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

JULY 17, 2016

*****

HELPING NAME A SNAKE
It all began over ten years ago -- in January, 2006, when I was staying at an hacienda near Telchac Pueblo about half an hour northeast of Mérida. The gardeners Roberto and Francisco called me from my own garden work to see something special. It was the smallest snake I'd ever encountered, or even imagined could exist, the size, shape and color of a very immature earthworm. I realized it was a snake only when the magnifying glass revealed very tiny scales, and worms don't have scales. I had no idea what kind of snake it was, so I just wrote about it as a ridiculously tiny snake, and posted its picture, which is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/snk_cent.jpg

In April of 2010 as I was biking from Pisté to Hacienda Chichen with a load of bananas on my back, in a crack of the highway's asphalt beneath the bike I spotted another small, worm-like snake, this one much larger, about three inches long (7 cm). You can see its picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100411go.jpg

After posting that image a graduate student in California identified it as a worm snake, or thread snake, Leptotyphlops goudotii. Documenting that species was pretty good, because not much was known about it.

However, in 2015, Van Wallach, a herpetologist at Cambridge in Massachusetts, wrote saying that neither of the above snakes were Leptotyphlops goudotii, that rather they were a species unknown to science, but that he was about to name it in a publication due to be published in 2016.

Now the paper is out, an excellent one richly illustrated and assigning new names not only to the species in my pictures but also to five other previously unnamed species -- it's an important paper -- and it's freely downloadable to everyone at http://www.mesoamericanherpetology.com/uploads/3/4/7/9/34798824/wallach-epictia_paper.pdf

Van Wallach has named our little worm snake EPICTIA VINDUMI. On page 293 of the above document a map of the Yucatan shows its very limited worldwide distribution -- only here in the northern Yucatan Peninsula. The red star on the map designates where the specimen upon which the species description is based was collected -- the "type specimen" -- here at Chichén Itzá.

So, I did not discover a new snake, but I did photograph a snake species, twice, that was unknown to science at that time. I published the photographs on the Internet -- as I do each week with other species via this Newsletter -- and a specialist eventually found the pictures to be useful.

*****

A BLUE-BANDED BLACK IGUANA?
The other day an immature Black Iguana about 30 inches long (80cm) turned up with most of the body orange-tinged, with a pale blue band on the tail and a mask of the same color, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717ig.jpg

I've been told that sometimes during the breeding season they may acquire an orange tint but those pale blue markings are something I've never heard of. A tour guide who frequently comes with busloads of German visitors insists that someone is painting our iguanas. I just don't know. If they are painting them, they're doing a neat job.

Does anyone out there have experience with such multi-hued iguanas?

*****

SHAKESHAKE
Along a backcountry gravel road a much-branching bush about as broad as a semi-truck wheel bore trifoliate, clover-like leaves and green, pea-type pods, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717ct.jpg

Even from a distance the leaves and legume-type fruits made clear that we had a member of the Bean Family. Moreover, the inflated legumes were of a type so unusual that I figured I knew which genus the plant belonged to. But, before I could be sure about it, I needed to look closer at one of its three-parted, compound leaves, which really did look like a big clover leaf, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717cv.jpg

A close-up of the hairy, dew-wet legumes, very similar to pea pods -- and peas are members of the Bean Familly -- is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717cu.jpg

The bush was issuing new sprouts bearing immature flowers. Though the blossoms were not yet expanded, they showed showed details serving as important field marks for the species, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717cw.jpg

Normally this genus -- which I assumed to be Crotalaria, famous for its inflated pods -- produces yellow flowers, but when the blossoms are immature they may be flushed with pinkness, like this one. In the picture, important field marks helping identify this to species level are the hairiness and the calyx, and its being so deeply divided that its sepals are long and slender.

This is CROTALARIA INCANA, in English literature often named Shakeshake, because when you shake their mature, dry pods, they rattle. In Spanish it's called "Cascabelillo," meaning "Little Bell." As a group, species of the genus Crotalaria often are called rattlepods or rattleboxes, so the rattling pods is definitely something people notice, especially in rattlesnake country.

