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

October 27, 2013

GLOSSY SNAKE
One warm afternoon this week as I biked the paved road below Juniper House I almost ran over a crack in the asphalt, which was odd, since there'd never been a crack there before, plus the crack was straight, while most cracks snake about. After turning around the bike I saw that something was indeed snaking about, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027sn.jpg.

How odd that this snake lay there with such a straight body. It's hard to see how he could move forward. He was a small one, only about 15 inches long (38cm), but his markings were so distinct that I thought I might be able to identify him. A closer shot of the head showing a distinctive dark bar running diagonally up through the eyes and across the upper snout, and with a neat circle of spots crowning the head, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027ss.jpg.

A close-up detailing the critical-for-identification head scales is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027so.jpg.

A similar shot from the top is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027sp.jpg.

It's always good with an unidentified snake to see if the body scales each have a little ridge, or "keel," running down their backs. You can see that this snake's scales are "smooth," with no keels, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027sr.jpg.

Another diagnostic feature to look for is whether the scale above the anus is divided or else consists of a single broad scale. This snake's "anal plate" is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027sq.jpg.

At first I thought that the anal plate -- the scale in the picture's center -- was "divided," but looking more closely it was clear that no definite division slanted across the scale's center. At one side of the scale there's a sunken-in oval spot I can't explain, but that's not a division. Well, with my old Audubon field guide for North American reptiles and amphibians it was easy to figure out the snake's ID, and this species has an undivided anal plate.

This is a Glossy Snake, ARIZONA ELEGANS, found throughout much of the arid, northern half of Mexico and the US Desert Southwest. Sometimes they're also called Faded Snakes, because of their pale, "bleached" look. They certainly were well camouflaged on the asphalt pavement. Nine subspecies are recognized, with a good bit of overlap between them. Most subspecies are capable of growing to about 50 inches (130cm), so our individual is a young one.

The literature says that Glossy Snakes occupy dry, open, sandy areas and a variety of habitats from coastal chaparral to oak-hickory woodlands and creosote-mesquite desert, to which we now can add oak-juniper hills. They often burrow into loose soil quickly, which explains their pointy snouts and recessed lower jaws. They are described as mostly nocturnal, though ours turned up in mid afternoon. They feed on small mammals, lizards, and other snakes

*****

JACOB SHEEP
Biking a few miles south of here I passed a field in which some unusual looking sheep were grazing, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027js.jpg.

A close-up of one of the sheep's heads is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027jt.jpg.

I know the sheep's owner, who raises them for their wool, which she hand spins. My friend says her sheep are Jacob Sheep, which I've never heard of. However, their story on the Internet is fascinating, as you can see on their Wikipedia page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_(sheep).

Jacob Sheep are described as a rare breed of small, piebald (colored with white spots), "polycerate" sheep, polycerate meaning "multi-horned." Adult Jacobs normally produce from two to six horns, commonly four. They're the only sheep breed producing offspring that are both polycerate and piebald (spotted). Most Jacob Sheep are black and white, and they're raised not only for wool but also for their meat, and hides. My friend chose Jacobs because they produce wool of more than one color, and she can get higher prices for her spun wool if she can produce it in different natural colors.

Jacobs are regarded as an heirloom breed, which means that they are close to their wild ancestral form. According to recent genetic analysis, apparently their ancestors roamed southwestern Asia and Africa.

Jacobs are named for the Biblical figure of Jacob, who asked his father-in-law for those sheep in the father-in-law's flock that were speckled or spotted, so that he'd always know which sheep were his (Genesis 30:31–43). Thereafter Jacob selected for the strongest sheep and eventually produced an exceptionally good flock. This may be the earliest record of selective breeding.

The breed is estimated to consist of a global population of less than 5,000. As of 2009 the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has listed Jacob Sheep as a "threatened breed" and a conservation priority.

*****

SPECKLED DUN MAYFLY
A surprisingly small mayfly mysteriously turned up in my room, perched on a vertical glass window. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027mf.jpg.

I had little hope that volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario could figure this one out, but I sent the picture to her anyway. At first she doubted she could do anything with it, pointing out that "Currently 110 nominal species of mayflies are reported for Texas, distributed in 12 families and 40 genera."

However, Bea found an online mayfly identification page hosted by folks who like to fly-fish. On that page you fill in query boxes, hit "Lookup," and then species that match your description are listed. The interesting page resides at http://www.flyfishingentomology.com/Adult%20Mayfly%20Identification.htm.

Bea thinks we have CALLIBAETIS PICTUS, often known as the Speckled Dun. It's reported as widespread in western North America and Mexico, and has been collected in Costa Rica as well, so there's no reason for it not to be here.

