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

June 28, 2015

CORMORANT WITH A BIG FISH
Next to the boat as we went up the estuary on a flamingo viewing trip, a Double-crested Cormorant surfaced with a fair sized fish in his beak. A tourist wanted a picture so we stopped the boat and watched. To us it seemed that the fish was too large for the bird to swallow, so what would happen? The cormorant flipped the fish around in various positions but never seemed able to get it started down his throat. But finally the fish did go down, with a gasp from the tourists. You can see the cormorant with the fish forming a huge bulge in his throat at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628cm.jpg.

We waited awhile to watch the bulge slide down into the bird's body, but it didn't. The cormorant just swam around looking uncomfortable, so eventually we continued on our trip. But as we pulled away, the fish was disgorged and sank, the cormorant immediately dived again, and we didn't see him surface while we were watching.

When you think about fish entering a throat head-first, it's hard to imagine how it can be disgorged, with the fins directed the wrong way. However, cormorants are famous for being able to disgorge fish. In various parts of the world, especially Japan and China, traditionally cormorants with narrow rings or "snares" around their throats were used for fishing. A tethered cormorant was released into the water, it would catch and swallow a fish, the fish would lodge in the throat when it couldn't pass the snare, the cormorant would be pulled back into the boat, and the bird would be obliged to disgorge the fish for the fisherman. Wikipedia's illustrated page on "cormorant fishing" is at https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Cormorant_fishing.

Asia's cormorant's are of a different species than ours, but they look and act almost the same. Probably the same fishing technique could be used with our cormorants, though I'd rather not see it done, for the cormorant's sake.

*****

MINNIEROOT FLOWERING
At the edge of the PEMEX gas station on the south side of town, right beside the mangroves, a pretty gathering of wildflowers suddenly showed up with fair-sized, bugle-shaped, nearly knee-high, indigo-colored flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628ru.jpg.

Just by the flowers' size, color and shape, and by the plants' general size and form, these looked a lot like the several species of "wild petunia," genus Ruellia of the Acanthus Family, we've encountered nearly everyplace we've gone, both in North America and Mexico. If it really was a Ruellia, it'd be the first I'd found here along the Yucatan's arid northern coast, so I got off the bike and took a closer look.

The flowers displayed unusually long, slender calyx lobes, or sepals, surrounding an equally long corolla tube base, all on a fair-sized stem, or peduncle, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628rv.jpg.

Flowers of members of the mostly tropical Acanthus Family normally bear two or four stamens, and when there are four they're arranged in pairs of unequally lengths. The opened-up blossom revealed four stamens of unequal lengths, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628rw.jpg.

This matter of the stamens is good to keep in mind because otherwise you might think the flowers look like those in the Nightshade or Tomato Family, the Solanaceae. "Real" petunias belong to that Family, but these "wild" petunias obviously don't, because of their stamens.

At the weedy edge of the PEMEX Plaza I wasn't sure whether these wild petunias were wildflowers associated with the mangrove swamp beside them, or if they were cultivars associated with the gas station.

Of the seven wild petunia, or Ruellia, species listed for the Yucatan, none looked like our PEMEX plant. Seeing that, the best bet was that we had a cultivar. Doing a Google image search on the keywords "Ruellia tropical," and scanning the resulting images for wild petunias with flowers of our color and shape, and leaves of our leaves' shape, soon it became apparent that probably we had Ruellia tuberosa.

But that's a sloppy way to identify things, so I looked up technical details for Ruellia tuberosa.

An important field mark is referenced by the species name, tuberosa: The plant's roots bear thickened zones that can pass as tubers. Also, its stem's are slightly thickened at their nodes. I returned to the PEMEX station, saw that the stems indeed were swollen at their nodes, like arthritic finger joints, and my finger probing in the dirt could feel that here and there the roots thickened, though I'd not call the thickenings tubers. However, the plants were crowded here and competing with grass, so maybe with a gardener's attentions those thickenings would have been tubers.

Also I'd read that the herbage bore only a few hairs, and that the leaves' secondary veins had conspicuous cross-veins between them, making rectangular patterns. You can see what our plants' veins looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628ry.jpg.

So, all these field marks taken together lead to RUELLIA TUBEROSA, graced with any number of English names, including Minnieroot, Fever Root, Snapdragon Root and Sheep Potato. Minnieroot seems to be the most commonly used on the Internet so we'll go with that. The species has many names because it's so widely planted throughout the world's tropics that it's unclear where its native land is. It seems to have originated in the tropical Americas, and some suspect it may have come from the Caribbean area.

