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

March 6, 2016

LONG-LEGGED ASSASSIN BUG
While volunteer insect identifier Bea of Ontario was here she photographed many insects other than butterflies, including a bug shown with its straw-like proboscis inserted into the body of its prey, and its abdomen bloated with sucked-up juices, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306zs.jpg.

Bea identified that as ZELUS LONGIPES, which often goes by the name of Milkweed Assassin Bug because its colors are similar to those of the well known Milkweed Bug. However, other than that, the bug has nothing to do with milkweeds, so I prefer another of its common names, the Longlegged Assassin Bug. The binomial, Zelus longipes, is an old one, bestowed by Linnaeus himself.

Long-legged Assassin Bugs are widely distributed and common from the southern tier of US states south through Mexico and the Caribbean and Central America to Argentina and Chile in South America. With such a big distribution, it displays many color variations. One secret to its success is that it feeds on a wide range of soft-bodied prey, from flies, mosquitoes and beetles to caterpillars and even earthworms.

Long-legged Assassin Bugs catch their prey using the "sticky trap strategy," which consists of hiding in leafy places with its forelegs raised ready to pounce. In Bea's picture you can see that the forelegs are covered with pale hairs, which apparently are sticky, so prey grabbed with the legs are less likely to escape. The assassin bug quickly stabs its proboscis's needle-like stylets into the prey's body and injects the prey with enzymes that cause tissue to liquefy so that it can be sucked up through the proboscis.

Though anyone clumsily handling a Long-legged Assassin Bug might suffer a "bite" that swells and burns awhile, the species is thought of as favorably as an important predator of species that often damage crops, such as Fall Armyworms and Asian Citrus Psyllids.

*****

A WIDESPREAD BENT-SKIPPER
While volunteer insect identifier Bea of Ontario was visiting she took many pictures she didn't have time to identify while here, so nowadays up in Ontario when she's not shoveling snow or negotiating icy roads, she's IDing her pictures. This week she figured out the name of the butterfly that of her discoveries I was most curious about, a dark little skipper whose wingtips drooped the way a bat's might, shown in Bea's photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306sk.jpg.

That's the Widespread Bent-Skipper, CYCLOGLYPHA THRASIBULUS ssp THRASIBULUS, distributed from Mexico south through Central America and northern South America to Peru. Occurring over such a large area, the species has fractured into various subspecies, and our subspecies is thrasibulus.

Many pictures of Widespread Bent-Skippers populate the Internet, but there's not much information about their life history. They're known to favor disturbed sites, such as forest edges, roadsides and forest trails, which accounts for their being fairly common. Males tend to bolt about zig-zagging and flying in tight circles just above the ground, and to gather at puddle edges sipping water rich in minerals, but I can't find information on the food eaten by its larvae.

It's unclear to me whether "Widespread" in the name means that the species is widespread, or that this species spreads its wings particularly wide. The hyphen in "Bent-Skipper" means that bent-skippers constitute their own formally recognized grouping -- a subfamily -- within the enormous Skipper Family. Butterfly fanciers refer to members of the bent-skippers' subfamily, the Pyrginae, as Flats or Spreadwings, of which about 990 species are known just in the Americas.

Why do basking bent-skipers fold down the tips of their forewings? I'm guessing that by doing so they create a slightly sheltered pocket of air beneath their dark, sunlight-absorbing bodies that warms during the basking process, helping the body warm up -- the greenhouse effect, but with a greenhouse whose walls are mostly missing.

The genus name Cycloglypha is nicely descriptive, cyclo meaning "circular,"and glypha referring to the "symbols" marking the wings -- "circular symbols."

*****

COATBUTTONS
I'd biked several kilometers of backroads looking for something new to write about, but there wasn't much, not only because I've been cruising those roads for years now but also because now in the dry season many things are dying back, keeping low profiles, basically just holding on until rains start up again around the end of May.

However, returning to the hut, right next to the gravel path where I water the Rubyleaf, a certain cat-high, sprawling, rangy-looking weedy herb caught my eye, apparently sustained by the Rubyleaf's waterings. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306tx.jpg.

Notice how the plant's leaves cluster below leggy flowering-head stems, or peduncles. The leaves are rough-hairy and arise two per stem node -- are "opposite" -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306tv.jpg.

Up close you see tiny flowers of two kinds crammed into flower-like heads exactly as is to be expected of the huge Sunflower/Daisy/Composite Family, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306ty.jpg.

Field marks worth noting are that the petal-like outer "ray flowers" are deeply three-lobed and uncommonly short, broad and few in number, and that the scales, or "phyllaries," of the subtending involucre are densely long-hairy. Another feature very important during the identification process is that atop the mature cypsela-type fruits arise feather-like "plumose" hairs, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306tw.jpg.

