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

November 22, 2015

CLAVIPES SPHINX MOTH
Having finished my jog, built a campfire for hot water, and set myself to eating a steaming bowl of oatmeal with banana, with a bit of Maseca corn-flour thrown in for thickening, about an hour before dawn something thumb-sized with wings sounding like crinkling cellophane started bouncing against my left ear, then flew around my head to the right ear, and returned the left, before settling on the wood pole below the coil-shaped, super-efficient Tecno Lite light bulb dangling above my desk. It was a moth, having entered through the hut's open door and apparently confusing the light's reflection on my bald head for the Moon.

With it's large size, swooped-back wings and thick body, it was obviously a sphinx moth, as you can see in the flash-assisted photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122sx.jpg.

Last year in Texas we saw a moth, the Titan Sphinx, that was so similar that at first I didn't bother to take the above picture. You can compare our oatmeal moth with the Texas one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/aellopos.htm.

As I chewed the oatmeal, however, the moth just sat there at eyeball level, and I began to think how pleased volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario would be to have a moth to ID during Ontario's mothless November days, so I took the picture and sent it off.

Bea quickly replied that, yes, this Yucatan moth does look like the Texas one, but it's not quite identical. It's even in the same genus, Aellopos, but it's the Clavipes Sphinx, not the Titan Sphinx. It's AELLOPOS CLAVIPES.

"A variation on the sphinx moth theme," she reminded me to say in the Newsletter...

So, the Clavipes Sphinx ranges from Venezuela up through Central America and Mexico into California, Arizona and Texas. The larvae feed on various members of the Madder or Gardenia Family, the Rubiaceae, of which we have several species in our area, such as the very common Scarlet Bush, various species of buttonweed and planted Noni trees.

In our photograph, notice the long hairs at the tip of the moth's abdomen. Such hairs also were present on our Texas Titan moth. Back then we learned that such tufts of hair are known as hair-pencils, and that the hairs can be spread to provide more surface area to the air. Upon being spread, pheromones, or sexual hormones, are released from the moth's rear end. Both males and females have them. On our Titan Sphinx page I wrote:

"Not all moths bear hair-pencils but the males of species that do may use their hair-pencils to sprinkle pheromones right onto the female's antennae. This appears to have such an overwhelming effect on the female that not only is she roused sexually but also she becomes incapable of flying away. In certain lepidopterous species the pheromones thus sprinkled also keep other males away."

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MUDPLANTAIN
We last saw Mudplantain, also known as Ducksalad, HETERANTHERA LIMOSA, in a big mud puddle at the edge of a cotton field in southwestern Mississippi, in June of 2012. The puddle was regularly slogged through by big machinery, and I was amazed that such a fragile-looking, elegant little waterplant as the Mudplantain could survive such abuse. You can see a beat-up but flowering plant soon after the passage of a tractor through its puddle at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/mudplant.htm.

On that page I write that Mudplantain's orchid-like blossoms can be either white or blue, and you can see that our Mississippi Mudplantain's flowers were white. This week a car-sized population of blue-flowered ones turned up in a shallow puddle on a seldom-used trail through the woods here at Hacienda Chichen. You can see some of the ankle-high plants, with early morning dew beading on their waxy leaves, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122ht.jpg.

A close-up of a slightly asymmetrical Mudplantain flower with three stamens of two lengths is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122hu.jpg.

Mudplantains occur from the southern US south through all of Latin America into Brazil and Argentina, so it's not surprising to find them here. However, I was a little surprised that once again they turn up where they're likely to be disturbed by occasional traffic. However, now I read that though Mudplantains are considered a threatened species in parts of the central US, in California they're regarded as invasive weeds making a nuisance of themselvves in rice paddies.

It's also surprising that what is essentially an aquatic plant makes it into this arid part of Mexico were each year water pools in depressions only for a few weeks at the end of the wet season. Most of the year the trail these plants occupy is free of water, or at most a little muddy after rains. Mudplantain is an annual, and it's clear that once it has water it can grow fast.

The online Flora of North America states that Mudplantain flowers open within one hour after dawn, but wilt by midday. At 8:30 AM, most the one ones in our Hacienda puddle already were wilted and I had to look around for fresh ones. The Wikipedia author for the species reports that the flowers can be ground into a paste that soothes wounds and burns, like Aloe Vera juice.

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SAALCHE SENNA
A shoulder-high, woody bush at the woods' edge bore dense clusters of green-bean-like legumes, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122sn.jpg.

A few yellow blossoms remaining on the bush exhibited slight asymmetry, the five yellow petals almost identical but the brown-anthered stamens and slender, greenish-yellow style curved upward to form an upturned nose, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122so.jpg.

