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

July 27, 2014

GRASSHOPPER LOOKING LIKE A TOAD
In mud among limestone cobbles where the Dry Frio's meager current was just lively enough to make a little trickling sound, something almost too small to bother with jumped out the way when I shifted my foot. In fact, I did ignore it awhile, until it dawned on my heat-numbed brain that this might be worth looking at. However, on hands and knees, I couldn't find it exactly where I'd seen it land. I've known interesting species with amazing camouflage abilities, so I focused the camera on the spot where I'd seen it land, and got the shot shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727gi.jpg.

If you don't see it, our quarry sits right in the picture's center, in full view. After taking that picture I waved a hand over the area hoping to scare whatever it was into moving, and it did, right onto an alga covered cobblestone where it revealed itself, to my astonishment, to be a dwarf grasshopper looking extraordinarily like a toad. Its compound eyes, instead of being mounted along the head's side, had shifted to the head's very top, looking like a toad's poison-secreting glands, the parotoid glands. Also, the femurs of its hind legs were thick and shaped just like a toad's, and the entire grasshopper was warty-textured and colored like a toad. You can see the whole thing -- the body being only about half an inch long (12mm) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727gh.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario had fun figuring out that our toad-grasshopper was a member of the Pygmy Grasshopper Family, the Tetrigidae, of which worldwide about 1,600 species have been described in some 250 genera. She even got it genus level, Paratettix. Grasshoppers in the Pygmy Grasshopper Family are recognized not only by their small size but also from the saddle-like scale immediately behind their heads (the pronotum), which extends backward over the abdomen, sometimes reaching the wing tips. Most grasshopper pronotums are only a little wider that the grasshopper's head. Our grasshopper's pronotum doesn't reach its wing tips, but it almost does.

Many pygmy grasshoppers are famous for their camouflage coloration and patterning, and most species occur along streams and ponds, where they feed on algae and diatoms, so our Dry Frio species fits into the family nicely.

Bea having done the hard work of figuring out the genus, Paratettix, I set about trying to narrow it down to species level. BugGuide.Net lists eight Paratettix species for North America. After doing image searches for each name, and basing my identification on our grasshopper's compound eyes being so completely atop its head, plus the shape of the short ovipositor at the tip of her abdomen, and its general color, I'm thinking we have the Aztec Pygmy Grasshopper, PARATETTIX AZTECUS, which occurs through most of Central America and Mexico, and extends into the US mainly in the southwestern states.

I read that between 80% and 100% of our Aztec Pygmy Grasshopper's diet consists of "aquatic primary production," which I assume to be the algae and diatoms mentioned as the prime food of most pygmy grasshoppers. Also I read that members of this family living along streams, like ours, are capable of swimming on the water's surface, and they readily leap into water when alarmed.

Who'd have thought that grasshoppers could do such things? And to think that I almost didn't even look closer just because it was so hot and I was tired.

*****

PLATEAU SPREADWING
A good half mile (800m) from the nearest standing water in the little Dry Frio River an unfamiliar dragonfly perched on a dead juniper snag near the top of our hill. Any dragonfly on a wooded slope so far from water is unusual, plus this one was boldly colored in a way I hadn't seen, so I worked hard to get the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727df.jpg.

With such striking markings -- especially the thorax so brightly yellow on the sides, the dark "shoulder bands" above, and the long hairs on the legs -- in my Dragonflies through Binoculars field guide by Sidney Dunkle it was easy to peg this as the Black-shouldered Spinyleg, Dromogomphus spinosus, a species described as common in eastern North America.

However, as good ol' volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario was good enough to point out, that ID was wrong. The fundamental error was that our hillside species is not a dragonfly, but rather a damselfly, albeit a member of the Spreadwing Family, the Lestidae, who at rest spread their wings like dragonflies, instead of folding them neatly over their backs like decent damselflies. Bea's reckoning is that this is the Plateau Spreadwing, LESTES ALACER. in the US known from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Our Plateau Spreadwing is a female -- the male looking quite different -- and one wonders whether Nature has been at work evolving the two unrelated forms to look so similar!

I find very little about this species on the Internet. At least here we can say that in late July in this part of the world females turn up near the tops of very dry hills covered with scrubby junipers and oaks, and at least that's something.

*****

JERUSALEM THORN FRUITING
This May we looked at the Jerusalem Thorn's pretty flowers, Jerusalem Thorns being small trees common in the scrub around Uvalde down on the Coastal Plain 35 miles south of us, but apparently absent here on the Edwards Plateau's southern slope. Our page showing Jerusalem Thorn's strange leaves and pretty flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/jerthorn.htm.

Now Jerusalem Thorns bear both flowers and fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727pk.jpg.

