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

February 21, 2016

SUNSET SPIDER
For volunteer insect identifier Bea from Ontario, who is visiting here this week, the favorite spot for photographing new butterfly species for our Butterflies of the Yucatan Identification Page is a large thicket of Bougainvillea vines in full bloom. Our Butterfly Identification Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/

So many butterfly species zip around the Bougainvilleas that Bea has learned that if she simply stands next to a bush eventually something new will turn up. And even though Bea's radar is set for butterflies, this week she couldn't avoid noticing a jumping spider whose gaudy colors -- literally -- rivaled those of the Bougainvilleas and butterflies You can see one of those spiders at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221fg.jpg.

A head-on image featuring the spider's sincere-looking front eyes with their bushy eyelashes is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221fh.jpg.

This is male FRIGGA PRATENSIS, often known in English as the Sunset Spider. Sunset Spiders are well represented on the Internet because they are so eye-catching, common and pretty. The species also has caught the attention of at least one researcher because of this: Often among jumping spider species of this kind the males display vivid colors while females are inconspicuous -- the sexes are "dichromatic." But among Sunset Spiders both sexes are brightly colored. When Bea learned this she immediately went out looking for a female. She found several but they seemed quicker and more nervous than the males and getting good pictures was hard. Still, she came up with the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221fi.jpg.

You can see that the abdominal patterns are very different. Another shot showing the female crossing over to a leaf's undersurface is shown, just because it's a neat picture, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221fj.jpg.

At the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology, Lisa Taylor of Arizona State University reported on findings from field studies to figure out why both sexes of the Sunset Spider are brightly colored. She began her work with these three hypotheses:

#1: Brightly colored male Sunset Spiders are more attractive to females than drabber ones.

#2: Brightly colored males may be better fighters, which attracts females.

#3: Male Sunset Spider's bright colors may mimic potentially dangerous organisms, thus causing spider-eating predators to avoid them.

No evidence was found supporting the first two hypotheses, but, as Taylor writes, "When clay spider models were placed on leaves in the field, those that were painted with the color pattern of male F. pratensis were attacked less often by predators than unpainted control models, suggesting that such coloration has the potential to deter predators."

*****

ANTLION/ DOODLEBUG
Antlions are the larval stage of a dainty-looking insect a little similar to a damselfly. You can see an adult antlion, the larva and the curious, conical pits that antlions dig in loose, dry material such as dust or sand on our Antlion Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/antlion.htm.

When I was a kid on the farm in Kentucky my father told me that the pits were dug by doodlebugs that were buried just beneath the pit's bottom, its pincers open, ready to nab any ant or other such small critter who might tumble into the pit. He showed me how to stick a grass stem into the hole and sometimes draw it out with an antlion hanging on its tip. However, he taught me that antions are called doodlebugs. I've always assumed that the name doodlebug was a local name not known outside the region but this week I learned otherwise when I was researching the wandering line leading to or from an antlion pit in the Hacienda's garden, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221db.jpg.

Looking for an explanation for the squiggling line on Wikipedia's Antlion Page, I read, "The antlion larva is often called "doodlebug" in North America because of the odd winding, spiraling trails it leaves in the sand while looking for a good location to build its trap, as these trails look as if someone has doodled in the sand."

So, the term doodlebug isn't just a rural, western Kentucky invention, and at least the Wikipedia author thinks that the trails are made by larvae looking for a good place to dig their pits. That may or may not be the whole explanation, but at least for right now it firms up my intention to keep calling antlion larvae doodlebugs.

*****

HAMMOCK SKIPPER
Among the new butterfly species volunteer butterfly identifier Bea of Ontario -- this week visiting us at the Hacienda -- has photographed, named, and added to our Yucatan Butterfly Identification Chart, is the handsome little critter at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221sk.jpg.

That's the Hammock Skipper, POLYGONUS LEO, distributed from Argentina in South America north through Central America to Mexico and the Caribbean area, as well as southern Florida in the US, and sometimes straying into Texas and the US southwestern states. In English it's called the Hammock Skipper because in Florida it inhabits hardwood hammocks. Down here a hammock is a "petén," and it's a low rising in a wetland, usually round to oval shaped, and often consisting of dense bushes or trees surrounded by water or grassy marsh. Here in central Yucatan we don't have hammocks so the name doesn't make sense here. Skippers are thick-bodied, big-headed, small-winged butterflies, and there are many kinds of them. We already have about 27 Skipper species at the bottom of our Identification Chart at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/.