In that picture you can see that as individual fruits mature and fall away, chaff-like scales -- the "paleae," which normally fall with the flowers or fruits -- stay behind, so that from a distance the heads of bristling sterile paleae look like flowering heads, as seen at  http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306tz.jpg.

Maybe such heads of papery paleae trick potential pollinators into thinking that more nectar-producing flowers are available than there are, thus increasing the chance of pollinator visits to flowers who do need pollinating.

While the above pictures were being taken I was struck by how many tiny bees and small butterflies visited the blossoms, such as the Tropical Checkered-Skipper, Pyrgus oileus, shown sipping nectar at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306tu.jpg.

Our humble little weedy herb is TRIDAX PROCUMBENS, commonly known as Coatbuttons or Tridax Daisy. It's native to tropical America, but has been introduced worldwide in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions worldwide. In the US it's listed as a noxious weed, has attained pest status in nine states, and is "regulated" under the Federal Noxious Weed Act.

Despite the US government's disdain for the little plant, the rainbow of pollinators visiting it suggest certain good points. In fact, the Internet is full of praise for it, mostly for its medicinal value.

For, it's described as antiviral, anti-oxidant, antibiotic, wound healing, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antidiabetic, anti-arthritic, insecticidal and as efficacious against boils, blisters, cuts, diarrhea and dysentery. You might find it eye-opening to download a copy of an article in International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences entitled "Tridax procumbens (L.): A Weed with Immense Medicinal Importance: A Review," by Jain Ankita and Amita Jain, freely downloadable at http://www.ijpbs.net/vol-3/issue-1/bio/P%20-%2061.pdf.

So,you go out to find amazing things, but find nothing until you return to your own front yard.

*****

IDENTIFICATIONS AS MEDITATION
Above I mentioned matter-of-factly that the butterfly sipping nectar from the Tridax procumbens flower head was a Tropical Checkered-Skipper, PYRGUS OILEUS. Maybe this is a good time to point out that actually it was a pleasing struggle to come up with IDs both of the little butterfly and the plant it was feeding on.

In the above survey of details making Tridax procumbens a Tridax procumbens, those details had to be noticed,thought about and ordered in terms of their importance. The same is true of the Tropical Checkered-Skipper's ID, which volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario dealt with. You might be interested in glimpsing some of Bea's identification process.

Once Bea had my photo, she replied the next day with, "I compared it {the picture} to Common, White, Central, Tropical and Orcus Checkered Skippers and by process of elimination I was left with it looking the most like the Tropical Checkered Skipper. I've attached your butterfly with red circles over the spots that matched the Tropical and didn't seem to be on the others in this combination; the four dark spots along the edge of the hindwing, and the two squiggly ones at the back."

Her picture with red circles is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306tt.jpg.

A professional lepidopterist wanting to be absolutely sure about his or her ID might have wanted to dissect a specimen, paying special attention to the configuration of sexual organs, but here we don't go that far, would rather have the butterfly than its name known with 100% confidence.

In fact, here I want to emphasize that what's going on with this Newsletter and the BackyardNature.Net website isn't some kind of obsession with naming and classifying, but rather all these words and pictures blossom from a kind of meditation that I, Bea and others practaice. Mostly I meditate on details of flowers, while Bea finds tranquility, beauty, and other enrichment as well, in insect colors, design and manner of being.

Moreover, it's a meditation technique open to all, and our BackyardNature.Net website is a good place to start.

*****

YET ANOTHER SENNA
So far in the Yucatan we've profiled five species of the genus Senna, mostly woody members of the Bean Family normally displaying large, bilaterally symmetrical, yellow flowers and bearing pinnately compound leaves. This week yet another Senna species turned up looking very unlike anything seen earlier, though science recognizes it only as a bushy variety of a tree species we've already seen. First, you can take a look at a flowering branch of the ten-ft-tall (3m) tree we've already seen -- the Twin-flowered Cassia, Senna pallida -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/senna2.htm.

The scrubby, knee-high, dust-covered plant flowering here this week, which is considered a variety of the Twin-flowered Cassia, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306s5.jpg.

This week's small, bush variety produces much smaller, hairier leaves than the previous type, though the flowers remain identical, and of the same size. You can see the reduced leaves next to the big flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306s6.jpg.

Though our shrub variety's flowers looked identical to those of the tree type, I photographed the shrub's flowers just for the record. The typical lopsided flower is shown head-on at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306s7.jpg.

The blossoms' large, very unequal, rounded sepals are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306s8.jpg.

