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- The Wonders of Instinct - 3/12 -
I make some chambers of suitable size in oak logs chopped in two; and each of my artificial cells receives a newly transformed Cerambyx, such as my provisions of firewood supply, when split by the wedge, in October. The two pieces are then joined and kept together with a few bands of wire. June comes. I hear a scraping inside my billets. Will the Capricorns come out, or not? The delivery does not seem difficult to me: there is hardly three-quarters of an inch to pierce. Not one emerges. When all is silence, I open my apparatus. The captives, from first to last, are dead. A vestige of sawdust, less than a pinch of snuff, represents all their work.
I expected more from those sturdy tools, their mandibles. But, as I have said elsewhere, the tool does not make the workman. In spite of their boring-implements, the hermits die in my cases for lack of skill. I subject others to less arduous tests. I enclose them in spacious reed-stumps, equal in diameter to the natal cell. The obstacle to be pierced is the natural diaphragm, a yielding partition two or three millimetres thick. (.078 to .117 inch.--Translator's Note.) Some free themselves; others cannot. The less vibrant ones succumb, stopped by the frail barrier. What would it be if they had to pass through a thickness of oak?
We are now persuaded: despite his stalwart appearance, the Capricorn is powerless to leave the tree-trunk by his unaided efforts. It therefore falls to the worm, to the wisdom of that bit of an intestine, to prepare the way for him. We see renewed, in another form, the feats of prowess of the Anthrax, whose pupa, armed with trepans, bores through rock on the feeble Fly's behalf. Urged by a presentiment that to us remains an unfathomable mystery, the Cerambyx-grub leaves the inside of the oak, its peaceful retreat, its unassailable stronghold, to wriggle towards the outside, where lives the foe, the Woodpecker, who may gobble up the succulent little sausage. At the risk of its life, it stubbornly digs and gnaws to the very bark, of which it leaves no more intact than the thinnest film, a slender screen. Sometimes, even, the rash one opens the window wide.
This is the Capricorn's exit-hole. The insect will have but to file the screen a little with its mandibles, to bump against it with its forehead, in order to bring it down; it will even have nothing to do when the window is free, as often happens. The unskilled carpenter, burdened with his extravagant head-dress, will emerge from the darkness through this opening when the summer heats arrive.
After the cares of the future come the cares of the present. The larva, which has just opened the aperture of escape, retreats some distance down its gallery and, in the side of the exit-way, digs itself a transformation-chamber more sumptuously furnished and barricaded than any that I have ever seen. It is a roomy niche, shaped like a flattened ellipsoid, the length of which reaches eighty to a hundred millimetres. (3 to 4 inches.--Translator's Note.) The two axes of the cross-section vary: the horizontal measures twenty-five to thirty millimetres (.975 to 1.17 inch.--Translator's Note.); the vertical measures only fifteen. (.585 inch.--Translator's Note.) This greater dimension of the cell, where the thickness of the perfect insect is concerned, leaves a certain scope for the action of its legs when the time comes for forcing the barricade, which is more than a close-fitting mummy-case would do.
The barricade in question, a door which the larva builds to exclude the dangers from without, is two-and even three-fold. Outside, it is a stack of woody refuse, of particles of chopped timber; inside, a mineral hatch, a concave cover, all in one piece, of a chalky white. Pretty often, but not always, there is added to these two layers an inner casing of shavings. Behind this compound door, the larva makes its arrangements for the metamorphosis. The sides of the chamber are rasped, thus providing a sort of down formed of ravelled woody fibres, broken into minute shreds. The velvety matter, as and when obtained, is applied to the wall in a continuous felt at least a millimetre thick. (.039 inch.--Translator's Note.) The chamber is thus padded throughout with a fine swan's-down, a delicate precaution taken by the rough worm on behalf of the tender pupa.
Let us hark back to the most curious part of the furnishing, the mineral hatch or inner door of the entrance. It is an elliptical skull-cap, white and hard as chalk, smooth within and knotted without, resembling more or less closely an acorn-cup. The knots show that the matter is supplied in small, pasty mouthfuls, solidifying outside in slight projections which the insect does not remove, being unable to get at them, and polished on the inside surface, which is within the worm's reach. What can be the nature of that singular lid whereof the Cerambyx furnishes me with the first specimen? It is as hard and brittle as a flake of lime-stone. It can be dissolved cold in nitric acid, discharging little gaseous bubbles. The process of solution is a slow one, requiring several hours for a tiny fragment. Everything is dissolved, except a few yellowish flocks, which appear to be of an organic nature. As a matter of fact, a piece of the hatch, when subjected to heat, blackens, proving the presence of an organic glue ce menting the mineral matter. The solution becomes muddy if oxalate of ammonia be added; it then deposits a copious white precipitate. These signs indicate calcium carbonate. I look for urate of ammonia, that constantly recurring product of the various stages of the metamorphoses. It is not there: I find not the least trace of murexide. The lid, therefore, is composed solely of carbonate of lime and of an organic cement, no doubt of an albuminous character, which gives consistency to the chalky paste.
Had circumstances served me better, I should have tried to discover in which of the worm's organs the stony deposit dwells. I am however, convinced: it is the stomach, the chylific ventricle, that supplies the chalk. It keeps it separated from the food, either as original matter or as a derivative of the ammonium urate; it purges it of all foreign bodies, when the larval period comes to an end, and holds it in reserve until the time comes to disgorge it. This freestone factory causes me no astonishment: when the manufacturer undergoes his change, it serves for various chemical works. Certain Oil-beetles, such as the Sitaris, locate in it the urate of ammonia, the refuse of the transformed organism; the Sphex, the Pelopaei, the Scoliae use it to manufacture the shellac wherewith the silk of the cocoon is varnished. Further investigations will only swell the aggregate of the products of this obliging organ.
