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

February 28, 2016

BEA'S MILLIPEDE
Right before leaving for home in Ontario, Bea appeared at the hut door big-eyed and smiling, carrying on a Royal Poinciana pod the biggest millipede she'd ever seen, that moment of discovery shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228mi.jpg.

Of course this wasn't an insect, which usually is Bea's domain, because insects have six legs while millipedes have many. You can see several of those legs in a head shot of the millipede shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228mj.jpg.

Also, it was a millipede and not a centipede because each segment of a centipede's body bears a single pair of legs, two legs, while each segment of a millipede's body bears two pairs, or four legs, as displayed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228mk.jpg.

Besides its size and shape, this millipede struck me as having a distinctive anus, so I took a picture of that, too, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228ml.jpg.

At first I thought I'd easily identified the critter because simply by doing a Google image search on the key words "millipede tropical large black yellow" many thumbnail pictures turned up showing what looked like Bea's discovery. They were labeled Anadenobolus monilicornis, often known as Bumblebee Millipedes, distributed in the Caribbean area and currently invading southern Florida. Many other kinds of Caribbean species also turn up in the Yucatan, so maybe Bumblebee Millipedes do, too.

However, from http://journals.fcla.edu I downloaded Rowland Shelley's 2014 article in Insecta Munda, discussing Anadenobolus monilicornis, which included drawings of the millipede's parts. Some of the parts displayed slightly different shapes from Bea's millipede. And in lists of species of the genus Anadenobolus I found mention of Anadenobolus chichen, collected here at Chichén Itzá ruins. Unfortunately, I can't find literature or illustrations portraying Anadenobolus chichen, so I don't know for sure that that's what we have.

According to Shelley's detailed map of the Caribbean millipede's distribution, we're a good bit outside where that species is to be expected. The only mention I can find of a millipede looking like Bea's found in our area is Anadenobolus chichen. Therefore, here I'm filing our information and picture under ANADENOBOLUS CHICHEN, and so far it looks like our pictures of Bea's millipede may be the only illustrations available for that narrowly endemic species.

So, how's that for an amateur bug-identifier finding something that even the experts would be tickled to see, and finding something that truly may be scientifically significant?

By the way, if someone has access to scientific literature, Anadenobolus chichen was first described as Rhinocricus chichen in American Midland Naturalist, 50:145," 1953. Maybe there's info there that can help firm up this ID.

*****

THE TULIPÁN'S LITTLE PUMPKIN-FRUIT
A slender, shoulder-high, woody-stemmed bush leaned across the trail with late-season, bug-eaten leaves and a grape-sized, orangish fruit looking like a little a pumpkin at the tip of its stem, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228mv.jpg.

A close-up of the "pumpkin" shows that it's divided into five sections separated by shallow grooves, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228mw.jpg.

A view from the side shows that the fruit is subtended by a bowl-like calyx and several slender bracts, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228mx.jpg.

One branch bears an old, drying-up, shriveling flower displaying a red corolla and a long, slender "staminal column" curving from the corolla, with exhausted, brown anthers clustered at its tip, reminding us that we know this plant. It's common here and, when in flower, very conspicuous at forest edges and along trails. It's the Tulipán, sometimes called Turk's Turban, Malvaviscus arboreus, in the Hibiscus Family. You can see this pretty bush's fresh flowers, which are very similar to hibiscus flowers, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tulipan.htm.

Everyone admires the Tulipán's bright flowers. Now we know to look for its pumpkiny fruits as well.

*****

VIRGINIA CREEPER IN THE YUCATAN
Last weekend when I escorted volunteer insect identifier Bea of Ontario to Mérida for her departure, my friends Eric and Mary were kind enough to invite us for an overnight visit. While there we had time to explore the backyard garden, which featured species you'd never see up north as well as, climbing up the wall, a very familiar looking woody vine. The vine's purple, silvery-bloom-covered fruits and deciduous leaves with five tooth-margined leaflets is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228ps.jpg.

Eastern North America's woods are filled with something looking exactly or almost exactly like this, the Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, of the Grape Family, the Vitaceae. You can compare Eric's vine with our picture of Virginia Creeper in Mississippi at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/va-creep.htm.

The leaves on Eric's vines struck me as somewhat smaller than those on Virginia Creepers up north and less "veiny." Virginia Creepers are widely distributed and somewhat flexible in habitat requirements, even occurring in Mexico, but certainly the Yucatan Peninsula is too arid for it. When I told Eric it looked like Virginia Creeper to me he said that he'd bought it labeled as Cissus silvestris, Cissus being a mostly tropical genus closely related to the Virginia Creeper.

Back at the Hacienda on the Internet I quickly determined that Cissus silvestris bore leaves consisting of a single blade, not five leaflets like Eric's vine, so the vine had simply been labeled wrong. However, I also saw that the Grape Family embraces several genera producing tendril-bearing woody vines that sometimes are planted in gardens and vineyards, and numerous species, so to be sure about the identity of Eric's vine I had to look closely and "do the botany."

First of all, a typical compound leaf on Eric's vine is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228pu.jpg.

In that picture the yellow threads in the background are parasitic dodder stems bearing no flowers or fruits but sprawling over and stealing water and nutrients from a Papaya tree as well as the vine, possibly the same dodder species we looked at a couple of weeks ago, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/dodder.htm.

Notice the leaf's red petiole and how the redness extends up the leaflets' midribs. Up north, Virginia Creeper is famous for its brilliantly red, late-summer and fall foliage.

