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

AUGUST 28, 2016

*****

THE MOST AMAZING CONE YOU'LL EVER SEE
Back in July we looked at a huge cone emerging from the top, center of one of the Hacienda's Tree Cycads. You can see what the cone looked like then at the bottom of our Tree Cycad page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/dioon.htm

Back then it looked as if the tree were giving birth to a fuzzy, pale American football, exiting from the exact center of the trunk's top. Weeks passed and eventually the entire cone emerged, standing upright amid the fronds' bases. It was so similar in size, shape, color and wooliness to the female cone that for the last year has dangled from the big Tree Cycad in front of the main building -- an earlier one is shown at the top of the Tree Cycad page -- that I was so convinced that we had another female that I stopped paying attention. I'd wanted a male, so I could gather pollen to scatter on receptive female cones, to produce seeds we might later germinate.

Therefore, I was very surprised this week when I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cc.jpg

I've looked hard for pictures or a good description of the male cone of this species, without any luck. I'd had the impression that if our cycad turned out to be a male, it would produce several pollen-producing cones much smaller than the female cone, but that's not what we got. A closer look is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cd.jpg

Up closer still, the cone's scales look much like those of a pine cone, which isn't too surprising since cycads are gymnosperms and conifers just like pines. A scale close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828ce.jpg

I was particularly curious about what our cycad's pollen-producing structures, its stamens, might look like. Assuming that they'd be affixed to the bracts' bottom surfaces, so that pollen could tumble from them, at first I was confused because the bracts' undersurfaces proved to be smooth, bearing only warty clumps of pale pollen. But then I forced some bracts apart, and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cf.jpg

Open, pollen-shedding anthers crowd the bracts' tops -- which would be bottoms if the cone had remained erect. These are things I've never seen. It's like going to Mars, finding a field of wildflowers, and discovering whole new concepts on how to get things done, like produce pollen.

Because the female cone on the big cycad in front of the Main Building has been hanging there pretty much unchanged in appearance for the last year, I'm assuming that the time has passed when her female flowers could be pollinated. However, maybe there are processes I'm unfamiliar with, so to be sure that our male cone's pollen wasn't wasted because of my ignorance, I patted the cone to make pollen cascade from among the bracts, and watched my hand grow creamy colored with cycad pollen. Then I walked around the building and astonished the staff by caressingly rubbing the big cone all over with pollen.

*****

QUEEN BUTTERFLY
In early morning's brilliant, low-slanting sunlight, an orange and black butterfly perched with her drooping wings directly facing the sun, quietly basking. You can see her at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828qu.jpg

I'm not sure why she droops her upper forewings, covering most of her hindwings, but other pictures on the Internet show her doing the same thing. In southern Texas we've seen this same species, so other views are shown on our Texas page, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/queen.htm

This is the Queen, DANAUS GILIPPUS, somewhat similar to North America's famous Monarch, Danaus plexippus, belonging not only to the same butterfly family but also to the same genus. It's a little smaller than the Monarch. Caterpillars of the two species also are very similar. As with Monarchs, Queen caterpillars feed on various kinds of milkweeds, many species of which contain powerful compounds called cardiac glycosides. The glycosides are stored in both the caterpillars' and adults' bodies, and experts tell us that they're distasteful, and give diarrhea to birds and other vertebrate predators who eat prey containing them. The reason for retaining cardiac glycosides in your body are obvious: a bird probably won't eat another of your species after tasting the first one.

Queens are distributed from the extreme southern US south through tropical lowlands of the Caribbean area, Mexico and Central America, to Argentina. In the US, rarely they stray north along the Atlantic Coastal Plain to Massachusetts.

*****

SWEET POTATO HORNWORM ON LANTANA
This week a big, brown hornworm turned up chewing on a strong-smelling sprig of Wild Sage, Lantana camara, growing along a forest trail. You can see the formidable looking, three-inch-long (8cm) critter at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828hw.jpg

A close-up of the attractively striped head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828hx.jpg

When the above pictures were sent to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario she let me know that we'd already seen this one, the Sweetpotato Hornworm, Agrius cingulata, whose page remains at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/agrius.htm

However, that was back in 2011 when one was found in the middle of an asphalt road, so this week's find still is good because now we know more about its ecology. Mainly, that it feeds on more than Sweet Potatoes, and members of the plant family Sweet Potatoes belong to, the Morning-glory Family. Bea found that, with regard to the caterpillars' food, "The majority of records ... are from Bignoniaceae, Oleaceae, Verbenaceae and Solanaceae." Our caterpillar's Lantana camara belonged to the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae, and now we'll know to also look for them on viny members of the Trumpet-creeper Family, the Bignoniaceae, the Olive Family (Oleaceae) and the Tomato or Black Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae.