When the exit-way is prepared and the cell upholstered in velvet and closed with a threefold barricade, the industrious worm has concluded its task. It lays aside its tools, sheds its skin and becomes a nymph, a pupa, weakness personified, in swaddling-clothes, on a soft couch. The head is always turned towards the door. This is a trifling detail in appearance; but it is everything in reality. To lie this way or that in the long cell is a matter of great indifference to the grub, which is very supple, turning easily in its narrow lodging and adopting whatever position it pleases. The coming Capricorn will not enjoy the same privileges. Stiffly girt in his horn cuirass, he will not be able to turn from end to end; he will not even be capable of bending, if some sudden wind should make the passage difficult. He must absolutely find the door in front of him, lest he perish in the casket. Should the grub forget this little formality, should it lie down to its nymphal sleep with its head at the back of the cell, t he Capricorn is infallibly lost: his cradle becomes a hopeless dungeon.
But there is no fear of this danger: the knowledge of our bit of an intestine is too sound in things of the future for the grub to neglect the formality of keeping its head to the door. At the end of spring, the Capricorn, now in possession of his full strength, dreams of the joys of the sun, of the festivals of light. He wants to get out. What does he find before him? A heap of filings easily dispersed with his claws; next, a stone lid which he need not even break into fragments: it comes undone in one piece; it is removed from its frame with a few pushes of the forehead, a few tugs of the claws. In fact, I find the lid intact on the threshold of the abandoned cells. Last comes a second mass of woody remnants, as easy to disperse as the first. The road is now free: the Cerambyx has but to follow the spacious vestibule, which will lead him, without the possibility of mistake, to the exit. Should the window not be open, all that he has to do is to gnaw through a thin screen: an easy task; and behold him outsid e, his long antennae aquiver with excitement.
What have we learnt from him? Nothing, from him; much from his grub. This grub, so poor in sensory organs, gives us no little food for reflection with its prescience. It knows that the coming Beetle will not be able to cut himself a road through the oak and it bethinks itself of opening one for him at its own risk and peril. It knows that the Cerambyx, in his stiff armour, will never be able to turn and make for the orifice of the cell; and it takes care to fall into its nymphal sleep with its head to the door. It knows how soft the pupa's flesh will be and upholsters the bedroom with velvet. It knows that the enemy is likely to break in during the slow work of the transformation and, to set a bulwark against his attacks, it stores a calcium pap inside its stomach. It knows the future with a clear vision, or, to be accurate, behaves as though it knew it. Whence did it derive the motives of its actions? Certainly not from the experience of the senses. What does it know of the outside world? Let us repeat, as m uch as a bit of an intestine can know. And this senseless creature fills us with amazement! I regret that the clever logician, instead of conceiving a statue smelling a rose, did not imagine it gifted with some instinct. How quickly he would have recognized that, quite apart from sense-impressions, the animal, including man, possesses certain psychological resources, certain inspirations that are innate and not acquired!
CHAPTER 5. THE BURYING-BEETLES: THE BURIAL.
Beside the footpath in April lies the Mole, disembowelled by the peasant's spade; at the foot of the hedge the pitiless urchin has stoned to death the Lizard, who was about to don his green, pearl-embellished costume. The passer-by has thought it a meritorious deed to crush beneath his heel the chance-met Adder; and a gust of wind has thrown a tiny unfeathered bird from its nest. What will become of these little bodies and of so many other pitiful remnants of life? They will not long offend our sense of sight and smell. The sanitary officers of the fields are legion.
An eager freebooter, ready for any task, the Ant is the first to come hastening and begin, particle by particle, to dissect the corpse. Soon the odour of the corpse attracts the Fly, the genitrix of the odious maggot. At the same time, the flattened Silpha, the glistening, slow-trotting Horn-beetle, the Dermestes, powdered with snow upon the abdomen, and the slender Staphylinus, all, whence coming no one knows, hurry hither in squads, with never-wearied zeal, investigating, probing and draining the infection.
What a spectacle, in the spring, beneath a dead Mole! The horror of this laboratory is a beautiful sight for one who is able to observe and to meditate. Let us overcome our disgust; let us turn over the unclean refuse with our foot. What a swarming there is beneath it, what a tumult of busy workers! The Silphae, with wing-cases wide and dark, as though in mourning, fly distraught, hiding in the cracks in the soil; the Saprini, of polished ebony which mirrors the sunlight, jog hastily off, deserting their workshop; the Dermestes, of whom one wears a fawn-coloured tippet, spotted with white, seek to fly away, but, tipsy with their putrid nectar, tumble over and reveal the immaculate whiteness of their bellies, which forms a violent contrast with the gloom of the rest of their attire.
What were they doing there, all these feverish workers? They were making a clearance of death on behalf of life. Transcendent alchemists, they were transforming that horrible putridity into a living and inoffensive product. They were draining the dangerous corpse to the point of rendering it as dry and sonorous as the remains of an old slipper hardened on the refuse-heap by the frosts of winter and the heats of summer. They were working their hardest to render the carrion innocuous.
Others will soon put in their appearance, smaller creatures and more patient, who will take over the relic and exploit it ligament by ligament, bone by bone, hair by hair, until the whole has been resumed by the treasury of life. All honour to these purifiers! Let us put back the Mole and go our way.
