Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vegas Boondoggle Part 1: Daggers & Moths

I only have a few strict rules about work to which I hold myself, but one of them is this: If I am ever offered the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas for work, I take it. I absolutely love Vegas.

On the face of it, this may seem odd. I never gamble. I don’t even like lotteries. I don’t like giant hotels, or strip/sprawl development, or buffets, or Vegas-style shows, or has-been music/comedy stars*.

*Ever wonder what happened to “Carrot Top”? He’s in Vegas, on about 50+ billboards all over town.

IMG_4811 But I love the Mojave desert. And Vegas is smack-dab in the middle of, and has wonderfully easy access to, the Mojave. And it’s just a day’s drive away from Salt Lake, and in between the two are St. George and Little Creek and Gooseberry and the Virgin, Pine Valley and Mormon ranges and endless Joshua tree forests and about a zillion other cool places and things I’ve blogged about. So anytime I get invited to Vegas, I load up the car with bike/hike/camping gear and make a boondoggle out of it.

I have 2 tangents here. One is light-hearted and cheerful, the other pissed-off and angry. I can’t decide between the 2, so I’m doing both.

Happy Tangent: There’s a weird-but-cool thing that makes Vegas a great outdoorhead destination: Very Few Outdoorheads. Seriously, you get 30 minutes outside of Vegas, and there’s like hardly anyone hiking/biking. It’ll be 75 degrees, flowers blooming, great trails, no one around, and I think that the reason for this is that Vegas by and large, does not attract outdoor-oriented residents*.

*I know. Shocking. How do I come up with these insights?

Think of Boulder, Colorado. The place is mobbed with outdoorheads. Any official/legal trail within 10 miles of Boulder is packed on a weekend. LV skylineOutdoorheads are attracted to the wonderful setting, climate, lifestyle and recreational opportunities offered by the Boulder area, and the Colorado Front Range in general, creating a spillover effect such that everyplace from the JeffCo open space parks to Fruita and Moab is packed with Front Range outdoorheads. But Vegas isn’t an outdoor Mecca. You never hear of people moving to Vegas for access to nature and the outdoor lifestyle. As a result, the backcountry around Vegas is often wonderfully and pleasantly “under-populated.” While not exactly empty, it seems to have visitation loads of a metro area maybe 1/10th the size. You know what? If I had to leave Salt Lake, Vegas would be near the top of my list.

Angry Tangent: I’m not anti-gambling- I just have no interest in it. I get that millions of people enjoy it, even though I don’t understand why, thereby placing it in the same category for me as golf and reality TV shows.

I am however, very much anti-lottery. Not because of the gambling aspect, but in that it represents a fundamental breakdown of democracy. lottery-ticket I’m serious. Societies- all societies- work by pooling resources for common benefit. In any society people have arguments about what resources should be pooled and what common benefit should be distributed to whom. Today in our society this manifests itself in everything from defense spending to healthcare reform, but no one except the most extreme whackos disagrees that there should be some common benefit- even it’s just police, defense or prisons- funded by some pooling of resources- be it property, income (progressive or flat), sales, VAT or head taxes, or just user fees.

In a democratic society, the citizens agree that these tough decisions are determined by the voters, or, more often, their elected representatives. And so we have all sorts of political/election struggles to determine who gets what services, who will pay for those services and how.

But a lottery represents the failure of a democracy to determine that mix of revenues and services. A lottery says, “Hey, raising money (i.e. taxes) is too hard. Let’s sell raffle tickets, and hope some people buy them.” And buy them they do. Overwhelmingly, the people who buy the bulk of them are the poor, the uneducated, the desperate, the addicted, or sometimes, just the plain dumb. Lotteries are a perversion of the American Dream- a parasitic feeding upon the weakest, least capable segments of society by a self-interested, self-entitled, lazy electorate.

Nested Tangent: Particularly insidious is when lotteries are promoted specifically for things like schools, or parks. “Oh!” we say, “We need lotteries to help pay for schools!” Give me a break. Think schools are important? Then pay some damn taxes for them. No one holds lotteries to build aircraft carriers.

Oo- good tangents! I feel much better. Hey, speaking of parasitism, that’s one of the themes of today’s post.

The Vegas boondoggle sounded like a little bit better idea before our Mexican vacation; Sunday night when we returned home, the idea of jumping in the car Monday AM sounded a little less appealing. But I’d packed before leaving for Mexico*, and once I was rolling down I-15, it seemed like a good idea again.

*Although I am generally a disorganized slob in most aspects of my life, when it comes to road trip preparation I am the model of planning, efficiency and foresight.

Until I reached Parowan, and the weather changed. Here’s what the view out the windshield looked like just South of Cedar City.

Down, down I drove through the rain, past Toquerville, Leeds and Washington. But a mile or two before St. George, I passed out of the rain, and the roads and trails were dry as a bone. I made pit-stop to ride my old favorite, Barrel Roll, and then another pit stop to make a quick run up & down Bearclaw Poppy trail (which I included a clip of in this post.) A couple of hours later I checked into the weirdness of a Las Vegas mega-hotel, where I worked away till the wee hours on my presentation for the next day.

I wrapped up my work duties the next day by early afternoon, excused myself and headed out toward Blue Diamond. Blue Diamond is a weird-but-charming little hamlet, with a single general store, only about 25 miles from Las Vegas. It sits in a small vale alongside a creek, surrounded by desert hills sprinkled with Joshua Trees, Creosote and Yucca, and consists mainly of modest homes shaded by tall Cottonwoods. It’s historically been home to workers at the nearby gypsum mine, although in recent years a few upscale homes have been built by newcomers around the periphery. Still, the town feels like a modest, unassuming little oasis in the desert, worlds away from the sprawl and lights of the nearby Strip.

Side Note: Unfortunately, the sprawl is working its way closer. When I first started visiting the area in the late 90’s, development ended about a mile or two West of I-15 along US160. Today the development continues for about 10 miles West. The Red Rock conservation area provides a bit of a buffer, but you definitely get the feeling that the wave of sprawl is rolling towards Blue Diamond.

Blue Diamond is the Northern hub of a network of single-track linking into Cottonwood Valley to the South. I parked just outside of town and started working my way counterclockwise around the hills to the South of Blue Diamond. I didn’t have a map, but sort of hunted and pecked my way over to the South side of the hills, where I came across a local rider- let’s call him Fast Fred*. Fast Fred took me for a guided tour of one of his favorite regular loops, of which you can see a quick segment here, rolling through and around Joshua Trees and other Yuccas on fast singletrack.

*Because he smoked my ass on the descent. You know how it is. You run into a local rider and he offers to guide you for a bit, and you wonder if you’ll be able to hang with him. On the climb it was no problem; I kept right up and cleaned everything. “Oh hey,” I thought, “no problem.” Then we started descending and he left me behind like a one-eyed nun driving a Volkswagen bus up Parley’s.

