Thanks to Laurel Patrick for her help in putting this together and to Wikipedia, the culmination of human knowledge.
---- Gunnar Erickson
Cashew / Nuez de India
Kapok/ Ceiba, Pochota
Uva de Mar
Golden Trumpet/ Copa de Oro
Plumeria/ Frangipani/Flor de Mayo
Prince of Orange/ Ixora
White Morpho Butterfly
Grey Cracker Butterfly
Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly
Great Southern White Cabbage Butterfly
Leaf Cutter Ants
Fish and Other Fishy Things
Porcupine Fish and Puffers
Pacific Sand Crab or Mole Crab
Olive Ridley Turtle
Pelagic Sea Snake
Great Blue Heron
Long-Billed Curlew and Whimbrel
Mangrove (Spanish: Mangal)
To botanists, a “mangrove” is a plant and a “mangal” is a plant community and habitat where mangroves thrive. Mangals are found in tropical tidal areas such as lagoons and estuaries. About 110 different mangrove plant species have been identified as part of mangals, and each has had to overcome the problems of high salinity, intense sunlight, frequent flooding and lack of oxygen in the root zone in order to survive.
Some of the mangrove plants have adapted to the flooding and lack of oxygen by propping themselves up above the water level with stilt roots. They then can take air in through pores in their bark. Other mangrove plants make breathing tubes that stick up out of the soil like straws and draw in air. One adaptation to cope with the high salt level is to have rather impermeable roots which act as ultra-filtration devices. These devices can filter out over 90% of the salt. Other plants have salt glands at the base of each leaf which can directly secrete salt. Another adaptation is to store salt in old leaves which are then shed.
Mangroves also have special tricks to help their offspring survive. All have buoyant seeds that can float, but many mangrove plants are viviparous; their seeds germinate while attached to the parent plant. The baby plants grow there until they can photosynthesize and then drop off and float away. These propagules can survive drying and remain dormant for months or more until they arrive at a suitable environment. Once there, the plant changes its density so it floats vertically rather than horizontally and its roots are more likely to lodge into the mud and take hold. If it does not root, the propagule can reverse its density so it floats flat in the water and journeys off again in search of more favorable conditions.
Mangals protect the coast from erosion, surge storms and hurricanes through their massive root systems that dissipate wave energy and slow tidal flows. The mesh of their roots forms a quiet marine region for many young organisms: oysters, barnacles, crabs, shrimps, fish and other crustaceans. They are key nursery habitat for many species of marine life and support many kinds of shore birds. Dredging for coastal development has destroyed many mangals, but the United Nations Environmental Program has estimated that a quarter of the destruction of mangrove forests stems from shrimp farming.
The lagoon at Barra de Potosi is ringed by a rich mangal and you should consider taking an early morning kayak paddle or boat tour to see this special environment.
Palms (family Arecaceae or Palmae; Spanish; Palma)
There are roughly 2600 species in the family Arecaceae or Palmae, most of which are restricted to tropical or subtropical climates. The majority of palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. However, there are many exceptions and palms exhibit an enormous diversity in physical characteristics. As well as being morphologically diverse, palms also inhabit nearly every type of environment within their range, from rainforests to deserts.
Human use of palms is as old as or older than human civilization itself, starting with the cultivation of the date palm by Mesopotamians and other Middle Eastern peoples 5000 years or more ago. An indication of the importance of palms is that they are mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible and at least 22 times in the Quran. Today palms are important agricultural plants yielding coconut products, oils, dates, ivory nuts, carnauba wax, rattan cane, and raffia.
Like many other plants, palms have been threatened by human intervention and exploitation. The greatest risk to palms is destruction of habitat- especially in the tropical forests- due to urbanization, wood-chipping, mining, and conversion to farmland. Palms rarely reproduce after such great changes in the habitat, and palms with a small habitat range are extremely vulnerable. The harvesting of heart of palm, a delicacy in salads, also poses a threat because it comes from the inner core of the tree and harvesting it kills the tree. The use of rattan palms in furniture has caused a major population decrease in some species resulting in a negative impact on local and international markets as well as a decline in biodiversity in the area. The sale of seeds to nurseries and collectors is another threat since the seeds of popular palms are sometimes harvested directly from the wild. At least 100 palm species are currently endangered, and nine species have reportedly recently become extinct. The rarest palm known is the Hyophorbe amaricaulis; the only living individual that remains is at the Botanic Gardens of Curepipe in Mauritius. The threat to palms is complicated by the fact that several factors make palm conservation more difficult. Most palm seeds lose viability quickly, and they cannot be preserved in low temperatures because the cold kills the embryo. Using botanical gardens for conservation also presents problems, since they can only house a few plants of any species. There is also the risk of cross-pollination which leads to hybridization and loss of the original species.
In addition to coco palms which are discussed below, two common palms in this area are the Christmas Palm (Adonidia merrillii), known locally as Palma Kerpis and Palma Redondo, the palapa palm. The Christmas palm is a slender palm reaching 20 to 30 feet,used ornamentally. The common name derives from the crimson red fruit sprouting from its white floral bract. The palapa palm, not the coco palm, is the tree used for thatching roofs. It is a low growing palm, maybe six feet high, topped with meter long leaves each ending in a fan shaped spray.
Coco Palm (Cocos nucifera; Spanish: Coco)
The origins of this plant are the subject of controversy, with most authorities claiming it is native to South Asia (particularly the Ganges Delta), while others claim its origin is in northwestern South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small, coconut-like plants grew there as long as 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in India. Regardless of its origin, the coconut has spread across much of the tropics, probably aided in many cases by sea-faring peoples. The fruit is light and buoyant and also presumably spread significant distances by marine currents. Fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable and cocos are now ubiquitous to most of the planet between 26ºN and 26ºS.
The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salt. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall and needs high humidity (70–80%+) for optimum growth, which is why they are rarely seen in areas with low humidity, like the Mediterranean, even where temperatures are high enough. Given the conditions at Playa Blanca, it is little wonder that the area is lined with coco plantations.
A coco palm can live as long as 100 years producing an annual yield of 50 to 100 coconuts. Coir is the fibrous husk of the coconut shell and it is used in floor and outdoor mats, aquarium filters, cordage and rope, and garden mulch. Copra is the meat of the coconut; and in shredded form, it is probably the most familiar form to those who do not live in the tropics. It is an oil-rich pulp with a very light, slightly sweet and nutty flavor. The most popular use of coconuts in this area is to drink the water from a chilled coco. Coconut water and coconut milk are not the same thing. The lightly flavored liquid inside a coconut is called water and is typically drunk straight from the coconut for a very refreshing and nutritious drink. It loses nutritional value quickly and will begin to ferment once removed from the shell. Coconut milk is made from shredded or grated coconut pulp mixed with hot water to extract the oils and flavors. It then is used in cooking and as a replacement for cow's milk.
Indonesia is the world leader in coconut production followed closely by the exponentially increasing product of the Philippines. Mexico ranks seventh with 959,000 metric tons in 2005.
Mango (genus Mangifera; Spanish: Mango)
Mangoes are thought to have originated in South East Asia. They have been cultivated in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years and grown in East Asia since between the 5th-4th century BC. By the 10th century AD, they were transported to East Africa and then into the Americas. There are over 1000 varieties and mangoes make up almost half of all tropical fruits grown worldwide. Mexico produces 1.5 million tons per year.
