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

January 10, 2016

CACTUS BUG NYMPHS
In November we looked at Cactus Bugs mating on the Nopal Cactus outside the hut's door. Our Cactus Bug Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/cact-bug.htm.

Now the results of that orgiastic period are in evidence, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110cb.jpg.

That photo shows three things worth noting.

First, down in the lower, left corner an adult Cactus Bug seems to be hovering in the vicinity of the brood, though normally we don't think of bugs as watching over their offspring. The next day the adult still was nearby. The third day I couldn't find the adult. On the fourth day the adult had returned but was about a foot away on a different part of the cactus.

Second, the face of this cactus pad is strangely wrinkled, though other pads in the area aren't. Does this reflect internal damage to the pad resulting from the Cactus Bugs' presence?

Finally, there's the offspring themselves, which are "nymphs." Nymphs are the young of insects who undergo simple or incomplete metamorphosis. In complete metamorphosis you have egg > larva > pupa > adult. In simple, you get egg > nymph > adult. Nymphs are basically smaller versions of adults, but with wings and sexual parts only partly or not at all developed. A closer look at some nymphs is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110cc.jpg.

Notice how closely individuals in the cluster position themselves to others, some bugs even climbing atop others. Also, individuals on the cluster's perimeter mostly face outward. Probably they cluster in order to provide a more more vivid splotch of red on the green cactus pad, the idea being that often dangerous animals announce themselves with bright colors and patterns, so predators are warned to stay away. However, I find nothing dangerous about these bugs. Lots of species bluff -- like milksnakes which bear red and black bands like venomous coral snakes, though they're harmless.

In the above picture, the variation in size and pattern is striking, It looks as if individuals of different ages live in the group.

I'm documenting these details because earlier we saw that this species is poorly known. Someday someone will be happy to have this information as a starting point for their own studies.

*****

GASTERACANTHA SPIDERS
At the road's edge at about shoulder level among bushes, a familiar-looking spider was patiently spinning her web that dewy morning, around and around the web's center she went, laying down her closing spiral of silk. What a pleasure seeing this old friend, the very one that, if you're walking down a narrow forest trail in Mississippi, builds her web across the trail, so that anyone not paying attention walks right into it. With the crab shape and the white abdomen adorned with six thick-based, black spines along the perimeter, it's such a distinctive species you can't forget it. It's GASTERACANTHA CANCRIFORMIS, and you can see ours at the road's-edge at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110ga.jpg.

I couldn't get to the web's other side to see what that spider looked like below, but six feet away (2m), at about knee level, another spider of the same species was making a smaller web, and this one had her underside facing toward me, showing very different colors and pattern, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110gb.jpg.

Gasteracantha cancriformis is distributed from the US south throughout Mexico and southward, to Brazil. With such a great distribution area the species manifests many variations. On the Internet you can see yellow versions, and ones looking like ours, but with red spikes instead of black ones.

Something special about this species' webs is that the silk strands radiating from the web's center are here and there decorated with cobwebby fluffs of teased-out silk, as our picture of a web in Mississippi shows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616sq.jpg.

Back in Mississippi I wondered why such cobwebby tufts would adorn the Gasteracantha's webs, for they would seem to warn away potential flying prey. Maybe the spider finds it too disruptive to have to keep rebuilding webs that trail-using mammals and birds destroy by blundering into them. "I doubt that deer find it any more agreeable to have spider webs plastered across their faces than humans do," I wrote in Mississippi. Having to adorn the web with cobwebby tufts must be part of the trade-off for a spider species that has learned the advantages of placing their webs across forest trails.

*****

AN ENDEMIC PERSIMMON TREE
After months of soggy, humid rainy season suddenly it's the dry season and the vegetation reflects it. The most tender herbs already are dried up and brown, and many deciduous trees and shrubs are losing their leaves. The woods takes on a more open, airy aspect, and things are noticed that earlier might have been overlooked. That's the way it was when this week a small understory tree drew attention to itself with its small, reddish-orange, mothball-size fruits shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110dx.jpg.

