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- The Wonders of Instinct - 4/12 -
I plant in the sand of the cage a meagre tuft of thyme. The shrub is at most some four inches in height. In the branches I place a Mouse, entangling the tail, the paws and the neck among the twigs in order to increase the difficulty. The population of the cage now consists of fourteen Necrophori and will remain the same until the close of my investigations. Of course they do not all take part simultaneously in the day's work; the majority remain underground, somnolent, or occupied in setting their cellars in order. Sometimes only one, often two, three or four, rarely more, busy themselves with the dead creature which I offer them. To-day two hasten to the Mouse, who is soon perceived overhead in the tuft of thyme.
They gain the summit of the plant by way of the wire trellis of the cage. Here are repeated, with increased hesitation, due to the inconvenient nature of the support, the tactics employed to remove the body when the soil is unfavourable. The insect props itself against a branch, thrusting alternately with back and claws, jerking and shaking vigorously until the point where at it is working is freed from its fetters. In one brief shift, by dint of heaving their backs, the two collaborators extricate the body from the entanglement of twigs. Yet another shake; and the Mouse is down. The burial follows.
There is nothing new in this experiment; the find has been dealt with just as though it lay upon soil unsuitable for burial. The fall is the result of an attempt to transport the load.
The time has come to set up the Frog's gibbet celebrated by Gledditsch. The batrachian is not indispensable; a Mole will serve as well or even better. With a ligament of raphia I fix him, by his hind-legs, to a twig which I plant vertically in the ground, inserting it to no great depth. The creature hangs plumb against the gibbet, its head and shoulders making ample contact with the soil.
The gravediggers set to work beneath the part which lies upon the ground, at the very foot of the stake; they dig a funnel-shaped hole, into which the muzzle, the head and the neck of the mole sink little by little. The gibbet becomes uprooted as they sink and eventually falls, dragged over by the weight of its heavy burden. I am assisting at the spectacle of the overturned stake, one of the most astonishing examples of rational accomplishment which has ever been recorded to the credit of the insect.
This, for one who is considering the problem of instinct, is an exciting moment. But let us beware of forming conclusions as yet; we might be in too great a hurry. Let us ask ourselves first whether the fall of the stake was intentional or fortuitous. Did the Necrophori lay it bare with the express intention of causing it to fall? Or did they, on the contrary, dig at its base solely in order to bury that part of the mole which lay on the ground? that is the question, which, for the rest, is very easy to answer.
The experiment is repeated; but this time the gibbet is slanting and the Mole, hanging in a vertical position, touches the ground at a couple of inches from the base of the gibbet. Under these conditions absolutely no attempt is made to overthrow the latter. Not the least scrape of a claw is delivered at the foot of the gibbet. The entire work of excavation is accomplished at a distance, under the body, whose shoulders are lying on the ground. There--and there only--a hole is dug to receive the free portion of the body, the part accessible to the sextons.
A difference of an inch in the position of the suspended animal annihilates the famous legend. Even so, many a time, the most elementary sieve, handled with a little logic, is enough to winnow the confused mass of affirmations and to release the good grain of truth.
Yet another shake of the sieve. The gibbet is oblique or vertical indifferently; but the Mole, always fixed by a hinder limb to the top of the twig, does not touch the soil; he hangs a few fingers'-breadths from the ground, out of the sextons' reach.
What will the latter do? Will they scrape at the foot of the gibbet in order to overturn it? By no means; and the ingenuous observer who looked for such tactics would be greatly disappointed. No attention is paid to the base of the support. It is not vouchsafed even a stroke of the rake. Nothing is done to overturn it, nothing, absolutely nothing! It is by other methods that the Burying-beetles obtain the Mole.
These decisive experiments, repeated under many different forms, prove that never, never in this world do the Necrophori dig, or even give a superficial scrape, at the foot of the gallows, unless the hanging body touch the ground at that point. And, in the latter case, if the twig should happen to fall, its fall is in nowise an intentional result, but a mere fortuitous effect of the burial already commenced.
