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

AUGUST 7, 2016

*****

BANDED LONGWING, PRETTIEST SIGHT OF WEEK
One of the prettiest sights I've seen lately was a Banded Longwing butterfly, DRYADULA PHAETUSA, flitting about the white flowers of a "Mala Mujer" bush, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807lw.jpg

A shot of another Banded Longwing with its wings open, displaying a different pattern on the wings' upper surfaces, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt101.jpg

Though Banded Longwings turn up from time to time here they're not common, even though they enjoy a big distribution area from central Mexico south to Brazil, sometimes during the Northern summer even turning up as far north as central Florida. Banded Longwings belong to the Longwing "tribe" of brush-footed butterflies, though its wings aren't nearly as long and narrow as our main longwing species here, the Crimson-patched Longwing shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt111.jpg

Banded Longwings are big "puddlers" -- they like to congregate, sometimes in the hundreds, on patches of moist soil containing mineral salts, which their bodies need for making pheromones, sperm, and other things. When you see large numbers of butterflies around a puddle, mainly sodium is being sought because it's lacking in the butterfly's diet of mostly nectar and fruits. Among butterflies, sodium is vital for digestion, excretion, reproduction and flight.

If moist soil containing mineral salts isn't handy, butterflies often resort to taking it from rotting fruit, human sweat, dung or carrion, which also may contain much needed amino acids.

During dry weather there's a certain spot beside the hut especially attractive to puddling butterflies. Each morning I wet down that spot, then the rest of the day am rewarded with a giant cloud of mostly yellow and white butterflies that rise into a wondrously animated cloud each time I exit the hut's door.

*****

PORELEAF
When you want to see an organism different from what you see everyday, you need to change your environment -- visit an unusual ecological niche and see what's adapted to it. Sometimes rare and wonderful species adapted to extreme conditions turn up. Those where my thoughts this week when I biked to the rock quarry just south of Xcalacoop, the first little village met when traveling eastward from Chichén Itzá. As soon as I got there, something turned up looking different. You can see the shoulder-high herb topped with a large flowering head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807pp.jpg

Even from a distance it had the Composite or Daisy Family look about it. It might have been a prickly lettuce, though the leaves didn't bear prickles. Members of the Composite Family bear little "heads" of flowers, called capitula, in which two kinds of flowers, or "florets," may occur: disc flowers or ray flowers. The capitula of most composite species bear both disc and ray florets, but the capitula of some groups contain only discs or only rays. Prickly lettuce flowers, genus Lactuca, produce only ray flowers. Our rock quarry composite's capitula bore only disc flowers, like bonesets or eupatoriums up north, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807pq.jpg

One capitulum in the head was mature enough for its florets to have produced cypsela-type fruits topped with white parachutes -- again like the prickly lettuces -- as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807ps.jpg

The leaves and stem displayed a slight silvery sheen or bloom, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807pr.jpg

Sunlight glare was bad that day and my vision is bad, too, so it wasn't until the above image was on the computer screen that I saw the dark little dashes along the leaves' margins. The dashes and accompanying indentations of the leaf margins, making them slightly wavy, or crenate, reminded me that we'd seen something like this before. In 2008, in Sabacché in southern Yucatán state, we captured the image shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/porophyl.jpg

That interestingly fragrant leaf displayed marginal, dash-like glands filled with sweet-musky-smelling compounds, plus there were glands inside the leaf not apparent in this week's leaf picture. Also, that leaf, which was identified as coming from a Porophyllum punctatum, was proportionally broader than the rock-quarry leaf. So, had I found the same species again?

Two Porophyllum species, which in English often are referred to as Poreleafs, are listed for the Yucatan. Leaves of the second species are even broader than this week's quarry one, and the glands display a different appearance. So, this is indeed POROPHYLLUM PUNCTATUM, occurring in most of humid lowland Mexico south through Central America at least to Panama. It's not particularly uniquely adapted to the relatively sterile, hot, sun-baked soil of our rock quarry; it's just a plant with a weed's toughness and adaptability able to survive there.

Our rock quarry individual has leaves that are more slender and possibly thicker -- thus with the glands less in evidence -- than most plants of this species I've run across. I'm guessing that that's because of its extremely hot, sunny environment, and maybe its mature state of development.

As you might guess of any really smelly herb, Porophyllum punctatum traditionally is regarded as medicinal. The online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana mentions that it has a long history of use against gonorrhea, as well as for other problems including nasal hemorrhages, chronic ulcers, mange, kidney problems, and for children who sweat during the night when it isn't hot.

