JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued in Río Lagartos, on the northern coast of
Yucatán, MÉXICO
in Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve

January 4, 2015

COYOTES IN THE YUCATAN
On a bumpy, one-lane dirt road during a birding trip through the savanna southeast of Río Lagartos Diego slammed on the brakes and exclaimed "¡Coyote!" By the time I'd spotted it with binoculars, Diego already had his long-lensed camera pointing through the windshield and snapped the blurry picture proving it was really a Coyote at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104co.jpg.

The Coyote has his tail curiously stuck out and his back hunched because he'd been taking a crap and I guess that that's the reason he let us see him, just wanting to finish his toilet.

Diego had seen a Coyote only once before, and that was recently, so this was a good spotting. I'd read that Coyotes were expanding their distribution area southward from northern Mexico, but until these sightings we hadn't thought they'd arrived this far.

However, when I looked into the matter I was surprised to find that not only were Coyotes already on the list of mammals known to be present in the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, but that they've been here for a very long time. My main source of information is a 2004 paper by Mircea G. Hidalgo-Mihart appearing in Volume 31 of the Journal of Biogeography, freely downloadable on the Internet in PDF format at http://www.bio-nica.info/Biblioteca/Hidalgo%26Cantu2004.pdf.

That paper suggests that not only were Coyotes present on the Yucatan Peninsula's northern coast when the first Europeans arrived, but they were even here at the end of the Ice Age, or Late Pleistocene/early Holocene. Archaeological remains presumed to be of Coyote have been excavated in the Loltún Cave system about 60kms south of Mérida in west-central Yucatán. I say "presumed" because it's hard to tell the difference between bones of a Coyote and a domesticated dog. However, also found in the Loltún Cave System were remains of Wolf and Dire Wolf, plus there's other evidence that during Pre-Columbian times Coyotes were present as far south as Costa Rica.

The 1982 paper detailing these and other finds of mammal remains in the Loltún Cave System is one by Ticul Álvarez entitled "Restos de mamíferos recientes y pleistocénicos procedentes de Las Grutas de Loltún, Yucatán, México," freely available in PDF format at http://www.mastozoologiamexicana.org/books/arque-mam-loltum.pdf.

So, our spotting a Coyote in northern Yucatan wasn't as special as we'd thought it was. However, it's thrilling to think that all along the Coyote has been here, yet all these years -- and centuries -- it's managed to keep such a low profile that even many experts have doubted its presence here.

*****

FURROWED WOOD TURTLE
Where the savanna south of town abruptly meets the marshes, the soil atop the limestone is so thin that only a few grasses, cacti and scattered scrubby bushes can get hold. In this harsh environment a land turtle turned up showing little concern about having several birders hoovering around him. He's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104mu.jpg.

In the Yucatan several times I've encountered Red-cheeked Mud Turtles, so I figured any boxy-type land turtle with red head-markings was that. However, on this turtle the markings didn't look right, plus mud turtles bear little, finger-like "barbels" beneath their chins and this one lacked barbels. You can see the Red-cheeked Mud Turtle at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mud-turt.htm.

A close-up of our savanna turtle's head displaying a different facial pattern, no barbels on the throat, and with greenish plant material stuck to his face is, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104mt.jpg.

Also, there's something funny going on with this one's upper "lip." You can see it better closer up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104mv.jpg.

The front of the upper mandible of mud turtles is sharply hooked. This turtle's upper mandible instead of being hooked is indented. Well, if you're a vegetation eater as this turtle seems to be, such a serrated cutting tool might come in handy. Blades of the best scissors aren't sooth where they come together but rather are serrated. Whatever the reason for having such an indented snout, it meant to me that here was something other than a mud turtle.

Some books call our savanna turtle the Furrowed Wood Turtle. It's RHINOCLEMMYS AREOLATA, distributed from southeastern Mexico south into Honduras, where it inhabits tropical and subtropical savannas. The shape of this species' top shell, or carapace, is somewhat distinctive in that it's a little flattened along the top where often in other turtles there's a low, backbone-like ridge, plus the carapace is widest at the back instead of the middle, and the carapace's front marginal side scales flare outward somewhat. On the face, the "red eyebrow" is seen on most mature individuals, but not all.