*****

RED-SPOT WASP MIMIC MOTH IN FULL COLOR
Last November we profiled an insect shaped very much like a fly, but colored like a wasp, though actually it was a moth. At that time the lighting didn't permit a good view of the colors, but this week the moth turned up inside a flowerpot where its colors showed up very well, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828wm.jpg

Our Red-spot Wasp Mimic page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/red-spot.htm

*****

SPIKED COCKSCOMB ABLAZE IN PISTÉ
This week I had to take the bike into Pisté for repairs, so while the mechanic worked I walked around town looking for special plants. One of the most interesting is shown leaning over a rock fence separating a cinderblock house from the street, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cl.jpg

Up closer, the flowering heads are seen to be spikes of crowded flowers, the spike's bottom-most blossoms opening first, the top ones maturing last, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cm.jpg

Very close up, the flowers are seen to consist of 2-5 petal-like parts best referred to as perianth segments, surrounding five stamens, which in turn surround an ovary topped by a slender, purplish style and small, knobby stigma, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cn.jpg

There we can also see that below each flower there arise stiff, sharp-tipped scales somewhat similar to but larger than the perianth segments.

Often this plant is referred to as the Spiked Cockscomb. Its binomial often is given as Celosia spicata , but the trend seems to be to consider the taxon as a variety of the broader Celosia argentea, and call it CELOSIA ARGENTEA var. CRITSATA. It's a member of the Amaranth Family, which makes sense because that family's main field mark is its many tiny flowers with papery perianth segments intermingled with stiff, often showy, papery scales.

The name cockscomb refers to one form of Celosia argentea that sometimes scatters its flowers and scales across a thick, leathery, fan-shaped, modified stem vaguely looking like a rooster's comb, though typically they're much more frilly, or "crenellated," than any actual rooster's comb.

Texas A&M University's Celosia page tells us that cockscombs come in three main types: plumes; crests, and; spikes. Crests are like rooster combs, plumes look like frozen flames, and our pictures show the spike type. The online Floridata Plant Encyclopedia recognizes another form, The Childsii Group, with rounded flowering heads.

Though many new and ever-more-weird and colorful forms of cockscomb are being created, this is and old ornamental plant. My Grandmother Conrad was especially fond of them, the crenelated crest type, back in rural Kentucky during the 1950s. As the Floridata Encyclopedia says, "In the garden, celosia flowers can last up to 8 weeks. Dried flowerheads last indefinitely. The Cristata Group cultivars were selected from mutations and are among the most bizarre of flowers."

*****

YELLOW RAIN-LILIES
In a partially shaded grassy area at the Hacienda this week a large area of yellow flowered, naturally occurring wildflowers/weeds blossomed very prettily amid the lush greenness, a small portion shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828ze.jpg

Up closer you see that each vertically aligned flower perches atop a slender, leafless, hollow stem, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828zf.jpg

The blossoms themselves are funnel-shaped, the whole corolla/calyx structure, or perianth, set atop a bulging, three-lobed ovary, and the ovary itself atop a peduncle extending a good bit above the subtending onion-skin-textured spathe, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828zg.jpg

Inside the flower we see the expected six stamens crowded around a three-lobed stigma, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828zh.jpg

Something barely observable in that photo is that the stamens are of two lengths. Despite the difference not being too obvious, that feature is important in determining the genus.

Some plants had been flowering for over a week and already bore immature, capsule-type fruits, such as the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828zi.jpg

This is ZEPHYRANTHES CITRINA, sometimes called the Yellow or Citron Rain-lily. It's native homeland isn't know because it's been carried worldwide by humans, planted in gardens, and often escaped into tropical and subtropical landscapes. In the US sometimes it turns up in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, plus it's scattered in the Caribbean area, Mexico, Central and South America. The Pacific Bulb Society, which normally is fairly authoritative, says flatly that it's native to the Yucatan Peninsula, without mentioning other places, but the even more authoritative Flora of North America asserts that "... considerably more work is needed to determine its native distribution."

Interestingly, another species, Zephyranthes flavissima of South America, is so similar to our Zephyranthes citrina that photos of the two species on the Web are impossible to tell apart. However, our Zephyranthes citrina has 48 chromosomes while Zephyranthes flavissima bears only 14. This suggests that our Zephyranthes citrina may have arisen abruptly from the South American parent when chromosomes during meiosis didn't separate as they were supposed to in the South American species, resulting in our "polyploid."

With regard to propagation, the Pacific Bulb Society says that Zephyranthes citrina doesn't produce many offsets that can be used to build up a population, but it makes up for that by "abundant apomictic seed production," meaning that seeds are produced without fertilization taking place. Such seeds would produce more or less "clones" of the parent.

Zephyranthes species are very similar to those of the genus Habranthus, which also are called rain lilies. Habranthus flowers, however, point upward at an angle, while Zephyranthes blossoms point straight up.

