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

JUNE 26 2016

*****

BROWN ANOLE ON THE HUT DOOR
Back in 2010 we looked at a Brown Anole awaiting me when I moved into the Naturalist's Hut. You can see that seven-inch-long (18 cm) lizard on one of the new hut's freshly debarked support poles at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/br-anole.htm

Now six years latter, about once a day, a Brown Anole races across my desk and disappears into the adjacent bookcase, but this one's markings are substantially different than the earlier one's. The 2010 one was a female, but the current one is a male. The female had displayed a conspicuous pale line running atop the spine, but the male lacks that line. You can see this year's male on the woven-vine door at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626an.jpg

*****

A JOCH NEST DISCOVERED
Joch (pronounced HOCH, rhyming with poach) also caught my attention soon after my arrival here in 2010, when one day I leaned against a Cedro tree, and thought that a scorpion had stung me. It was a half-inch long (13mm), hairy, black ant, called Joch by the Maya, and you can see the one on our Joch page, and read all about it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/joch.htm

I've never been sure where Joches live, though I've read that they nest in tree cavities. Normally they're seen on trees wandering alone, looking for prey such as caterpillars. This week I learned for sure where some lived, the hard way.

Recent rain had softened and loosened bark on a Piich tree's large, dead limb, on which grew a veritable garden of epiphytic plants, especially bromeliads and aroids. A whole cluster of big bromeliads, Aechmea bracteata, large enough to fill a bathtub, had fallen to the ground, and I decided to drag them to the hut, set them upright, water them daily, and eventually maybe they'd grow into something pretty. You can see the bromeliads in question, still attached to a portion of their rotten Piich branch, lying where they fell, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626jo.jpg

As I began dragging the heavy cluster, it was as if bees or wasps were stinging all over my body, and then I saw that Joches were swarming from a hole in the rotten branch, onto my body. I had to pull them off individually, because simply brushing them away just didn't work.

Once I was Joch free I could see that not only biting Joches were exiting the hole, but also Joches carrying white pupae. The whole nest was abandoning ship.

So, that's where Joch's nest -- in tree cavities, even rotten ones covered with bromeliads.

*****

YUCATAN PEPPER AT ITS FLOWERING PEAK
We've already profiled the small understory tree Yucatan Pepper, Piper yucatanense, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/yucpiper.htm

However, now just after our first good rains of the new rainy season, this week Yucatan Pepper has been flowering more spectacularly than I've seen before. Its pure-white flowering spikes simply glow in the forest's shadowy understory where the species lives. You can see one part of such a tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pp.jpg

This tree's flowers were in a different state of development from than those photographed earlier. You can see the current flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pq.jpg

In that picture, each flower stands atop its own stalk, or pedicel. The center of each flower is occupied by an oblong ovary topped with three, short, curving stigmas. At the base of each ovary arise two or three stamens. You can see two oval, dark-rimmed anther slits atop each stamen's filament.

*****

PACAYA PALM
In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, an interesting palm grew in a corner of the informal little family campground where I pitched my tent. It was about 15 feet tall (5m) and I couldn't figure out what it was. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pc.jpg

The palm bore a large, panicle-type cluster of immature fruits arising from thick, brightly orange subdivisions of the panicle's stems, or rachillas, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pg.jpg

That general kind of palm fruiting cluster, with olive-like fruits on thick, orange rachillas, occurs on a well known palm genus, Chamaedorea. Chamaedorea palms are thought of as small species frequenting the shadowy understory of humid tropical American forests. Because they're so shade tolerant and often survive potting, sometimes they're known as parlor palms. You've probably seen Chaaedoreas in mall and bank lobbies, and fancy doctor offices.

But, ten species of the Palm Family are listed for Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, and half of those species belong to the genus Chamaedorea. Therefore, the question now became, "Which Chamaedorea species is this?" In preparation for "doing the botany" when I got back to the Internet, I began paying attention to our palm's field marks.

First, it was interesting how the fronds' leaflet, or "pinna," tips fused together to form "fishtails," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pd.jpg

In that picture also notice that the pinna tips gradually diminish to long, slender, almost needlelike points. Such "drip tips" often occur on many kinds of plants living in rainy areas. In north-central Yucatan, in Yucatán state, we have a Chamaedorea palm but its pinna tips lack such well-developed drip tips.