Two other field marks worth noting are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122sp.jpg.

First, the herbage is heavily invested with velvety hairs, with many of the hairs being branched at their bases, or "stellate." Second, on the compound leaves' petioles between the lowest one or two pairs of leaflets there arise black, hairy, teardrop-shaped objects.

The teardrop-shaped objects must be ant-attracting glands, though these are different from others I've seen in the same position. Plants who attract ants onto their leaves make the leaves less attractive to tender-mouthed herbivores and seed predators.

Here in the Yucatan we're constantly meeting Bean Family bushes or small trees with slightly asymmetrical, yellow flowers, and once-divided, compound leaves often equipped with ant-attracting glands between their lowest pair of leaflets. We've come to recognize such a collection of field marks as indicating the genus Senna. Twenty-two Senna species are listed for the Yucatan Peninsula, and we've seen our share of them.

However, I've not seen a Senna whose legumes were so constricted between their beans as this one's are, nor have I encountered such a hairy one, or one whose petiole glands were so black and hairy. Still, all the other features are pure Senna.

Before beginning the process of comparing our pictures with the 22 Senna species listed for the Yucatan, I thought I'd try to cheat and maybe save some time. I looked among the 22 names, hoping to find a species name describing either this plant's unusual bead-necklace-like legumes, or the plant's exceptional hairiness. And there was one such name, one with the species name of villosa, villosa meaning "villous," which means "with long and soft, not matted, hairs." And when I checked to see what SENNA VILLOSA looked like, the images matched our plant in every detail.

Senna villosa is endemic just to Mexico, occurring spottily from Baja California across central and southern Mexico to the Yucatan, where it's common enough to have a Maya name, which is Saalche.

To be of such limited distribution, there's a surprising amount of information about it on the Internet. That's because as a medicinal plant Saalche Senna traditionally has been "...used topically to treat skin infections, pustules and eruptions and to heal wounds by scar formation."

In fact, a 2014 paper by Ana del Carmen Susunaga-Notario and others reported that not only are extracts from the plant anti-inflamatory, but also they are effective against the Trypanosoma parasite.

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BARBULA MOSS
Descending from the Hacienda's open-walled restaurant to the sidewalk skirting the prettily gardened back lawn, one meets a chest-high, columnar stone carving so eroded by time that you can barely make out the features in it of a person's face. The face shows high cheekbones and oversized, Oriental-type eyes, the kind of eyes often seem among living Maya today, and surely like those of the ancient Maya who built Chichén Itzá. You can see the stone at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122bb.jpg.

It's not surprising that real archaeological artifacts might turn up at the Hacienda. Until fairly recently in the Hacienda's long, interestng history, the grounds of Chichén Itzá ruins and those of the Hacienda were practically the same, the entire zone being owned by the same family. The current fences and tight security around the ruins are relatively new.

More interesting to me than the carving with its Oriental features is the depression atop the head, maybe chiseled there to receive the foot of a similar head-carving to be set above this one, or possibly to hold a pot of flowers. A worthy function the depression accomplishes now is to support an ecosystem of soil populated by tiny green plants and an assortment of microscopic and near-microscopic animals, such as a healthy colony of tiny white springtails. Most of the biomass in the cavity, however, is contributed by a kind of moss, a close-up of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122bc.jpg.

In the Yucatan, mosses are nearly as hard to find as fungi, the Peninsula's somewhat arid climate and long, severe dry seasons accounting for the paucity of both. In general, both mosses and fungi need more humid environments. Moreover, in the Yucatan, even when you do notice a colony of mosses, usually they're strictly vegetative, lacking spore-filled capsules atop slender stalks -- such as those seen towering over the mosses' leaves in the above picture.

Having no microscope and with all my moss books moldering up North, at first I thought there'd be no chance of my identifying this moss. However, it occurred to me that in our area the known moss flora must be very small, so maybe if I could find a list of Yucatec moss species, then compare illustrations of every species on the list with our moss, maybe there'd be a match. But, to see all the features needed to do this, I'd need to push my little from-the-Wal-Mart-shelf Canon PowerShot SX160 IS camera to the limits of its macro capacity, and work hard with PhotoShop.

First, let's see what three entire moss bodies, averaging about 1cm high (3/8ths inch), look like, as shown on the tip of my finger at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122be.jpg.

Unlike many moss species, these plants are nearly stemless, and atop hairlike stalks their spore-bearing capsules display long-pointed tops. The capsules do not nod downward from the tips of crookneck stalks as in some important moss genera. Closer up we see that the capsules' long, slender tops are actually dunce-cap-like affairs composed of cellophane-like cones that turn brown at maturity, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122bd.jpg.

