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

October 29, 2017

SALAMANDER IN THE GARDEN
During my student days some of my favorite fieldtrips were those taken into eastern Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains, searching under stones in streams and in crystalline springs for salamanders. Salamanders are shaped like lizards, except that they're amphibians instead of reptiles, so their skin bears no scales as do reptilian lizards. In Appalachia, a wondrous number of species were found, some of them very rare and seldom seen.

The Yucatan is poor salamander-hunting ground because the climate is too arid; salamanders need moist environments. Farther south in Chiapas, Belize and Guatemala a handful of salamander species turn up, but according to distribution descriptions in Jonathan Campbell's Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize, only one salamander species might appear in the northern Yucatan, and it's hardly ever recorded.

So, after two weeks of absence during the late rainy season, when plants grow at their absolute lustiest, I was hacking my way through the garden, hoping to enforce some order. The tall grass was wet despite no rain having fallen for 48 hours. Imagine my surprise when my hoe took down a big clump of Tropical Panicgrass, and there on the black, sodden soil where the grass had stood lay the salamander shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029sm.jpg

Expecting the little critter to bolt at any moment, I was surprised to get that picture. However, he didn't move at all, until I got into position for a second photo, which shows nothing extra, but which I provide here just because this is such a special sighting. The superfluous image is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029sk.jpg

Actually, the little fellow acted a little stunned. Maybe the hoe had jostled him around, or maybe the coolish air -- at 62° (17°C) it was the chilliest morning we've had since maybe early March or so -- made him sluggish. Whatever the cause, he gave me time for a shot at his pensive-looking face, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029sl.jpg

Then he moved away, and I didn't feel right pestering him any more for more pictures.

Despite so few species possibly occurring in the northern Yucatan, I'm uncertain which species this is. I'm guessing that it's the Black-and-Gold Salamander, BOLITOGLOSSA MEXICANA, only because according to Campbell's distribution notes that's the one most likely to appear here, a single record having been reported of one from near Chichén Itzá.

Campbell's picture of the species shows a boldly patterned individual very unlike ours, but he says that sometimes "the pale dorsal pattern is reduced to small yellow spots on a dark background," which comes close to ours, except that our spots are silvery, not yellow. In general appearance our salamander is colored more like the Common Dwarf Salamander, Bolitoglossa rufescens, but Campbell has that species entirely absent from the Yucatan. Well, Campbell's book is a bit outdated, so maybe someone with more current information can help.

Campbell describes the Black-and-Gold Salamander occurrence as from southern Veracruz on southern Mexico's Gulf Coast through northern Guatemala and Belize to northern Honduras, "...exclusive of most of the northern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula; there is a single record from near Chichén-Itzá." The species is reported as spending dry periods hiding in wet axils of bromeliads or in rotten logs. Our dry seasons are so long -- most of the year -- and hot that it's hard imagining bromeliads holding water for them, or rotten logs not completely drying out.

This salamander's appearance in our shaggy garden is the most exciting observations I've made in a long time.

*****

PIÑUELAS FRUITING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/pinuela.htm we've seen how the pineapple-like plant called Piñuela produces cigar-shaped fruits that taste somewhat like pineapple. Piñuela is fairly common in the scrubby forest around the rancho, but wherever and whenever they're found normally they're not producing fruits. However, this week one plant was encountered absolutely loaded with immature fruits, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029pn.jpg

A close-up of some fruits is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029po.jpg

I'm keeping my eye on this plant, hoping to enjoy some ripe Piñuela fruits later on.

*****

STRIPE-HEADED SPARROWS
During my mid-October visit with a friend outside Tepotzlán, in the state of Morelos just south of Mexico City, during a morning walk through the orchard a small flock of sparrows perched conspicuously preening in the early light. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029ss.jpg

From a distance, at first I thought it was a White-crowned or White-throated Sparrow, commonly seen during North America's winters. However, something seemed out of order. The bird's black eyestripe was far too broad.