An unusual feature of the species is that between the compound leaves' bottom-most leaflets there's a conspicuous, conical gland Our knee-high scrub's midget leaves have the same gland, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306s9.jpg.

Our small, hairy plant of this week is known as SENNA PALLIDA var. GAUMERI.

In the past, this small, hairy taxon was bounced around by various authors who couldn't quite decide what to do with it. It was first named Peiranisia gaumeri. Later it was known by several names, such as Cassia yucatensis and Senna galegifolia. However, seeing that the flowers and that strange gland on the leaves are exactly alike, I tend to agree that it's just a variety of Senna pallida -- one we can call Gaumer's Twin-flowered Cassia.

*****

LAVENDER THOROUGHWORT
Nowadays the Newsletter is a little heavy on weeds because most decent native plants are hunkering down for the dry season. Weeds, however, confident in their strategy of opportunistically rooting wherever they can and broadcasting untold numbers of tiny seeds into all conceivable disturbed environments, sometimes turn up looking fresh as trilliums in spring. That was the case this week with a certain purple-flowered composite -- a member of the Composite/Sunflower/Aster Family -- along a dusty gravel road in such abused, dried-up dirt that it was surprising that anything could grow there, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306fl.jpg.

The pretty flowering heads composed of disc flowers with slender style-branches extending far beyond the flowers' tops are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306fm.jpg.

It's clear that these composite flowers belong to that subgroup of the Composite Family in which no petal-like ray flowers ornament the heads' perimeters. The disc flowers are held in tight clusters by a green, urn-like involucre composed of overlapping scales, or phyllaries, of different lengths, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306fn.jpg.

The plant's cypsela-type fruits will be topped with white parachutes of slender, white hairs, like aster fruits, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306fo.jpg.

The leaves, two per node (opposite), bear shallowly scalloped, or "crenate," margins, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306fp.jpg.

Anyone familiar with the North's common wildflowers and garden ornamentals might think that this is a eupatorium or ageratum, and I was so sure of it myself that I began the ID process by looking at all eupatorium and ageratum species listed for the Yucatan. But none of those looked like our plant, and I had to "do the botany," which normally is hard with the Composite Family because the family is so huge, with so may look-alike species.

It took awhile to figure out that our dusty roadside plant was FLEISCHMANNIA PYCNOCEPHALA, the genus Fleischmannia being a genus not many northerners have heard about. In fact, some experts place the species in Eupatorium. Sometimes in English the plant is called the Lavender Thoroughwort, thoroughworts usually thought of as being eupatoriums.

Fleischmannia pycnocephala occurs commonly in various kinds of disturbed, weedy soils, from roadsides and pastures to coffee plantations, as well as in both dry and humid forests, all through Mexico and south through most of Central America.

Medicinally, it's mainly used during childbirth and for stomach ache.

*****

GATHERING ASIAN SPIDERFLOWER SEEDS
This January we looked at a robust Asian Spiderflower growing weedily along the highway to Pisté, the plant profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/cleome.htm.

At that time we found that Asian Spiderflowers are noted for their medicinal properties, especially in treating ear problems. During the rainy season here I always get an ear fungus, so this week returned to the same plant visited earlier and was pleased to find it bristling with mature, upward-pointing, capsular-type fruits with their tips open, spilling out tiny, black seeds. You can see the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306cl.jpg.

I've stored the seeds in a nifty mouse-proof metal box Bea from Ontario left after her recent visit and plan to greet the rainy season in late May with plenty of young Asian Spiderflowers on hand.

*****

FLOWERING VARIEGATED CROTON
Because of their spectacularly colorful and variable leaf colors and patterns, Variegated Crotons, Codiaeum variegatum, are abundantly planted in gardens throughout the world tropics, including here at Hacienda Chichen. Already we have a page for the species, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/codiaeum.htm.

Though until now I've never noticed a Variegated Croton bearing flowers, this week an especially gaudy, potted one doing service outside the bathroom where lots of folks can see it did have flowers. Maybe you can spot them, small as they are, on our colorful picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306cr.jpg.

The flowers are pea-sized, star-burst-like, white ones arranged in long, slender racemes, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306cs.jpg.

A close-up of a single flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306ct.jpg.

That flower consists of nothing but five purplish, swoop-backed calyx lobes, five very short, whitish, almost indiscernible petals, and numerous matchstick-like stamens tipped with bulging, yellowish, pollen-producing anthers. No female parts are in evidence, but that's not surprising since Variegated Crotons are members of the Euphorbia Family in which unisexual flowers are the norm. Codiaeum species are described as generally bearing unisexual flowers of both sexes on each plant, but on our bathroom plant I found only male ones.

