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- The Wonders of Instinct - 2/12 -
Despite the assistance of a bass, it is a poor concert, very poor indeed, though there are about ten executants in my immediate vicinity. The tone lacks intensity. My old tympanum is not always capable of perceiving these subtleties of sound. The little that reaches me is extremely sweet and most appropriate to the calm of twilight. Just a little more breadth in your bow-stroke, my dear Green Grasshopper, and your technique would be better than the hoarse Cicada's, whose name and reputation you have been made to usurp in the countries of the north.
Still, you will never equal your neighbour, the little bell-ringing Toad, who goes tinkling all round, at the foot of the plane-trees, while you click up above. He is the smallest of my batrachian folk and the most venturesome in his expeditions.
How often, at nightfall, by the last glimmers of daylight, have I not come upon him as I wandered through my garden, hunting for ideas! Something runs away, rolling over and over in front of me. Is it a dead leaf blown along by the wind? No, it is the pretty little Toad disturbed in the midst of his pilgrimage. He hurriedly takes shelter under a stone, a clod of earth, a tuft of grass, recovers from his excitement and loses no time in picking up his liquid note.
On this evening of national rejoicing, there are nearly a dozen of him tinkling against one another around me. Most of them are crouching among the rows of flower-pots that form a sort of lobby outside my house. Each has his own note, always the same, lower in one case, higher in another, a short, clear note, melodious and of exquisite purity.
With their slow, rhythmical cadence, they seem to be intoning litanies. "Cluck," says one; "click," responds another, on a finer note; "clock," adds a third, the tenor of the band. And this is repeated indefinitely, like the bells of the village pealing on a holiday: "cluck, click, clock; cluck, click, clock!"
The batrachian choristers remind me of a certain harmonica which I used to covet when my six-year-old ear began to awaken to the magic of sounds. It consisted of a series of strips of glass of unequal length, hung on two stretched tapes. A cork fixed to a wire served as a hammer. Imagine an unskilled hand striking at random on this key-board, with a sudden clash of octaves, dissonances and topsy-turvy chords; and you will have a pretty clear idea of the Toads' litany.
As a song, this litany has neither head nor tail to it; as a collection of pure sounds, it is delicious. This is the case with all the music in nature's concerts. Our ear discovers superb notes in it and then becomes refined and acquires, outside the realities of sound, that sense of order which is the first condition of beauty.
Now this sweet ringing of bells between hiding-place and hiding-place is the matrimonial oratorio, the discreet summons which every Jack issues to his Jill. The sequel to the concert may be guessed without further enquiry; but what it would be impossible to foresee is the strange finale of the wedding. Behold the father, in this case a real paterfamilias, in the noblest sense of the word, coming out of his retreat one day in an unrecognizable state. He is carrying the future, tight-packed around his hind-legs; he is changing houses laden with a cluster of eggs the size of peppercorns. His calves are girt, his thighs are sheathed with the bulky burden; and it covers his back like a beggar's wallet, completely deforming him.
Whither is he going, dragging himself along, incapable of jumping, thanks to the weight of his load? He is going, the fond parent, where the mother refuses to go; he is on his way to the nearest pond, whose warm waters are indispensable to the tadpoles' hatching and existence. When the eggs are nicely ripened around his legs under the humid shelter of a stone, he braves the damp and the daylight, he the passionate lover of dry land and darkness; he advances by short stages, his lungs congested with fatigue. The pond is far away, perhaps; no matter: the plucky pilgrim will find it.
He's there. Without delay, he dives, despite his profound antipathy to bathing; and the cluster of eggs is instantly removed by the legs rubbing against each other. The eggs are now in their element; and the rest will be accomplished of itself. Having fulfilled his obligation to go right under, the father hastens to return to his well-sheltered home. He is scarcely out of sight before the little black tadpoles are hatched and playing about. They were but waiting for the contact of the water in order to burst their shells.
Among the singers in the July gloaming, one alone, were he able to vary his notes, could vie with the Toad's harmonious bells. This is the little Scops-owl, that comely nocturnal bird of prey, with the round gold eyes. He sports on his forehead two small feathered horns which have won for him in the district the name of Machoto banarudo, the Horned Owl. His song, which is rich enough to fill by itself the still night air, is of a nerve-shattering monotony. With imperturbable and measured regularity, for hours on end, "kew, kew," the bird spits out its cantata to the moon.
One of them has arrived at this moment, driven from the plane-trees in the square by the din of the rejoicings, to demand my hospitality. I can hear him in the top of a cypress near by. From up there, dominating the lyrical assembly, at regular intervals he cuts into the vague orchestration of the Grasshoppers and the Toads.
His soft note is contrasted, intermittently, with a sort of Cat's mew, coming from another spot. This is the call of the Common Owl, the meditative bird of Minerva. After hiding all day in the seclusion of a hollow olive-tree, he started on his wanderings when the shades of evening began to fall. Swinging along with a sinuous flight, he came from somewhere in the neighbourhood to the pines in my enclosure, whence he mingles his harsh mewing, slightly softened by distance, with the general concert.
The Green Grasshopper's clicking is too faint to be clearly perceived amidst these clamourers; all that reaches me is the least ripple, just noticeable when there is a moment's silence. He possesses as his apparatus of sound only a modest drum and scraper, whereas they, more highly privileged, have their bellows, the lungs, which send forth a column of vibrating air. There is no comparison possible. Let us return to the insects.