What, then, did the owner of the Frog of whom Gledditsch tells us really see? If his stick was overturned, the body placed to dry beyond the assaults of the Necrophori must certainly have touched the soil: a strange precaution against robbers and the damp! We may fittingly attribute more foresight to the preparer of dried Frogs and allow him to hang the creature some inches from the ground. In this case all my experiments emphatically assert that the fall of the stake undermined by the sextons is a pure matter of imagination.
Yet another of the fine arguments in favour of the reasoning power of animals flies from the light of investigation and founders in the slough of error! I admire your simple faith, you masters who take seriously the statements of chance-met observers, richer in imagination than in veracity; I admire your credulous zeal, when, without criticism, you build up your theories on such absurdities.
Let us proceed. The stake is henceforth planted vertically, but the body hanging on it does not reach the base: a condition which suffices to ensure that there is never any digging at this point. I make use of a Mouse, who, by reason of her trifling weight, will lend herself better to the insect's manoeuvres. The dead body is fixed by the hind-legs to the top of the stake with a ligature of raphia. It hangs plumb, in contact with the stick.
Very soon two Necrophori have discovered the tit-bit. They climb up the miniature mast; they explore the body, dividing its fur by thrusts of the head. It is recognized to be an excellent find. So to work. Here we have again, but under far more difficult conditions, the tactics employed when it was necessary to displace the unfavourably situated body: the two collaborators slip between the Mouse and the stake, when, taking a grip of the latter and exerting a leverage with their backs, they jerk and shake the body, which oscillates, twirls about, swings away from the stake and relapses. All the morning is passed in vain attempts, interrupted by explorations on the animal's body.
In the afternoon the cause of the check is at last recognized; not very clearly, for in the first place the two obstinate riflers of the gallows attack the hind-legs of the Mouse, a little below the ligature. They strip them bare, flay them and cut away the flesh about the heel. They have reached the bone, when one of them finds the raphia beneath his mandibles. This, to him, is a familiar thing, representing the gramineous fibre so frequent in the case of burial in grass-covered soil. Tenaciously the shears gnaw at the bond; the vegetable fetter is severed and the Mouse falls, to be buried a little later.
If it were isolated, this severance of the suspending tie would be a magnificent performance; but considered in connection with the sum of the Beetle's customary labours it loses all far-reaching significance. Before attacking the ligature, which was not concealed in any way, the insect exerted itself for a whole morning in shaking the body, its usual method. Finally, finding the cord, it severed it, as it would have severed a ligament of couch-grass encountered underground.
Under the conditions devised for the Beetle, the use of the shears is the indispensable complement of the use of the shovel; and the modicum of discernment at his disposal is enough to inform him when the blades of his shears will be useful. He cuts what embarrasses him with no more exercise of reason than he displays when placing the corpse underground. So little does he grasp the connection between cause and effect that he strives to break the bone of the leg before gnawing at the bast which is knotted close beside him. The difficult task is attacked before the extremely simple.
Difficult, yes, but not impossible, provided that the Mouse be young. I begin again with a ligature of iron wire, on which the shears of the insect can obtain no purchase, and a tender Mouselet, half the size of an adult. This time a tibia is gnawed through, cut in two by the Beetle's mandibles near the spring of the heel. The detached member leaves plenty of space for the other, which readily slips from the metallic band; and the little body falls to the ground.
But, if the bone be too hard, if the body suspended be that of a Mole, an adult Mouse, or a Sparrow, the wire ligament opposes an insurmountable obstacle to the attempts of the Necrophori, who, for nearly a week, work at the hanging body, partly stripping it of fur or feather and dishevelling it until it forms a lamentable object, and at last abandon it, when desiccation sets in. A last resource, however, remains, one as rational as infallible. It is to overthrow the stake. Of course, not one dreams of doing so.
For the last time let us change our artifices. The top of the gibbet consists of a little fork, with the prongs widely opened and measuring barely two-fifths of an inch in length. With a thread of hemp, less easily attacked than a strip of raphia, I bind together, a little above the heels, the hind-legs of an adult Mouse; and between the legs I slip one of the prongs of the fork. To make the body fall it is enough to slide it a little way upwards; it is like a young Rabbit hanging in the front of a poulterer's shop.
