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

December 27, 2015

"BLACK-PEPPER DOG"
Soon after my return to Hacienda Chichen, next to the hut I planted a small tree, in Spanish called Hoja Santa, an important member of the tropical Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae. Our Hoja Santa Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/piper-au.htm.

One morning I was checking on it when a bird dropping turned up on one of the Hoja Santa's big, fragrant leaves. But then the dropping moved. As I stooped and bent for a very close look, in a flash two orange "antennae" materialized atop the poop's bigger end. The whole thing is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227od.jpg.

We've seen something like this before. Here at the Hacienda, in 2011, we saw the Orange Dog caterpillar, the poop-mimicking larva of the Giant Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio cresphontes. Its page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/orangedg.htm.

However, that caterpillar had inhabited an Orange tree, a member of the Citrus Family, while this one was on a member of the unrelated Black Pepper Family, plus this one looked a little different. Caution with the identification was called for.

Even if this turned out to be just another Orange Dog, it was exciting, because back in 2011, after volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario had figured out its name, I'd read that Orange Dogs possess "osmeteria," which are orange or reddish, Y-shaped, eversible glands located just behind the head.

"When attacked by small predators such as ants or spiders," I wrote back then, "the caterpillar extrudes the gland so that it looks like an orange or reddish antler, and tries to wipe it against the attacker. The osmeteria of older caterpillars contain a highly noxious, pungent chemical that smells like rancid butter."

I wanted to see an osmeterium, so the next day I'd returned to the Orange tree looking for the Orange Dog, but couldn't find it. The next year, however, up in Texas, we did see osmeteria on the caterpillar of a closely related Black Swallowtail, which you can see down the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/b-s-cat.htm.

For several days I visited our Hoja Santa caterpillar regularly, sometimes accompanied by tourists on my free walks, the poor Hoja Santa always displaying a few more holes in its leaves. Then one day the caterpillar turned up looking as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227oe.jpg.

He was bigger, bumpier, more brightly colored, and that white, crumpled, cellophane-like thing was sticking to his rear end. Well, not only do butterfly caterpillars metamorphose into pupa, which metamorphose into adult butterflies, but also caterpillars go through spurts of growth, each time shedding their old "skins." Each ever-larger stage between shedded skins is known as an instar. Clearly, our little friend had just grown into a newer, bigger instar. And he didn't seem to be comfortable with the idea. From time to time he'd jerk violently, and didn't move at all for the rest of the day. However, he still could stick out his osmeteria, at least slightly, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227of.jpg.

In that picture, notice the brownish, semitransparent item below the head. That's the old covering of his compound eyes. Notice that the old covering is smaller than the compound eyes he has now. A closer look at this is given at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227og.jpg.

As of this writing the caterpillar still is there, over a week after first turning up, and now he's entered yet another instar, becoming darker and grayer, more ridged and wrinkled, and developing some extraordinary bluish hues only noticeable up close, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227oh.jpg.

So, our caterpillar has really put on a show for us, but was he really an Orange Dog? In reviewing our Orange Dog Page I was reminded that there are two closely related swallowtail species in our area producing very similar caterpillars, of which one was our earlier identified Orange Dog. Back then I also wrote, "...an expert Bea double-checked with in the US thinks that Thoas butterfly caterpillars probably feed on members of the Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae, while Giant Swallowtail caterpillars feed on citrus... "

So, there you go. In 2011 we saw the Orange Dog larva of the Giant Swallowtail butterfly, exactly where he should have been, on an Orange Tree, which is a member of the Citrus Family. Now in 2015 we've seen the larva of the Thoas Swallowtail, PAPILIO THOAS, exactly where he belongs, on a member of the Black Pepper Family.

It's wonderful when things fall together like this.

By the way, the "Black Pepper-Dog" name is one I made up. This Black-Pepper-Family-loving species doesn't occur up north in English-speaking territory so it has no English name. The name is just being consistent with the other name, Orange Dog, which is well established in Orange-tree-growing Florida.

*****

ORIOLE NEST
An old pendulous nest of an Altamira Oriole fell from the big Chinese Banyon in front of the Hacienda's reception area. I wove its top straws onto the low-hanging limb of a Guácimo tree in front of the hut so visitors could examine it. It's shown, with its entrance hole clearly visible at the bottom, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227or.jpg.