One of these, though inferior in size and no less sparingly equipped, greatly surpasses the Grasshopper in nocturnal rhapsodies. I speak of the pale and slender Italian Cricket (Oecanthus pellucens, Scop.), who is so puny that you dare not take him up for fear of crushing him. He makes music everywhere among the rosemary-bushes, while the Glow-worms light up their blue lamps to complete the revels. The delicate instrumentalist consists chiefly of a pair of large wings, thin and gleaming as strips of mica. Thanks to these dry sails, he fiddles away with an intensity capable of drowning the Toads' fugue. His performance suggests, but with more brilliancy, more tremolo in the execution, the song of the Common Black Cricket. Indeed the mistake would certainly be made by any one who did not know that, by the time the very hot weather comes, the true Cricket, the chorister of spring, has disappeared. His pleasant violin has been succeeded by another more pleasant still and worthy of special study. We shall return t o him at an opportune moment.
These then, limiting ourselves to select specimens, are the principal participants in this musical evening: the Scops-owl, with his languorous solos; the Toad, that tinkler of sonatas; the Italian Cricket, who scrapes the first string of a violin; and the Green Grasshopper, who seems to beat a tiny steel triangle.
We are celebrating to-day, with greater uproar than conviction, the new era, dating politically from the fall of the Bastille; they, with glorious indifference to human things, are celebrating the festival of the sun, singing the happiness of existence, sounding the loud hosanna of the July heats.
What care they for man and his fickle rejoicings! For whom or for what will our squibs be spluttering a few years hence? Far-seeing indeed would he be who could answer the question. Fashions change and bring us the unexpected. The time-serving rocket spreads its sheaf of sparks for the public enemy of yesterday, who has become the idol of to-day. Tomorrow it will go up for somebody else.
In a century or two, will any one, outside the historians, give a thought to the taking of the Bastille? It is very doubtful. We shall have other joys and also other cares.
Let us look a little farther ahead. A day will come, so everything seems to tell us, when, after making progress upon progress, man will succumb, destroyed by the excess of what he calls civilization. Too eager to play the god, he cannot hope for the animal's placid longevity; he will have disappeared when the little Toad is still saying his litany, in company with the Grasshopper, the Scops-owl and the others. They were singing on this planet before us; they will sing after us, celebrating what can never change, the fiery glory of the sun.
I will dwell no longer on this festival and will become once more the naturalist, anxious to obtain information concerning the private life of the insect. The Green Grasshopper (Locusta viridissima, Lin.) does not appear to be common in my neighbourhood. Last year, intending to make a study of this insect and finding my efforts to hunt it fruitless, I was obliged to have recourse to the good offices of a forest-ranger, who sent me a pair of couples from the Lagarde plateau, that bleak district where the beech-tree begins its escalade of the Ventoux.
Now and then freakish fortune takes it into her head to smile upon the persevering. What was not to be found last year has become almost common this summer. Without leaving my narrow enclosure, I obtain as many Grasshoppers as I could wish. I hear them rustling at night in the green thickets. Let us make the most of the windfall, which perhaps will not occur again.
In the month of June my treasures are installed, in a sufficient number of couples, under a wire cover standing on a bed of sand in an earthen pan. It is indeed a magnificent insect, pale-green all over, with two whitish stripes running down its sides. Its imposing size, its slim proportions and its great gauze wings make it the most elegant of our Locustidae. I am enraptured with my captives. What will they teach me? We shall see. For the moment, we must feed them.
I offer the prisoners a leaf of lettuce. They bite into it, certainly, but very sparingly and with a scornful tooth. It soon becomes plain that I am dealing with half-hearted vegetarians. They want something else: they are beasts of prey, apparently. But what manner of prey? A lucky chance taught me.
At break of day I was pacing up and down outside my door, when something fell from the nearest plane-tree with a shrill grating sound. I ran up and saw a Grasshopper gutting the belly of a struggling Cicada. In vain the victim buzzed and waved his limbs: the other did not let go, dipping her head right into the entrails and rooting them out by small mouthfuls.
I knew what I wanted to know: the attack had taken place up above, early in the morning, while the Cicada was asleep; and the plunging of the poor wretch, dissected alive, had made assailant and assailed fall in a bundle to the ground. Since then I have repeatedly had occasion to witness similar carnage.
I have even seen the Grasshopper--the height of audacity, this--dart in pursuit of a Cicada in mad flight. Even so does the Sparrow-hawk pursue the Swallow in the sky. But the bird of prey here is inferior to the insect. It attacks a weaker than itself. The Grasshopper, on the other hand, assaults a colossus, much larger than herself and stronger; and nevertheless the result of the unequal fight is not in doubt. The Grasshopper rarely fails with the sharp pliers of her powerful jaws to disembowel her capture, which, being unprovided with weapons, confines itself to crying out and kicking.
The main thing is to retain one's hold of the prize, which is not difficult in somnolent darkness. Any Cicada encountered by the fierce Locustid on her nocturnal rounds is bound to die a lamentable death. This explains those sudden agonized notes which grate through the woods at late, unseasonable hours, when the cymbals have long been silent. The murderess in her suit of apple-green has pounced on some sleeping Cicada.
My boarders' menu is settled: I will feed them on Cicadae. They take such a liking to this fare that, in two or three weeks, the floor of the cage is a knacker's yard strewn with heads and empty thoraces, with torn-off wings and disjointed legs. The belly alone disappears almost entirely. This is the tit-bit, not very substantial, but extremely tasty, it would seem. Here, in fact, in the insect's crop, the syrup is accumulated, the sugary sap which the Cicada's gimlet taps from the tender bark. Is it because of this dainty that the prey's abdomen is preferred to any other morsel? It is quite possible.