Some other victim of the agricultural labours of spring--a Shrew-mouse, Field-mouse, Mole, Frog, Adder, or Lizard--will provide us with the most vigorous and famous of these expurgators of the soil. This is the Burying-beetle, the Necrophorus, so different from the cadaveric mob in dress and habits. In honour of his exalted functions he exhales an odour of musk; he bears a red tuft at the tip of his antennae; his breast is covered with nankeen; and across his wing-cases he wears a double, scalloped scarf of vermilion. An elegant, almost sumptuous costume, very superior to that of the others, but yet lugubrious, as befits your undertaker's man.
He is no anatomical dissector, cutting his subject open, carving its flesh with the scalpel of his mandibles; he is literally a gravedigger, a sexton. While the others--Silphae, Dermestes, Horn-beetles--gorge themselves with the exploited flesh, without, of course, forgetting the interests of the family, he, a frugal eater, hardly touches his booty on his own account. He buries it entire, on the spot, in a cellar where the thing, duly ripened, will form the diet of his larvae. He buries it in order to establish his progeny therein.
This hoarder of dead bodies, with his stiff and almost heavy movements, is astonishingly quick at storing away wreckage. In a shift of a few hours, a comparatively enormous animal--a Mole, for example--disappears, engulfed by the earth. The others leave the dried, emptied carcass to the air, the sport of the winds for months on end; he, treating it as a whole, makes a clean job of things at once. No visible trace of his work remains but a tiny hillock, a burial-mound, a tumulus.
With his expeditious method, the Necrophorus is the first of the little purifiers of the fields. He is also one of the most celebrated of insects in respect of his psychical capacities. This undertaker is endowed, they say, with intellectual faculties approaching to reason, such as are not possessed by the most gifted of the Bees and Wasps, the collectors of honey or game. He is honoured by the two following anecdotes, which I quote from Lacordaire's "Introduction to Entomology," the only general treatise at my disposal:
"Clairville," says the author, "records that he saw a Necrophorus vespillo, who, wishing to bury a dead Mouse and finding the soil on which the body lay too hard, proceeded to dig a hole at some distance in soil more easily displaced. This operation completed, he attempted to bury the Mouse in this cavity, but, not succeeding, he flew away, returning a few moments later accompanied by four of his fellows, who assisted him to move the Mouse and bury it."
In such actions, Lacordaire adds, we cannot refuse to admit the intervention of reason.
"The following case," he continues, "recorded by Gledditsch, has also every indication of the intervention of reason. One of his friends, wishing to desiccate a Frog, placed it on the top of a stick thrust into the ground, in order to make sure that the Necrophori should not come and carry it off. But this precaution was of no effect; the insects, being unable to reach the Frog, dug under the stick and, having caused it to fall, buried it as well as the body." ("Suites a Buffon. Introduction a l'entomologie" volume 2 pages 460-61.--Author's Note.)
To grant, in the intellect of the insect, a lucid understanding of the relations between cause and effect, between the end and the means, is an affirmation of serious import. I know of scarcely any better adapted to the philosophical brutalities of my time. But are these two little stories really true? Do they involve the consequences deduced from them? Are not those who accept them as reliable testimony a little over-simple?
To be sure, simplicity is needed in entomology. Without a good dose of this quality, a mental defect in the eyes of practical folk, who would busy himself with the lesser creatures? Yes, let us be simple, without being childishly credulous. Before making insects reason, let us reason a little ourselves; let us, above all, consult the experimental test. A fact gathered at hazard, without criticism, cannot establish a law.
I do not propose, O valiant grave-diggers, to belittle your merits; such is far from being my intention. I have that in my notes, on the other hand, which will do you more honour than the case of the gibbet and the Frog; I have gleaned, for your benefit, examples of prowess which will shed a new lustre upon your reputation.
No, my intention is not to lessen your renown. However, it is not the business of impartial history to maintain a given thesis; it follows whither the facts lead it. I wish simply to question you upon the power of logic attributed to you. Do you or do you not enjoy gleams of reason? Have you within you the humble germ of human thought? That is the problem before us.
To solve it we will not rely upon the accidents which good fortune may now and again procure for us. We must employ the breeding-cage, which will permit of assiduous visits, continued inquiry and a variety of artifices. But how populate the cage? The land of the olive-tree is not rich in Necrophori. To my knowledge it possesses only a single species, N. vestigator (Hersch.); and even this rival of the grave-diggers of the north is pretty scarce. The discovery of three or four in the course of the spring was as much as my searches yielded in the old days. This time, if I do not resort to the ruses of the trapper, I shall obtain them in no greater numbers; whereas I stand in need of at least a dozen.
These ruses are very simple. To go in search of the layer-out of bodies, who exists only here and there in the country-side, would be almost always waste of time; the favourable month, April, would elapse before my cage was suitably populated. To run after him is to trust too much to accident; so we will make him come to us by scattering in the orchard an abundant collection of dead Moles. To this carrion, ripened by the sun, the insect will not fail to hasten from the various points of the horizon, so accomplished is he in the detection of such a delicacy.
I make an arrangement with a gardener in the neighbourhood, who, two or three times a week, supplements the penury of my acre and a half of stony ground, providing me with vegetables raised in a better soil. I explain to him my urgent need of Moles, an indefinite number of moles. Battling daily with trap and spade against the importunate excavator who uproots his crops, he is in a better position than any one else to procure for me that which I regard for the moment as more precious than his bunches of asparagus or his white-heart cabbages.
