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

JUNE 5, 2016, 2016

*****

MOTTLED OWL NEST WITH YOUNG
Late Wednesday afternoon Luis from the Hacienda's restaurant came to tell me that a mama owl with her white baby could be seen next to the Hacienda reception area. When I got there it was hard to believe that an owl had nested where so many people, including myself, pass by several times a day. It was just a few feet from both the parking lot entrance and where big tour buses with their diesel engines rumbling deposit arriving guests. At first I didn't see the owls but finally Luis pointed out what I assumed to be the mother, perched in deep shadows among palm fronds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605mo.jpg

It was easy to figure out that this was a Mottled Owl, STRIX VIRGATA. Here in north-central Yucatan we have only larger Barn Owls with their white facial disks, Great Horned Owls that also are larger and with "ear tufts," the much smaller Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, and the Mottled Owl. Throughout most of tropical, lowland Mexico, south through Central America to Ecuador and northern Argentina, Mottled Owls are fairly common in a variety of habitats -- upland pine-oak forest to lowland plantations and thorn forest. However, normally they're secretive, and much more commonly heard than seen.

Mottled Owls come in dark and light morphs, the light morphs being most common in arid areas, so that's the morph I've seen in arid northern Mexico. This one was a dark morph, the one commonly seen in southeastern Mexico and Central America.

And then Luis pointed to the nestling who'd been watching us all along from his hollow in an old Royal Poinciana tree, just a few feet in front of and below the adult, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605mp.jpg

The owlet is seen up closer at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605mq.jpg

At night I hear Mottled Owl hoots very close to the hut. I'm getting the impression that they like being near habitations. Once in Guatemala's Quetzal Reserve I found the Quetzals not on wooded slopes of their Reserve, but lined up along the main road at the Reserve's border, apparently fascinated by the continual line of diesel trucks with their ear-splitting exhaust noise and great plumes of oily smoke as they crossed the mountain's ridge.

The owl's hoots aren't as loud or well enunciated as those of the larger owls. The calls vary, but lately right before sunrise the main call has been three or so low, monotonal, slightly wheezy woop calls, a little like the Hollywood version of a big sword repeatedly sliced through the air, woop... woop... woop...

*****

AN {ALMOST} WINGLESS SHIELD-BACK KATYDID
My friend Iolanda brought me an envelope in which she'd plopped a plump, grasshopper-like critter found on a wall in a room she was cleaning.

"It doesn't fly, doesn't jump, just crawls along like something is wrong with it, and I've never seen anything like it," she explained, concern in her face for what seemed a sick insect. You can see the captive, whose body was about two inches long (5cm), at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605kd.jpg

I couldn't figure it out. One confusing feature was that, though it looked like a fat grasshopper, its antennae were too long and slender. However, what really caught my eye was that it didn't seem to bear wings. Look at the top view of its body at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605ke.jpg

It does have those transparent-looking veiny items extending from behind the saddle-like area behind the head -- the prothorax -- but they certainly aren't large enough to propel such a thick, heavy creature through the air. A much closer look at them and the prothroax is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605kf.jpg

Members of the Grasshopper/Cricket/Katydid Order, the Orthoptera, undergo incomplete metamorphosis, so what hatches from the egg is a much smaller edition of the adult, but without wings and sexual parts. As the immature stages, referred to as nymphs, mature, slowly wings and sexual parts become more apparent. The veiny things look like baby wings on a grasshopper nymph, but the insect's body definitely looks like that of a mature adult. We've seen wings lacy-veined like this on katydids, so could this be a katydid? I was glad to have volunteer bug indentifier Bea in Ontario to ship the pictures to, because this surely would take a lot of study.

And, it did take awhile before the "I found him!!" letter came in. Bea began by outlining her approach to discovering the identity:

These and other points led her to the Shield-backed Katydid group and, once she'd figured out that, she found someone else's picture of the same species, also photographed in the Yucatan Peninsula, "on the edge of a hammock mangrove forest." You can see that picture by Small Wonders at http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/8716113

So, it belongs to the Katydid Family, the Tettigoniidae, and the Shield-backed Katydid Subfamily, the Tettigoniinae. These are both large groupings. Trying to figure out the genus, I began mining online literature in Spanish, since Bea doesn't speak Spanish. The only new information I came up with is that one genus of the Shield-backed Katydid Subfamily often is wingless, and that's the genus ATLANTICUS. Three Atlanticus species are listed for Mexico, and others occur in extreme southern Florida, so the genus Atlanticus seems like a good first guess. There's even an Atlanticus nigromarginatus, which sounds about right for a Shield-backed Katydid bearing such black lines on its prothorax. However, no pictures of that species can be found on the Internet.