I do, in fact, with a view to varying the diet, decide to serve up some very sweet fruits, slices of pear, grape-bits, bits of melon. All this meets with delighted appreciation. The Green Grasshopper resembles the English: she dotes on underdone meat seasoned with jelly. This perhaps is why, on catching the Cicada, she first rips up his paunch, which supplies a mixture of flesh and preserves.
To eat Cicadae and sugar is not possible in every part of the country. In the north, where she abounds, the Green Grasshopper would not find the dish which attracts her so strongly here. She must have other resources. To convince myself of this, I give her Anoxiae (A. pilosa, Fab.), the summer equivalent of the spring Cockchafer. The Beetle is accepted without hesitation. Nothing is left of him but the wing-cases, head and legs. The result is the same with the magnificent plump Pine Cockchafer (Melolontha fullo, Lin.), a sumptuous morsel which I find next day eviscerated by my gang of knackers.
These examples teach us enough. They tell us that the Grasshopper is an inveterate consumer of insects, especially of those which are not protected by too hard a cuirass; they are evidence of tastes which are highly carnivorous, but not exclusively so, like those of the Praying Mantis, who refuses everything except game. The butcher of the Cicadae is able to modify an excessively heating diet with vegetable fare. After meat and blood, sugary fruit-pulp; sometimes even, for lack of anything better, a little green stuff.
Nevertheless, cannibalism is prevalent. True, I never witness in my Grasshopper-cages the savagery which is so common in the Praying Mantis, who harpoons her rivals and devours her lovers; but, if some weakling succumb, the survivors hardly ever fail to profit by his carcass as they would in the case of any ordinary prey. With no scarcity of provisions as an excuse, they feast upon their defunct companion. For the rest, all the sabre-bearing clan display, in varying degrees, a propensity for filling their bellies with their maimed comrades.
In other respects, the Grasshoppers live together very peacefully in my cages. No serious strife ever takes place among them, nothing beyond a little rivalry in the matter of food. I hand in a piece of pear. A Grasshopper alights on it at once. Jealously she kicks away any one trying to bite at the delicious morsel. Selfishness reigns everywhere. When she has eaten her fill, she makes way for another, who in her turn becomes intolerant. One after the other, all the inmates of the menagerie come and refresh themselves. After cramming their crops, they scratch the soles of their feet a little with their mandibles, polish up their forehead and eyes with a leg moistened with spittle and then, hanging to the trellis-work or lying on the sand in a posture of contemplation, blissfully they digest and slumber most of the day, especially during the hottest part of it.
It is in the evening, after sunset, that the troop becomes lively. By nine o'clock the animation is at its height. With sudden rushes they clamber to the top of the dome, to descend as hurriedly and climb up once more. They come and go tumultuously, run and hop around the circular track and, without stopping, nibble at the good things on the way.
The males are stridulating by themselves, here and there, teasing the passing fair with their antennae. The future mothers stroll about gravely, with their sabre half-raised. The agitation and feverish excitement means that the great business of pairing is at hand. The fact will escape no practised eye.
It is also what I particularly wish to observe. My wish is satisfied, but not fully, for the late hours at which events take place did not allow me to witness the final act of the wedding. It is late at night or early in the morning that things happen.
The little that I see is confined to interminable preludes. Standing face to face, with foreheads almost touching, the lovers feel and sound each other for a long time with their limp antennae. They suggest two fencers crossing and recrossing harmless foils. From time to time, the male stridulates a little, gives a few short strokes of the bow and then falls silent, feeling perhaps too much overcome to continue. Eleven o'clock strikes; and the declaration is not yet over. Very regretfully, but conquered by sleepiness, I quit the couple.
Next morning, early, the female carries, hanging at the bottom of her ovipositor, a queer bladder-like arrangement, an opaline capsule, the size of a large pea and roughly subdivided into a small number of egg-shaped vesicles. When the insect walks, the thing scrapes along the ground and becomes dirty with sticky grains of sand. The Grasshopper then makes a banquet off this fertilizing capsule, drains it slowly of its contents, and devours it bit by bit; for a long time she chews and rechews the gummy morsel and ends by swallowing it all down. In less than half a day, the milky burden has disappeared, consumed with zest down to the last atom.
This inconceivable banquet must be imported, one would think, from another planet, so far removed is it from earthly habits. What a singular race are the Locustidae, one of the oldest in the animal kingdom on dry land and, like the Scolopendra and the Cephalopod, acting as a belated representative of the manners of antiquity!
CHAPTER 3. THE EMPUSA.
The sea, life's first foster-mother, still preserves in her depths many of those singular and incongruous shapes which were the earliest attempts of the animal kingdom; the land, less fruitful, but with more capacity for progress, has almost wholly lost the strange forms of other days. The few that remain belong especially to the series of primitive insects, insects exceedingly limited in their industrial powers and subject to very summary metamorphoses, if to any at all. In my district, in the front rank of those entomological anomalies which remind us of the denizens of the old coal-forests, stand the Mantidae, including the Praying Mantis, so curious in habits and structure. Here also is the Empusa (E. pauperata, Latr.), the subject of this chapter.
Her larva is certainly the strangest creature among the terrestrial fauna of Provence: a slim, swaying thing of so fantastic an appearance that uninitiated fingers dare not lay hold of it. The children of my neighbourhood, impressed by its startling shape, call it "the Devilkin." In their imaginations, the queer little creature savours of witchcraft. One comes across it, though always sparsely, in spring, up to May; in autumn; and sometimes in winter, if the sun be strong. The tough grasses of the waste-lands, the stunted bushes which catch the sun and are sheltered from the wind by a few heaps of stones are the chilly Empusa's favourite abode.
