JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

September 10, 2017

*****

ANOLE ON THE CEILING
A little before dusk I spotted a lizardy creature hanging upside-down on the smooth concrete ceiling of the toilet. You can see him, with the picture flipped so that he seems to be on the floor, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910an.jpg

The last time we saw this species, the Blue-spot Anole, ANOLIS SERICEUS, was in Chiapas in 2008. That one overnight had drowned in a water bucket, and in his picture looks puckered and sad. I'm glad to see what a happy, healthy one looks like, and surprised that he can skitter so easily upside-down across a smooth concrete surface.

*****

WHITE-STRIPED LONGTAIL SKIPPER
Nowadays the prettily flowering Dwarf Poincianas are hosting quite a variety of butterflies, including the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910sk.jpg

With its very thick body and such short wings, you can guess that this belongs to the butterfly subgroup known as the skippers, and with the wings' long tail it further fits into the skipper subgroup known as the longtails. Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario IDs it as the aptly named White-striped Longtail, CHIOIDES ALBOFASCIATUS.

Of course, the fun in having an organism's name is that it can be looked up. The White-striped Longtail's page at the great ButterfliesAndMoths.Org website tells us that the species displays a fast and erratic flight and that it perches on the upper sides of leaves -- facts easily verified at our Dwarf Poinciana. Also, the species' caterpillars feed on many members of the Bean Family, and in the surrounding forest no plant family is better represented than that one. The Dwarf Poinciana is a member itself.

This is a common, widely distributed skipper found from Argentina in South America all the way north through Central America and Mexico into southern Texas, even occasionally straying as far north as New Mexico and Arizona.

*****

A NEATLY CAMOUFLAGED GRASSHOPPER NYMPH
Our rampantly green, lush landscape is well populated with tiny beings in all stage of development. What a pleasure to sit quietly or walk very slowly specifically looking for what's overlooked when you're in a hurry. That's the way I noticed the grasshopper nymph -- a nymph being an immature developmental stage where metamorphosis is incomplete, so that the immature looks more or less like the adult, but smaller, without wings and sexual organs -- shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910gh.jpg

Besides its disruptive patterning camouflage, which makes it hard for complex brains to identify insectlike forms when foraging for prey, I think it's neat how the nymph's back leg joints are swollen and black, passing into yellow, with vague black bands in the middle. This causes the nymph's rear end vaguely to resemble its front. The thickened joints could well be a creature's protruding eyes.

You can imagine a predator first being a little surprised to spot prey amid visual clutter, quickly pouncing, but in mid attack realizing that it's not clear which end bears the head. One goes for the head, under the assumption that if the head is deactivated, the rest of the body will be easier to deal with.

And, maybe that tiny fraction of second lost deciding which end to shoot for, will be enough for the nymph to escape.

*****

THE POWERFUL BRAZILIAN TEA FLOWERING
At the very rim of the deep pit beside the hut a certain weed emerged at the rainy season's beginning, and this week it started flowering. You can see the herb nicely highlighted against the pit's satiny shadow at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910st.jpg

In that picture, the corolla at the bottom was dislodged by a very slight breeze. By dusk, both corollas had fallen, but each morning one or more new flowers are opened, the erect spike at the plant's top flowering from bottom to top.

When you have an herb with squarish stems, which this one has, leaves arising opposite one another, and flowers with bilateral symmetry, your first thought should be that probably you have a member of either the Mint or Verbena Families. This plant's leaves look very minty, but they don't smell minty, plus the corollas' violet color and the flowers being arranged in a slender spike is very typical of the Verbena Family, so at first glance it's not clear which family we have here. Up close you can see that the corollas narrow at their bases into narrow, curved tubes, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910sw.jpg

When that corolla is placed atop a finger, its shape is even more striking, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910su.jpg

A pollinator approaching from the corolla's front finds a nice landing pad and a white splotch at the throat showing where the nectar is -- and yellow, pollen-filled anthers at the top of the tube to dust the pollinator's back as she enters -- as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910sv.jpg

Still, it's not really clear which family our herb belongs to until we look at immature fruits at the flowering spike's base, shown on the right at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910sx.jpg

If the fruit were visibly parted into four "nutlets," we'd have a member of the Mint Family, but here you see that the fruits are oblong capsules rounded at their tops, with each top bearing a dark, hairlike, shriveling style -- in the above picture visible a little above and to the right of the ant.

So, this is a member of the Verbena Family, the knowledge of which makes it easy to peg this as STACHYTARPHETA JAMAICENSIS. It's a native plant distributed from Brazil and Ecuador north through Central America to Mexico, and the Caribbean, plus it's cultivated and has gone wild in warmer parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania. Because of its widespread occurrence and use, it's known by several English names, including Brazilian Tea, Blue Porter Weed and Rooter Comb, as well as Gervao, Verbena Cimarrona, and others.

Brazilian Tea is most famous for its traditional medicinal uses. In a 2015 study, Pearl Liew and Yoke Yong at Universiti Putra Malaysia report that a tea made from the plant traditionally is regarded as a cooling tonic that aids in numerous digestive problems, plus it's used to treat allergies and respiratory conditions, from asthma to simple coughs, as well as cirrhosis and hepatitis, and can be applied to clean eternal wounds, ulcers and sores, to boot. Numerous other uses in other parts of the world are described, including helping "female complaints," including restoring the uterus to its original position after childbirth, and to increase milk supply in breast-feeding mothers.

