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- The Life of the Fly - 4/49 -


With the Anthrax' grub, there is none of this mangling, none of this persistent clinging to the entrance wound. I have but to tease it with the tip of a hair pencil and forthwith it retires; and the lens reveals no wound at the abandoned spot, no such effusion of blood as there would be if the skin were perforated. When its sense of security is restored, the grub once more applies its pimple head to the fostering larva, at any point, no matter where; and, so long as my curiosity does not prevent it, keeps itself fixed there, without the least effort, or the least perceptible movement that could account for the adhesion. If I repeat the touch with the pencil, I see the same sudden retreat and, soon after, the same contact just as readily renewed.

This facility for gripping, quitting and regripping, now here, now there and always without a wound, the part of the victim whence the nourishment is drawn tells us of itself that the mouth of the Anthrax is not armed with mandibular fangs capable of digging into the skin and tearing it. If the flesh were gashed by any such pincers, one or two attempts would be necessary before they could be released or reapplied; besides, each point bitten would display a lesion. Well, there is nothing of the kind: a conscientious examination through the magnifying glass shows conclusively that the skin is intact; the grub glues its mouth to its prey or withdraws it with an ease that can only be explained by a process of simple contact. This being so, the Anthrax does not chew its food as do the other carnivorous grubs; it does not eat, it inhales.

This method of taking nourishment implies an exceptional apparatus of the mouth, into which it behooves us to inquire before continuing. My most powerful magnifying glass at last discovers, at the center of the pimple head, a small spot of an amber-russet color; and that is all. For a more exhaustive examination we will employ the microscope. I cut off the strange pimple with the scissors, wash it in a drop of water and place it on the object slide. The mouth now stands revealed as a round spot which, for hue and for the smallness of its size, may be compared with the front stigmata. It is a small conical crater, with sides of a pale yellowish-red and with faint, more or less concentric lines. At the bottom of this funnel is the opening of the gullet, itself tinted red in front and promptly spreading into a cone at the back. There is not the slightest trace of mandibular fangs, of jaws, of mouth parts for seizing and grinding. Everything is reduced to the bowl shaped opening, with a delicate lining of horny texture, as is shown by the amber hue and the concentric streaks. When I look for some term to designate this digestive entrance, of which so far I know no other example, I can find only that of a sucker or cupping glass. Its attack is a mere kiss, but what a perfidious kiss!

We know the machine; now let us see the working. To facilitate observation, I shifted the newborn Anthrax grub, together with the Chalicodoma grub, its wet nurse, from the natal cell into a glass tube. I was thus able, by employing as many tubes as I wanted, to follow from start to finish, in all its most intimate details, the strange repast which I am going to describe.

The worm is fixed by its sucker to any convenient part of the nurse, plump and fat as butter. It is ready to break off its kiss suddenly, should anything disquiet it, and to resume it as easily when tranquillity is restored. No Lamb enjoys greater liberty with its mother's teat. After three or four days of this contact of the nurse and nursling, the former, at first replete and endowed with the glossy skin that is a sign of health, begins to assume a withered aspect. Her sides fall in, her fresh color fades, her skin becomes covered with little folds and gives evidence of an appreciable shrinking in this breast which, instead of milk, yields fat and blood. A week is hardly past before the progress of the exhaustion becomes startlingly rapid. The nurse is flabby and wrinkled, as though borne down by her own weight, like a very slack object. If I move her from her place, she flops and sprawls like a half-filled water bottle over the new supporting plane. But the Anthrax' kiss goes on emptying her: soon she is but a sort of shriveled lard bag, decreasing from hour to hour, from which the sucker draws a few last oily drains. At length, between the twelfth and the fifteenth day, all that remains of the larva of the mason bee is a white granule, hardly as large as a pin's head.

This granule is the water bottle drained to the last drop, is the nurse's breast emptied of all its contents. I soften the meager remnant in water; then, keeping it still immersed, I blow into it through an extremely attenuated glass tube. The skin fills out, distends and resumes the shape of the larva, without there being an outlet anywhere for the compressed air. It is intact, therefore; it is free of any perforation, which would be forthwith revealed under the water by an escape of gas. And so, under the Anthrax' cupping glass, the oily bottle has been drained by a simple transpiration through the membrane; the substance of the nurse grub has been transfused into the body of the nursling by a process akin to that known in physics as endosmosis. What should we say to a method of being suckled by the mere application of the mouth to a teatless breast? What we see here may be compared with that: without any outlet, the milk of the Chalicodoma grub passes into the stomach of the Anthrax' larva.

