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

JULY 3, 2016

*****

ALTAMIRA ORIOLE BUILDING NEST
Despite the Hacienda area providing untold numbers of nice tree branches, our local Altamira Orioles often show a preference for building their pendulous nests among electrical wires, as one is shown doing this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703ao.jpg

I suspect that the straw dangling from the line at the left represent failed attempts to start a nest. The bird in the picture seemed to be taking straw from there and adding it to the nearly completed nest.

*****

ICHNEUMON WASP ON THE COMPOST HEAP
I went out to pee on the vigorously composting heap of leaves, banana peelings, squeezed-dry lime halves, pulled-up weeds and such behind the hut, and saw a small, orangish insect hectically rushing from place to place all over the heap, as if fervently looking for something, but never finding it. You can see the critter on a blackened banana peeling at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703ww.jpg

I had to snap lots of photos before that one turned up -- and even that one isn't so great -- because of the subject's fast movement. Still, even this image shows that our mystery insect bears one pair of transparent wings, the body is pinched to a thread between the thorax and the abdomen and at the abdomen's tip there's a slender, dark something, where on an insect the stinger or egg-laying ovipositor should be.

In other words, this was some kind of wasp, and the slender, dark thing must be an ovipositor, because normally wasps keep their stingers hidden until they're needed. The picture was shipped off to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario.

In a few days -- a long time for Bea -- a mail came back with the title "Ichneumonid possibly Genus Eiphosoma." and she wrote:

"Yes, this wasp is hard, I got scared away after I read: 'Ichneumonids are notoriously hard to identify: aside from the sheer number of species, there are numerous cases of distant relatives that appear almost identical. Any identification based solely on comparing images should be treated as suspect unless an expert has said there are no lookalikes for the species or group in question.'"

Still, by comparing our image with lots of Ichneumonid pictures on the Internet, she found some looking like ours, in the genus Eiphosoma.

"And this wasp has the:

With the word "Ichneumonid" we're referring to species in the "superfamily" Ichneumonoidea, estimated to embrace over 80,000 species. Members of the Ichneumonoidea normally are referred to in English as ichneumon wasps. Ichneumon wasps are described as solitary insects, most species of which parasitize other insects. Ichneumon wasps belong to the same order as other wasps, ants and bees. Here is how the Wikipedia page on ichneumon wasps describes the wasp's parasitization process:

"The female finds a host and lays an egg on, near, or inside the host's body. Upon hatching, the larval ichneumon feeds either externally or internally, killing the host when it is ready to pupate. Despite looking formidable, the ovipositor does not deliver a sting like many wasps or bees. It can be used by the wasps to bore into and lay eggs inside rotten wood."

Therefore, a good guess is that our fervently searching ichneumon wasp was looking for some kind of grub or maggot inside the compost heap into which an egg could be inserted. The wasp searched the heap for at least 15 minutes, during which time she never found what she was looking for, but kept rushing across the same places on the heap again and again.

In the January, 2014 edition of Revista mexicana de biodiversidad, Enrique Ruíz-Cancino and others published the article "Biodiversidad de Ichneumonidae (Hymenoptera) en México," in which it's stated that just in Mexico we have 1291 known species in 300 genera, with between 3215-4534 species being estimated to exist. Here in Yucatán State, 230 species have been identified, plus in Mérida at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, another 100 species are awaiting identification.

In light of all this it's clear that the orangish ichneumon wasp in our photo has a fair chance of being a "species unknown to science," and even if we find pictures of species looking like ours, we can't have much confidence that ours is the same species. For future researchers, the best we can do is to file our picture and comments here, and wonder if the day will ever come when all these ichneumon wasps are figured out.

