JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

September 1, 2013

STRANDED BASS
The Dry Frio River is the driest I've seen it during my year here, in most places its waters shrunk to occasional shallow pools, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901_~.jpg.

The pools are not stagnant because water drains from the upstream side to the downstream, between pools flowing beneath the dry streambed's cobblestones. Maybe that's what keeps the fish in the pools from dying, for most pools contain a good number of stranded fish, which are easy to see. In most pools the most common fish species is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901fi.jpg.

You can see the same foot-long fish turned and looking me, showing a wide body and widely set eyes above an ample mouth at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901fj.jpg.

I don't know my fish too well but I have fair confidence that this is a Largemouth Bass, MICROPTERUS SALMOIDES. I'm confident not only because it looks like a Largemouth, but also because the species is known to be common not only throughout Texas but also in the Dry Frio River. In fact, certain streams in our area have been stocked with Largemouths. An article at Statesman.com says, "In Texas, bass fishing is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and it's supported by more than 2 million freshwater anglers and an official state apparatus that spends millions of dollars a year to breed larger, heavier fish and release them into lakes and rivers."

That article also makes the interesting point that the millions of baby bass stocked into Texas waterways each year do virtually nothing to increase any angler's chances of catching a fish. They are put there to modify the gene pool of the existing natural population.

At the root of this genetic manipulation is the fact that two subspecies of Largemouth Bass are recognized: the typical one, and one known as the Florida Largemouth Bass. The Florida version grows larger. Since fishermen prefer larger fish, the Florida subspecies is being stocked in Texas.

Because the Florida subspecies enjoys a whole range of adaptations to the Florida environment, not just growing larger, the idea of flooding Texas populations with Florida genetic material gives me the creeps.

Despite the mess humans are making of its genome, the Largemouth Bass is an impressive species, one able to eat just about any living thing it can get into its mouth, and one that thrives in many kinds of water, from gushing mountain streams to muddy ponds with low oxygen levels.

In the pool in the picture our foot-long fish swam back and forth again and again, surrounded by fingerlings of the same species, and I wondered how they could all remain so active with so little apparent food available there. Maybe the big one eates the little ones, but what do the little ones eat? Also I wondered how long all of them will last if we don't get rain pretty soon.

*****

SPINY LIZARD #10
I can't get over how many kinds of "spiny lizard," genus Sceloporus, there are. This week one morning when I opened the hunter's blind in which the bicycle is stored, by golly yet another one we haven't seen was hanging on the plywood wall, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901lz.jpg.

Black collars grace several spiny lizard species, but in our area only one black-collared species also bears such large, protruding scales and is so vividly banded along the body's entire length.

Therefore, this one was easy to identify as the Crevice Spiny Lizard, SCELOPORUS POINSETTI, our tenth Sceloporus species. We may still encounter more, for about 90 Sceloporus species are recognized at the moment, though there's much debate as to whether the genus consists of a few very variable species, or much more than 90. You might enjoy comparing this one with our previous nine spiny lizard species linked to on our Lizard Index Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/lizards.htm.

Crevice Spiny Lizards are described as living on limestone and other exposed rocky outcrops in arid northeastern Mexico, southern New Mexico and southwestern Texas. They're said to be elusive, quick to hide among stones and crevices, so encountering this one occupying a hunter's blind and willing to let me take such a close picture may be a bit anomalous. However, he did streak off the moment the above picture was taken, precluding a shot from the side.

This species reaches nearly a foot long, but ours was only about half that, apparently a young one. My neighbor Phred says that the ones he sees are big ones.

Crevice Spiny Lizards are insectivorous, eating a wide variety of spiders, beetles, and other arthropods, plus they've been seen consuming tender vegetation. They're one of several spiny lizard species that are "ovoviviparous" -- meaning that their babies develop in eggs remaining inside their mother's body until they hatch. It looks like the mother is giving birth to fully formed babies but in fact the eggs are just hatching inside her, with no placental connection between the unborn young and the mother.

*****

TREE LIZARD
During my year here I got the impression that the only lizard species I was likely to see were the Texas Spiny Lizard and the Texas Spotted Whiptail, both commonly encountered. However, during the last two weeks suddenly three new-for-me species have turned up, including the five-inch one (12cm) found one afternoon in the dry bottom of a plastic tub used for catching water. I feared he was unable to scale the tub's smooth walls so I turned the tub onto its side. The lizard instantly scurried off, but instead of hiding he mounted on of Juniper House's foundation cinderblocks, paused, looked at me, and let me get close enough for a good look at him.

I'm glad he did because I thought he was just another Texas Spiny, but finally it dawned on me that he was different. You can see him clinging to the cinderblock at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901l2.jpg.

In that picture you can see that something unusual is going on, on the lizard's back. The usual systematic scale arrangement seems to give way to some kind of broken pattern. A closer look at the back is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901l3.jpg.

Notice that two lines of much enlarged scales run down the back, separated by a thin, pale line of smaller scales over the backbone. These two lines of big scales take us directly to the Ornate Tree Lizard, UROSAURUS ORNATUS. If it weren't for the oversize scales, identification might have been hard because otherwise our lizard is pretty similar to others found in our area.

