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

December 24, 2017

*****

AN AGGRESSIVE SPOTTED SKUNK
At dusk I sat on the hut's porch reading with Katrina the dog snoozing next to me. I was just about ready to turn off my Kindle because of failing light when movement on the hut trail caught my attention. It was a skunk, nearer to the size of a rat than to what Eastern North Americans think of as skunk size. It was the same species, Spilogale angustifrons ssp. yucatanensis, I'd encountered on a November morning at dawn in 2004, in northwestern Yucatan, back when I didn't have a camera, and ever since then I'd been hoping for a return visit. And this time I had my camera ready beside me.

Another reason I wanted a return visit was because that other time the little critter had walked right up to me, did a handstand with his back legs skyward and his tail curved over his back, seeming ready to spray me., and I took off running. He chased me for 150 yards, then climbed up the screen of the door I'd slammed between us, still trying to get at me. Later I'd read that this was typical behavior of a hormone-saturated male looking for a female, at least of the Yucatan subspecies. Now I hoped to conduct our interview with more valor displayed on my part.

The English name for Spilogale angustifrons is Southern Spotted Skunk. When this week's visitor waltzed onto the porch he went directly to Katrina, who watched him approach big-eyed, then jumped from her basket and ran onto the trail. At the basket the skunk reared up and sniffed and pawed at the bedding basket. Having a good view of his back, I was reminded how misleading the name Spotted Skunk is. You can see the reason in a flash-assisted picture of him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224sk.jpg

He's as striped as he can be, and the other three species of the genus Spilogale -- all known as spotted skunks -- are nearly as spotless. From Katrina's basket he shuffled across the floor and explored my adobe-brick fireplace, providing a nice frontal view, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224sm.jpg

Then, despite my having taken several flash-assisted pictures, he seemed to notice me for the first time. As he drew near, I had no intention of running away like the last time -- not even when he suddenly did a handstand with back paws skyward, curled his tail over his back, and seemed ready to squirt me. I didn't get squirted the last time so I figured I wouldn't get it this time. He smelled a little skunky, but he despite his threatening stance he didn't produce any skunk juice at all.

Giving up on trying to intimidate me, he came over and sniffed my foot. It was an unusually chilly evening, so I was wearing hand-knitted woolen socks and pajama bottoms. He began chewing on my socks. I didn't want the socks damaged so I tried to shake him off, but he would let go. Thinking he might go away if I just sat quietly, after about 15 seconds he released his bite on my socks, but immediately reared onto his back legs and began biting my pajama bottoms, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224sl.jpg

At this point I began shaking my leg with vigor, but he just wouldn't let go until I gave him a whack from the side knocking him off. Then I got up and ran to stand beside Katrina who had been watching with a worried look on her face. The skunk came and chased both of us around a big limestone boulder beside the trail. After circling twice I got my composure back and went and sat down again. The skunk returned, but this time I kept my legs up on the table. He tried to reach them by jumping but gave up. He wandered around awhile longer until it got dark, then he went into my woodpile and seemed content to stay there.

With no electricity here, when darkness comes I go to bed, so now I spread my sleeping bag on the plastic sheet covering the hut's cement floor, beneath the mosquito net. Just as I was dozing off something started nudging my right foot. I knew it was the skunk looking for half-buried beetles and grubs beneath my sleeping bag, the same as he would beneath a big rock. Maybe if I ignored him he'd go away. But, he didn't. Systematically he worked all the way up my right side, then back to my feet and started up the left side.

I thought maybe I could scare him off by shining my flashlight through the mosquito net netting into his face, but he ignored it. When I pushed the flashlight right into his face, he lunged at it and through the netting bit into the plastic rim around the flashlight's lens, the face cap, and wouldn't let go for over a minute. Then I decided to just let him tire himself out looking for grubs beneath me.

But, when he came up on the left side and nuzzled into my armpit, I realized that he'd gotten inside the mosquito net.

Finally I decided to take decisive action. I got from beneath the net and shoved the shining flashlight into his face like before, but without the netting between us. Again he bit into the flashlight's face cap, and as he hung on I lifted him and deposited him into a wide-mouth gallon jar used for solar cooking. After two or three minutes he released his grip and I got the flashlight back. Then a top went onto the jar, and I carried him to the garden on the other side of the tool shed, far enough away to have hope he wouldn't come back. And he didn't.

You can see the little critter's face -- the single white spot on the forehead apparently characterizing all four species in the genus, but not spot enough to warrant calling them all spotted skunks -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224sn.jpg

*****

FLOWERING CIONOSICYOS VINE
Along the highway about 4kms north of Temozón, at the wood's edge a vine had climbed about 3m (10ft) into the trees and was blossoming. From the road, I thought it was a pale-flowered passionflower vine because of its large, deeply three-lobed leaves, and that was something I'd not seen. However, up closer some of the leaves turned out to be five-lobed, and closer still it became clear that the flower wasn't at all passionflower-like. You can see flowers and leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224ci.jpg

That kind of large, yellow, bumpy-surfaced item is seen inside flowers of members of the Melon or Cucumber Family, the Cucurbitaceae, and that's what I had. The yellow item is shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224cj.jpg

The yellow thing is the flower's collection of fused anthers, anthers being the pollen-producing parts of stamens, so they're male sexual parts. The blossom shows no trace of female parts, which is to be expected, since species in the Melon or Cucumber Family all produce unisexual flowers. Of course this blossom will never result in a fruit, since only female flowers do that.

I looked around for female flowers but couldn't find any. However, on another vine I found the gourd-like fruit shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224ck.jpg

I had assumed that the green fruit was immature and later would turn a brighter color, but later I began finding green fruits fallen onto the forest floor as if that's their mature color.