The trees reach as high as 40 meters although the ones in orchards are usually trimmed to ease in harvesting the fruit. The flowers are small and white with five pedals. After the flowers finish, the fruit takes from three to six months to ripen. Spring through summer is the prime season for fresh mangoes in Mexico.
There are a number of health benefits claimed for mangoes. They are rich in dietary fiber and very high in antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, comprising 25%, 76% and 9% respectively of Dietary Reference Intake for these vitamins in a 165 g serving. Cuban doctors have isolated an extract of mango bark with antioxidant properties on blood parameters of elderly humans and the Muslim world has recognized mango as a possible supplement for sexual potency.
For eating, the fresh fruit is often sliced in three lengthwise pieces; the seed in the middle and two side slices. The side slices are then scored from the inside down to the skin in a cross hatch pattern. When the skin is pushed out, the square pieces of mango pop up in what we call the “hedgehog” cut.
Papaya (Carica papaya; Spanish: Papaya)
The papaya was cultivated in Mexico even prior before the emergence of the Mayan and Aztec cultures. It grows as a tree-like plant with a single stem reaching from 5 to 10 meters tall. The leaves are large, 50-70 cm in diameter and divided into seven deep lobes. The green fruit and the tree’s latex are both rich in an enzyme called papain, which is useful in tenderizing meat. Its ability to break down tough meat fibers was utilized for thousands of years by indigenous Americans and is included as a component in powdered meat tenderizers today. Besides being a delicious fresh fruit, it has a variety of medicinal uses. Papain is marketed in tablet form to remedy digestive problems and fermented papaya flesh is used as an ointment for cuts, rashes, stings and burns. Harrison Ford was treated for a ruptured disc incurred during the filming of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” by having papain injected into his back. Women in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other parts of the word have long used papaya as a folk remedy for contraception and abortion, and medical research with animals has supported these capacities.
Tropical Almond (Almendros terminalia catappa; Spanish: Almendro)
This is a large, deciduous tree recognized by its stiff, horizontal limbs and huge – 9 inch- spoon shaped leaves set in rosettes at the tips of stubby twigs. The branches are always in pairs and usually nearly equal in length. Twice a year, in early spring and late summer, the tree suddenly sheds all its leaves and then sprouts thousands of greenish white star-shaped flowers. These then form elliptic flattened edible fleshy fruit that draws fuit bats at night.
Earpod Tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum; Spanish: Parota)
These are the local giants - immense stocky trunk radiating surface roots, heavy limbed horizontal canopy, ferny foliage with up to 24 paired leaflets on each leaf. The fruit is the earpod- a flat donut up to four inches across that is used as fodder and then hardens into a black woody disk. Artisans polish the mature fruits for sale. Young fruit and leaves are used for animal feed. Seeds are eaten roasted. The mature hard wood is highly prized for its water and termite resistance and is widely used in furniture. But because of over exploitation, the trees are now protected and only certified wood can be legally used for any purpose. On the road to Los Achotes, near the cemetery, there is a parota that bears the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on its trunk. Look for the small shrine built around its base.
Poinciana (Delonix regia; Spanish: Tabachin)
This decorative flowering tree originated in Madagascar, but has spread throughout the tropics. It has a spreading canopy, wider than tall and it stands naked during the dry season dangling only long, dark sabre-like seed pods. With the first rains, it explodes into flamboyant vivid red or orange blooms.
Tamarind (Tamarindos indica; Spanish: Tamarino)
Slow-growing but hardy enough to endure hurricanes, droughts and fires, the tamarind tree likely originated in tropical Africa. It can reach 80 feet in height and is recognized by the 4 inch long leaf clusters each with 10-18 small leaflets paired opposite one another on the stem, giving the leaves a fern-like appearance. The leaves are bluish green on top, paler green below. The tree produces showy, fragrant, pale-yellow blossoms tinged or spotted with scarlet. The fruit is a legume; like a bean pod and the pulp of the fruit contains sucrose and acetic, tartaric and citric acids. It is rich in Vitamins C and B complex as well as minerals and has long been used medicinally. It forms the flavor base for English Worcester Sauce and is commonly used in Mexico in many candies and sweets. A number of fine specimens are growing on the properties just north of the enramadas at Barra de Potosi.
Ficus/Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina; Spanish: Ficus)
This potentially large—up to 262 feet high—evergreen foliage tree originating in Australia or Southeast Asia is now used as a shade tree in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world; including in many of the town squares in Mexican villages. The leaves are 4 by 2 inch ovals; bright green and very glossy. The flowers are inconspicuous as are the small berry-like fruit. It is very commonly planted in yards along Playa Blanca.
Cashew (Anacardium occidentale; Anacardium curatellifolium; Spanish: Nuez de India)
This small evergreen tree; growing to 10-12m (~32 ft) tall, with a short, often irregularly-shaped trunk; is native to northeastern Brazil. It is now widely grown in tropical climates and is common around Playa Blanca. You can see several at the Frida Kahlo School in Barra de Potosi. The leaves are spirally arranged, leathery textured, elliptic to obovate, 4 to 22 cm long and 2 to 15 cm broad, with a smooth margin. When in fruit, the trees are easy to recognize from their fruit.
What appears to be the fruit of the cashew tree is an oval or pear-shaped accessory fruit or false fruit that develops from the receptacle of the cashew flower. Called the cashew apple, better known in Central America as "marañón", it ripens into a yellow and/or red structure about 5–11 cm long. It is edible, and has a strong "sweet" smell and a sweet taste. The pulp of the cashew apple is very juicy, but the skin is fragile, making it unsuitable for transport. It is often used as a flavor in agua fresca.
The true fruit of the cashew tree is a kidney or boxing-glove shaped drupe that grows at the end of the pseudofruit. Actually, the drupe develops first on the tree, and then the peduncle expands into the pseudofruit. Within the true fruit is a single seed, the cashew nut. Although a nut in the culinary sense, in the botanical sense, the fruit of the cashew is a seed. The seed is surrounded by a double shell containing a dermatogenic phenolic resin, urushiol, a potent skin irritant toxin also found in the related poison ivy. Some people are allergic to cashew nuts, but cashews are a less frequent allergen than nuts or peanuts.
Originally spread from Brazil by the Portuguese, the cashew tree is now cultivated in all regions with a sufficiently warm and humid climate. Although it has a low yield, it is produced in around 32 countries of the world. The major raw cashew producing countries are Vietnam, Nigeria, India and Brazil who together account for more than 90% of all cashew kernel export.
Anacardic acids found in cashews have been used effectively against tooth abcesses due to their lethality to gram-positive bacteria. They are also active against a wide range of other gram-positive bacteria. Many parts of the plant are used by the Patamona of Guyana medicinally. The bark is scraped and soaked overnight or boiled as an antidiarrheal. Seeds are ground up into powders used for antivenom for snake bites. The nut oil is used topically as an antifungal and for healing cracked heels.
Kapok (Ceiba pengtandra; Spanish: Ceiba, Pochote)
Unmistakable, this sometimes gigantic tree has a trunk and limbs covered by cone-shaped spines. It can stretch up to 230 feet high with a towering layered canopy all buttressed by immense roots. The leaves are palm-shaped, 8 x 1.5 inches and bright green. The flowers are small and give off a milky odor that attracts night pollinating bats. After pollination, the flowers give way to large, boat-shaped pods up to 8 inches long. These are filled with kapok, the silky hairs used to fill pillows and cushions. It is also important in honey production.
