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

December 20, 2015

PANTHER ANT ON A HELICONIA
In November of 2010 our Newsletter featured "Joch the Panther Ant," a half-inch long (13mm) ant commonly dispensing painful bites in the Yucatan. In English it's the Hairy Panther Ant, and the Maya name is Joch, pronounched HOCH, rhyming with roach. You can see Joch and read about the species' "antenna boxing," egg cannibalism, and more at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/joch.htm.

A Heliconia plant beside the hut door is preparing to flower now, its first orange-yellow bracts just emerging atop big, glossy-green leaves. You can review what Heliconias look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/heliconi.htm.

As soon as a bright splotch of orangish yellow developed atop the Heliconia, a Joch ant moved onto the spot and stayed -- hour after hour, day after day. As the Heliconia developed, the Joch remained, though sometimes he'd disappear for two or three days, then one morning there he'd be again, in the same spot as always, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220pa.jpg.

Notice that his mandibles are wide open. It's easy to figure out that this Joch -- Joches are described in the literature as "generalized arboreal predators, preying on many kinds of arthropods" -- is just waiting for the Heliconia's splash of color to attract a pollinator, so he can attack and eat it.

A closer look at the hairy-legged Joch, stealthily peeping over the side of his platform, presumably to see if prey is at hand, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220pb.jpg.

When a pollinator approaches or lands, the Joch moves in slowly. I've not seen him capture prey yet, though. Maybe that's why he disappears for days at a time -- so that pollinators can get used to visiting, and thinking the place is safe.

*****

SHARPSHOOTER LEAFHOPPER
While photographing Joch the Velvet Panther Ant, one of the prettiest leafhoppers I've ever seen turned up on the soft-fleshed, developing tip of one of the Heliconia's bracts, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220lh.jpg.

Leafhoppers suck plant juices by inserting there very slender, hypodermic-needle-like proboscis into the plant's tissue. You can barely make out this one's proboscis right below the eye.

This is a small species, only ¼ inch long (6.5mm). So many species exist that often they're hard to identify. However, this one is so eye-catching that I thought maybe volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario could find labeled pictures of one on the Internet, and that was exactly the case. It wasn't long until she'd declared it ERYTHROGONIA LAUDATA, for some reason in English known as the Sharpshooter, described as native to Mexico and Belize south to Honduras.

It turns out that Sharpshooter pictures are numerous on the Internet, but they are unaccompanied by observations, so the life history of the species is hard to make out.

However, one technical paper was found saying that Erythrogonia laudata is one of two leafhopper species found feeding on banana plants in Honduras.

That rang a bell with me, for the Heliconia plant, Heliconia latispatha, next to my hut door is a member of the Banana Family, the Musaceae.

Therefore, with great pleasure here we can announce to the search-engine-using world that adults of the small, pretty Sharpshooter Leafhopper, Erythrogonia laudata, feed not only on banana trees, but also on at least one other member of the Banana Family, the genus Heliconia.

*****

LUNAR EUDESMIA MOTH
Working at the computer during the evening's early hours, moths are attracted through the hut's open doors, to flutter around the super-efficient little spiral-bulbed light on the pole next to me. Most of the moths are so tiny and drab that I doubt even volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario could come up with a name for them, but sometimes something large and eye-catching comes along, such as the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220eu.jpg.

Bea soon figured out that it's the Lunar Eudesmia, EUDESMIA MENEA, widely distributed from Texas and Florida in the US, south throughout Mexico and Central America, to Brazil. It's a member of the Lichen Moth tribe, the Lithosiini, of the Tiger and Lichen Moth subfamily, the Arctiinae.

Little information is available about the Lunar Eudesmia's life history, though a paper by F.A. Parada-Berríos and E. Torres-Calderón, in a 2013 issue of El Salvador's online Bioma, reported that the Lunar Eudesmia's caterpillars bear very long hairs, and that they construct a silk structure in which they pupate. The species got the authors' attention because in El Salvador the caterpillars feed on leaves of the Mamey tree, Pouteria sapota, the producer of an important and delicious fruit often sold in tropical markets.

Elsewhere I read that for the vast majority of members of the group of moths to which the Lunar Eudesmia belongs no information is known about feeding habits and behavior. I'm happy that here we can at least document that Lunar Eudesmias are attracted by light in the early evening in the central Yucatan in December. Also, the information about their caterpillars feeding on Mamey leaves appeared in Spanish, so now that is more available to English speakers.

