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

May 14, 2017

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SKUNK ON THE ROAD
Last Sunday morning on the north/south highway between Valladolid and Río Lagartos, about 3kms north of Temozón where most Sundays I visit the frutaría, a black and white skunk appeared as roadkill in the middle of the road. I don't like dealing with roadkill, but sometimes roadkill affords the only opportunity to see animals that are rare or nocturnal. Even before I reached the corpse, I could smell the strong skunky odor. You can see the dead unfortunate lying on the pavement as I found him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514ss.jpg

In a list of medium-size and larger mammals of the Yucatan, three skunk species are listed. I've had several encounters with the Spotted Skunk, one funny experience documented at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/spotsknk.htm

Spotted Skunks are much smaller than our roadkill, however, so this was something new for me. My memory seemed to be that the two remaining Yucatan species were the Striped and Hognosed Skunks. Our picture shows a skunk with stripes and the nose doesn't look much like a hog's, so I assumed we had a Striped Skunk.

However, comparing pictures on the Internet quickly proved me wrong: This is the Striped Hog-nosed Skunk, CONEPATUS SEMISTRIATUS, a strictly neotropical skunk distributed from southern Mexico to northern Peru and eastern Brazil. It is nocturnal and solitary, and studies of its scat remains indicate that it feeds mainly on insects, lizards and birds, with termites being favored insects. Seeds, nuts and fruits also are eaten.

The Striped Skunk, Mephitis macroura, I had remembered as a citizen of the Yucatan apparently occurs only in the extreme southern part of the Peninsula and probably doesn't occur here in the north, though its distribution seems to be expanding.

The Striped Hog-nosed Skunk's nosepad isn't shaped like a hog's, but it's thicker and blunter than those of other skunk species, which probably helps when rooting in the soil for invertebrates. The literature describes its claws as particularly long for a skunk, also useful for grubbing in the soil.

The AnimalDiversity.Org web page for the species says that its breeding season is unknown, that the parents' manner of caring for its offspring is undocumented, and that there are no reports on how long members of the species live.

With such limited information available I'm encouraged to think that even our mention of its presence as roadkill in north-central Yucatan may be welcome to some future researcher considering the species.

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BASILISK ON THE LEMON GRASS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/serrated.htm we introduce the Serrated Casqueheaded Basilisk, a kind of greenish lizard with a helmet-like projection on the back of its head. For that profile I was able to photograph the lizard's head only from the side. One morning this week as I watered the garden, another individual turned up placidly sunning himself atop a big clump of Lemon Grass, and this time I got a good view of the "casque head" from above, emphasizing just what a curious growth it is. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514bk.jpg

We have two common species of basilisks here. The most frequently seen is the Striped Basilisk, with a fin-like appendage running lengthwise at the head's back, unlike the Casqueheaded's crosswise one. The Striped Basilisk's page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basilisk.htm

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A HOT GROOVE-BILLED ANI
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ani.htm you can meet the Groove-billed Ani. Sometimes this curious looking and interesting species perches near the hut. Here at the end of the dry season, afternoons are very hot, normally around 100°F or higher, and birds visiting at that time of day normally are just resting, looking around, not doing much of anything other than trying to keep cool. Usually they rest with their beaks open because they don't have sweat glands -- they cool off by increasing evaporation of moisture from their lungs, by panting like a dog. You can see an open-beaked ani at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514gb.jpg

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"TOO MANY TOADS" UPDATE #2
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/gulftoad.htm we're following a little pond at the rancho overpopulated with Gulf Coast Toad tadpoles. This week the first tadpoles developed legs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514t3.jpg

This and other legged tadpoles in the pond are actually a little smaller than their legless siblings. You can judge how small this one is by the lines in the palm of my hand. I'm guessing that as the tadpoles' bodies metamorphose, part of their flesh is broken down to provide building materials for the legs and other new parts. This tadpole's legs already were functional enough for it to crawl across the surface of my palm, though in the pond it remained in the water instead of climbing onto a log. It's interesting that even at this very early stage of development the toad's legs and feet already show the alternating dark and pale bands that will ornament the adult.

So far numbers don't seem to be decreasing. As the tadpoles metamorphose from being vegetarian to carnivores, I would guess that they may be feeding more and more on aquatic invertebrates such as copepods and mosquito larvae.

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CHINESE OKRA
At the rancho this week a pickup truck backed up beneath a Sour Orange tree and my Maya friend Gener began unloading a load of one of the most unusual fruits I've seen lately. You can see Gener interrupted during his work at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514lu.jpg

A local farmer growing a crop commercially for the human food market had given these to us, to feed to the livestock, because they'd grown too large, hard and bitter to sell. You can see some fruits, with one cut open showing what's inside, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514lv.jpg

The farmer told us that it was Okra, using that English name, but of course it's not the Okra/Gumbo North Americans know about. That Okra is a member of the Hibiscus Family, which you can believe if you've paid attention to Okra flowers. This fruit looked like it had dangled from a vine, and the cut-open fruit smelled and looked cucumbery, so I figured it was a viny member of the Squash/Pumpkin/Gourd/Cucumber Family, the Cucurbitaceae.

Along a street in Río Lagartos on the Yucatan's northern coast, a while back we ran into Luffa Gourd, Luffa cylindrica, whose well illustrated page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/luffa.htm

This week's mystery fruits looked a bit like that Luffa, so that's where I began my sleuthing trying to figure out what it was. It didn't take long before my dogeared Bailey's Manual of Horticultural Plants informed me that at least two species of the genus Luffa are widely planted in the tropics, and the description of the species I'd not seen fit exactly what's shown in our photos, and later the Internet confirmed the ID.