Five Necrophori come to inspect my preparations. After a great deal of futile shaking, the tibiae are attacked. This, it seems, is the method usually employed when the body is retained by one of its limbs in some narrow fork of a low-growing plant. While trying to saw through the bone--a heavy job this time--one of the workers slips between the shackled limbs. So situated, he feels against his back the furry touch of the Mouse. Nothing more is needed to arouse his propensity to thrust with his back. With a few heaves of the lever the thing is done; the Mouse rises a little, slides over the supporting peg and falls to the ground.
Is this manoeuvre really thought out? Has the insect indeed perceived, by the light of a flash of reason, that in order to make the tit-bit fall it was necessary to unhook it by sliding it along the peg? Has it really perceived the mechanism of suspension? I know some persons--indeed, I know many--who, in the presence of this magnificent result, would be satisfied without further investigation.
More difficult to convince, I modify the experiment before drawing a conclusion. I suspect that the Necrophorus, without any prevision of the consequences of his action, heaved his back simply because he felt the legs of the creature above him. With the system of suspension adopted, the push of the back, employed in all cases of difficulty, was brought to bear first upon the point of support; and the fall resulted from this happy coincidence. That point, which has to be slipped along the peg in order to unhook the object, ought really to be situated at a short distance from the Mouse, so that the Necrophori shall no longer feel her directly against their backs when they push.
A piece of wire binds together now the tarsi of a Sparrow, now the heels of a Mouse and is bent, at a distance of three-quarters of an inch or so, into a little ring, which slips very loosely over one of the prongs of the fork, a short, almost horizontal prong. To make the hanging body fall, the slightest thrust upon this ring is sufficient; and, owing to its projection from the peg, it lends itself excellently to the insect's methods. In short, the arrangement is the same as it was just now, with this difference, that the point of support is at a short distance from the suspended animal.
My trick, simple though it be, is fully successful. For a long time the body is repeatedly shaken, but in vain; the tibiae or tarsi, unduly hard, refuse to yield to the patient saw. Sparrows and Mice grow dry and shrivelled, unused, upon the gibbet. Sooner in one case, later in another, my Necrophori abandon the insoluble problem in mechanics: to push, ever so little, the movable support and so to unhook the coveted carcass.
Curious reasoners, in faith! If they had had, but now, a lucid idea of the mutual relations between the shackled limbs and the suspending peg; if they had made the Mouse fall by a reasoned manoeuvre, whence comes it that the present artifice, no less simple than the first, is to them an insurmountable obstacle? For days and days they work on the body, examine it from head to foot, without becoming aware of the movable support, the cause of their misadventure. In vain do I prolong my watch; never do I see a single one of them push it with his foot or butt it with his head.
Their defeat is not due to lack of strength. Like the Geotrupes, they are vigorous excavators. Grasped in the closed hand, they insinuate themselves through the interstices of the fingers and plough up your skin in a fashion to make you very quickly loose your hold. With his head, a robust ploughshare, the Beetle might very easily push the ring off its short support. He is not able to do so because he does not think of it; he does not think of it because he is devoid of the faculty attributed to him, in order to support its thesis, by the dangerous prodigality of transformism.
Divine reason, sun of the intellect, what a clumsy slap in thy august countenance, when the glorifiers of the animal degrade thee with such dullness!
Let us now examine under another aspect the mental obscurity of the Necrophori. My captives are not so satisfied with their sumptuous lodging that they do not seek to escape, especially when there is a dearth of labour, that sovran consoler of the afflicted, man or beast. Internment within the wire cover palls upon them. So, the Mole buried and all in order in the cellar, they stray uneasily over the wire-gauze of the dome; they clamber up, descend, ascend again and take to flight, a flight which instantly becomes a fall, owing to collision with the wire grating. They pick themselves up and begin again. The sky is superb; the weather is hot, calm and propitious for those in search of the Lizard crushed beside the footpath. Perhaps the effluvia of the gamy tit-bit have reached them, coming from afar, imperceptible to any other sense than that of the Sexton-beetles. So my Necrophori are fain to go their ways.
