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

February 14, 2016

A PINK SNAKE
Stretched out along a wooded path a solidly pink snake about 20 inches long looked a little like a big earthworm with its blunt nose and thickish tail. He didn't seem nervous at all so with a quick grab soon he was coiled around my fingers calmly looking around, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214sc.jpg.

Up close his eyes were seen to be a little cloudy, as snake eyes tend to become soon before molting, so maybe that explained why he'd been so uninterested in moving away -- just couldn't clearly see where he was going. There's a nice portrait of his face at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214sd.jpg.

I always try for face pictures like the above because the configuration of scales on the head is very important in snake identification, from species to species the scales varying in shape and relative size, plus sometimes certain scales completely disappear, or have odd scales appearing in curious places. Also, kinds of snakes fall into two big groups -- those with single "anal plates," and those with divided ones. The anal plate is the big scale covering the anus. You can see that our snake's anal plate is divided, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214se.jpg.

I was tickled to photograph this snake because I'd already photographed what I thought to be the gray form of the same species, but until now its pink form had escaped me. Also, the species I thought it was is variable and little documented. At first I'd misidentified it, but then a snake expert in the US corrected me saying it was a Scorpion-hunting Snake, so this would be the pink form I'd heard of.

However, earlier I'd taken good photos of the "gray form's" head scales, and now I had good head scale pictures of the pink form, and though they were very similar, they weren't exact matches... To see if you can spot the differences, maybe by showing the heads side-by-side on your computer screen, you can view this week's head picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214sd.jpg.  

And the gray, 2010 one is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100228so.jpg.

It happens that this week I've been in contact with a second snake expert, one whose judgment I trust completely, so I sent both head-scale pictures to him to see what he thinks. He replied that at first glance it doesn't look like either is the Scorpion-hunting Snake, but to figure out what they really are he has to dig into the matter, needing more time.

So, this gives us some good insight into the snake identifying situation in the Yucatan. First of all, it's not so easy. I know that on the Internet other snakes like ours are identified as Scorpion-hunting Snakes, so our picture-matching approach is a shaky one, and so is accepting the IDs of folks who write with names, and seeming to know what they're talking about. Also, it's informative that even a top expert on Yucatan snakes -- maybe the top -- has to study the matter before being sure about a little snake that turned up right next to the hut. I'm eagerly awaiting the expert's decision, so I can update my pages.

One final observation worth reporting about this week's pink snake -- whatever its name -- is that when I caught it, it curled around my hand and jabbed its tail at my wrist. The tail is not sharp but is surprisingly stiff and I suppose that if it were jabbed into a predator's eye it could hurt.

*****

TUZA WORK
Tuza is the Maya name for a tunnel-digging mammal that in English often is called the Hispid Pocket Gopher. Our Tuza page showing what they look like, and how our Maya gardeners built a Tuza trap, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tuza.htm.

Tuza tunnels lie just under the ground's surface all around the hut. I'm amazed how often I dig into them when I'm planting something. Here and there Tuzas throw up mounds of loose dirt from their tunneling, and since the dirt is nice and crumbly I scoop it up and use it for potting soil. Maybe three months ago a Tuza mound appeared next to the hut's door, and it's supplied several buckets of fine soil.

This week the heliconia plants around whose bases the Tuza dirt has been left next to the hut's door began leaning over and turning brown. When I tugged on one, it easily came out of the ground, for all its roots and bottom parts had been nibbled off by Tuzas. You can see two rootless heliconias and another one leaning over with curling leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214tz.jpg.

An interesting feature of that picture is that the glossy-leafed plant at the upper right, a Dieffenbachia, appears to be untouched. Probably that's because Dieffenbachias are famous for the powerful toxic chemicals in their sap. Sometimes they're called "dumb cane" because if you take a bite of it your mouth becomes paralyzed so you can't speak, becoming dumb, as in "deaf and dumb." It looks like the Dieffenbachia's chemicals have done their job here, and that Tuzas know which roots to avoid.

*****

TRASH BUG
Volunteer Insect Identifier Bea in Ontario, as she's been called many, many times in this Newsletter, came to the Yucatan last week. She's been staying in the hut, spending her days having fun with our bugs. The other day she called me to see something undefinable walking across a heliconia leaf next to the door. You can see the minuscule thing, hardly larger than a pinhead, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214tb.jpg.

We've run across something like this before, though a different species. For example, in Kentucky in 2006 we saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/trashbug.htm.