After our lap together, Fast Fred gave me some route recommendations for the ride back to town, sending me up and over the hills on a rocky, technical, slow-but-fun, winding ascent. Up top the lightly-traveled trail rolled along the ridges. Here’s a quick clip:

Apologies for in the in & out of shadow/contrast thing, but I included this clip because I wanted to show something: Yucca. At first glance, there are some taller, branching yuccas that look like Joshua Trees. But when you look more closely, you can see that they’re not. The leaves are too long, and there’s never more than one branch, and they don’t get nearly as tall. They’re a different species of tree-ish Yucca, Spanish Dagger, or Yucca schidegera.

Yschidegera1 Caption There are some 40 species of Yucca, all native to the New World, mostly to Mexico and the Southwestern US. There’s some debate as to whether some/all yuccas are technically succulent, but like Cacti, they use CAM photosynthesis to thrive in hot, arid climates. But they evolved their CAM-ability completely independently, and the 2 aren’t closely-related. Cacti are dicots, and so more closely related to everything from oaks to roses. Yuccas are monocots, and so more closely-related to things like grasses and palms.

Spanish Dagger fascinates me because it seems an in-between. It’s evolved its way up off the ground, and started to branch. But it’s not that tall, and it never seems to branch more than once. It sort of seems to be following the same evolutionary path, though not yet as far along, as the Joshua Tree. But that’s not the Cool Thing I want to blog about. In fact I have 3 Cool Things I want to blog about, and they all have to do with the relationships between Yuccas and Yucca Moths.

All About Yucca Moths

Two years ago, back during Monocot Week (Man was that a great week or what?), I blogged about the most impressive yucca, the Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia. In that post I mentioned the cool mutualistic relationship between the Joshua tree, and its one pollinator, the Yucca Moth, Tegeticula synthetica. It’s a cool story, in that the Yucca Moth doesn’t just pollinate the flower by accident, but actually makes an apparently deliberate detour to deposit a laboriously-accumulated ball of pollen on the stigma. The tree in turn provides shelter and food to the moth larvae, who consume a modest portion of the plant’s fruit.

But Joshua trees aren’t the only yuccas pollinated by Yucca Moths; all yuccas are. And as I’ve learned more about Yuccas and Yucca Moths, it turns out that their story is even more fascinating and multidimensional than I originally thought. To explain the story, and how totally cool it is, I need to share some info about Yucca Moths. It’s a bit geeky, but stick with it because it winds up somewhere really cool.

Until the late 1990’s, there were believed to be just 3 species of Yucca Moth, all within the genus Tegeticula*. The first was/is T. synthetica, which pollinates Joshua Trees (and nothing else.) The second was/is T. maculata, which pollinates Chaparral Yucca (Y. shipplei). And the third was T. yuccasella, which pollinated all kinds of different yucca species. T. yuccasella seemed to have different forms, or races, that specialized in different species of yucca.

*Just to complicate things, there’s another genus of Yucca Moths, Parategeticula, but I’m leaving those alone for this post.

In the late 1990’s, researchers determined that what had previously been considered T. yuccasella was in fact 13 different species, all descended from a common ancestor species that lived 2 or 3 million years ago. And a number of these species pollinate just a single yucca species. Spanish Dagger for instance, is pollinated by a single species, T. mojavella, which in turn lays its eggs in the flowers of Spanish Dagger, and no other yucca. This in turn leads to a number of interesting things, including Three Really Cool Things. Here’s a quick example of an Interesting Thing, before we get to the First Really Cool Thing:

Tbaccatella1 In the clip above, you also see a number of other yuccas that are stuck firmly on the ground, with no “trunk” to speak of. Many of these are Banana Yucca, Yucca baccata, which is pollinated by its own Yucca Moth, T. baccatella (pic right, not mine). Now sometimes, Spanish Dagger and Banana Yucca (also called Spanish Bayonet- cool name, eh?) hybridize. How is that possible?

BYucca T. mojavella (the Spanish Dagger pollinator) has never ever been found in a Banana Yucca flower. But every once in a blue moon, a T. baccatella will be found in a Spanish Dagger Flower, enabling the transfer of pollen between the 2 species.

Tangent: This may sound trivial, but it’s actually pretty cool. For whatever reason, some tiny proportion of Banana Yucca Moths have started visiting Spanish Dagger flowers. Now let’s say that the BY Moths that did so experienced slightly greater reproduction as a result. There could be more and more of these “promiscuous” moths, which could promote widespread hybridization between the two yuccas, and eventually drive both species- which are largely sympatric*- to genotypic extinction.

*Same range.

I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here, but the fact that such crossover does occasionally occur give you a glimpse of a range of possibilities, and makes you wonder how often events like this change the course of species evolution.

First Cool Thing

OK, let’s get to the cool stuff. The First Really Cool Thing is this: Of the 13 “new” species, 2 are cheaters. That is, they lay their eggs in/on yucca fruit, but they don’t pollinate the flowers. They’re closely-related to, and descended from, Yucca Moths that do pollinate the flowers, but at some point in the last couple million years, their ancestors just said, “ah, screw it…”* and started blowing off the little pollination side trip.

*I’m not suggesting they consciously decided to quit pollinating. Rather at some point a genetic change occurred which caused a Yucca Moth not to pollinate a flower, and the moth reproduced successfully and passed that new tendency to its descendants.

IMG_5097 When you think about the dynamics at work here, it makes your head spin. From the cheater-species standpoint, the shift to cheating is a winner; less work, but still reap all the benefits. And in fact DNA analysis appears to show that cheating in the 2 cheater species evolved independently, meaning that cheating has evolved multiple times. But there’s a catch. The cheaters are absolutely reliant upon the non-cheaters to propagate the species; without non-cheaters, the host yuccas would die out*. So what balance exists- and how is it maintained- between cheaters and non-cheaters? Why would any one species not cheat? Isn’t it mind-boggling?

*Although this would take quite some time- maybe centuries or longer- as yuccas also reproduce asexually by root-cloning.

Side Note: Cheating also happens in Fig Wasps, BTW.

Second Cool Thing

Tcorruptrix1 And this leads us to the Second Really Cool Thing. Yuccas sometimes host other insects beside moths and their larvae, including aphids, and ants. The Soaptree Yucca, Y. eleta, often hosts populations of Wood Ants, one of a number of species belonging to the genus Formica. Soaptree Yuccas are often parasitized by the Cheater Yucca Moth T. corruptrix (pic right, not mine). But Soaptree Yuccas which house/host Wood Ants suffer far lower rates of T. corruptrix parasitism than those without Wood Ants. And yet the presence of Wood Ants doesn’t negatively impact the presence of Soaptree Yucca’s “legitimate”, non-cheating species of Yucca Moth, T. elatella! How can this be?

Extra Detail: “How it can be” isn’t 100% clear, but a likely reason is that non-cheater moths lay eggs in flowers, while cheaters often just lay directly in (already fertilized) fruit. The Wood Ants tend to hang out more in fruit than they do in the flowers.