This vine originally from eastern Asia is cultivated in so many countries that it goes by numerous common names, including Chinese Okra, Angled Luffa, Dish Cloth Gourd, Ridged Gourd, Sponge Gourd, Vegetable Gourd, Strainer Vine, Ribbed Loofah, Silky Gourd, Ridged Gourd, and Towelsponge. It's LUFFA ACUTANGULA.

You can guess from some of its common names that, like our earlier Luffa cylindrica in Río Lagartos, Chinese Okra's mature fruits contain fiber that when dried and cleaned can be used like a washrag. Among medicinal uses mentioned by the "Useful Tropical Plants" website is its fruits and seeds being employed against venereal diseases, extracts from its leaves serving against guinea worms, and its leaf sap being used against eczema, and as an eyewash to treat conjunctivitis.

The literature says that numerous cultivars have been developed from Luffa acutangula, with some used mainly for the tough fibers producing fruits too bitter to eat, even toxic, while other cultivars produce tasty fruits. Fruits for eating should best be picked when only about 10cm long (4inches), I read.

We want to plant this Luffa species at the ranch, but all the fruits in the pickup truck were too young to provide mature seeds, and I read that well mature seeds are needed for planting.

So, here's yet another world-famous and very useful plant that I've managed to remain ignorant of for nearly 70 years.

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UPDATE ON GROWING PURSLANE TO EAT
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/purslane.htm we've noted how I grow the common weed called Purslane, Portulaca oleraceae not only because it tastes good in stir-fries but also it contains amazing amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. I continue to eat fair amount of it two or three times a week.

On our Purslane page I show a bed densely populated with leafy plants perfect for eating. During this dry season's hotter months of March through May those plants eventually got "leggy" -- they developed thick stems with only a few small leaves at their tips, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514ps.jpg

The stems are so soft and succulent that they can be cut into sections that are OK in stews and stir-fries, but I like stems with lots of leaves, thinking the leaves may be more nutritious.

Hoping to encourage new, leafy stems, I cut away the long, pink stems, but hardly any new growth resulted, even when the plants were watered generously each morning. Earlier the plants had produced many flowers and fruits, so the soil beneath the pink stems harbored untold numbers of seeds, and I wondered why they weren't germinating, producing new plants. In certain species, seeds only germinate on exposed soil, so I raked the soil where I'd cut away pink stems, but no new plants appeared, even with daily watering. I'm guessing that Purslane produces allelopathic compounds that retard the growth of other plants around it, including its own offspring, or maybe they don't germinate during such hot times as ours.

I'm unsure if this problem would have developed during the rainy season. Whatever the case, during the dry season the only way I've found to keep my Purslane beds full of leafy plants perfect for eating is to periodically go out and dig up small plants for transplanting to the beds. You can see one such plant, its roots bringing along plenty of soil, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170514pt.jpg

Purslane transplants wonderfully. A well rooted small plant like that shown above hardly shows any effect when transplanted, the very next day flowering brightly and bearing crisp and juicy leaves.

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GMOS & SIMPLICITY
I was slow to become anti-GMO, GMOs being gene-manipulated plants and animals. I reasoned that humans have been redirecting plant and animal evolution for thousands of years, by propagating organisms with traits people wanted while ignoring "less desirable" organisms. Such selective breeding, I thought, was just a much slower, more haphazard manner of gene manipulation than what we're doing of now.

But then one day I listened to an anti-GMO activist on shortwave. He said that with GMO plants marketed today mainly we're talking about corn, or maize, into whose chromosomes Monsanto has inserted a gene enabling the corn plant to survive when sprayed with Monsanto's broadband herbicide called Roundup. Spray a weedy cornfield with Roundup and everything dies except the corn.

The concern is less that GMO corn's nutrients somehow are inherently bad for humans, than that GMO corn gets doused with Roundup. Studies suggest that Roundup residue on our food may be making us sick in many ways. Roundup residue and breakdown compounds washed into our streams and rivers don't do any good to aquatic ecosystems, either, especially the vast Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Another instance of a GMO entering our foodchain is that of a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium being inserted into crops that suffer from caterpillar infestation. Bacillus thuringiensis spores are sold to organic farmers, marketed as "BT," as a non-chemical means of controlling caterpillars that feed on garden plants. When caterpillars eat plants bearing Bacillus thuringiensis spores, bacteria develop inside the caterpillars' guts, causing holes in the caterpillars' stomachs, and the caterpillars die. "Leaky gut syndrome" is one of many human diseases we used to never hear of, but which nowadays seems to be of common occurrence.

The anti-GMO activist further said that in today's US supermarkets most processed food contains GMO products, and the more highly processed the food, the more GMO we're getting. For example, Canola Oil is an ingredient in much processed food, and the Canola plant has been GMOed.

In a way, the GMO situation with our food is like most aspects of modern life: It's all become so complex that people can't keep up with the details. Eat a candy bar and you may be setting yourself up for a leaky gut. Post an innocent message on FaceBook, and you're providing information about yourself that may result in targeted ads and email spam. Put money in the bank and someone might hack your account, or the money might lose its value. The News gives so many versions of what's going on that you don't know what to believe.

I regard such loss of control over my own life as serious, and something to be fought. The main weapon against this loss is to choose a life of voluntary simplicity.

I'm lucky because I began simplifying my life back when I was a teenager -- not because I was smart enough to see what was coming, but because people like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Henry Thoreau and The Buddha introduced the concept of voluntary simplicity to me, and it felt right. Also, maybe I just didn't have the brains or the nervous system to endure life as most people live it today.

Whatever the case, here are important steps I've taken in my own life toward voluntary simplicity:

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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