It was a trash bug, the wingless, predaceous larva of a lacewing insect. You can see and read about lacewings on our Lacewing Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/lacewing.htm.

Lacewing larvae camouflage themselves by attaching almost anything small, loose and dry, including the sucked-dry remains of their prey, to the tops and sides of their bodies. The one in Kentucky bore tiny flakes of lichen, but you can see that our hut-door one wears parts of its victims' bodies. I can make out parts of wings, legs, and what looks like a caterpillar "skin" or exoskeleton.

*****

PAINTED BUNTING EATING PIGEONBERRIES
Through a crack in the hut's wall next to my computer desk, I photographed a Painted Bunting feeding on Pigeonberries, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214pb.jpg.

Several times we've looked at Painted Buntings, whose page can be accessed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/painted.htm.

However, often it's hard to find field documentation of animals doing things other than being photographed in one or another places. So, here we're going on record declaring that one food Painted Buntings eat in the Yucatan is Pigeonberry, Rivinia humilis, a member of the Pokeweed Family, and there's a lot of Pigeonberry here, right now its red fruits being eaten by a variety of birds. Our Pigeonberry page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/pigeonby.htm.

*****

"LITTLE LIMA BEAN"
A vine twining among bushes at the edge of a little dirt road through the woods bore compound leaves with three leaflets and orangish-yellow flowers atop a long stem, or peduncle, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214rh.jpg.

With those trifoliate leaves and "papilionaceous," bean-type flowers, the vine was clearly a member of the huge Bean Family, and just because so many species of that family exist, often its species are hard to distinguish. However, the flowers were fairly idiosyncratic with their long-hairy sepals and long lower petals -- the wings and keel -- so maybe that would help. The early-morning, dew-covered blossoms are shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214ri.jpg.

The vine also bore distinctive, legume-type fruits, looking a lot like Lima bean fruits, which also was interesting, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214rj.jpg.

When you have a Bean Family vine with trifoliate leaves and yellowish flowers with elongate wings and keels, especially if its parts are hairy, you'd do well to think of the genus Rhynchosia, of which six species are listed for the Yucatan. Googling images of the six species quickly turned up ours, which is RHYNCHOSIA RETICULATA, a commonly occurring vine in disturbed areas such as pastures, roadsides, along fences and such, from Mexico and the Caribbean area south through Central America to Brazil in South America. Among the Yucatan's species it's enough to notice the hairiness and especially long wings and keel to know you have Rhynchosia reticulata.

This vine lacks a good English name but the Spanish one is so appropriate that it deserves to be used. It's "Habilla," a "haba" being a Lima bean, and "-illa" being a suffix meaning "little," so Habilla means "Little Lima Bean," though probably no one calls it that in English, other than I.

Habilla seems to be a largely ignored little vine, though one reference says that livestock gladly feed on it. I'll bet that if enough of them could be found the Lima-bean-like beans would make good eating.

*****

DODDER ON BOUGAINVILLEA VINES
When volunteer Insect Identifier Bea in Ontario came to the Yucatan last week -- since she doesn't speak Spanish and feared being unable to reach the hut on her own -- last Sunday I bused into Valladolid, the nearest fair-sized town to Pisté, to meet her. I got there early so I could walk around looking for interesting plants. However, compared with little Pisté where lots of folks with family ties in surrounding Maya villages bring interesting plants from back home to plant in their own gardens, there wasn't much new to see in Valladolid. However, I did find some dodder on a Bougainvillea vine, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214cu.jpg.

Our Bougainvillea page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bougain2.htm.

In our picture, the dodder is the stringy, yellowish, thread-like stems with clusters of tiny white flowers attached; the green leaves belong to the Bougainvillea. Dodder stems lack green leaves and their stems also lack green chlorophyll because dodders are parasites that rob nutrients and sap from their host and don't need to photosynthesize their food. A close-up of some flowers showing erect petals atop spherical, white, capsular fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214cv.jpg.

Dodder species often attack only a narrow range of hosts. Bougainvillea is a much-loved ornamental woody vine from South America abundantly planted here and in the tropics and sub-tropics the world over, so a dodder species parasitizing it probably either specializes in the family to which Bougainvillea belongs, the Four-O'clock Family, the Nyctaginaceae, or else it's a species capable of attacking a wide variety of hosts.

To identify this dodder species, first I Googled for dodder species known to infect members of the Four-O'clock Family. Nothing turned up, so went to the list of twelve dodder species -- members of the genus Cuscuta of the Morning Glory Family -- listed for the Yucatan at the web site of the Center of Scientific Investigation of the Yucatan, CICY, here.

