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

MAY 29, 2016

*****

GREEN JAY EATING JACARATIA FRUIT
Behind the hut, both the Spanish Plum and the Jacaratia -- what the Maya call Bonete -- are producing ripe fruit, which birds eat before I can. You can see a Green Jay feeding on a Jacaratia fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529gj.jpg

This a picture showing some interesting things. First, the Green Jay itself.

Green Jays are common throughout most of Mexico's humid lowlands, even north into southern Texas. However, up in Texas the Green Jays' eyes are brown, while here in the Yucatan they're definitely yellow, as in the picture. Our Green Jay page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/greenjay.htm

Second, the Jacaratia. Jacaratias belong to the Payapa Family and their mature fruit tastes a bit like papaya. Our page for it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jacarati.htm

On that page I theorize that the "fins" atop the Jacaratia fruit enable birds, bats and other fruit lovers to more securely hang onto the fruit as they feed on it below them. Our Green Jay has at least one foot on a fin as he reaches down to probe the hole that sometimes also serves other birds, especially White-fronted Parrots.

Our Jacaratia Page shows a half-devoured ripe fruit that, I write, had been maturing for half a year. The picture was taken here in January, 2010. I'm sure that some of our May Jacaratia fruits are mature, because messy parrots drop pieces of fruit flesh into my wash basin exactly below the tree. Last week I tried to knock down with a pole the very fruit the Green Jay is feeding on, but you see who gets to eat that fruit.

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HOT-SEASON SILHOUETTE
On a recent mid afternoon with the temperature well over 100°F, as I worked at the computer, a Great-tailed Grackle flew onto the rocking chair just outside the door, maybe looking for a cool place. As he perched there, his beak wide open to cool off, he eyed the hut's dark interior, and I took the "mood picture" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529gk.jpg

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CATTAIL TOOTHPICK GRASSHOPPER
Hanging on the underside of a big Arrowleaf Elephant-ear leaf right outside the hut's door, there was a greenish, grasshoppery-looking critter unlike any grasshopper I'd seen before, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529gh.jpg

Unfortunately it hopped away the moment that picture was taken, but still in that photo we can see the interesting pointy head. The antennae are thicker and stiffer looking than other grasshopper antennae I've seen, and appear to be somewhat flattened toward their bases.

Naturally the picture was shipped off to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario, who quickly shot back that she thought it must be close to the genus Leptysma, known as the Spur-throat Toothpick Grasshoppers. When I checked which Leptysma species might occur in the Yucatan, a picture of LEPTYSMA MARGINICOLLIS popped up, looking exactly like our elephant-ear-leaf one. Bea was hesitant about the ID because most of the pictures she found of the species showed brown individuals. However, a US Forest Service page says that males are reddish brown while females are green.

In the US the species is known as the Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper, the cattail part of the name arising from the fact that often in the US Deep South it turns up among cattails and sedges at the water's edge. I water the elephant-ears daily, so they're the closest thing to a cattail thicket we have here. Probably the toothpick part of the grasshopper's name refers to a short spur, or spine, between the front legs, not visible in our picture.

Cattail Toothpick Grasshoppers occur from the southern US throughout Mexico to Honduras in Central America, and have been divided into three subspecies. They belong to the Short-horned Grasshopper Family, the Acrididae.

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BASILISK LAYING EGGS, #2
One morning this week I was bent over looking for sprouts of recently sowed Cilantro seeds when suddenly I realized that at arm's length a 1½ ft long (45 cm) Striped Basilisk -- a kind of lizard common here -- was glaring up at me, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529bs.jpg

A closeup of the eggs is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529bt.jpg

The blue-topped bottle enters the picture only because it had contained the Cilantro seeds, I'd neglected to store it away and, apparently, the basilisk liked it. The point to notice in the picture is that beneath the basilisk's rear end there are eggs. I'd interrupted a critical moment in the basilisk's life, so I immediately withdrew, and for the next hour or so from inside the hut watched her move loose dirt over the eggs and squirm and scratch the dirt's surface until the litter atop the eggs looked exactly like that covering the rest of the bed. The temperature was approaching 100 degrees, and I admired her stamina. Most of the time she worked with her mouth open, apparently to encourage cooling by evaporation of moisture from her mouth and lung linings.