And then, as I burrowed through the Internet, I stumbled upon something interesting that left both Bea and me a little shame-faced. Soon after I first arrived here in 2009 I found and photographed the same species -- and Bea identified it as a Shield-backed Katydid. Its page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/tettigon.htm

That previous find was a female with an egg-laying ovipositor at the rear of her abdomen, and this week's one is a male, so now we have both sexes.

However, we still don't know for sure the genus and species, and I'm thinking that there's a fair chance that this may be an undocumented one, maybe one with no name. However, by parking our pictures here with the keywords "tettigoniinae Atlanticus," now there's a better chance that an expert someday will stumble upon our page, be happy to see our documentation, and enlighten us as to its name, if it has one.

*****

PIXOY'S PRETTY FLOWERS
One of the most common, most useful and most scrappy-looking trees in all of Mexico is one lacking an accepted English name, and in Mexico known by at least 20 local names. In Querétaro we called it Aquiche. Among Tzotzil speakers in Chiapas it was something like Tzuny, and here among the Maya it's Pixoy. It's GUAZUMA ULMIFOLIA of the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, and our page for it showing its graceless appearance when in fruit, as well as how the Maya use the tree's inner bark as makeshift rope, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/pixoy.htm

Here as the dry season breaks into the wet season, the Pixoys are flowering, and the blossoms are as attractive and interesting as the dry-season-fruiting trees are inelegant. A shot of the tree's elm-like leaves and terminal panicles of small flowers appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gz.jpg

A single 5-6mm wide (1/5-inch) flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gw.jpg

In that picture the pale green items at the blossom's bottom are sepals, of which usually there are three -- in some other flowers only two. And, at that point, this flower's anatomy starts getting interesting.

For, we assume that the slender, brownish items extending from the goblet-shaped, yellow corolla are stamens. However, look at what you see when you break open a blossom for the longitudinal view shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gx.jpg

In that picture, the brownish items arise from the tips of curved-inwards petals, not at the ovary's base like decent stamens. The forked, brown, stamen-like things are just sterile appendages of the corolla arising above the petals' lower halves. Also in the above picture you can see the real stamens, with their yellowish anthers atop purplish filaments, all clustered around the hidden ovary,. Also visible is the pale little style in the cluster's center, sticking up like a curvy worm. And, notice how the anthers snugly fit into little notches formed where the petals' appendages connect with the expanded, yellow parts below. This flower is just full of surprising little elegances.

At this point, certain features of recent taxonomy start making sense. In the old days, Guazuma ulmifolia was assigned to the Chocolate or Cacao Family, the Sterculiaceae. But recently that family has been lumped into the huge Hibiscus Family, famous for its flowers having several to many stamens united at their bases into "columns" around the female pistil. In the above cross section we can see that the stamens are indeed joined into a cup-like column at their bases. More interesting details are revealed when we move deeper into a flower's center, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gt.jpg

In the blossom's center we can make out the pinkish ovary topped by its short, slender, curved style -- which the anatomists assure us is actually five styles fused together. In fact, if you look closely you can barely see long fissures in the object, which must be where the styles connect with one another Also notice that the ovary's base is immediately surrounded by a crown-like collection of short, pointed, hairy, yellow staminodia, which are sterile, modified stamens.

By the time I'd absorbed all these details, I was almost breathless, especially in the day's heavy heat. However, this Guazuma ulmifolia, so often despised for its commonness and lack of pizzazz, surprised me yet more by displaying tiny, green, globular growths along its leaf margins, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gu.jpg

I guess that those are galls, maybe nipple-galls produced by tiny insects whose larvae will feed on them when they hatch inside them, but who knows what they are? And while I was at it, I admired the leaves' velvety bottoms so softly covered with hairs that often were "stellate" or star-shaped, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gv.jpg

Finally, Guazuma ulmifolia is so useful to humanity that it's being planted in tropics worldwide, wherever there are strongly defined dry and wet seasons, as here. The WorldAgroforestry.Org website page detailing the species' use as firewood, in charcoal production, as food, fodder, for honey production, and as medicine (diarrhea, dysentery, venereal diseases, colds, coughs, diuretic, astringent... ) is available in PDF format here.