Sea Grape Tree (Coccoloba uvifera; Spanish: Uva de Mar)
This tree is ubiquitous along the coastlines of tropical America. It can grow up to 49 feet tall and has a trunk of smooth pale grey bark that flakes to reveal cream and salmon patches. The leaves are round thick platters spanning up to 8 inches. The flowers are small, white and fragrant leading to clusters of green to reddish purple fruit hanging in bunches a foot or more long. Bees love the flowers and the fruit are enjoyed by many species, including locals who eat them fresh and make them into drinks and jellies. In this area, the Sea Grape Tree typically grows in fringe areas in a roundish shape with its canopy low to the ground.
Golden Trumpet or Copa de Oro (Allamanda carthartica; Spanish: Copa de Oro)
This shrubby climber is one of the most commonly cultivated summer bloomers in the area. Its vivid yellow flowers are trumpet-shaped, fragrant and 3-5 inches wide. The leaves are elliptic, 4-5 inches long and glossy.
Bougainvilla (genus Bougainvillea of the family Nyctaginaceae; Spanish: Bougainvilla)
With their stunning colors, these thorny, woody vines are almost a signature plant for Mexico. The name comes from Louis Antoine de Bougainville, an admiral in the French Navy who encountered the plant in Brazil in 1768 and first described it to Europeans. Admiral Bougainville was the first Frenchman to sail round the World.
They grow anywhere from 1-12 meters tall, scrambling over other plants with their hooked thorns. The thorns are tipped with a black, waxy substance that is easily left in the flesh of an unsuspecting victim. They are evergreen where rainfall occurs all year, or often deciduous if there is a dry season. The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant, including shocking pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white, or yellow. Bougainvillea glabra is sometimes referred to as "paper flower" because the bracts are thin and papery. Single and double flower forms are available. Double forms tend to carry their blooms near the end of the stems rather than distributing them evenly over the plant. The bloom cycles are typically four to six weeks. Bougainvillea generally blooms on new growth.
Plumeria or Frangipani (Plumeria; Spanish: Flor de Mayo)
Plumeria is a small genus of 7-8 species of mainly deciduous shrubs and trees native to Mexico, Central America, and Venezuela that produces flowers ranging from yellow to pink depending on form or cultivar. From Mexico and Central America, Plumeria has spread to all tropical areas of the world, especially Hawaii, where it is used for leis and grows so abundantly that many people think that it is endemic to there.
Plumeria is related to the Oleander and both possess a poisonous, milky sap. Each of the separate species of Plumeria bears differently shaped leaves and their form and growth habits are also distinct. The leaves of P. alba are quite narrow and corrugated, while leaves of P. pudica have an elongated oak shape and glossy, dark green color. P. pudica is one of the everblooming types with non-deciduous, evergreen leaves. Another species that retains leaves and flowers in winter is P. obtusa; though its common name is "Singapore", it is originally from Colombia. Frangipani can also be found in Eastern Africa, where they are sometimes referred to in Swahili love poems.
Plumeria flowers are most fragrant at night in order to lure sphinx moths to pollinate them. The flowers have no nectar, and simply dupe their pollinators. The moths inadvertently pollinate them by transferring pollen from flower to flower in their fruitless search for nectar.
The genus is named in honor of the seventeenth-century French botanist Charles Plumier, who traveled to the New World documenting many plant and animal species. The common name "Frangipani" comes from an Italian noble family whose sixteenth-century marquess invented a plumeria-scented perfume.
In Playa Blanca, you often see them planted in yards where they grow as small gangly trees with few leaves and strikingly fragrant large pink or yellow flowers. Unfortunately, many visitors do not have the opportunity to enjoy the full beauty of this tree as it flowers and leafs and is at its best in the rainly season.In Mexico, the Nahuatl (Aztec language) name for this plant is "cacalloxochitl" which means "crow flower."
Jamaica (Hibiscus sabdariffa; Spanish: Jamaica)
This is an awkward, woody plant with an exotic waxy flower calyx, unlike any of the other members of its hibiscus family. It grows to six feet high. The leaves are deeply three to five lobed, 8-15 cm long, arranged alternately on the stems. The flowers are 8-10 cm in diameter, white to pale yellow with a dark red spot at the base of each petal, and have a stout fleshy calyx at the base, 1.5–2 cm wide, enlarging to 3–3.5 cm, fleshy and bright red as the fruit matures. It is an annual plant, and takes about six months to mature.
Though native to India and Malaysia, jamaica is a staple of the Mexican culinary arena. With a flavor that is faintly cranberry or currant, it is the basis for jellies, sauces, refreshing drinks and teas rich in vitamin C and anthocyanins. It also is grown for its flowers that make extremely long lasting and exotic floral bouquets. The flowers are harvested annually, stripped from the hardy, woody stalk, and dried in the sun. The dried flowers are sold for the particularly popular drink of Jamaica for the Christmas season. The process of stripping and drying is a long and slow effort, constantly threatened by the calamity of rain. For all their work, farmers earn only pesos for kilos of dried flowers.
Guayacan (Guaicum coulteri; Spanish: Guayacan)
A slow growing, multi-trunked Mexican native tree, related to the creosote bush and puncture vine weed, it is noted for hard wood and for producing resin. Guayacan has a dense canopy with short lateral branches and varies in height from two feet to eight feet. The violet or purple flowers have 5 petals and are 1/3 to 3/4 inch in diameter. The leaves are small with four to eight pairs of leaflets, each about 2/3 inch long. The leaves tend to fold up about half way during the heat of the day. The bark of the root has an ingredient used for making soap. The root extracts can be used to treat rheumatism and venereal disease. Locally, the clusters of deep blue-violet flowers are appreciated at intervals throughout the year by the local human population and much loved by various species of butterflies.
Prince of Orange (Ixora spp; Spanish: Ixora)
This ornamental shrub originated in South and Southeast Asia. It grows up to 12 feet high and displays small trumpet-shaped flowers throughout much of the year, often in red and red orange, but ranging to pink, yellow and white. You can identify it by the foliage; the leaves are simple opposing pairs alternating with four smaller leaf stipules arranged in a cross. It flowers almost year round and is very attractive to cinnamon hummingbirds and butterflies. It is often used as a hedge plant in private yards along the playa.
Bromeliads (Bromeliaceae; Spanish: Bromeliad)
Bromeliads are a large family of plants whose most famous member is the Pineapple. Bromeliads entered recorded history some 500 years ago when Columbus introduced the pineapple (Ananas comosus) to Spain upon return from his second voyage to the New World in 1493. On that voyage he found it being cultivated by the Carib Indians in the West Indies.
All bromeliads are composed of a spiral arrangement of leaves sometimes called a "rosette". The bases of the leaves in the rosette may overlap tightly to form a water reservoir. This central cup also collects whatever leaf litter and insects happen to land in it. The more ancestral terrestrial bromeliads do not have this water storage capability and rely primarily on their roots for water and nutrient absorption. Tank bromeliads, as the water storing species are often called, rely less heavily on their roots for nourishment and are more often found as epiphytes. The roots of epiphytic species harden off after growing to form holdfasts as strong as wire that help attach the plant to its host. Even though bromeliads are commonly called parasitos in Spanish-speaking countries, these epiphytes do not take sustenance from their host but merely use it for support. In some species, the bases of the leaves form small chambers as they overlap and these protected spaces are often home to ants. In exchange for shelter, the ants' waste may provide the bromeliad with extra fertilizer.