Let us give a rapid sketch of her. The abdomen, which always curls up so as to join the back, spreads paddle wise and twists into a crook. Pointed scales, a sort of foliaceous expansions arranged in three rows, cover the lower surface, which becomes the upper surface because of the crook aforesaid. The scaly crook is propped on four long, thin stilts, on four legs armed with knee-pieces, that is to say, carrying at the end of the thigh, where it joins the shin, a curved, projecting blade not unlike that of a cleaver.
Above this base, this four-legged stool, rises, at a sudden angle, the stiff corselet, disproportionately long and almost perpendicular. The end of this bust, round and slender as a straw, carries the hunting-trap, the grappling limbs, copied from those of the Mantis. They consist of a terminal harpoon, sharper than a needle, and a cruel vice, with the jaws toothed like a saw. The jaw formed by the arm proper is hollowed into a groove and carries on either side five long spikes, with smaller indentations in between. The jaw formed by the forearm is similarly furrowed, but its double saw, which fits into the groove of the upper arm when at rest, is formed of finer, closer and more regular teeth. The magnifying-glass reveals a score of equal points in each row. The machine only lacks size to be a fearful implement of torture.
The head is in keeping with this arsenal. What a queer-shaped head it is! A pointed face, with walrus moustaches furnished by the palpi; large goggle eyes; between them, a dirk, a halberd blade; and, on the forehead a mad, unheard of thing: a sort of tall mitre, an extravagant head-dress that juts forward, spreading right and left into peaked wings and cleft along the top. What does the Devilkin want with that monstrous pointed cap, than which no wise man of the East, no astrologer of old ever wore a more splendiferous? This we shall learn when we see her out hunting.
The dress is commonplace; grey tints predominate. Towards the end of the larval period, after a few moultings, it begins to give a glimpse of the adult's richer livery and becomes striped, still very faintly, with pale-green, white and pink. Already the two sexes are distinguished by their antennae. Those of the future mothers are thread-like; those of the future males are distended into a spindle at the lower half, forming a case or sheath whence graceful plumes will spring at a later date.
Behold the creature, worthy of a Callot's fantastic pencil. (Jacques Callot (1592-1635), the French engraver and painter, famed for the grotesque nature of his subjects.--Translator's Note.) If you come across it in the bramble-bushes, it sways upon its four stilts, it wags its head, it looks at you with a knowing air, it twists its mitre round and peers over its shoulder. You seem to read mischief in its pointed face. You try to take hold of it. The imposing attitude ceases forthwith, the raised corselet is lowered and the creature makes off with mighty strides, helping itself along with its fighting-limbs, which clutch the twigs. The flight need not last long, if you have a practised eye. The Empusa is captured, put into a screw of paper, which will save her frail limbs from sprains, and lastly penned in a wire-gauze cage. In this way, in October, I obtain a flock sufficient for my purpose.
How to feed them? My Devilkins are very little; they are a month or two old at most. I give them Locusts suited to their size, the smallest that I can find. They refuse them. Nay more, they are frightened of them. Should a thoughtless Locust meekly approach one of the Empusae, suspended by her four hind-legs to the trellised dome, the intruder meets with a bad reception. The pointed mitre is lowered; and an angry thrust sends him rolling. We have it: the wizard's cap is a defensive weapon, a protective crest. The Ram charges with his forehead, the Empusa butts with her mitre.
But this does not mean dinner. I serve up the House-fly, alive. She is accepted, without hesitation. The moment that the Fly comes within reach, the watchful Devilkin turns her head, bends the stalk of her corselet slantwise and, flinging out her fore-limb, harpoons the Fly and grips her between her two saws. No Cat pouncing upon a Mouse could be quicker.
The game, however small, is enough for a meal. It is enough for the whole day, often for several days. This is my first surprise: the extreme abstemiousness of these fiercely-armed insects. I was prepared for ogres: I find ascetics satisfied with a meagre collation at rare intervals. A Fly fills their belly for twenty-four hours at least.
Thus passes the late autumn: the Empusae, more and more temperate from day to day, hang motionless from the wire gauze. Their natural abstinence is my best ally, for Flies grow scarce; and a time comes when I should be hard put to it to keep the menageries supplied with provisions.
During the three winter months, nothing stirs. From time to time, on fine days, I expose the cage to the sun's rays, in the window. Under the influence of this heat-bath, the captives stretch their legs a little, sway from side to side, make up their minds to move about, but without displaying any awakening appetite. The rare Midges that fall to my assiduous efforts do not appear to tempt them. It is a rule for them to spend the cold season in a state of complete abstinence.
My cages tell me what must happen outside, during the winter. Ensconced in the crannies of the rockwork, in the sunniest places, the young Empusae wait, in a state of torpor, for the return of the hot weather. Notwithstanding the shelter of a heap of stones, there must be painful moments when the frost is prolonged and the snow penetrates little by little into the best-protected crevices. No matter: hardier than they look, the refugees escape the dangers of the winter season. Sometimes, when the sun is strong, they venture out of their hiding-place and come to see if spring be nigh.
Spring comes. We are in March. My prisoners bestir themselves, change their skin. They need victuals. My catering difficulties recommence. The House-fly, so easy to catch, is lacking in these days. I fall back upon earlier Diptera: Eristales, or Drone-flies. The Empusa refuses them. They are too big for her and can offer too strenuous a resistance. She wards off their approach with blows of her mitre.
