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

JULY 31, 2016

*****

PHEROMONE TRAP ALONG THE ROAD
Beside the highway between the Chichén Itzá Hotel Zone and the village of Xcalacoop just to the east, a small tree was decorated with a white ribbon and a white, open-ended, triangular box, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731pj.jpg

Such boxes are frequently seen in Mexico, and it's generally known that they're insect traps. Chemical pheromones attract specific insects who fly into the box and get stuck on something. One always is curious as to what's being monitored. Back in 2011 on the Yucatan's Caribbean coast just north of Mahahual we investigated pheromone traps there targeting Palm Weevils destroying palms along many Mexican coasts. You can see pictures of that trap and some collected Palm Beetles is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/palmweev.htm

This week's white box-trap had been visited by a technician fairly frequently, as notes neatly written on the box itself shows, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ph.jpg

The little tag atop the notes explains everything, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731pi.jpg

The trap is part of the "Palomilla del Tomate" program, the Palomilla del Tomate variously known in English as Tomato Borrer, South American Tomato Moth, Tomato Leaf Miner, and South American Tomato Pinworm. It's Tuta absoluta, the adult phase of which is a very small, brownish, plain-looking, narrow-bodied moth whose grub-type larvae burrow through leaves, stems and fruits of tomato plants, and closely related species. You can find and download a free, well illustrated PDF document in Spanish all about the Tomato Borrer in Mexico by Googling "Ficha Técnica No. 28 Palomilla del tomate Tuta absoluta Meyrick."

A peep inside the box can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731pk.jpg

There we see a small, plastic basket holding what apparently is a small vial of pheromone that attracts the Tomato Borrer, and to its side there's a sticky sheet that seems to have collected a dried-up lea and an innocent fly. This is good news, that no Tomato Borrers have been collected, but it's to be expected. The above-mentioned PDF document sayss that the Yucatan has a small risk of being invaded by the moth. Of greatest risk are tomato-growing regions along the Pacific coast, especially Baja California. As of the PDF's updated publication date, 2015, no Tomato Borrers had been detected in Mexico, the closest outbreaks being in Panama and Costa Rica.

However, in countries where the moth exists it has in some cases wiped out entire tomato producing operations with crop losses of up to 100%. The Mexican government's close watch for the moth here in low-risk Yucatan shows just how nervous people are about finding the moth anyplace in the country.

*****

WILD MANIOC
Along a trail through the woods an eight-ft-tall (2.5m), much branching, woody shrub bore ¾-inch wide (2cm), yellowish-green flowers among deeply palmately lobed leaf blades on long, pinkish petioles. The bush looked a lot like cultivated Manioc, also called Cassava or Tapioca. You can see a flowering branch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731mt.jpg

The flowers were handsome ones, bearing no corollas but with their calyxes expanded and colored to attract pollinators, as if they were corollas, and each blossom bore ten stamens, which extended from the flower's mouth at two different levels, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731mu.jpg

With no female parts apparent, a flower was broken open to see if stigma, style and ovary might lie hidden deep within the calyx's bowl, but there was nothing there but glands among the stamens' bases, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731mw.jpg

These were male flowers and I couldn't find female ones. However, the same plant had produced female flowers earlier, because immature fruits were forming on the upper branches, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731mv.jpg

Everything here reminded me of the Manioc, a member of the Euphorbia Family, which often produces milky latex from injured parts, so I tore a leaf, and you can see the resulting white juice at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731mx.jpg

It was a Manioc, but not quite the cultivated Manioc, Manihot esculenta, which is grown in the tropics worldwide because of its thick, fleshy storage roots that produce a starchy food like boiled potatoes when cooked. Cultivated Manioc isn't as as woody as our trail-side bush, and its shoots grow more from the base thant our plant's, as you can see on our Manioc Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/manioc.htm

Once I got connected with the Internet, all became clear: In the Yucatan Peninsula we have three wild-growing species of manioc -- species of the genus Manihot. The one in our photographs is MANIHOT AESCULIFOLIA, native from Mexico to Panama.

I read that Manihot aesculifolia can reach 4m in height (13ft).

Last year near Yaxunah 20 kms south of here we met a Manihot at least 4.5m tall (15ft), and I'm guessing that that non-flowering tree was Manihot carthaginensis, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/manihot1.htm

*****

AN UNUSUAL ACALYPHA
An eight-ft-tall shrub leaned from a dense roadside tangle of vines and bushes, reaching for sunlight. You can see a branch of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ac.jpg

What caught my attention about that branch was its long, slender flowering spikes issuing from right behind the leaves. Up close the long spikes revealed themselves as bearing nothing but widely separated male flowers at different stages of development, each mature blossom having no corolla but with a tiny, four-parted calyx subtending several stamens topped with white, pollen-producing anthers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ad.jpg

On the same plant, much shorter and less conspicuous flower spikes bore only female flowers with prettily branching, slender styles, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ae.jpg

