova,' which is shorter and with lighter-green foliage.

Traditionally Crepe Ginger's rhizome has been used medicinally to treat fever, rash, asthma, bronchitis and intestinal worms. The ancient Indian literary classic, the Kama Sutra, says of the Cape Ginger that "If a fine powder is made of the above plants, and applied to the wick of a lamp, which is made to burn with the oil of blue vitrol, the black pigment or lamp black produced therefrom, when applied to the eyelashes, has the effect of making a person look lovely."

During my student years Crepe Gingers were regarded as members of the Ginger Family, along with the above Ginger Lily, but today many experts place them in their own family, the Costus Family, or Costaceae. Some authors also shift the species into the genus Cheilocosus.

An interesting feature of Crepe Gingers is that their stem leaves arise along one side of the stems instead of alternating sides, as with most plants with only one leaf per stem node. A close-up showing the effect is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115zw.jpg.

Some cultures apparently use the roots as a spice, as they would regular ginger roots, but they're considered to be inferior to regular ginger root.

*****

VARIEGATED CROTON EXTREMES
We've already looked at the Variegated Croton, CODIAEUM VARIEGATUM, much planted around the Hacienda. You can see our earlier picture and essay about it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/codiaeum.htm.

The picture on that page shows a plant with mostly green leaves with a red midrib and narrow, pale lines perpendicular to the midrib. Now look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115ct.jpg.

That's also a Variegated Croton -- the very same species -- but a very different-looking cultivar. I'm showing it just to remind ourselves that horticultural cultivars can look enormously different from one another. Several hundred cultivars are recognized for this species. In fact, you might enjoy browsing the many "variations on the Variegated Croton theme" shown here.  

*****

THE ORCHID'S WHITE ROOTS
Maybe you've noticed that epiphytic orchids -- those growing on trees -- produce very thick, white roots. Those white roots help distinguish orchids from other epiphytic plant types, such as bromeliads. On the same deeply shaded, moldering woodpile in which earlier we found various slime molds forming fruiting bodies, nowadays there's a young orchid, a Catasetum integerrimum, about three inches tall (8cm) and issuing its first roots, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115my.jpg.

Why are those roots so thick and white?

At first I imagined that the white covering was composed of mycorrhiza. Mycorrhizae are fungi living symbiotically on and in plant roots. They improve a root's carbohydrate storage capacity, help the roots absorb more mineral nutrients and transport water, and other things. However, there are two kinds of mycorrhiza: ectomycorrhizae, which form an exterior sheath on roots, and; endomycorrhizae, which live deep inside the roots. And I read that orchids have endomycorrhizae. Our orchid's white root covering is not an ectomycorrhiza.

Finally it occurred to me that often these white roots are seen dangling freely in the air or even standing up as somehow rooting in the air, as shown at the left in the picture of a mature Catasetum integerrimum at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115mz.jpg.

Googling the topic of orchid absorption of water from the air, eventually I learned that the white, spongy, water-absorbing material covering epiphytic orchid roots (sometimes it can be silvery or brownish) is called "velamen." Anatomically velamen can be thought of as a root's much modified, spongy epidermis. Its main purpose is to wick water from the air, but also it serves as insulation for the roots. Velamen has a layer of thick-walled cells that keeps water from escaping as well as occasional thin-walled cells that allow water from outside to pass toward the root's conducting tissue.

Velamen-covered roots can function as ordinary roots, too, developing root hairs and absorbing nutrients from the host-tree bark it touches. The nutrients it absorbs on the orchid's arboreal perches derive from dead tree-bark, dissolved dust particles, bird droppings and the like.

*****

ALTOCUMULUS TRANSLUCIDUS CLOUDS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120115cl.jpg you see some Altocumulus translucidus clouds as they appeared over the hut early one morning this week as a warm front gushed up from the southeast.

The cotton-puff appearance cues us to the cumulus cloud type. They're not forming a distinct layer, or stratum, so they're not stratocumulus. There's too much vertical development, they're too low, and they show no wisps indicating the presence of ice crystals, so they're not cirrocumulus. What's left is "autocumulus."

The "translucidus" part of the name just means that the clouds are thin enough for light to pass through them. If they'd been so dense and packed together that light didn't pass through them or between their lumps they'd have been Altocumulus opacus. If they'd been wider apart, with light translucing through breaks between the denser lumps they'd have been Altocumulus perlucidus.

That morning the sky toward at picture's right side -- the side the warmer air was coming from -- was growing overcast. A continuous layer of mid-level cloud so thin that light transluces through it is called Altostratus translucidus.

*****

CHOPPED ONIONS AND HOT-SAUCE
At 7:45 this Sunday morning I leave the hut on my weekly fruit-buying trip to Pisté. It's 64°F (18°C), so chilly that my nose-holes feel wet and icy. While preparing breakfast over the campfire I never notice the smoke odor but here outside the air has an acrid, ashy tang to it. Visitors say the hut's smokiness smells good, like a mountain cabin with a fireplace, and I wonder if I've become so used to woodsmoke's mellower odors that I no longer register them, just this ash biting my sinuses when I step outside; I'll bet, though, I leave a scent-trail of woodsmoke wherever I go.

Gardeners are watering the Hacienda's plants and as I bike past Daniel a summery, suburban odor of sprayed hose-water fills the air. Then on the road to the ruin pay-zone a bored taxi driver with droopy eyelids and black, grease-backed hair leans against his car sending a nervous quiver through the morning with his aftershave. Outside Mayalandia Hotel odors from the kitchen are baking bread, cooking flesh, dill pickles and yellow mustard, the latter two smells down here just found outside places catering to gringos, for yellow mustard and pickles are not Mexican things.

Inside the ruin pay-zone no visitors have arrived yet so on the straight, white, unpaved road running past the big pyramid, here in the dry season the only odor is that of dust and dry, curled-up leaves. Outside the Administration Building a fellow setting up his pushcart taco stand creates an odor-bubble of chopped onions and hot-sauce.

On the highway into town there are just exhaust fumes, especially after a motorbike burning lots of oil passes by. Even with closed windows a half-full minivan running between Valladolid and Mérida leaves behind that oily smell so typical of half-cleaned public vehicles: mingled linseed oil, dust and old sweat.

On a Pisté backstreet a small, one-room, square, cement-block home is going up, still with no doors and windows hung, and the whole area smells of fresh cement. Down the one-lane, potholed street around the Tortillaría Gretty, itself a square cement-block structure with no hung doors or windows but crammed with a dragonlike, squeaking, clacking, tortilla-making machine with roaring burners, for half a block around you smell thin, flat circles of moist masa/corn-flour being fired into tortillas coming down rollers, and it smells good, homey and wholesome.

Cheap handsoap down here is heavily scented, mostly rose and pine, and passing by many houses you smell it, rose or pine, plus what that pale blue laundry detergent smells like, and something like Pine-Sol, heavy-duty bathroom and floor sanitizer.

The forest north of town smells of dry leaves and dust, just that, nothing more.

Passing back through town later, the first odor comes on fast and strong, burning garbage, the universal burning-garbage odor no matter what the garbage, and it hits in a wave the same moment a Great-tailed Grackle screams his screeches, crackles and pops, and the sound and the odor perfectly harmonize.

Back at the hut at 11 AM it's 85°F (29°C), the odor of dust and dry, curled leaves, and just before stepping into the hut's cool shadows a hint of that homey woodsmoke odor people always talk about.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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