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

March 20, 2016

*****

STUNG BY A SCORPION
At 4AM I lifted the mosquito net, slipped from beneath it, felt the hut's pleasantly cool dust beneath my feet, and two steps later felt a sharp, burning pain in my right foot. I'd been stung by a scorpion, my first time. Moreover, the scorpion seemed to have climbed atop the foot, though the sting hurt so that I couldn't tell whether he was still stinging. Involuntarily I hopped and stomped, and I guess that that shook him off because when finally the flashlight illuminated things, he was gone. I never saw him, which proved to be frustrating, for everyone here, when you tell them you've been stung by a scorpion, asks you which kind it was. There are big ones and little ones.

I've talked to people who had been stung, so I knew that it wasn't serious. People here regard scorpion stings with about the same awe as they do wasp stings: Very unpleasant, but nothing to get upset about. Everyone gets stung, at least if you're out doing interesting things in interesting places.

Therefore, I then tied on my jogging shoes and set off running down the road. After about five minutes I felt a little nauseous, thought I might have to heave a bit along the road, but I kept running and eventually it passed. Also, my mouth felt a little cottony, and my tongue a bit numb, but that passed, too.

Later that day when I proudly told my Maya friends in the restaurant about the sting, they showed no concern at all, but each one in turn asked if my tongue had swelled and got numb so I couldn't talk. That seems to be what the Maya focus on, the effect on the tongue, because that's what's special about a scorpion sting. All kinds of mediocre events can cause you to hurt, but it's just the scorpion that makes your tongue swell. I sort of wished that my tongue had become more numb, but it didn't. I guess my sting must have been a half-hearted one.

I'm glad that upon being stung I didn't go directly to the Internet looking up information about it. Later I did check it out and in print the sting seems more hair-raising than I'd experienced. Speaking about scorpion venom, Vera Petricevich in her 2010 article entitled "Scorpion Venom and the Inflammatory Response" writes:

"These venoms are associated with high morbility and mortality, especially among children. Victims of envenoming by a scorpion suffer a variety of pathologies, involving mainly both sympathetic and parasympathetic stimulation as well as central manifestations such as irritability, hyperthermia, vomiting, profuse salivation, tremor, and convulsion."

The Wikipedia article on scorpion stings is less alarming. It says:

"Most scorpion stings vary from small swelling to medically significant lesions in severity, with only a few able to cause severe allergic, neurotic or necrotic reactions. Only two species of scorpions can inflict stings which result in death of normal healthy humans: the Israeli deathstalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus) and the Brazilian yellow scorpion (Tityus serrulatus). Antivenom exists for both species' stings."

*****

BLACK WITCH MOTH
The hut in which I live was first visited by a Black Witch Moth back in 2010, resulting in our page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/wichmoth.htm

That visitor had been faded and tattered, so this week when I came upon a much fresher looking one -- on the sidewalk beside the Hacienda's restaurant -- I got some pictures. A top view of the six-inch-broad moth (15cm) is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320bw.jpg

The underside is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320bx.jpg

And an artsy close-up of part of a wing is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320by.jpg

These pictures were possible because the moth was incapacitated, almost dead. Its legs were bound in cobwebs so maybe the moth had become entangled in a web on the restaurant's ceiling, became exhausted trying to get away, and had been removed during the daily restaurant cleaning. Among the Maya, Black Witch Moths are famous for seeking shelter in people's huts and outbuildings.

The Maya concept that Black Witch Moths are "house borrowers" was another reason I wanted to take a second look at the moth. On the 2010 Black Witch Moth page I comment on a strong belief held by many rural and small-town people throughout Central America and mainland Mexico (as opposed to here in the Yucatan) that it's a bad omen when a Black Witch Moth enters your house. When they enter, someone may be about to die. Entomologist Mike Quin has a fine page on Black Witch Moth natural history and the beliefs surrounding them at http://texasento.net/witch.htm

However, a year or so ago an anthropologist friend wrote saying that during her decades of work among the Yucatan's Maya she'd never heard anyone express the bad-luck/ pending death belief about the Black Witch Moth. Since then I've been asking around and now I see that it's true: Elsewhere people may believe that Black Witch Moths are harbingers of death, but not the Maya here in the Yucatan.

I asked my Maya friend Paulino what Black Witch Moths are called in Maya and he gave the name of Ma-ha-nah, more or less, which he translated into Spanish as Presta-casa, which I interpret as meaning "House-borrower."