Can they? Nothing would be easier if a glimmer of reason were to aid them. Through the wire network, over which they have so often strayed, they have seen, outside, the free soil, the promised land which they long to reach. A hundred times if once have they dug at the foot of the rampart. There, in vertical wells, they take up their station, drowsing whole days on end while unemployed. If I give them a fresh Mole, they emerge from their retreat by the entrance corridor and come to hide themselves beneath the belly of the beast. The burial over, they return, one here, one there, to the confines of the enclosure and disappear beneath the soil.
Well, in two and a half months of captivity, despite long stays at the base of the trellis, at a depth of three-quarters of an inch beneath the surface, it is rare indeed for a Necrophorus to succeed in circumventing the obstacle, to prolong his excavation beneath the barrier, to make an elbow in it and to bring it out on the other side, a trifling task for these vigorous creatures. Of fourteen only one succeeded in escaping.
A chance deliverance and not premeditated; for, if the happy event had been the result of a mental combination, the other prisoners, practically his equals in powers of perception, would all, from first to last, discover by rational means the elbowed path leading to the outer world; and the cage would promptly be deserted. The failure of the great majority proves that the single fugitive was simply digging at random. Circumstances favoured him; and that is all. Do not let us make it a merit that he succeeded where all the others failed.
Let us also beware of attributing to the Necrophori an understanding more limited than is usual in entomological psychology. I find the ineptness of the undertaker in all the insects reared under the wire cover, on the bed of sand into which the rim of the dome sinks a little way. With very rare exceptions, fortuitous accidents, no insect has thought of circumventing the barrier by way of the base; none has succeeded in gaining the exterior by means of a slanting tunnel, not even though it were a miner by profession, as are the Dung-beetles par excellence. Captives under the wire dome, but desirous of escape, Sacred Beetles, Geotrupes, Copres, Gymnopleuri, Sisyphi, all see about them the freedom of space, the joys of the open sunlight; and not one thinks of going round under the rampart, a front which would present no difficulty to their pick-axes.
Even in the higher ranks of animality, examples of similar mental obfuscation are not lacking. Audubon relates how, in his days, the wild Turkeys were caught in North America.
In a clearing known to be frequented by these birds, a great cage was constructed with stakes driven into the ground. In the centre of the enclosure opened a short tunnel, which dipped under the palisade and returned to the surface outside the cage by a gentle slope, which was open to the sky. The central opening, large enough to give a bird free passage, occupied only a portion of the enclosure, leaving around it, against the circle of stakes, a wide unbroken zone. A few handfuls of maize were scattered in the interior of the trap, as well as round about it, and in particular along the sloping path, which passed under a sort of bridge and led to the centre of the contrivance. In short, the Turkey-trap presented an ever-open door. The bird found it in order to enter, but did not think of looking for it in order to return by it.
According to the famous American ornithologist, the Turkeys, lured by the grains of maize, descended the insidious slope, entered the short underground passage and beheld, at the end of it, plunder and the light. A few steps farther and the gluttons emerged, one by one, from beneath the bridge. They distributed themselves about the enclosure. The maize was abundant; and the Turkeys' crops grew swollen.
When all was gathered, the band wished to retreat, but not one of the prisoners paid any attention to the central hole by which he had arrived. Gobbling uneasily, they passed again and again across the bridge whose arch was yawning beside them; they circled round against the palisade, treading a hundred times in their own footprints; they thrust their necks, with their crimson wattles, through the bars; and there, with beaks in the open air, they remained until they were exhausted.
Remember, inept fowl, the occurrences of a little while ago; think of the tunnel which led you hither! If there be in that poor brain of yours an atom of capacity, put two ideas together and remind yourself that the passage by which you entered is there and open for your escape! You will do nothing of the kind. The light, an irresistible attraction, holds you subjugated against the palisade; and the shadow of the yawning pit, which has but lately permitted you to enter and will quite as readily permit of your exit, leaves you indifferent. To recognize the use of this opening you would have to reflect a little, to evolve the past; but this tiny retrospective calculation is beyond your powers. So the trapper, returning a few days later, will find a rich booty, the entire flock imprisoned!
