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

April 24, 2016

*****

SUN-BASKING VIOLACEOUS TROGON
For several mornings in a row a trogon with a yellow breast has perched awhile next to the hut, basking in early morning sunlight, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424vt.jpg

We've documented two trogon species here at the Hacienda. There's the Black-headed Trogon, whose page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/trogon.htm

And there's the Violaceous Trogon, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/v-trogon.htm

If you compare pictures on those pages you'll wonder what the difference is between the two species. Most of the other seven trogon species in Mexico have red breasts, and tails with very different patterns underneath. So, why do two almost identical trogon species turn up here?

A good guess is that sometime in the past the distribution area of the yellow-breasted ancestor of our two Yucatan species fractured into two or more "islands" surrounded by habitats the trogons couldn't live in. Birds in each separate island population continued evolving, adapting to local conditions, until they became so different from one another that members of the two populations no longer could interbreed. Then maybe the climate changed again, causing the isolated populations to coalesce into one big distribution area, like before, but this time with two yellow-breasted species who couldn't interbreed. Other explanations for how two very similar species can turn up in one place are possible, but the one just described is a typical scenario.

Our two similar-looking, yellow-breasted species sound a little different from one another, the Violaceous's "kyow-kyow-kyow... " call being being "not as hard or hollow as Black-headed Trogon," according to Mexican bird-guru Steve Howell. If you take a picture like ours and study it on your computer screen, you can see other differences as well.

The Violaceous's wings display more white streaks and bars than the Black-headed's. The one in the picture shows a good bit of white. The Violaceous's undertail displays more small, black bars along the edges, as shown in our picture, than the Black-headed's, whose tail edges are more solid black. Also, trogon eye rings tend to be of equal width all around the eye, but the female Violaceous's eye ring is thicker in the front and back than the top and bottom, forming "crescents" fore and aft -- as displayed by our bird.

Therefore, our picture shows a female Violaceous Trogon, known to occupy humid to semiarid forest and forest edges, plantations and mangroves from southeastern Mexico south to Ecuador and Brazil.

*****

TOBACCO SEEDS
A month ago we featured a Tobacco plant flowering prettily in the Hacienda's organic garden. You can see its handsome flowers and broad leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/tobacco.htm

Nowadays the flowers' ovaries have matured into brown, capsular fruits that are splitting open and releasing prodigious numbers of tiny seeds. Opening capsules mostly enveloped by the flowers' old, drying-up calyxes are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424to.jpg

You can appreciate the seeds' tininess in a photo of the palm of my hand where I've crushed open a couple of capsules, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424tp.jpg

In Nature, big seeds normally are equipped with lots of stored-up endosperm providing food for the embryo that later germinates and might not immediately be able to root where there's adequate water and nutrients, and begin photosynthesizing. Very small seeds don't contain enough endosperm to enable their shoots to survive for long if the seeds germinate in a less-than-perfect environment, so producers of small seeds generally produce many seeds, in the hope that one or a few will survive, and often the seeds germinate only when conditions are optimal. I doubt that any of the many thousands of tobacco seeds being scattered across the garden's floor now will produce new plants, because the ground isn't right for them.

Back on the farm on which I grew up in Kentucky each spring we'd buy packages of tobacco seed and sow them in specially prepared beds. First we'd burn a big pile of wooden slabs salvaged from a local sawmill, the burning sterilizing the soil. Then we'd "broadcast" the seeds across the beds onto the soil's surface, trying to create evenly spaced plants, though always a few spots too thick or thin would develop. Then the bed's surface would be shallowly raked, just enough to jar most seeds into contact with the soil or bury them one or two sandgrains deep. Then we'd water the bed and cover it with thin, white canvas. The canvas was to keep the air atop the beds moist and, during the night, warm. As seedlings developed we always watched closely to prevent the plants from drying out or getting too hot or cold.

Once the seedlings were about ankle high we'd transplant them to the fields. Nowadays machines do the setting, but back then we used wooden pegs whittled from Catalpa wood. During tobacco setting time we always had aching backs and muscles. Though we watered every transplanted plant, many always would die, so several transplantings would have to be made.

I'm amazed at how few visitors I show the Tobacco to can identify it without my telling them. Even when I provide the hints that probably no plant on Earth has killed so many people, and that probably I'd never had been able to afford college if this plant hadn't existed, they just can't figure it out.