I'll bet there's a good story of why the Maya have a different set of beliefs about Black Witch Moths. In fact, here in the Yucatan I'm continually finding ways that Yucatan culture differs from the rest of Mexico, including the use of the Spanish language. For instance, throughout most of mainland Mexico a turkey is a guajalote, but here in the Yucatan it's a pavo.

*****

"ELEGANT BEAN"
A few kilometers east of Hacienda Chichen a narrow gravel road cut through a low rise exposing low limestone walls. Weeds, bushes and vines formed such a dense tangle over the exposed limestone that it was impossible to make out any plant's general shape; all you could see were small parts of any one plant. Still, a pinkish-violet blossom caught my eye, where a vine with trifoliate (three-parted) leaves sought a spot in the sun. You can see the vine's pink flower and trifoliate leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320vg.jpg

Already in that picture it's clear that the flower is doing something strange. A close-up shot from the blossom's front is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320vh.jpg

Wildflower fanciers and gardeners might recognize this as a papilionaceous flower typical of the huge Bean Family, meaning that the two colored side-petals are "wings," and the pale, curving structure in the center is the "keel" composed of two lower petals fused along their common margins, forming something like a boat's keel. However, what's that green, two-lobed object rising behind the petals? At first I thought it was an expanded calyx, but then I looked behind the blossom and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320vi.jpg

The small, dark-green calyx from which the petals arise is clearly discernible at the picture's lower, left, and none of its sepals are expanded, so that means that the green, flaring item has to be the bean flower's topmost petal, the "standard," or "banner." Another view of the calyx, again at the lower, left, is shown in a picture of an immature, legume emerging from a calyx with five different-sized sepals, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320vj.jpg

Whenever I see a vine with trifoliate leaves and bean-type flowers with the keel curved in this manner I think of the genus Vigna, a genus famous for providing such important food species as the Adzuki Bean (Vigna angularis), the Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), and the Mung Bean (Vigna radiata). This time last year we found a wild Vigna species, Vigna candida, at Río Lagartos. You might enjoy comparing our present Vigna with that one at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/vigna.htm

This week's new Vigna species is one usually listed as VIGNA ELEGANS, found in the Yucatan Peninsula and south through Belize and Guatemala to El Salvador, and in the Caribbean. It bears no Spanish or English names, though the Maya call it Juul iim. In Latin the species name elegans refers to the flower's elegance, so here we'll name it the Elegant Bean.

In 2011 Alfonso Delgado-Salinas and others published an article in the American Journal of Botany examining the genus Vigna in terms of modern gene sequencing technology. They reasoned that since Vigna flowers are famous for the three-dimensional coiling and bending of their flower parts, but classic taxonomy has dealt mostly with flat, two-dimensional herbarium specimens, Vigna would be a good genus to revisit. The work is freely downloadable at http://www.amjbot.org/content/98/10/1694.full

As so often is the case when gene sequencing is done on large traditional genera like Vigna, Delgado-Saliinas and his group split up the wonderful old genus Vigna, defining "real" Vignas as mostly Old World species. Now they have burdened our elegantly named with the eminently unpronounceable Sigmoidotropis elegans.

So, that's the way it goes with comfortable old concepts.

*****

COFFEE COLUBRINA FRUITING
This January we looked at a handsome small tree fairly common here in secondary forests, a species going by several different English names, of which we chose to call the tree Coffee Colubrina. Coffee Colubrina's velvety, dark-brown stems, shiny, dark-green leaves and curious yellow-green flowers are shown on the species' page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/coffeeco.htm

Coffee Colubrina's capsular fruits are splitting open here during the heart of the dry season, revealing hard, dark brown, shiny, bean-like seeds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320c9.jpg

A close-up showing a splitting fruit next to an immature fruit displaying the ringlike scar around the fruit's bottom, indicating where the sepals fell off, and serving as a good field mark for Colubrina, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320c8.jpg

And a just-for-fun picture showing an ant emerging from behind a densely rusty-hairy leaf is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320c7.jpg

*****

"TREE CROTON"
The genus Croton has several species in the Yucatan Peninsula, and is so commonly encountered that it quickly becomes familiar. Crotons are members of the big Euphorbia Family, the Euphorbiaceae, and normally they're woody shrubs or small trees, or at least semi-woody bushes. They bear unisexual flowers and typically the vegetative parts are conspicuously covered with tiny white to rusty-colored scales imparting to the plant a silvery to rusty "scurfy" look. You can see a flowering branch of a woody, eight-ft-tall Croton (2.5m) encountered this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320c0.jpg

Though Croton flowers are unisexual, both sexes appear on a single plant, the plant then said to be "monoecious." You can see the tiny male flowers of this plant, bearing stamens but no female parts, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320c1.jpg

Notice how in those flowers' centers, where you expect the ovary's stigma and style to appear, there's a stamen, and that looks weird. And note the thick covering of rusty scales on the sepals. Compare those flowers with a female one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320c2.jpg

The starfish-like structure occupying the tiny flower's center consists of a glorified stigma/style structure overarching the ovary. The blossom's five petals are a little more rounded at their tips than the five sepals', with whom they alternate. It's also a strange flower, but so small that most folks never notice it.