The worthy man at first laughs at my request, being greatly surprised by the importance which I attribute to the abhorrent creature, the Darboun; but at last he consents, not without a suspicion at the back of his mind that I am going to make myself a wonderful flannel-lined waist-coat with the soft, velvety skins of the Moles, something good for pains in the back. Very well. We settle the matter. The essential thing is that the Darbouns shall reach me.
They reach me punctually, by twos, by threes, by fours, packed in a few cabbage-leaves, at the bottom of the gardener's basket. The worthy man who lent himself with such good grace to my strange requirements will never guess how much comparative psychology will owe him! In a few days I was the possessor of thirty Moles, which were scattered here and there, as they reached me, in bare portions of the orchard, amid the rosemary-bushes, the arbutus-trees, and the lavender-beds.
Now it only remained to wait and to examine, several times a day, the under-side of my little corpses, a disgusting task which any one would avoid who had not the sacred fire in his veins. Only little Paul, of all the household, lent me the aid of his nimble hand to seize the fugitives. I have already stated that the entomologist has need of simplicity of mind. In this important business of the Necrophori, my assistants were a child and an illiterate.
Little Paul's visits alternating with mine, we had not long to wait. The four winds of heaven bore forth in all directions the odour of the carrion; and the undertakers hurried up, so that the experiments, begun with four subjects, were continued with fourteen, a number not attained during the whole of my previous searches, which were unpremeditated and in which no bait was used as decoy. My trapper's ruse was completely successful.
Before I report the results obtained in the cage, let us for a moment stop to consider the normal conditions of the labours that fall to the lot of the Necrophori. The Beetle does not select his head of game, choosing one in proportion to his strength, as do the predatory Wasps; he accepts it as hazard presents it to him. Among his finds there are little creatures, such as the Shrew-mouse; animals of medium size, such as the Field-mouse; and enormous beasts, such as the Mole, the Sewer-rat and the Snake, any of which exceeds the powers of excavation of a single grave-digger. In the majority of cases transportation is impossible, so disproportioned is the burden to the motive-power. A slight displacement, caused by the effort of the insects' backs, is all that can possibly be effected.
Ammophilus and Cerceris, Sphex and Pompilus excavate their burrows wherever they please; they carry their prey thither on the wing, or, if too heavy, drag it afoot. The Necrophorus knows no such facilities in his task. Incapable of carrying the monstrous corpse, no matter where encountered, he is forced to dig the grave where the body lies.
This obligatory place of sepulture may be in stony soil; it may occupy this or that bare spot, or some other where the grass, especially the couch-grass, plunges into the ground its inextricable network of little cords. There is a great probability, too, that a bristle of stunted brambles may support the body at some inches from the soil. Slung by the labourers' spade, which has just broken his back, the Mole falls here, there, anywhere, at random; and where the body falls, no matter what the obstacles--provided they be not insurmountable--there the undertaker must utilize it.
The difficulties of inhumation are capable of such variety as causes us already to foresee that the Necrophorus cannot employ fixed methods in the accomplishment of his labours. Exposed to fortuitous hazards, he must be able to modify his tactics within the limits of his modest perceptions. To saw, to break, to disentangle, to lift, to shake, to displace: these are so many methods of procedure which are indispensable to the grave-digger in a predicament. Deprived of these resources, reduced to uniformity of method, the insect would be incapable of pursuing the calling which has fallen to its lot.
We see at once how imprudent it would be to draw conclusions from an isolated case in which rational coordination or premeditated intention might appear to intervene. Every instinctive action no doubt has its motive; but does the animal in the first place judge whether the action is opportune? Let us begin by a careful consideration of the creature's labours; let us support each piece of evidence by others; and then we shall be able to answer the question.
First of all, a word as to diet. A general scavenger, the Burying-beetle refuses nothing in the way of cadaveric putridity. All is good to his senses, feathered game or furry, provided that the burden do not exceed his strength. He exploits the batrachian or the reptile with no less animation. he accepts without hesitation extraordinary finds, probably unknown to his race, as witness a certain Gold-fish, a red Chinese Carp, whose body, placed in one of my cages, was instantly considered an excellent tit-bit and buried according to the rules. Nor is butcher's meat despised. A mutton-cutlet, a strip of beefsteak, in the right stage of maturity, disappeared beneath the soil, receiving the same attention as those which were lavished on the Mole or the Mouse. In short, the Necrophorus has no exclusive preferences; anything putrid he conveys underground.
The maintenance of his industry, therefore, presents no sort of difficulty. If one kind of game be lacking, some other--the first to hand--will very well replace it. Neither is there much trouble in establishing the site of his industry. A capacious dish-cover of wire gauze is sufficient, resting on an earthen pan filled to the brim with fresh, heaped sand. To obviate criminal attempts on the part of the Cats, whom the game would not fail to tempt, the cage is installed in a closed room with glazed windows, which in winter is the refuge of the plants and in summer an entomological laboratory.
Now to work. The Mole lies in the centre of the enclosure. The soil, easily shifted and homogeneous, realizes the best conditions for comfortable work. Four Necrophori, three males and a female, are there with the body. They remain invisible, hidden beneath the carcass, which from time to time seems to return to life, shaken from end to end by the backs of the workers. An observer not in the secret would be somewhat astonished to see the dead creature move. From time to time, one of the sextons, almost always a male, emerges and goes the rounds of the animal, which he explores, probing its velvet coat. He hurriedly returns, appears again, once more investigates and creeps back under the corpse.