It was the Stripe-headed Sparrow, AIMOPHILA RUFICAUDA, occurring along southwestern Mexico's Pacific Slope south to northwestern Costa Rica. Its distribution map shows a narrow lobe of its territory protruding eastward in from the Pacific Slope, coinciding with the high-elevation Central Volcanic Belt cutting east/west across Mexico just south of Mexico City.

It other words, this is a species of limited occurrence in Mexico, not even coming close to the Yucatan. Back in my volcano-camping days I saw them fairly regularly, though, so my impression is that within their limited, high-elevation distribution area they are fairly common.

Their habitat is described as arid to semiarid brushy scrub and semiopen areas, which is exactly where we found ours, plus they are said to occur in pairs or small groups, just like ours.

The Stripe-headed Sparrow's similarity to the North's White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, both migratory species, is incidental, since they belong to completely different genera, and the Stripe-headed is a permanent resident wherever it occurs.

*****

JADE VINE
Right after spotting the Stripe-headed Sparrows, my friend took me to see his Jade Vines, for these were flowering at their peak of perfection, and of all his plants I think my friend was proudest of them. You can see why at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029st.jpg

You don't often see flowers colored like that. The dangling flowering heads averaged around 15 inches long (40cm), but I read that such racemes can reach ten feet long (3m). The vine's leaves are compound, consisting of three leaflets.

Jade Vines are STRONGYLODON MACROBOTRYS, members of the Bean Family, the Fabaceae. A closeup showing the flowers' shape and size relative to my fingers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029su.jpg

At first it's hard to recognize the Bean Family's typical butterfly-shaped or "papilionaceous" flowers. The trick is in knowing that the blackish cups at the flowers' bases are leathery calyxes with very low sepals, and the curving, turquoise items are the corolla's two top petals fused along their common margin, forming the typical papilionaceous "banner" or "standard." These banner also are somewhat leathery, and wrap around the other flower parts, protecting them until the blossoms are more mature.

Jade Vines are native to rainforests of the Philippines' Luzon, Mindoro and Catanduanes Islands, where they are seriously endangered by mass deforestation. In the wild they are pollinated by bats, so one visualizes a leathery banner enshrouding a flower's other parts until a certain night when sexual maturity is reached, at which point it peels back, exposing the more fragile, sexual parts. Beneath my friend's vines we found such opened blossoms, possibly knocked there by bats the previous night. One such flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029sv.jpg

There you see the turquoise banner curled back toward the left, while the purplish "keel" at the bottom, flanked by short, rounded "wings," further conceal the sexual parts. With the keel and wings removed, you can see the stamens at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029sw.jpg

Notice that these stamens are "diadelphous," which means that filaments of nine stamens unite at their bases to form a cylinder around the ovary's slender, stigma-tipped style, with the tenth stamen held apart, curled backward like the banner. Many papilionaceous Bean Family flowers don't have their tenth stamen held separately, in which case the stamens are said to be "monadelphous."

*****

A SOUTH AMERICAN CEIBA
That first morning when my Tepotzlán friend was showing me around his orchard, if someone in a balloon had soared high above us looking down, the landscape would have looked like a spinach pie with a bright cherry in it. The cherry would have been one of my friend's planted ornamental trees at its peak of flower production. You can see a branch of that gorgeous tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029cb.jpg

Notice that the tree's leaves are palmately, or digitately, compound -- consisting of several leaflets whose stalks, or petiolules, converge at the top of each leaf's petiole. Also notice that the stems are unusually thick, and that unopened flower buds are exceptionally large atop their own substantial stalks.