I'm looking for female flowers on other plants, however, just being curious about what they look like. So far, among the dozens I've examined, not one of them even bore more male flowers, much less female ones.

*****

HARVESTING A PAPAYA
Several months ago someone gave Don Paulino a papaya. Paulino saved the seeds, planted them, and today tends to a handsome little orchard of them in the Hacienda's organic garden area. The first papayas are beginning to ripen now, and this week one of the first was harvested, as documented at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306pp.jpg.

The papaya being cut from the tree isn't mature enough to eat yet, but if it's left on the tree any longer birds will start pecking it. Papayas just beginning to turn like this are taken to a storage room where they're left to mature in peace, until they become a rich, orangish-yellow with soft flesh like that of a ripe melon.

I posted the above picture on the Newsletter's FaceBook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jim-Conrads-Naturalist-Newsletter/412345652126940) and someone asked whether green papayas were to be eaten. I didn't know, so I asked the Maya staff.

You should have witnessed the debate that ensued, all in Maya, with only brief summaries of the issue issued in Spanish for my benefit. In the end, it seems to be the general consensus that, yes, green papaya can be eaten, but you have to prepare as you would candied sweet potato. The main disagreement seems to be whether you start by making a boiling syrup by mixing water and sugar in a pot over a fire, then add small chunks of green papaya, or whether you cook/saute/boil the papaya fragments first, then stir in syrup until it's all a gummy sort of hot jam.

*****

CALABASH-TREES FRUITING
We already have a page for the Calabash-tree, also called Cannonball-tree and a host of other names, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/calabash.htm.

However, the Hacienda's Calabash-trees are so loaded with fruits now and the sight of them hanging on the branches is so unusual that I'm adding a picture of them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160306cb.jpg.

*****

3.6 DEGREES COLDER, & USELESS GESTURES
The other day friend Jarvis in North Carolina sent a link to Andrew Freedman's 2015 article "Study: Melting Greenland ice sheet is rapidly slowing the Gulf Stream." The piece, with maps and graphs, is freely downloadable at http://mashable.com/2015/03/24/gulf-stream-slowdown-study-tipping-point/.

The paper's main point is that as the planet gradually warms, a large spot goes against the trend, and that's in the North Atlantic just south of Greenland. There, cold meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet apparently not only cools an area normally warmed by the Gulf Stream -- by up to 3.6°F (0.6°C) -- but also slows down the Gulf Stream's flow. Such a slowdown hasn't occurred for centuries, maybe not for the last thousand years. The article outlines the slowdown's mechanics and possible effects -- the effects possibly catastrophic in western Europe, and pretty bad in many other places.

This doesn't come as a big surprise to the scientific community. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated an up to 10% likelihood of a Gulf Stream shutdown -- not just a slowing -- before year 2100. Many climate scientists estimate the likelihood as even higher. However, the present slowdown suggests that the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting decades ahead of schedule, and possibly this speeds up other global warming scenarios as well.

For me, this brings up the question of what we as individuals should do in the face of such information. Specifically, if our individual behaviors -- taken just by themselves -- won't really change anything, is there really any reason to make idealistic gestures as if they did? For example, when I take long-distance bus rides back to the US and across several states, though flying sometimes actually is cheaper, but I do it because jets deposit much more greenhouse gas in the critical upper atmosphere, per passenger mile, than buses, aren't I really putting up with a lot of discomfort and indignities without actually impacting global warming situation? What's the point of idealistic gestures when, in the broad scheme of things, individually they accomplish nothing?

I personally couldn't find guidance on the matter until I began thinking out the implications of The Six Miracles of Nature, outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

The Sixth Miracle is what seems most relevant. The Sixth, which just now is flickering into existence here on Earth, is this:

That 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 consciously to develop other traits harmonious with the rest of the evolving Universe

That's worded a little differently from last week's edition, but this is an evolving concept. Things change as refinement takes place.

So, it seems that the Universe is evolving toward a state that, when talked about, needs the use of such slippery terms as "inspiration," "aesthetics," "spirituality," and "harmony." These things are felt, not reasoned about, done, or set upon a table. Yet, something in us recognizes them as real when they're experienced, and the sequential nature of the Six Miracles of Nature suggest that the Universe is evolving toward them.

Consider the concept of harmony. The connections among isolated things existing in harmony with one another are as abstract, undetectable and undefinable as the connection between my bus-riding gesture and global warming.

That's not much of a relationship between the evolving Universe and my bus-riding, but it's enough for me to think that maybe my gesture of riding buses -- even if it doesn't slow global warming at all -- may still serve some higher purpose.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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