Of poor intellectual repute, does the Turkey deserve his name for stupidity? He does not appear to be more limited than another. Audubon depicts him as endowed with certain useful ruses, in particular when he has to baffle the attacks of his nocturnal enemy, the Virginian Owl. As for his actions in the snare with the underground passage, any other bird, impassioned of the light, would do the same.
Under rather more difficult conditions, the Necrophorus repeats the ineptness of the Turkey. When he wishes to return to the open daylight, after resting in a short burrow against the rim of the wire cover, the Beetle, seeing a little light filtering down through the loose soil, reascends by the path of entry, incapable of telling himself that it would suffice to prolong the tunnel as far in the opposite direction for him to reach the outer world beyond the wall and gain his freedom. Here again is one in whom we shall seek in vain for any indication of reflection. Like the rest, in spite of his legendary renown, he has no guide but the unconscious promptings of instinct.
CHAPTER 7. THE BLUEBOTTLE.
To purge the earth of death's impurities and cause deceased animal matter to be once more numbered among the treasures of life there are hosts of sausage-queens, including, in our part of the world, the Bluebottle (Calliphora vomitaria, Lin.) and the Grey Flesh-fly (Sarcophaga carnaria, Lin.) Every one knows the first, the big, dark-blue Fly who, after effecting her designs in the ill-watched meat-safe, settles on our window-panes and keeps up a solemn buzzing, anxious to be off in the sun and ripen a fresh emission of germs. How does she lay her eggs, the origin of the loathsome maggot that battens poisonously on our provisions whether of game or butcher's meat? What are her stratagems and how can we foil them? This is what I propose to investigate.
The Bluebottle frequents our homes during autumn and a part of winter, until the cold becomes severe; but her appearance in the fields dates back much earlier. On the first fine day in February, we shall see her warming herself, chillily, against the sunny walls. In April, I notice her in considerable numbers on the laurustinus. It is here that she seems to pair, while sipping the sugary exudations of the small white flowers. The whole of the summer season is spent out of doors, in brief flights from one refreshment-bar to the next. When autumn comes, with its game, she makes her way into our houses and remains until the hard frosts.
This suits my stay-at-home habits and especially my legs, which are bending under the weight of years. I need not run after the subjects of my present study; they call on me. Besides, I have vigilant assistants. The household knows of my plans. One and all bring me, in a little screw of paper, the noisy visitor just captured against the panes.
Thus do I fill my vivarium, which consists of a large, bell-shaped cage of wire-gauze, standing in an earthenware pan full of sand. A mug containing honey is the dining-room of the establishment. Here the captives come to recruit themselves in their hours of leisure. To occupy their maternal cares, I employ small birds--Chaffinches, Linnets, Sparrows--brought down, in the enclosure, by my son's gun.
I have just served up a Linnet shot two days ago. I next place in the cage a Bluebottle, one only, to avoid confusion. Her fat belly proclaims the advent of laying-time. An hour later, when the excitement of being put in prison is allayed, my captive is in labour. With eager, jerky steps, she explores the morsel of game, goes from the head to the tail, returns from the tail to the head, repeats the action several times and at last settles near an eye, a dimmed eye sunk into its socket.
The ovipositor bends at a right angle and dives into the junction of the beak, straight down to the root. Then the eggs are emitted for nearly half an hour. The layer, utterly absorbed in her serious business, remains stationary and impassive and is easily observed through my lens. A movement on my part would doubtless scare her; but my restful presence gives her no anxiety. I am nothing to her.
The discharge does not go on continuously until the ovaries are exhausted; it is intermittent and performed in so many packets. Several times over, the Fly leaves the bird's beak and comes to take a rest upon the wire-gauze, where she brushes her hind-legs one against the other. In particular, before using it again, she cleans, smooths and polishes her laying-tool, the probe that places the eggs. Then, feeling her womb still teeming, she returns to the same spot at the joint of the beak. The delivery is resumed, to cease presently and then begin anew. A couple of hours are thus spent in alternate standing near the eye and resting on the wire-gauze.