In the tropics the genus Croton isn't well studied and from what I can gather in the literature taxonomists are just waiting for someone to come along and bring order to the group. As things stand now, our plant seems best assigned the name CROTON ARBOREUS, though there's another species, Croton reflexifolius, which seems to be about the same. Croton arboreus is described as endemic to southern Mexico. As such, it bears no English name, though with the species name of "arboreus" it's hard to not call it "Tree Croton," the quotation marks around the name meaning that the name is being invented here.

Whatever it's called, I imagine that someday a student will find these pictures and remarks, and be glad to have them.

*****

COMB BUSHMINT
A bumpy little trail leading off the road between Xcalacoop and Xkatún conducted the bike and me to a hot, sun-drenched rock quarry whose thin, intermittent and dried-out soil looked fairly unlivable. I figured that any weed able to survive there must be interesting.

At first only the usual species turned up, exactly what you'd expect in any such disturbed site in the tropics worldwide, but as I was leaving something different caught my eye, something in a sublimely forlorn looking spot somehow with its rangy, awkward weediness looking at home. You can see the whole thing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320hy.jpg

Standing eight feet tall (2.5m) the plant mostly consisted of a flowering cluster, or inflorescence, composed of tiny flowers in widely separated secondary branches. Leaves were mostly clustered at the base, and with the squared stem, looked like the herbage of something in the Mint Family, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320hz.jpg

The flowers were so tiny that even up close they were hard to see, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320hx.jpg

By pushing the camera's macro capability to its limit, the images of some past-prime, bilaterally symmetrical, Mint-Family-like flowers were captured, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320hw.jpg

One of the most striking field marks couldn't be photographed -- the plant's odor when I brushed against it. Last December I described a similar smell as "minty with strong undertones of a musky-oily kind. When you smell it, for the first half second you really like it, but then the odor grows heavy and musky, and eventually almost nauseating." That was how I described the Bushmint's unsettling fragrance, our Bushmint page being at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/bushmint.htm

In fact, the Bushmint's flowers and leaves also were similar...

And the similarities had a good cause, for both species are bushmints -- both members of the Mint Family genus Hyptis. Our rock-quarry mint is HYPTIS PECTINATA, sometimes called Comb Bushmint, maybe because the species name pectinata means "comb-like," though who knows what Linnaeus saw as comb-like about it? Comb Bushmint is native from Mexico and the Caribbean south through Central America to Brazil and Peru, plus it's invasive in tropical lands nearly worldwide.

As was the case with our earlier Bushmint, Comb Bushmint's powerful odor point to uses in traditional medicine. The online Atlas de las Plantas de la Medicina Tradicional Medicina reports that here in the Yucatan it's used against dysentery. for that ailment you grind the plant's underground parts, add sugar -- the parts are bitter -- and eat. Extracts from the flowers have been shown to be deadly to mollusks, and oils derived from the leaves have been proven to be antibiotic against a number of important bacterial pathogens.

*****

SCORPIUS AT DAWN
During my pre-dawn jog as I head east, if it isn't cloudy or foggy, the sky is dominated by one of the most clearly delineated of all constellations, that of Scorpius, The Scorpion. One morning this week the stars shined so brilliantly that during the jog I took along my camera. At a certain spot on the road where the sky was open I lay on the pavement, positioned my camera on some rocks so that it pointed at an angle into the sky, set the shutter speed to 15 seconds, and photographed Scorpius's part of the sky. You can see the result shown twice, with the image on the left outlining Scorpius's form and highlighting the most brilliant and best known star in the constellation -- Antares -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160320sc.jpg

Something missing in the photos, but which was very apparent to me that morning, even with my dimmed vision, is the Milky Way, which on clear nights glows like a slender luminous cloud cutting across the sky from horizon to horizon, and passing through Scorpius's tail and stinger. On the outline, Scorpius's tail is at the bottom, left, and the head and pincers at the top, right.

Scorpius is a well known constellation. One reason is that it's one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac -- the zodiac being the path of the the Sun and Moon across the sky. As such, Scorpius is considered by astrologists to exercise much power in people's lives.