In other words, it's one of those medicinal plants with so many purported uses that you begin doubting the whole list. However, Liew and Yong assayed Brazilian Tea's chemicals and found some powerful ones, including coumarins, flavonoids, tannins and saponins as well as "secondary metabolites" such as alkaloids, phenols, steroids and terpenoids. The researchers conclude that "It is quite evident that S. jamaicensis is an important medicinal plant that plays a vital role in medicinal systems, particularly in traditional and folk medicinal systems," and urge further studie. Their paper is freely available at https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2016/7842340/

The Maya workers here don't know about Brazilian Tea, but assure me that in Ek Balam there's an herb lady who certainly would. The leaves' bitter/musky smell and taste are about right for a powerfully medicinal herb.

*****

SCHOTT'S CEIBA FLOWERING
Most visitors making a little effort to learn about the moist tropical American lowlands soon come to recognize the gigantic Ceibas that in forests and city parks tower above other trees and spread massive branches horizontally, often bearing epiphytic gardens of bromeliads and orchids. Ceibas are easy to identify because of their compound leaves with leaflets joining "digitately" the way that fingers join at the palm, plus young Ceiba trunks bear broad-based spines, while older trunks look bloated and covered with elephant skin. The Ceiba that even visitors know is Ceiba pentandra, whose nicely illustrated page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm

Here in the central Yucatan, besides Ceiba pentandra, we have a second Ceiba species most people don't know about, though it's fairly common in some places. It's the Schott's Ceiba, endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. We already have a page on that species, showing its different-looking spines, fruits and flowers, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ceiba2.htm

On that page we have pictures of the species' large flowers, but those had fallen to the ground or had wilted and become brown and droopy. Normally you don't see Schott's Ceiba flowers because they're out of sight, high in the forest's canopy. This week, however, I spotted one through a hole in the canopy, about 20 feet up (6m). It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910sc.jpg

I'd been alerted to the tree's presence by wilted flowers that had fallen onto the ground, one of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910sd.jpg

At that image's top, right, the long, slender, white items are style branches atop the ovary. The flower's ovary at the bottom, left is covered with cottony hairs. I'm guessing that the hairs enable pollinators such as bats to hold on better as they probe the blossom's depths for nectar.

*****

"LITTLE GUAVA" IN FRUIT
This June we looked at a handsome tree beside the rancho's entrance gate, one which had no English name but which we called "Little Guava" because it belonged to the same genus as the tree producing the much eaten guava fruit. Our Little Guava's page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/psidium.htm

Nowadays the same tree is producing fruits that are the color of regular guavas, but much smaller -- only about as broad as a finger, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910ps.jpg

Many species produce small, spherical fruits, but in the guava's genus Psidium the fruits bear a nicely distinguishing field mark. You can see it on an unripened fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910pt.jpg

That's what remains of the flower's sepals. In most flowers the sepals wither and may even fall away after pollination but these have become leathery and kept their place atop the flower's maturing ovary as it matured into the fruit. On fruits the sepals often are knocked off but they leave a circular scar. In the middle of the circle of sepals in the above picture, the erect item is the ovary's dried-up style.

The flesh of these small fruits shared the edible guava's texture and sweet-musky fragrance, and I wanted to see if they also tasted like guavas. However, I broke open five different fruits and they all looked like the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170910pu.jpg

They all had worms. In the above picture, the black area consists of aborted seeds, and at the top of the blackness you can see the white grub causing the abortion.

However, I suspect that the flesh tastes like it smells, and it smells like guava. I'll bet that fruit-eating birds during the day and bats during the night gorge on these fruits, wormy or not.

*****

THE RADIO DIES
This week my little shortwave radio irretrievably broke. It's not a great loss, since shortwave programming has declined to near irrelevancy, the important stations of earlier years having yielded to the Internet and cellular phones.

Detaching from the world's news flow is like it was back in 1967 or so when I became a vegetarian. Back then, at first I felt a great vacuum, terribly missing the husky flavors and odors of cooked flesh, and the tactile experience of taking it into my body. For a couple of weeks I felt a little stunned, or numbed, as if an important part of myself had been hacked away.

But then my taste buds, no longer overwhelmed by steamroller stimuli, became sensitized to a rainbow of new, more complex and subtle sensations. Carrots -- earlier tasting like cardboard to me -- now filled my mouth with a kind of taste musicality. In baking cornbread I could smell green cornfields at tasseling time, and in a glass of milk there was a friendly cow's buttery, ruminative breath on a summer day.

It's not enough to say that I exchanged static and half-heard words for birdsong and the soughing of wind in tree leaves around the hut. George Washington Carver expressed it nicely when he said:

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.

Nowadays Nature broadcasts to me most eloquently in terms of Her lush, irrepressible greenness. Besides the fact that green is simply a peaceful, companionable color, there's the almighty fact that Nature's green is the color of photosynthesis. It's the color of the majesty of sunlight energy being stored for use by Life on Earth, with breathable oxygen as a byproduct.

I receive this message in its green envelope the very moment I peek through the hut's door each morning, and then I take time to sit and reflect on the matter. For example, how about the fact that having a planetary biosphere running on photosynthetic energy, with green plants at the bottom of the ecological pyramid and final consumers at the top, is both an incredibly ingenious way of doing things, and also utterly beautiful?

So, this morning I was thinking such thoughts instead of hearing about Trump's most recent tweet, or the latest environmental or social disaster. But that's not the final point to be made about losing the services of my shortwave radio this week.

The final point is that I feel better when each day the messages I'm receiving are nurturing ones, and not otherwise. And I figure I'm more in harmony with, and helpful to, the evolving Universe when I'm feeling good, than bad.

When I bike into Ek Balam to connect with the Internet and charge my computer batteries, I do check the NPR and BBC websites for a quick review of things, and that's plenty enough, a kind of Middle Path.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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