The shrub's long-petioled leaves, with blades broad as a hand, were shallowly and attractively toothed, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731af.jpg

Once the above details were noted, I realized that two weeks earlier, deep in the nearby forest, I'd photographed the same species, but with its flowers more advanced. I'd been unable to identify it then, so you never heard about it. Now you can see that much smaller and less robust, head-high plant in such deep shade so that a flash was needed, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ag.jpg

On that plant the male flowers had matured and fallen off. The more mature female flowers consisted of enlarging, three-lobed, spiky ovaries with their styles withering, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ah.jpg

A leaf from that deep-shade bush is shown for comparison with this week's plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ai.jpg

This is ACALYPHA VILLOSA, described as a forest understory shrub occurring in a variety of forest types in southern Mexico and nearly all the rest of tropical America. At first I didn't recognize these plants as an Acalypha because I expect members of that genus to have their female flowers subtended by conspicuous leafy bracts, as in the case of Acalypha leptopoda, a common shrub around the hut, and whose leafy bracts are easily seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110220ae.jpg

I didn't see such bracts on this week's plants, and still don't, despite the literature saying that they're there.

Acalyphas are members of the big Euphorbia or Poinsettia Family, the Euphorbiaceae. One can imagine small animals relishing the three small seeds inside each three-lobed ovary. Seeds are harder to come by in deeply shaded forest than in sunny areas.

*****

WILD MAMEY FROM A DISTANCE
In deep forest I was visiting an isolated cenote, or sinkhole, I'd heard about. It was so deep and its sides so steep that I couldn't explore it much looking for interesting organisms, but along its steeply sloping rim there grew a tree I'd not seen. It was a fine looking one with big, tongue-shaped leaves reminiscent of those on understory umbrella magnolias up North. The trees were so entangled with surrounding vegetation that no portrait was possible, but there was something better: A few top branches bore large clusters of flowers. The flowers were so high they couldn't be reached, but one flowering branch was in sunlight and my little telephoto lens was able to capture the image at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731al.jpg

Important field marks seen at this distance include the fact that the fairly large leaves are broadest toward their tips, or "obovate," that they have numerous, ±straight and parallel veins, they tend to cluster at branch tips, and -- from what's seen in the above picture -- they look to be "alternate," to arise one leaf per stem node. Also, the flower cluster is of the panicle type.

Pushing both my little telephoto lens and PhotoShop to their limits, I got the somewhat grainy but closer-up view of some flowers, still wet from nighttime rains, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731am.jpg

In that picture, flowers on the right each bear five stamens extending well above the other parts, while on the left most flowers instead of stamens bear wishbone-shaped stigmas atop ovaries. These blossoms give the impression of being unisexual flowers on the same tree. Most important, however, is the detail best seen on the stigma-bearing blossoms at top left -- that the ovaries are "inferior." Inferior ovaries are those with their calyx, corolla, stamens, styles and anthers arising at their tops, while superior ones have those items arising below the ovary. Since a minority of flower types have inferior ovaries, this is a great field mark eliminating many possibilities.

Last year's dark fruiting clusters remained on one or two branches, and one is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731an.jpg

In that picture the fruit shapes -- thicker at their tops and topped by crown-like calyxes -- confirms that the flowers' ovaries are inferior.

However, it also shows that in some places along the stem -- as toward the lower, right -- leaf petioles appear to arise opposite one another, making the leaves opposite instead of alternate. And on the stem at the lower left, they appear to arise more or less haphazardly. Now I wasn't sure whether leaves were opposite or alternate.

It took awhile to identify this distinctive tree because apparently the flowers are not unisexual. It must be that the flowers' male and female parts mature at different times, as often is the case, thus avoiding self pollination. Still, the inferior ovaries limited the possible families involved. In the American tropics, the most commonly encountered plant family with woody trees bearing flowers with inferior ovaries and five stamens is the Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae, and that's where I found our tree.

It's ALSEIS YUCATANENSIS, sometimes called Wild Mamey in English-speaking Belize, because the leaves look like the Mamey's, though the fruits are anything but like them. Wild Mamey seems to be endemic just to southern Mexico, Belize and northern Guatemala. Despite the leaf arrangements observed in our pictures, the literature describes Wild Mamey as having opposite leaves, which is the normal state for members of the Coffee Family.

Not much is known about Wild Mamey. My impression is that our pictures and notes about it growing in the wild add a good bit to what's available about it.

*****

CROSSOPETALUM BUSH IN FRUIT
In late March of this year I photographed a Crossopetalum Bush in flower, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/crossop2.htm

This week I found the very same plant now bearing striking red fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731cs.jpg

If you compare that picture with the earlier ones of the plant bearing flowers, you can even recognize the same leaves in each picture.