*****

CHIAPAS'S LACANDON RESERVE, & LACANJA CHANSAYAB
On April 12th, on the Bonampak road heading southeastward from Palenque paralleling the Usumacinta River, I took a taxi down the narrow, paved side-road leaving from the tiny settlement of Crucero San Javier. The first stop was at the entrance to the Lacandon Reserve where a ticket was bought for entering the reserve. The ticket said it cost 25pesos, but I was charged 75 (US$4.30), and told it was good for three days. You can see the ticket at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424lf.jpg

About ten minutes later we crossed the pretty little Lacanja River. The river is shown from the bridge, with a small waterfall in the back, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424la.jpg

I was let out in the center of the Lacandon village of Lacanja Chansayab, the taxi driver beforehand having told me that there wasn't much of a "downtown" to the village, since his people, the Lacandons, like to live a little apart from one another, surrounded by trees. The driver also had told me that services such as campgrounds, eating, jungle walks, rafting and such were handled by individual families. I'd need to wander around looking for what seemed right for me. I wanted a quiet place in which to set up my tent, so I began walking down the road I'd just arrived on. You can see the road near the center of town, with a typical sign offering various services at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424lb.jpg

Another sign encountered a little farther on is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424lg.jpg

Some offerings were very low-key while others catered to more conventional tourism. You can see one of the fancier establishments, right on the road and with a well maintained campground right beside the Lacanja River, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424lc.jpg

I wanted something away from the road, maybe with somebody who didn't get many visitors, and I figured I might have just that when I came upon a faded, peeling sign advertising camping 600 meters down a side-road, at Campamento Jaguares. There an old lady preparing herself for some kind of 1PM church activity -- northern missionaries of all kinds have been busy in the area -- showed me a grassy spot in her orange grove where I spread a tent for US$2.90 per night, for three nights. A meal of Mexican eggs (scrambled with chili, onions and tomatoes), beans and tortillas would cost the same. You can see my tent shaded by orange trees, and a nice blue chair the lady brought out for me, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424ld.jpg

I spent three nights in that spot, and wandered about the village for three days, a time that seemed just about right. One day as I was holding a fruit while photographing it, a little girl's voice materialized behind me telling me the fruit bore tiny hairs that would stick in my skin and make me itch. You can meet the little girl and her younger sister at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424le.jpg

On Friday morning I broke camp and ordered one of my host's $2.90 Mexican eggs, beans and tortillas breakfasts. It was served with the most generous portions and tasted the best of any such meal I've had for years, and was accompanied by a delicious herbal tea the recipe for which the old lady good-naturedly refused to impart to me. I suspect that it was just a store-bought concoction, though, because when I asked about it, a little granddaughter snickered and ran into another room.

*****

SCARLET MACAWS
Many signs along the road through Lacanja Chansayab portray Scarlet Macaws, which are mostly red, long-tailed, very spectacular parrots. Back in the 1970s when I served as a naturalist on Maya-ruin-visiting boat trips on the Usumacinta River just east of Lacanja Chansayab, I saw many Scarlet Macaws, even though our Maya boatmen told us that what we were seeing was just a fraction of what there used to be. At that time it was common practice for the locals to shoot Scarlet Macaws, hoping to only wound them, and then they'd nurse the birds back to health and sell them for a few dollars to dealers who would re-sell them to the pet trade up north. Macaws are monogamous and ideally they fly in pairs, but back then often you saw lone birds, and that told the story.

Last week in Lacanja Chansayab, despite knowing that I was in traditional Scarlet Macaw territory, I was surprised on my first morning when I came upon several of the birds high in a tree along the road, squawking and interacting with one another. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424sm.jpg

I didn't get more pictures because as that one was snapped a lady in a nearby hut ran out clapping her hands, yelling in broken Spanish, "Take pictures, no!" I have no idea what her problem was, but on subsequent days the macaws always appeared in the same trees, so I suppose they were semi-tame, the lady felt that they were hers, and she didn't want people standing around taking pictures of them. During my three days at Lacanja Chansayab I didn't see other macaws. Nor in the nights did I hear Howler Monkeys, though back in the 70s and even decades later they were always a conspicuous part of the night chorus.