Of the eight oriole species appearing at Hacienda Chichen, six are permanent residents building nests. This Altamira's nest is the longest.

*****

VELVETSEED
Along an isolated gravel road a tree turned up I'd never seen before, and when that happens it's always a big deal. It bore small, somewhat leathery, hairy leaves, two per stem node, with prominent venation, and what was most exciting, pea-sized, brilliantly red fruits, all shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227bm.jpg.

After all these years, how could I have missed something as eye-catching as this? Up close, the fruits were even more unusual, for they bore disperse, very slender, stiff, leaning-over hairs, and a conspicuous brown crown as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227bn.jpg.

The crown has to be the remains of a calyx, so this fruit has developed from an "inferior" ovary, meaning that the former flower's calyx, corolla and stamens arose above the ovary, not below. This is an important detail, because most flowers are "superior," not "inferior."

In the American tropics, whenever you see a woody bush or small tree bearing opposite leaves and inferior ovaries, the most likely plant family being dealt with is the Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae, simply because it's such a huge, commonly encountered family. To firm up the diagnosis, you need to look for scale-like "stipules" connecting the tops of the petioles, across the stem. In the above photo stipules should appear, but the stem is so hairy that it's hard to say.

This tree's flowering time had definitely passed, but some immature ovaries were found bearing not only browning calyxes atop them but also withering corollas. You can see that the corollas are also hairy, with corolla lobes atop a long corolla tube, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227bp.jpg.

Coffee-Family flowers are often just like this. The fruits were fleshy, containing hard seeds, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227bo.jpg.

The tree's bark was pale and blotchy, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227bq.jpg.

The tree turned out to be a good find, endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula, and truly a member of the Coffee Family. It's GUETTARDA GAUMERI, which we'll call Gaumer's Velvetseed, since species of Guettarda often are called velvetseeds, and the species name honors its collector, George Franklin Gaumer (1850-1929), whose name has graced several of the endemic species we've run across over the years.

The species is not well documented, though its botanical description by Paul Standley in 1930 describes it as reaching 7m tall (23ft).

*****

BALCHÉ FRUITS MATURING
We've already looked at the Balché's leaves and flowers, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/balche.htm.

Now that tree, from which the Maya ceremonial drink of Balché is brewed, is producing nearly mature fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227lc.jpg.

Since Balché is a member of the Bean Family, the fruits are legumes, and their seeds are beans. Balché legumes are unusual in that each bears only one or a very few beans. They're also noteworthy for each legume bearing on one side a kind of double ridge instead of just one sharp margin. You can see two legumes exhibiting the legumes' two kinds of sides, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ld.jpg.

*****

AROIDS FLOWERING
Among the most striking plants gracing the grounds of Hacienda Chichen are members of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae. Members of this family often collectively are known as aroids. Aroids are favored here because their large, glossy leaves are so attractive.

Aroid flowering structures consist of many tiny male flowers covering a spike's top, with female flowers at the spike's bottom, the whole spike partially enshrounded by a leafy affair known as a spathe -- the "pulpit" of the northern Jack-in-the-pulpit, with "Jack" being the flowering spike.

Lately several of our aroids have been flowering. For instance, you may remember the Split-leaf Philodendron we profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/phil-bi.htm.

Its flowering structure, which will ripen into an edible "fruit," is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227mo.jpg.

Also, there was the Nephthytis or Arrowhead Vine, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/syngonm.htm.

That pretty plant's flowering structure, busy with pollinators at the peak of its receptivity, is shown a http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227sy.jpg.

*****

HAIRY EUPHORBIA
A knee-high herb with slender, strikingly red stems that delicately bifurcated into ±equal branches, repeatedly forming Ys along its branches, surged onto the one-lane dirt road leading into the garbage dump, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227eu.jpg.

We've seen lots of herbaceous spurges like this -- members of the genus Euphorbia, in the Spurge Family, the Euphorbiaceae -- but usually it's a challenge to figure out which of the many Euphorbia species it is. But this one is distinctive. Just look at how its red stems branch and rebranch, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ev.jpg.