At the TroutNut.Com website we learn that "A very interesting quirk of this genus {Callibaetis} is evidence that suggests the tiny nymphs hatch from fertilized eggs almost as soon as they hit the water. To make this possible, the females would have to wait on land for an extended period after mating to allow incubation before they can oviposit."

It's gratifying that fly fisherfolks are so interested in the kinds of insects their fish eat, and which they can use when fly-fishing.

*****

EVERGREEN SUMAC
Here in late October I was astonished to see leaning from the woods edge at the side of a road a ten-ft-tall (3m) bush or small tree absolutely loaded with dense clusters of small, white flowers abuzz with bees. You can see the tree's shiny, dark green, pinnately compound leaves arising one leaf per stem node (alternate) beneath a branch-tip inflorescence at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027rh.jpg.

A close-up of a flower with its five white petals and five stamens is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027ri.jpg.

In this part of the world there aren't too many shrubs or trees with alternate, pinnately compound leaves and flowers looking like these. You might think of Soapberries, but we saw them flowering in mid summer in more diffuse panicles. There's Tickletongue, in the Citrus Family, but that's spiny and its leaves are smaller. Coming from the East, my first thought was that it looked a little like a sumac, but I'm used to sumacs having smaller flowers and leaves not nearly as shiny and leathery as these apparently evergreen ones. But what could it be if not a sumach?

Back at the computer, the University of Texas's dandy Flora of Texas Database at http://orchid.biosci.utexas.edu/Texas_II.html informed me that in Uvalde County at least three sumac species -- members of the genus Rhus -- have been recorded, and when I did an image search on the three species, one of them looked exactly like our late-flowering friend.

It was RHUS VIRENS, known as the Evergreen or Tobacco Sumac, mostly of the north Mexican arid lands, but entering the US in an area from southern Arizona to central Texas. Literature indicates that in Texas the species flowers in July and August, but ours in late October simply couldn't have been more at its flowering peak. Its habitat preferences are described as rocky hillsides, gullies and bluffs.

Evergreen Sumac's flowers are unisexual, each sex appearing on a different tree -- the plants are dioecious. I think our picture must show male flowers, for in other pictures of flowers often the ovary is more apparent and the stamens are smaller.

The 2010 book Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke: Its Ethnobotany as Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense, and Medicine by Marcello Pennacchio and others reports that in our area indigenous Americans smoked Evergreen Sumac's leaves and mixed them with tobacco, though it's not said whether the effects were hallucinogenic. St. Edward's University of Austin, Texas, produces a webpage on which it's claimed that Evergreen Sumac's fruits are tasty but very tart, and that its leaves can be made into a tea to help with stomach pain. Though I'm wary of such a tea since sumacs belong to the Poison Ivy Family and some sumac species cause skin problems, later in the season if I can find some berries I'll certainly give it a try.

*****

COPPERLEAF
On a dazzlingly sunny, skin-blistering day I biked down Ranch Road just to the south when in blindingly white gravel along the road a bread-loaf-size mound of vegetation sprinkled with fuzzy red little somethings turned up, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027ac.jpg.

Up close the little mound revealed itself as composed of many short, leafy branches bearing hairy, roundish leaves with scalloped margins, and the red things turned out to be flowering heads, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027ad.jpg.

Isolating just one flower, I could see that the branched, reddish filaments were styles atop a female flower's ovary, with no male stamens in view, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027ae.jpg.

Wanting to see male flowers I examined the little plant -- which arose from a woody base despite the herbaceous-seeming stems -- but none were found.

Back on the bike, a few miles farther down the road a whole colony of the plant appeared, and this time there were plants with male flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027af.jpg.

Though I'd never seen this species, I was familiar with its genus, which was Acalypha of the Poinsettia or Euphorbia Family, the Euphorbiaceae. Acalypha species are recognized by having unisexual flowers like these; often species in the genus are referred to as copperleafs. It's a big genus, with over 450 species known worldwide, and they're often weedy and commonly occurring, so it's a good genus to know.

Our roadside one turned out to be what's usually called Round Copperleaf, though nurseries like to call it Raspberry Fuzzy because that probably sells better and it's easier to remember. It's ACALYPHA MONOSTACHYA.

At the bottom of the spike of male flowers in the last picture you can see two female flowers with red style arms that are less spectacular than those in the first picture. Apparently this species can have flowers of both sexes on the same plant, though each plant tends to be predominantly male or female. This is worth noting because in southern Texas there's a very similar species, Acalypha radians, which the literature says has just one gender of flower per plant. Its leaves also are more deeply divided than ours.

The online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana, which calls our plant Hierba del Cáncer, or Cancer Herb, reports people in central Mexico using a "tea" of the plant to wash boils, plus the tea can be gargled for a sore throat.