Authors say that earlier this species was abundant, but that it's population has plummeted, mostly because of destruction of habitat -- especially by fencing in of savanna grasslands for cattle ranching -- and from local people eating them. Landowners often burn their grasslands believing that it enriches the soil, so often turtles are found with parts of their limbs missing.

Furrowed Wood Turtles feed mainly on vegetation, especially tender new shoots and fruits, though sometimes it eats insects, too.

*****

GRAY-NECKED WOOD-RAIL
Too many of the best bird spottings are made when the sun is behind the bird, so that the bird shows up as a silhouette. That was the case the other morning when a Gray-necked Wood-Rail, ARAMIDES CAJANEA, turned up stalking through shallow water at the edge of a drying-up pond along the coastal road between Río Lagartos and San Felipe, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104wr.jpg.

To show at least a hint of the bird's plumage color the background had to be overexposed so that plants turned out yellow, the water white, and the bird's translucent legs shockingly red. One wonders why a wood-rail needs such red legs. Females also have them so it's not something to stir up the other sex. Other rail species get along perfectly well with drab legs. Sometimes I think that something out there makes esthetic judgments while evolving Life on Earth, and maybe even has a sense of humor.

Whatever the deal with the red legs, Gray-necked Wood-Rails are commonly seen here in marshy areas, stabbing into the water here and there while nervously flicking their stubby little tails. They occur from Mexico's southeastern lowlands all the way to northern Argentina. They feed on small invertebrates, frogs, seeds, palm fruits and the like. Sometimes they stalk along the fringes of marauding army ants, feeding on insects, spiders and such trying to escape the ants.

*****

PELICANS AT PEACE
Nowadays it's common to see thirty or more White Pelicans quietly loafing on mud bars hardly rising above the surrounding salty water. Often all the birds have their bills pointed in the same direction, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104pc.jpg.

The other day I saw a flock of maybe 20 White Pelicans all clustered together in a tiny spot in open, shallow water stabbing into the water, with each stab coming up with what appeared to be a good catch. White Pelicans don't dive for food from the air or the water's surface like Brown Pelicans, so this floating and stabbing technique was normal for them. And I figure that the birds deserved their easy banquet and even their long hours of daylight loafing, because life isn't always easy for a White Pelican.

They deserve such breaks if only because they've recently made a long, dangerous flight from southern Canada or the north-central US, plus they began their lives with anything but peace and tranquility. Their parents had laid just two eggs, and afterwards the two chicks were programmed to compete with one another in the nest for survival. Typically the younger nestling dies from harassment. Siblicide is in their genes.

What a thing to see such peaceful pelicans on a mud bar all agreeing to point their bills in one way, despite their tough pasts.

*****

SEABREAM FOR PELICANS
My friend Chumas came trundling down the street on his bicycle holding a plastic bag of flattish, silvery, eight-inch-long (20cm) fish. He explained that he'd come to get his tour boat ready for a flamingo-viewing trip and had brought along the fish, which he called Sargo, to throw to pelicans so his guests could see how easily a pelican can gulp down such a fish. The Sargo, which bore faint, yellow lines along their lengths and curiously humped nose bridges, were "trash fish" a fisherman had thrown aside while emptying his net. I arranged the Sargo on a nearby concrete bench and got the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104fi.jpg.

One place to identify Caribbean fish is the Snorkel St. John (Virgin Islands) website at http://www.snorkelstj.com/fish_gallery.html.

There, after clicking on "Fish with stripes," it was easy to spot Chumas's fish among the resulting thumbnails. They were what's often called Western Atlantic Seabream, ARCHOSARGUS THOMBOIDALIS. Western Atlantic Seabream are described as populating mud bottoms in brackish mangrove sloughs and vegetated sand bottoms, both in brackish water and saltwater coral reef areas near mangroves. They feed on invertebrates such as small, clam-like bivalves and crustaceans, as well as on plant material. However, their diet is more complex than that:

A 1984 paper by Chavance and others entitled "Ecology, Biology and Population Dynamics of Archosargus rhomboidalis (Pisces, Sparidae) in a Tropical Coastal Lagoon System, Southern Gulf of Mexico" describes the Western Atlantic Seabream's life cycle in detail. Mexico's UNAM University makes this work freely available on the Internet at http://biblioweb.tic.unam.mx/cienciasdelmar/instituto/1986-2/articulo215.html.