A few tender morsels, in the shape of very young Grasshoppers, are readily accepted. Unfortunately, such windfalls do not often find their way into my sweeping-net. Abstinence becomes obligatory until the arrival of the first Butterflies. Henceforth, Pieris brassicae, the White Cabbage Butterfly, will contribute the greater portion of the victuals.
Let loose in the wire cage, the Pieris is regarded as excellent game. The Empusa lies in wait for her, seizes her, but releases her at once, lacking the strength to overpower her. The Butterfly's great wings, beating the air, give her shock after shock and compel her to let go. I come to the weakling's assistance and cut the wings of her prey with my scissors. The maimed ones, still full of life, clamber up the trellis-work and are forthwith grabbed by the Empusae, who, in no way frightened by their protests, crunch them up. The dish is to their taste and, moreover, plentiful, so much so that there are always some despised remnants.
The head only and the upper portion of the breast are devoured: the rest--the plump abdomen, the best part of the thorax, the legs and lastly, of course, the wing-stumps--is flung aside untouched. Does this mean that the tenderest and most succulent morsels are chosen? No, for the belly is certainly more juicy; and the Empusa refuses it, though she eats up her House-fly to the last particle. It is a strategy of war. I am again in the presence of a neck-specialist as expert as the Mantis herself in the art of swiftly slaying a victim that struggles and, in struggling, spoils the meal.
Once warned, I soon perceive that the game, be it Fly, Locust, Grasshopper, or Butterfly, is always struck in the neck, from behind. The first bite is aimed at the point containing the cervical ganglia and produces sudden death or immobility. Complete inertia will leave the consumer in peace, the essential condition of every satisfactory repast.
The Devilkin, therefore, frail though she be, possesses the secret of immediately destroying the resistance of her prey. She bites at the back of the neck first, in order to give the finishing stroke. She goes on nibbling around the original attacking-point. In this way the Butterfly's head and the upper part of the breast are disposed of. But, by that time, the huntress is surfeited: she wants so little! The rest lies on the ground, disdained, not for lack of flavour, but because there is too much of it. A Cabbage Butterfly far exceeds the capacity of the Empusa's stomach. The Ants will benefit by what is left.
There is one other matter to be mentioned, before observing the metamorphosis. The position adopted by the young Empusae in the wire-gauze cage is invariably the same from start to finish. Gripping the trellis-work by the claws of its four hind-legs, the insect occupies the top of the dome and hangs motionless, back downwards, with the whole of its body supported by the four suspension-points. If it wishes to move, the front harpoons open, stretch out, grasp a mesh and draw it to them. When the short walk is over, the lethal arms are brought back against the chest. One may say that it is nearly always the four hind-shanks which alone support the suspended insect.
And this reversed position, which seems to us so trying, lasts for no short while: it is prolonged, in my cages, for ten months without a break. The Fly on the ceiling, it is true, occupies the same attitude; but she has her moments of rest: she flies, she walks in a normal posture, she spreads herself flat in the sun. Besides, her acrobatic feats do not cover a long period. The Empusa, on the other hand, maintains her curious equilibrium for ten months on end, without a break. Hanging from the trellis-work, back downwards, she hunts, eats, digests, dozes, casts her skin, undergoes her transformation, mates, lays her eggs and dies. She clambered up there when she was still quite young; she falls down, full of days, a corpse.
Things do not happen exactly like this under natural conditions. The insect stands on the bushes back upwards; it keeps its balance in the regular attitude and turns over only in circumstances that occur at long intervals. The protracted suspension of my captives is all the more remarkable inasmuch as it is not at all an innate habit of their race.
It reminds one of the Bats, who hang, head downwards, by their hind-legs from the roof of their caves. A special formation of the toes enables birds to sleep on one leg, which automatically and without fatigue clutches the swaying bough. The Empusa shows me nothing akin to their contrivance. The extremity of her walking-legs has the ordinary structure: a double claw at the tip, a double steelyard-hook; and that is all.
I could wish that anatomy would show me the working of the muscles and nerves in those tarsi, in those legs more slender than threads, the action of the tendons that control the claws and keep them gripped for ten months, unwearied in waking and sleeping. If some dexterous scalpel should ever investigate this problem, I can recommend another, even more singular than that of the Empusa, the Bat and the bird. I refer to the attitude of certain Wasps and Bees during the night's rest.
An Ammophila with red fore-legs (A. holosericea) is plentiful in my enclosure towards the end of August and selects a certain lavender-border for her dormitory. At dusk, especially after a stifling day, when a storm is brewing, I am sure to find the strange sleeper settled there. Never was more eccentric attitude adopted for a night's rest! The mandibles bite right into the lavender-stem. Its square shape supplies a firmer hold than a round stalk would do. With this one and only prop, the animal's body juts out stiffly, at full length, with legs folded. It forms a right angle with the supporting axis, so much so that the whole weight of the insect, which has turned itself into the arm of a lever rests upon the mandibles.
The Ammophila sleeps extended in space by virtue of her mighty jaws. It takes an animal to think of a thing like that, which upsets all our preconceived ideas of repose. Should the threatening storm burst, should the stalk sway in the wind, the sleeper is not troubled by her swinging hammock; at most, she presses her fore-legs for a moment against the tossed mast. As soon as equilibrium is restored, the favourite posture, that of the horizontal lever, is resumed. perhaps the mandibles, like the bird's toes, possess the faculty of gripping tighter in proportion to the rocking of the wind.
The Ammophila is not the only one to sleep in this singular position, which is copied by many others--Anthidia (Cotton-bees.--Translator's Note.), Odyneri (A genus of Mason-wasps.--Translator's Note.), Eucerae (A species of Burrowing-bees.--Translator's Note.)--and mainly by the males. All grip a stalk with their mandibles and sleep with their bodies outstretched and their legs folded back. Some, the stouter species, allow themselves to rest the tip of their arched abdomen against the pole.