So the Wood Ant and the Soaptree Yucca are exhibiting another, indirect, layer of mutualism beyond the Moth-Yucca mutualism. The complexity of relationships going in these spiky shrubs is really amazing.

Third Cool Thing

But, as I so often do in these endless run-on posts, I have saved the best for last, which brings us to the Third and Final Really Cool Thing: Sometimes, the yuccas cheat.

BYucca Flower Back to our old friend, Banana Yucca. The Yucca Moth benefits from the relationship by laying eggs in the flowers, which develop into larvae that feed on the ovules. The ovules are the larva’s only food source. But some number of Banana Yuccas sprout flowers with large numbers of non-viable ovules, in which the larvae are unable to locate the (relatively few) viable ovules, and starve. In fact, 70% of individual Banana Yucca plants appear to cheat in this way; they receive the pollination benefits of the relationship, but they don’t feed the larvae. That means that only 30% of the plants are producing the pollinators needed by the other 70%!

The same boggling dynamics are at work here as are at play with the cheater moths, but reversed; the Cheater Plants can’t survive without Non-Cheater Plants to propagate the pollinators, but for any given plant, the better deal is to cheat. So, again, what balance exists- and how is it maintained- between cheaters and non-cheaters? And again- isn’t it mind-boggling?

I didn’t know this until later, after I’d gotten curious and researched a bit more about yuccas and moths. On my long run back down into Blue Diamond, I rather thought more about how darn sharp yuccas are, as I repeatedly scratched legs and arms on those encroaching upon the narrow trails. There’s a long-standing maybe-urban myth about a mtn biker some years back around Moab who fell on a yucca, sliced open his jugular and bled to death. The tale in mind, I was a bit more cautious than usual on the gravelly descent.

Back at the car I loaded up, washed up, and drove off in the waning light, North into the desert.

Note about Sources: Big thanks to my friend and fellow nature-blogger KB for help in corralling several of the sources for this post. The information about cheater moths and their relationships to non-cheater species came largely from this paper. The info about indirect mutualism between Wood Ants and Soaptree Yucca came from this paper. And my source for the cheating Banana Yucca was this paper.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mexico Part 3: Weird Things Under Rocks

IMG_4643 Our last full day in PV we drove over to a local beach in nearby Cruz de Juanacaxtle*, and hired a Panga** for a couple of hours to do some dolphin-watching and snorkeling. After spotting a few dolphins (sorry, failed to get photos/videos), we headed West up the coast a bit to a pocket beach where we anchored and snorkeled around a bit.

*Nice little nearby town we didn’t get to till our last day. Sort of like a smaller, quieter Bucerias. Would be a nice spot to stay in/around, or have dinner.

**Small open boat with an outboard motor, seats maybe 8-10 people. Many, including ours, have sun-canopies, which I strongly recommend if you’re taking a bunch of sunburned gringos out on the water for a couple of hours.

Side Note: We prefer these kinds of individual, ad-hoc excursions to the monster tourist-excursion boats which include music, lunch, drinks and of course lots of other gringos. We just a started asking around on the beach, found a guy who knew a guy, worked out a price and set off. Our guide- “Genado”- didn’t speak any English, so a bit of Spanish helps in putting together these kinds of outings.

IMG_4645 By the time we put in it was early afternoon, and the wind had kicked up the water a bit and made visibility fairly poor, but we still had fun kicking around and checking out a few brightly colored fish. After a bit the Trifecta and AW clambered back up on the boat. Then Genado donned mask and fins, dove in, spent a few minutes diving and turning over rocks, producing a couple of [what I thought at the time were] “starfish” which he handed to the kids, much to their delight.

BStar1 The “starfish” were different than any I’d seen previously- a clear central disk, distinct from the legs, which in turn were covered with soft spines. And the things were active, much more so than any other starfish I’d ever seen or handled. As we held then gently in our hands, they- somewhat alarmingly- spontaneously dropped segments of legs onto the floor of the boat. We threw them back, and I made a mental note to figure out just what they were when we got home.

Tangent: Regular readers may have a reasonable objection at this point: In going on and on about our Mexican vacation this week, I’m totally skipping blogging IMG_4848about what is arguably the most happening week of Spring in the Salt lake Valley, which is, ironically, the whole reason for starting this blog in the first place. You’re right, I am, and this week has been absolutely stunning. But I’ve blogged about so many of the Salt Lake area blooms and birds of April these last 2 years, and on these Central American trips I’m always exposed to so much new stuff, that I want to blog about it while it’s still fresh in my mind.

IMG_4846 Anyway, if you haven’t been reading this blog for a year+, and you’re a Utah-area reader who’s interested in or curious about what’s blooming/ happening around the valley right now, I recommend you go back and check out my April posts from 2009 and 2008*.

*Although, when I go back and re-read some of my posts from the first few months of this project, I’m always a little bit embarrassed by how poorly-written and generally… “dopey” they seem. It’s like it took a few months for me to get the rhythm of this project. Although I still think that series on Dandelions totally rocked. What? You still haven’t read it yet? Go check it out now- I am telling you, they are Way Cool.

What they were wasn’t starfish, but Brittle Stars. Starfish- or more properly Sea Stars- Brittle Stars, Sea Urchins and Sea Cucumbers are all Echinoderms, which are a phylum of marine animals that are all, well, weird. They’re invertebrates, but are thought to be a bit more closely-related to us than things like bees and lobsters. But where bees and lobsters have so many of the same- or at least analogous- parts/characteristics as us, including eyes, mouth, anus and bilateral symmetry, Echinoderms are way, way different.

Extra Detail: Just to clarify the more-closely-related-to-us than lobsters comment: Chordates*, Echinoderms and 2 other phyla of weird worm-like critters you never heard of** are all a kind of animal called a deuterostome. Arthropods***, Molluscs, Annelids**** and a few other things you never heard of***** are all a kind of animal called a protostome. The difference between the two types is defined by how they develop embryonically.

*Us and all other vertebrates, plus things like see squirts, which have spinal chords (but no backbones)

**Well, Christopher’s heard of them. But the average reader of this blog who shows up for the tangents, helmet-cam videos and stories about my neighbors probably hasn’t.

***So like most every kind of “bug”.

****An Earthworm is an example of an annelid.

*****Again, Christopher’s heard of them.

******Does anybody even read my footnotes, anyway?

[NOTE: In the original post, I had the deuterostome/protostome anus-mouth thing* backwards. This updated version corrects the error. Thanks to reader Tomodactylus for the catch.

*OK, out of context, that sounds really gross. But it’s not quite as gross once you read through the rest of the Extra Detail.]