One reason Minnieroot is so commonly planted is that many cultures regard it as medicinal. In a published ethnobotanical work by CA Lans, in Trinidad and Tobago the plant is used as a diuretic (makes you pee), anti-diabetic, antipyretic (reduces fever), analgesic (pain killer), antihypertensive (treats high blood pressure), gastroprotective (sooths stomach), and as a treatment for gonorrhea. In Asia the plant has been present long enough to be firmly established in folk medicine.

So, this is a pretty nice plant to find next to a gas station, and one wonders how it got there. The station is built on rocks and dirt dumped in the mangroves, so maybe it was in the fill dirt. Or maybe there's just someone around that gas station who one day threw some seeds at the corner of the parking area to see what would happen.

*****

TROPICAL MISTLETOE
At the mangrove's edge the branches of many Buttonwood trees bear tangled clumps of wiry stems with small, fleshy leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s1.jpg.

You can see the stems' vininess, somewhat succulent leaves and small flowers clusters at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s2.jpg.

The leaves look like those of the North's mistletoe species, but who's ever heard of a viny mistletoe? In the above picture, notice the blunt, root-like appendages emerging from here and there on the stem. Elsewhere the vine's woody stems wound around the tree's limbs "rooting" these appendages on the limbs' surfaces in the manner of parasitic dodder, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s8.jpg.

Could this really be some kind of viny mistletoe, then? The flower clusters were examined to see if they looked like mistletoe flowers we'v seen before, and they didn't, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s3.jpg.

A closer look at two flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s4.jpg.

There, on the flower at the right, a green, cup-like calyx with no lobes or sepals can be seen inside which a tubular, yellowish-green corolla arises bearing stamens with whitish, curved anthers surrounding a cauliflower-like stigma. The corolla bears six petals instead of the five more often found in other such flowers, plus the stamens arise opposite the corolla lobes, not between them the normal way. This latter feature goes a long way toward helping decide what plant family we have here.

The flowers looked to me most like those of the Grape Family, one of the few families whose stamens arise opposite corolla lobes, but Grape Family flowers have corolla tubes with four or five lobes, not six. However, the Mistletoe Family, the Loranthaceae, usually has six-lobed corollas and its stamens also arise opposite the lobes, so here we did have some kind of viny mistletoe, something completely new to me. You might enjoy reviewing what typical mistletoe flowers look like up north -- these in Texas -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140223ms.jpg.

Sometimes species in the Mistletoe Family bear unisexual flowers, though these flowers seem to have both functional male and female parts. More mature flowers on this same plant had discarded their corollas, revealing healthy-looking but curiously kinked styles projecting from what seemed like ovaries destined to become fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s6.jpg.

Still, it was worth comparing these flowers with those on other viney mistletoes living among Buttonwood branches along the mangrove's edge. No obviously unisexual flowers were found, but some did show up displaying certain curious features, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s5.jpg.

Though I find no mention in the literature about it, those little white things on the flower's corolla lobes look like glands at the tips of anthers temporarily stuck to recently opened corolla lobes. Maybe the idea is for ants to come along, tug at the tasty gland, and help the anther unstick? Other flowers on other plants sometimes showed this condition, too. Who knows?

While "doing the botany" and still uncertain what plant family we had here, I'd made a cross-section of an ovary, finding it containing a single cell, which is OK if we have a mistletoe, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628s7.jpg.

So, this is STRUTHANTHUS CASSYTHOIDES, a true mistletoe of the Mistletoe Family, but a genus I hadn't recognized before. The species occurs from the Yucatan Peninsula south to Costa Rica. In the Yucatan it seems to be fairly common. Here along the arid northern coast I've noticed it only on Buttonwood trees, though an online paper from Nicaragua describes it as a serious parasite on citrus trees there, and numerous other tree species. Another Struthanthus occurs here, but its flower clusters are longer and more open.

It's worth remembering that the northern, Christmas-decoration-type mistletoe, in the genus Phoradendron, recently have been banished from the Mistletoe Family and relegated first to the Viscaceae, then to the Santalaceae. What we have here, then, having been retained in what's traditionally thought of as the Mistletoe Family, is a real, real mistletoe, though one without a decent English name. It might as well be called Tropical Mistletoe, like several other species, since it's not found up North.

It's also good to remember that mistletoes are only partially parasitic, though they are firmly rooted in their host trees. They do have green leaves, which photosynthesize the carbohydrates that are their real food, but they rob their host tree of sap.