The tremors become more pronounced; the carcass oscillates, while a cushion of sand, pushed outward from below, grows up all about it. The Mole, by reason of his own weight and the efforts of the grave-diggers, who are labouring at their task beneath him, gradually sinks, for lack of support, into the undermined soil.
Presently the sand which has been pushed outward quivers under the thrust of the invisible miners, slips into the pit and covers the interred Mole. It is a clandestine burial. The body seems to disappear of itself, as though engulfed by a fluid medium. For a long time yet, until the depth is regarded as sufficient, the body will continue to descend.
It is, when all is taken into account, a very simple operation. As the diggers, underneath the corpse, deepen the cavity into which it sinks, tugged and shaken by the sextons, the grave, without their intervention, fills of itself by the mere downfall of the shaken soil. Useful shovels at the tips of their claws, powerful backs, capable of creating a little earthquake: the diggers need nothing more for the practice of their profession. Let us add--for this is an essential point--the art of continually jerking and shaking the body, so as to pack it into a lesser volume and cause it to pass when passage is obstructed. We shall presently see that this art plays a part of the greatest importance in the industry of the Necrophori.
Although he has disappeared, the Mole is still far from having reached his destination. Let us leave the undertakers to complete their task. What they are now doing below ground is a continuation of what they did on the surface and would teach us nothing new. We will wait for two or three days.
The moment has come. Let us inform ourselves of what is happening down there. Let us visit the retting-vat. I shall invite no one to be present at the exhumation. Of those about me, only little Paul has the courage to assist me.
The Mole is a Mole no longer, but a greenish horror, putrid, hairless, shrunk into a round, greasy mass. The thing must have undergone careful manipulation to be thus condensed into a small volume, like a fowl in the hands of the cook, and, above all, to be so completely deprived of its fur. Is this culinary procedure undertaken in respect of the larvae, which might be incommoded by the fur? Or is it just a casual result, a mere loss of hair due to putridity? I am not certain. But it is always the case that these exhumations, from first to last, have revealed the furry game furless and the feathered game featherless, except for the tail-feathers and the pinion-feathers of the wings. Reptiles and fish, on the other hand, retain their scales.
Let us return to the unrecognizable thing which was once a Mole. The tit-bit lies in a spacious crypt, with firm walls, a regular workshop, worthy of being the bake-house of a Copris-beetle. Except for the fur, which is lying in scattered flocks, it is intact. The grave-diggers have not eaten into it; it is the patrimony of the sons, not the provision of the parents, who, in order to sustain themselves, levy at most a few mouthfuls of the ooze of putrid humours.
Beside the dish which they are kneading and protecting are two Necrophori; a couple, no more. Four collaborated in the burial. What has become of the other two, both males? I find them hidden in the soil, at a distance, almost at the surface.
This observation is not an isolated one. Whenever I am present at a burial undertaken by a squad in which the males, zealous one and all, predominate, I find presently, when the burial is completed, only one couple in the mortuary cellar. Having lent their assistance, the rest have discreetly retired.
These grave-diggers, in truth, are remarkable fathers. They have nothing of the happy-go-lucky paternal carelessness that is the general rule among insects, which plague and pester the mother for a moment with their attentions and thereupon leave her to care for the offspring! But those who in the other races are unemployed in this case labour valiantly, now in the interest of their own family, now for the sake of another's, without distinction. If a couple is in difficulties, helpers arrive, attracted by the odour of carrion; anxious to serve a lady, they creep under the body, work at it with back and claw, bury it and then go their ways, leaving the householders to their happiness.
For some time longer these latter manipulate the morsel in concert, stripping it of fur or feather, trussing it and allowing it to simmer to the taste of the larvae. When all is in order, the couple go forth, dissolving their partnership, and each, following his fancy, recommences elsewhere, even if only as a mere auxiliary.
Twice and no oftener hitherto have I found the father preoccupied by the future of his sons and labouring in order to leave them rich: it happens with certain Dung-beetles and with the Necrophori, who bury dead bodies. Scavengers and undertakers both have exemplary morals. Who would look for virtue in such a quarter?
What follows--the larval existence and the metamorphosis--is a secondary detail and, for that matter, familiar. It is a dry subject and I shall deal with it briefly. About the end of May, I exhume a Brown Rat, buried by the grave-diggers a fortnight earlier. Transformed into a black, sticky jelly, the horrible dish provides me with fifteen larvae, already, for the most part, of the normal size. A few adults, connections, assuredly, of the brood, are also stirring amid the infected mass. The period of hatching is over now; and food is plentiful. Having nothing else to do, the foster-parents have sat down to the feast with the nurselings.
The undertakers are quick at rearing a family. It is at most a fortnight since the Rat was laid in the earth; and here already is a vigorous population on the verge of the metamorphosis. Such precocity amazes me. It would seem as though the liquefaction of carrion, deadly to any other stomach, is in this case a food productive of especial energy, which stimulates the organism and accelerates its growth, so that the victuals may be consumed before its approaching conversion into mould. Living chemistry makes haste to outstrip the ultimate reactions of mineral chemistry.
White, naked, blind, possessing the habitual attributes of life in darkness, the larva, with its lanceolate outline, is slightly reminiscent of the grub of the Ground-beetle. The mandibles are black and powerful, making excellent scissors for dissection. The limbs are short, but capable of a quick, toddling gait. The segments of the abdomen are armoured on the upper surface with a narrow reddish plate, armed with four tiny spikes, whose office apparently is to furnish points of support when the larva quits the natal dwelling and dives into the soil, there to undergo the transformation. The thoracic segments are provided with wider plates, but unarmed.