An interesting feature about this egg-laying is that our July 18th, 2010 Newsletter also featured an article entitled "Basilisk Laying Eggs," with pictures very similar to the ones provided this week. Moreover, the 2010 nest was located about a yard (1m) from the present nest's location. I just wonder whether there's been a continuous use of this location as a nesting site over the years, and if there's some relation between the 2010 basilisk and this year's -- or maybe even the same individual?

Our well illustrated Striped Basilisk page telling all about this interesting species, along with those earlier nest pictures, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basilisk.htm

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"TROPICAL GRAPEVINE" FLOWERING
At the trail's edge through the woods a woody vine, or liana, bore fresh, new leaves looking a bit like grapevine leaves, long tendrils, and clusters of yellowish-green flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529ci.jpg

Some vines produce branched tendrils while others have unbranched ones, or no tendrils at all. Our vine had unbranched ones, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529ck.jpg

A close-up look revealed flowers typical of Grapevine Family, the Vitaceae, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529cj.jpg

In the above picture you see flowers in two stages of development, both typically seen in the Grapevine Family. The blossoms up front with stubby items protruding beyond the discs -- they're the ovaries' styles -- have lost their corollas. Farther back in the picture there are flowers with green domes covering their styles. The domes are the blossoms' petals, each petal's sides adhering to the sides of the neighboring petal, so that altogether the stuck-together petals form the dome. In some grapevine species the domes fall off as a unit, but in others the petals break away from one another and open outward. On the Internet I find many pictures showing flowers with separate petals, but you can see that all ours appear to have lost a dome of adhering petals. I wonder whether under our present extremely hot, dry conditions the petals might not remain together, though in other times they normally open?

This is CISSUS VERTICILLATA, sometimes in English known as the Seasonvine. It's a very widely distributed species, from the US Southeast south through Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean throughout most of South America. Covering such a large area, the vine varies a great deal in appearance. Back in 2009 we got a picture of the fruits, or grapes, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115ci.jpg

The fruits are too tough and with too little flesh to be eaten by humans. The literature does mention several medicinal uses, however, for instance for respiratory problems and abscesses. In Brazil, decoctions of the vine's leaves are taken widely as a remedy for diabetes. Its common name there translates to vegetable-insulin.

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WILD CANNA LILY
Last April 14th as I hiked little gravel roads around the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, I passed through a marshy area that was luxuriously green and weedy, despite it being the heart of the dry season. Amid all the greenness a single tiny burst of red caught my eye. Maybe you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529cn.jpg

The red spark resides atop one of two slender stems bearing broad, glossy leaves of the kind often seen in gardens in warmer parts up north. They look like canna-lily leaves. In fact, the red flower turned out to be a canna flower, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529cq.jpg

Canna flowers are pretty, but so different from most flowers that they're hard to interpret. You can check our our special Canna Flowers Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_canna.htm

Basically, the blossom's sepals are small, usually greenish, and not amounting to much. The three petals usually are colorful, but they're slender and don't constitute the most conspicuous part of the flower. In the above picture you can see three of them, more or less in the picture's center. They're stiff-looking and narrow.

In the picture, the three longest, broadest, variously curling, red items are modified stamens, sometimes called staminodia, and usually there are five of them. Sometimes they're called "false petals." The two broad, curling, red things occupying the picture's top, right corner are false petals. The false petals' job is to attract pollinators with their color.

Also in the picture you can see that one false petal bears a narrow, stiff, yellow, pollen-producing anther-cell, so at least one false petal also produces pollen. You can see the yellow anther-cell on the picture's right side, positioned horizontally. The flower's female stigma is the dark, slender object below the yellow anther-cell.