Some Chamaedorea species produce single trunks while others have clustered trunks. Our species was a clustering type, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pe.jpg

Most Chamaedorea species I know are small with slender stems. This one, however, had a main trunk that was fairly large for a Chamaedorea, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626pf.jpg

Once I had an Internet connection I began looking for pictures of Mexican Chamaedorea palms whose frond tips formed little fishtails. Fronds of Chamaedorea pinnatifrons did that, so at the wonderful PalmPedia.Net website I studied that species' description. There it plainly said that Chamaedorea pinnatifrons produces single trunks, plus it described it as not growing as tall as ours. And our palm just didn't look like pictures of the other Chamaedorea species listed for the Lacandon Reserve.

So, I checked into the equally wonderful palm-talk forum at PalmTalk.Org, posted my pictures and the above observations, and asked for help.

Pretty soon "Nico94" in Créteil, France suggested Chamaedorea tepejilote. Then "Stone Jaguare" in Guatemala City agreed, adding that the Chamaedorea pinnatifrons I'd thought of "... from that general area are the 'neurochlamys ecotype' and are, indeed, solitary. They have bean-shaped fruit that ripen orange-brown, not black." Then "Gyuseppe" in Naples, Italy, appeared, with questions about Chamaedorea pinnatifrons, and before long we'd all learned a lot about a group of similar looking palms occurring in the general area.

At first I just couldn't believe that this was Chamaedorea tepejilote. Ever since the early 1970s when I worked on Maya-ruin-visiting boat trips in northern Guatemala's Petén region I've known that species as the Pacaya palm. It's famous if only because throughout much of its distribution area from southern Mexico south through Central America to Columbia in South America, its heads of immature, unopened male flowers are sold in traditional markets for use as a vegetable or in salads. It's such a favored food that it's grown commercially, especially in Guatemala. Eating the cooked inflorescence is a little like nibbling on an ear of boiled corn.

Also, Pacaya is a very common palm. In fact, in the forest seen behind our photographed one, I photographed much smaller, less developed Pacaya Palms as I know them, planning to tell you about them here. You can see the small trees, in the shade almost looking like large ferns, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626ph.jpg

This isn't the first time I've been tricked by a species I'm accustomed to seeing in deep shade, growing much larger and more robustly when living in the open.

One new piece of information about the Pacaya, resulting from this exercise, appeared in a paper entitled "Actividad hipoglucemiante de Chamaedorea tepejilote Liebm. (pacaya)," in a 2013 edition of the Revista Cubana de Plantas Medicinales." There, J. Riquett Davinson and Erwin Solórzano report that Pacaya extract may be an acceptable treatment for diabetes, saying that "the administration of 300 mg/kg of Chamaedorea tepejilote extract to normal mice reduced blood glucose levels by 29.77 %."

*****

BAMBOO PALM
The Chamaedorea palm growing in the Yucatan is CHAMAEDOREA SEIFRIZII, and like Chiapas's Pacaya Palm, Chamaedorea tepejilote, it's an understory species usually found in deep shade. It's smaller than the Pacaya and much more adapated to long, severe dry seasons, and therefore more drought tolerant. Bamboo Palm is much planted at Hacienda Chichen, though most visitors probably don't notice its diffuse-looking fronds with narrow pinnae fairly lost among the shadows. In a picture of an eight-ft-tall one (2.5m) along the drive into the Hacienda, you can see little more than a couple of pale, slender trunks and some airy, ferny leaves silhoutted against the sky, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626ch.jpg

Up closer, Bamboo Palm's field marks start showing up. You can see its pinnately compound leaf, considerably smaller and stiffer than the Pacaya's, and lacking the Pacaya's drip-tips, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626ck.jpg

However, with its swollen, brightly orange fruiting-cluster stems, or rachises, bearing grape-like fruits, it's clearly a Chamaedorea species, just like the Pacaya. The Bamboo Palm's fruiting cluster, smaller than the Pacaya's, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626ci.jpg

Bamboo Palms produce clusters of stiff, slender trunks that, except for the leaves they bear, look just like bamboo stems, as shown http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626cl.jpg

In that picture the pale gray, papery items are sheathes formed by the fronds' bases encircling the stems for a distance, exactly as with bamboo stems. When Bamboo Palm fronds die back and the frond sheathes tear away, the naked trunks look even more like bamboo stems, being conspicuously ringed at nodes, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626cj.jpg

It's no wonder that so many Bamboo Palms grow at the Hacienda, not only because they're handsome trees that thrive despite our hard dry seasons, but also because they occur naturally in the surrounding forest. In fact, Bamboo Palms were named Chamaedorea seifrizii in 1938, to honor William Seifriz, who made the first scientific collection of the species here at Chichén Itzá ruins. The PalmPedia.Net page for Bamboo Palms says that "Mayans cultivated it around their villages and temples as ornament and possibly for religious purposes," though they don't give a source for that.