*****

SNAKEWORT
Back in the 1970s when I served as naturalist on Maya-ruin-visiting treks through the then-heavily forested Petén region of northern Guatemala, one of the first plants I learned was an ankle-high herb that seemed to be missing in most of the forest understory, but always turned up as we approached Maya ruins. Then all over the ruin mounds and nearby, the herb's arrowhead-shaped leaves could be seen in abundance. We learned to look for ruins by spotting the plant. The local baggage carriers knew the plant well, for it was highly esteemed as a powerful medicinal plant with several uses. It was DORSTENIA CONTRAJERVA, sometimes in English called Snakewort, a member of the Fig Family, the Moraceae.

On the rocky sides of the deeply shaded, humid, jungly, rejollada-type sinkhole on the Hacienda's grounds, the same plant is conspicuously appearing now, which well it might because it's surrounded by the ruins of Chichén Itzá. A few minutes' walk away from the Hacienda and the ruins, the plants disappear. You can see one rooted on the Hacienda sinkhole's limestone wall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703ds.jpg

When wildflower fanciers familiar with typical flower structure see this herb's flowers, they're astonished. In the above picture the flowering structure is in plain view, looking like a malformed leaf on a stem, or peduncle, half as long as the longer leaf petioles. The structure looks like a green, flat disc with irregularly crinkled margins, bent down at the top. See it? A close-up of it is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703dt.jpg

Notice the tiny, slender, short, hair-like items arising from the object's inside face. Those are two-branched styles arising atop ovaries. Therefore, the face of the green, bent-object in the picture is entirely covered with tiny ovaries, which later will mature into minuscule, one-seeded, drupe-type fruits scattered across the object's surface. The "object" is a "receptacle," with the ovaries partly embedded in it. The receptacle's other side, where the peduncle connects, bears no flowers. I read that when the drupes mature, their seeds are expelled explosively.

Sense can be made from the above picture by remembering that Snakewort is a member of the Fig Family. Visualize a fig "fruit", which actually is a specialized structure known as a synconium, formed like a spherical urn with a very small mouth, and with tiny flowers covering its INNER surface -- so that the flowers cover the sphere's inside walls. Visualize opening up the synconium by forcing its mouth open more and more, until the synconium no longer is spherical with flowers inside it, but rather a flattish sheet with flowers on one side of it. That's our Snakewort's fruiting structure. It's like an opened-up fig synconium.

In 1753 when Linnaeus himself gave Snakewort its botanical name, his species name "contrajerva" was the Latinized form of the plant's Spanish name, "contrahierba," normally applied to plants used for treating poisoning and snakebite. The online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Meicana reports that in the Yucatan, for snakebite, an infusion of Snakewort is sweetened with honey, then taken every hour or two, depending on the bite's severity. Also, the roots and leaves can be cooked with other plants and taken not only for snakebite but also against the bite of mad dogs, and food poisoning.

Other uses practiced here and there include being administered for toothache, dysentery, stomach ache, bad digestion, gynecological problems, as an aid in giving birth, to cause wounds to close, for coughs, diabetes, lack of appetite, for malaria, and more.

In other words, Snakewort is used for so many cures that one wonders whether any of them work. After reporting the above uses and many more, the Biblioteca Digital sums up matters by saying that experimental studies have failed to corroborate any of these claims.

So, the general scientific consensus is that Snakewort isn't of much or any medicinal value, despite its long history as such.

I think I understand how Snakewort gained its reputation. As I said earlier, anyone familiar with typical flower structure is bound to be mystified when they see this herb's unusual flowers. Traditional herb doctors and curanderos throughout the centuries certainly were familiar with the flowers of many plants, and to them Snakeworts flowers must have seemed so otherworldly that they just had to assume that it must possess special features. Especially it could be easy to become known as an antidote to snakebite, since country folks swear that nearly every snake is poisonous, though only a relative handful are. Being bitten by a ratsnake or gartersnake can be "cured" with dandelion leaves.

Snakewort occurs naturally from southern Mexico to northern South America, but it's abundantly cultivated "for its medicinal uses" in Indonesia and Malaysia, and locally in Africa and South America. It's a weed in greenhouses and nurseries, and in Florida it's been introduced.