At last it is over. The Fly does not go back to the bird, a proof that her ovaries are exhausted. The next day she is dead. The eggs are dabbed in a continuous layer, at the entrance to the throat, at the root of the tongue, on the membrane of the palate. Their number appears considerable; the whole inside of the gullet is white with them. I fix a little wooden prop between the two mandibles of the beak, to keep them open and enable me to see what happens.
I learn in this way that the hatching takes place in a couple of days. As soon as they are born, the young vermin, a swarming mass, leave the place where they are and disappear down the throat.
The beak of the bird invaded was closed at the start, as far as the natural contact of the mandibles allowed. There remained a narrow slit at the base, sufficient at most to admit the passage of a horse-hair. It was through this that the laying was performed. Lengthening her ovipositor like a telescope, the mother inserted the point of her implement, a point slightly hardened with a horny armour. The fineness of the probe equals the fineness of the aperture. But, if the beak were entirely closed, where would the eggs be laid then?
With a tied thread I keep the two mandibles in absolute contact; and I place a second Bluebottle in the presence of the Linnet, whom the colonists have already entered by the beak. This time the laying takes place on one of the eyes, between the lid and the eyeball. At the hatching, which again occurs a couple of days later, the grubs make their way into the fleshy depths of the socket. The eyes and the beak, therefore, form the two chief entrances into feathered game.
There are others; and these are the wounds. I cover the Linnet's head with a paper hood which will prevent invasion through the beak and eyes. I serve it, under the wire-gauze bell, to a third egg-layer. The bird has been struck by a shot in the breast, but the sore is not bleeding: no outer stain marks the injured spot. Moreover, I am careful to arrange the feathers, to smooth them with a hair-pencil, so that the bird looks quite smart and has every appearance of being untouched.
The Fly is soon there. She inspects the Linnet from end to end; with her front tarsi she fumbles at the breast and belly. It is a sort of auscultation by sense of touch. The insect becomes aware of what is under the feathers by the manner in which these react. If scent lends its assistance, it can only be very slightly, for the game is not yet high. The wound is soon found. No drop of blood is near it, for it is closed by a plug of down rammed into it by the shot. The Fly takes up her position without separating the feathers or uncovering the wound. She remains here for two hours without stirring, motionless, with her abdomen concealed beneath the plumage. My eager curiosity does not distract her from her business for a moment.
When she has finished, I take her place. There is nothing either on the skin or at the mouth of the wound. I have to withdraw the downy plug and dig to some depth before discovering the eggs. The ovipositor has therefore lengthened its extensible tube and pushed beyond the feather stopper driven in by the lead. The eggs are in one packet; they number about three hundred.
When the beak and eyes are rendered inaccessible, when the body, moreover, has no wounds, the laying still takes place, but this time in a hesitating and niggardly fashion. I pluck the bird completely, the better to watch what happens; also, I cover the head with a paper hood to close the usual means of access. For a long time, with jerky steps, the mother explores the body in every direction; she takes her stand by preference on the head, which she sounds by tapping on it with her front tarsi. She knows that the openings which she needs are there, under the paper; but she also knows how frail are her grubs, how powerless to pierce their way through the strange obstacle which stops her as well and interferes with the work of her ovipositor. The cowl inspires her with profound distrust. Despite the tempting bait of the veiled head, not an egg is laid on the wrapper, slight though it may be.
Weary of vain attempts to compass this obstacle, the Fly at last decides in favour of other points, but not on the breast, belly, or back, where the hide would seem too tough and the light too intrusive. She needs dark hiding-places, corners where the skin is very delicate. The spots chosen are the cavity of the axilla, corresponding with our arm-pit, and the crease where the thigh joins the belly. Eggs are laid in both places, but not many, showing that the groin and the axilla are adopted only reluctantly and for lack of a better spot.