Bromeliads are appreciated for their exotic forms, foliage and flowers and are popular houseplants in the United States. Once the plant flowers, it will die; although the process is slow and ‘ pups’ or offsets are formed for new plants during the decline of the mother plant. The green, leafy top of a pineapple is in fact a pup that may be removed and planted to start a new plant.
Many bromeliads are natives of Mexico and a variety can be seen locally especially late in the dry season when the deciduous trees and shrubs around the lagoons of Playa Blanca are in their leafless stage.
There are four stages in the life cycle of the butterfly; simple egg, larval caterpillar, inactive pupa or chrysalis and spectacular adult or imago. Females lay their eggs with a special glue on plants that are specific for each species; some butterflies only lay eggs on a single species, others use a range of plants. The caterpillar larva that emerge are eating machines who molt through several stages called instars. Many of the host plants for larva contain toxic substances that caterpillars can sequester within their bodies making them poisonous to birds. Fully grown larva stop eating and search for a location, often the underside of a leaf, to molt a final time forming a chrysalis or pupa. Butterflies later emerge from these hardened pupa, hang to dry their wings, and fly off to repeat their purpose in life, reproduction. The life span of the adult butterfly ranges from one week to months, but on average the imago life span is 2-3 weeks.
The kaleidoscope of butterfly colors are a result of pigments in scales or prism- like structures that bend light and absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light.
Butterflies eat during the day, tasting with their feet, sipping nectar and moisture from flowers with a siphoning mouth part coiled under its head. Some butterflies use this proboscis to suck tree sap and juice from fermenting fruits. Mouth parts are undeveloped or absent in some species of butterflies, so other than their time as larva they do not eat.
Several species common to Playa Blanca are described below.
White Morpho Butterfly (genus Morpho; Spanish: Mariposa)
There are over 80 species of the genus Morpho. They are neotropical butterflies found mostly in South America as well as Mexico and Central America. Many Morpho butterflies are colored in metallic, shimmering shades of blue and green. These colors are not a result of pigmentation but are an example of iridescence: the extremely fine lamellated scales covering the Morpho's wings reflect incident light repeatedly at successive layers, leading to interference effects that depend on both wavelength and angle of incidence/observance. Thus the colors produced vary with viewing angle, however they are actually surprisingly uniform, perhaps due to the tetrahedral (diamond-like) structural arrangement of the scales or diffraction from overlying cell layers. The lamellate structure of their wing scales has been studied as a model in the development of fabrics, dye-free paints, and anti-counterfeit technology used in currency. The lamellae reflect up to 70% of light falling on them, including any UV. The eyes of Morpho butterflies are thought to be highly sensitive to UV light and therefore the males are able to see each other from great distances. In most species only the males are colorful, supporting the theory that the coloration is used for intrasexual communication between males. Some South American species are reportedly visible by the human eye up to one kilometer away.
There also exist a number of white Morpho species, one of which frequents Playa Blanca. It is a spectacularly large butterfly with a wing span of eight inches or more, and it flutters somewhat haphazardly earning it the nickname of the Kleenex butterfly.
Morpho butterflies are forest dwellers but will venture into sunny clearings to warm themselves. Males are territorial and will chase any rivals. They feed on the juices of fermenting fruit with which they may also be lured. The inebriated butterflies wobble in flight and are easy to catch. Morphos will also feed on the bodily fluids of dead animals and on fungi. They may be important in dispersing fungal spores.
The entire life cycle of the Morpho butterfly, from egg to death, is approximately 137 days. The adults live for about a month. They have few predators as the adults are poisonous due to the feeding caterpillar sequestering poisonous compounds. The hairy brown caterpillars feed on a variety of leguminous plants. In some species the caterpillars are cannibalistic. If disturbed, some Morpho caterpillars will secrete a fluid smelling of rancid butter. The tufts of hair decorating the caterpillars have been recorded to irritate human skin. The commoner (Blue) Morphos are reared en masse in commercial breeding programs. The iridescent wings are used in the manufacture of jewelery and as inlay in woodworking.
Grey Cracker Butterfly (Hamadryas februa; Spanish: Mariposa )
These butterflies are mottled grey, cream and brown, with a wing span of approximately three inches. Their characteristic position is with their wings spread open on tree trunks with their head downward. Early in the morning and before dark, you can see groups of adults on a single tree. Males make a cracking sound as they dart out at people and insects. The larvae build resting platforms out of dung pellets. These butterflies eat sap and rotting fruit.
Zebra Butterfly (Heliconia charithonia; Spanish: Mariposa )
Present throughout the year, these butterflies have long, narrow black wings with yellow stripes. The males patrol aggressively for females for mating opportunities. Males are known to wait for the female to emerge from the chrysalids and then mates with her as she emerges. After mating, the male leaves a chemical that repels other males. Adult butterflies can be seen around many flowering plants but are particularly fond of lantana. Eggs are laid on a number of different passiflora plants. The passiflora is the host plant for the larvae.
Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly (Phoebis sennae; Spanish: Mariposa )
These are found throughout the year hovering for nectar around bougainvillea, hibiscus, cassias, lantana and morning glory. It is a large lemon yellow butterfly with irreggular black borders. Males patrol for females with a rapid flight. Eggs are particularly difficult to find as they are laid singularly on plants. Various cassias serve as the host plant for the larva.
Great Southern White Cabbage Butterfly (Ascia monuste; Spanish: Mariposa)
A 2 ½ to 3” white butterfly found in high numbers at Playa Blanca especially on the road along the beach. The caterpillars are numerous and are seen as pests to farms and gardeners. They feed in large groups and have many host plants including the mustard family, cabbage, lettuce, radish and plants in the caper family. The adults are nectar feeders and especially enjoy lantana, plumbago, hibiscus and bouganvilla.
Owl Butterflies (genus Caligo, family Nymphalidae; Spanish: Mariposa)
Owl butterflies, of which there are around 20 different species, are found in the rainforests and secondary forests of Mexico, Central and South America. The common name is derived from the presence of large "eyespots" (ocelli) on the underside of the hind wings. To a human observer of dead butterflies pinned up in a collection, owl butterflies' underwings resemble the head of an owl when the butterfly is held head down. It was speculated that the ocelli are "false eyes" to scare smaller birds that attempt to prey on the butterfly. Sadly not everything we learned in eighth grade science class is correct; there is no evidence that the function of the ocelli is to resemble an owl. The position in which the owl-like appearance occurs is not generally assumed by the butterfly in life. In its resting position, Caligo butterflies settle down with closed wings like most butterflies, showing only one of the eyespots and do not look remotely owl-like.
The actual significance of the ocelli remains elusive. In some butterflies, it has been shown that ocelli serve as a decoy, diverting bird attack away from the vulnerable body, and towards the outer part of the hind wings or the forewing tip. But decoy ocelli are almost always small and located near the margin of the wing, where the damage caused by a bird's beak would interfere little with the butterfly flying and going about its life. The position and size of the owl butterflies' ocelli makes them a decidedly suboptimal decoy, as they are far too close to the abdomen to ensure that no substantial damage is inflicted by a bird snapping at them.