The adults discovered in the company of their larval family, in this putridity that was a Rat, are all abominably verminous. So shiny and neat in their attire, when at work under the first Moles of April, the Necrophori, when June approaches, become odious to look upon. A layer of parasites envelops them; insinuating itself into the joints, it forms an almost continuous surface. The insect presents a misshapen appearance under this overcoat of vermin, which my hair-pencil can hardly brush aside. Driven off the belly, the horde make the tour of the sufferer and encamp on his back, refusing to relinquish their hold.
I recognize among them the Beetle's Gamasis, the Tick who so often soils the ventral amethyst of our Geotrupes. No; the prizes of life do not fall to the share of the useful. Necrophori and Geotrupes devote themselves to works of general salubrity; and these two corporations, so interesting in the accomplishment of their hygienic functions, so remarkable for their domestic morality, are given over to the vermin of poverty. Alas, of this discrepancy between the services rendered and the harshness of life there are many other examples outside the world of scavengers and undertakers!
The Burying-beetles display an exemplary domestic morality, but it does not persist until the end. During the first fortnight of June, the family being sufficiently provided for, the sextons strike work and my cages are deserted, so far as the surface is concerned, in spite of new arrivals of Mice and Sparrows. From time to time some grave-digger leaves the subsoil and comes crawling languidly in the fresh air.
Another rather curious fact now attracts my attention. All, as soon as they emerge from underground, are cripples, whose limbs have been amputated at the joints, some higher up, some lower down. I see one mutilated Beetle who has only one leg left entire. With this odd limb and the stumps of the others lamentably tattered, scaly with vermin, he rows himself, as it were, over the dusty surface. A comrade emerges, one better off for legs, who finishes the cripple and cleans out his abdomen. So my thirteen remaining Necrophori end their days, half-devoured by their companions, or at least shorn of several limbs. The pacific relations of the outset are succeeded by cannibalism.
History tells us that certain peoples, the Massagetae and others, used to kill their aged folk in order to spare them the miseries of senility. The fatal blow on the hoary skull was in their eyes an act of filial piety. The Necrophori have their share of these ancient barbarities. Full of days and henceforth useless, dragging out a weary existence, they mutually exterminate one another. Why prolong the agony of the impotent and the imbecile?
The Massagetae might invoke, as an excuse for their atrocious custom, a dearth of provisions, which is an evil counsellor; not so the Necrophori, for, thanks to my generosity, victuals are superabundant, both beneath the soil and on the surface. Famine plays no part in this slaughter. Here we have the aberration of exhaustion, the morbid fury of a life on the point of extinction. As is generally the case, work bestows a peaceable disposition on the grave-digger, while inaction inspires him with perverted tastes. Having no longer anything to do, he breaks his fellow's limbs, eats him up, heedless of being mutilated or eaten up himself. This is the ultimate deliverance of verminous old age.
CHAPTER 6. THE BURYING-BEETLES: EXPERIMENTS.
Let us proceed to the rational prowess which has earned for the Necrophorus the better part of his renown and, to begin with, let us submit the case related by Clairville--that of the too hard soil and the call for assistance--to experimental test.
With this object in view, I pave the centre of the space beneath the cover, level with the soil, with a brick and sprinkle the latter with a thin layer of sand. This will be the soil in which digging is impracticable. All about it, for some distance and on the same level, spreads the loose soil, which is easy to dig.
In order to approximate to the conditions of the little story, I must have a Mouse; with a Mole, a heavy mass, the work of removal would perhaps present too much difficulty. To obtain the Mouse I place my friends and neighbours under requisition; they laugh at my whim but none the less proffer their traps. Yet, the moment a Mouse is needed, that very common animal becomes rare. Braving decorum in his speech, which follows the Latin of his ancestors, the Provençal says, but even more crudely than in my translation: "If you look for dung, the Asses become constipated!"
At last I possess the Mouse of my dreams! She comes to me from that refuge, furnished with a truss of straw, in which official charity gives the hospitality of a day to the beggar wandering over the face of the fertile earth; from that municipal hostel whence one invariably emerges verminous. O Réaumur, who used to invite marquises to see your caterpillars change their skins, what would you have said of a future disciple conversant with such wretchedness as this? Perhaps it is well that we should not be ignorant of it, so that we may take compassion on the sufferings of beasts.
The Mouse so greatly desired is mine. I place her upon the centre of the brick. The grave-diggers under the wire cover are now seven in number, of whom three are females. All have gone to earth: some are inactive, close to the surface; the rest are busy in their crypts. The presence of the fresh corpse is promptly perceived. About seven o'clock in the morning, three Necrophori hurry up, two males and a female. They slip under the Mouse, who moves in jerks, a sign of the efforts of the burying-party. An attempt is made to dig into the layer of sand which hides the brick, so that a bank of sand accumulates about the body.
For a couple of hours the jerks continue without results. I profit by the circumstance to investigate the manner in which the work is performed. The bare brick allows me to see what the excavated soil concealed from me. If it is necessary to move the body, the Beetle turns over; with his six claws he grips the hair of the dead animal, props himself upon his back and pushes, making a lever of his head and the tip of his abdomen. If digging is required, he resumes the normal position. So, turn and turn about, the sexton strives, now with his claws in the air, when it is a question of shifting the body or dragging it lower down; now with his feet on the ground, when it is necessary to deepen the grave.
The point at which the Mouse lies is finally recognized as unassailable. A male appears in the open. He explores the specimen, goes the round of it, scratches a little at random. He goes back; and immediately the body rocks. Is he advising his collaborators of what he has discovered? Is he arranging matters with a view to their establishing themselves elsewhere, on propitious soil?