*****

ANGLEPOD UPDATE
Last week our pictures of the poorly documented Anglepod, Macroscepis diademata, helped firm up an ID we'd made earlier about fruit-pods suspected of being the same species. Our nicely illustrated Anglepod page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anglepod.htm

This week I found the very same vine that in April bore the pods illustrated on the above page, and now it was flowering. Now the flowers of that vine can be compared with those featured last week, which we confidently identified as Macroscepis diademata, and if they're the same, it'd confirm that both flowers and pods on our Anglepod page are Macroscepis diademata. You can see flowers on this week's vine -- the same vine producing the pods we photographed last April -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731ma.jpg

Corolla lobes of this week's flowers were much more turned downward, or reflexed, than last week's, and the sepals don't seem quite as large. However, that might be because of different ages, or because last week's flowers were photographed in deep, shadowy forest, while this week's were on a dead tree snag in a weedy field open to abundant sunlight all day long. I think they're the same species. The field vine also bore leaves we can compare with last week's deep-forest plant, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160731mb.jpg

Leafshape and venation seem to be more or less alike. Therefore, now I'm more confindent than ever that all flowers and pods we thought were Macroscepis diademata really are that species.

*****

HAMBURGER AND BEER
In 2010 at this time and also at Hacienda Chichen, in the July 25th Newsletter, I wrote a piece entitled "The Robins Fall Silent." I told about a "shimmering musical ocean engulfing my hut-ship," and said that I felt like "an incidental little melody merely wandering through the monumental, effervescing rainbow of sound." The robins were Clay-colored Robins, which after six years more and more field guides are calling Clay-colored Thrushes. You can review our extensive page on the species at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/turdgray.htm

This week, again, the robins/thrushes fell silent, exactly on schedule, and I'm already feeling nostalgic about it. They began singing in late February and since then have filled my days with continual, gorgeous, overpowering tonic accompaniment.

Though I've experienced this for several seasons, it took until this summer for me to notice that each bird in this symphony has its own melody, which it sings throughout the season, and which drastically can differ from the calls of other Clay-coloreds.

Especially I got to know the bird who spent his season beside the hut. At least a thousand times a day he'd articulate a phrase that in intonation and cadence seemed to say to me, "We're here for a hamburger and beer." Sometimes it'd just be "We're here..." and he'd leave it hanging. Then, "We're here for a... We're here for a cheeseburger, We're here for a cheeseburger and beer," and the "beer" always was spoken with a wavering inflection that to my ears sounded profoundly sincere, almost comical for its heartfelt desire for a beer.

The Clay-colored Thrush whose main base was the big Piich tree just below the hut expressed something utterly different, maybe "Bubbly dubbly, watcha do, watcha do, WHIP ding," quickly repeated, over and over, never changing. He reminded me of a mechanical mouse frenetically and continually running in perfect circles, expending enormous energy but always going nowhere, and I was so glad he wasn't next to the hut because he exhausted me just hearing him.

Another thrush near the reception building said, "Chuck, whaddaya-do, old boy," sometimes varying the pitch, and sometimes changing to "Chuck, whaddaya-gonna-do, old boy?" Other birds simply uttered a few half-hearted notes irregularly during the day, and others did in-between things. I have told you about the single Beethoven Bird who sometimes came through, whose complex and varying songs actually seemed to express something important with its extemporaneous innovations.

So, when they were all singing, the rainbow of sound always was beautiful and made you feel good just to hear it. But, when you focused on individual birds, identities emerged, it was hard to not develop opinions about the excellence of each performance and to indulge in stereotypes about each bird. You could be annoyed with certain calls as often as you were thrilled by others. But, mostly, you just found yourself immersed in a lot of pleasant but mediocre calling.

Here Nature seems to be offering several insights. For example, it's reminding us that other animals beside ourselves can have distinct personalities, and when I remember Beethoven bird I'm pretty sure they also can have feelings and be inspired, and inspiring.

Another insight brings into focus the fact that things up close may seem mediocre, mass-produced and unimaginative but, at a little distance and with a receptive spirit, can reveal themselves as parts of a symphony of transcendent beauty.

And that reminds us that we thinking beings can flip our perspectives back and forth. Now we focus on the cup on the table, now we reflect on the wondrously complex networks of mutually dependent parts that had to cooperate to get that cup onto that table.

And that thought further reminds us that, as the Universe seems to be evolving toward ever higher levels of diversity and integration, so an individual human's mentality begins with the baby mind focusing singularly on what's immediately at hand, but that personality can mature into an old person thinking the kinds of multidimensional, Universe-wide, empathetic thoughts we're thinking right now, and finding the experience agreeable.

The mental buzz of an old fellow beside his hut experiencing these thoughts and feelings... is it akin to -- or maybe the same thing -- as the state the Universe evolves toward?

It's all a blossoming, the Clay-colored Thrushes seem to sing, saying "Here we are, right now, right here, WHIP ding, part of that blossoming, wow! wow!"

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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