I've seen spots along trails well away from the tourist zone where Bamboo Palms grow in abundance, but in the forest around the ruins and the Hacienda I dont find them. I guess that that's because they've been robbed, along with most orchids and many immature parrots and other birds. People lood Bamboo Palms from the forest because they can sell them. The PalmPedia page reports that each year around 40,000 lbs (18,200kgs) of Chamaedorea seifrizii seeds are collected for commercial purposes, mostly in Mexico. The seeds are planted in nurseries who sell the resulting palms as potted plants and planting material for gardens. Only one other of the many Chamaedorea species is more popular for planting than the Bamboo Palm, and that's Chamaedorea elegans, which also is a Mexican native, but doesn't occur in north-central Yucatan.

Bamboo Palm is native to southeastern Mexico and Belize south to Honduras.

*****

MYCENOID MUSHROOMS
The rainy season's arrival has very quickly transformed our brown-parched, extremely hot landscape into a humid, super-green and lush one where each afternoon clouds form, keeping sunshine down, and thus keeping temperatures lower. On Tuesday afternoon we had our best rain yet, exactly 50 mm (2in). In other words, mushrooms are up.

On a rotting log in deep, humid shade at the bottom of the shallow sinkhole, or rejollada, adjacent to the Hacienda, some orangish-yellow mushrooms turned up with caps about 1-¾ inches across (45mm), as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626my.jpg

Some caps were flat, some concave and some convex, and the caps were smooth and somewhat sticky. The caps spread atop tall, slender stems that were fairly firm but not really tough or wiry, possessed no ring and arose from no cup, or volva, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626mx.jpg

In that picture the dark items among the gills on the caps' undersurfaces are feeding insect larvae. A view of a cap's gills -- which split as they approach the cap's margin -- with some wormlike larvae among them, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626mz.jpg

There you can also see that the gills are separated from the stem's point of attachment with the cap by a small distance. The manner by which gills attach or don't attach to stems is an important field mark, for in many species the gills connect to the stems in various ways, and in some they actually continue down the stem.

Maybe the most important feature for identification purposes, however, is one not shown, and that's the spore color. I brought two caps to the hut, placed them top-up on surfaces of two different colors, and the next morning found beneath the caps patches of pure white, the whiteness caused by white spores that had fallen from the gills during the night. I planned to photograph the spore print but a disturbed anole knocked it onto the dirt floor before I could get to it, destroying it.

First I tried to identify our white-spored, orange-yellow mushroom using the Google image search feature with key words such as "mushroom Mexico yellow," but nothing turned up. That's not surprising, since tropical mushrooms haven't been much studied and documented. So, using field marks mentioned above, and others, I "keyed out" our mushroom at both MushroomExpert.Com and MycoKey.Com. Both keys, which focus on Northern mushrooms, not tropical ones, led me to the "Mycenoid mushrooms" -- species belonging to the genus MYCENA and other closely related genera.

The last serious study of the genus Mycena was done in 1947. It recognized 232 North American Mycena species, and since then the number has increased. If that's the shape of Mycena taxonomy in North America, you can imagine what it is in Mexico. Michael Kuo, the expert at MushroomExpert.Com, says this about Mycena:

"DNA studies that have included mycenoid specimens have made it fairly clear that what we are now calling the genus 'Mycena' represents a pretty incoherent group of genetic entities, and we will eventually wind up with several genera and a much smaller genus Mycena, centered around the type species of Mycena, Mycena galericulata."

Therefore, about the best that can be done at this time is to post our photos and habitat information, with the claim that what's growing in the moist, shadowy bottom of the Hacienda's rejollada, probably is a Mycenoid mushroom.

*****

PEACE LILIES
Throughout the Hacienda grounds plantings and potted plants contribute to the general pretty environment, and nowadays one of the most spectacular potted plants is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626sp.jpg

In English such plants are known generally as peace lilies, though they're not members of the Lily Family at all, but rather the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae. The proof of that is the quintessential Arum-Family flowering structure shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626sq.jpg

In this family, tiny flowers are closely clustered in a spike-type flowering head, called a "spadix," and the spadix is associated with an modified leaf, a "spathe," which sometimes is colorful and often at least partially wraps around the spadix. In many species, unisexual male and female flowers are separated on different parts of the spadix, but in this one each flower bears both male and female parts. A close-up look at the spadix's bumpy surface is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160626sr.jpg

Pollination has already taken place here, the male stamens have fallen off, and the pistils are maturing into crammed-together fruits.