Mid April must be late in this Canna's flowering season, for I couldn't find another flower. However, several plants bore typically burry canna fruit-capsules, a couple shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529cp.jpg

Some fruits were even mature enough to be splitting open, revealing spherical, blackish seeds inside, ready to spill out if anything such as wind or an animal shook the plant, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529co.jpg

So, had these canna plants been planted there, or had they invaded as weeds, or were they native? They sure didn't look planted, and I just wasn't sure whether they were invasive weeds or native wildflowers. The first step to figure out that question was to identify our plants to species level, so that their native distribution area could be looked up.

These are CANNA INDICA, sometimes called Wild Canna Lily, and though their exact origin is unknown, it's believed they probably are native to tropical America from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, well into South America. The plant is so favored because of its prettiness that it's been planted and "gone wild" throughout the world's tropics. Its habitat is described as swamp and wetland edges, streambanks and other moist areas, exactly as where we found it. In some places Wild Canna Lily grows so thickly along streams that it reduces water flow, causing flooding and limiting access to waterways. In South Africa it's listed as a noxious weed.

Several canna garden cultivars are very similar to our Wild Canna Lily. In general the cultivars can be distinguished by their broader anther-cell-bearing false petals. Most cultivar blossoms also are much larger than on our Chiapas species.

In Mexico sometimes Wild Canna Lily leaves are wrapped around tamales, and certain forms produce starchy rhizomes that can be eaten.

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TINY PSYGMORCHIS ORCHID
In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, beside the informal little family campground where I pitched my tent, a Lacandon lady maintained a shady little spot where she hung orchids among tree limbs and planted colorful ornamentals. The orchids seemed to be species found in the surrounding woods. She must have sprayed the area regularly with a water hose because most of the orchids were flowering, despite it being the heart of the dry season. One tiny orchid species appeared on most of the trees, often in places a person wouldn't normally place them, so they gave the impression of prolifically reproducing on their own. You can see one of the little, yellow-flowering orchids -- the leaves only about two inches long (5cm) -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529ps.jpg

Notice how the leaves are narrowly scooped shaped, and that their bases nest into one another so that the leaves are held in one plane. An immature flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529pt.jpg

When I photographed that I didn't realize it was only partially opened, partly because all other flowers I noticed were in the same condition, and partly because of the old story that I'm unable to see what these things look like until they're on my computer screen. More mature blossoms, I found later, open into a complex shape reminding me of my childhood stereotype of a Dutch milkmaid's general form. At least the above picture shows rusty-red speckles, which are important for determining which of two similar species found in the area this is.

Our little orchid is PSYGMORCHIS PUSILLA, in English sometimes known as The Tiny Psygmorchis. The literature describes it as occurring in southern Central America and northern South America, though I do find it mentioned as present in coffee plantations in southern Mexico, and here in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas. Maybe the species isn't native in the forest here, but invades and thrives in human-made plantation situations, as a kind of "weed."

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COSMOS A GOOD FLOWER FOR BUGS
My outside rocking chair rocks beside a shoulder-high planting of Yellow or Golden Cosmos, Cosmos sulpureus, a native Mexican plant that I've planted not only because it's pretty but also because it attracts butterflies. Our Yellow Cosmos page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cosmos2.htm

Thing is, sometimes as many flying insects are attracted to certain green parts of the plant's body as they are the flowers. For example, you can see a small wasp that rushed from one leaf axil to another, completely ignoring the blossoms, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529ct.jpg

Many plants produce "extrafloral nectaries," which are nectar-producing glands on a plant's body, other than among its flowers. In general, the idea is to attract ants and other insects whose presence on the plant might dissuade herbivores from feeding on the plant. A while back we looked at extrafloral nectaries on an ant-attracting acacia in Chiapas, shown on the petiole of a compound leaf, with ants hovering about, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501ae.jpg

When I looked for extrafloral nectaries on my cosmoses, however, I couldn't find any. I did notice that certain insects were attracted to spots where the plant's stems branched, such at the place shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160529cs.jpg

Here, insects would briefly poke about the white tufts of hairs between the branches, and they'd linger about the pale green parts that look a little swollen. I've not seen any insect clearly feeding at these spots, however. They go directly to them, very briefly rummage about, and usually leave, going to a similar spot. Is the plant issuing some kind of sexual pheromone that tricks insects into visiting, but offers nothing in return? Even the wasp in our first picture seemed to be looking for something other than nectar -- maybe a prey insect attracted to the Cosmos -- and after a quick look-about flew away.