*****

BRAZILIAN FERN TREE IN CHIAPAS
In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, inside the Reserve where forest destruction wasn't as bad, often I saw a roadside tree I remembered from traveling in the area years ago, but which doesn't appear in the Yucatan because it's too dry there. The trees averaged 15-20ft tall (5-6m) and the eye-catching thing about them was their unusual shape. They were like giant umbrellas -- tall, slender, unbranching trunks topped with widely spreading, ferny-looking leaves. You can see the tops of some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703sz.jpg

The leaves themselves are remarkable, as seen closer up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703sy.jpg

They're about a yard long (1m) and doubly pinnately compound, like acacia leaves, and thus fairly typical of many members of the Bean Family, the Fabaceae, to which the species belongs. Unfortunately the trees bore neither flowers nor fruits, but I figured that with such unusual leaves I might figure out the trees' identity anyway, and that was the case.

They're SCHIZOLOBIUM PARAHYBA, sometimes known as Brazilian Fern Trees, despite their being native from southern Mexico south through Central America to southern Brazil. The "fern" part of the name refers to the species' similarity to tree ferns.

Brazilian Fern Trees can grow seven feet a year (2m). In Brazil an eight year old tree already had grown over 40ft tall (12.5m). Largely because they're such unusual looking trees, they're planted in the tropics and subtropics worldwide, even in southern California. During a brief part of the tree's life cycle it issues large clusters of cassia/senna-type, yellow flowers. Older trees develop branches and take on a somewhat gangling look. However, at the forest's edge, they definitely lend the landscape a wild, primitive look.

*****

SHAGGY MANE MUSHROOMS
In midweek a good rain left an ephemeral pool of ankle deep water beneath the big Chinese Banyan in front of the Hacienda's main building. Two days later several five-inch-tall (13cm) clusters of very distinctive looking mushrooms pushed up through the flat, unvegetated dirt beneath the banyan, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703cs.jpg

Here at the Hacienda we've seen mushrooms similar to these, as shown on our Shaggy Mane Mushroom page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/shaggy.htm

However, the caps of the ones seen this week are much shaggier than those on our Shaggy Mane page. A close-up shows just how very shaggy this week's mushrooms were at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703cr.jpg

Surely this was a different species, so I took more pictures for "doing the botany." A better look at the stem bases is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703cq.jpg

A shot showing that the cap's gills do not attach to the stem, and that the stem's top swells and spreads before the gills arise, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703cp.jpg

A few hours after a cap was placed on a red jar top, the cap collapsed and began liquefying, exactly as the regular Shaggy Mane does, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703co.jpg

In that picture you can also see that before it collapsed it deposited a coating of black spores.

All these features coincide with those of the Shaggy Mane, except that this one is so outrageously shaggy. However, on the Internet I found other pictures of this species, Coprinus comatus, nearly as shaggy, though most are like the smoother ones photographed earlier. I read that the caps get shaggier as they mature during the day, then liquefy at day's end, but even our youngest mushrooms were as shaggy as the older ones. Apparently there can be variation in the species, which isn't surprising.

"The Shaggy Mane mushroom ... is a very common, visually distinctive mushroom with a really nice flavor," writes David Fischer at his AmericanMushrooms.Com website. Because of my doubt about its ID, and my famous poisoning in 2009 (see http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/green-sp.htm ), I didn't try eating this one, and by the next day when I knew who it was, it was gone.

*****

CANDLESNUFF FUNGUS
Here the first two or three weeks of the rainy season are the best of the year for looking for mushrooms. Most of the year it's too dry for them, and later in the rainy season my impression is that fungi are more interested in sending white, rootlike strands (hyphae) through the soil, feeding on decaying organic, than producing reproductive bodies -- mushrooms.