Also, with its tail in the Milky Way, Scorpius is well known as home to many interesting deep-space objects. Remember that the Milky Way is the view we see when we look across our own galaxy. Our galaxy is shaped like a thin disk. If we look skyward in a direction perpendicular to the disk-galaxy's wideness, our vision passes through our galaxy's limited thickness and we see relatively few, relatively nearby stars. If we look skyward in a direction taking our eyes across the galaxy's broadness, we see so many distant stars that all together they look like a pale cloud, and that's the Milky Way. You might enjoy Wikipedia's Scorpius page where the constellation's most important celestial features are cataloged, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius

The best known star in the constellation Scorpius is Antares, the fifteenth brightest star in the whole nighttime sky, and the brightest in Scorpius. Sometimes Antares is thought of as The Scorpion's heart. It's about 550 light years from Earth and is described as a red super-giant, with a radius about 883 times that of our Sun.

When I'm running, looking at Scorpius, the constellation so obviously looks like a scorpion that I like to remember that not all cultures, even those who know scorpions very well, see a scorpion there. Javanese people, for example, see a swan, or sometimes a leaning coconut tree.

However, I haven't heard of any culture that doesn't see something in that curving line of stars. Our human brains just have to look for patterns, and invent stories to fit the patterns.

*****

MORNING CHORUS, TUESDAY, MARCH 15, 2016
The idea was to focus on one feature of an average morning of an average day here in the middle dry season of the Yucatan in a year that probably will turn out to be typical for our changing times. "Focus," as in an aesthetic or spiritual undertaking, or struggling to be childlike, or doing it just focusing is fun.

That morning at 4 o'clock as soon as I stepped outside to pee onto the compost heap I saw that things were a little different from how they'd been lately: Instead of the sky scintillating with stars and planets, the constellation Scorpio dominating the opening above the hut, only three or four points of light with dim halos around them glowed above me. It was a foggy morning, warmer than recent ones, 75° (24°C). On the road, after a few minutes, my beard and arm and leg hairs were wet with chilly water droplets.

After the run and washing, I pulled a chair into the hut's front yard just as dawn's first pale glow began illuminating the eastern horizon. And then I waited for the first birdcall -- the first note of the morning chorus I knew to be coming.

5:05 FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL: thin, liquid bursts of yelping twitters

{Gradually, tangled silhouettes of mostly leafless trees and vines are materializing against the lightening sky.}

5:20 LAUGHNG FALCON: in distance, hau, hau, hau...

5:29 FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL: first his whistled ree-ree-ree call like a loose fan-belt, then breaking into twitters again

{A gecko in the hut seems to answer the owl with ank-ank-ank}

5:30 CLAY-COLORED ROBIN: a clucking kluh-kluh-kluh

5:34 TURQUOISE-BROWED MOTMOT: hollow, slightly nasal, owhh, owhh, owhh

-- WHITE-WINGED DOVE: his "who-cooks-for-youuuu?"

5:35 CLAY-COLORED ROBINS: one bird slurring-upward, questioning, a kitten's mew, another clucking

5:41 MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD: loud too-whet, too-whet, too-whet, then wee-chew, wee-chew and other sounds strong and piercing

5:45: By now it's a general chorus, various species, some with several calls, most notably Clay-colored Robins with their mews and clucks, the Turquoise-browed Motmot with hoarse, froggy sounds, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl's monotonous loose fan-belt, the Melodious Blackbird's outbursts of wee-chew, wee-chew and other calls, and the White-winged Dove's "who-cooks-for-youuuu?"

5:50: GREAT KISKADEE: at first just ka-DEE but then a loud KISS-ka-DEE, KISS-ka-DEE

5:52: GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER: its sharp, ratcheting sound, eh-eh-eh-eh-eh

{By now the Sun apparently is above the horizon but it's shining through fog}

6:01: BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR: noisy collection of sharp, smacking barks, chowk! with chortling chatter

6:03: ALTAMIRA ORIOLE: varied, easy-going, sleepy-sounding series of high, wandering notes

6:07: WHITE-FRONTED PARROTS: small flock flying overhead screeching

6:11: GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE: explosive squeaks, shrieks, pops, mews, etc.

6:16: SOCIAL FLYCATCHERS: shrill trills

6:18: see a small hummingbird but hear nothing, can't identify

6:20: general bird-cacophony

At this point I rub my fingers through cold dew on the Elephant Ears next to my chair, like the way it feels, and decide to bike to Pisté to buy bananas, less because I need bananas than that biking through the fog and hearing the bird-cacophony change in character and intensity along the way seems a good way to end this exercise.

And, it was.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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