Also, there's this: A couple of weeks ago, sheltered inside a rusty pipe fitting I'd affixed to the top of a pole to keep my clothes line from slipping off... I photographed the extremely hairy caterpillar and very mysterious, teardrop-shaped item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220ev.jpg.

Bea in Ontario found several species that more or less looked like this, but couldn't come to any decision, and that mystery item drew a blank with her, too. The picture was filed along with many others that over the years have left both of us clueless, and which you never got to see.

However, the above-mentioned Parada-Berríos and Torres-Calderón paper featured a picture of the Lunar Eudesmia's caterpillar and I can see no difference between that and our caterpillar. Knowing that Lunar Eudesmia adults occur where the caterpillar was photographed -- the hut -- it's good circumstantial evidence that they're the same species. If they are, then here's more we can contribute to knowledge of this species:

The caterpillar appeared at the edge of the forest, beneath a large Spanish Plum tree, Spondias purpurea. The day after the picture was taken, around the first of December, the caterpillar was spotted in bright sunlight moving across the ground, which was covered with recently fallen plum leaves. The caterpillar moved with a curious stop-action motion, moving for perhaps half a second, then freezing perfectly still for a second or so, then moving for another half second.

*****

CAN YOU IDENTIFY THE TEARDROP-SHAPED ITEM?
The teardrop-shaped item in the above photo ( http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220ev.jpg ) remains a mystery. The thing's color and consistency is that of a hard but brittle snail shell. At the item's top there's a hole at the tip of the projection, better shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220__.jpg.

Is it an insect egg case or a puparium in which a pupa is 'preparing to metamorphose into an adult? The shell seems to have been extruded, so the creature making it had to be of some size. Is the hole supposed to be there, or has an animal nibbled off the tip, maybe with the notion of parasitizing the contents? Viewed with sunlight back-lighting it, a bulk is visible inside the thing, much too large to exit the hole.

If anyone has any ideas, please write to me via http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

*****

THE MONSTROUSLY PRETTY SHRUB LANTANA
Not far from the hut, next to a revegetating abandoned field, a semi-woody shrub about ten feet tall (3m), turned up on a cool, dewy early morning extending its handsome, green, powerfully odoriferous leaves and clusters of orangish-red flowers into the blue sky, positively radiant in the early morning, low-slanting sunlight, exactly as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220lt.jpg.

A close-up of its dew-covered flower clusters is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220lu.jpg.

And a view of a single flower's dew-wet face is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220lv.jpg.

We've seen this before. It's Lantana camara, which in different places and different contexts we've called Shrub Verbena, Shrub Lantana, Yellow-flowered Wild Sage, and just plain Lantana. And those are just some of dozens of its names, the proliferation of names reflecting the fact that the plant is outrageously variable in its appearance and behavior, and is found in warmer areas worldwide. You can check out some of its many flower colors and vegetative forms we've seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lantana.htm.

On that page you can read about its medicinal uses, its toxicity to livestock and its tendency to become an aggressively invasive weed in some places. With all that coverage, why return to it?

First, I've never seen such a tall one. Usually they are at most chest high, but this one was practically a small tree, so I felt compelled to double-check the identification and make sure it wasn't a species I didn't know about. And in double-checking it, I found a page of the online Global Invasive Species Database with information new to me, which you can visit at http://www.issg.org/database/species/ecology.asp?si=56.

"It is an artificial hybrid species that has been subject to intense horticultural improvement in Europe since the sixteenth century and now exists in many different forms or varieties throughout the world," the page reports. Also, "there are some 650 varieties in over 60 countries. It is established and expanding in many regions of the world, often as a result of clearing of forest for timber or agriculture." In other words, Shrub Lantana isn't a natural species, is something man-made, and now is running amok in the world creating havoc and causing despair among those trying to protect native environments. It's a kind of patched-together plant Frankenstein with appealing aspects, but which is very disruptive nonetheless.