The genus Crotalaria is a big one embracing about 500 species of herbs and shrubs, mostly in Africa (400 species) but with a fair number here in the Americas, both tropical and temperate. Our Crotalaria incana is so widely distributed that it's unclear where it originated, being either native or invasive throughout the world, except for the colder parts. In the US it's introduced into all the lower 48 states, plus Hawaii, favoring dry forests and disturbed areas.

In Mexico it's known as a weed in fields of corn and sorghum, and in orchards. Its rattling seeds are supposed to contain alkaloids that can be toxic to animals.

Often toxic plants are used in precise dosages as medicinal herbs, and that's the case here. The online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana reports that in Mexico the main medicinal use is to keep children from bed wetting. The seeds are cooked, apparently detoxifying the alkaloids, mashed, and fed to the children, or else a tea is brewed of the mature branches and drunk at night. Sometimes the seeds are swallowed directly, and leaves serve as ingredients in prepared food. These treatments are used for other urinary problems as well, and such unrelated ailments as diabetes, inflamed gums and snakebike.

*****

GUATEMALA GRASS
At the junction of the main highway between Mérida and Cancún and the little road leading into the hotel zone at Chichén Itzá, beside the asphalt someone dumped a load of broken floor tiles. An interesting grass has grown up amid the rubble. You can see what this looked like on a recent foggy morning at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717tp.jpg

This grass caught my attention because its stem-top flowering cluster, or inflorescence, didn't look like anything else here flowering at this time. Up closer I saw that the inflorescence consisted of a few spikes held vertically, close to the stem, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717ts.jpg

Up even closer the spikes themselves proved to be very unusual, looking like little green tin cans stacked atop one another, with a reduced leaf, or bract, on one side of each can, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717tq.jpg

This is such an unusual configuration that when anyone who knows his or her grasses sees it, automatically the genus is recognized. It's the genus Tripsacum, whose species in English often are known as gamagrasses. Back in Texas we ran into a spectacular gamagrass of a different species, but still with tin-can spikelets, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/gama.htm

The genus Tripsacum is a New World one embracing about 13 species, with a center of distribution in Central America. Only three species are listed for the Yucatan Peninsula, none occurring regularly and apparently none native; the few that have been collected on the Peninsula occur mostly in the southern part where it's rainier. Our rubble-living gamagrass seems to be a real accidental, maybe dumped where it's living along with the broken tiles, or maybe it arrived with the fill dirt that was deposited there by big dump-trucks when they upgraded the highway a few months ago.

If our rubble gamagrass is one of the three listed for our area, it's probably TRIPSACUM ANDERSONII, sometimes in English known as Guatemala Grass. The main field mark distinguishing Guatemala Grass from the other two species, and the Texas one shown at the above link, is that the bases of its flowering spikes don't cluster at the very top of the stem, looking like a bird's foot with widely spreading toes, but rather arise along the upper stem as well as its tip -- no spreading effect. Also, our rubble species has a ligule -- a collar-like growth at the base of the blade where it connects to the sheath partly encircling the stem -- that's little more than a low rim from which arise very fine hairs, or cilia, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717tr.jpg

That picture also shows that the sheath is not densely soft hairy, but does bear scattered, long, stiff, broad-based hairs. Our plant's blades are short-hairy on top, but hairless below. Details of hair for the other species are somewhat different. One final field mark is that the male flowers -- normally occupying much or most of the flowering spike's length, and restricted to the top of the spike -- on our plant seem to be absent or so reduced in form that you doubt their ability to produce pollen. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717tt.jpg

On the Internet I find pictures showing Guatemala Grass both with typical male flowers above the female one, and a few without male flowers, looking just like ours.

The lack of male flowers on our plant may be significant because Tripsacum andersonii is described as producing sterile seeds. A paper on the Internet explains that Guatemala Grass is a natural hybrid involving the genera Zea and Tripsacum. Zea is the genus for corn, or maize. It's not uncommon for hybrids to take place between different genera, and sometimes the hybrids are sterile. Guatemala Grass reproduces vegetatively, either from scattered pieces of its shallowly growing rhizomes, or from stem pieces, whose nodes easily root. "Always planted from stem cuttings with 3 nodes, rooted culms or rhizomes (800–3,000 kg/ha) at spacings of 0.5 m x 1 m. Can be cut 4–6 months after planting," says the no-nonsense TropicalForages.Info page on Guatemala Grass.

