Goal #1 Update: Filming Expedition to Oaxaca, Mexico!

Hi Deep Lookers:

We're so close to funding our filming expedition to Oaxaca, Mexico! It would be our very first trip as a team outside the U.S.A., to bring you creatures you'd never see otherwise. You can make this happen.

Let's cut to the chase. We need around 100 new or upgraded patrons to reach our goal. If < .01% more of Deep Look's subscribers become patrons - fewer than 1 in 1,000 of you - this trip is on. And that's just the beginning of what we can do together.

Haven't joined yet? Want to show the world you're a Deep Look fan? We've got a special offer until May14th for new or upgraded $10 Patrons: a limited-edition Deep Look t-shirt! 

So let's do this. Here are three stories in Mexico we're looking into right now. 

MacDougall’s Spiny Lizards -  Sceloporus macdougalli 

 Photo credit: : Francisco Javier Muñoz Nolasco, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 

MacDougall’s spiny lizards live only in one place in the world, in Santa Cruz Bamba, near the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. The females have white spots on brown skin, like a cow. The males have a sky-blue tail and green hind legs. These elaborately patterned lizards call attention to themselves on the gray granite outcroppings they live on, and need to move around quickly and effectively to escape potential predators. 

They also depend on their rocky habitat to keep cool, as they’re very sensitive to high temperatures. So the lizards have adapted to the rocks. When researchers in Mexico tested their running ability, they found that the lizards are unable to run horizontally, the way most other lizards do. The MacDougall’s spiny lizards have adapted to run on vertical outcroppings and would only run on a track that researchers had modified to give it a 45-degree elevation. 

July through October would be the best time to film them for a Deep Look episode in which we’d hope to get the researchers to recreate their running experiment.

Agave red worm - Comadia redtenbacheri 

Agave red worms are one of the more than 500 insects that Mexicans eat, both as an additional source of protein and as part of a rich culinary tradition that dates back hundreds of years. In the United States, agave red worms might be best known as the bright-red worm that is often added to bottles of the smoky alcoholic beverage called mezcal, which itself is made from agave, a plant with succulent leaves that grows in dry, arid regions of Mexico, including Oaxaca.

The worms – which aren’t really worms, but rather the caterpillars of a brownish moth – grow on the bottom of the agave plant. Early in their development, the larvae bore into the plant, where they feed on its roots, stem and juicy leaves for six to eight months. As it molts, the larva goes from white to pink to that bright red at the final stage, when it can be an inch and a half long.

Farmers harvest the worms in parts of Oaxaca in July and August by pulling up agave plants, or carefully cutting into them to reach the few worms that have grown on each plant. The squirmy animals are then roasted and served in tacos, or ground up with salt and chiles to make a sought-after seasoning called worm salt.

We really want to show you the larva developing at the bottom of an agave plant, but we haven’t yet found researchers who keep them in their lab. In one paper, Mexican biologist Celia Llanderal and her colleagues at the Colegio de Postgraduados, east of Mexico City, noted that it’s challenging to grow them and keep them alive in the lab. We’ll keep you posted if we find a place to film their different life stages!

 Cochineal -  Dactylopius coccus 

As they feed on prickly pear cacti -- known as a nopales in Mexico -- female cochineal (coach-in-EEL) produce a blood-red substance called carminic acid to protect themselves against predators. If you pulled one off the cactus and crushed it between your fingers, you’d end up with a bright red stain.  The bugs are dried out and crushed to make a brilliant red pigment.  

Cochineal was an enormous source of wealth to the Spanish crown during the Colonial period, second only to silver in value from its colonies in the Americas. And it was used by Van Gogh and Gauguin to achieve bright red in their paintings. Today, it’s possible you’ve encountered carminic acid without even knowing it when you ate a container of pink-colored yogurt.

Most cochineal nowadays comes from Peru, but Mexico is where the insect was first domesticated.  Cochineal is still farmed at a small scale in Oaxaca, as is tied into the state’s weaving tradition, which makes use of the bright red dye. In a greenhouse 10 miles outside the city of Oaxaca, prickly pear cactus pads stand upright in wooden beds filled with sand. A small palm tube is attached to each cactus. The tubes hold young cochineal nymphs that creep out, infest the cacti and grow into carminic acid-producing adults. Females bore their mouth parts into the nopal’s juicy pads to feed. They cover themselves in a white wax that looks like mold, but protects them from predators. After three months, when they’ve grown to about a quarter of an inch long, have laid eggs and are filled with carminic acid, they die. The farmer brushes them off the cactus delicately, dries them and grinds them up to make dye. Weavers then mix the cochineal powder with different substances to veer its color: Some baking powder, for example, makes it purple.  

The end of August would be a good time to film at a cochineal farm in Oaxaca.

Thank you so much to our existing patrons. We want to hear from you. Which two stories interest you the most? Le us know in the comments.

Image credit:  Cochineal bugs (Dactylopius coccus) on Opuntia cactus. Source: Zyance [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)] 

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