*****

NIGHT-BLOOMING CEREUS BLOOMING
Over the years in several locations we've seen the climbing cactus known as the Night-blooming Cereus, and admired its spectacular flowers and large, edible fruits -- commercially sold as dragonfruits. You can see these on our page for the species at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/cereus1.htm.

So far, however, I've been unable to get a close-up look at the flowers when they were open. That situation was rectified this week because in Río Lagartos Night-blooming Cereus cacti commonly grow on people's walls, fences, and up into their yard trees. And this week a fence-dwelling one flowered right across the street from where I'm staying, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628ce.jpg.

You can get a feeling for the size of that incredible blossom compared to my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628cf.jpg.

A look into the flower, showing very many large stamens inserted on the flower's walls and directed inwards so that any entering bat or oversized moth has to brush against them is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150628cg.jpg.

Our Night-blooming Cereus -- other species go by the same English name -- is HYLOCEREUS UNDATUS. Though it's thought to be native to the American tropics, it's true nativity is unknown, having been propagated in so many countries that it's hard to say where it began. In the central Yucatan we've seen it high in trees flowering and fruiting as if it were very much at home, but here along the arid northern coast I find it only cultivated.

*****

GOOD WEB PAGE ON GLOBAL WARMING
My old friend Jarvis in North Carolina sends us a link to a web page at Bloomberg.Com entitled "What’s Really Warming the World?" The presentation is especially well documented and presents easy-to-interpret graphs showing how various influences such as periodic solar fluctuations, volcanic eruptions, forest clearing and manmade greenhouse gases have on the Earth's average temperature.

The link is at http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-whats-warming-the-world/.

*****

MICROSOFT & MY OLD VW BUG
This week immediately after a Windows update, my computer went haywire. That's why this Newsletter is much shorter than usual; I've spent the whole week trying to get things back in order, which finally was managed on Friday. It all got me started thinking about how my current lifestyle is dependent on computers and the Internet. It reminded me of what happened when my 1968 VW Beetle began dying back in the 1980s.

At that time technology was getting to the point where cars could no longer be repaired by folks like myself. I'd just spent a decade or so driving across the country in my Bug working as a freelance writer, carrying along a big toolbox and a greasy copy of John Muir's How to Keep Your VW Alive, For the Complete Idiot. The Bug was reaching the end of its line and all the replacements I could find already were so computerized and designed with expensive throw-away modules that I didn't want to fool with them. It was even getting so you couldn't roll down your window and rest your arm with your elbow sticking outside, and I didn't like that, either.

I solved the problem by changing my lifestyle. I stopped developing writing assignments in the US, abandoned the old Bug and began spending summers doing assignments in Europe, traveling on trains. In winters I went to tropical countries where I used buses. Between seasons my traveling inside the US was on Greyhound buses, which either carried me between my home base in Kentucky and Kennedy Airport in New York, or to the southern border where Mexico's excellent bus system began.

This change away from dependence on bossy US cars, traumatic at first with all its uncertainties, turned out to be a good move for me. Now I got more money for my articles and pictures, and it was much more interesting and enriching to move through various cultures. And it felt good to forget about car maintenance and car insurance.

So, back sometimes in the 80s or so, North American society-in-general evolved to a point where I decided to opt out, and it proved to be a good move. This week it seemed to me that my growing dependence on computers, the Internet and a digital camera had returned me to a similar point -- to where I was vulnerable and helpless when things didn't go right, and where I wasn't spending enough time with my elbow sticking out the car-door's open window, with the wind streaming in.

This week, battling computer problems, the old abandon-ship feeling has been coming back. Until suddenly things started going right again this Friday morning, I'd about decided to end most or all of my Internet work, which has been extensive and continuous since about 1996.

But, Friday morning, the computer worked OK, and I could get together what you read above.

Still, at this writing my head space is like it was back in my old Bug chugging down the highway someplace with a writing assignment in my pocket -- but during the last days of that time when I was starting to fantasize about what it'd be like Eurailing from assignment to assignment and taking buses in tropical countries. I'm speaking metaphorically here, for I've had enough of Eurailing and tropical buses. There's a whole world of other options, though.

Who knows how it'll all work out? And, thanks to MicroSoft and its buggy updates for helping me see things more clearly this week.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Yearning" from the July 11, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100711.htm

"A Life-Changing Meditation in Three Steps" from the February 7, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100207.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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