Among the many uses reported on the Global Invasive Species Database" page are that extracts derived from the plant are used in folk medicine for the treatment of cancers, chicken pox, measles, asthma, ulcers, swellings, eczema, tumors, high blood pressure, bilious fevers, catarrhal infections, tetanus, rheumatism, malaria, and more. Shrub Lantana makes decent firewood and mulch. Its stems, treated by the sulfate process, can be used to produce pulp for paper suitable for writing and printing. Bearing short spines, it's planted as a hedge to contain or keep out livestock. Water into which its powerful chemicals have been leached can be used to kill aquatic Water Hyacinth, which in some places chokes tropical rivers and canals. Sometimes Shrub Lantana makes large thickets that provide shelter and winter food for many native birds.

On the other hand, when land is deforested, Shrub Lantana can invade the landscape so completely that the natural succession of plants leading to forest regeneration can't take place. Infestations of the species can completely stall the regeneration of rainforest for at least three decades. Shrub Lantana produces "allelopathic" compounds that retard the growth of other species around it. Land covered with Shrub Lantana thickets protects the soil from water erosion less than if it grass covered it, so it contributes to the deterioration of soil structure. Cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats have been poisoned eating its herbage. Disease-causing Malarial mosquitoes in India and tsetse flies in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya shelter in Shrub Lantana thickets.

When on a dewy morning a lovely being comes along invitingly radiating freshness and vitality, you just never know what you're getting into until you check into her background.

*****

COBÁN SENNA
Twenty-two species of the Bean Family genus Senna are listed for the Yucatan Peninsula, and I keep finding ones new for me, and I do enjoy these "variations on the Senna theme."

The newest addition to our personal list is one I'm calling the Cobán Senna, SENNA COBANENSIS, presumably named after the city of Cobán in central Guatemala. Previous sennas we've profiled were distinctly woody shrubs or small trees, but this new one is an herb with only slightly woody tendencies, and as a roadside weed grew only about knee high. You can see its pinnately compound leaves, yellow flowers -- unusually few per cluster -- and long, slender, strongly curved, immature legume at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220se.jpg.

A close-up of a flower cluster next to my finger shows the flowers small size as well as the fact that it's slightly asymmetrical, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220sf.jpg.

In that picture, not only are the top petals larger than the lower but also the right and left sides are not quite mirror images of one another. Senna flowers are normally asymmetrical, but usually one side of the flower mirrors the other, so this seems to be an oddity of this species. A look at the flower's backside shows that the green calyx also is asymmetrical, the sepals varying greatly in size, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220sg.jpg.

A curious feature of this species is that although it habituates disturbed forests, roadsides and grassy areas, which are abundant habitats, and it occurs from Mexico to Panama with another population in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, it's seldom collected or photographed, and not much is known about it.

In fact, CICY, the Yucatan Center for Scientific Investigation, which hosts the online Flora of Yucatan that is of such great help to me, had no pictures of it, and has asked to have mine, which of course they can. It's always fun to document such relatively unknown species.

*****

COLLECTING MORNING GLORY SEEDS
I want to plant morning glory vines around my hut, have them climbing into the trees and providing walls of brightly colored, fragrant flowers attracting butterflies, moths and hummingbirds. Nowadays the various morning glory species are beginning to produce mature fruiting pods, so I've been out collecting them.

One of my target species is the crimson-flowered Red Morning Glory profiled in last week's Newsletter, now with its own page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/red_morn.htm.

You can see its smallish pods and seeds collected this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220mh.jpg.

Three or four seeds were produced in each pod.

Even more sought-after than Red Morning Glory seeds were those of the Moonflower, whose huge, white blossoms open at dusk and fill the night with gardenia-like perfume. Moonflowers are profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ipomoea.htm.

The Moonflower vine's seeds, mostly three to the capsule, are hard and large, as shown next to an open capsule at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220mg.jpg.

Noticing the seeds' hardness, I suspected that getting them to germinate might be a challenge. Maybe I'd need to scratch the seed coverings with a knife, or soak them in vinegar. I shouldn't have worried. With no preparation other than planting them shallowly in a container of loose, moist soil, already a strong, white root, the radicle, was emerging after only three days!

Moreover, while collecting Moonflower seeds along the road, I noticed that not only were the vines climbing high into trees, but also they were sending runners across limestone fill dumped there recently as the highway was widened. You can see these vigorous, flowering runners at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220mf.jpg.

In other species, sometimes such runners root at the nodes where leaves are produced, so I began checking these for rooting nodes. For the most part the runners didn't root, but some of them did, especially where rain had washed silt over them, or the road crew had dropped a rock atop them. In these places vigorous roots were formed, as shown on a stem section gnawed from a runner at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220me.jpg.