With an unplucked bird, also hooded, the same experiment failed: the feathers prevent the Fly from slipping into those deep places. Let us add, in conclusion, that, on a skinned bird, or simply on a piece of butcher's meat, the laying is effected on any part whatever, provided that it be dark. The gloomiest corners are the favourite ones.
It follows from all this that, to lay her eggs, the Bluebottle picks out either naked wounds or else the mucous membranes of the mouth or eyes, which are not protected by a skin of any thickness. She also needs darkness.
The perfect efficiency of the paper bag, which prevents the inroads of the worms through the eye-sockets or the beak, suggests a similar experiment with the whole bird. It is a matter of wrapping the body in a sort of artificial skin which will be as discouraging to the Fly as the natural skin. Linnets, some with deep wounds, others almost intact, are placed one by one in paper envelopes similar to those in which the nursery-gardener keeps his seeds, envelopes just folded, without being stuck. The paper is quite ordinary and of middling thickness. Torn pieces of newspaper serve the purpose.
These sheaths with the corpses inside them are freely exposed to the air, on the table in my study, where they are visited, according to the time of day, in dense shade and in bright sunlight. Attracted by the effluvia from the dead meat, the Bluebottles haunt my laboratory, the windows of which are always open. I see them daily alighting on the envelopes and very busily exploring them, apprised of the contents by the gamy smell. Their incessant coming and going is a sign of intense cupidity; and yet none of them decides to lay on the bags. They do not even attempt to slide their ovipositor through the slits of the folds. The favourable season passes and not an egg is laid on the tempting wrappers. All the mothers abstain, judging the slender obstacle of the paper to be more than the vermin will be able to overcome.
This caution on the Fly's part does not at all surprise me: motherhood everywhere has great gleams of perspicacity. What does astonish me is the following result. The parcels containing the Linnets are left for a whole year uncovered on the table; they remain there for a second year and a third. I inspect the contents from time to time. The little birds are intact, with unrumpled feathers, free from smell, dry and light, like mummies. They have become not decomposed, but mummified.
I expected to see them putrefying, running into sanies, like corpses left to rot in the open air. On the contrary, the birds have dried and hardened, without undergoing any change. What did they want for their putrefaction? simply the intervention of the Fly. The maggot, therefore, is the primary cause of dissolution after death; it is, above all, the putrefactive chemist.
A conclusion not devoid of value may be drawn from my paper game-bags. In our markets, especially in those of the South, the game is hung unprotected from the hooks on the stalls. Larks strung up by the dozen with a wire through their nostrils, Thrushes, Plovers, Teal, Partridges, Snipe, in short, all the glories of the spit which the autumn migration brings us, remain for days and weeks at the mercy of the Flies. The buyer allows himself to be tempted by a goodly exterior; he makes his purchase and, back at home, just when the bird is being prepared for roasting, he discovers that the promised dainty is alive with worms. O horror! There is nothing for it but to throw the loathsome, verminous thing away.
The Bluebottle is the culprit here. Everybody knows it, and nobody thinks seriously of shaking off her tyranny: not the retailer, nor the wholesale dealer, nor the killer of the game. What is wanted to keep the maggots out? Hardly anything: to slip each bird into a paper sheath. If this precaution were taken at the start, before the Flies arrive, any game would be safe and could be left indefinitely to attain the degree of ripeness required by the epicure's palate.
Stuffed with olives and myrtleberries, the Corsican Blackbirds are exquisite eating. We sometimes receive them at Orange, layers of them, packed in baskets through which the air circulates freely and each contained in a paper wrapper. They are in a state of perfect preservation, complying with the most exacting demands of the kitchen. I congratulate the nameless shipper who conceived the bright idea of clothing his Blackbirds in paper. Will his example find imitators? I doubt it.
There is, of course, a serious objection to this method of preservation. In its paper shroud, the article is invisible; it is not enticing; it does not inform the passer-by of its nature and qualities. There is one resource left which would leave the bird uncovered: simply to case the head in a paper cap. The head being the part most menaced, because of the mucous membrane of the throat and eyes, it would be enough, as a rule, to protect the head, in order to keep off the Flies and thwart their attempts.