Both deuterostomes and protostomes start out as a single cell which starts dividing. When it gets to around 128 cells (7 divisions), blastula1it’s a rough sphere, with a fluid-filled space inside. This stage is called a blastula (pic right, not mine*) , and around this point a “dent” or dimple appears on the surface of the sphere. In deuterostomes, this first dent will eventually develop into the anus. In protostomes, it’ll eventually develop into the mouth. In a sense, a bee’s mouth is our ass, and our mouth… well, you got it. Anyway, a Brittle Star’s mouth is our mouth, and its ass… well, it’s sort of our armpit, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

*I mean the photo. Though the blastula isn’t mine either. (It is human, though.)

Brittle Stars (class = Ophiuriodea, 1500 different species) are said to be “close relatives” of Sea Stars, even though they haven’t shared a common ancestor since before the Geminga Event. There are 2 orders of Brittle Stars; the 5-armers, like this guy (order = Ophiurida) and another bunch (order – Eurylida) with all kind of crazy-branching arms, called Basket Stars. But both overwhelmingly tend toward a pentaradial (5-ways) symmetry. Brittle star arms have a segmented skeletal structure concealed beneath the skin/spines which allows full side-to-side motion but not up above the up-side of the disk; they can’t “raise” their arms*.

*Basket Stars though, are jointed a bit differently, and can “raise” their arms.

If you were to pick the weirdest thing about echinoderms, you might guess it was the symmetry thing. But I’d say the weirdest things about them are that a) they have no blood and b) they breathe, poop and, in some species, give birth through their armpits.

In vertebrates such as us, our bodies produce blood to carry nutrients to, and wastes away from, cells. Many arthropods (spiders, crustaceans, some insects) have come up with an analogous substance called hemolymph. But echinoderms perform these functions with seawater. That’s right- the thing’s blood is seawater.

The water-vascular system operates the Brittle Star’s tube feet, which are hundreds of little tubular projection on the underside of the arms. In Sea Stars, the tube foot terminates in a suction cup. When the foot is placed against a surface and the Sea Star withdraws some of the water from the tube, it creates a partial vacuum which holds the tube foot to the surface, which is how Sea Stars/Starfish cling to rocks.

BS Expand-O 1 But Brittle Star tube feet lack suction cups, and they use them more for feeding than for getting around or clinging to surfaces. Most Brittle Stars get around by walking/crawling, generally leading with 2 arms, but some do actually swim.

The animal’s mouth is on the underside of the central disk and features 5 rings of jaws. Some Brittle Stars are carnivorous, but most feed on plankton and bacteria, which they catch by sweeping one arm through the water. They have no anus, but expel wastes through 5 underside-slits, called bursae, one in the “armpit” of each arm.

BS Expand-O 2

Holy crap. Can we all just pause for a moment and acknowledge how seriously these Expand-O-Graphics just totally rock?

The bursae are also used for respiration, which is accomplished through a series of tubes and sinuses that transport oxygen-laden seawater around inside the animals, but this respiratory water vascular system is completely distinct from the circulatory vascular system.

Brittle stars have no eyes, nor other specialized sense organs, but seem to be able to sense chemicals (smell), and even light through specialized nerve-endings in their arms.

IMG_4649 Most- though not all species have 2 sexes and reproduce sexually. Fertilization usually happens externally, with sex cells being expelled into the open water. In most species, the young develop in a free-swimming larval, plankton-like stage, but in others the larvae develop internally before being “born live”. Guess where they’re housed during “pregnancy”? In the bursae! That’s right- the combo gill/anus substitute!

But (sexual) Brittle Stars can also reproduce asexually. When threatened, their arms often detach (as did several on the boat). This doesn’t seem to harm the creature, which soon re-grows the arm in question. But if an arm detaches with part of the central disk, it will grow into a whole new Brittle Star.

Seriously, could these things be any weirder? And we haven’t even talked about the whole symmetry thing.

Tangent: It’s funny when you pause for a moment and consider the kinds of creatures/aliens/monsters featured in science fiction. It’s hard to come up with any example more “alien” than these guys. And though it may be funny, there’s a serious aside here, in that it shows just how narrow and limited our own range of “imagined-possibles” may be. While not quite a dog and a diesel engine deal, it makes you wonder about our ability to get our heads around some of the conceptually really tough stuff, like the Two Big Mysteries (Existence and Self.)

Brittle Stars have no front or back or left or right- just up and down. Across the seafloor, all directions are equal in its eyes (oops, I forgot- no eyes). When I first thought about “starfish”, I thought this was the coolest things about them, that they represented a whole different form on being an animal- without front, back or any bilateral symmetry. But it turns out that in larval stages, Brittle Stars, Seas Stars and many other echinoderms are bilaterally symmetrical, and it’s thought that they evolved from bilaterally symmetric ancestors, making them somehow even stranger.

IMG_4548 All that weirdness from a little thing Genado pulled from under a rock. Every little living thing always turns out to have some totally awesome story.

It was a great vacation. We flew home the next day, tanned and tired.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mexico Part 2: Peas, Palms, Pines and Dorks

In the weeks before our vacation, when friends asked where we were headed, and I told them Puerto Vallarta, they asked if it was my first time, to which I answered that it was. But technically, that’s not exactly the case.

Way back when, in Life 1.0, I spent several hours- that’s right, hours- in the Puerto Vallarta area on- I am ashamed to say- a cruise.

Tangent: In my defense, the cruise was a sales award trip, so it wasn’t like I had a choice of vacations. I’ve never done a cruise since- couldn’t stand it. It’s you and a gazillion overweight white people packed into a floating shopping mall, where pretty much all you do is eat. For the first 12 hours or so it’s kind of fun; you’re exploring the ship, you’re stuffing yourself on gourmet food and it’s all good. But then the next day you’re like What? But we stuffed ourselves yesterday? And I’ve already been around the ship 5 times… But you do it all over again, and soon it’s like this floating Hotel California.

The cruise stopped at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta*. One of my then-co-workers/fellow-award-trip-travelers had planned ahead and arranged scuba dives for the 4 of us (the 2 of us and our then-wives) at 2 of the stops. On the boat out to the dive site** in PV several of us were chatting about the area, and another dive-tourist, a single American guy who seemed a bit full of himself, told us that he was fascinated by PV because it was “ a point of synthesis…” This sounded like a lead-in to a weightier conversation than any of us were looking to have with strangers on a dive-boat, and so we let the comment lie. Wife 1.0- always a quick, and often accurate, judge of character in spite of her own deep and profound issues- leaned close to me, whispering, “What a dork.”

*The travel-military-industrial-complex calls this route the “Mexican Riviera”, to distinguish it from the “Mayan Riviera” over on the Caribbean coast. I can’t stand this “Riviera” marketing-thing. Neither the Pacific nor the Caribbean coasts of Mexico are anything like the actual “Riviera”, which was originally the term for the Northwest Italian coast (Liguria.) Then later the term got extended/borrowed into the “French Riviera”, which seems OK, as it’s adjacent to, and very similar to***, the original Riviera, with the exception being that it is, uh, French.