Originally Scarlet Macaws occurred from Mexico's eastern Gulf Coast south through Central America to Amazonian Brazil. Now just pockets remain here and there, and one population extends from about Lacanja Chansayab across northern Guatemala to southern Belize, then maybe the next island population is in northern Nicaragua.

*****

MONSTERA VINE
One of the most conspicuous differences between between roadside forest in lowland Chiapas and in the Yucatan Peninsula is that the much greater annual rainfall in Chiapas creates a taller forest with a shadier, more species-rich understory. Foremost among the most eye-catching plants in this shady understory are the viny aroids -- an aroid being a member of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae. In general, aroids with their large, often glossy and somewhat fleshy leaves need ample rain and humidity. Yucatan forests also contain viny aroids, but nothing close to the number and diversity of those in Chiapas.

One common aroid vine often seen climbing trees in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, around the town of Lacanja Chansayab, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424ms.jpg

The feature making this species easy to identify is that its leaves, which can reach 65cm long (over 2ft) on stems climbing tree trunks to 30 meters high (almost 100ft), bear oblong holes in them. Often leaves of other climbing aroid species are deeply cut from the margins, but having holes completely surrounded by leaf blade is unusual. Most amateur aroid admirers immediately associate such holes with the genus Monstera.

Knowing the genus, despite having no flowers or fruits, the vine could be identified as MONSTERA ACUMINATA, thanks to Michael Madison's 1977 "A Revision of Monstera (Araceae)," freely downloadable from http://www.aroid.org/gallery/gibernau/1979/Monstera%20revision%20-%20Madison%201977.pdf

In that publication, Madison writes the species is easy to identify because of its "somewhat falcate laminae pendent from the erect petioles." The word falcate describes something that's sickle-shaped, and laminae are leaves. He's talking about the way the leaves' midribs curve so that blade tips point to the side.

Monstera acuminata, which doesn't seem to have a good English name, is distributed from east-central Mexico south through lowland northern Guatemala and Belize into Honduras. In the Lacandon Reserve it's commonly encountered.

*****

SYNGONIUM VINE
Another viny, high-climbing member of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae, commonly seen in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424sy.jpg

Notice that the big blades are attached to long, arcing petioles, and that the blades are compound, consisting of several leaflets, very unlike the above Monstera Vine. In the above picture, the cluster of fruiting structures in the center is what catches the eye, and a close-up of that is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424sz.jpg

The oval, red-turning things on erect stalks are not fruits but rather what can be called "fruiting spadices." You might recall that flowers in the Arum Family are very small and numerous, packed closely together on a vertical, finger-like structure known as a spadix, with male flowers at the spadix's top, and female ones at the bottom. The entire spadix is accompanied by a leafy "spathe," which partly or completely wraps around the spadix. On the Jack-in-the-pulpit flower, "Jack" is the spadix while the "pulpit" is the spathe.

In the picture, the male part and the part of the spathe wrapping around the male part have fallen off, leaving a scar at the top of the oval "fruiting spadices." The fleshy, red-turning coverings of the "fruiting spadices" are parts of the old spathes that formerly enclosed the female part, or bottom, of the flowering spadix. Inside the mature, red "fruiting spadices" at the right in the picture, the former ovaries now are mature fruits grown together into a fruit-like structure something like an ear of corn. Each "fruiting spadix" is actually a collection of many fruits, which are hidden inside the fruiting body.

This is SYNGONIUM ANGUSTATUM, a species that barely reaches into the Yucatan Peninsula, but which is common in Chiapas and Guatemala south to Costa Rica. It has no good English names so some aroid enthusiasts just to call it Syngonium Vine.

At Hacienda Chichen in north-central Yucatan the vine is planted and we've documented its leaf variation, aerial roots and flowers there, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/syngonm.htm

*****

SPLIT-LEAF PHILODENDRON
Yet a third viny, high-climbing member of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae, commonly seen in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424ph.jpg

Note that this species' leaves are deeply divided, not filled with holes like the Monstera, or divided into distinct leaflets like the Syngonium, both of those species commonly occurring in the area. If you look closely a little above the picture's center you'll see a cluster of fruiting structures, or "fruiting spadices," shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424pi.jpg

This is PHILODENDRON RADIATUM, in English sometimes known as the Split-leaf Philodendron. Split-leaf Philodendrons typically begin their lives as wholly epiphytic plants -- living on tree limbs. The young plants send long roots downward that branch profusely as they approach the ground, and then enter the soil. Water and nutrients from the soil only provide part of the plant's food, however, since much of its nutrition comes from decaying organic material collected on tree branches and trunks.