In Florida, Hammock Skipper caterpillars feed on the tree called Jamaican Dogwood up there, but Habim or Jabim here, a very common member of the Bean Family, Piscidia piscipula, as well as other Bean Family members. Since Piscidia piscipula is so common here, Hammock Skippers are to be expected.

In Florida, Hammock Skippers are known to occur in openings and trails, and that's exactly where we found ours, flitting up and down a trail, in and out of shafts of light. The Butterflies & Moths of North America website says that when adult Hammock Skippers are inactive they rest upside down on leaf undersides, and that they are most active on sunny days, though they mostly fly in the shade.

*****

GOLD-STAINED SATYR
Another species Bea has added is the handsome little satyr butterfly shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221st.jpg.

That's the Gold-stained Satyr, CISSIA PSEUDOCONFUSA, distributed from eastern Mexico south through Central America to Panama.

Though numerous pictures of the species can be located on the Internet, there's very little information about it other than the location and sometimes the date the pictures were taken. By reporting that our picture was taken on a mostly shaded trail through a semi-deciduous forest during the early dry season in the central Yucatan, more is being said about the Gold-stained Satyr than I was able to find online.

Satyrs and hairstreaks are very similar, except that satyrs lack the hairlike appendages hairstreaks have on their wing margins opposite their heads. The movable appendages look like antennae and might trick predators into attacking the butterfly's back wings, not the head. Satyrs seem to get along perfectly well without the hairstreaks' fake antenna, though both groups often bear conspicuous "eye spots"on their wings, which might unnerve certain predators not wanting to approach the shining eyes of a lizard or frog.

*****

SHARPSHOOTER LEAFHOPPER
Last December we featured a brilliantly colored Sharpshooter Leafhopper, Erythrogonia laudata, found sucking sap from heliconia plants outside the hut's door, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/laudata.htm.

This week volunteer insect identifier Bea from Ontario, currently visiting us, found another sharpshooter, also a sap-sucker and shaped like the earlier one, but this was a different species, a dark brown one, shown on a sidewalk before a hotel near the Hacienda, in one of Bea's photos, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221pt.jpg.

A side view displaying its yellow undersurface with dark bands, and the leafhopper's curious profile, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221ps.jpg.

A head-on shot emphasizing its bulging, yellowish eyes, the short antennae and the broad head giving it the look of something from the Jurassic Period appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221pu.jpg.

After taking the above shots, Bea returned to photographing butterflies but a few minutes later went back to the sharpshooter, who now lay on his back, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221pv.jpg.

Was this a natural death or had the hotel fogged the area to keep down mosquitoes?

Whatever the case, Bea identifies this as PSEUDOPHERA CONTRARIA. Despite belonging to a different genus from our previous sharpshooter, it seems to have no other English name than Sharpshooter. Sharpshooters are leafhoppers, members of the order Homoptera and -- as the bulging compound eyes and broad head suggest -- closely related to cicadas. The species is distributed from southern Mexico to Costa Rica.

Very little information is available about Pseudophera contraria, other than its being listed in a couple of studies as being collected in the vicinity of coconut trees, as well as other tree species. That's worth noting because Bea's sharpshooter lay beneath a Royal Palm, and of course Royal Palms and Coconut trees are both members of the Palm Family.

Therefore, maybe we're substantially increasing the amount of information about the species by unequivocally stating here that in February in the Yucatan, Bea found one dying on the pavement near a Royal Palm tree.

*****

ÁRNICA BUSH
In Mexico the name Árnica is applied to several large, yellow-flowered members of the Sunflower or Composite Family. Locally the name is used mostly for what English speakers sometimes call the Giant Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia diversifolia, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tithonia.htm.