In English these plants often are known as peace lilies. They belong to the genus SPATHIPHYLLUM, but beyond that, if you have a potted plant, it's hard to say which Spathiphyllum you have. On the "Spathiphyllum Cultivars" page at FloriData.Com, it's said that "Peace lilies have been hybridized and back-hybridized until it is no longer known for certain which species are parents of which cultivars. Probably most cultivars have Spathiphyllum wallisii somewhere in their parentage." Spathiphyllum wallisii is native to Central America.

Beyond that about all we can say is that big clay pots of healthy Peace Lilies are very attractive when left here and there in a large garden environment, and with our rainy season beginning, nowadays they seem to be doing especially well.

*****

PACAYA PALM & THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY
As described above, while living in a thatch-roofed, dirt-floored hut in the Yucatan, I identified a palm photographed in Chiapas as the Pacaya, thanks to help from people in Créteil, France, Guatemala City, and Naples, Italy. And then I thought:

The Big Bang, when something erupted from nothing... then our galaxy coalesced in an unexceptional corner of the Universe, then the Earth clumped together in a seemingly random part of that Galaxy, and then on Earth life arose and diversified, and now one or more of the resulting species have developed the potential for abstract thought and feelings beyond what we're programmed to think and feel... and it seemed to me that this Pacaya Palm information exchange was a tiny spark at the beginning of a whole new step in Universal evolution as expressed on Earth... one in which humans electronically connected with one another and with access to various Internet-available databases become interconnected nodes in an ever-more-complex, ever-more-effective, ever-faster-evolving system of mentality.

It happened that as I was figuring out the Pacaya's identity, George in Denmark sent me a link to the UK's "The Guardian," where I found an interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, Director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute. Bostrom maintains that a greater threat to humanity than the possibility of a nuclear winter, than worldwide terrorism or even global warming, is the “intelligence explosion” that will occur when machines become much smarter than humans, and begin designing machines of their own.

For, why wouldn't computer intelligence evolve along Darwinian principles? When computers become smarter than humans, just as humans learned to dominate the rest of the Earth's biosphere, why wouldn't superintelligent computers learn to manipulate humans for their own purposes -- “hijacking political processes, subtly manipulating financial markets, biasing information flows, or hacking human-made weapons systems,” Bostrom suggests.

Though the connection between my experience on PalmTalk, and Bostrom's thoughts on superintelligent computers seemed related, at first I couldn't find my entry point into thinking about it. But then this occurred to me: That, in a very real sense, when we talk of humans on the one hand, and machines/computers on the other, we're talking about two kinds of programmed entities made of the same stuff -- carbon, iron, calcium, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. -- and functioning according to the same basic principles of physics.

With that insight, I couldn't see things as darkly as Bostrom seems to, because of the Sixth Miracle of the Six Miracles of Nature often referred to here, and which is outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

The Sixth Miracle is that among us humans, and maybe to lesser extents in some other organisms, mentalities governed by genetic predisposition evolved to such levels of sophistication that there spontaneously arose the miraculous and inexplicable ability to consciously refuse to obey the dictates of our genes, and to be inspired, to have a sense of aesthetics, to grow spiritually, and consciously to develop other traits we think of as "human." If both humans and computers/machines are composed of the same chemical elements, and if in both our thinking apparatuses electromagnetic fields and energy interact according to the same universal, natural principles, why shouldn't the Sixth Miracle be available to superintelligent machines?

In fact, in the near future, maybe superintelligent machines not only will become more intelligent than us humans, but also maybe they'll spontaneously develop similar intellectual insights, aesthetic senses, and maybe some kind of spirituality embracing compassion for all thinking, feeling beings. Maybe they'll see the beauty in us and our little Earth, and feel benevolent enough toward us to nurse us along, maybe helping us overcome such possibly-simple-to-a-computer problems as controlling our own numbers, and refraining from destroying the planetary biosphere that sustains us all.

Compassion and benevolence seem to be traits of humanity's greatest thinkers, artists and spiritual leaders, so why shouldn't the same attributes blossom spontaneously in superintelligent machines?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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