The species is distributed from southern Mexico south throughout Central America into northern South America. I haven't seen it in the forests around Hacienda Chichen in north-central Yucatan, probably because it's so arid there, but it's grown as an ornamental vine on the Hacienda's grounds. We've had a close look at the leaf shape and flower structure on those ornamental vines at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/philo-bi.htm

*****

SMELLING RAIN
Something nice about the combination of living in a thatch-roofed hut and being fairly deaf is that these days I smell a shower before I hear it. I'm not talking about the wet feeling in the air that presages a rain, but rather that curious wet-dusty odor that comes as first sprinkles crater the dust.

During the rainy season, rains normally are preceded by thundering,maybe some wind, and a tense, oppressively hot, humid feeling in the air. But here in the dry season there's no thundering, no wind, no special feeling in the air, just on a cloudy afternoon when sometimes you smell the wet-dusty odor, step from beneath the hut's overhanging thatch, and see sprinkles etching the water's surface in the birdbaths. Usually, within seconds, the silent sprinkle has ended and the wet-dusty odor has evaporated.

It's good to be reminded of things that come and go softly, without fanfares and heavy good-bys, like kisses in the dark, from who-knows-whom?

*****

GENERAL REVELATION & THE SIX MIRACLES
Ever since I was a kid I couldn't keep from asking, "What's going on here" -- "here" being the world in general. And, "Why am I here?" And, "What am I supposed to be doing about it?" You've seen that in later years I've tried to shed light on the matter by using a thinking tool called the Six Miracles of Nature Concept, which is outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

A Christian friend in Georgia writes that in some respects the teachings of the Six Miracles correspond with those of Christianity. In her last letter she included this quotation from her Bible's book of Romans, Chapter One, Verse 20:

"For ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature and attributes, that is, His eternal power and divinity, have been made intelligible and clearly discernible in and through the things that have been made (His handiworks)."

My friend interprets the passage as supporting the concept of General Revelation, which she describes as being a too-often overlooked feature of her religion, and which also seems to be the premise on which the Six Miracles Concept is based. General Revelation takes place when you look at the ocean teeming with many kinds of organisms and instantly understand -- without anyone interpreting things for you -- that the ocean is a diverse, productive and awe-inspiring ecosystem, and that whatever caused it to exist must deserve our consideration and admiration.

I agree with my friend that General Revelation offers important spiritual guidance. However, notice that the Romans passage says only that General Revelation helps us see the Creator's "invisible nature and attributes." The General Revelation provided by the Six Miracles Concept goes far beyond that by providing spiritual guidance for everyday life as it's being lived by people right now.

Of course, religions can be very clear about such details -- whether a male needs to be circumcised, or pig flesh avoided on Fridays -- but those instructions don't come from General Revelation, are not self-evidently true to anyone who thinks about them, and are not particularly helpful to us living on an increasingly human-overpopulated, globally warming Earth, which rapidly is running out of non-renewable resources.

In contrast, the Six Miracles of Nature concept can address current, real-life issues because, instead of depending on sacred, immutable text written by individuals centuries ago dealing with situations of that time, the Six Miracles' guidance is constantly updated. It updates as we evolving beings with our evolving intellects and sensibilities understand the world around us more and more, and develop more refined insights and feelings about it.

When the most highly evolved intellects and sensibilities on Earth studiously reach a consensus on certain specific, every-day matters -- such as whether human overpopulation needs to be controlled, whether our garbage should be sent to landfills, dumped into the ocean or recycled, and whether biological diversity should be protected -- it's a case of General Revelation vividly and unmistakably manifesting itself.

We humans have the license to declare such guidance as legitimate, self-evident and timely General Revelation exactly because of the Sixth Miracle -- which bestowed us humans with brains capable of thinking and feeling, and the implied mandate to wisely and lovingly express our thoughts and feelings in the way we live our everyday lives.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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