*****

LOBED CROTON
Several weeks ago when next to the hut a seedling appeared beside some agaves I was watering, I didn't pull it up, because I wanting to see what it would grow into. Now the plant is about knee high and you can see its distinctive three-lobed leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605cr.jpg

That's a mature plant that has been producing both male and female flowers for two or three weeks. The tiny male flowers consist of five reddish-maroon sepals, five pale yellowish corolla lobes, and several stamens, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605ct.jpg

The thumbnail-size female flowers are more eye-catching, consisting of flaring sepals, no corolla, and a green, three-lobed ovary topped with three maroon styles deeply and doubly forked at their tips, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605cs.jpg

Whenever you have a leafy plant with unisexual flowers and the ovaries three-lobed, first you need to think of the big Euphorbia or Spurge Family, the Euphorbiacea. Within the Euphorbiaceae there's a genus producing many herbs, bushes and small trees with flowers and fruits just like these, and that's the genus Croton, of which we've identified several species here. Our most recent Croton encountered was the "Tree Croton," whose vegetative parts were very different from our present plant's, though its flowers were strikingly similar, as you can confirm at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/croton2.htm

Usually it's hard to figure out which of the many croton species you have, but this time the three-lobed leaves are so un-croton-like that getting the name was easy. My front-yard weed is the Lobed Croton, CROTON LOBATUS, and that binomial is a good old Linnaeus one, published in his venerable Species Plantarum 2 in 1753.

One reason that Lobed Croton has an English Name is that it's native to most of the tropical and subtropical Americas, plus it's invasive in much of the rest of the world's tropics, especially in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In Africa it's regarded as a very useful plant, which isn't surprising because members of the Euphorbia Family are famous for the powerful, often toxic and/or medicinal, compounds in their sap.

For example, in Ivory Coast, arrow poison is made from Lobed Croton. The plant is crushed between stones with a little water, the arrows are dipped in the resulting paste, and folks regard the paste as the best arrow poison around.

On the other hand, elsewhere leaves boiled in water provide an enema for gynecological problems, and mixed with palm-oil, its leaf paste is rubbed onto sores caused by guinea-worm. Other uses range from helping headaches, whooping-cough and malaria, and for scorpion stings. In some places it's an aphrodisiac. Against witchcraft, just wash yourself with a lotion of it.

Mexicans, however, don't seem too impressed with its medicinal value. Mostly they think of it as a weed in their cornfields and plantations.

*****

REDSTEM PURSLANE FRUITING
A year ago, up at Río Lagartos on the Yucatan's northern coast, we looked at the pretty little Redstem Purslane, Portulaca rubricaulis, whose page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/portulaca.htm

That species is fruiting here now, as at Río Lagartos turning up in patches of thin soil atop outcropping limestone rock. When Redstem Purslane fruits lose their seeds, tiny little "pixy cups" are left behind, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605pc.jpg

A close-up of a flower and left-behind cup is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605pd.jpg

I suspect that these cups function the way certain bowl-shaped fungi do: When raindrops splatter into the cups, a fungus's spores are spattered all about, and I'll bet that here when the rainy season's first raindrops fell, lots of Redstem Purslane seeds similarly were splashed into new territory.

*****

THE AMAZING GONGORA ORCHID IN CHIAPAS
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, my Lacandon hostess 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. The one that impressed me most at first didn't look so special. You can see its cluster of broad, lengthwise-ribbed leaves arising from a big ball of white orchid roots at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gg.jpg

Many orchid species produce "pseudobulbs," which are modified stem sections normally considered to be water-storage structures. Since many other orchid species don't have pseudobulbs, the presence of pseudobulbs is an important field mark to note when you want to identify your orchid. Ours has well developed pseudobulbs -- also strongly ribbed lengthwise -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gh.jpg

It's the orchid's flowers, though, that grab our attention. They're dark maroon, oddly shaped and hang in 2½-ft-long (74 cm) clusters, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gi.jpg

I can't look at the individual blossom without thinking of a flying dragon or maybe one of those Evil Empire spaceships in an old Starwars movie. You can see a flower with its maw sprouting sharp fangs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gj.jpg

But of course the blossom's maw and fangs are just adaptations to help the blossom get itself pollinated. Pollination is performed by male solitary bees of the Euglossinae family, which are attracted by the blossoms' strong fragrance. One grower of the species describes the odor as just like root beer. We can visualize the bee trying to get to the flower's "throat" pushing aside one or more "fangs," which causes the female part to bend down to receive any pollen masses (pollinia) stuck to the visitor's body, but that's just a guess.