Despite Eric's wall-vine bearing mature fruit, some of his potted plants displayed flower buds and flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228pt.jpg.

In that picture the spherical items are flower buds, and the yellow things are flowers. You can see how the buds' surfaces display five pie-slice-shaped divisions -- these are future sepals all together to form the future calyx -- separated by shallow grooves. This "cap" covers the flower's sexual organs. In the Grape Family usually the sepals only partly separate from one another before the whole cap falls off, exposing the sexual organs.

That's happened to the two yellowish flowers, which consist of nothing but the female ovary, its style and stigma. There's no trace of male stamens in the flowers in the picture. The genus Parthenocissus takes its name, however, from the classical Greek parthenos, meaning "virgin", and kissos, Latinized to cissus, meaning "ivy," translating to "virgin ivy," because Parthenocissus fruits can set seeds without pollination. For Parthenocissus flowers, having no stamens is no big deal.

In the end, Eric's vine turned out to really be Virginia Creeper, PARTHENOCISSUS QUINQUEFOLIA. The variety engelmannii produces smaller foliage, so maybe we have that.

One reason for Eric planting Virginia Creeper is that he wants to use it as insulation for his home against the Yucatan's scorching sunlight. He took me a few blocks from his house to look at one homeowner's use of the vine as a dark curtain overhanging windows, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228pv.jpg.

On another street, a building's entire front wall was covered with it, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228pw.jpg.

Eric believes that there's enormous potential in this area for cooling buildings and cutting down on the glare by covering them with sunlight-absorbing Virginia Creeper, and I think he's exactly right.

*****

FISHTAIL PALM IN MÉRIDA
Just down the street where my friends Eric and Mary live in Mérida, two curiously shaggy-looking trees were planted in a tiny front yard, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228ca.jpg.

Up close it was clear that these were palms, because they bore large "mops" of flowers typical of the Palm Family, the Arecaceae, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228cb.jpg.

However, these palms' fronds weren't typical palm fronds at all, for they were twice compound -- leaflets divided into leaflets -- and each leaflet expanded at its tip, fan-like, as shown in a picture taken from below a tree, of just one side of a frond, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228cd.jpg.

It was easy to decide what was a leaf and what was a leaflet because where the big compound leaves connected with the stem, at the petiole's base, the base swelled conspicuously, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160228cc.jpg.

Such an unusual and distinctive palm was easy to identify, even though nothing like it is native to the Americas. It was one of the fishtail palms, genus Caryota, native from India to Australia, and this species was CARYOTA MITIS, often known as Clustering Fishtail Palm. The Clustering Fishtail Palm is the most frequently planted fishtail palm in the tropics worldwide.

Another feature unusual to encounter among the palms is that all species of the genus Caryota are "monocarpic," meaning that they flower and fruit only once, and then die. This is less tragic than it seems because the Clustering Fishtail Palm clusters, so when one stem dies there are smaller ones surrounding it. In our first picture you can see such shoots at the base of the nearest palm.

In the wild, birds, squirrels and other animals gladly eat the small fruits, whose calorie content nearly equals that of apples. People don't eat them, however, since they contain such high concentrations of oxalate crystals that even handling them can cause severe itching.

*****

NASTY SOCIAL RUMBLINGS & THE SIX MIRACLES OF NATURE
Each afternoon at 4 o'clock I offer a free walk around the Hacienda's grounds, usually taking between 1½ to 2 hours. For some reason mostly folks from the United Kingdom show up but also there are North Americans, Germans and other nationalities. While we walk and talk I get to know the guests, and all of them are astonished by events in their home countries. Germans have their immigration debate, the English are at odds about the UK leaving the European Union, and people from the US generally arrive in stunned amazement over their presidential campaign.

All this agitation is perfectly natural, in the Naturalist's sense of the word. When a species' population increases rapidly even as resources diminish -- as when humans overpopulate the Earthly biosphere -- competition for resources increases tension and often causes conflict. It's interesting to think about connections between the West's need for petroleum, recent wars in the Middle East, and modern international terrorism.

In the past, wars, famine and diseases controlled human populations, and simple violence and force ordered societies by enabling a few to dominate the less violent and powerful. That's all very natural, exactly as happens among "wild animals." It's still an open question as to whether humanity has evolved to the state where it can restrain and order itself more elegantly.

Maybe we can, because of the Sixth Miracle of the Six Miracles of Nature, outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

Here's the Sixth Miracle:

"Instinctual behavior blossomed into consciousness, along with the ability to be inspired, have a sense of aesthetics, to grow spiritually, to override the dictates of our genes, and to exhibit other particularly human traits."

The Sixth Miracle offers hope that humans can "be inspired, have a sense of aesthetics, to grow spiritually... " all of which -- in my opinion and in my experience -- lead inexorably toward compassion for other living things, reverence for diversity, and clear minds capable of finding and implementing appropriate, compassionate solutions to our problems.

Only time will tell whether as a species we're capable of controlling our appetites and disciplining ourselves so that our Earthly ecosystem can continue supporting us. However, right now, this very instant, recognition of the Sixth Miracle offers something to each of us wanting to rise above the disorder and disharmony around us.

That is, instead of allowing our minds to obsess on disorder and disharmony, we can spend more time meditating on those features of reality that our inner senses tell us are transcendentally good and beautiful. For example, there's Nature. And the Sixth Miracle of Nature is, by definition, a part of Nature. Therefore, rising above violence and stupidity also is natural, though at some point it requires a decision to do so.

Our BackyardNature.Org website was created exactly to help people learn how to focus on Nature, starting with what's living in our own backyards.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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