This visit to the dormitory of certain Wasps and Bees does not explain the problem of the Empusa; it sets up another one, no less difficult. It shows us how deficient we are in insight, when it comes to differentiating between fatigue and rest in the cogs of the animal machine. The Ammophila, with the static paradox afforded by her mandibles; the Empusa, with her claws unwearied by ten months' hanging, leave the physiologist perplexed and make him wonder what really constitutes rest. In absolute fact, there is no rest, apart from that which puts an end to life. The struggle never ceases; some muscle is always toiling, some nerve straining. Sleep, which resembles a return to the peace of non-existence, is, like waking, an effort, here of the leg, of the curled tail; there of the claw, of the jaws.
The transformation is effected about the middle of May, and the adult Empusa makes her appearance. She is even more remarkable in figure and attire than the Praying Mantis. Of her youthful eccentricities, she retains the pointed mitre, the saw-like arm-guards, the long bust, the knee-pieces, the three rows of scales on the lower surface of the belly; but the abdomen is now no longer twisted into a crook and the animal is comelier to look upon. Large pale-green wings, pink at the shoulder and swift in flight in both sexes, cover the belly, which is striped white and green underneath. The male, the dandy sex, adorns himself with plumed antennae, like those of certain Moths, the Bombyx tribe. In respect of size, he is almost the equal of his mate.
Save for a few slight structural details, the Empusa is the Praying Mantis. The peasant confuses them. When, in spring, he meets the mitred insect, he thinks he sees the common PrŠgo-Dieu, who is a daughter of the autumn. Similar forms would seem to indicate similarity of habits. In fact, led away by the extraordinary armour, we should be tempted to attribute to the Empusa a mode of life even more atrocious than that of the Mantis. I myself thought so at first; and any one, relying upon false analogies, would think the same. It is a fresh error: for all her warlike aspect, the Empusa is a peaceful creature that hardly repays the trouble of rearing.
Installed under the gauze bell, whether in assemblies of half a dozen or in separate couples, she at no time loses her placidity. Like the larva, she is very abstemious and contents herself with a Fly or two as her daily ration.
Big eaters are naturally quarrelsome. The Mantis, bloated with Locusts, soon becomes irritated and shows fight. The Empusa, with her frugal meals, does not indulge in hostile demonstrations. There is no strife among neighbours nor any of those sudden unfurlings of the wings so dear to the Mantis when she assumes the spectral attitude and puffs like a startled Adder; never the least inclination for those cannibal banquets whereat the sister who has been worsted in the fight is devoured. Such atrocities or here unknown.
Unknown also are tragic nuptials. The male is enterprising and assiduous and is subjected to a long trial before succeeding. For days and days he worries his mate, who ends by yielding. Due decorum is preserved after the wedding. The feathered groom retires, respected by his bride, and does his little bit of hunting, without danger of being apprehended and gobbled up.
The two sexes live together in peace and mutual indifference until the middle of July. Then the male, grown old and decrepit, takes counsel with himself, hunts no more, becomes shaky in his walk, creeps down from the lofty heights of the trellised dome and at last collapses on the ground. His end comes by a natural death. And remember that the other, the male of the Praying Mantis, ends in the stomach of his gluttonous spouse.
The laying follows close upon the disappearance of the males.
One word more on comparative manners. The Mantis goes in for battle and cannibalism; the Empusa is peaceable and respects her kind. To what cause are these profound moral differences due, when the organic structure is the same? Perhaps to the difference of diet. Frugality, in fact, softens character, in animals as in men; gross feeding brutalizes it. The gormandizer gorged with meat and strong drink, a fruitful source of savage outbursts, could not possess the gentleness of the ascetic who dips his bread into a cup of milk. The Mantis is that gormandizer, the Empusa that ascetic.
Granted. But whence does the one derive her voracious appetite, the other her temperate ways, when it would seem as though their almost identical structure ought to produce an identity of needs? These insects tell us, in their fashion, what many have already told us: that propensities and aptitudes do not depend exclusively upon anatomy; high above the physical laws that govern matter rise other laws that govern instincts.
CHAPTER 4. THE CAPRICORN.
My youthful meditations owe some happy moments to Condillac's famous statue which, when endowed with the sense of smell, inhales the scent of a rose and out of that single impression creates a whole world of ideas. (Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Abb‚ de Mureaux (1715-80), the leading exponent of sensational philosophy. His most important work is the "Trait‚ des sensations," in which he imagines a statue, organized like a man, and endows it with the senses one by one, beginning with that of smell. He argues by a process of imaginative reconstruction that all human faculties and all human knowledge are merely transformed sensation, to the exclusion of any other principle, that, in short, everything has its source in sensation: man is nothing but what he has acquired.--Translator's Note.) My twenty-year-old mind, full of faith in syllogisms, loved to follow the deductive jugglery of the abb‚-philosopher: I saw, or seemed to see, the statue take life in that action of the nostrils, acquiring attention, memory, jud gment and all the psychological paraphernalia, even as still waters are aroused and rippled by the impact of a grain of sand. I recovered from my illusion under the instruction of my abler master, the animal. The Capricorn shall teach us that the problem is more obscure than the abb‚ led me to believe.