There it's explained that as the Western Atlantic Seabream develops from its larval stage to an adult, its diet passes through four stages, ranging from strictly carnivorous to omnivorous, and these changes are accompanied by other changes in mouth size, changing tooth alignment, or dentition, and changing habitat.

That paper describes Western Atlantic Seabream as commonly encountered but not exploited commercially, though it seems to have potential for being so. It's found from the US's Atlantic Coast at New Jersey south to Argentina, including the Caribbean.

Being such a landlubber, I wasn't sure how to pronounce "bream." The Cambridge Dictionaries Online website has the UK pronunciation rhyming with "steam" while the US version rhymes with "stem."

*****

CLOSE-UP OF A YOUNG CROCODILE
The coastal road running between Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas dips into a marsh rich in waterfowl and crocodiles. At a certain culvert beneath the road, young crocodiles like to bask on a water pipe dipping into the water. You can see one about 15 inches long (38cm) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104cc.jpg.

This juvenile is showing us some field marks that normally aren't visible in mostly submerged individuals in the wild. A close-up of the head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104ce.jpg.

Along the side of the top mandible and toward the front, notice that there's a constriction occupied by an upward-directed tooth. Alligators don't have that upward-pointing tooth, so we know that this isn't an Alligator -- and Alligators aren't found here, anyway. An expert could look just at the above picture and figure out whether it's a Morelet's or American Crocodile, which are the two crocodile species found here, but anyone can see what's behind the critter's back leg, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104cd.jpg.

In that picture yellow arrows point to scales curving up from below the tail, wedging themselves between the vertical contact lines separating the upper tail scales that otherwise are neatly stacked atop one another. Such interposing scales on the tail's bottom normally are present on Morelet's Crocodiles but not American ones. The disruption of scale pattern is even more apparent on the animals' bottoms. On American Crocodiles the scale pattern is rigidly grid-like, all scales in neat rows, but on the bottom of Morelet's Crocodiles they're a little haphazard.

*****

SOFT CORAL/ OCTOCORAL
It took about a month of sporadic but almost daily sleuthing on the Internet before I halfway figured out the identity of the prettily arrayed item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104oc.jpg.

This washed up on a sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico side of the narrow finger of land across the estuary from Río Lagartos. A close-up of the thing's bumps and curiously sinewy stem -- with lines on my fingers providing scale for the stems' size -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104od.jpg.

The delay in identifying this organism came from my assuming that it was an alga. In retrospect, its texture should have cued me to its non-vegetable origin, for it was rubbery like gristle in flesh or a dried-up earthworm, not brittle, crumbly, succulent or woody like most plant tissue. Eventually I had to review the whole spectrum of Life on Earth to see if the strange being might fit into a category that until now I'd just overlooked, or forgotten about. That turned out to be the case.

For,on the Evolutionary Tree of Life, the low branch known as the Animal Kingdom branches next into phyla, and one of those phyla is the Cnidaria, which embraces over 10,000 aquatic, mostly marine species, including jellyfish, sponges, sea anemones, corals, and certain life forms I'd been blind to until now. A feature of most cnidarians is that during their life cycle they alternate between two very different forms -- swimming, sexually active medusas such as jellyfish, and "rooted" or "sessile" polyps such as sea anemones.

Moreover, even among cnidarian phyla I'd heard of, there were branches that until now I hadn't noticed. A lot of corals don't look at all like what I thought all corals had to look like.

Digging deeper into the coral's Class of Anthozoa, I found the Subclass Octocorallia, the "octo-" part of the name referring to the eight-fold symmetry of their polyp stage. Octocorallia include such creatures as sea pens, gorgonians (sea fans and sea whips), blue coral and soft corals.

Soft corals were new to me. Soft corals belong to that subdivision of the Subclass Octocorallia known as the Order Alcyonacea. Pictures of soft corals on the Internet show creatures looking like the thing in our photograph... Soft corals, unlike the hard corals forming coral reefs, do not produce rock-hard skeletons consisting of calcium carbonate. They're soft, like our washed-up item on the beach.

Soft corals -- the Order Alcyonacea -- are not well represented on the Internet, so identifying them isn't as easy as getting the name of a fish or sponge. However, luckily, there was a 2010 paper by Devictor & Morton entitled "Identification guide to the shallow water (0-200m) octocorals of the South Atlantic Bight." The South Atlantic Bight study area was defined as that part of the US Atlantic coast between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Cape Canaveral, Florida. The paper is freely downloadable at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/sertc/octocoral%20guide/octocoral.htm

Using that guide, with fair confidence I identified our washed-up octocoral as SCLERACIS GUADALUPENSIS, known to commonly turn up from North Carolina on the US Atlantic coast south through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and off the coast of Brazil.

