Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nature: Close Up

I haven't posted much recently because I've been traveling and had quite a bit of work. I got home early last week and was submerged in piles of details for a few days, but on Friday I got away and spent some time in the country. The "excuse" was to get some potting soil and incidentally to explore a highway I'd never been on. After more than three weeks living out of a suitcase, teaching summer school to adolescents and spending a lot of time in airports, bus terminals and cities, I needed some quiet time.

After buying an icy refresco in a small pueblo about 40 minutes south of Mérida, we pulled onto a side road that runs a long distance through fields and trees where I was assured no one would care if I filled a few bags and buckets with the rich red soil found there. Working close to the earth, digging, and sorting out rocks and roots with your hands you end up noticing things that otherwise you wouldn't. The rivulets of sweat that I couldn't wipe from my eyes because my hands were too dirty did not keep me from spying this iridescent blue-green beetle about the size of a walnut scurrying away from the shovel. It must have been under some leaves we disturbed with the pick axe. After detaining it long enough on a stick to take its picture, I let it go.

The next resident found under the leaf litter was this fat caterpillar, in its curled position looking a lot like a prehistoric Ammonite shell fossil, and just as still as one. No matter what I did to prompt it to move so I could see the motion of its many centipede-like legs, it showed no signs of life. We left it where it lay and replaced the protective blanket of leaves that we had disturbed.

Digging through leaf litter we found a lot of scorpions, alacranes in Mexican Spanish. It looked as if eggs had just hatched. There were many small scorpions such as this one, posing next to the tip of my pencil. I don't believe I have ever seen another this tiny. Small as it was, I did not touch it, assuming that although tiny, its venom still packs a punch. I did not want to test the theory.

A nearby tree was the next thing to catch my attention. The peeling bark of this tree sloughs off in large sheets, leaving fresh light-colored new bark beneath. As the newly-revealed bark ages it turns green in patterns created by the stencils of the fallen bark, then slowly assumes the rough reddish-gray color seen here. Then it, too, dries, separates, and falls in large curling pieces to leave new white under bark exposed to the air and light, beginning the process once again.

Once I started looking at the trees I saw this butterfly, at first with its wings folded and exposing only the dull gray undersides, which blended well with the tree bark. Suddenly it began to open and close its wings, flashing me with these bright neon-blue stripes. From a distance this movement contrasted against the shaded dark side of the tree really does resemble a light being switched quickly on and off. The butterfly did not seem disturbed by my presence. I was able to approach closely and take my pictures without startling it.

I often have the opportunity to observe tourists and it seems that they are normally drawn to in-the-face spectacular, big things, like pyramids and breathtaking ruins, the architecture of historic Mérida, long white beaches, red sunsets, and contrived, garish, over-the-top attractions like Las Vegas and theme parks. One of the nicest aspects of living in Yucatán is that, along with treasures like Chichen Itza, the coast, beautiful cenotes and lovely colonial towns, there is a never-ending wealth of smaller attractions awaiting discovery, not quite so obvious, but just as rewarding.


  1. I have spotten th at same beetle here in the Phoenix area. From what I read, it is a sort of a dung beetle. Lovely!

  2. What gorgeous photos, Marc. When I am here on these short trips, I have a sense of living on the surface of Yucatan. I know there is much, much more to learn about and to explore. This is lovely.

  3. Great post. The "caterpillar" is a millipede in defense posture. Unable to sting or bite, they coil up like this to hide their delicate legs inside their armored exoskeleton. Some species can emit cyanide gas which is mostly harmless to humans. Capuchin monkeys have been observed agitating millipedes and then rubbing them on their skin to repel mosquitos.


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