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

February 4, 2018

*****

RACER BENEATH THE COMPOST
In the garden while rearranging compost I uncovered a little olive-brown snake coiled up and depending on his stillness to make him unnoticeable. I managed to get one shot of him before suddenly he raced off. You can see him, with his head peeping from beneath straw at the picture's lower left, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204rc.jpg

I'd not seen a snake exactly like this -- a brown one with tiny dark spots along the sides hinting of longitudinal striping, smooth scales, and with such bold markings on the face. Except for the face's dark brown markings and those vague dark lines along the body, it looked like a Middle American Smooth-scaled Racer. That's a common species here, and one known to be very variable in appearance. On our page for that species we show a banded immature stage, a surprising reddish, mostly solid-colored form, and a brownish phase looking just like our garden snake, except for our current snake's bold face markings and the dark lines of speckles. Our page for the species is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ss-racer.htm

In Jonathan Campbell's Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize I read that on the heads of American Smooth-scaled Racers "Usually there is a dark streak across the loreal region from the posterior nasal to the anterior edge of the eye," and that describes our snake's head markings, though on the Internet I don't find the marks so boldly defined. Also, on the Internet only a few pictures show the hints of dark lines running along the body.

Still, with the general shape, the general olive-brown color, the very smooth scales, and what I can see of the head's scales, I'm willing to call this yet another appearance of the Middle American Smooth-scaled Racer. This is a commonly seen snake here and, as Campbell says, "This racer is subject to much individual and ontogenetic variation," "ontogenetic" referring to an individual snake's changing appearance as it develops toward maturity.

*****

BLUE WAVE BUTTERFLY
While watering the garden, suddenly amid all the greenness and glaring sunlight, a flash of neon blueness erupted, then disappeared. Shutting off the hose, I went to look and saw nothing but a drably dark-brown butterfly with its wings folded above its back, without a hint of blueness. The little critter didn't seem too nervous with my presence, so I took the photograph shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt159.jpg

Of course the picture was sent off to volunteer butterfly identifier Bea in Ontario, who soon let me know that this was a new species for our famous Yucatan Butterfly ID page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/

It was MYSCELIA CYANIRIS, well known enough to bear several English names, including Blue Wave, Blue-banded Purplewing, Whitened Bluewing and Royal Blue. The blue in all the names is obvious enough in pictures of the butterfly with its wings open, but at rest the Blue Wave doesn't like to be seen, indulging in "cryptic coloration," or camouflage.

Having the name, now we can have the fun of looking up the species to see what it's all about. It's distributed from southern Mexico through Central America into northern South America, to Ecuador and Peru. Its Wikipedia page says that it's associated with rainforest habitats, but here we definitely find it in a weedy garden surrounded by semideciduous forest, during the early dry season. Larvae are reported as feeding on members of the genus Dalechampia and Adelia, both members of the big Spurge or Euphorbia Family, the Euphorbiaeae. Here we have species in both genera, and plenty of other species also in the Euphorbia Family.

*****

CALLISIA UP CLOSE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/callisia.htm you can find our page on Callisia cordifolia, a small herbaceous wildflower of the Spiderwort Family, the Commelinaceae. It forms ground-hugging mats atop thin soil covering our limestone bedrock, often in shaded, protected areas. It has no common English name, so I just call it Callisia. Some weeks ago a doctoral candidate in the Botany Department at the University of São Paulo, Brazil wrote explaining that he was studying a group of species to which our Callisia cordifolia belongs, and asking if he could use the photos appearing on our Callisia page. Also, if at all possible, could I provide high resolution pictures, and maybe pictures showing details not clearly depicted in the pictures already posted?

I always try to help folks like this because it's fun to do so. A small population of Callisia cordifolia was found on the rancho not far from my hut, it was in full flower, and high resolution photos were sent, per his specifications. The new photos show more details than my earlier pictures, so now I'm adding them to the page, in the medium resolution appropriate for viewing on computer screens.