When wedge and mallet are at work, preparing my provision of firewood under the grey sky that heralds winter, a favourite relaxation creates a welcome break in my daily output of prose. By my express orders, the woodman has selected the oldest and most ravaged trunks in his stack. My tastes bring a smile to his lips; he wonders by what whimsy I prefer wood that is worm-eaten--chirouna, as he calls it--to sound wood which burns so much better. I have my views on the subject; and the worthy man submits to them.
And now to us two, O my fine oak-trunk seamed with scars, gashed with wounds whence trickle the brown drops smelling of the tan-yard. The mallet drives home, the wedges bite, the wood splits. What do your flanks contain? Real treasures for my studies. In the dry and hollow parts, groups of various insects, capable of living through the bad season of the year, have taken up their winter quarters: in the low-roofed galleries, galleries which some Buprestis-beetle has built, Osmia-bees, working their paste of masticated leaves, have piled their cells, one above the other; in the deserted chambers and vestibules, Megachiles (Leaf-cutting Bees.--Translator's Note.) have arranged their leafy jars; in the live wood, filled with juicy saps, the larvae of the Capricorn (Cerambyx miles), the chief author of the oak's undoing, have set up their home.
Strange creatures, of a verity, are these grubs, for an insect of superior organization: bits of intestines crawling about! At this time of year, the middle of autumn, I meet them of two different ages. The older are almost as thick as one's finger; the others hardly attain the diameter of a pencil. I find, in addition, pupae more or less fully coloured, perfect insects, with a distended abdomen, ready to leave the trunk when the hot weather comes again. Life inside the wood, therefore, lasts three years. How is this long period of solitude and captivity spent? In wandering lazily through the thickness of the oak, in making roads whose rubbish serves as food. The horse in Job swallows the ground in a figure of speech; the Capricorn's grub literally eats its way. ("Chafing and raging, he swalloweth the ground, neither doth he make account when the noise of the trumpet soundeth."--Job 39, 23 (Douai version).--Translator's Note.) With its carpenter's gouge, a strong black mandible, short, devoid of notches, scoo ped into a sharp-edged spoon, it digs the opening of its tunnel. The piece cut out is a mouthful which, as it enters the stomach, yields its scanty juices and accumulates behind the worker in heaps of wormed wood. The refuse leaves room in front by passing through the worker. A labour at once of nutrition and of road-making, the path is devoured while constructed; it is blocked behind as it makes way ahead. That, however, is how all the borers who look to wood for victuals and lodging set about their business.
For the harsh work of its two gouges, or curved chisels, the larva of the Capricorn concentrates its muscular strength in the front of its body, which swells into a pestle-head. The Buprestis-grubs, those other industrious carpenters, adopt a similar form; they even exaggerate their pestle. The part that toils and carves hard wood requires a robust structure; the rest of the body, which has but to follow after, continues slim. The essential thing is that the implement of the jaws should possess a solid support and a powerful motor. The Cerambyx-larva strengthens its chisels with a stout, black, horny armour that surrounds the mouth; yet, apart from its skull and its equipment of tools, the grub has a skin as fine as satin and white as ivory. This dead white comes from a copious layer of grease which the animal's spare diet would not lead us to suspect. True, it has nothing to do, at every hour of the day and night, but gnaw. The quantity of wood that passes into its stomach makes up for the dearth of nourishi ng elements.
The legs, consisting of three pieces, the first globular, the last sharp-pointed, are mere rudiments, vestiges. They are hardly a millimetre long. (.039 inch.--Translator's Note.) For this reason they are of no use whatever for walking; they do not even bear upon the supporting surface, being kept off it by the obesity of the chest. The organs of locomotion are something altogether different. The grub of the Capricorn moves at the same time on its back and belly; instead of the useless legs of the thorax, it has a walking-apparatus almost resembling feet, which appear, contrary to every rule, on the dorsal surface.
The first seven segments of the abdomen have, both above and below, a four-sided facet, bristling with rough protuberances. This the grub can either expand or contract, making it stick out or lie flat at will. The upper facets consist of two excrescences separated by the mid-dorsal line; the lower ones have not this divided appearance. These are the organs of locomotion, the ambulacra. When the larva wishes to move forwards, it expands its hinder ambulacra, those on the back as well as those on the belly, and contracts its front ones. Fixed to the side of the narrow gallery by their ridges, the hind-pads give the grub a purchase. The flattening of the fore-pads, by decreasing the diameter, allows it to slip forward and to take half a step. To complete the step the hind-quarters have to be brought up the same distance. With this object, the front pads fill out and provide support, while those behind shrink and leave free scope for their segments to contract.
With the double support of its back and belly, with alternate puffings and shrinkings, the animal easily advances or retreats along its gallery, a sort of mould which the contents fill without a gap. But if the locomotory pads grip only on one side progress becomes impossible. When placed on the smooth wood of my table, the animal wriggles slowly; it lengthens and shortens without advancing by a hair's-breadth. Laid on the surface of a piece of split oak, a rough, uneven surface, due to the gash made by the wedge, it twists and writhes, moves the front part of its body very slowly from left to right and right to left, lifts it a little, lowers it and begins again. These are the most extensive movements made. The vestigial legs remain inert and absolutely useless. Then why are they there? It were better to lose them altogether, if it be true that crawling inside the oak has deprived the animal of the good legs with which it started. The influence of environment, so well-inspired in endowing the grub with ambul atory pads, becomes a mockery when it leaves it these ridiculous stumps. Can the structure, perchance, be obeying other rules than those of environment?