Is it really an instance of endosmosis? Might it not rather be atmospheric pressure that stimulates the flow of nourishing fluids and distils them into the Anthrax' cup-shaped mouth, working, in order to create a vacuum. almost like the suckers of the Cuttlefish? All this is possible, but I shall refrain from deciding, preferring to assign a large share to the unknown in this extraordinary method of nutrition. It ought, I think, to provide physiologists with a field of research in which new views on the hydrodynamics of live fluids might well be gleaned; and this field trenches upon others that would also yield rich harvests. The brief span of my days compels me to set the problem without seeking to solve it.

And the second problem is this: the Chalicodoma grub destined to feed the Anthrax is without a wound of any kind. The mother of the tiny larva is a feeble Fly deprived of whatsoever weapon capable of injuring her offspring's prey. Moreover, she is absolutely powerless to penetrate the mason bee's fortress, powerless as a fluff of down against a rock. On this point there is no doubt: the future wet nurse of the Anthrax has not been paralyzed as are the live provisions collected by the Hunting Wasps; she has received no bite nor scratch nor contusion of any sort; she has experienced nothing out of the common: in short, she is in her normal state. The billeted nursling arrives, we shall presently see how; he arrives, scarcely visible, almost defying the scrutiny of the lens; and, having made his preparations, he installs himself, he, the atom, upon the monstrous nurse, whom he is to drain to the very husk. And she, not paralyzed by a preliminary vivisection, endowed with all her normal vitality, lets him have his way, lets herself be sucked dry, with the utmost apathy. Not a tremor in her outraged flesh, not a quiver of resistance. No corpse could show greater indifference to the bite which it receives.

Ah, but the maggot has chosen the hour of attack with traitorous cunning! Had it appeared upon the scene earlier, when the larva was consuming its store of honey, things of a surety would have gone badly with it. The assaulted one, feeling herself bled to death by that ravenous kiss, would have protested with much wriggling of body and grinding of mandibles. The position would have ceased to be tenable and the intruder would have perished. But at this hour all danger has disappeared. Enclosed in its silken tent, the larva is seized with the lethargy that precedes the metamorphosis. Its condition is not death, but neither is it life. It is an intermediary condition; it is almost the latent vitality of grain or egg. Therefore there is no sign of irritation on the larva's part under the needle with which I stir it and still less under the sucker of the Anthrax grub, which is able to drain the affluent breast in perfect safety.

This lack of resistance, induced by the torpor of the transformation, appears to me necessary, in view of the weakness of the nursling as it leaves the egg, whenever the mother is herself incapable of depriving the victim of the power of self defense. And so the nonparalyzed larvae are attacked during the period of the nymphosis. We shall soon see other instances of this.

Motionless though it be, the Chalicodoma grub is none the less alive. The primrose tint and the glossy skin are unequivocal signs of health: Were it really dead, it would, in less than twenty-four hours, turn a dirty brown and, soon after, decompose into a fluid putrescence. Now here is the marvelous thing: during the fortnight, roughly, that the Anthrax' meal lasts, the butter color of the larva, an unfailing symptom of the presence of life, continues unaltered and does not change into brown, the sign of putrefaction, until hardly anything remains; and even then the brown hue is often absent. As a rule, the look of live flesh is preserved until the final pellet, formed of the skin, the sole residue, makes its appearance. This pellet is white, with not a speck of tainted matter, proving that life persists until the body is reduced to nothing.

We here witness the transfusion of one animal into another, the change of Chalicodoma substance into Anthrax substance; and, as long as the transfusion is not complete, as long as the eaten has not disappeared altogether and become the eater, the ruined organism fights against destruction. What manner of life is this, which may be compared with the life of a night light whose extinction is not accomplished until the last drop of oil has burnt away? How is any creature able to fight against the final tragedy of corruption up to the last moment in which a nucleus of matter remains as the seat of vital energy? The forces of the living creature are here dissipated not through any disturbance of the equilibrium of those forces, but for the want of any point of application for them: the larva dies because materially there is no more of it.

Can we be in the presence of the diffusive life of the plant, a life which persists in a fragment? By no means: the grub is a more delicate organic structure. There is unity between the several parts; and none of them can be jeopardized without involving the ruin of the others. If I myself give the larva a wound, if I bruise it, the whole body very soon turns brown and begins to rot. It dies and decomposes by the mere prick of a needle; it keeps alive, or at least preserves the freshness of the live tissues, so long as it is not entirely emptied by the Anthrax' sucker. A nothing kills it; an atrocious wasting does not. No, I fail to understand the problem; and I bequeath it to others.

All that I can see by way of a glimpse--and even then I put forward my suspicions with extreme reserve--all that I am permitted to surmise is reduced to this: the substance of the


The Life of the Fly - 4/49

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