First, a habitat picture was taken, showing how to pollinators the plant's tiny, white blossoms show up so well in their typical shaded environment. You can see the population growing over a north-facing bank along a trail, in deep shade beneath a tree, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c1.jpg

Flowers arise at the tips of offshoots from the main stem, which crawls atop the ground, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c6.jpg

A clear idea of how the flowers arrange themselves at shoot tips is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c2.jpg

In terms of plant taxonomy, no feature of a species is more important than flower structure. Therefore, the flower was portrayed from different views. From the front, our bank-slope Callisia's flower shows the three petals typical of the Spiderwort Family, and a little surprise: The stamens bend strongly away from the central axis, maybe to provide a kind of landing platform for pollinators, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c0.jpg

From the side it's easier to see not only how strongly deflected the stamens are, but also that the white, oval ovary in the blossom's center narrows to a definite style at the top, and the style is capped with a flattish stigma, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c3.jpg

Below the petals, the three sepals are pleasingly ornamented with purple margins, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c8.jpg

Often in the Spiderwort Family clusters of flowers arise from cuplike structures constructed of grown-together modified leaves, called bracts. That seems to be the case with Callisia, too, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c9.jpg

Species in the Spiderwort Family produce capsular-type fruits, a capsule being a dry fruit divided inside into two or more compartments called carpels, and usually at maturity the capsules split along one or more "lines of dehiscence." A semitransparent fruit with purple lines of dehiscence, with at least one seed clearly visible is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c4.jpg

In that picture's center, note the immature ovary around which the petals and stamens have fallen away after pollination. A split-open capsule with its two or three seeds already ejected is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204c5.jpg

I'm grateful to my new friend in São Paulo, for encouraging me to take a closer look at this species, and see details I'd overlooked before. It's like everything else in life, the more you pay attention, the more interesting and beautiful it all gets.

*****

CIONOSICYOS VINE'S FRUITS TURNING BRIGHT ORANGE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/excisus.htm we document the commonly occurring Cionosicyos vine's variable leaves, unisexual flowers, and green, spherical, gourdlike fruits. Full-sized, green fruits have dangled from the vines for so long -- several weeks -- that I began thinking they must stay green until maturity. However, suddenly, all over the place, they're turning orange, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204cu.jpg

There you can see that once they're orange animals notice them and open them to eat the pulpy contents. Both the middle and lower fruits are reduced to empty, leathery, drying-out husks, and the top fruit bears a hole, which I'm guessing was made by a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, the species that destroys most of our citrus crop. The bird flies up to the fruit, pecks a hole, feeds briefly, and later attacks another fruit. Our Yucatan Jays and Altamira Orioles also might be responsible, but they're not as common as the woodpeckers. In the picture, atop a leaf about a foot below the top fruit, notice the white objects. Those are pulp-encased seeds left by the sloppily feeding fruit desecrater.

And, of course, that's exactly what the fruit "wants" -- to have its seeds disseminated.

*****

MELOCHIA FLOWERING
At the garden's weedy edge several scrappy-looking species of the big Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, were in evidence, all with similar-looking alternate leaves with toothed or serrated margins, and most with very similar looking, penny-sized, orange-yellow, mallow-type flowers. However, when one of these plants began flowering, the flowers weren't penny-sized and mallow-like, but rather BB-sized and pinkish white. A branch tip of this much-branched, chest-high weed held apart from the fencerow's visual clutter is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204me.jpg

Up close, the tiny flowers displayed unexpected prettiness, as seen in a side view of a blossom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204mf.jpg

A view into the flower's interior is pleasing, too, but the structure of things is disconcerting, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204mg.jpg

The main floral field mark of the Hibiscus Family is that the vast majority of species in the family produce flowers with numerous stamens, the filaments of which fuse at their bases with one another, often even forming a cylinder around the ovary and its style. The fencerow plant's flower just had five stamens, and the anthers were weirdly Y-shaped. Would the filaments of such unconventional stamens be fused at their bases? The flowers were almost too small to see that detail, but when one side of a corolla was removed, it looked like they were indeed fused, maybe for most or all of their length, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204mh.jpg

Well, we've seen that the Hibiscus Family can produce very strange flowers and fruits, especially since genetic analysis as caused several previously independent families to be lumped into one big Hibiscus Family, so by now I was confident that it was a member of that family despite its flowers. Moreover, a fruit turned up, and it couldn't have looked more like a typical Hibiscus Family fruit, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180204mi.jpg

That's a five-winged capsule, and at its top, right, one of the wings is splitting open to release a single brown seed.