*****

RUSTYSEED PASPALUM
On very thin soil atop limestone bedrock, on a shadowy trail through the woods at Hacienda Chichen, a grass was at its flowering peak. The trail at that point was so dark a flash was need to get the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828pp.jpg

Even at a distance you can see that this is one of those grasses that arranges its spikelets on narrow spikes or spike-like racemes atop the stem, like crabgrass and Bermuda grass. Up close, we see that, also like them, the florets are aligned along only one side of the flattened secondary inflorescence branches, or rachillas, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828pq.jpg

Even closer, we see that each spikelet is only about 2mm long (0.08inch), consists of only one floret, is broadly oval, and that the coverings of the grains are hairy and bear three prominent veins on their flat sides, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828pr.jpg

In grass identification it's important to notice the ligule -- the wall-like structure where the blade meets the stem, and which can take any number of forms, when it's present at all -- and that's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828ps.jpg

There we're seeing the ligule consisting of two dark, papery, ear-like appendages surrounded by long, stiff, white hairs.

These features and others lead us to PASPALUM LANGEI, which at least the USDA calls Rustyseed Paspalum. It's native from Texas and Florida south through Mexico to northern South America, found in variously open areas, from forest trails like ours, to roadsides. It's listed as a livestock food, plus any small, seed-eating bird will be glad to pec at those plump grains.

*****

WILD POINSETTIA, NARROW-LEAFED FORM
Back in 2010, here at the Hacienda, we looked at one of several Euphorbia species known as Wild Poinsettia, Euphorbia heterophylla. Our page showing what that plant looked like is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/wildpoin.htm

The species was named "heterophylla" because its leaves can vary wildly -- they're "heterogeneous" in appearance. The above page shows the local form with broad leaves. This week, growing atop thin soil on limestone bedrock, along a trail through the woods, some slender-leafed plants turned up, looking like completely different species from what we've seen earlier, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828eb.jpg

The leaves are radically different in appearance, but the flowers -- much more important in determining a plant's identification -- are the same. You can see the weird flower structure, which is absolutely typical of the genus Euphorbia, on this week's plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828ec.jpg

That picture shows cuplike "cyathia" from which plump, three-lobed ovaries dangle on curved stipes. Peeking from the topmost cyathium area couple of tan-colored anthers; Several unisexual male flowers reside inside the cyathium. Attached to the outside wall of each cyathium there's something looking like a green golf tee. Those are nectaries. This floral construction looks like something a daydreaming kid would fit together from spare parts, but it must be effective, for the genus Euphorbium is a big one found worldwide, and all species display this same basic configuration.

One other feature of euphorbia is that when injured their leaves "bleed" a white, milky latex rich in compounds that often are toxic, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828ed.jpg

Euphorbia heterophylla is native from California to eastern Texas south through Mexico into much of Central America. As an invasive weed it's spread to South and Southeast Asia, where in India and Thailand it invades cotton fields and other disturbed environments.

*****

BUG BABIES
This week, in an email with the subject "Bug babies fatality," volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario sent us some pictures along with a story. She'd spotted a cluster of tiny eggs on the underside of a White Oak leaf, watched the eggs until they'd hatched, and photographed the freshly hatched caterpillars, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828ca.jpg

Each day when Bea checked on the babies fewer were to be seen. She transferred two to her famous caterpillar rearing container ( see http://www.backyardnature.net/growcats.htm ) but they didn't seem happy there, always trying to escape, so she returned them to the tree, where by then all their siblings had disappeared. Eventually she could identify the caterpillars as larvae of the Red-humped Oakworm Moth, Symmerista canicosta.

Soon after the two oakworms had been returned to their oak, one disappeared. A couple of days later when she visited the last survivor, she was happy to see how he'd grown, until...

"I noticed a white thing on his eyes and neck AND a wasp was after him. I shooed the wasp away and took pictures. On screen I see he has been parasitized and now is dying... And it breaks my heart."

The parasitized, dying caterpillar is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160828cb.jpg

So, this is a tiny but elegant example of the problem with sensitizing yourself to the world around you, of learning about things, and consequently developing feelings for them. In my own life I've found this process to be so ubiquitous and inevitable -- learn, experience, develop empathy, suffer when you see the thing you care about hurt or destroyed, whether bug or ecosystem -- that here's what I think: It must be a Law of Nature that the more any thinking, feeling being opens up and embraces Creation's diverse beautiful things, the greater is the possibility -- maybe the certainty -- of eventual hurt feelings.

Moreover, since the Universe seems to be evolving toward ever higher states of mentality and emotionality, as indicated by the Six Miracle of Nature, it seems to me that this is precisely what the Universal Creative Impulse responsible for the evolving Universe "wants" of us. If the Creator didn't want it, things wouldn't be evolving that way. The Six Miracles of Nature concept is outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

Why is reality structured so that the more aware and feeling we are, the more we're bound to get hurt?

The only answer I can imagine is that, once again, this situation is precisely what the Universal Creative Impulse seeks. It wants us to experience Her gorgeous and sometimes terrible diversity so that She can, in a sense, "personally" come to know the value of her creations. We are the Creator's nerve endings, whose job -- like nerve endings on human skin -- is to experience and feel, whether it's delight or pain.

And, thanks to Bea's curiosity and openness, now the Universal Creative Impulse knows exactly the value of a little caterpillar beneath a White Oak leaf in Ontario, when seen from one of an infinity of perspectives.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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