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

March 13, 2016

*****

CALL OF THE PHEASANT CUCKOO
Here in the heart of the dry season the landscape looks wintry but certain flowerings and fragrances surprise you. There's perfume and dust, and butterflies and birds displaying increasing friskiness, even as the landscape itself keeps losing color, to dry and pucker, to lie stunned beneath ever more intense glare and heat.

In this context, around the hut this week, a certain strangely echoic, long-carrying birdcall began drifting through the forest, a high-pitched whistle seeming to ask "Are you freeeeeee?" the freeeeeee quavering, sometimes breaking up, but lifting in intonation as if the one asking really wanted to know. It was a lonely-sounding question, shimmering like blue ice, a little like the Thicket Tinamous' call, and at first that's what I thought it was, but then the call grew quite loud, drew close to the hut where I sat writing, and Thicket Tinamous are quieter and too retiring to come so near, so I stepped outside and looked around.

A group of North American birders was skulking through brush on the other side of my outside shower and by the time it dawned on me that they were looking for the same bird I was the black silhouette of a fairly large, long-tailed creature exploded from the undergrowth beside the shower, flew right at me, and at about arm's from my face issued a surprised AWKK!, veered to the right, and disappeared into the forest behind me. By the time I'd recovered from that the birders were gathering around asking if I'd seen it.

"Pheasant Cuckoo," the leader gasped, carrying a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his leg. "Mega-twitch," in bird parlance meaning, "The name 'Pheasant Cuckoo' would look good on anyone's Life List of birds seen on birding trips all over the world."

Then the Pheasant Cuckoo flew past us and landed not far away. If his priority had been to escape us, he could have flown in other directions, or flown farther, but either something was tying him to this precise location, or he was as curious about us as we were about him. I'd never seen a Pheasant Cuckoo.

He perched so nearby that I got the snapshot shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313bc.jpg

In that picture his tail is ablaze with morning sunlight streaming in from the east. The broad, rusty-brown tail's shape -- longer in the middle, with rounded feather tips -- the scalloped pattern of the back feathers and the white line behind the eye, the supercilium, all are convincingly "Pheasant Cuckoo."

Pheasant Cuckoos, DROMOCOCCYX PHASIANELLUS, are described as fairly common but seldom seen, more often heard, from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, specializing in forests and plantations with dense undergrowth.

It's a real cuckoo, being a "brood parasite" -- so its females deposit their eggs in the nests of other birds who then raise the cuckoo's young as if they were their own.

*****

IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPER POKING AT BROMELIADS
"Creeper," I've written, not "pecker." Ivory-billed Woodcreepers are fairly common in these parts and already we have pictures of them climbing tree trunks like woodpeckers, but this week I got a new picture of one doing exactly what Ivory-billed Woodcreepers are doing a lot of here during the mid dry season, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313ib.jpg

What they're doing is obsessively jabbing their big beaks into dense, wiry clumps of bromeliads, sometimes jerking out the bromeliads' older, dried-up leaves and letting them fall to the ground. I'm guessing that the procedure exposes tiny creatures sheltering there, and that's the woodcreeper's food.

Northerners shouldn't assume that our tropical woodcreepers are as small and retiring as the North's Brown Creepers, who share th species' form, behavior and color. Our woodcreepers are woodpecker-size birds, and they can emit sharp, robust cheeeoh' calls when they want.

When volunteer identifier Bea of Ontario was here, she got a nice Ivory-billed Woodcreeper picture, too. When I congratulated her, she said there'd been nothing to it because the bird had been right above her throwing bromeliad leaves at her, making him hard to overlook.