I'm thinking about the name Árnica now because this week a yellow-flowered member of the Sunflower Family turned up still blossoming despite the lack of rain for several weeks, and the Maya often call it Árnica-che, the word "che" usually meaning bush. So, this week's plant was the "Árnica Bush," a name possibly appearing in print here for the first time. But, what was this Árnica-che in terms the outside world can understand?

It was a branching, head-high, woody bush whose spineless stems arched like those of blackberry canes, and forming a blackberry-bramble-like thicket in a small, partly shaded clearing in the woods that had been abandoned for several years. You can see the bush's rough, veiny leaves, two per stem node, and some branch-end flower-clusters at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221la.jpg.

Two peculiarities about the plant visible in that photo are that each flower cluster consists of several heads atop long stems, or peduncles, of more or less equal lengths, plus in older flowering heads the ray flowers have dried up and shriveled, but remained on the head. Normally ray flower corollas fall off after pollination. When something withers but remains in place, it's said to be "marcescent," and these marcescent corollas are a good field mark for this species. Eventually this plant's old corollas do fall off, but not before giving the flower cluster a messy look -- which doesn't seem to stop pollinators from visiting the remaining fresh heads.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221lb.jpg we see some heads from which the ray flower corollas have fallen, showing that disc flowers in the head's "eye" also have marcescent parts. Also, the greenish part holding the florets -- the involucre -- is composed of broad, scoop-shaped, overlapping scales.

These are all field marks used when "keying out" the genus in the online Flora of North America. Fortunately, one species of the genus occurs in the southwestern US, so the genus is included in the Flora. Other features used in the key, absolutely necessary to notice when differentiating this genus from closely related ones, are displayed in the broken-apart fruiting head on the tip of my finger at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221lc.jpg.

Notice the marcescent disc flower corollas and anther tubes. More important for identification purposes is the white pappus atop each grain-like, cypsela-type fruit. The pappus segments are not slender hairs but rather long, slender, sharp-pointed scales, purple at their bases, and seeming to unite at their bases where they attach to the cypselae. Each individual cypsela is separated by its neighbor by a pale, papery, scoop-shaped scale, a palea. And the cypselae themselves are a little angular in shape but don't display wings or sharp edges.

All these features lead to LASIANTHAEA FRUTICOSA, with no good English name, occurring throughout central and southern Mexico southward throughout Central America. The genus Lasianthaea is one I'd never heard of, embracing eleven species. Mexico appears to be its center of evolution.

I was glad that my photos of the tiny technical features turned out OK because on the Internet most photos of this species show the petal-like ray flowers as relatively longer than on our plants. However, with those technical details, I'm fairly sure of the ID. Maybe on plants past their period of peak flowering and/or growing in somewhat shady spots ray flowers are just shorter. Or maybe we have a different variety here.

*****

BEA'S PARTING THOUGHTS
Volunteer Insect Identifier Bea from Ontario ends her visit in the Yucatan this Sunday, and below are some of her parting thoughts. By the way, you can see Bea at work at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160221be.jpg.

As always, you can see her face on our "Who We Are Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/who.htm.  

Here's Bea's farewell from the Yucatan:

***

The past two weeks in Mexico have been fabulous; photographing butterflies, discovering different bug species, examining flower blossoms and admiring towering palm trees against a deep blue sky. I'm grateful to have had the chance to learn a bit about nature in a different country.

Keeping in touch with nature and admiring the intricate details has been a wonderful stress reliever for me through the years. Nature has been my zen teacher, because when you throw your mind into observing the patterns on butterfly wings, or the leaf shapes on different plants and learning the many ways they disperse their seeds and attract pollinators, or even the constellations of the stars, you can't help but be awed. And when you experience something pleasing to your senses, the smell of a rose or color of a rainbow, it makes you feel good.

When you discover and learn about something new, it makes you feel like you have figured out a little part of the puzzle of life and that makes you want to learn more, and the more you learn the more you see how every living thing fits together with others and that we too are a part of it.

Then, when you return to your busy life again there is comfort in knowing that when you need to de-stress there is always something different to discover in the great outdoors. When you see the value in nature study and fall in love with the organisms you've learned about you'll want to help preserve their beauty for yourself and for future generations.

So, why not go for a walk outside right now? And don't forget your camera!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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