The facts are far from confirming this idea. When he shakes the body, the others imitate him and push, but without combining their efforts in a given direction, for, after advancing a little towards the edge of the brick, the burden goes back again, returning to the point of departure. In the absence of any concerted understanding, their efforts of leverage are wasted. Nearly three hours are occupied by oscillations which mutually annul one another. The Mouse does not cross the little sand-hill heaped about it by the rakes of the workers.
For the second time a male emerges and makes a round of exploration. A bore is made in workable earth, close beside the brick. This is a trial excavation, to reveal the nature of the soil; a narrow well, of no great depth, into which the insect plunges to half its length. The well-sinker returns to the other workers, who arch their backs, and the load progresses a finger's-breadth towards the point recognized as favourable. Have they done the trick this time? No, for after a while the Mouse recoils. No progress towards a solution of the difficulty.
Now two males come out in search of information, each of his own accord. Instead of stopping at the point already sounded, a point most judiciously chosen, it seemed, on account of its proximity, which would save laborious transportation, they precipitately scour the whole area of the cage, sounding the soil on this side and on that and ploughing superficial furrows in it. They get as far from the brick as the limits of the enclosure permit.
They dig, by preference, against the base of the cover; here they make several borings, without any reason, so far as I can see, the bed of soil being everywhere equally assailable away from the brick; the first point sounded is abandoned for a second, which is rejected in its turn. A third and a fourth are tried; then another and yet another. At the sixth point the selection is made. In all these cases the excavation is by no means a grave destined to receive the Mouse, but a mere trial boring, of inconsiderable depth, its diameter being that of the digger's body.
A return is made to the Mouse, who suddenly quivers, oscillates, advances, recoils, first in one direction, then in another, until in the end the little hillock of sand is crossed. Now we are free of the brick and on excellent soil. Little by little the load advances. This is no cartage by a team hauling in the open, but a jerky displacement, the work of invisible levers. The body seems to move of its own accord.
This time, after so many hesitations, their efforts are concerted; at all events, the load reaches the region sounded far more rapidly than I expected. Then begins the burial, according to the usual method. It is one o'clock. The Necrophori have allowed the hour-hand of the clock to go half round the dial while verifying the condition of the surrounding spots and displacing the Mouse.
In this experiment it appears at the outset that the males play a major part in the affairs of the household. Better-equipped, perhaps, than their mates, they make investigations when a difficulty occurs; they inspect the soil, recognize whence the check arises and choose the point at which the grave shall be made. In the lengthy experiment of the brick, the two males alone explored the surroundings and set to work to solve the difficulty. Confiding in their assistance, the female, motionless beneath the Mouse, awaited the result of their investigations. The tests which are to follow will confirm the merits of these valiant auxiliaries.
In the second place, the point where the Mouse lay being recognized as presenting an insurmountable resistance, there was no grave dug in advance, a little farther off, in the light soil. All attempts were limited, I repeat, to shallow soundings which informed the insect of the possibility of inhumation.
It is absolute nonsense to speak of their first preparing the grave to which the body will afterwards be carted. To excavate the soil, our grave-diggers must feel the weight of their dead on their backs. They work only when stimulated by the contact of its fur. Never, never in this world do they venture to dig a grave unless the body to be buried already occupies the site of the cavity. This is absolutely confirmed by my two and a half months and more of daily observations.
The rest of Clairville's anecdote bears examination no better. We are told that the Necrophorus in difficulties goes in search of assistance and returns with companions who assist him to bury the Mouse. This, in another form, is the edifying story of the Sacred Beetle whose pellet had rolled into a rut. powerless to withdraw his treasure from the gulf, the wily Dung-beetle called together three or four of his neighbours, who benevolently recovered the pellet, returning to their labours after the work of salvage.
The exploit--so ill-interpreted--of the thieving pill-roller sets me on my guard against that of the undertaker. Shall I be too exigent if I enquire what precautions the observer adopted to recognize the owner of the Mouse on his return, when he reappears, as we are told, with four assistants? What sign denotes that one of the five who was able, in so rational a manner, to appeal for help? Can one even be sure that the one to disappear returns and forms one of the band? There is nothing to indicate it; and this was the essential point which a sterling observer was bound not to neglect. Were they not rather five chance Necrophori who, guided by the smell, without any previous understanding, hastened to the abandoned Mouse to exploit her on their own account? I incline to this opinion, the most likely of all in the absence of exact information.
Probability becomes certainty if we submit the case to the verification of experiment. The test with the brick already gives us some information. For six hours my three specimens exhausted themselves in efforts before they got to the length of removing their booty and placing it on practicable soil. In this long and heavy task helpful neighbours would have been anything but unwelcome. Four other Necrophori, buried here and there under a little sand, comrades and acquaintances, helpers of the day before, were occupying the same cage; and not one of those concerned thought of summoning them to give assistance. Despite their extreme embarrassment, the owners of the Mouse accomplished their task to the end, without the least help, though this could have been so easily requisitioned.