*****

GIANT WOOLLY BEAR CATERPILLAR
I like to provide habitat information for caterpillars described here, but in this case I hesitate. However, I must be true to form, so I'll tell you that on a recent morning at about 4AM I hiked through the darkness to the Hacienda's bathrooms, chose a stall, dropped by pants, sat down, and there the caterpillar was on my naked leg. I can only guess that during the night he'd taken shelter in my shorts hung beside the mosquito net and that somehow he'd survived my dressing, walking, undressing and sitting. You can see him on my hand once the sun came up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313ct.jpg

He's so hairy with stiff, sharp but non-stinging spines that you wonder how he gets around. Of course on his underside he's not hairy at all, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313cu.jpg

The hair clumps spiky nature is better seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313cv.jpg

The above photos went off to volunteer insect identifier Bea in Ontario, who quickly decided that it looked a lot like a Leopard Moth caterpillar, which occurs in the Yucatan. However, Bea also pointed out that pictures on the Internet show vibrant reddish-orange stripes crossing the caterpillar's back, while our individual lacks such marks. But notice in that last picture that right behind the first row of bristles behind the head there's a hint of a dark band, so maybe that's the beginning of a red marking. I suspect that our individual is an immature caterpillar -- one yet to molt into its final "instar." I think Bea got it right again.

So, here we have HYPERCOMPE SCRIBONIA, occurring from southern Ontario and Minnesota south to Florida, Texas, and into Mexico, apparently including the Yucatan Peninsula where collections have been identified as that species. In English the moth producing the caterpillar is known as the Giant Leopard Moth, and the caterpillars themselves sometimes are called Giant Woolly Bears. Full-grown Giant Woolly Bears reach about three inches long (75mm), while ours was only about two inches. A fine page describing and illustrating the species is provided by the University of Florida at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/MOTHS/Hypercompe_scribonia.htm

On that page we learn that Giant Woolly Bear caterpillars feed on many plants, including Bougainvillea, citrus species, Poinsettia, and Banana and Avocado trees, all commonly found here at the Hacienda.

*****

"AMERICAN" COCKROACH
When volunteer identifier Bea from Ontario was visiting, one day she saw a cockroach on a sidewalk leading toward the ruins. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313ck.jpg

You can admire its streamlined shape, rich mahogany color and delicate wing venation in a close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313cl.jpg

Bea immediately thought the cockroach looked like the usual American Cockroach, but I asked her if she was sure, because there are other cockroach species -- such as the German and Oriental Cockroaches. Bea remembered the question, and this week she replied: Yep, American Cockroach, PERIPLANETA AMERICANA, which despite both its English name and binomial is native to Africa. It's been spread worldwide through global commerce, having reached the US as early as 1625.

American Cockroaches grow much larger than German and Oriental ones and are good fliers, while the German ones fly only rarely and Oriental ones not alt all. An easy to see field mark for the American is that the ± triangular section behind the head, the "pronotum," displays a raised, pale rim that can tend toward yellowness.

We think of American Cockroaches as mainly inhabiting buildings, but in fact the species naturally lives outdoors, feeding on tiny wood particles, fungi, algae, as well as small insects, including dead or incapacitated members of their own kind.

Of course they'll also invade human habitats, but only when its requirements of food, water and heat are met, as in people's basements, bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, sewers, around pet food spots, etc. This flexibility in food requirement largely accounts for the species' success.

Cockroaches themselves are fairly clean insects but they do travel over germ-rich places, and if soon afterwards they also roam about on someone's untended sandwich, they can leave germs on the sandwich, which accounts for most of the bad press they endure.

*****

BEA'S ZEBRA-STRIPED HAIRSTREAK VIDEO
While volunteer insect identifier Bea of Ontario was visiting she add the Zebra-striped Hairstreak, PANTHIADES BATHILDIS, to our Yucatan Butterfly Identification Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/index.htm

The Zebra-striped Hairstreak itself is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt120.jpg

In one of Bea's guest notes in the Newsletter she wrote, "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!"