**Los Arcos.

***Pretentious Mediterranean Euro-beach, crappy sand, no surf and jam-packed with people.

But 16 years later, knowing something about Mexico and geography and forests and deserts, I realize that Dork 1.0 was right*. Puerto Vallarta is a point of synthesis- a meeting of sea and mountains and lowlands and scrublands and jungles and forest all within a few miles of one another.

*Or maybe, the intervening decade and a half has allowed me to bloom into full-of-myself-dorkiness.

Extra Detail: After the dive, the dive boat took us across the Bay of Banderas back to the cruise ship dock. After ½ way across the bay, the motor sputtered and died. We were about 2 miles from shore. The ship was leaving in an hour. We were wearing swim trunks and flip-flops, and had maybe $50 between the 4 of us. Our wallets were on the ship, and we had no passports. The ship’s next stop was Los Angeles.

The Mexican teenager piloting us pulled the ripchord a few times, turned to us, and said, “The motor, she* is broke.” In desperation we waved towels at passing fishing boats. A charter-boat towed us into dock with 15 minutes to spare.

*Years later, having learned a bit of Spanish, this has always stuck in my mind. “Motor”- a cognate- is masculine in Spanish. Why did he use the female pronoun?

As a rule, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the more South you go from PV, the more thorny, scrubby and desert-y it gets. By the time you get down to Lazaro Cardenas or Zihuatenejo in Guerrero, it’s pretty much arid desert. The more North you go, toward Mazatlan, the more green and jungle-y the coast gets, until you pass Mazatlan and things dry up again and get all Sonora-ish and cactus-y. Down in the lowlands of PV and the surrounding coastal strip ringing the Bay of Banderas, wet and dry meet up rather quickly in a pretty small area.

The dominant forest type right around PV and to the South is Thorn forest, which as you might expect is full of things sharp and scratchy. IMG_4709Though the Thorn forest gets seasonally green, it’s a bit on the brown side in the dry season, which is of course when tourists tend to visit. On my morning runs around the resort, I followed roads and paths skirting the Thorn forest. On these runs I noticed birds, nests, flowers, a coati, and plenty of scratchy-looking brush. But mostly what caught my eye were all the peapods.


IMG_4697 Fabaceae, the Pea Family (or Legume Family or Bean Family), is the third largest family of angiosperms*, and certainly they’re no stranger to us here in Utah. Milkvetch, Lupine, and Sweetpea are common sights on just about any Wasatch hike or ride in May or June. But we don’t have much in the way (any?) of Pea Trees here in Northern** Utah. In the Thorn forest, practically every tree is a Pea Tree. All around are acacias, and things that look like acacias, such as Tabachín, the Mexican Bird of Paradise, Cæsalpinia pulcherrima, and Fishfuddle, Piscidia piscipula, from whose seedpods Native Americans used to derive a poison used to stun fish. Almost every tree, when you stopped for a moment and checked it out, had something interesting going on. Here’s a quick example.

*Asteraceae, the Sunflower Family, is #2. Orchideae, the Orchid Family, is #1.

**Mesquite is a Pea Tree, but occurs only in the Southern part of the state.

IMG_4716 My first full day I ran past this acacia loaded with these really-cool looking double thorns. I broke off a twig, and as I did so, brushed a tiny ant off my hand. The thorns seemed hollow, so I broke one open, and the thing was filled with tiny ants and dozens of little white larvae. IMG_4749I broke open another, and another, and every single thorn I examined was filled with ants. On closer inspection I noticed that on each thorn pair- whose interiors were linked and formed a common chamber- one of the thorns- always just one, not both- had a tiny entry/exit hole near the tip (pic below, left).

IMG_4729 I realized that I’d stumbled upon a local species of Ant Acacia, though a very different species, inhabited by a very different (and thankfully far less aggressive) species of ant than what Bird Whisperer and I encountered a few years back in Costa Rica. Ant Acacias have evolved mutualistic relationships IMG_4721with certain species of ants in which the acacia provides shelter (and sometimes food) in exchange for protection from pests and herbivorous “predators.” Looking at this modest-sized shree, I can’t begin to imagine how many ants it houses- hundreds of thousands? Millions?

IMG_4700 Pea Family plants do particularly well, and are especially diverse, in seasonally arid climates. The peapod is a great way to protect a vulnerable seed from sun, wind and desiccation. Many Pea Family plants grow in nitrogen-poor soils, and have established symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root- nodules. (I explained nitrogen-fixation in this post*.)

*Man, it is like I have post for everything.

Side Note: Confusingly, not all Pea Family trees growing wild around PV are native. One common exotic example is the Royal Poinciana, Delonix regia, or Flame Tree, native to Africa and introduced to the Americas in the 1600’s.

IMG_4713 The Pea Family is of major importance in agriculture, not just for its many helpful nitrogen-fixers, but for major crops including everything from peas to peanuts*to soybeans to beans, lentils and carob. Clover and Alfalfa are also Fabaceae. There are also a number of troublesome Pea Family weeds, such as Kudzu.

*Peanuts are not nuts. They’re legumes, like beans or peas.


After a day at the pool, we loaded up in the rental car and headed North.

IMG_4609 Tangent: This BTW, is our perennial family vacation-conflict. Whenever we get somewhere, I get ants-in-my-pants to check stuff out, like some rare tree or an archeological site or a remote village. AW and the Trifecta usually gravitate toward beach or pool or, well, you know, “vacation”-type stuff. I try to keep my ants-in-pants tendencies in check, and we usually work out an OK balance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they announced they were going on vacation without me.

Colima As we climbed up over the low Sierra Vallejo range, the forest thickened and greened-up. North of PV the coast is dominated by Tropical Deciduous forest, full of lush vines and various strangler figs (which we looked at last year in Costa Rica.) There are a number of native palms along the Mexican Pacific Coast. Most common were the Colima Palm, Attalea cohune, (pic left) and these guys (below, right), who I’m pretty sure are one of the various Calyptrogyne or Rooster-tail species of the type we saw last year Rooster Tailsdown in Costa Rica (though I didn’t make a species ID.) Both of these palms are feather-leaved or pinnate palms. We also saw, primarily inland, a number of wild fan-leaved or palmate palms. These might well have been Mexican Fan Palms, Washingtonia robusta (though again, I didn’t make a firm ID.)

Side Note: Remember, Palms are monocots, meaning they’ve evolved- or re-evolved- not just trees, but wood, from scratch. I find it fascinating that they’ve also independently evolved both pinnate (like Oak) and palmate (like Maple) leaves. It makes you think that if there’s life on other planets, there will be trees with both palmate and pinnate leaves.

IMG_4571 We worked our way up the coast, away from the resorts, through hills and jungles and little towns where we were the only gringos around. Eventually, a little ways South of San Blas, we turned inland and climbed into the hills for several miles before turning off into a curious little locals-water-park.