I'd never noticed this species before but at first glance I knew it was a kind of persimmon. It's shaped like a persimmon, its fruit skin is smooth and shiny like a persimmon's, the fruit's top bears a small prickle-like projection like a persimmon fruit and, more than anything, below the fruit the sepals have enlarged, becoming leathery and conspicuous, which is the most distinctive feature of a persimmon fruit. You can get a better view of the sepals -- and notice how airy the woods behind it has become -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110dz.jpg.

Compared to other persimmon species in our area this one is distinguished by its long, pointed sepals and by the elongated, woody stem, or peduncle, connecting the fruit with the stem. Breaking open a fruit -- which technically is a berry-type fruit, meaning that it is pulpy, doesn't split open when it's mature, and bears more than one seed, so that tomatoes also, technically, are berries, but strawberries aren't -- it contains large, hard seeds, usually four or so, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110dw.jpg.

The fruit's pulp tastes OK but it's not nearly as sweet and rich-tasting as the ones I've eaten in abundance in the eastern US, plus there's not much pulp between the big seeds, so most folks don't bother to eat them. During my visit, though, a flock of Yucatan Jays orbited around me squawking as if they relished them.

You can see the tree's pale, smooth, blotchy bark at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110dy.jpg.

This is DIOSPYROS ANISANDRA, endemic to just the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and northern Guatemala. It's always a treat to meet a new tree species, and coming upon one restricted to just one small part of the world is especially a pleasure. It has no English name, but a Maya name for it is Kakalche.

The species is well represented on the Internet because because of its potential medicinal value. In a 2007 issue of the journal Fitoterapia, Rocio Borges-Argáez and others at our own CICY (Center for Scientific Study of Yucatán, in Mérida), published an article entitled "Antimicrobial activity of Diospyros anisandra." That work reported on the effects of extracts of leaves, root and stem bark against two strains of tuberculosis bacteria -- one strain having developed a resistance to currently used antibiotics. They found that extracts "showed significant inhibitory activity against both strains."

*****

RED VERVAIN
One of the prettiest butterflies we have, the Crimson-patched Longwing, a kind of Heliconid butterfly with exceptionally narrow but long wings, is showing up nowadays, and when they appear you just have to pause and watch how gracefully and delicately they flutter through the air. This week a couple was coming and going around a spot along the trail so I approached slowly, to see what attracted them. You can see what they were after at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110sf.jpg.

Seeing the butterflies was great, but more interesting was the plant attracting them. I'd never noticed this species. The trail led through a particularly undisturbed, shadowy patch of forest, so maybe most places around here are just too open and weedy for it. You can see a flash-assisted picture of the yard tall (meter) herb at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110sh.jpg.

Up close you see that the flowers are bilaterally symmetrical, that their styles extend beyond the throats, that each flower is subtended by a bract, and that the flowers emerge from a shallow depression in the spike's stem, or rachis, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110se.jpg.

Unseen in that picture are two stamens inside the tube. On the spike above the open flowers there are younger, unopened blossoms, while below the open flowers the ovaries of older flowers develop into fruits. In this species the maturing fruits are well protected by their subtending bracts, and by their being mostly sunken into the spike's rachis, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110sc.jpg.

The plant's saw-toothed-margined leaves arose two per stem node, opposite one another, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110sd.jpg.

Plants with opposite leaves bearing toothed margins like this immediately remind us of species in the Mint and Verbena Families. The terminal spikes bearing flowers in this fashion take us to the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. In fact, it could be a member of the genus Verbena itself, except for the way the flowers and fruits are sunken into the rachises, and the fact that the blossoms bear two stamens, not four. These two items throw our plant into the less well known genus Stachytarpheta, whose species often are known as verbenas, or vervains, even though they're not in the genus Verbena.

Our pretty wildflower is STACHYTARPHETA MINIACEA, and although it's endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and northern Guatemala, it has English names, because Northern gardeners have discovered it. It's planted not only for its beauty, but because it's such a magnet for butterflies. Species of Stachytarpheta often are called porterweeds, but this species generally is known as the Red Vervain.