When we looked at the flowers it was almost hard to believe that Jerusalem Thorn is a member of the Bean Family, but seeing the few-seeded pods in this picture it's easier, the leathery pods being acceptable legumes. Legumes are simple fruits that split apart, or "dehisce," along two sutures, and arise from a flower's one-celled ovary. And of course legume seeds are called beans. Jerusalem Thorn fruits are famous for producing so few beans per fruit, so we can assume that once the beans germinate they enjoy a good survival rate.

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DESERT HACKBERRY FRUITING
This April we looked at leaves and flowers of the spiny little Desert Hackberry, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/des-hack.htm.

Now in the scrub around Uvalde the Desert Hackberries are developing ripe, yellow-orange hackberries, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727ce.jpg.

Botanically, hackberry fruits aren't berries. They're drupes, which are fleshy, one-seeded fruits that don't split open when they're ripe, and the seed is enclosed within a stony endocarp. To visualize a seed enclosed within a stony endocarp, think of a peach "seed," which consists of the woody, wrinkled endocarp, which when you break open reveals the actual soft seed inside. The exocarp of the peach is the fleshy part we eat, the same as with hackberries.

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HACKBERRY BLISTER GALLS
Speaking of hackberries, I've not seen Desert Hackberries here on the southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, but we do have Netleaf Hackberries with larger leaves and drupes, and nowadays many or most of the leaves of some Netleaf Hackberry trees are deformed with galls such as those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727gl.jpg.

A closer look showing better how in the center of each gall a slender, fingerlike projection arises is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727gm.jpg.

Beneath the leaf, the galls have a different appearance, a seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727gn.jpg.

Back East we often saw Hackberry Nipple-Galls, but they were more columnar, made by a different insect. This one is called the Hackberry Blister Gall and it's produced by an aphid-size member of the insect order Hemiptera, and looks like a tiny cicada. It's PACHYPSYLLA CELTIDISVESICULA, sometimes called Jumping Plant Louse. According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension's online field guide, hackberry galls are not considered to be harmful to the trees.

After adult Pachypsylla celtidisvesiculas mate in the spring, the females lay eggs on the underside of expanding hackberry leaves. Nymphs, which are juvenile stages of insects undergoing incomplete metamorphosis, hatch in about 10 days and begin feeding on their leaf, causing tumor-like growth among the leaf cells immediately around the feeding nymphs. The growth ultimately forms a pouch or gall surrounding the nymph, like those shown in our pictures. The nymph develops through several similar-looking but progressively larger stages, or instars, before during its last and largest nymphal stage -- just after its leaf has fallen in the fall -- it cuts a slit in its gall and emerges.

About half an hour after emergence, the nymph molts into an adult. Around house-trees whose leaves bore Hackberry Blister Galls, often large numbers of freshly emerged adults cluster on windows and door screens, settle onto the house's side, automobiles and hanging laundry, and stick to freshly applied paint. They don't do anything bad, other than just be where some people wouldn't welcome them, though I would find such emergences awe inspiring.

Adults overwinter in tree bark crevices, or just about any other protected spot. In the spring they fly to hackberry trees where they mate and start the cycle all over again.

*****

SHAGGY PORTULACA
A good place to look for rare plant species is in very thin soil on ledges and hilltops. Such soil experiences extremes of sunlight and wind, are often highly acidic or alkaline, and very dry, or, in pot holes, very wet for brief periods. Organisms able to survive under such conditions posses special adaptations and often occur only where such extreme conditions exist.

One such half-finger-high, ground-hugging plant in thin soil atop the limestone hill on which Juniper House sits is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727pc.jpg.

With those succulent leaves round in cross-section and arranged like bristles on a bottle brush, gardeners might recognize this as something similar to the Rose-Moss, or Portulaca, we photographed in a garden in Oregon, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090809po.jpg.

In fact, our hilltop plant is very closely related to that much planted and pretty garden plant. The garden plant is Portulaca grandiflora, native to Argentina, southern Brazil, and Uruguay, while our hilltop one is PORTULACA PILOSA, native throughout most of tropical and subtropical America, in the US limited to the southern states. Our hilltop Portulaca pilosa goes by several English names, including Rose-Flowered Purslane, Pink Purslane, Kiss Me Quick, Pigweed, Shaggy Portulaca, and Hairy Portulaca. Though the two species have almost identical leaves and growth form, our hilltop one's flowers are much smaller. In our picture they are closed, though it was early morning and the sun hadn't begun beating down yet. A close-up showing one blossom ready to open, another that has shriveled after being open, and a fruit pod, all nested in white fuzz, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727pd.jpg.

That fuzz is distinctive. You can see how it adorns the stems, thus suggesting the names Shaggy and Hairy Portulaca, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727pe.jpg.

You might recall that in the Yucatan I ate a good bit of another Portulaca species, Portulaca oleraceae, known as Common or Wild Purslane, and famed for containing, as we wrote then "... the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants of any green leafy vegetable examined to date." I suspect that Shaggy Portulaca is similarly endowed, though it's too small and in our area too rare to be thought of as a pot herb. Our Common Purslane page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/purslane.htm.