Tangent: Away from the resort/tourist development, beaches and recreation facilities frequented by Mexicans have a different feel- a feel which is both kind of honky-tonk, and yet strangely, happier, at the same time, from the immaculate gringo-filled mega-resorts to the South. It’s hard to explain. Here’s a quick clip.

From the resort, we hiked up about a mile and a half alongside a small river, through a lush, green forest, sighting iguanas and strange birds along the way (play with sound on for great bird-calls).

Interestingly, the Pea Family was still a major component of this forest, a prominent example being the Coapinol or Jatobá tree, Hymenaea courbaril.

Coapinol Pods The peapods on this guy are massive, and look like giant brown edamame pods. I found out later that the flesh inside is edible, and regretted not having opened one up.

IMG_4561 At the trail’s end we found this wonderful waterfall and swimming hole. I love fresh water swimming holes in the tropics. There’s something about them infinitely more refreshing, welcoming and simultaneously more peaceful than the beaches, which in comparison seem harsh, violent , and almost terrifying in scale. We swam and lingered for a bit before heading back.

IMG_4566 On the drive home we stopped for dinner and a swim at Playa Los Ayala, another locals spot, where the Trifecta quickly befriended and swam with some Mexican kids in the gentle surf while AW and I kicked back and watched Pelicans.


A couple of days later, AW decreed Twin B (above, swimming at falls) IMG_4605too sunburned for another beach or pool day, so we headed inland to the East, up into the mountains, toward San Sebastian. A colonial-era town mining that has found a second life as a tourist stop, it’s quiet and peaceful before the tourist buses arrive. The road to it climbed and climbed and climbed. The trees grew in height, then changed, then changed again. Finally on the last stretch of road between La Estancia and San Sebastian, they changed gain, this time into pines.

IMG_4610 Most Americans don’t think of pines when they think of Mexico, but the country is chock-full of them. Something like 39 of the world’s 110 species of pine are native to Mexico, and most of them are trees you never even heard of, much less laid eyes on*, and the country is considered one of the 2 great centers of pine evolution**.

*The example we’ve looked at previously is the ultra-rare Martinez Pinon, which I visited in 2006 and covered in a 6-part series last year.

**The other is East Asia.

Pd Needles Cones scale These pines were tall, but a bit crooked, and reminded me of the way Eastern White Pines often grow in the sandy soils of Cape Code. Up close they were 5 needled, with very long- up to 30cm) long, slightly drooping needles in bundles of five. The cones were small and ordinary-looking, maybe 8-10 cm in length. On the way back I pulled over and scrambled up a hillside while AW and the Trifecta waited patiently in the car.

IMG_4617[OK this next part is so corny and sappy I almost deleted it, but it is absolutely true and heartfelt, so if you don’t like it, Hey go read something else.] One of my great joys in life is encountering a new species of pine. The tree is always new different and alien, but always there’s that piney smell. A smell I don’t come across in the Wasatch, but which instantly takes me back to countless other pine forests I’ve visited- the lakeside Eastern White Pines of Western Maine, IMG_4618the Ponderosas of my old yard in Evergreen, Colorado, the Bristlecone/Limber forest of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the Lodgepoles of the Uintas, the dry warm February breeze atop Cerro Pinones. Ah, pines! Someday, when I have enough time and freedom that I can raise bees and grow a vegetable garden and look at the stars every night, I hope to spend a month or two straight down in Mexico, seeking out, discovering- and yes, sniffing- new species of pines.

Mexico is full of 5-needled pines, so species ID had to wait till the return home, Oblique Pedunclewhere I was able to consult with Jesse Perry’s outstanding guide to Central American Pines*, and identify it as Pinus douglasiana, known locally as Pino or Ocote**. (It was the oblique peduncle that nailed the ID.) P. douglasiana grows primarily in Jalisco and Michoacan between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, but occurs in pockets as far South and East as Oaxaca, and as far North as Sonora. Interestingly, it varies in form a bit across its distribution. At the Eastern end of its range the twigs tend to be smooth-surfaced, but at the Western end, such as around San Sebastian, they’re generally rough and pocked, as you can see here (pic left). IMG_4834Little regional variations like this are cool; whether they ever will/would diverge into distinct subspecies or even species no one can say, but every 2 species of tree that ever diverged from a common ancestor started doing so with a little difference such as this.

*In 2006, when I traveled to Zacatecas in search of the Martinez Pinon, Perry’s guide was long since out of print. I received mine- a bootleg copy- as a gift from Isaac Pintero of Juchipila. But now I see on Amazon that the guide is- wonderfully!- back in print. If you’re even thinking about heading to Mexico and are even remotely interested in pines, order it. Hands down the best tree guide I’ve ever owned.

**Neither of which is very helpful, as these names are used locally for about a dozen+ species across Mexico.

IMG_4619 Cone and needles in hand I returned to the car, and we started the long winding drive back to the beaches and heat and noise below, the kids zonked out in the back.

Final Note: There are 2 other forest types within about 50 miles of PV as the crow flies- Cloud forest (similar to what we visited last year in Costa Rica) and true, high mountain-coniferous forest dominated by spruce and tall pines, including the mighty Montezuma Pine, P. montezumae, similar in form and cone-size to the wonderful Sugar Pines of California. Unfortunately crows don’t build roads in Mexico; each is a full day’s drive away from PV.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mexico Part 1: How Frigatebirds Are Sort Of Like Mexican Cops

We had a wonderful time in Mexico, spending a week just North of Puerto Vallarta, exploring the coast further North and the mountains inland as well.

I’ve always believed that a great family vacation is one where not only do you enjoy quality time together as a family in a beautiful place, but also see and learn new things. IMG_4541A vacation where you, as a parent, can nurture and expand your child’s horizons, by introducing then to new places, ideas and cultures. Maybe your child learns about a new region, and a bit about its local plant and animal life. Maybe he learns a new skill from you, such as snorkeling or surfing or horseback-riding. Or maybe, just maybe, they learn valuable insights from you in communicating and dealing with new people in new cultures in new languages- important life lessons: conversing with a local rancher about the weather, haggling for a best price in a local market, or maybe… bribing a local law enforcement official.

Yes, that’s right- I bribed a Mexican cop in front of my kids. The twins were asleep, but Bird Whisperer saw the whole thing, which led to a discussion of ethics, pragmatism and differences in culture. But we’ll come back to our bribery story later in the post.

Tangent: Bribing a Mexican cop in front of your kid is awkward in the same way I imagine getting caught by your kid having sex* is awkward. You’re not doing anything all that bad, but you’d just as soon not do it with them looking. And when you explain it to them, and they understand what you were doing, I imagine they have kind an “Eew-Ick” reaction at some level.

*To be clear, I mean having sex with your spouse/your child’s other parent. If you get caught by your kid having sex with someone other than your spouse/your child’s other parent, then, uh, I don’t have a tangent for you- you’re on your own.