Owl butterflies are very large, and fly only a few meters at a time, so avian predators have little difficulty in following them to their settling place. However, the butterflies usually fly around at dusk, when few avian predators are around Indeed their main predators are apparently small lizards such as Anolis. It has been suggested that the hind wing underside pattern actually resembles the head of a large Hyla tree frog, which prey on Anolis; but this theory has not been tested. It also is known that many small animals hesitate to go near patterns resembling eyes with a light-colored iris and a large pupil, which matches the appearance of the eyes of many predators that hunt by sight, so it is conceivable that the eye pattern is a generalized form of auto mimicry that would buy the butterfly time to escape from an approaching predator.
Leafcutter Ants (two genera—Atta and Acromyrmex; Spanish: Hormigas)
Leafcutter ants are social insects found in warmer regions of Central and South America. These unique ants have evolved an advanced agricultural system based on ant-fungus mutualism. They feed on special structures called gongylidia produced by a specialized fungus that grows only in the underground chambers of the ants' nest. So the ants harvest leaves, but they don’t eat them; they bring them into their nests and feed them to the fungus they cultivate there.
Among the 39 species, different species of leafcutters farm different species of fungus, but all the fungi are members of the Lepiotaceae family. The ants actively cultivate their fungus, feeding it with freshly-cut plant material and maintaining it free from pests and molds. This mutualist relationship is further augmented by another symbiotic partner, a bacterium that grows on the ants and secretes chemicals that protect the fungus- essentially the ants use portable antimicrobials. Leaf cutter ants are sensitive enough to adapt to the fungi's reaction to different plant material, apparently detecting chemical signals from the fungus. If a particular type of leaf is toxic to the fungus, the colony will no longer collect it.
A mature leafcutter colony can contain more than 8 million ants, and they can be major agricultural pests. Some species are capable of defoliating an entire citrus tree in less than 24 hours. Within a colony, the ants are divided into castes, based mostly on size, that perform different functions-- minims, minors, mediae and majors. Minims are the smallest workers and tend to the growing brood or care for the fungus gardens. Minors are slightly larger than minima workers and are present in large numbers in and around foraging columns. These ants are the first line of defense and continuously patrol the surrounding terrain and vigorously attack any enemies that threaten the foraging lines. Mediae are the generalized foragers, who cut leaves and bring the leaf fragments back to the nest. Majors, also known as soldiers or dinergates, are the largest worker ants and act as soldiers, defending the nest from intruders, although there is recent evidence that majors participate in other activities, such as clearing the main foraging trails of large debris and carrying bulky items back to the nest. The largest soldiers may have total body lengths up to 16 mm (.63 inches) and head widths of 7 mm (.28 inches).
Mosquito (family Culicidae; various species; Spanish: Mosquito)
We don’t think it is necessary to provide a physical description of these insects or chronicle their role as vectors in the spread of human diseases. Those are well known by almost everyone. But because you are likely to encounter at least one or two at Playa Blanca, we can point out a few things you may not know. For example, a mosquito can fly for 1 to 4 hours continuously at up to 1–2 km/hour, traveling up to 10 km in a night. Both male and female mosquitoes are nectar feeders, but the female of many species is also capable of haematophagy (drinking blood). It may be small consolation, but human blood meals are seldom the mosquito’s first or second choices; horses, cattle, dogs, smaller mammals or birds are preferred. The females do not require blood for survival, but they do need supplemental substances (like protein and iron) to develop eggs. Female mosquitoes hunt their blood host by detecting carbon dioxide (CO2) and 1-octen-3-ol from a distance. When they get closer they also pick up on the infrared heat being emitted which identifies the host as warm-blooded.
The Culex mosquito species usually lay their eggs at night over a period of time sticking them together to form a raft of from 100 to 300 eggs. A raft of eggs looks like a speck of soot floating on the water and is about 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch wide. A female mosquito may lay a raft of eggs every third night during its life span.
Anopheles and many other mosquitoes lay their eggs singly on the water surface. Aedes and Ochlerotatus mosquitoes lay their eggs singly, usually on damp soil. Aedes and Ochlerotatus eggs are more resistant to drying out (some require complete drying out before the eggs will hatch) and hatch only when flooded with water (salt water high tides, irrigated pastures, tree holes flooded by rains, flooded stream bottoms). Anopheles , Culex and Mansonia eggs are susceptible to long periods of drying out.
Whatever the species, tiny mosquito larvae emerge from the eggs within 24 - 48 hours almost in unison. These "wigglers," live in water from 4 to 14 days depending on water temperature, and during that phase, they must come to the surface at frequent intervals to obtain oxygen through a breathing tube called a siphon. They are constantly feeding since maturation requires a huge amount of energy and food. They hang with their heads down with the brushes besides their mouths sweeping anything small enough to be eaten toward their mouths. They feed on algae, plankton, fungi and bacteria and other microorganisms. During growth, the larva molts (sheds its skin) four times. The stages between molts are called instars. At the 4th instar, the usual larva reaches a length of almost 1/2 inch and toward the end of this instar ceases feeding. When the 4th instar larva molts, it becomes a pupa.
Mosquito pupae, commonly called "tumblers," live in water from 1 to 4 days, depending upon species and temperature. The pupa is lighter than water and floats at the surface. It takes its oxygen through two breathing tubes called "trumpets." The pupa does not eat, but it is not an inactive stage. When disturbed, it dives in a jerking, tumbling motion toward protection and then floats back to the surface.
The metamorphosis of the mosquito into an adult is completed within the pupal case. The adult mosquito splits the pupal case and emerges to the surface of the water where it rests until its body dries and hardens.
Dragonflies are natural predators of mosquitoes. They eat mosquitoes at all stages of development and are quite effective in controlling populations. Although bats and Purple Martins can be prodigious consumers of insects, many of which are pests, less than 1% of their diet typically consists of mosquitoes. Neither bats nor Purple Martins are known to control or even significantly reduce mosquito populations. For more proactive control, window screens, introduced in the 1880s, have been called "the most humane contribution the 19th century made to the preservation of sanity and good temper” and bed nets, particularly those dipped in permithrin, have proven excellent protection.
One of the most popular chemical treatments is N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, commonly known as DEET. Mosquitoes use carbon dioxide (CO2) and 1-octen-3-ol from human and animal breath and sweat as odor cues and DEET inhibits the detection of the latter in insects. It doesn’t kill the mosquitoes; it hides you from them. It has been used widely since its invention by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1945, but has occasionally been associated with some minor to moderate adverse reactions. Other repellants also have been shown to have some effectiveness, but by far DEET is the champion against mosquitoes. When using repellants, The American Mosquito Control Association makes the following recommendations:
• Wear long sleeve shirts and pants outdoors during peak mosquito activity time periods.
• Apply repellent sparingly only to exposed skin or clothing.
• Keep repellents away from eyes, nostrils and lips: do not inhale or ingest repellents or get them into the eyes.
• Avoid applying high-concentration (>30% DEET) products to the skin, particularly of children.
• Avoid applying repellents to portions of children's hands that are likely to have contact with eyes or mouth.
• Pregnant and nursing women should minimize use of repellents.