This is MELOCHIA NODIFLORA, and it's a shame I can't find an English name for it. It's found from Mexico and the Caribbean area south to Brazil.

Along roads at Río Lagartos on the Yucatan's northern coast we've found another Melochia species, Melochia tomentosa, which we called Teabush. At first glance the two species look very unlike one another, especially because Teabush's flowers are pinker and much larger. You can see this on our Teabush page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/melochia.htm

How can such dissimilar flowers appear on species belonging to the same genus? One answer is revealed in the dissected blossom at the bottom of the Teabush page, which shows that Teabush's anthers -- at the base of the flaring style arms -- display the same unusual Y shape as our Melochia nodiflora. It's always good to remember that within a genus the size of a species' parts has little to do with how the species is classified. It's the structure that's important, and in plant classification Y-shaped anthers like these are a big deal. The Flora of North America describes anthers in the genus Melochia as "2-thecate." In botany, a "theca" is an anther's lobe, which contains two pollen sacs.

In the old days the genus Melochia belonged to the tropical Sterculia or Chocolate Family, the Sterculiaceae. However, with genetic sequencing, that family has been sunk into the big Hibiscus Family.

*****

CURRENTS OF THE SEASON
This week as I peddled down the woodland trail from the ranch to the highway, the ground was littered with brown leaves that were moist and spongy from the morning's dew. The forest smelled fungusy but fresh, and the air's coolness felt good rippling across my face and bare legs and arms. It felt like a forest in late September in Kentucky. Even leaves were dropping through slanting early-morning sunbeams.

All these seasonal cues triggered a pleasant nostalgia for earlier times. I remembered picking apples with my parents, how pretty the fields back then had been at harvest time, and what a relief it always had been at that time of year finally to have some cool weather. The nostalgia and memories made me feel good.

But, then I remembered that the morning's first impressions hadn't been of fall at all, but rather of early spring. During breakfast, White-browed Wrens and Black-headed Saltators had called like they do when the time to claim territories and mates approaches. The orange trees' first blossoms were just opening, suffusing the area with a sweet, springy fragrance, and when I reached the highway, all along the road winter-leafless Silk Cottontrees bore wide-open, golden, tulip-like blossoms.

So, the morning really felt like fall and spring in equal measure. Moreover, these sensations were all in the context of knowing with absolute certainty that the hottest, driest, most stressful months of April, May and June loomed before us.

And then I thought, isn't this just like life in general? First, your family and community show you how to think and do things while making a cozy little place for you; that's like morning's first impression of spring being in the air. But time passes, you gain new information and experiences, and then you have to question much of what you've been assuming. And then, as life continues, and information and experience keep piling on, at some point you're faced with making this big, hard and painful choice that'll define you thereafter:

For the sake of "not rocking the boat," and continuing to enjoy your community's comfortable, springy illusions, do you ignore what you've seen and learned, and stay the same as always, or; to accommodate your new knowledge and experience do you change your thoughts and behavior -- Maybe admit that things are much more complex and nuanced than you'd thought, even though you'd like to stay in a springy mood forever?

Maybe most people change a little, but mostly don't rock the boat, or maybe they change when young but return to old ways when they're older. There are lots of ways to straddle the two philosophies without ever really facing the issue. Drifting along, maybe it's called.

As for myself, I can tell you that at age 70 the way it's worked out is that here on a lovely springy/fallish morning peddling toward daunting April, May and June, I've decided to just keep peddling down the road, as consciously as possible delighting in the fresh morning air, the blossoming Silk Cottontrees along the road, the squawking parrots flying overhead, the prospect of seeing friends at the hotel, on and on, and on and on...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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