In Brazil our Shaggy Portulaca has long been considered a traditional medicine for increasing urination, lowering fever and allaying pain. Lab studies show that its extracts do indeed affect kidney function, and in rats it increases potassium excretion without changing the amount of urination or sodium excretion.

*****

MEXICAN HONEYSUCKLE
Last week we looked at a big Indian-Fig Pricklypear, or Nopal Cactus, planted along a sidewalk on a backstreet in Uvalde. Below the big cactus there grew the red-flower plant -- reasonably wilting in tremendous heat and sunlight -- pictured at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727jv.jpg.

Up close, the blossoms displayed a distinctive, bilaterally symmetrical, two-lipped design, the top lip straight and projecting forward while the lower lip tightly curled under. Once pollenated, the corollas fall off leaving the ovary -- the future fruit -- atop which the long, slender, dark, wiry style remains bending this way and that, adding a curiously unkempt feature to the pretty head, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727ju.jpg.

We've seen this pretty plant often in many places in Mexico and, as with the Indian-Fig Cactus, or Nopal, I was surprised to see it doing so well in Uvalde. In English it's known mostly as Mexican Honeysuckle, though it's in a completely different family from real honeysuckles. It's also called Firecracker Bush, Orange Plume Flower, Desert Honeysuckle and other names. It's JUSTICIA SPICIGERA, a member of the Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae, and it's recognized as a prolific nectar provider, especially for hummingbirds.

Our Mexican Honeysuckle in Uvalde already had some ovaries mature enough to show one of the neatest field marks for the Acanthus Family, which is that the mature fruits in the family nearly always display the general shape of upside-down violins -- the broad part at the top, while below the narrower "neck" arises from the green calyx, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727jw.jpg.

Those wiry styles hanging onto the ovaries longer than it seems they should also often serves a good field mark for members of this family.

Mexican Honeysuckle is native throughout most of Mexico south to Costa Rica, plus often it graces gardens throughout much of the tropical world. In Uvalde it looked like it was growing "wild" as a weed around the cactus, but I guess it was planted, since it's not listed for Texas, though apparently sometimes it escapes and persists in southern Florida.

In Mexico, Mexican Honeysuckle has often been used in traditional medicine, the leaves being used against dysentery, and even today backwoods curanderos serve a tea brewed fromit leaves for dengue and heart problems, and somehow use the fruits for coughs and asthma. In fact, a 2012 paper by Ortiz-Andrade et al in the "Journal of Ethnopharmacology" found that extracts from the plant were useful in treating Type 2 diabetes because it stimulates the uptake of glucose under various conditions.

*****

CORALVINE IN UVALDE
If you were with me during the Yucatan years you probably remember my frequent mention of the Coralvine, ANTIGONON LEPTUPUS, so often found clambering over rock walls, bunching atop wire fences, overgrowing bushes and small trees, and generally filling the landscape with splendiferous, almost gaudy blotches of vivid pinkish-red flower clusters set against emerald green leaves. Our Coralvine Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/coralvin.htm.

So, feeling a bit nostalgic for Mexico nowadays, as I explored Uvalde's backstreets, you can imagine my pleasure at finding good old Coralvine massing atop somebody' wire fence just a prettily as if growing wild in its native Mexico, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727cv.jpg.

A close-up of a flower cluster is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727cw.jpg.

A flower close-up showing its five-parted perianth (a perianth being the collection of petal-like affairs that are neither clearly corolla petals nor calyx sepals), and its eight stamens, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727cx.jpg.

A curiosity, but a feature typical of the Buckwheat Family, is that of the Coralvine's five perianth lobes, or "tepals," two or three outer ones are heart-shaped or egg-shaped which the inter ones are more slender. You can see how a blossom with three heart-shaped outer tepals assumes a three-cornered appearance -- often seen in the Buckwheat Family -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140727cy.jpg.

Coralvines are cultivated all across the US Deep South, and sometimes are noted to persist in certain areas if they are abandoned. However, the Flora of North America says that probably the species has "naturalized," or "gone wild," only in Florida and southern Texas. Also, the species is so pretty that it's been introduced into, and often naturalized, in many tropical countries worldwide, especially in South America. That's one reason why it's known by so many English names other than Coralvine, such as Queen's Jewels, Confederate Vine, Mountain-rose Coralvine and Love-chain. In Spanish it's Corallita. The word "coral" often is applied to anything that's strikingly red.

Coralvines produce edible tubers, though it'd be a shame to eat them, destroying the vines that otherwise would arise from them.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"A Hermit's Impressions (After a Trip)" from the October 7, 2001 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/011007.htm

"Adolescent Roosters" from the June 15, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070615.htm


*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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