Not all fungus reproductive bodies are standard mushrooms, however. There are puffballs, stinkhorns, jelly fungi, coral fungi, molds, mildews, and many more forms. This week in the Hacienda's deeply shaded, humid, jungly, rejollada-type sinkhole, ¾-inch tall (20mm) fungal bodies unlike any standard mushroom turned up, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703xl.jpg

Notice that some are broad-based and branching while others consist of single, slender, finger-like bodies. You can see another interesting feature closer up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703xm.jpg

In that super-humid environment, most of the bodies were topped with drops of clear liquid. I can't say whether they're dewdrops from the previous night, or whether the bodies are ejecting water from their interiors, the way many plants do, in the process known as gutation. In the above picture, atop the brown stem cutting diagonally across the picture's bottom, notice what appears to be a gray film consisting of something that seems to have issued from the fruiting bodies. More about this below.

Nearby, some of the same kinds of fruiting bodies were standing alone, so that their bases could be seen, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703xn.jpg

We've seen this fungus before, up in a humid bayou bottom in Mississippi, though those fruiting bodies were older, drier, and more shriveled up, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/xylaria2.htm

Back then we identified this as Candlesnuff, XYLARIA HYPOXYLON, and passed on the observation that the name Xylaria hypoxylon often is treated as a catch-all for specimens that look more or less like what's in our photos, but might be something else, quite possibly something not known to science. Collectors just "dump them" in that name, waiting for a future expert to come along, make a monumental study of the group, and tell us all what all the various forms should be called.

So, that's what we're doing here -- dumping.

However, even with such an undignified approach, we can know certain things about our fungus. For example, it grows on or near decaying hardwood, so it's "saprobic." The fruiting bodies -- known more technically as ascocarps -- under certain conditions can grow over three inches tall (8cm) tall. When the ascocarps first emerge, as they are doing now, the powdery gray material seen above on the stem consists of clusterings of asexual spores call conidia. Later in the season the ascocarps will turn blackish and be minutely pimply. The tiny bumps will be structures called perithecia, and these are the sites where sexual spores are produced. Our Mississippi Candlesnuffs showed these pimply ascocarps.

A 2008 paper by Gu W and Ding H in Chinese Chemical Letters 19(11): 1323-26 reports that Xylaria hypoxylon contains compounds moderately effective for destroying cancer cells of the type Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cell Line Hep G2.

*****

GATHERING LETTUCE SEEDS
This February when volunteer identifier Bea from Ontario visited she brought along some garden seeds. One package contained lettuce seeds. I planted them and before long had a fine crop, off of which I ate for over a month. By April, however, it was getting so hot and the sun was so intense that the leaves got bitter and the plants "bolted" -- developed stems and then flowers. You can see some plants bearing large inflorescences of flowering and fruiting heads at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703lt.jpg

I wanted to save seeds from these plants, to sow in late November or so, when it's cooler and the sun isn't as strong, so from the plants in the picture I began picking heads full of mature cypsela-type fruits , breaking open the heads with my fingernails, and extracting the fruits, which gardeners think of as seeds. I did get some seeds that way, but it was slow going and the plants' sticky, white latex oozing from torn leaves and snipped-off heads made a mess. Also, most of the heads bore aborted fruits. I think it was because during most of May in our area it got over 100°F on most afternoons (38°C), and proper fertilization just couldn't take place in such heat. I saw this among tomatoes and green beans in Texas.

I pulled up the plants and hung them to dry on the pole wall of my outside shower, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703lu.jpg

After a couple of weeks the plants had dried brown and crisp, and more heads that earlier bore plump, fertile seeds. You can see part of an inflorescence bearing numerous apparently fertile "seeds" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703lv.jpg

Breaking open a head, several white cypselae/seeds were to be found, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703lw.jpg

It was easy to crumble these dry heads between the fingers, the latex no longer being a problem, and dump the pieces into a little jar. When the jar was blown into, lightweight chaff flew out, making only a brief mess in my beard and bushy eyebrows, leaving behind the precious seeds, as shown in a peep into the jar at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160703lx.jpg

If I can swing another six-month visa, these "seeds" will go into the ground this November.