Round Copperleaf mostly occurs in arid northern Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert, and extends into the US only in southern Texas.

Doves, bobwhites and other small birds eat the seeds, and deer browse on the foliage.

*****

SANDBUR
If you were with me during my Yucatan years you might remember an abundant grass on the beach that produced little burrs with spines that were awful to step on. You can see the grass on the beach north of Mahahual at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/sandbur.htm.

That's Coastal or Southern Sandbur, CENCHRUS SPINIFEX, and along our roads and even in weedy lawns and gardens here you can find the very same species. Our plants grow less rambunctiously than along the Yucatan beach and tend to be less mat-forming, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027sb.jpg.

A close-up of the sublimely spiny fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027sa.jpg.

Coastal Sandbur is native throughout the warmer parts of the Americas, from the southern US to South America, plus it's been introduced in most other tropical and semitropical countries, where in general it's considered a plague, not only by barefoot naturalists but also livestock whose mouths and guts are damaged by the spiny burrs, and sheep whose wool collects them. In southwestern Texas we can look for four sandbur species, but this one is the most commonly encountered.

If you know your grass flower anatomy, sandbur "fruits" will confuse you. The spines arise from a kind of partially open "cupule" formed of fused bristles below the spikelets. Visualize the bristles below each spikelet of foxtail or bristlegrass, fuse them together, partially cover the spikelet with them and develop spines on the resulting little cup, and you have the spiny covering of a sandbur burr. A more or less typical spikelet hides within this covering.

*****

GIANT REED
A few miles south of Juniper House, where the road dips into the little Dry Frio River and crosses atop a low culvert, a marshy area forms upstream of the road. At the water's edge there's a small colony of flowering, very tall grasses -- about 15 ft high (4.5m) -- with large leaves arrayed on opposite sides of the stems, like barbs from the shaft of a flat feather, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027rd.jpg.

The two-ft-long (60cm), panicle-type inflorescences consist of hundreds of spikelets, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027re.jpg.

Looking at an individual spikelet up close you see that its lowest scales, its glumes, are longer than the florets inside them, which is a little unusual, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027rf.jpg.

Usually each spikelet contains four or five florets, and a scale, the lemma, below each floret bears a needle-like "awn" at its tip.

If you break open a spikelet, what you find is a little confusing because the florets don't seem fully formed. Even mature ones produce no well developed grains. That's because this impressive, pretty species is an invasive from eastern and southern Asia, and probably parts of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula, and in the US it does not produce viable grains.

The big grass is Giant Reed, ARUNDO DONAX, and in the US and much of the world it's been widely planted, often forming dense stands on disturbed sites, sand dunes, in wetlands and along streams. It sprouts from very large, deep rhizomes. In years past the state of Texas planted it for erosion control, but now in some places it's being removed as an invasive pest. For example, in Austin, the state capital, Giant Reed covers five miles of shoreline along Lady Bird Lake, mainly between the water and bike and hiking trails. A three-year program using herbicides is being undertaken to get rid of it.

Giant Reed is the "reed" of the Bible, and for 5,000 years has been used to make the vibrating reeds that give clarinets, organs, and other pipe instruments their voice. Its stems are so strong that they've been used for walking sticks and fishing rods, and they contain fiber from which paper and rayon can be made. I'd always thought that rayon was a fiber synthetically made from petroleum products, but in fact it's cellulose that's been dissolved and regenerated, then forced through spinnerets to produce filaments. With cotton fibers rising in price, there's talk of growing Giant Reed for its cellulose for producing rayon fibers to replace cotton in many fibers.

Studies in the European Union have identified Giant Reed as the most productive and lowest impacting of all energy biomass crops, and its inability to spread by seeds is just an added attraction for this use.

*****

SOUTHERN CATTAIL
Near the Giant Reeds a thicket of cattails grew along the water's edge. They weren't the same kind of cattail I've commonly seen back in Kentucky and Mississippi, though, commonly called the Common or Broadleaf Cattail; these cattails were smaller, with narrower leaves and smaller, spike-type heads. A small part of the colony is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027ty.jpg.

To provide an idea of the spikes' size -- about finger thick -- you can see a mature head held in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131027tz.jpg.

This smaller species is the Southern Cattail, TYPHA DOMINGENSIS, in the US native throughout the southwestern states and along the eastern Gulf coast, as well as throughout temperate and tropical regions worldwide -- basically between 40º north and south latitude. Being so widely distributed and known to be capable of aggressively invading certain wetland habitats, including disturbed ones, I'm surprised I've seen it so rarely in the eastern US, except along the Gulf coast.