With a flowering head snipped off, the stem bled white latex, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ex.jpg.

But it's the flowering structure that makes a spurge a spurge, with the ovaries on curved stems hanging outside the cup-like "cyathium," while inside the cyathium a few male flowers are jammed together, projecting the yellow anthers of their single stamens skyward, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ew.jpg.

Actually, we've seen this memorable species before. Back in Texas in 2013 at this same time of year we found the Hairy Euphorbia, EUPHORBIA VILLIFERA, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/haireuph.htm.

In Texas I was under the impression that the species was endemic only to that part of Texas and arid northern Mexico, but CICY, the Center for Scientific Investigation of the Yucatan, lists Euphorbia villifera for the Yucatan, and here we have it well documented. Several times in the past we've found species mainly occurring in arid northern Mexico and Texas, but with other separate, "disjunct" populations here in the Yucatan's arid north.

*****

DEVIL'S HORSEWHIP
At the gravel road's edge near the vulture-friendly local landfill a population of knee-high herbs with strange-looking flowering heads contributed to the season's general profound greenness, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ac.jpg.

It's one of those plants whose flowers arrange themselves in slender spikes, the spikes' tips bearing young, immature flowers and pointing upward, but immediately below them older flowers at the peak of their sexual effectiveness spread outward -- being more exposed to pollinators and/or wind -- while below these sexually active flowers the older-still flowers mature into fruits while nodding downward, becoming less noticeable to pollinators as they ripen. A close-up featuring the flowers' three stages of development is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ad.jpg.

Here it's seen that the outward-spreading flowers, the ones at the peak of their sexual activity, don't appear to be open. Open flowers on neighboring plants also couldn't be found, and I just don't know what's going on. Maybe they open only at a specific time of the day, or maybe in this strain they somehow get by closed. Pictures on the Internet show plants with open flowers.

Anyone familiar with common amaranths, celosias and the like will recognize that these landfill plants belong to the Amaranth Family, or Amaranthaceae. Amaranth Family flowers don't produce corollas, but rather make do with scale-like "tepals," which are neither petals nor sepals, but something in-between.

Before setting off to identify this interesting plant the leaves were photographed, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227ae.jpg.

Our plants are ACHYRANTHES ASPERA, sometimes called Prickly Chaff-flowers but more picturesquely referred to as Devil's Horsewhip. Devil's Horsewhip, which seems to be a native tropical-American plant, thrives in disturbed sites throughout the world's tropics, and varies widely from place to place, six varieties being formally recognized. In many cultures it's regarded as exhibiting exceptional medicinal value, so it goes by many names in many languages.

Especially in India the plant is used both to induce abortion and labor, plus it helps stop postpartum bleeding. Also Indians use the crushed plant for pneumonia, and make an infusion of the root for bowel complaints. "Teas" of powdered leaves with honey or sugar candy are used in early stages of diarrhea and dysentery. For snake bites, the ground root is given with water until the patient vomits and regains consciousnesses. In Kenya the Maasai people use the plant to ease the symptoms of malaria. Though almost all the plant's parts are used for one medical problem or another, the most commonly employed parts are the seeds, roots and shoots.

There may be something to these traditional uses. A 2006 paper by Workineh Shibeshi and others in the journal African Health Sciences found that "The methanolic leaves extract of Achyranthes aspera possesses anti-fertility activity, which might be exploited to prevent unwanted pregnancy and control the ever-increasing population explosion."

To top it all off, Devil's Horsewhip's leaves can be eaten as a potherb, and its seeds are rich in protein, and edible when cooked.

*****

UPDATE ON MYSTERIOUS UNIDENTIFIED ITEM
So far several folks have suggested possible identities of the item introduced in last week's Newsletter, but the thing still goes unnamed.

This week it turned up looking as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151227_z.jpg.

Were those holes made by something exiting the object, or something breaking into it?

If it's a kind of egg case, it makes sense for something to have emerged from the holes, though why didn't they use the big hole at the top? Also, in Nature, usually such exit holes are more systematically aligned.

On the first day the holes were noticed, exceedingly tiny ants were see wandering around the object, and sometimes on it. My best guess is that the ants made those holes, to get into the case and eat its contents.