Nested Tangent: To be clear, this hasn’t (yet) happened to us- we haven’t been “caught” by our kids. And now that I think of it, I never “caught” my parents either, so I’ve never been presented firsthand with the “Eew-Ick” awkwardness mentioned above. Which, when you think about it, is really strange. Why are we all “Eew-Ick” about the thought of our parents getting it on?* Really, when you get down to it, if there’s one couple in the entire world about whose getting it on we should be wildly enthusiastic, it should be our own parents, whose getting it on produced us, right?

*Again, with each other.

OK, is this post going to be about anything at all besides bribery and sex? Yes it is. It’s going to be about birds.

The trip down was uneventful, but like any long trip involving airports, airplanes, rental cars and small children, we were tired when we arrived at the resort late afternoon. IMG_4589 So we kicked back by the pool for a while. The Trifecta jumped in the water, while AW and I ordered cold drinks and kicked back. As we lay by the pool, I noticed many things different from where we’d left earlier in the day: warm breeze, swaying palms, and the crash of the surf a few dozen yards away. But mostly what I noticed right away was the wild whistling and squawking in the trees above- the calls of Grackles.

Grackles are one of about a dozen species of bird across 4 genera. Unless you’ve spent much time down in South America, the grackles you’ve likely seen all belong to just one of those genera: Quiscalus. The Common Grackle, Quiscalus quiscula, is a fairly common bird across the Eastern US. They assemble in large flocks and are agricultural pests, often feeding in cornfields.

But the grackles at the resort- and everywhere we went around Puerto Vallarta- were a different species: IMG_4686 the Great-Tailed Grackle, Qusicalus mexicanus. Q. mexicanus is bigger, blacker and longer-tailed than the Common Grackle, and looks not so much like a blackbird as a crow, a resemblance to which we’ll return in a moment. GT Grackles are native to Central America. But they’ve adapted well to human development, including urban, suburban and agricultural areas, and over the last century have been expanding their range Northward in the Western US.

Extra Detail: Apparently this migration is occurring with multiple populations, or subspecies, from 3 different areas of Mexico. Just last week, I saw GT Grackles in both Las Vegas and St. George. In Utah I have yet to spot any North of St. George.

Their calls are loud and raucous, yet melodic at the same time, and completely unlike those of any bird in Northern Utah. Like crows, they’re comfortable around people and frequently target leftovers or unattended picnics. When I see GT Grackles, they always strike me as Crows Who Have Learned To Sing. (Not a great clip, but I always seemed to miss the great songs…)

Male GTGs are territorial, and engage in displays of strutting and feather-fluffing to ward off competing males and impress females. And what’s really cool, is that instead of just whiling away my vacation drinking umbrella drinks and bribing cops, I worked hard to document this behavior for your benefit, and am pleased to present you with this highly-scientific, documentary-quality, Mutual-of-Omaha-Wild-Kingdom-esque video of said display:

GTGs sort of look like crows, except a bit skinnier and longer-tailed (kind of like a Magpie) and they’ve adapted well to human settlement and have made a name for themselves as big-time agricultural pests. Just like crows. So they’re probably pretty closely-related to crows, right? Wrong. They’re not even corvids, and they haven’t shared a common ancestor with crows in something like 50 million years.

Tangent: Think about how weird that is. That’s longer-ago than when we last shared a common ancestor with New World monkeys. Now imagine this: New World monkeys convergently evolved larger ape-like, and eventually hominid-like forms over the last 40 million years. Eventually one branch evolved into a humanoid-ish species that looked pretty much just like a human, except maybe it wasn’t quite as bright and maybe had longer legs or something, and when modern humans first reached the New World maybe 12,000+ years ago, the place was full of these New World human-dopplegangers. Crazy, huh? But’s that’s pretty much exactly what happened with crows and grackles!

Grackles belong to a completely different family, Icteridae. The Icterids- sometimes called “New World Blackbirds” are a family of about 100 species native to the New World, and though we haven’t looked at them as a family, we’ve come across several of their members before. Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Redwing Blackbirds are both Icterids, as is my all-time favorite Great Basin songster- and first bird I ever blogged about- the Western Meadowlark. So are New World Orioles (such as the Baltimore Oriole). And this leads to probably the most interesting thing about the Icterids- the family is filled with examples of convergent evolution when compared with Old World species. Grackles are like crows. New World Orioles are like Old World Orioles. Meadowlarks are kind of like Old World Larks. Brown-Headed Cowbirds look rather corvid-ish, but have convergently evolved the same brood-parasitic behaviors as Old World Cuckoos. In the absence of these Old World species, the Icterids radiated and evolved to fill similar niches in the New World. It makes you wonder- if all the birds in the world went extinct except the Icterids, 5 or 10 million years from now would the world be filled with Icterid hawks, finches and starlings and owls?

Just outside the resort, along a sandy walking/running path connecting to the nearby town (Bucerias) I spotted this interesting nest, belonging to- or at least constructed by a Hornero. The Horneros, or “oven birds" are 1 of 200+ species of the Family Furnariidae.

Oven nest Oven birds make these distinctive hanging nests of mud, grass and twigs. Some species incorporate thorns, and others with the fecal matter of dogs, cats or other birds, presumably to deter intruders. Inside the nest are 2 chambers, designed to protect the chicks (typically 3 or 4) from intruders. The nest opening generally is positioned to face away from the prevailing wind.

The nests can only be built in the rainy season, when mud is available, but not when it’s too rainy, or the thing won’t hold together.

Mystery ovenbird So which oven bird species does this nest belong to? Beats me. I lacked a good guide, and though I spotted this fellow nearby (pic right) multiple times, even if it is his/her nest now, it’s likely as not the builder him/herself. Once baked by the sun, oven bird nests last several years, but the oven birds themselves use it just one season, after which it gets used by all sorts of birds*.

*Much like Magpie nests here in Utah.

MFrigate There were interesting birds everywhere we went, but whenever we were on or near the shore, my gaze was repeatedly drawn upward to this guy: the Magnificent Frigatebird*, Fregata magnificens. All day long they ride the sea breeze, hovering for hours up above, with their up-to 7 foot wingspans and deeply-forked tails. Frigatebirds can barely walk, and don’t swim, but they can remain aloft for over a week straight, and have the highest wingspan-to-weight ratio of any bird.

*What a wonderful common species name. I hope that should someday some advanced alien race come to Earth and name all the species here, they name us the Magnificent Ape.

Watching them is fascinating. Their forked tails are generally closed, but occasionally they’ll open them a bit, increasing drag, and falling back from their position with the wind, then closing them, they’ll edge forward again. They fly the sea breeze like a surfer on a standing wave. (Forked tail opens at around 0:35)

Tangent: Speaking of looking up… although the days were clear and sunny, the nights were cloudy, except for the for the first. That night after dinner Bird Whisperer and I walked down to the beach and looked up- way up. All of our regular Southern sky constellations- Orion, Gemini, Auriga, etc., were there, but they were all shifted up about 25 degrees- the difference in latitude between Salt Lake and Puerto Vallarta. Mars was almost exactly directly overhead.