*****

SCHWENKIA
Not far from the above Poreleaf, also in the limestone quarry's very thin, hard-baked, deserty soil, stood a knee-high herbaceous plant I hadn't seen, this one at the end of its flowering period, with its upper branches contorted from drying out and dying back. You can see what look like little more than the twisty remains of a plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sw.jpg

This large, diffuse cluster of flowers, or inflorescence, arose from a base bearing only a few, small leaves, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sx.jpg

The flowers were so small and slender that they were easy to overlook, but they could be ound at some of the gnarly inflorescence branch-tips, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sy.jpg

Closer up, the corolla reveals itself as little more than a long, slender, purplish cylinder with very modest lobes for petals, and the fruit shows itself as a classic capsule containing several seeds, arising inside a classic calyx with five sepals, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sv.jpg

A broken-open flower displays two of five stamens above which rises a slightly longer stigma-tipped style, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807su.jpg

As blunt fingernails made the above field-dissection, something unusual was noticed at the corolla's mouth. The details were so minute that I couldn't see what was going on until the image came onto the laptop screen, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sz.jpg

What are those club-like things arising between the corolla lobes? Seeing this, I knew I had something special.

It took extra time to identify this plant because at first I couldn't figure out which plant family it belonged to. Because of its capsular fruits and its growing in such thin soil atop limestone, initially I thought it was a member of the Pink Family, the Caryophylaceae, along with the sandworts, genus Arenaria, we've seen up North. However, the Pink Family is mostly a temperate and cold-weather family poorly represented in the tropics, plus they are opposite-leafed while our plant seems to produce one leaf per node, and it wasn't either of the two Pink Family members listed for the Yucatan.

My next bet was that it was in the Figwort or Snapdragon Family, the Scrophulariaceae, in which I've seen capsular fruits just like this, but it wasn't any of the Yucatan's several "scroph" species, either. On the Phylogenetic Tree of Life the Nightshade or Tobacco Family, the Solanaceae, stands right next to the scrophs, so I went looking there, though I'd never seen anything in that family with flowers bearing such appendages between their corolla lobes. And, to my amazement, it turned out to be in that family.

It's SCHWENCKIA AMERICANA, though poorly documented on the Web, widely distributed in tropical America and, curiously, humid tropical Africa. It doesn't seem particularly adapted to thin, sun-baked soil atop limestone, but rather just flexible enough to be weedy in unexpected places like our limestone quarry.

For years taxonomists debated which family the genus Schwenckia belongs to. The great Linnaeus in the 1700s pegged it as a member of the Nightshade Family, but most influential botanists of the time placed it in the Figwort/Snapdragon Family, as I had done. As more information came in, the concessus grew that Linnaeus had been right with his Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae.

So, what are those club-like things arising between corolla lobes? I find one paper calling them glands, and I guess that that's right. The flowers look like they're pollinated by moths or butterflies with slender proboscises, but what good do such glands serve to a butterfly or moth? Maybe they attract pollinators such as small beetles and ants to the corolla's mouth, where they might be further enticed to enter the corolla tube to find fragrant nectar at the bottom, and do some pollinating on their way down? However they work, they're appropriately weird for a species that's so unique that it's the only representative of its genus.

In Africa, Schwenckia has been used in traditional medicine, and researchers have confirmed its anti-inflammatory properties.

Otherwise, not much seems to be known about it, so we're probably contributing valuable pictures and data here.

*****

A SHEEPISH ACALYPHA
Right beside the hut door, next to the bed of cosmoses, an herbaceous weed developed flowers so interesting that I was glad I hadn't pulled it up. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807ac.jpg

What's most interesting is the soft-fuzzy, green, oval item atop the plant. It's obviously a flowering head, but where are the flowers' parts? Immediately below the fuzzy head something shows up that begins to explain things, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807ad.jpg

Several times we've seen short flower spikes like these, bearing flowers consisting of nothing but inconspicuous calyxes subtending a few pale stamens. The two short spikes in the picture bear unisexual male flowers exactly like the male spikes on the Acalypha we looked at last week. Therefore, the fuzzy ball at the plant's top must be a short, congested spike bearing female flowers. If this is an Acalypha, the green fuzz must be made of long, slender teeth of leafy bracts subtending the female flowers, and that proves to be exactly the case when we snip off the top of the female spike's head and look at female flowers lined up next to one another, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807ae.jpg

The pale green, oval items in a circle are maturing ovaries. Below each ovary arises a bract with long, slender lobes, the lobes bearing conspicuous, pale, stiff hairs. This is ACALYPHA ALOPECURIOIDES, without a good English name, but one Spanish name, Borreguillo, is so nice that it deserves to inspire the English name "Little Sheep," for that's what borreguillo means. Other Spanish names regard the plant as a Little Cat (Gatito) or Cat Tail (Cola de Gato).

Most weeds are native to other places than where they're weedy, but "Little Sheep" is native Mexican, found from the southernmost US where it's an invasive weed, south through the Caribbean area and Central America into northern South America.

The online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana, which gives its name as Hierba del Cáncer, or Cancer Herb, mentions it as useful for preventing cancer, not curing it. Otherwise, traditionally in Mexico it's been used against asthma, wounds, certain tumor-like skin growths, acne, foot infections, diarrhea, urinary problems, ulcers and of course snakebite.