These plants already had succeeded in being pollinated, for some bore fruit pods, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605gk.jpg

This is GONGORA UNICOLOR, sometimes called the One-Colored Gongora. It lives from southern Mexico and Belize south to Honduras, occupying wet forest types. Researchers have documented Gongora unicolor in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve before.

*****

THE DRY SEASON'S END
Probably later we'll consider this first weekend in June, 2016 as the week when the dry season ended in the north-central Yucatan. The dry season has endured since around last December. Normally around here we say that the dry season ends in late May to early June, so this is about right, though the end of May seemed a little drier and hotter than usual. Forecasts call for potentially heavy rain here as a "disturbed area" moves from the Caribbean across the Peninsula.

Here right before the first rain, the forest has a curious look to it. Some trees, despite the six-month dry season, bear luxuriant new herbage as freshly green looking as any tree right now in the springy North. Just look at what it's like standing beneath a big Piich tree, Enterolobium cyclocarpum, and looking up through it http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605-1.jpg

When that picture was taken the temperature was 100° exactly, and it was extremely dry. I guess the Piich's secret is its extensive root system, which spreads for long distances in all directions in thin soil atop solid limestone bedrock. A more typical appearance in the forest is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605-0.jpg

That's a member of the Elm Family without a good English name, Phyllostylon brasiliense, whose green leaves are curling badly, and some already have died and turned brown. It's hard to say whether some of these leaves can revive with this week's rains. Behind the little tree you can see that certain trees and bushes are still dry-season leafless, while others bear sparse foliage, while some look like they've just been watered.

Another plant clearly suffering from recent heat and drought is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160605-4.jpg

That's our endemic Gaumer's Acacia, Acacia gaumeri, a species native just to our area and, one would think, highly adapted to the region's weather vagaries. However, its twice-pinnately compound leaves, which normally are broad like frilly fans, are all closed up, and also some of these leaves already are dead and brown.

In the background of that picture you can see the Moon. When I was a kid my grandfather, Papaw Conrad, told me that when the Moon was like a bowl turned upside down, as in the picture, it meant that soon it'd rain. It'd take awhile for the rain to pour out of the bowl and travel from the Moon to down here. Well, this week's rains are coming at about the right time, according to how Papaw would have reckoned it.

*****

DYING GREEN
Eric in New York sent a link to an article entitled "A different way to die: the story of a natural burial," freely online at the Vox Energy & Environment website

The article makes some interesting points.

For instance, when about half of all Americans die, their bodies are drained of blood and injected with formaldehyde, methanol and other solvents meant to slow the decay process. The body is placed in a wooden or metal casket, lowered into a plastic-lined concrete vault, and covered up. Each year in the US this process consumes around 30 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, and 90,000 tons of steel. The operation also converts lots of land to lawn that must be maintained decade after decade with mowing and chemical use.

Cremation takes fewer resources, but even crematoriums with filters or scrubbers in their chimneys inject soot, carbon dioxide, and trace metals like mercury into the air. A typical cremation uses about 28 gallons of fuel and injects some 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With about a million cremations annually in the United States, that amounts to approximately 270,000 tons of global-warming-causing carbon dioxide each year.

One reason it's hard for people to simplify their burial practices is that in the US the death care industry is big business, bringing in about $20 billion dollars each year. The industry is increasingly monopolized by a single company, Service Corporation International, whose marketing practices are slick, and their sales often take place when families are disoriented and vulnerable.

In the US, it's possible to be buried without the embalming fluid, casket, vault and the rest, but it's hard. It's especially hard to find a cemetery willing to accept a body not participating in the usual burial plans. Also, a death certificate has to be delivered to the medical examiner and a permit is needed to transport the body.

I don't like thinking that my last impact on Earth might be meekly going along with somebody's business plan involving such resource waste and pollution as described above.

Once a fellow in India explained to me about the practice of a certain sect there of exposing corpses to vultures. "It's a final act of generosity the dead person performs for us all," the man told me, and I've always thought that that was a good attitude.

I'm not particularly into vultures, but I do feel good about visualizing the nutrients and minerals that have been borrowed by my body freely flowing back into the ecosystem when I no longer need them.

There are lots of ways this can happen. One needs to think outside the box, not let yourself lose control of your own life, or else have friends you can count on, who'll help you dispose of your body the way you want. Even with that, you'll need some luck, because the system strongly favors the industry's funeral-home burial packages.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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