Guatemala Grass is grown in the humid tropics worldwide, where it's found to be especially useful as a green livestock feed during dry times. It makes a silage of moderate quality and can be grown as a "living fence," or kind of hedgerow, serving as contour strips to keep down erosion on hillsides, or as breaks to reduce insects and diseases from spreading across large monocultured fields.

It sounds like Guatemala Grass would be useful on ranchland in our area, which I personally think of as too arid for decent livestock production, but some people make the effort anyway. Maybe it was a rancher growing Guatemala Grass in his pastures who dumped the tile rubble at our intersection, in the process planting something interesting for me to find.

*****

OIL PALM PLANTATIONS IN CHIAPAS
During my April trip to the Chiapas frontier with Guatemala I noted many changes since my last visit several years ago -- mainly much deforestation. Another change was the appearance of oil palm plantations, one of which I snapped a picture of from the microbus window on the road between Palenque and Bonampak, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717op.jpg

In that picture, the yellowish-green plants with broad leaves are heliconias, members of the Banana Family with very pretty flowers. It's too arid for heliconias to grow wild in the northern Yucatan, but in Chiapas they grow in marshes and ditch bottoms.

At least three species are known as oil palms, but the more commonly grown one, sometimes known as African Oil Palm, is ELAEIS GUINEENSIS, native to west and southwest Africa. Also there's Elaeis oleifera and Attalea maripa. The ones in our picture look like African Oil Palms, but identifying from the window of a speeding van is risky.

Oil palm plantations are controversial. On the one hand, they can enable small farmers to make some money, but on the other, in many areas where laws are not enforced or don't exist, already-threatened rainforest is being cleared away, causing enormous environmental destruction and loss of important species, to oil palm plantations. The problem is worst in Southeast Asia.

Oil Palm oil is used mainly for cooking food and making soap. As a food oil, the essential thing to know is that palm oil contains more saturated fats than oils made from canola, corn, linseed, soybeans, safflower, and sunflowers, but palm oil can withstand extreme deep-frying heat and resists oxidation (going rancid) better than other oils. Therefore, palm oil is worse for the body, but better for preparing junk food with a long shelf life. In recent years the price of palm oil has risen higher than otherwise it might be because it's often used in biofuel production, especially biodiesel.

All the usual problems associated with human overpopulation on a planet with limited and disappearing resources are associated with palm oil production. Wikipedia's pages on the matter state do a good job stating the pros and cons.

You can learn much more about the palms themselves at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

Learn about palm oil, it's production, and the environmental effects of its production, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_oil

*****

STEVENS' WHIRLPOOL
A while back a family visited the Hacienda showing more than normal curiosity about local plants, animals and society. They all had PhDs or equivalent, wanted to know everything, and Stevens, the father in his 80s, was as enthusiastic and active as anyone. We've kept in touch, and this week Stevens sent me a picture he'd taken of the Whirlpool Galaxy, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160717gx.jpg

I might have guessed that the photo wasn't simply a snapshot taken in Stevens' backyard through an amateur's telescope. He wrote that he got the picture "... by accessing a telescope in Spain, via the internet, reserving telescope time, and setting the parameters remotely, then editing the resulting image and saving it. I can do this because I subscribed to an organization through Sky & Telescope Magazine, called the Zenith Club, which makes this service available to its members. Isn't that amazing?"

It's not in Stevens' character merely to express amazement; he must explain what's amazing. He continues:

".. if you look closely at the image I sent you, you will notice ... that the nearby stars are short streaks, oriented lower left to upper right. But the Whirlpool Galaxy is not streaked at all. Why? Because the Whirlpool is about a million times more distant from Earth than those stars. The streaking is due to the Earth's movement around the sun during the time exposure. The effect is identical to what you see from a fast car: objects nearby seem to whiz past, but distant objects seem almost stationary.