Referring back to our pictures, the entire organism sprawling on the sand can be called a soft coral or, more technically, an octocoral colony. Soft corals occur in branching, encrusting, whiplike, feather-like, or fleshy forms. Ours is a brancher. The above paper states that "The type and degree of branching (or lack thereof) may easily distinguish some species." Ours branches in a "dichotomous" manner. The warty bumps along its stems are referred to as calyces, and the calyces arise opposite one another on their stems, though in an overall spiraling manner. Embedded in each calyx is a tiny polyp whose eight, stinging-cell-equipped tentacles grab onto plankton in water circulating around them.

Soft corals provide habitat for fish, snails, algae and a diversity of other marine species.

All corals, unlike other cnidarians, lack a medusa stage in their development. They release sperm and eggs into the water that result in tiny, specialized larvae with cilia called "planulae," which crawl around and eventually attach themselves to some substrate on which they develop into corals. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette hosts a comprehensive page dealing with octocoral reproduction at http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~scf4101/Bambooweb/repro_AS.html.

What a magnificent thing to be introduced to a whole new form of life I'd not known about before, simply lying artistically arrayed on wet, fishy-smelling, Gulf-coast sand!

*****

BARNACLES ON MANGROVE ROOTS
At low tide along the estuary's shore the Red Mangroves' flaring, branching "stilt roots" are more exposed than at high tide, or even plunge into mud instead of water. You can review what Red Mangroves and their stilt roots look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mang-red.htm.

At low tide, conspicuous whitish barnacles are seen clustering on many Red Mangrove stilt roots, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104ba.jpg.

In that picture, uprooted, floating blades of Shoalgrass catch on the stilt roots as brackish water flows back into the estuary after the lowest water of a low tide. A closer look at the barnacles is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104bb.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario helped me figure out that this probably is the Ivory Barnacle, AMPHIBALANUS EBURNEUS, native to the eastern coast of North America, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. However, nowadays it's found in tropical and semitropical waters worldwide because it sometimes attaches not only to mangrove roots but also to other hard surfaces such as rocks, mollusk shells, man-made structures like pilings and jetties, and ship hulls, which transport them far away. Sometimes they're transported in ship ballast water. They've become common among Hawaii's main islands and occur along the coast of southern California.

The barnacle organisms live inside the crater-like structure shown in the picture. Those are called mantles and the barnacle organism lives inside them. Each mantle consists of six hard plates made of calcium carbonate, so they're essentially thin slabs of limestone. The barnacle organism lies on its back inside the mantle extending its twelve legs upward through the mantle's opening. The legs bear hair-like "setae," which give the legs a feathery appearance and enable them to filter microscopic plankton from the water, which is then withdrawn into the mantle and eaten.

When disturbed or the tide goes out, the barnacle organism slides movable plates inside the mantle over the opening, closing it until the tide comes back in. In the above picture you can see how the second barnacle from the bottom has its movable plate closed. Some of the mantles appear abandoned. It's common to find empty mantles where the organisms apparently have died or been removed by predators. Barnacles in general are known to be preyed upon by various fishes and invertebrates.

Adult barnacles spend their whole lives inside their mantles, so the question arises as to how they procreate. Ivory Barnacles are hermaphrodites, but cross-fertilization occurs in dense populations. Sex is accomplished when an individual in its male mood extends a tube that might as well be called a penis to outside the crater. The penis is so long that it can grope into adjacent craters seeking receptive female parts.

Fertilized eggs are brooded in the mantle cavity, and it can take several months before larvae are released into the water to become part of the estuary's plankton community, which is so important to the many kinds of filter feeders found there. After a couple of weeks the lavae search out sites for settlement, possibly chemically attracted to already established adults, and maybe testing various surfaces for suitability. Once settled, they cement themselves by their heads to the surface, undergo metamorphosis and become juvenile barnacles, which will now erect their stony mantle around them.

The manner by which the stony mantle grows as the organism inside it metamorphoses into ever larger forms is complex, hard to explain, and apparently not fully understood. An attempt is made in Vernon Harris's 1990 book Sessile Animals of the Sea Shore partly available online through Google Books.