Our pictures show that atop the brown, frankfurter-like head a slender, needle-like rachis continues upward, as if the frankfurter were skewered. The top needle previously bore hundreds of tiny male flowers. The brown frankfurter is composed of multitudinous female flowers with ovaries developing into fruits. The spikes' brownness is produced by the brown tops of closely packed female flowers.

Everyone knows you can eat starchy cattail rhizomes, raw or cooked, though ones I've dug never were as thick and succulent as the books show. Beaver, deer, muskrats and the like relish them, however. Medicinally, the leaves and rhizomes are considered to be diuretic (make you pee), plus when the male flowers are producing pollen, the pollen can be used to staunch bleeding, which can be said of many dry powders.

Cattail stems and leaves make decent thatch and can be used for making paper, and can be woven into mats, chairs, hats, etc. Cattails grow so fast that they're a good source of biomass for the compost heap or as a source of fuel. Mature fruits bear hairs enabling the fruits to parachute into the wind, so fluffy masses of fruits can be used for stuffing pillows and the like. Cattail fluff provides good insulation and buoyancy, until it gets wet. Cattails' extensive root system helps stabilize river banks and shores.

Cattail's are not grasses or sedges, but rather are such distinct organisms that they have their own family, the Cattail Family, the Typhaceae, on the phylogenetic Tree of Life residing not far from the mostly tropical Bromeliad or Air-plant Family, the Bromeliaceae, of all things.

*****

SHEEP, FLEABANES AND A COLD NOSE
While researching the Jacob Sheep breed I read that their ancestry has been determined by using a different twist on the usual genetic sequencing technique: Coding inserted into the sheep's genes by retroviruses was analyzed. Retroviruses have been inserting their own coded genetic information into genes of many organisms, including humans, for millions of years, and that retrovirus code can be inherited. Five to eight percent of the human genome is thought to be "junk DNA" introduced by retroviruses long ago. Retroviruses insert coding into genes of other organisms because that coding instructs the host's cells to produce more retroviruses. Sometimes that doesn't affect the host, sometimes it causes a disease, and sometimes it kills them.

Many, maybe most, retrovirus insertions on sheep and human genes were placed there so long ago that those retrovirus strains have gone extinct, just as dinosaurs did, through the usual processes of chance and evolution. Since retroviruses are little more than encapsulated genetic information, our genes' "fossil" retrovirus coding can be studied just like fossils in rocks. The longer a certain host species has existed, the more retrovirus coding its genes are likely to carry. If the genes of two host species carry the same fossil retrovirus coding, it can be deduced that once the two species shared a common ancestor.

Thinking like this brings to mind the phenomenon of "ploidy," mentioned last week when we looked at our local Plains Fleabane, which is a "polyploid." Polyploids are organisms with extra sets of chromosomes. Very rarely when sex germs are formed, regular meiosis fails to split the genes' chromosome pairs, resulting in a sex germ carrying double the number of chromosomes it should. The embryo formed from that sex germ then has "too many" chromosomes, and the individual developing from that embryo may be unable to mate with individuals of the parent's species, because of the mismatch in chromosome number. However, it can mate with other polyploid individuals produced by the same process. In other words, through ploidy, very rarely a whole new species can arise.

Often polyploids are more robust than their parents. D.A. Lavine in a 2000 paper in Journal of Ecology, entitled "The origin, demise, and expansion of plant species," suggests that over 70% of all flowering plants have ancestors who arose through ploidy. Ploidy is less common among animals than plants.

We didn't know all this when I was in college. Having this new-to-me information profoundly colors how I think of the natural world. Though since I was a kid Nature has awed me with its diversity and knack for "doing things with flair," this new information heightens those insights. More vividly than ever now I see how fervently Nature ("The Creator") spews all kinds of life into the Universe, sometimes even instantaneously creating species, and She is so pleased with her creations that She honors such hardly visible, debatably alive entities as retroviruses with fossilization, their own evolution, and the ability to sicken or even kill humans, as they do when they cause HIV-AIDS and certain cancers.

Lately our nights here shimmer with moonlight and insect calls, cricket tintinnabulations oceanic like the moonlight itself, and I lie with my nose in a window crack as nippy, explosively fresh air drifts in, tree silhouettes outside, deer and armadillos moving about, and I think of retrovirus fossils and ploidy. I visualize all around me a Creation effervescent with old and new things, everything forever changing, so little of it understood, really nothing absolutely understood, and what a wonder that within all this surging blossoming beginning with the Big Bang, now, here, there's a little sanctuary where I can look around and take account and wonder about it all, where I can lie with a cold nose in a window crack as crickets sing.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"102.5° F, Whales & Visitors from Outer Space" from the June 13, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100613.htm.

"Botfly Revelation" from the March 2, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030302.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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