But, I still can't identify what kind of thing it is.

*****

THREE LEVELS OF SEED ENCHANTMENT
One morning back around 1963 or 64 when I was in high school, our "Ag" teacher (Agriculture) walked into the classroom carrying a wide but shallow, glass-covered tray divided into many matchbox-size compartments filled with seeds. There were seeds of corn, soybeans and tobacco, which we all knew, plus others like wheat, rye, oats, milo, barley, clover, lespedeza, alfalfa, fescue grass, bluegrass... on and on. The teacher wanted Tommy Sutherland to learn the seeds' names and represent us at the seed identification contest of the FFA's (Future Farmers of America) upcoming state convention, because Tommy had a good memory, as proved by his recent memorization of the entire "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" in "Lit" class. The rest of us were to take a quick look to gain a notion of the many forms a seed can take, then get on with other things.

What the teacher and my classmates hadn't known was that the sight of those seeds with their remarkable shapes, mostly earth-tone colors, sizes, even their names and the thoughts the names conjured up -- had mesmerized me. I was "enchanted" by those seeds, in the sense that something inside me was deeply affected the way certain pieces of music or certain people, or places, unexpectedly and mostly inexplicably demand our attention, and in paying our attention we feel good in a soft, glowing, satisfying and maybe childlike way. Even as I mostly ignored my other classes, I learned the seeds in secret, and in doing so felt enriched. For a long time I walked around glowing with the effects of having the seeds' names inside me, and of being able at any time to look up the plants from which they came, and learn their secrets.

My Second Level of Seed Enchantment has been expressed in these Newsletters, such as in the 2003 essay entitled "On Really Seeing a Seed," still filed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030817.htm.

Second-level enchantment conceives of seeds as vessels almost like spaceships traveling through space and time. The mission is to convey life-maintaining information from one time and place to another. The information the seeds carry is intricately encoded in terms of nucleotide sequences in the seeds' DNA. The information consists of instructions on how new living organisms are to be constructed from naturally occurring atoms, ions, molecules and compounds in the seeds' immediate environment upon germination.

Thinking of seeds as conveying sacred information from one parent programmed to die after reproducing, to form a new plant that also will die after reproducing, I recall Richard Dawkins' statement that "We animals exist for their {the genes'} preservation and are nothing more than their throwaway survival machines."

This second-level concept is both disturbing and exhilarating. It's disturbing to think that as an entity I am such an ephemeral thing less important than unseen stuff in my cells, but exhilarating because I'm glimpsing a fact of the evolving Universe, and after decades of frustration with traditional religions and philosophies, having this clear vision the teachings of which explain why there can be so much misery along with the majesty in this world... is enchanting.

At age 68, here as the rainy season ends in the Yucatan, I go about with seeds of morning glories and other plants in my pockets, seeds to be planted as this new year gets underway, and I surprise myself by slipping into yet a Third Level of Seed Enchantment.

This third level of enchantment partly arises from thinking about relatively newly known facts about the Universe, at the same time I'm walking around with seeds in my pocket. For, it's known that the subatomic particles called neutrinos can pass through the whole Earth without ever touching a single atom. It's because the touchable stuff of atoms is almost infinitesimally small compared to those particles' fields of influence -- their charges, electromagnetic fields, and other fields I can't imagine. Nearly all -- but not quite all -- of the Earth and everything of it -- including us -- and the rest of the Universe, too, is invisible space occupied by interacting force fields.

What we "see" around us are confabulations in our own minds based on information suggested by the particles of energy called photons bouncing off things' force fields. When we touch something, our invisible force fields are being repelled by the other thing's force fields, causing electronic impulses in our neurons, which our brains interpret as touch. In the Universe, what seems to be interacting things is really interacting energy, electromagnetic fields, and such, with our brains fantasizing about the meanings of the electrical impulses conducted to it by neurons. The brain's fantasies are the world we think we live in.

It's all so desperately impersonal, yet, also, walking around with seeds in my pockets, all these elegant little seeds so prettily and so succinctly and so certainly conveying their invisible but life-giving information through time and space... and with me as the vessel conveying these seeds... how enchanting...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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