I can't find documentation stating that Cosmos species bear extrafloral nectaries, but several web pages describe Cosmos as "good plants for bugs." One of them is posted by the University of Wisconsin Entomology Dept. entitled "Guarding the Garden: Habitat Manipulation to Favor Natural Enemies, at http://www.entomology.wisc.edu/mbcn/fea304.html

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OLD HENS & QUANTUM MECHANICS
When I was a kid on the farm in Kentucky I made a habit of hiding in the chicken-feed bin, spying on the old hens who laid our eggs. With my own eyes I learned that chickens had distinct personalities, that there were matronly lady types and others that were raunchy sluts, some were bashful and some aggressive, on and on. Later I saw that cows, pigs and goats had even more complex and vivid personalities.

As an adult I've never doubted that animals other than humans have feelings and their own senses of identity. As soon as I left the farm and got beyond human-centered religious teachings, it was easy to start seeing that we Homo sapiens are just other animals, our main adaptation being our complex brains. Moreover, I couldn't see how these other animals, behaving as they did, could not have feelings and senses of identity like our own, just different, and in different measure.

In terms of that different measure, I visualize that on Earth humans possess the most intense feelings and vivid senses of identity -- though sometimes I wonder about dolphins -- with apes having less, then on down through pigs and the like, past frogs and turtles to insects, and below them I suspect that the average landscape shimmers with all kinds of incipient, tentative glimmerings of many kinds of awareness and insight, wherever there's fungi, trees, weeds, mosses, algae -- maybe even crystals and sand grains.

Feelings and senses of identity arise in the brain, so it's insightful to think about this: Many times it's been demonstrated that any small part of the human brain can be removed without too much change in the brain owner's personality. Therefore, these feelings and senses of identity don't arise from any single, physical point inside our brains, but rather they seem to come about spontaneously wherever a brain has been wired in a certain very sophisticated manner, and the impulses along the brain's neural pathways interact in certain ways. So, why shouldn't all complex systems configured in sophisticated manners with information and energy flowing in complex patterns also result in some kind of feeling and sense of awareness? When we enter a forest, or approach the ocean, sensing something there with a greater presence, wisdom and awareness than ourselves, maybe that's really the way it is.

To top all this off, the other day Eric in New York sent a Quanta Magazine interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, who uses the math of quantum mechanics to explore "reality." With regard to the above matters, an interesting offshoot of Hoffman's math has been the discovery that if two "conscious agents" -- two awarenesses -- interact, the math says that instead of two conscious agents ending up next to one another, there continues to be just one thing. 1 + 1 = 1. Hoffman offered this example of how right now this math might be expressing itself in our own everyday world:

Human brains are divided into two hemispheres, the left side specializing in analytic thought, language, and such, the right side dealing with holistic thought, intuition, art and the like. When a human loses an entire hemisphere -- usually because of cancer or a physical injury to one side of the head -- the individual's memories are retained, and the basic personality remains. It's clear, then, that each hemisphere of a human brain is itself a brain. Extrapolating the findings in the other direction by combing brains to form, again, one brain, Hoffman writes "... it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent."

I believe he's talking about one single conscious agent in the whole Universe, to which all the Universe's various conscious agents contribute.

There's something else: When someone loses one of his or her brain hemispheres, that person does indeed remain a functioning human capable of complex thoughts and emotions, but people around them often report a certain change in their personalities. Often it's said that the person has become a little "flat." They've lost some of their spontaneity, their creativity and humor. Let's call that spontaneity, creativity and humor the X Quality.

The X Quality deserves a name because maybe that's exactly what the Universe is evolving toward -- just a purer, more effervescent and rambunctious form than we can imagine.

You can freely read the Hoffman interview, entitled "The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality," here.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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