Though the useless legs, the germs of the future limbs, persist, there is no sign in the grub of the eyes wherewith the Cerambyx will be richly gifted. The larva has not the least trace of organs of vision. What would it do with sight in the murky thickness of a tree-trunk? Hearing is likewise absent. In the never-troubled silence of the oak's inmost heart, the sense of hearing would be a non-sense. Where sounds are lacking, of what use is the faculty of discerning them? Should there be any doubts, I will reply to them with the following experiment. Split lengthwise, the grub's abode leaves a half-tunnel wherein I can watch the occupant's doings. When left alone, it now gnaws the front of its gallery, now rests, fixed by its ambulacra to the two sides of the channel. I avail myself of these moments of quiet to inquire into its power of perceiving sounds. The banging of hard bodies, the ring of metallic objects, the grating of a file upon a saw are tried in vain. The animal remains impassive. Not a wince, not a movement of the skin; no sign of awakened attention. I succeed no better when I scratch the wood close by with a hard point, to imitate the sound of some neighbouring larva gnawing the intervening thickness. The indifference to my noisy tricks could be no greater in a lifeless object. The animal is deaf.
Can it smell? Everything tells us no. Scent is of assistance in the search for food. But the Capricorn grub need not go in quest of eatables: it feeds on its home, it lives on the wood that gives it shelter. Let us make an attempt or two, however. I scoop in a log of fresh cypress-wood a groove of the same diameter as that of the natural galleries and I place the worm inside it. Cypress-wood is strongly scented; it possesses in a high degree that resinous aroma which characterizes most of the pine family. Well, when laid in the odoriferous channel, the larva goes to the end, as far as it can go, and makes no further movement. Does not this placid quiescence point to the absence of a sense of smell? The resinous flavour, so strange to the grub which has always lived in oak, ought to vex it, to trouble it; and the disagreeable impression ought to be revealed by a certain commotion, by certain attempts to get away. Well, nothing of the kind happens: once the larva has found the right position in the groove, it d oes not stir. I do more: I set before it, at a very short distance, in its normal canal, a piece of camphor. Again, no effect. Camphor is followed by naphthaline. Still nothing. After these fruitless endeavours, I do not think that I am going too far when I deny the creature a sense of smell.
Taste is there, no doubt. But such taste! The food is without variety: oak, for three years at a stretch, and nothing else. What can the grub's palate appreciate in this monotonous fare? The tannic relish of a fresh piece, oozing with sap, the uninteresting flavour of an over-dry piece, robbed of its natural condiment: these probably represent the whole gustative scale.
There remains touch, the far-spreading, passive sense common to all live flesh that quivers under the goad of pain. The sensitive schedule of the Cerambyx-grub, therefore, is limited to taste and touch, both exceedingly obtuse. This almost brings us to Condillac's statue. The imaginary being of the philosopher had one sense only, that of smell, equal in delicacy to our own; the real being, the ravager of the oak, has two, inferior, even when put together, to the former, which so plainly perceived the scent of a rose and distinguished it so clearly from any other. The real case will bear comparison with the fictitious.
What can be the psychology of a creature possessing such a powerful digestive organism combined with such a feeble set of senses? A vain wish has often come to me in my dreams; it is to be able to think, for a few minutes, with the crude brain of my Dog, to see the world with the faceted eyes of a Gnat. How things would change in appearance! They would change much more if interpreted by the intellect of the grub. What have the lessons of touch and taste contributed to that rudimentary receptacle of impressions? Very little; almost nothing. The animal knows that the best bits possess an astringent flavour; that the sides of a passage not carefully planed are painful to the skin. This is the utmost limit of its acquired wisdom. In comparison, the statue with the sensitive nostrils was a marvel of knowledge, a paragon too generously endowed by its inventor. It remembered, compared, judged, reasoned: does the drowsily digesting paunch remember? Does it compare? Does it reason? I defined the Capricorn-grub as a bi t of an intestine that crawls about. The undeniable accuracy of this definition provides me with my answer: the grub has the aggregate of sense-impressions that a bit of an intestine may hope to have.
And this nothing-at-all is capable of marvellous acts of foresight; this belly, which knows hardly aught of the present, sees very clearly into the future. Let us take an illustration on this curious subject. For three years on end the larva wanders about in the thick of the trunk; it goes up, goes down, turns to this side and that; it leaves one vein for another of better flavour, but without moving too far from the inner depths, where the temperature is milder and greater safety reigns. A day is at hand, a dangerous day for the recluse obliged to quit its excellent retreat and face the perils of the surface. Eating is not everything: we have to get out of this. The larva, so well-equipped with tools and muscular strength, finds no difficulty in going where it pleases, by boring through the wood; but does the coming Capricorn, whose short spell of life must be spent in the open air, possess the same advantages? Hatched inside the trunk, will the long-horned insect be able to clear itself a way of escape?
That is the difficulty which the worm solves by inspiration. Less versed in things of the future, despite my gleams of reason, I resort to experiment with a view to fathoming the question. I begin by ascertaining that the Capricorn, when he wishes to leave the trunk, is absolutely unable to make use of the tunnel wrought by the larva. It is a very long and very irregular maze, blocked with great heaps of wormed wood. Its diameter decreases progressively from the final blind alley to the starting-point. The larva entered the timber as slim as a tiny bit of straw; it is to-day as thick as my finger. In its three years' wanderings it always dug its gallery according to the mould of its body. Evidently, the road by which the larva entered and moved about cannot be the Capricorn's exit-way: his immoderate antennae, his long legs, his inflexible armour-plates would encounter an insuperable obstacle in the narrow, winding corridor, which would have to be cleared of its wormed wood and, moreover, greatly enlarged. It would be less fatiguing to attack the untouched timber and dig straight ahead. Is the insect capable of doing so? We shall see.
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