The dunce caps and other features of moss anatomy are discussed and illustrated on our Moss Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mosses.htm.

Studying our last picture closely, we see that each dunce cap, or calyptra, is shaped like an upside-down cone with a broad, shallow split along one side, and that's a field mark worth noting.

A close-up of a moss's tufted leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122bf.jpg  

That shot reveals two important details: First, the leaves are sharply tipped, and; second, each leaf bears a prominent midrib down its back.

Up North in moss-rich areas these features would be completely inadequate for identification. However, down here where so few species are to be reckoned with, maybe...

On the Internet the breakthrough came when I downloaded a 2003 paper by Claudio Delgadillo M. entitled "Moss Distribution in the Yucatán Peninsula." That undated paper in PDF format is freely available here.

Delgadillo tells us that about 70 moss species and varieties occur in the Yucatan Peninsula, with the rainier southern region being the mossiest. He also helpfully mentions that certain species are found only on trees, such as Calymperes afzelii, Entodontopsis leucostega, Henicodium geniculatum, Leucobryum incurvifolium, and Octoblepharum albidum, while others restrict themselves to limestone, such as Barbula agraria, Barbula indica, Hyophila involuta, and Neohyophila sprengelii.

Beyond its other values, the carved Maya head outside the Hacienda's restaurant amounts to being a hunk of limestone, and in light of Delgadillo's list of limestone-loving mosses, that fact turns out to be critical to our ID effort.

Looking up pictures and drawings of the four species listed as growing on limestone -- as being "obligate calcicolous species," as Claudio Delgadillo says it -- images of only one species match ours, and they match in every detail we can see.

Therefore, despite this ID technique being so unprofessional, I feel pretty sure that our head-carvig moss is the first on Claudio Delgadillo's list, the one he calls Barbula agraria, but which nowadays the updated Flora of North America names HYOPHILADELPHUS AGRARIUS.

The Flora describes Hyophiladelphus agrarius as forming low crusts, often with cyanobacteria, in low, shady, moist areas on limestone and masonry walls. It's found in the US southeastern states south through Mexico and Guatemala, plus the Caribbean area, and northern South America and Brazil. Sometimes it's referred to as the Barbula Moss, though it no longer belongs to the genus Barbula.

*****

FAN-SHAPED JELLY FUNGUS
As the rainy season draws to a close the ground is soggy, the air is heavy with humidity and the odor of mold and mud, and the vegetation is as lush and green as it'll get. In short, this is the time to look for fungi.

Despite the perfect-for-fungi weather, the Yucatan in general is fungus-poor. That's because of our dry season, which for half of the year or more keeps things too dry for moisture-loving fungi.

Still, this week, on a decaying tree stem that had been cut next to the garden, a bunch of pretty ones showed up, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122jf.jpg.

A close-up showing the fungus's fan shape and its darkened, well differentiated stem is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151122jg.jpg.

With this fungus's rubbery texture and lack of gills, it's clearly a kind of jelly fungus, so simply by doing a Google image search on the keywords "jelly fungus wood" very soon identified pictures turned up showing what's in our picture. It's DACRYOPINAX SPATHULARIA, sometimes known as the Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus, and it enjoys a practically worldwide distribution.

Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus is a saprophyte on wood, meaning that it feeds on dead wood. It's surprising how many pictures of the species show fruiting bodies issuing from cracks in wood, not only natural cracks such as those in our picture but also on old buildings where moisture has seeped into joints between wooden planks, causing wood rot. This fungus is really a wood-crack specialist.

Despite the lack of gills or pores of the kind beneath many mushroom caps, jelly fungi such as Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus do produce microscopic spores known as basidiospores. These, instead of being shed from gills or pores, come loose from the surface of the jelly fungus's body.

At least in Asia, Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus is added to certain dishes to add taste and texture. Most mushroom eaters here would regard them as too small and bland to bother with.

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AMAZON.COM
As part of the effort to convert the BackyardNature.Net website from my personal site to "The People's," I'm trying to make the site more self-supporting by bringing its Amazon.Com links up to date.

During the upcoming season's shopping for gifts, please consider buying books that open doors to Nature, and buy them from Amazon.Com accessed through our web pages.

When you buy something from Amazon.Com, starting from one of our pages, the website's bank account receives a small referral fee, at no extra cost to you.

You can browse what's being offered at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Gasoline Makes Pistons Move," from the August 7 2005 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/050807.htm

"'Like Seeing Things for The First Time'," from the April 1, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060401.htm

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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