"Having understood that, you will now notice that, in the photograph, there are a few small white dots that are not streaked. Each one is surrounded by a small blur. These are galaxies that are far more distant than the Whirlpool (hence their apparent small size, and their lack of streaking). The white dots are the galactic centers, and the blurs are the arms, as with the Whirlpool, which you see close-up. I would not want to estimate the distances of those galaxies, but I am sure that they are almost inconceivably great. (The Whirlpool is 25 million light years distant from Earth.)

"Thus we are able tangibly to perceive something of the immensity of the universe and of its infinities."

At first I'd assumed that the streaking was caused by the Earth' rotation on its axis, not it's yearlong procession around the sun, but if that were the case the smaller spots -- the distant galaxies -- also would be streaked. Clearly the telescope in Spain is calibrated to compensate for the Earth's rotation, but not for its circling the Sun. Also, it's assumed that we understand that the largest spots are stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, so when we see those distant, non-streaking galaxies, our line of vision first travels through a part of our own galaxy, then passes for unimaginable distances through empty space, before encountering whole other galaxies.

In Stevens' picture, notice the smaller blurred object at the right of the Whirlpool. That's another galaxy, NGC 5195 -- the Whirlpool is more technically known as NGC 5194, as well as M51a. The two galaxies are interacting in ways astronomers are very happy to study and theorize about.

This pair of galaxies is so relatively close to our Milky Way that it can be seen through binoculars, at least when the pair is highest in the night sky during the Northern Hemisphere's early hours of winter through the end of spring. They show up as tiny blurs. At other times they are too close to the horizon to be seen, or even below it. They're located in the little-known constellation Canes Venatici, just below the arcing handle of the Big Dipper -- the "tail" of the bear, Ursa Major. They're near the star forming the tip of the Big Dipper's handle. A map showing their exact position, with the interacting galaxies labeled as M51, can be accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canes_Venatici

It's not known how many stars the Whirlpool Galaxy is home to, but when the galaxy's mass is calculated it's found to amount to about 160 billion times that of Earth's own star, the Sun. Still, the Whirlpool's size is only about 35% that of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

More information about the Whirlpool Galaxy is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whirlpool_Galaxy

*****

INTERGALACTIC DUST
I like to think about Stevens getting excited about the Whirlpool Galaxy 25 million light-years away, then reflecting that all the tiny dots around the Whirlpool also are galaxies -- but even much, much farther away -- at distances "inconceivably great."

I've known people who, when similar awe was expressed about something outside ordinary everyday life, said, "So what? What good does it do you to know about that?"

In fact, I know people here who are unfamiliar with the whole concept of the galaxy. To them, the sky is just the place of Sun, Moon, stars and such, and these people get through life as well as anyone else. And I have to admit that in their day-to-day world the Whirlpool Galaxy and all the distances and insights attending it are irrelevant, and knowing about it wouldn't do them any good at all.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is important only to minds that have become a little unhinged. Unhinged from perfectly defined, rock-stable facts of repetitive, ordinary life. Exultation in what is merely deduced, postulated, imagined, or hoped for requires a mind that at some point in a person's life has undergone the crises of realizing this: that what rests comfortably and predictably around us is just laughably ephemeral dust off a flicker of time in an infinity of outrageous, tempestuous, never-ending, universal birth-giving. Even the Whirlpool Galaxy, as majestic as it is -- if one thinks hard about the computed dimensions of the Universe -- reveals itself as just another random dust particle. (What brothers we are, that Whirlpool Galaxy and we who look through our little tubes at it!)

So, Stevens sits orienting his telescope toward a certain mote of the eye-sky just to see what's there, to think about it, and find pleasure, even joy, in that meditation. Finding something, he abandons himself into one of those voluptuous and wholly invisible and implausible but nonetheless most certainly real currents of inspiration and self-realization rampaging through time and space purely for the fun of it, purely for the hell and heaven of it, purely to be purely what it is as it does it. Such currents, I'd guess, are just one in an infinitude of such currents, or maybe there's just one current, and we're all in it all the time. An infinite number of such currents, or just one, but no number in between, my unhinged mind wants to say.

And yet, the cup on the table demands its attention, and it is true that knowing that the Whirlpool Galaxy's mass is 160 billion times that of our Sun's -- despite the Whirlpool being only 35% the size of our own Milky Way -- does us no good at all.

Only the unhinged mind can sing a song to intergalactic dust.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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