They feed primarily on fish, which they snatch out of the water with their beaks, but they never dive. Their feathers lack oil*, and they don’t sit/bob in the water either.

*In this respect they’re similar to the Anhinga, to whom they’re closely-related, and which we saw last year down in Costa Rica. The Anhinga though does swim, and its lack of oiled feathers helps it to remain deep down longer.

Cormorant Another superlative: Frigate birds care for their young for over a year- possibly the longest time for any bird. This means that they can’t reproduce every year. Though devoted parents, they’re serial monogamists; after the chicks have fully and finally fledged, they seek out new mates. Male Frigatebirds court by establishing a nest-spot and then inflating/displaying a bright-red throat-pouch, called a gullar sac.

Touching, eh? OK, here’s the not-so-touching part: Boobie PelicanFrigatebirds don’t just fish- they’re regular kleptoparasites. A good portion of their diet (10% - 50%, depending on the source) is obtained from other seabirds, such as pelicans, gulls and boobies, whom they harass and assault until they drop their catch, which the Frigatebird catches in mid-air. Or even (EEW-ICK WARNING AHEAD) harassing these other seabirds until they regurgitate their recent catches, which – yes, ICK- the Frigatebird also catches in mid-air.

Kleptoparasitism isn’t the majority of their diet; most of the time they’re just like other seabirds, fishing “honestly” for a living. But at some point in the past an enterprising Frigatebird figured out it could pick up a meal quick the parasitic way, and the behavior caught on. Which brings us back to… Mexican cops.

Tangent: Whenever I think about “bad” bird behavior, I wonder whether the behavior is instinctive or learned, as there are examples of both among other birds. The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s brood-parasitic behavior must be instinctive; she never even saw her own mother*. But Western Scrub-Jays don’t start hiding their seed-caches from other Scrub-Jays until they themselves have robbed the caches of other Scrub-Jays; they have to learn the behavior. So which is it with Frigatebirds? And, more to the point, which is it with Mexican cops?

*Actually, as I rethink this, I may be reading it wrong. Perhaps the Brown-headed Cowbird thinks she is the same species of whatever nest in which she herself was hatched- Warbler, Finch, whatever. But such a species self-identification clearly doesn’t carry over to mating (she mates with other Cowbirds, not Finches or Warblers) and we know that she “sneaks” her egg into the target nest. But then again, maybe she thinks all eggs are “snuck” in and that’s just how Finches and Warblers get born…

The intersection was a confusing one, and that’s no doubt why the 2 motorcycle cops had it staked out. 2 stoplights, so close together that a visitor used to the giant multi-lane intersections of American roadways might think it just 1 intersection with 2 lights, which, entered when yellow, was clear to pass through. But in fact it was-confusingly- 2 distinct stoplights, which I realized only as I entered the 2nd intersection, and in my peripheral vision caught sight of 2 uniformed, helmeted men on motorcycles, one pointing at me.

I haven’t been pulled over by a cop in close to decade. Black VulturesI remember the butterflies –in-the-stomach feeling when the lights appear in the rear-view: is my registration up-to-date? Do I have my proof of insurance? Have I paid my library fines? But this time there was, strangely, no anxiety- just curiosity. On all of my Mexican road-trips I’ve wondered what would happen if/when I was pulled over. I’d heard all the stories. Could I bribe him? How much? How would the topic be broached?

The cop spoke clear, slow Spanish, and was- throughout the interaction- the hands-down friendliest police officer I’ve ever dealt with. He wasn’t remotely interested in seeing a license or any other paperwork. I played dumb, asking if I’d been driving too fast. He patiently explained that I’d run a red light, whereupon I explained that I thought it a single intersection and he patiently corrected me. I apologized and asked- following the advice in The People’s Guide to Mexico- if this was something I could take care of right away. That was all the prompting he needed.

He explained that if we went to the station the fine would be 1,000 pesos*, but that if we agreed upon a fine between the two of us, the amount could be less. Mystery IbisHe asked me for an amount, and I offered $US20. He sighed and said he was thinking more of 500 pesos. I hemmed and hawed and we discussed various amounts of pesos and dollars, and I gradually, deliberately, dumbed-down my Spanish and pretended to be having more trouble with language and conversion rates than I actually was, as the longer we talked, the lower the price seemed to get. Finally I smiled apologetically and said, (in Spanish), “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish well…” to which he responded- in English- “That’s OK, we can speak English!” Got me.

*I doubt it would have been that much, but I had the Watcher Family with me, wasn’t interested in a detour to a (probably corrupt) local station and was happy to pay a reasonable amount to be on our way.

Finally we settled on 360 pesos (US$30), but I made a show of fumbling for the amount and counting, and after I came up with 300 pesos, he said “That’s fine.” He told me not to hand the cash, but to insert it into a folded piece of cardboard, which I did. He smiled, shook my hand and said, “Thank you. You are a good negotiator! Be good!” And so ended my first experience in bribery and began my explanation/discussion of cultures and ethics with Bird Whisperer…

Tangent: I’m not a fan of bribery or corruption, but I have to confess- it was the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had being pulled over*. American cops- whether or not they ticket you- have an oh-so-serious demeanor; every encounter is filled with a weird, ultra-serious, sense of authoritative dread. But my discussion- and haggling- with the Mexican cop was, oddly, quite pleasant. I got off for a measly $26- far less than I’d get off for any moving violation in the US, and without any points on my license, or impact to my insurance.

*With a notable exception. In the mid-1990’s I was pulled over by the Park County, Colorado Sherriff’s Dept doing 20 MPH over the limit on US 285. I told him why I was speeding- the truth, and a good reason- and he let me off.

Certainly he was lining his pocket. Mystery MX Ave ID But tales abound of US cops carrying ticket “quotas” or at least expectations, when on traffic patrols, and really, excepting a level of indirection, is there a substantive difference? Which in turn brings up the whole issue of fines as a form of punishment. What is a fine? Is it a punishment? Then fine- take the money. But if the “taking” party –even indirectly- receives the fine, isn’t it a conflict of interest? Yes, one can contest a fine, but the judge is also a government employee, compensated through government-obtained revenues which of course include… fines.

One possible solution might be to donate all such fines to a worthy cause- a pool that goes to approved charities for example. But still there’d be a motivation- besides punishment- to levy fines. Maybe the best solution would be this: charge fines, collect the money, convert it to cash, and… destroy it. Really. Given current levels of debt, deficit, entitlements, and the changing population demographics of the coming decades, it’s almost inconceivable that at some point we won’t experience significant inflation. Regularly removing currency- fines- from the system would act as a small, but persistent counterweight to inflation.

OK, that may be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had. But I still think fines are ultimately always corrupting.

Our official encounter was the sole blemish in an otherwise logistically-flawless trip. A trip that included travel not just around town, but up into the jungles and mountains beyond.

Next Up: Peas, Palms and Pines