This was an exceptionally tame little critter who indulged a nice close-up of his face, which appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901l4.jpg.

Last week we looked at the Greater Earless Lizard. In this picture you can see what ears can look like on a normal lizard -- in this case a vertical slit between the eye and shoulder.

Ornate Tree Lizards occupy trees, rocks, fence posts and buildings from southeastern California north to southern Wyoming to here in southwestern Texas, and adjacent arid northern Mexico. Occupying so many far-flung habitats, the species is fracturing into various subspecies -- about ten currently recognized.

In Joan Roughgarden's 2004 book Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, this lizard's sexuality was revealed as being more complex than normal. For one thing, male Ornate Tree Lizards may display different "genders" of different colors and with differt hormonal profiles. Roughgarden writes that when a male tree lizard hatches an abundance of progesterone causes him to develop into an orange-blue type. Low progesterone leads to an orange type. During dry weather, orange-type males' corticosterone levels increase, which causes testosterone to decrease, which encourages a nomadic lifestyle. Orange-blue types don't display this hormonal response to the weather, and remain in their territories regardless of climatic conditions.

*****

HORNPOD
On the little Dry Frio River's bed, during most of the year submerged below clear, running water, now in most places fields of gravel and cobblestones coated with white, dried-up marly mud create hot, very dry deserts. Sunlight bounces off the whiteness with real violence, yet a few wildflowers do survive there, including the foot-tall one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901hg.jpg.

A different view shows that on robust plants the flowering heads can assume a curious configuration, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901he.jpg.

A closer shot showing how flowers and fruits arise on one side of the raceme is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901hf.jpg.

At the bottom of that picture we also see the plant's unusual fruits. In the picture they appear to be deeply two lobed, but eventually the fruit separates into four "nutlets," or fruit sections. The lowest fruit in the picture is sloughing off a withered corolla. At the picture's top, immature flowers and buds arise from a slightly curved tip. Such curved inflorescence tips with flowers growing on only one side are said to be "scorpioid," like a scorpion's curved tail, and only a few plant families produce them. Therefore, this is a good field mark, as are the fruits that mature into four separate nutlets.

You can see the plant's opposite leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901hh.jpg.

These details lead us to the Lax Hornpod, MITREOLA PETIOLATA, of the Logania Family, the Loganiaceae, a smallish family found mostly in the tropics and subtropics. The hornpod part of its name refers to the two-pointed fruits. Lax Hornpod itself occurs throughout most of the American Tropics, preferring moist streambeds, seeps and the like.

*****

INDIAN MALLOW
Last week we looked at the Spreading Sida, one of many small, orange-to-yellow-flowered, frequently weedy herbs belonging to the Mallow or Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae. At that time we mentioned that with so many look-alike species in that family with small, orange-to-yellow flowers, it's easier to identify them using features of their fruits than their flowers. This is unusual because normally it's the flowers that are so important. This week, in a shady spot of a limestone cliff cut by the little Dry Frio River, I ran into a member of this group whose flowering period had nearly passed, but it bore handsome and characteristic fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901ab.jpg.

The brown fruits are easy to see, but I had to search the branch tips of several plants before finding a withered flower that had just blossomed. You can see it and a discarded corolla dangling below it on a spider silk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901ac.jpg.

In that picture at least we can confirm the flowers' orange-yellow color, and see the dense, velvety hairiness mantling the vegetative parts. A side view of a mature fruit is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901ad.jpg.

There it's worth noting that the sepals below the brown fruit are somewhat enlarged and showing no signs of withering. In many species the sepals are shed when the flower is pollinated. A shot better showing the fruit's basic structure appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901ae.jpg.

This is a special kind of fruit known as a schizocarp, which means that each cell, or "carpel," of the flower's ovary matured into a dry, capsule-like division of the fruit. The capsule-like division is called a mericarp. The schizocarp in the picture is composed of eight mericarps with each mericarp bearing two or three seeds. Mericarp and seed numbers are important for identification.

These and other features identify our limestone-cliff-loving herb as the Indian Mallow, ABUTILON FRUTICOSUM. It's closely related to and similar to Velvetleaf, Abutilon theophrastii, a common weed from Asia occurring across the US, but that species' schizocarps are composed of more numerous mericarps, and each of its mericarps' tops is sharply pointed instead of rounded like Indian Mallow's.

Indian Mallow, also known as Texas Indian mallow and Pelotazo, is native to the US south-central states and arid northeastern Mexico, where it's described as growing on cliffs, slopes, and limestone outcrops. Also, it's widely encountered in arid areas of western Africa to Arabia and India, so this is one of our native plants that has successfully invaded other countries.

Moreover, Indian Mallow is eaten by many grazing animals, its seeds are fed on by small birds, it serves as a host for the larvae of several skipper butterfly species, its stem fibers are strong enough for making ropes and for weaving, and, to cap it all off, it's such a handsome plant and needs so little water that it's a good candidate for xeriscaping.