*****

A WILD FIG
Deep inside a mangrove swamp between Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas there's a picturesque little pond issuing freshwater, and accessible by a trail. It's so isolated that uncommonly seen plants and animals turn up there. During my last visit I heard Spider Monkeys which I've not encountered elsewhere in these parts. Locally the pond is known as Petén Tucha.

Beside Petén Tucha there's a wild fig tree I've not encountered elsewhere, either. It doesn't seem to be a "strangler fig" with multiple trunks fusing as time goes by. Its form is that of a regular tree with a single trunk and no buttresses, which big fig trees often have. Its leaves are especially large for an American fig species, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104f2.jpg.

Normally in plant identification you need flowers and/or fruits to be sure of what you have, but among the figs, genus Ficus, often you can go a long way just using vegetative characters. For example, in the above picture important field marks to note other than the leaves' large size is the number of veins along each side of the midrib, and the fact that the bottom-most pair form sharper angles with the midrib than other veins. Also, the leaf tips are blunt, not sharp. Other important features are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104f3.jpg.

The green, upright, conical item is a typical terminal bud. Notice the "stipular ring" encircling the stem where the top of the leaf's petiole attaches to the stem; that helps us identify this as a member of the Fig Family. More diagnostic for this particular species is that the leaf petioles are round in cross section, not flattened on top or channeled, and -- definitive for this species -- the petioles are invested with loose, flaky scales. An even more spectacular feature, which leaves me scratching my head, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104f4.jpg.

This leaf base not only is slightly lobed on both sides of the midrib, but also the lobes curl upward forming cuplike depressions. I've never seen anything like this among the figs, and the species this appears to be is not described as having anything like this. On Internet images of leaves of the species sometimes larger leaves do display modest ears and slight thickening of the lobes, hinting at something going on, but these turned-up lobes just aren't supposed to be there and I don't know what to do about them.

Still, especially because of the flaky scales on the petioles and the limited number of fig species known to occur in the Yucatan, this fig keys out to FICUS MAXIMA. Apparently there's no English name for it but sometimes in the Yucatan it's called Higo Grande, which simply means "Big Fig." Our tree stood only about 25 feet high (8m) but I read that in areas with more rainfall they can reach 100 ft (30m). The species is distributed from Southern Mexico to the Amazon basin, plus the Caribbean. Throughout its extensive area of distribution it occupies a variety of moist habitats, but is never very common.

I read that the fruits and leaves of Higo Grande are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals. Like all figs, it displays an obligate mutualism with fig wasps; Ficus maxima is pollinated only by the fig wasp Tetrapus americanus, and T. americanus only reproduces in Ficus maxima flowers.

Injured fig leaves exude milky latex often used in folk medicine, but the uses vary from culture to culture across the species' large distribution area. The Lacandón of Chiapas, southern Mexico, have been documented chewing and moistening Ficus maxima leaves for application to snakebites. In the Yucatan I read that somehow the tree has been used for asthma.

*****

CACTUS IN THE SCRUB
Several cactus species endemic to only the northern Yucatan Peninsula occur in this area. Therefore, I'm watching closely for flowering individuals, since often flowers and/or fruits are needed for solid identifications. This week a large, tree-type, commonly occurring one turned up producing small, red blossoms. It's a species often growing inside dense scrub, entangling its flat, succulent branches with woody stems of small trees -- which now in the dry season often are leafless -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104no.jpg.

This big cactus's only open flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104np.jpg.

This blossom looks damaged on its bottom side, but still you can see that its stamens project beyond the corolla, and that the spine clusters, or "areoles," on the developing ovary, or future fruit, are woolly with short, tan hairs, plus slender, sharp spines emerge from most of them. I visited this cactus every other day for a week hoping to photograph an undamaged blossom but no new flowers appeared.

Another shot showing a developing ovary with its deep cavity left by the shed corolla is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104nq.jpg.

Most cactus species with flattened pads like this one produce flowers mainly along its pads' margins, but this species habitually develops blossoms on the pads' flat faces. You can see flower buds developing there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104nr.jpg.

Spines on mature pads start out as grayish but turn dark, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104ns.jpg.

The cylindrical trunk is about six inches thick (15cm), shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104nt.jpg.