• Never use repellents on wounds or irritated skin.
• Use repellent sparingly; one application will last approximately 4-6 hours. Saturation does not increase efficacy.
• Wash repellent-treated skin after coming indoors.
Dragonflies (order Odonata suborder infraorder Anisoptera: Spanish: Libelula)
Dragonflies are familiar insects living in and near water where they perform their meritorious service as “mosquito hawks”. Females lay eggs in water, often on floating or emergent plants, and most of a dragonfly's life is spent in the larvae (naiad or nymph) form beneath the water's surface, using internal gills to breathe and using extendable jaws to catch other invertebrates or even vertebrates such as tadpoles and fish. The larval stage of large dragonflies may last as long as five years. In smaller species, this stage lasts between two months and three years. When the larva is ready to metamorphose into an adult, it climbs up a reed or other plant at night. Exposure to air causes the larvae to begin breathing. The skin splits at a weak spot behind the head; and the adult dragonfly crawls out of its old larval skin, waits for the sun to rise, pumps up its wings, and flies off. The adult stage of larger species of dragonflies can last as long as four months. Dragonflies feed on mosquitoes, midges and other small insects like flies, bees, and butterflies. They are therefore valued as predators, since they help control populations of harmful insects. They capture their prey by clasping them in legs studded with spikes. The prey cannot escape by diving because dragonflies always attack from below.
Humpback Whale (megatera novaeangliae; Spanish: Ballan Jorobada o Yubarta)
One of the larger whales with adults ranging in length from 12-16 meters (40-50 feet) and weighing approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 pounds), these migrating whales pass just off shore from November through April. They are very acrobatic and often breach and slap the water. The humpback has a distinctive body shape with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobby head.
Long targeted by whalers, the humpback population fell by 90% before a whaling moratorium was introduced in 1966. Since then their numbers have rebounded to around 80,000, although many still die each year from entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with ships. Humpbacks are found in oceans worldwide and typically migrate up to 25,000 kilometers each year; during the summer they feed in polar waters on a diet of krill and small fish and in winter they move south to tropical waters to breed and give birth in winter. During winter, they do not feed and live off their fat reserves.
Dolphin (family Delphinidae; Spanish: Delfin)
Dolphins are marine mammals closely related to whales and porpoises. There are almost forty species in seventeen genera. Dolphins evolved recently, about 10 million years ago. Their ancestors were originally land animals who retreated to the seas about 50 million years ago. Dolphins are considered among the most intelligent animals, although measuring intelligence in a species with different sensory and cognition systems is difficult. But for example some dolphins teach their young to use tools. The dolphins break off sponges and use them to protect their snouts while foraging. This knowledge is passed from mothers to daughters and is not genetically inherited, but specifically taught. Dolphins also communicate using a variety of clicks, whistles and ultrasonic echolocation.
Because dolphins need to come up to the surface to breathe, they do not sleep in the same way land mammals do; generally they sleep with only one brain hemisphere in slow-wave sleep at a time, maintaining some amount of consciousness with the other hemisphere.
The most common dolphins on the Pacific side of Mexico are the Orca or Killer Whale (Spanish: Orca), Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (Spanish: Delfin Pintado), Eastern Spinner Dolphin (Spanish: Delfin Tornillon); Striped Dolphin (Spanish: Delfin Listado); Long-beaked Common Dolphin (Spanish: Delfin Comun de Rostro Larago); Pacific White–Sided Dolphin (Spanish: Delfin Lagenorringo); Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Spanish: Delfin Nariz de Botella). Dolphins live in social groups called pods with up to a dozen members. You occasionally will see a pod cruising the beach just outside the surf line. When food is abundant, they sometimes form superpods offshore aggregating hundreds of individuals.
Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus; Spanish: Armadillo; Nahuatl: Ayotochtli)
This is the same nine-banded, long-eared, hairless, armored creature that is famous as road kill in Texas. In Mexico, its usual demise is different. Here it is prized for its meat. Armadillos are avid diggers, living in burrows in moist ground and pursuing grubs and insects with their sharp claws. Their frequent fate as road kill is linked to an unfortunate tendency to jump straight into the air when startled. The average armadillo’s vertical reach is approximately the same as the height of an average pickup truck bumper.
Scientist use nine-banded armadillos because of a quirk in their reproductive systems. They are unique among mammals in having four genetically identical quadruplets born in each litter. Because they are always genetically identical, the quads are good subjects for scientific, behavioral and medical tests that need consistent genetic makeup in the test subjects.
Coatimundi ( Nasua narica; Spanish: Tejon or Pisote)
The coati is a member of the raccoon family sporting a long snout with somewhat pig-like features and bear-like paws. Ring-Tailed coatis have either a light brown or black coat, with a lighter under-part and a white-ringed tail in most cases. All coatis share a slender head with an elongated, slightly upward-turned nose, small ears, dark feet and a long, non-prehensile tail used for balance and signaling. They are about the size of a large housecat with males larger than females. Coatis are omnivores; feeding mainly on fallen fruit and invertebrates. They walk on the soles of their feet like Grizzly bears and have strong limbs for climbing and digging. They are quite intelligent and a coati communicates its intentions or moods with chirping, snorting or grunting sounds. Different chirping sounds are used to express joy during social grooming, appeasement after fights, or to convey irritation or anger. Snorting while digging, along with an erect tail, states territorial or food claims during foraging. Coatis also use special postures or moves to convey simple messages; for example, hiding the nose between the front paws as a sign for submission. In this area, you sometimes see them at night on their nocturnal hunts.
Opossum (Didelphys azarae; Spanish: Tlacuache)
Again Mexico shares this species with her northern neighbor. It is a marsupial and not particularly revered in this region. A Mexican author described it as “an unattractive, slow-witted nocturnal creature with a long muzzle, rather fearsome-looking teeth, a coarse, variable, yellowish and gray coat, striped or blotched and a prehensile tail, long, naked and pink.” Nonetheless it does have few claims to fame; more teeth than any other mammal (up to 52) and litters of 10-20 offspring produced after a gestation period of only 13 days.
Red Snapper (various species, Spanish: Huachinango)
We will start this section with fish you are most likely to encounter in a local restaurant. Like many other common fish names, the term “red snapper” is used for many different species of fish. Fishbase.org, in fact, identifies over 100 species worldwide called red snapper. In
Snook (Several Species; Spanish: Roballo)
Worldwide there are over 50 different species of fish that are commonly called “snook”; many are found in Latin America and the Caribbean, but there are snook in
Pargo (many species; Spanish: Pargo)
The common name of this fish, again, encompasses many species of fish found in oceans all around the world and broadly overlaps with fish commonly called “snappers”. There are hundreds of species labelled pargo, with over 40 species in
Skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis; Spanish: Barrilete)
Skipjack or skipjack tuna are easily identified by having a blue or blue-purple back and a silvery belly with 4-6 stripes on it. They live in tropical oceans around the world and reach up to 40 inches in length. They live to 8-12 years and their diet consists of fish, squid, krill, pelagic red crabs, etc.
Many skipjack school year round in nearby waters, but they are not common in the surf, nor is their dark meat considered prize food. You may see some unloaded by the panga fishermen at Barra de Potosi with their catch. The fish you see caught from the beach with hand lines and small throw nets are more likely to be crevelle jacks, sierras and sardines.
Roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis; Spanish: Pez Gallo)
While not good to eat, the pez gallo is one of the most prized sport fish on the Pacific Coast. This powerful fish, which regularly weighs in at 40 pounds or more, aggressively feeds near the shoreline and any angler who hooks into one is in for a heavyweight showdown. They sport a distinctive raised comb which cuts through the water as they bear down to attack. The largest specimens top 110 pounds.
Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares; Spanish: Atun aleta amarilla)
Yellowfin tuna have blue backs and silvery bellies and namesake yellow fins. They grow to over 6 feet in length and often travel with skipjack, eating the same diet. In the eastern Pacific, they often school with porpoises and commercial fishermen often track porpoises in search of yellowfin tuna. Most fish are cold-blooded; their internal temperature is close to that of the surrounding water because they lose body heat through the gills. But tuna can be up to 18 degrees F. warmer than the sea. The have evolved a system to retain body heat by a counter-current heat exchange process which allows their muscles to operate more efficiently so they can swim faster.
Round Stingray (Urolophus halleri. Spanish: Raya )
You might not want to spot this one. These rays are up to 22 in (56 cm) long and they congregate seasonally in large schools just off Playa Blanca to mate and give birth. If stepped on, they can give a sharp sting from the large spine located halfway down the tail. The folk remedy for a sting is to immediately apply urine. They are identified by their flat round shape and brownish or gray-brown color with fine yellow spots.
Mahi Mahi or Dorado or Dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus; Spanish: Dorado)
This fish has a distinctive blunt head and a back fin (dorsal) that runs the length of its body. It lives in tropical waters around the world; mahi mahi is a Hawaiian word and the species is prized for eating. It can reach over 80 pounds and local sport fishermen regularly catch bulls in the 40 pound range. When schools of baitfish come close to shore, there are often mahi mahi among the jack crevalles and other predators that follow them. The enramadas at Barra de Potosi often feature it on the menu.
Jack Crevalle (Caranx hippos; Spanish: Jurel)
If you see pelicans diving into the surf and a flurry of local fishermen twirling hand lines in pursuit of something, you can bet that jurels are in attendance. The Latin name “hippos” is apt, for catching these fish feels like pulling in hippopotamuses. They are frighteningly powerful for their size, which commonly reaches 15-20 pounds with record specimens over three feet long and in the 60 pound range. They have deep bodies relative to their length and distinctive black spots; one on the gill cover and the other at the base of the pectoral fin. Their overall color is greenish-blue or bluish black above, silvery sides and yellowish belly.
Needlefish (Family Belonidae; Spanish: Agujon)
These slender needle-shaped fish stay near the surface and chase small fish which they catch with a sideways sweep of their head. You regularly see them leaping after baitfish just past the breaking waves. The larges ones reach over 20 pounds but most of the local ones run 2-5 pounds and not more than two feet in length. They are close relatives of flying fish.
Porcupine Fish (Diodon hystrix; Spanish: Pez puercoespinas) and Puffers (Spanish: Bolete)
Both porcupine fish and puffers inflate in defense to make it hard for predators to attack and eat them. Both have spines all over their bodies; those of porcupine fish are longer than puffers’. They inhabit reefs and rocks in tropical waters and occasionally dead ones wash ashore along Playa Blanca. The spotted porcupine is the most common.
Many species of porcupine fish and puffer fish contain a deadly toxic poison. The poison, named tetrodotoxin, acts by disrupting the flow of nerve impulses from the brain. Symptoms appear within half an hour starting with dizziness; paralysis soon follows. There is no antidote and death occurs in about 60% of all cases. In Japan where it is called “fugu”, puffer is served in specially licensed restaurants by skilled chefs, presumably with good liability insurance, who separate the portions of the fish that contain tetrododtoxin from the parts that do
not. Buen provecho.
Crabs (infraorder Brachyura; Spanish: Cangrejo o Jaiba)
Of the 6793 known species of crabs, a number inhabit Playa Blanca. All crabs have a pair of claws and four other pairs of legs for a total of 10 appendages. Their size ranges from about 1 cm to almost 2 meters. As a crab grows, it sheds its rigid shell, usually through a slit in the back. A new shell then soon hardens with calcium carbonate which the crab extracts from sea water or gets by eating its old shell. To escape enemies, crabs can shed legs or claws by contracting special muscles at predetermined breakage points. New limbs are then regenerated in successive molts of the shell. Most crabs are scavengers although some are predators and a few eat plankton. Hermit crabs, which live in the abandoned shells of snails and other animals, are not true crabs but are more closely related to shrimp.
Pacific Sand Crab or Mole Crab (Emerita analoga; Spanish: Chiquiliques)
This small, ovoid shaped crab is commonly found burrowing into the sandy beach of Playa Blanca. It is gray or sand colored and does not have claws or spines. Chiquiliques spend most of its time buried in the sand. It has five pairs of appendages that allow it to swim, crawl, and burrow, which are all done backwards. Its eyestalks reach above the sand. The first pair of antennae reach above the sand for respiration, and the second pair, resembling feathers, are extended when feeding. The antennae collect small organisms, which are pulled into the body, and the food is scraped off. They periodically molt, so the empty exoskeletons may be found on the shore. If a female is carrying eggs, they will be found as a bright-orange mass tucked on the underside.
Sand crabs are a major food source for shore birds and for some kinds of fish; they also are used as bait by fishermen.
Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea; Spanish: Tortuga golfina)
This sea turtle, which can weigh up to 100 pounds and reach 30 inches in length, spends most of its life within 10 miles of shore basking and feeding on its diet of jellyfish, snails, shrimp and crabs. It can be recognized by its roundish, heart-shaped shell which is olive gray on the back with greenish white on the underside. Ridley females return to their birth beach, including Playa Blanca, to lay their eggs. They ride night-time high tides following a full moon ashore where they dig a nest 12-22 inches deep, deposit an average of 107 eggs and lumber back into the sea, all within less than an hour. The eggs, which look like ping pong balls, incubate in the warm sand of 40-51 days, depending on the temperature (which also determines the sex of the baby turtles). The young emerge at night and try to make it back to the sea before marauding crabs and birds can eat them.
Olive Ridleys, Leatherbacks and Hawksbill turtles all nest on Playa Blanca. In 2008 the first government-sanctioned turtle preservation program here was established in Los Farrollones. Mario and his helpers gather freshly laid eggs and protect them during incubation and during the dangerous return to the sea. They also protect them from egg poachers, which remain a serious threat. Young Mexican men used to believe that eating turtle eggs stimulated virility. In an ironic twist, there now are reports that link eating turtle eggs with testicular cancer.
Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea; Spanish: Tortuga laud)
This is the largest of the sea turtles; reaching a length of up to 7 feet with a flipper to flipper span of up to 9 feet. The largest recorded specimen weighed 2020 pounds. It is easily recognized because its shell is hidden by its dark brown or black leathery skin. Seven pronounced ridges run lengthwise down its back.
Leatherbacks spend most of their lives in the open sea and range thousands of miles. They have a mechanism that allows them to maintain an elevated body temperature which allows them to travel to colder water and dive to 3300 feet in search of food, but they reproduce on land, including on Playa Blanca. Females deposit roughly 70 eggs in deep nests in the sand. Incubation takes 55-62 days and nests experiencing hotter temperatures produce all females; cooler nests, all males.