The 2015 book Messages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize," by Michael Balick and Rosita Arvigo, tells us that three roots from three different Red Vervain plants should be boiled in a gallon of water for ten minutes to make a tea for treating measles, itching, sores, and to prevent scarring from measles. The cooled liquid should be poured cool over the body, and left to air dry.

Seven species of Stachytarpheta are listed for the Yucatan, but only one produces red flowers, and that's our endemic Red Vervain.

*****

ERIC'S LAUGH
Each afternoon, every day of the week, at 4PM I climb the Hacienda veranda's steps to see if anyone wants to accompany me on a free walk around the grounds, looking at things. Normally we end the walk when it gets too dark to see more.

That day the only person waiting was Eric, a French speaker from Switzerland, an old fellow with wispy, white hair, wearing sunglasses on the shady veranda, and especially well dressed, almost formally. Everything about him was crisp and subdued, and I wasn't sure how this walk would go.

However, when I began describing how beautifully adapted the Royal Palms along our entrance road are for the Yucatan's long dry seasons, he actually stood looking at the trees smiling as if he really understood that the adaptations were as gorgeous as the trees' appearance.

By the time we got to the Strangler Fig's life cycle he was shifting his weight from foot to foot, surveying the big Strangler from side to side and asking me to clarify certain points he feared his English wasn't good enough to get straight. Looking up and down the old tree, he was clearly visualizing how the many separate stem-roots had merged to form the big trunk before us now, and he seemed amazed, as he should have been.

As the walk progressed, some kind of excitement or tension seemed to be building in the old man, but I thought maybe he was annoyed with mosquitoes and was too polite to say he wanted to abandon the walk.

Finally as it was getting dark and bats swarmed from the cavity atop the big Piich tree in the Organic Garden, and I was explaining how the Hoja Santa tree signaled to its pollinators which flowers it should visit, I finally understood what was going on with Eric. For, exactly as I finished showing what the Hoja Santa was doing, he burst into a laugh so uninhibited that it caused the parrots to stop squawking for a few seconds: During our walk, what seemed to me to be his restlessness was just his delight in learning new things.

It was a loud laugh, one like a child makes when being tickled.

That night, sitting in the hut thinking about it, I decided that Eric's laugh had been as beautiful as anything we'd seen that day.

For, as far as laughing goes, you have to figure that humans have evolved laughing as a signal to others indicating that one finds it agreeable to be in other people's presence, so laughing promotes social solidarity, which is advantageous -- adaptive -- to the social unit.

But, Eric's laugh had been building up pressure all during the walk, and when it erupted there had been no one around but me, who after the walk he'd never see again. His laugh had exploded in a social vacuum where nothing was funny, but there was indeed the glorious fact that the Hoja Santa communicated with its pollinators.

It's interesting to distinguish between these two kinds of laughter because laughter in a social context is just something that happens because humans are predisposed to do it. It may be agreeable and adaptive and have its own aesthetic value, but it's just like everything else in the Universe that for the most part is set on auto-pilot.

However, because one current of the Impulse that created the Universe and keeps it going tends toward ever-greater insight and feeling -- as described on our Six Miracles Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/ -- Joy in learning utterly harmonizes with the Universe's evolutionary flow. Here on Earth, when joy-in-learning flickers into existence someplace, it must create such a transcendent resonance with the Universal Flow that it can be expressed in no way other than with a gleeful laugh.

In fact, sometimes I think that the whole Universe is a laugh. It's a laugh of the Universal Creative Spirit Herself who, a moment before the Big Bang and in Her own social vacuum, was feeling more and more unsettled by some kind of urge, some kind of tickling, that at last all She could do was to burst out laughing, and the Universe was born.

And today that laughter keeps ricocheting and echoing across time and space, even to our obscurely positioned galaxy and our mediocre but adequate sun, and our wonderful little Earth, in a tiny corner of which stands a big Piich tree with bats flying out of it at dusk, where an Hoja Santa signals so expressively to its pollinators.

You can see how the Hoja Santa signals to its pollinators at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160110hs.jpg.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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