*****

SEASONAL UPDATE
With the return of the rainy season, during the last two weeks the landscape has very quickly changed to a green, lush one. Days and nights here are very pleasant. Afternoons can be too hot, but usually by late afternoon storms are brewing and clouds cause the temperature to drop. If it rains, things cool off fast. Nights beneath the mosquito net, if one sleeps naked, are just about right, though by dawn you must draw something over you or you'll get chilled. Mornings are fresh, the sky blue, the landscape vividly green with a peaceful cacophony of birdsong, and it's just a pleasure to walk around looking and breathing. Sometimes the afternoon storms are dramatic events, and that just adds some spice.

In fact, it's almost surprisingly pleasant. With global warming on people's minds, nearly everyone had forecast either no rainy season or a very late or early one, and either too much rain or not enough, maybe with a terrible early hurricane or maybe with no hurricane during all the season. These matters are important to the cornfield-planting Maya. In the end, the rainy season arrived a little late, but not much, and since its arrival it's rained a little more than usual for this early in the season, but also not by much more. No one had predicted exactly this, but it's been fine.

*****

EXPECTATIONS
The other day a friend told me about her "New Me." She said that one of her new features was that she'd been consciously cutting back on her expectations about things, just wake up each day, look around, and start dealing with whatever came along, good or bad, soaking up the moments. Somehow, in the end, this approach made her feel better than sometimes expecting too much, or expecting the wrong things.

It's easy to see how "not having expectations" might lead to fewer disappointments and frustrations. However, I read that Sam Walton, of WalMart fame, says, "High expectations are the key to everything," while actor Michael Landon says, "Expectations in your life just lead to giant disappointments," so maybe this is something to think about

I personally do expect natural things to behave in certain ways, but maybe more than most others, like my friend, I avoid forming expectations about things originating from human thought. Over millions of years ,Nature's evolutionary process has weeded out what wasn't consistently sustainable, but human thought -- except among honest scientists -- undergoes no such perfecting process. People can and do constantly reinvent the same hurtful ideas that have plagued humanity for thousands, sometimes millions of years.

Still, most people today spend most to all their time enmeshed in systems designed not by Nature but rather by erratic human mentality -- in cities, organizations, living according to this or that religion, philosophy or economic system, trying to be "good" according to someone's thought-up, maybe harebrained standard other than Nature's gold standard of "sustainability." It seems that most people "expect" to do better in such systems, than they might by living simply, close to Nature.

Another perspective on "expectations"is offered by the Six Miracles of Nature often spoken of here, and outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/ It indicates that the Universe evolves toward ever higher, ever more sophisticated states of mentality. So, by distrusting human mentality, are my friend and I saying that we don't trust exactly the thing the Universe can be expected to keep evolving toward?

At this point in my thinking about "expectations," a letter from my friend Jarvis in North Carolina drifted in, commenting on a program he'd watched about the question of why so far we haven't found evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe. "The narrator of the program considered the possibility that advanced civilizations created by intelligent life forms might quickly disappear so that, at any given moment in time, there would be very few in the whole galaxy," Jarvis wrote.

A certain unsettling scenario suggests itself: Intelligent lifeforms, once they reach a certain threshold of mentality, may automatically destroy themselves. Events of our time show us possible ways humans might do that here on Earth. Maybe it's a law of Nature that any life form in the Universe that is so aggressive and so insensitive to the welfare of other creatures that it achieves absolute dominance over its own biosphere, will be programmed to behave in ways that inevitably lead to its own extinction.

Whatever the deal is, I'm clear that on the Earth, right now, like my friend, I do better in the long run when I don't form expectations for people or their institutions, even as every day I hungrily indulge in the expectations that the Sun will rise to shine exactly where and when it should, the ocean's tides will behave just as they're predicted to, and that in their seasons birds will sing, butterflies flit, plants flower, and snails will leave silvery trails across dark, mossy rocks in hidden, lovely places.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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