*****

MEXICAN PETUNIA
One reason I liked being in Mexico was that down there the plants are much less known than in North America and Europe. Often I felt that I was making a real contribution by posting photos and information about obscure plants, and that eventually there'd be an expert who would be happy too see what I had. Here in southwest Texas the plants are much better known but, still, on the average, they're not as well studied as plants of most of the rest of North America. You can see a species about which there seems to be a good deal of confusion at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901ra.jpg.

This one almost went unnoticed because it grew in deep shade beneath an Ashe Juniper on the Dry Frio's gravely floodplain, on the downstream side of the trunk where floodwater had swirled around scooping out a depression. The plants' leaves were simple and so slender that they could be confused with grass blades. The inch-broad (2.5cm), light blue flowers seemed to hover just above a tangle of grass.

The flowers' size, color and five rounded lobes spreading flatly atop a slender tube all suggest that we have yet another species of "wild petunia," of which we've seen several during our travels, two here along the Dry Frio. But such narrow leaves are unusual for a wild petunia. It was time to "do the botany."

A side view of the flower showing a particularly long, slender, curved tube arising from a calyx with especially narrow, sharp-pointed sepals can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901rb.jpg.

A picture of maturing fruits with their brown, withering styles still attached, and with conspicuous, scale-like bracts subtending each fruit-filled calyx is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901rc.jpg.

Everything we've seen so far is pure "wild petunia," genus Ruellia of the Acanthus Family. But, what about those leaves? A look at them is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901rd.jpg.

Such narrow leaves are unusual for wild petunias, but there's a cluster of species that does has them, and we have one of those. However, it's not a simple matter of revealing which species it is.

In Shinners & Mahler's Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas our plant keys out to Ruellia malacosperma, of which the authors mention the opinion of Turner, an expert on the group, that R. malacosperma and R. brittoniana are "probably no more than regional population leaf variants of the same species," R. brittoniana having even narrower leaves. And some experts regard R. brittoniana as the same as R. simplex, a Mexican species. In short, the experts are in no agreement as to what to call this species.

Here we'll file it as RUELLIA MALACOSPERMA which, if it really is the same as R. brittoniana, as I also suspect, can be known as the Mexican Petunia. I trust that any future expert looking for pictures and habitat descriptions of either R. brittoniana or R. simplex will know to search under R. malacosperma, too.

*****

RANDOM CLOUD
Late each afternoon when my brain has frazzled and I'm tired I step onto Juniper House's shaded deck, lie on a bench, and read books on my Kindle. Before reading I might close my eyes awhile, listening to birds or silence. The other day when I opened my eyes a random cloud was passing over. It looked so pretty I took its picture, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130901__.jpg.

Moments after the picture was taken, the cloud had changed shape and was dissipating. This got me to thinking about the whole matter of looking at clouds.

I remember as a young child seeing lone, white clouds in the blue sky and being deeply touched by the simple colors and forms. One just looked, one's heart melted with joy, and that was enough.

Years later my playmates and I learned to interpret clouds, to see white poodles, clown faces, shapes of continents, etc. Cloud looking was a socialization experience; it showed us who had the most vivid imagination, who would say crazy stuff just for the effect with no interpretation behind it, and who might actually come up with profound, cloud-inspired insights.

Then came years of hardly noticing clouds at all. Sometimes clouds would be noticed -- thunderheads on tropical beaches, during tornado warnings, when crossing the desert with clouds towering above like wrathful prophets -- but, during those years, hour after hour, day after day, eyes were on floors and sidewalks, the road ahead, pages and screens, people's faces, and not much more.

Nowadays I'm thinking that as one grows older clouds deserve attention again.

For one thing, there's the way clouds form, express themselves, then vanish without a trace -- all with exquisite grace. They suggest a pattern for one's late years... an example of slipping into nonexistence beautifully.

But, there are patterns beyond that to think about. For instance, this week I decided that both a cloud's appearance and disappearance are somewhat illusory. That's because molecules of water forming the cloud are always there in the sky, not just when they condense into clouds. However, only at certain molecular densities, air pressures and temperatures do the molecules align themselves so that electromagnetic energy with wavelengths in the visible light range reflect from them into our eyes, causing our brains interpret that stimulus as seeing a cloud.

When the cloud vanishes, the water molecules remain, and nothing fundamental really has changed. Moreover, if instead of light rays our eyes detected radio waves, which are much longer than light waves, or X-rays, which are much shorter, we'd see no clouds at all, but the sky would dance in entirely different ways.

A random cloud in the blue sky with its grace and perfection teases us into a spiritual frame of mind. The spiritual question a random cloud poses is whether we shall identify with that temporary alignment of the sky's water molecules causing our minds to behold a cloud, or do we identify with the content of the whole broad sky, so pregnant with things other than water molecules aligned a certain way, and with things detectable in many ways other than by light waves of particular wavelengths?

And, what would it be like to spiritually identify with the overarching blue sky at least as ardently as with its random clouds?

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Liberace Rooster, Julia Child Hen" from the April 14, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080414.htm

"3 + 4 = 7" from the August 1, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100801.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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