*****

NUTRUSH
Along a shadowy trail through dense forest, a knee-high, especially spindly looking little grass-like plant was enjoying its five minutes of sunbeam, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sb.jpg

Up close, where I'd expected flattish grass spikelets, something else turned up, looking somewhat like rush flowers, genus Juncus, commonly seen in marshes and along paths up North. You can see the rush-like flowering head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sa.jpg

In that picture, what's that spherical, shiny, blackish thing near the center? A close-up shows it very well at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160807sc.jpg

That kind of fruit isn't something a rush would produce, and it's not part of a spikelet of the kind produced in the Grass Family. This is a member of the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae, and the distinctive genus Scleria, whose big field mark is that its fruits look like what's in our picture -- they're spherical to egg-shaped, usually whitish, hard-covered, achene-type fruits normally perched atop a hardened pad known as the hypogynum. In the picture the white hypogynum is seen glistening beneath the achene.

This is SCLERIA LITHOSPERMA, found in dry woods and thickets on limestone soils in the tropics and subtropics nearly worldwide. It also shows up rarely in Florida and Louisiana. In Florida it's classified as an endangered native species and called the Florida Keys Rush, despite its not being in the Rush Family. A general name for species in the genus Scleria is nutrush.

The rhizomes of Scleria lithosperma are fragrant when fresh. Especially in India where about 28 species of Scleria are known, species of the genus often are used medicinally. The Springer Illustrated Dictionary Indian Medicinal Plants reports the plant as useful for urinary problems, and that a tea, or decoction, of the root is given to the mother after childbirth. Tops of the plant are adminstered to children with "enlarged stomachs."

*****

LICHEN DISCOVERY, AND PHI
The other day Eric in New York sent a link to a The Atlantic article concerning a new discovery about lichens. I'm always curious about anything dealing with lichens because they're such common, attractive and mysterious organisms.

"Mysterious," because for a long time it's been known that every lichen is a composite being composed of two, sometimes three, unrelated organisms. A fungus joins with an alga or cyanobacteria in a symbiotic relationship, the alga or cyanobacterium producing the lichen's food through photosynthesis, while the fungus provides the lichen's main structure and shelters the photosynthesizing alga or cyanobacteria cells. The resulting lichen looks and behaves very unlike the beings its made of. You might enjoy browsing the lichens we've run across during our travels, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/lichens.htm

Though lichens have been much studied for about 150 years, only this year was it discovered that many if not most common, conspicuous lichens, in addition to the constituents described above, also host yet another kind of fungus, a yeast that forms a thin crust on the lichen's body. The yeast crust produces compounds that in ways not fully understood seem to be important to the lichen's formation and well being. One lichen species found to have a yeast component was the bushy, yellow Wolf Moss that was so common on higher-elevation tree limbs during our time in Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains, in 2009. You can meet that lichen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/wolfmoss.htm

The The Atlantic article can be freely accessed online.

Media coverage about the discovery often focuses on the fact that for 150 years the world's scientists have overlooked such a fundamental fact about common lichens. The story is even more dramatic because the main scientist making the discovery was a non-standard PhD who, not qualifying for university entry in the US, had to get his degree in Germany. The The Atlantic article linked to above is entitled, "How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology."

So, the amazing fact that lichens are composed of two or more different, unrelated organisms has been made even more mind boggling with that discovery of a new constituent organism. This stirs up old, unanswered questions about how the identities of living things are tied up with their bodies. Is my essential self diminished if I lose part of my body or mind? Is the "ant" the individual with six legs or the whole colony? Is the Earth a living organism itself, Gaia? Maybe the whole Universe? For me, this lichen discovery is another hint that the Universe evolves toward ever greater diversity as it also trends toward ever greater integration of parts.

Good old Eric in New York also directed us to a recent New York Times article on consciousness, also freely downloadable.

There we learn about serious researchers trying to figure out what consciousness is. According to one theory, backed up by very dense math, just about everything with some degree of organization might display glimmers of consciousness, even a thermostat. One assumes that any plant would be more conscious than a thermostat, and a squirrel with a highly organized brain more aware than a plant. A unit for measuring such instances of "subjective self" is proposed, the phi.

I'm gratified to see these two articles. It seems absolutely right that lichens should be possessed of more integrated parts than we'd thought, because the Six Miracles of Nature conceives of the Universe and mentality as evolving exactly toward greater diversity and integration of parts -- the Six Miracles being outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

Similarly, having a respected scientist with a lot of math for support suggest that maybe even thermostats might possess a glimmer of phi, makes me feel less alone with the thought often expressed here that other creatures besides humans have consciousness and feelings, that there may be an Earth-organism called Gaia, and even that all things of the Universe may be just one thing evolving just like the lichens, toward ever greater diversity, with ever greater integration of parts... with us as part of that elegant and wonderful blossoming.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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