Being three, one might say, they considered themselves sufficiently strong; they needed no one else to lend them a hand. The objection does not hold good. On many occasions and under conditions even more difficult than those presented by a stony soil, I have again and again seen isolated Necrophori exhausting themselves in striving against my artifices; yet not once did they leave their work to recruit helpers. Collaborators, it is true, did often arrive, but they were convoked by their sense of smell, not by the first possessor. They were fortuitous helpers; they were never called in. They were welcomed without disagreement, but also without gratitude. They were not summoned; they were tolerated. In the glazed shelter where I keep the cage I happened to catch one of these chance assistants in the act. Passing that way in the night and scenting dead flesh, he had entered where none of his kind had yet penetrated of his own free will. I surprised him on the wire-gauze dome of the cover. If the wire had not pre vented him, he would have set to work incontinently, in company with the rest. Had my captives invited him? Assuredly not. He had hastened thither attracted by the odour of the Mole, heedless of the efforts of others. So it was with those whose obliging assistance is extolled. I repeat, in respect of their imaginary prowess, what I have said elsewhere of that of the Sacred Beetles: the story is a childish one, worthy of ranking with any fairy-tale written for the amusement of the simple.
A hard soil, necessitating the removal of the body, is not the only difficulty familiar to the Necrophori. Often, perhaps more often than not, the ground is covered with grass, above all with couch-grass, whose tenacious rootlets form an inextricable network below the surface. To dig in the interstices is possible, but to drag the dead animal through them is another matter: the meshes of the net are too close to give it passage. Will the grave-digger find himself reduced to impotence by such an impediment, which must be an extremely common one? That could not be.
Exposed to this or that habitual obstacle in the exercise of his calling, the animal is always equipped accordingly; otherwise his profession would be impracticable. No end is attained without the necessary means and aptitudes. Besides that of the excavator, the Necrophorus certainly possesses another art: the art of breaking the cables, the roots, the stolons, the slender rhizomes which check the body's descent into the grave. To the work of the shovel and the pick must be added that of the shears. All this is perfectly logical and may be foreseen with complete lucidity. Nevertheless, let us invoke experiment, the best of witnesses.
I borrow from the kitchen-range an iron trivet whose legs will supply a solid foundation for the engine which I am devising. This is a coarse network of strips of raphia, a fairly accurate imitation of the network of couch-grass roots. The very irregular meshes are nowhere wide enough to admit of the passage of the creature to be buried, which in this case is a Mole. The trivet is planted with its three feet in the soil of the cage; its top is level with the surface of the soil. A little sand conceals the meshes. The Mole is placed in the centre; and my squad of sextons is let loose upon the body.
Without a hitch the burial is accomplished in the course of an afternoon. The hammock of raphia, almost equivalent to the natural network of couch-grass turf, scarcely disturbs the process of inhumation. Matters do not go forward quite so quickly; and that is all. No attempt is made to shift the Mole, who sinks into the ground where he lies. The operation completed, I remove the trivet. The network is broken at the spot where the corpse lay. A few strips have been gnawed through; a small number, only so many as were strictly necessary to permit the passage of the body.
Well done, my undertakers! I expected no less of your savoir-faire. You have foiled the artifices of the experimenter by employing your resources against natural obstacles. With mandibles for shears, you have patiently cut my threads as you would have gnawed the cordage of the grass-roots. This is meritorious, if not deserving of exceptional glorification. The most limited of the insects which work in earth would have done as much if subjected to similar conditions.
Let us ascend a stage in the series of difficulties. The Mole is now fixed with a lashing of raphia fore and aft to a light horizontal cross-bar which rests on two firmly-planted forks. It is like a joint of venison on a spit, though rather oddly fastened. The dead animal touches the ground throughout the length of its body.
The Necrophori disappear under the corpse, and, feeling the contact of its fur, begin to dig. The grave grows deeper and an empty space appears, but the coveted object does not descend, retained as it is by the cross-bar which the two forks keep in place. The digging slackens, the hesitations become prolonged.
However, one of the grave-diggers ascends to the surface, wanders over the Mole, inspects him and ends by perceiving the hinder strap. Tenaciously he gnaws and ravels it. I hear the click of the shears that completes the rupture. Crack! The thing is done. Dragged down by his own weight, the Mole sinks into the grave, but slantwise, with his head still outside, kept in place by the second ligature.
The Beetles proceed to the burial of the hinder part of the Mole; they twitch and jerk it now in this direction, now in that. Nothing comes of it; the thing refuses to give. A fresh sortie is made by one of them to discover what is happening overhead. The second ligature is perceived, is severed in turn, and henceforth the work proceeds as well as could be desired.
My compliments, perspicacious cable-cutters! But I must not exaggerate. The lashings of the Mole were for you the little cords with which you are so familiar in turfy soil. You have severed them, as well as the hammock of the previous experiment, just as you sever with the blades of your shears any natural filament which stretches across your catacombs. It is, in your calling, an indispensable knack. If you had had to learn it by experience, to think it out before practising it, your race would have disappeared, killed by the hesitations of its apprenticeship, for the spots fertile in Moles, Frogs, Lizards and other victuals to your taste are usually grass-covered.
You are capable of far better things yet; but, before proceeding to these, let us examine the case when the ground bristles with slender brushwood, which holds the corpse at a short distance from the ground. Will the find thus suspended by the hazard of its fall remain unemployed? Will the Necrophori pass on, indifferent to the superb tit-bit which they see and smell a few inches above their heads, or will they make it descend from its gibbet?
Game does not abound to such a point that it can be disdained if a few efforts will obtain it. Before I see the thing happen I am persuaded that it will fall, that the Necrophori, often confronted by the difficulties of a body which is not lying on the soil, must possess the instinct to shake it to the ground. The fortuitous support of a few bits of stubble, of a few interlaced brambles, a thing so common in the fields, should not be able to baffle them. The overthrow of the suspended body, if placed too high, should certainly form part of their instinctive methods. For the rest, let us watch them at work.
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