These are all features shared with our native, wild-growing Ceiba trees, Ceiba pentandra, famous for their potentially huge sizes, massive trunks, and their purported sacredness to the Maya. But this isn't Ceiba pentandra, as you can confirm on our Ceiba page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm

On that page you can see that Ceiba pentandra also produces pinkish flowers, but they're much smaller than our Tepotzlán tree's flowers. A close-up of one of the Tepotzlán tree's fallen, slightly past-prime, large blossoms, with its stamens missing, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029cc.jpg

So, from the beginning this Tepotzlán tree struck me as another Ceiba species, as as soon as I noticed its trunk, I knew that it had to be, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171029cd.jpg

The sharp, woody, broad-based spines on smooth, green bark is very similar to what's seen on young trunks of our Mexican Ceibas, Ceiba pentandra.

Our Tepotzlán tree was CEIBA SPECIOSA, from South America, much planted as an ornamental tree throughout much of the world's warmer regions. Among its English names are False Kapok, Floss Silk Tree, Drunken Stick and Bottle Tree. All these names strike me as unworthy of such a dignified presence so I just think of it as the ornamental Ceiba from South America.

Once I'd realized what we had, I remembered first meeting the species in a park in Buenos Aires back in the mid 1970s, where people told me it was called Borracho, meaning "drunkard." That's because on mature trees the trunks swell to teardrop form, looking like the big stomachs of those who drink too much. The poor tree just gets no respect. The swollen trunks are water reservoirs, accounting for the species fame for being particularly drought tolerant.

*****

WASP THOUGHTS
This week I've missed watching the paper wasps described in recent Newsletters. The nest was empty and abandoned when I returned from my two-week trip, having been overrun and plundered by army ants. The nest's history is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/wasp1.htm

Earlier, I'd enjoyed watching the wasps slowly and methodically construct their nest, and so attentively care for their larvae and pupae. When a hot sunbeam suddenly cut through the forest's canopy, striking the nest, it was thrilling to seeing how quickly an appropriate number of wasp sisters -- for all the workers were female and from the same mother -- positioned themselves over the sun-struck cells, whirred their wings and ventilated them to keep them from overheating. Though I felt sorry for the surrounding area's caterpillars, it was impressive seeing workers landing all through the day, carrying in their mandibles little green balls of caterpillar flesh they'd hunted down, butchered and neatly compacted into manageable portions.

I didn't get too misty-eyed about the nest tragedy, though, because all along the wasps' almost mechanically aggressive and predatory behavior struck me as a little "fascistic." And fascistic behavior gives me the creeps, even when it's expressed in one of Nature's paradigms, as with wasp behavior.

But, is it really appropriate to associate wasp behavior with fascism? For clarification I turned to The New Oxford American Dictionary installed on my little Kindle reader. It said that...

Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach.

Well, if we think of wasps as like an ethnic group whose predation on surrounding caterpillar populations expresses their supremacy, and certainly there's no hint of democracy among the sister workers, then on these points wasp behavior is somewhat analogous to fascism. However, an analogy falls apart with regard to the definition's "strong demagogic approach." Wasps don't produce demagogues, people do.

Being reminded of how important demagoguery is to fascism, I returned to the dictionary, which said that a demagogue is...

... a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.

At this point, I'd have let the above train of thought drop, except that this week I got to show the rancho to a couple of Danish visitors to Ek Balam. Learning of my nationality, they couldn't resist expressing their surprise and alarm at political events in the US. They said that even in peaceful, low-keyed little Denmark extreme right-wing parties were gaining momentum fast, feeding on popular anti-immigration sentiment. They observed that a whole new crop of right-wing demagogues was popping up all over Europe, and Danes have good reasons to remember what happened the last time this occurred.

The abandoned wasp nest still hangs above the hut door, each time I see it, evoking all the thoughts traced above. Its presence also brings to mind all the caterpillars that were slaughtered to create the nest, as well as the army ants, themselves "fascistic," who pillaged the nest, and even it brings to mind pictures I've seen of the German army advancing relentlessly across Russia, and of Hitler and Mussolini ranting before their admiring masses. Somehow that whole panoply of images and the feelings they evoke fit together in my mind.

I wish everyone had an empty wasp nest hanging outside their door, always reminding them of exactly what fascism and demagoguery are, and what they lead to.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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