While photographing the hairstreak, Bea made a video of its interesting behavior, which she's uploaded for everyone to see on YouTube, at https://youtu.be/8UwE5EF3nrk

*****

POTATOTREE FLOWERING
Among weeds beside an isolated gravel cut road through a low rise with limestone bedrock, a small tree about ten feet tall (3m) bore white blossoms typical of the nightshades, genus Solanum, and large, fuzzy leaves with entire margins like those of mullein. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313so.jpg

A close-up of a typically Solanum flower nicely displaying the pores at the tip of the yellow anthers' cells, from which pollen pours, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sp.jpg

Several inflorescences bore immature, green fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sr.jpg

The soft-downy leaves were densely mantled with tiny branched or "stellate" hairs, shown on a leaf bottom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sq.jpg

The hairy leaves looked and felt so like those of mullein that the plant reminded me of the Mullein Nightshade we've seen along the Yucatan's sandy Caribbean coast. However, that species is coastal. You can compare our plant with the Mullein Nightshade on its page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/solanum2.htm

Our weedy little tree proved to be SOLANUM ERIANTHUM, in English sometimes called Potatotree, apparently because its crushed or broken roots smell like raw potatoes. Some experts use the binomial Solanum verbascifolium, the name verbascifolium meaning "having leaves like mullein." Potatotree occurs from Texas and Florida south through Mexico and the Caribbean area through Central America into northern South America, plus it's an introduced weed in other tropical parts of the world.

Nightshade species, genus Solanum, are famed for the compounds they contain which, depending on species and amount consumed, can be deadly, hallucinogenic and/or medicinal. The online "Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana," which calls our plant Berenjena, says that, medicinally, Potatotree mostly is known for its pain-killing, anti-inflammatory and disinfectant qualities, usually its leaves being used. One way to use the leaves is to rub them wet with warm water on the bodies of newborn babies. Other uses include treating diabetes, encouraging appetite and sexual desire, and treating constipation, asthma, impotency, hair loss, and much more.

*****

WHITE SAPOTE FLOWERING
In the little park beyond the hut where sometimes Maya shamans conduct special ceremonies, wanting to be near the ruins but unable to get any closer, a spindly tree about 15 feet tall (4.5m) in deep shadows bore digitately compound leaves and small, panicle-type clusters of yellowish flowers. Curiously, the flower clusters grew on older parts of branches, often behind the leaves, as shown in a flash-assisted photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sa.jpg

The digitately compound leaves -- leaves with leaflets radiating from atop the petiole like "digits" or fingers on a hand -- had caught my eye before the flowers did. A leaf is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sc.jpg

I'd thought that these were the leaves of Fiddlewood, Vitex gaumeri, a species commonly seen in the woods here. You can see the similarity on our Fiddlewood page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vitex.htm

But the small clusters of yellowish flowers just now appearing on this week's tree's branches were very different from Fiddlewood's large, purple blossoms. Here we had something new, and you can see its flowers close up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sb.jpg

In those pictures I see no female parts. They're unisexual male flowers. This was problematical because I couldn't think of any plant family capable of producing trees with alternate (one leaf per stem node), digitately compound leaves and panicles of small, unisexual flowers.

After several days of false starts finally the name came to me by way of an online interactive key providing lists of plant families with traits supplied by the user. That marvelous little key resides at http://www.colby.edu/info.tech/BI211/PlantFamilyID.html

The key listed several families I'd already checked, and one family that didn't seem at all right, that of the Citrus Family, the Rutaceae. Digitately compound citrus leaves? Unisexual flowers?

But the list of Rutaceae species found in the Yucatan does indeed include one genus with digitately compound leaves, and that genus is Casimiroa. Our species turned out to be CASIMIROA TETRAMERIA, the White Sapote, in Spanish often called Matasano. I've often heard about White Sapote and I've gladly eaten the White Sapote's fleshy, ±spherical, apple-size and rich tasting fruits but somehow until now I hadn't known that the tree bore digitately compound leaves. About the unisexual male flowers my old Bailey's "Manual of Cultivated Plants" comforts by remarking that though the flowers of Casimiroa species normally are bisexual, the ovaries sometimes are "abortive." And a bisexual flower with an aborted ovary is a unisexual male flower like the ones in our photo.

The TradewindsFruit.Com web page for White Sapote describes the fruit as "with white or yellow creamy, custardy pulp that has an excellent sweet banana flavor." I don't recall the banana flavor, but the pulp was pale yellow, succulent and delicious.