The Leatherback is among the most critically endangered turtles.
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate; Spanish: Tortuga carey)
These are large sea turtles. Nesting females average 35 inches in length and 175 pounds in weight. The shells are serrated and are streaked and marbled with amber, yellow or brown. The Hawksbill shell is the ancient source for tortoise shell used in prized jewelry. They have long heads and a strongly hooked beak that gives them their common name.
Hawksbills inhabit hard-bottomed and reef zones and generally are found in less than 60 feet of clear water in bays, estuaries and lagoons. They feed primarily on sponges, jellyfish, mollusks, fish, marine algae, crustaceans and other sea plants. Females typically lay up to five clutches of up to 100 eggs each during one breeding season and then wait a few years before nesting again.
Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus; Spanish: Gecko casero)
There are over 750 species of geckos, mostly inhabiting the tropics. The most common local one is the house gecko which appears after dark on walls and ceilings near lights in search of its insect meal. On the bottom of the toe pads of geckos are scales covered with microscopic hair-like bristles. On the tips of the bristles, there are tiny suction cups that allow geckos to walk up walls and across ceilings. Geckos are also the most vocal lizards. The cricket-like chirps they spout are to defend their feeding site. Their small fecal pellets look like those of mice. Most species lay two eggs at a time. Since geckos are ubiquitous in Playa Blanca you may find their eggs in unusual places, like your hotel room. They look like small white mints and have a crispy shell. Think twice before nibbling a “found mint”, the contents may be disturbing to the palate.
Green iguana (Iguana, iguana; Spanish: Pancha)
Oddly, this lizard is not always green. In the southern countries of its range such as Peru, they are bluish with bold black markings. Those on Caribbean islands vary from green to lavender to pink. In Mexico they often appear orange, while the juveniles are bright blue. Regardless of shade, they are easily recognized by their size (up to six feet), by the row of spines extending along their back and tail, and by their dewlap or neck pouch that they puff up if they are threatened or if they want to impress the girls. The whip- like tail can deliver a painful strike and their teeth are very sharp. Iguanas have excellent vision which incorporates a third eye. The white pineal gland or parietal eye on the top of their head is photosensitive and helps protect them from attacks from above, particularly from hawks whose cries cause iguanas to freeze. The diet of the young is mainly insects, but as adults, they are vegetarians. Once found in abundance in the tropics and around water sources in Mexico, this ancient reptile is now listed as an endangered and protected species. The pet trade was one cause; 800,000 green iguanas were imported into the US in 1995 alone. Green iguanas use communal nesting sites with females laying their 10-70 eggs in burrows. Approximately 50% of the eggs hatch with the babies then falling prey to numerous predators.
Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis; Spanish: Iguana negra )
Sometimes called the Black Spiny-Tailed Iguana, this is the fast lizard on earth; the Guinness Book of World Records lists the running speed of this species at 21.7 miles per hour (35 km per hour). Males grow to 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) in length with females slightly shorter at 1 meter (3.3 ft). They have a crest of long spines which extend down the center of their back. Although coloration varies among individuals of the same population, adults usually have a whitish gray or tan ground color with a series of 4–12 well-defined dark dorsal bands that extend nearly to the ventral scales. These bands make them easy to distinguish from their cousins the Green Iguanas. Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas are excellent climbers, and prefer a rocky habitat with plenty of crevices to hide in, rocks to bask on, and nearby trees to climb. They are primarily herbivorous, eating flowers leaves, stems, and fruit, but they will opportunistically eat smaller animals, eggs, and arthropods. Juveniles tend to be insectivores becoming more herbivorous as they get older.
Giant Toad (Bufus marinus: Spanish: Bufo)
When we call this toad, “giant”, we mean GIANT, as in up to nine inches from snout to rear and tipping the scales at over two pounds for a typical adult female. A pet toad kept in
farther. This has had a comic-tragic side effect: about 10% of the leading edge toads have developed arthritis. But even hobbling, the toads are migrating an average of 25 miles a year. Around Playa Blanca which is part of their native range, they emerge at night in short fat hops near ponds and fountains, and emit a deep sound reminicent of a distant motorboat chugging. The effect is more humorous than menacing.
Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus; Spanish: Cocodrilo)
The local species of croc is commonly called the American crocodile, although the Southern United States is the northern limit of its range. The 10,000- 20,000 surviving members of the species spread south through Mexico into Central America and are also found in Cuba, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. This is one of the larger croc species; males typically reach 5 meters or more. Their snouts are pointed and adults are olive brown in color. In this part of Mexico, they live mainly in the mangrove lagoons where they feed on fish, but also take turtles, birds and whatever domestic animals they may come upon during their nocturnal feedings. In 2008, a nine foot specimen was wrangled alive out of a local well by a crocodile hunter and these crocs are numerous at the golf course in Ixtapa where they add extra hazard to the water hazards.
Crocodylus acutus build burrows that they use for hiding and dig their hole nests nearby. They lay eggs in the dry season following a period of heavy courtship that can last two months. A nest will contain 30-60 eggs and the hatchlings emerge after 90 days. Crocodile embryos do not have sex chromosomes, and unlike humans, sex is not determined genetically. Gender is determined by temperature, with males produced at around 31.6 degrees Celsius, and females produced at slightly lower and higher temperatures.
The land speed record for a crocodile is 17 km/m (11 mph) measured in a galloping Australian freshwater crocodile. Maximum speed varies from species to species. Certain types of crocodiles can indeed gallop, including Cuban crocodiles, New Guinea crocodiles, African dwarf crocodiles and even smaller Nile crocodiles. But for most species, their fastest gear is a kind of "belly run", where the body moves in a snake-like fashion, limbs splayed out to either side paddling away frantically while the tail whips to and fro.
The speed of crocodiles becomes relevant because of the consequences of being slower than a pursuing croc. They have extremely powerful jaws, capable of biting down with immense force; by far the strongest bite of any animal. The crocodile's bite force is more than 5,000 pounds per square inch, compared to just 335 psi for a rottweiler, 400 psi for a large great white shark or 800 to 1,000 psi for a hyena. Should the question ever suddenly arise, for example on a golf course near a water hazard: a human can outrun a crocodile; the best way is to run in a straight line rather than zigzagging back and forth. Fortunately authenticated attacks on humans from this species are very rare.
Pelagic Sea Snake or Yellow-Belly Sea Snake (Polaris plateaus; Spanish: Serpiente marina)
This ocean-going snake lives in tropical waters of the Pacific and uses its neurotoxic venom on its fish prey. The venom is ten times as toxic as that of an Egyptian cobra, but the yellow-belly delivers it in small doses and is not normally aggressive towards humans. There is no record of a human death from a bite. This is the most widespread of all sea snakes, and although it breathes air, it is capable of giving birth and living its entire life at sea. Evolution has provided them with nostrils with valves that keep water out while they swim and glands around the tongue allow them to expel salt. The color varies but is usually black above and yellow or brown below often with a series of black spots or bars on the yellow background. They are 2-3 feet long and sport a paddle tail which increases their swimming ability.
Pelagic sea snakes sometimes wash ashore on Playa Blanca after storms at sea. We have seen them in late winter. They are totally helpless on the beach but occasionally make aggressive postures. Given the potency of their venom, we give them wide berth.