That rooting section was carried home, planted in moist soil, and never even wilted. Now it grows lustily in my pot and I plan to return and collect more such rooting sections for the Hacienda to have on hand.

So, Moonflower seeds are easy to germinate, but an even easier and faster way to get a Moonflower vine growing is to look for rooting runners.

*****

ANCIENT WASHBASIN IN THE WOODS
At an undisclosed location deep in the forest and off the trail in a place where people seldom pass, an ancient rock washbasin sits where maybe someone left it centuries ago. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220wb.jpg.

Notice the notch carved into the rim nearest us. Many collectors would like to have this, and even more would like to sell it, but it's sheer size, weight and lack of support points keep people from carrying it out. The terrain is too irregular for a vehicle to get to, even if someone chops down trees, and it's on land protected by the Hacienda, so it just sits there. Wildlife must treasure the water it stores after rain.

All the Hacienda's land lies amid a vast assemblage of Maya ruins and artifacts; the fenced-in part the public pays to see is only a tiny part of the whole. Finding things like this is not unusual.

In fact, in the middle of a trail near the hut, there are two holes in solid limestone bedrock, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151220wc.jpg.

Conceivably they could be natural features but the facts that they are so similar, and located within a major ruin zone, make me believe that they must have been made by the ancient Maya. Up North I've seen similar holes in rocks where archaeologists say that nuts and grain were ground in the holes with rock pestles. Maybe in these holes the Maya ground not only corn but also the area's Ramón, or Breadnut, fruits into flour for making a heavy kind of bread, and maybe they ground into powder the toasted seeds of the big Piich tree, Enterlobium cyclocarpum, for brewing "coffee."

*****

WINTER SOLSTICE, 2015
With less humidity in the air during these early days of the dry season, sunlight stings more -- even though the sun is lower now -- and during my predawn jogs stars are particularly bright. Sometimes during these runs I don't think of anything, the body and mind go on autopilot, but other times the sky's starry patterns set my mind to thinking.

For example, during these pre-Solstice mornings when I step from the hut, the sky overhead is dominated by brilliant Jupiter. During the eastward part of my run, Venus, like Jupiter also named after a Roman god, dominates the horizon, and in fact is the brightest object in the morning sky. When I turn around at the end of the road, the constellation Auriga The Charioteer dominates my westward view. The whole run is an exercise in extinct ancient mythologies.

Last week, with these morning sky-gazings setting the tone for my days, I was celestially primed to experience the week's fervent celebrations. For, here in Mexico, last week was one of the most important of all holidays, the one celebrating the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadelupe. All week, all through each day, even at this distance from the highway, sirens of police cars could be heard warning traffic that runners carrying Olympic-type torches were on the road. I'm told that the runners were fulfilling promises they'd made to the Virgin -- "Help me pass this test, and I'll run from Valladolid to Pisté for you... " Pisté's celebrations were heartfelt and rambunctious, with bullfights of the kind where the bull dies, bars staying open all night, family gatherings with meals featuring special dishes, and much church-going.

So, last week, the morning sky with its mythologies spread across it, and the big celebrations in Pisté, got me to thinking about belief systems in general. And this led to reflecting on the fact that less than 500 years ago Spanish forces in the name of God and King invaded the Yucatán and through slavery, mass brutality and church building extinguished ancient Mayan beliefs, replacing them with their own. And now beliefs of the conquerors are honestly and fervently embraced by the conquered.

Just what does it mean that the human condition is structured so that sheer violence driven by greed, lust for power, and lack of empathy for one's fellow man can exterminate a whole belief system as if it were a living thing -- can make it as forgotten and irrelevant as the ancient mythologies coldly alluded to by stars in the early-morning sky?

I couldn't find any meaning in it all, other than that during confrontations generally it's the stronger who wins, but who wants to dwell on that?

So, despite all the influences of these recent nights and days, which included looking over an insightful page on "Religion and Mythology" you can review at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_mythology, I've come up with no great insights to pass along now, except perhaps this:

That I should wish you a healthy and happy New Year, and remind you that the real New Year, the Natural New Year of Earth's Northern Hemisphere and the New Year I'm going to celebrate, begins in the most natural and self-evident way, on what the Western, Christian calendar refers to as Monday night, December 21st, at 10:49 PM CST.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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