Some literature describes the genus Casimiroa as embracing about 10 species native to Mexico and Central America while others, such as The Rare Fruit Council of Australia state that the genus consists of "5 doubtfully distinct species confined to Mexico and Central America as far south as Costa Rica" In my attempts to pin down the name Casimiroa tetrameria, I drifted toward the opinion of the Rare Fruit Concul, for I couldn't see much difference among the various species. Often Casimiroa tetrameria is known in English as Wooly-leaf White Sapote, because of dense hairs on the leaves' undersides. Our little tree's leaf bottoms are indeed velvety-feeling with dense, short hairs, shown on the curve of a bent leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313sd.jpg

White Sapote is described as native to southern Mexico south through most of Central America, and CICY, the Center for Scientific Investigation of the Yucatan, shows the species as present here, but I've not seen it in the local forest, and suspect that in our little park it was planted.

*****

MOONFLOWER GETTING AGGRESSIVE
In this Newsletter we've often considered the Moonflower vine with its huge, fragrant, white blossoms that open in the night, sometimes waxing poetic about them. Our page for the Moonflower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ipomoea.htm

Nowadays Moonflower vines near the Hacienda are growing over and shading all bushes and small trees in their vicinity, just like Kudzu back in Mississippi. And early on a foggy morning, the open blossoms, which earlier shriveled at the first light of dawn, remained open until around 10 AM, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160313mf.jpg

I'd read that Moonflower could be invasive and choke out other plants, but until now it was hard to believe.

*****

WHY DOES SEX EXIST?
Friend Eric in Mérida passed along a link to a recent article in "The Economist" magazine, reviewing a paper dealing with the topic of why sex exists. Many organisms reproduce asexually some, most or maybe all the time, so is sex really necessary?

Two main hypotheses for why sex exists are talked about. The "Red Queen" hypothesis postulates that the constantly changing genetic variety provided by sex keeps parasites and pathogens from evolving stable techniques for attacking their ever-evolving host species. The second hypothesis, the "Plucking Rubies" one, suggests that sex's continual mixing of genes from generation to generation distributes good and bad mutations among a species' individual organisms, resulting in bad mutations disappearing when individuals bearing bad mutations die, while good mutations continue being passed along, refining the species.

The article can be downloaded freely here.

So, sex exists because it helps a species evolve, not only to keep ahead of parasites and pathogens but also to refine the species.

Something interesting to notice is that when talking about why sex exists the reasons are formulated in terms of benefits for the species, not for us individual organisms in our individual lives. We organisms are at the service of the species concept.

Moreover, it's revealing that the whole species-making process, or evolution, depends on a certain percentage of certain kinds of us organisms not passing along our genes. Usually that means by dying before reaching reproductive age. In human terms, we're mainly talking about kids and young families, and traditionally the ones who have died have been those who inherited bad mutations, succumbed to parasites and pathogens, got involved in mindless violence, or belonged to societies that made themselves unsustainable through overpopulation, or by having religious or political beliefs, or a standard of living, so out of step with surrounding cultures that their neighbors exterminated them.

If sex exists to facilitate evolution, then evolution must be a very big thing. In fact, we've seen that not only does evolution organize and inspirit living things here on Earth, but also the whole Universe and all its contents evolve, as highlighted by the Six Miracles of Nature concept outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

When it finally sinks in that evolution is so important, that maybe it's even on par with the utterly mysterious and majestic fact that things exist in the first place, one begins wondering why humanity spends so little time seriously wondering "Evolving toward what?" and, "The species refining in what way?" and, "How should I be evolving right now?"

These mid dry-season days in the Yucatan when questioning Pheasant Cuckoos explode into my face and scarlet Bougainvilleas embroider deep, moist pools of shadow beside stone walls with big iguanas on them, a tourist visiting my humble hut asks what I do for a woman.

The entire above train of thought about evolution flashes through my mind, the woman, sex, peculiarities of our species, evolving "forward," "refining... " and I stand there with my circuitry so bumfuzzled that I fail to reply quickly, can't think of a witty reply, and don't feel like being witty anyway, in fact have quite forgotten what wittiness is all about. Just stand there until the tourist changes subject and points to a hole in the thatched roof, suggesting I'd best get it patched before late May, when the rainy season returns.

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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