Dodders usually are hard to identify not only because they lack leaves to help with the identification, and the flowers are so tiny, but also because Cuscuta taxonomy is a mess.

Still, by matching our pictures of flowers with those of Yucatan species shown on the Internet, I'm about 80% sure that our Valladolid species is CUSCUTA CORYMBOSA var. STYLOSA. Here are the main features noted:

# the flowering heads consist of a small number of loosely clustered blossoms

# the sepals are membranous with rounded tips

# the corolla persists atop the maturing capsules, holding its lobes erect

# the corolla lobes are only about ¼th the length of the corolla tube

# growing on introduced Bougainvillea suggests that it's a species capable of infesting many kinds of plants, which is exactly the case with Cuscuta corymbosa

Cuscuta corymbosa, which doesn't seem to have its own English name, is thought to be native to Central America, but as a parasitic weed it's invaded as far north as Mexico and as far south as Peru.

*****

FLOWERING SOAPBERRY TREES
They're increasing security inside the Chichén Itzá ruin zone so I was called in to have my status confirmed as someone with an occasional need to pass through the ruins for free. On my way to the interview, a big tree near the main pyramid caught my eye because it bore many 10-inch long (25cm) panicles of tiny, white flowers, which displayed handsomely against the blue sky and the trees' dark green foliage, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214sp.jpg.

A close-up of a panicle with the tree's walnut-tree-like compound leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214sq.jpg.

A close-up of one of the tiny blossoms, showing white stamens extending beyond the petals and curving inward is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160214sr.jpg.

We've run into this tree before, both in Texas and Chiapas, which is Mexico's southernmost state. It's the Soapberry, and you can see the tree's soap-producing fruits, and black seeds that are so spherical and hard that kids play marbles with them, at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/soapberr.htm.

Until now we haven't photographed the flowers in Mexico, so I was glad to find this old friend putting on a nice show where untold numbers of visitors can admire it every day when they visit the main pyramid.

*****

VOLUNTEER IDENTIFIER BEA FROM ONTARIO
For about eight years "volunteer bug identifier Bea in Ontario" has been helping me in many ways, helping find typos (which get corrected after they're already issued, so you still get to see them), creating her own web pages for the BackyardNature.Net web site, and much more. She's also the "transition manager" as I drop from the scene and others take over maintaining the site. You can meet Bea on our "Who We Are Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/who.htm.

We'd never met until last Sunday when she came to stay a couple of weeks with me. Using nature study techniques outlined at our website, Bea has become an expert butterfly and moth identifier, and she's concentrating on photographing and identifying those groups here.

The following is her report after her first week of being here, the first time anyone other than myself has written in this Newsletter:

*****

BUTTERFLY HEAVEN, by Bea Laporte
Here I am visiting Jim in Yucatan and I think I'm in butterfly heaven! Back home, in snowy Canada, I've photographed most of the butterflies that visit my neighborhood during the warmer months, but here in Chichen Itza it's the first time I'm meeting every butterfly I see. Sure, I've seen many of them in pictures before, but I hadn't had the pleasure to meet them in person, and see them flitting about as butterflies do, visiting flowers and chasing each other.

This morning I was looking for butterflies in my favorite butterfly spot when on a lower leaf of a flowering Bougainvillea bush, warming in the sun, I saw a beautiful black and white striped butterfly. As I got closer with my camera I saw it was a hairstreak. That striking zebra pattern diverts the eyes away from its head and body towards that orange area and those antennae-like tails on the hindwings, that make it look like another head, to help fool predators into aiming at the back end. It had fooled me also, as I'd thought I was seeing the two heads of mating butterflies!

Our butterfly is a Zebra-striped Hairstreak, Panthiades bathildis, distributed from Mexico to northern Brazil, and straying into southern Texas. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt120.jpg.

Another butterfly I came across was a a Golden-snouted Sootywing Skipper, Staphylus vulgata. With its golden snout it was doing just the opposite of the hairstreak we talked about; it was drawing attention to its most vulnerable part, its head! I thought that maybe it was for attracting the opposite sex, but after looking it up on the internet I saw that both the male and the female have a golden snout. I couldn't find much more information than that, so it's a bit of a mystery. You can see that butterfly at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt121.jpg.

I am also very happy to personally add two new butterflies to our Yucatan Butterflies webpage, which is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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