This vine is CIONOSICYOS EXCISUS, with no commonly used English name. It's native to the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas in southern Mexico, as well as Guatemala and Cuba. There's little information about it, though in the paper "Ethnobotany of the Wild Mexican Cucurbitaceae," published in 2002 by Rafael Lira and Javier Caballero in Economic Botany 56(4), I read that in some places in the Yucatan the fruit is regarded as toxic, while in other places it's thought of as bird feed. That interesting paper on Wild Mexican Cucurbitaeae can be freely downloaded in PDF format here.

*****

SLIPPERY BUR
Nowadays a certain hip-high, annual herb catches attention along weedy paths and roadsides less because of its yellow flowers than its long, slender, slightly curved fruits, a branch of one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224cc.jpg

If you try to snip off a branch-tip, you find that the stem is surprisingly tough and "stringy." If you tug on a leaf, instead of the leaf coming off neatly, it comes with fibers that strip away from the stem. This toughly fibrous texture, the yellow flowers and the simple, alternately arranged leaves with toothed or "dentate" margins, all suggest the big, commonly encountered Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae. Such long, slender fruits are uncommon in that family, so you want to see if the flowers look right. I've been unable to catch a flower fully open, but one looking about ready to open is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224cd.jpg

With some sepals and stamens removed, the blossom's sexual parts are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171224ce.jpg

In the Hibiscus Family you expect to see numerous stamens, typically united at their filament bases. This flower produces many stamens but if they're united at their bases it's only slightly so.

Still, in such a huge family as the Hibiscus, great variation is expected, and in the end this plant turns out to belong even though its filament bases aren't conspicuously fused. It's CORCHORUS SILIQUOSUS, native from southernmost Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean region south into South America, where it frequents many habitats, from swamp edges and beaches to limestone outcrops, sinkholes and disturbed, weedy areas. Since it occurs in the US it has some English names, the most commonly used apparently being Slippery Burr, though it's hard to see much slippery about it. -- maybe the name refers to the leaves' smooth, glossy surfaces. Maybe the slender fruits qualify for suggesting spines on a burr.

The online Biblioteca Digital de La Medicina Tradicional Mexicana reports that traditionally the Maya have used the plant to treat diarrhea. A handful of the plant, stem and all, is boiled in two liters of water, to produce a "tea" to drink.

*****

TEACHINGS OF CHICHAN CH'O'
Chichan Ch'o', the rancho's Mexican Hairless dog, died last week from multiple problems, mainly kidney failure. You can read all about Chichan Ch'o' and the Mexican Hairless breed, also known as Xoloitzcuintles, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/xolo.htm

Atop Chichan Ch'o''s page you see the bony, starved looking dog I met when I first arrived here. Back then, other dogs stole most of his food. That's because, having lost his fighting canine teeth, and lacking hair to protect his skin during dogfights, Chichan Ch'o' ranked lowest in the Rancho's dog community.

But, you may remember that when the schizophrenic top dog Sombra had his fangs sunk deeply in my leg, Chichan Ch'o' attacked Sombra and kept him off long enough for me to find a pole and knock some sense into the other dog. Chichan Ch'o' was loyal and valiant -- even a notorious chicken-killer back when he still had sharp teeth -- but still he was the rancho pack's omega dog.

Maybe this tension between the dog he really was, and the dog role he was obliged to play, caused Chichan Ch'o''s character to be unusually sharply developed. He'd wag his tail over almost anything, and often he wagged with such vigor that his entire rear end shimmied. He gave everyone a big, fangless, almost human smile, causing more than one visitor to remark that they'd never seen such a nice ugly dog.

The other dogs didn't take these qualities into account, however. To them, he was just the one that everyone could snarl at and nip, and brush past with complete disdain. The first teaching of Chichan Ch'o' was rooted in this unfriendly environment.

For, when Chichan Ch'o' disappeared, the pack experienced profound changes. Chichan Cho'o' had shared the hut's porch with Katrina, who was #2 in the rancho-pack's dog hierarchy. Katrina, friendly enough to people but very snappy with all dogs below her, with Chichan Ch'o''s death no longer had someone she could constantly dominate. She had run off Nigrita, who'd wanted to live at the hut, too, so when Katrina wanted another companion of lower status she stopped snarling at Nigrita. However, Nigrita remembered earlier fights with Katrina and was indecisive about returning. She visited some nights, and stayed away on others. This unpredictable liaison caused both dogs to become insecure, leading to the abandonment of long-established behavioral patterns, such as being in a certain place at mealtimes. When Nigrita stopped spending all of her nights near the schizophrenic Sombra, Sombra grew even moodier and more unpredictable than ever.

Who would have thought that the presence of lowly Chichan Ch'o' could have been such a stabilizing factor for the Rancho dog pack? That's the first teaching: that even the meekest among us may be serving important purposes.

On Chichan Ch'o''s last day alive, for the first time since I'd known him, he left my immediate presence and went to the garden to be alone with his failing kidneys, a nice breeze and a spot of warming sunlight. There he sat all day, looking around, seeming to take stock. At dusk, as it grew chilly -- uncomfortably so for a hairless dog -- I went out to say goodbye, for it was clear that Chichan Ch'o' was dying. When I left, he changed his mind about staying there, and came staggering after me, to spend his last night with old friends.

The second teaching of Chichan Ch'o', then, is that we living beings can change, even change from day to day, and hour to hour, and change in important ways.

Of course, most of us already know these teachings from our own experiences, but it's good to be reminded in such a poignant, well-intended way by an especially congenial, funny-looking dog.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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