Cactus classification has always been in a mess, maybe because most taxonomists don't want to deal with spiny pods that are hard to dry and mount on sheets the way botanical specimens normally are. This species' status is especially hard to get a fix on because it's found only in the northern Yucatan Peninsula and isn't well studied.

However, using the list of cactuses known to occur in Ría Largartos Biosphere Reserve, and viewing preserved plant specimens collected in the northern Yucatan and displayed online by Arizona State University, I can say that our scrub-growing cactus almost certainly is NOPALEA INAPERTA. Some experts lump the genus Nopalea with the genus Opuntia, making it Opuntia inaperta and thus one of many species of prickly pear. Nopalea species are known as nopal cactuses and are much esteemed in Mexico for their edible young pads.

One issue with this species' name is that certain specialists recognize another very similar cactus sharing the same limited distribution with Nopalea inaperta, and that's Nopalea gaumeri. However, other specialists simply lump the two species, saying that Nopalea gaumeri is a mere variation of Nopalea inaperta. The Arizona State University site shows specimens designated as both species. You can review their Nopalea inaperta page at http://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/taxa/index.php?taxon=Nopalea%20inaperta.

Their Nopalea gaumeri page is at http://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/taxa/index.php?taxon=Nopalea%20gaumeri

The only difference I see between them is that Nopalea gaumeri is smaller, not growing much over 2m (7ft), while Nopalea inaperta exceeds twice that high. The one in our picture was about 4.5m tall (15ft).

Yet a third Nopalea species occurs in our area, the much more widely distributed and fairly famous Cochineal Nopal Cactus, which grew near our hut at Chichén Itzá ruins, and which you can compare with our present Nopalea at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/nopalea.htm.

The only difference I see between the Cochineal Nopal and our scrub-growing one is that the Cochineal one is much less spiny. It's thought that ancient indigenous people selectively planted Cochineal cacti, striving for ever-less spiny pads, so that both eating the pads and growing cochineal larvae on them would be easier. The thought occurs that maybe our Nopalea inaperta might be the Cochineal Nopal's spiny ancestor. One can even visualize Nopalea gaumeri as possibly an ancient attempt to create a smaller, more manageable nopal. But, who knows? It's a fascinating cluster of species.

Meanwhile, I'm doing a lot of crashing through the local scrub looking for little Nopalea gaumeri.

*****

WHITE AND BROWN COTTON FIBERS
We've noted that wild cotton grows naturally in several places in Mexico, but that the genes of commercially grown cotton largely originated with our wild cotton plants along the Yucatan Peninsula's northern coast. Therefore, our wild cotton plants are important as a reservoir for genetic diversity of the commercial species.

If commercial cotton plants, with little genetic diversity, develop diseases or must be bred to accommodate changes wrought by global warming, our plants may well offer genes that could be usefully inserted into the commercial cotton genome. It's been pointed out that our coastal plants have good reason to be genetically diverse, since during their evolutionary history the sea level has risen and fallen repeatedly with special consequences for coastal species, plus our area is very vulnerable to hurricanes, and the sandy, windblown dunes with lots of salt in the environment are stressful environments to begin with.

One aspect of the diversity of our coastal cotton plants is that the fiber being exposed nowadays as the plants' bolls open during our early dry season is that the fibers range in color from pure white to brownish. This is shown on opening bolls collected just a few kilometers from one another, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150104ct.jpg.

Plants in a small area normally display all the same color, but if you relocate a little down the road it's quite possible that different-colored fibers will dominate at your new location. Supposedly other variations in the plant also are present, both physically and physiologically. It's just that fiber color is so easy to see.

*****

NEW YEAR'S NIGHT
Late Thursday afternoon, December 31, I strapped on my backpack and biked out of town, the idea being to avoid the town's New Year celebrations. For me, 2015 began in a tent next to a pond in the marshes with the only sounds being the occasional heron croaking his surprise over this or that, and some Raccoon splashing.

There's nothing to say about my reasons.

But maybe it's worthwhile to remind ourselves that we're not necessarily obliged to always participate in humanity's traditions, and to fulfill humanity's expectations. Sometimes traditions and expectations are silly, even destructive.

There's always the option of walking away from the crowd, and doing things differently.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Shooting Flamingos" from the January 2, 2005 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/050102.htm

"Gaia" from the September 9, 2001 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/010909x.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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