Let us continue to study the Bluebottle, while varying our means of information. A tin, about four inches deep, contains a piece of butcher's meat. The lid is not put in quite straight and leaves a narrow slit at one point of its circumference, allowing, at most, of the passage of a fine needle. When the bait begins to give off a gamy scent, the mothers come, singly or in numbers. They are attracted by the odour which, transmitted through a thin crevice, hardly reaches my nostrils.
They explore the metal receptacle for some time, seeking an entrance. Finding naught that enables them to reach the coveted morsel, they decide to lay their eggs on the tin, just beside the aperture. Sometimes, when the width of the passage allows of it, they insert the ovipositor into the tin and lay the eggs inside, on the very edge of the slit. Whether outside or in, the eggs are dabbed down in a fairly regular and absolutely white layer.
We have seen the Bluebottle refusing to lay her eggs on the paper bag, notwithstanding the carrion fumes of the Linnet enclosed; yet now, without hesitation, she lays them on a sheet of metal. Can the nature of the floor make any difference to her? I replace the tin lid by a paper cover stretched and pasted over the orifice. With the point of my knife I make a narrow slit in this new lid. That is quite enough: the parent accepts the paper.
What determined her, therefore, is not simply the smell, which can easily be perceived even through the uncut paper, but, above all, the crevice, which will provide an entrance for the vermin, hatched outside, near the narrow passage. The maggots' mother has her own logic, her prudent foresight. She knows how feeble her wee grubs will be, how powerless to cut their way through an obstacle of any resistance; and so, despite the temptation of the smell, she refrains from laying, so long as she finds no entrance through which the new-born worms can slip unaided.
I wanted to know whether the colour, the shininess, the degree of hardness and other qualities of the obstacle would influence the decision of a mother obliged to lay her eggs under exceptional conditions. With this object in view, I employed small jars, each baited with a bit of butcher's meat. The respective lids were made of different-coloured paper, of oil-skin, or of some of that tin-foil, with its gold or coppery sheen, which is used for sealing liqueur-bottles. On not one of these covers did the mothers stop, with any desire to deposit their eggs; but, from the moment that the knife had made the narrow slit, all the lids were, sooner or later, visited and all, sooner or later, received the white shower somewhere near the gash. The look of the obstacle, therefore, does not count; dull or brilliant, drab or coloured: these are details of no importance; the thing that matters is that there should be a passage to allow the grubs to enter.
Though hatched outside, at a distance from the coveted morsel, the new-born worms are well able to find their refectory. As they release themselves from the egg, without hesitation, so accurate is their scent, they slip beneath the edge of the ill-joined lid, or through the passage cut by the knife. Behold them entering upon their promised land, their reeking paradise.
Eager to arrive, do they drop from the top of the wall? Not they! Slowly creeping, they make their way down the side of the jar; they use their fore-part, ever in quest of information, as a crutch and grapnel in one. They reach the meat and at once instal themselves upon it.
Let us continue our investigation, varying the conditions. A large test-tube, measuring nine inches high, is baited at the bottom with a lump of butcher's meat. It is closed with wire-gauze, whose meshes, two millimetres wide (.078 inch.--Translator's Note.), do not permit of the Fly's passage. The Bluebottle comes to my apparatus, guided by scent rather than sight. She hastens to the test-tube, whose contents are veiled under an opaque cover, with the same alacrity as to the open tube. The invisible attracts her quite as much as the visible.
She stays awhile on the lattice of the mouth, inspects it attentively; but, whether because circumstances failed to serve me, or because the wire network inspired her with distrust, I never saw her dab her eggs upon it for certain. As her evidence was doubtful, I had recourse to the Flesh-fly (Sarcophaga carnaria).
This Fly is less finicking in her preparations, she has more faith in the strength of her worms, which are born ready-formed and vigorous, and easily shows me what I wish to see. She explores the trellis-work, chooses a mesh through which she inserts the tip of her abdomen, and, undisturbed by my presence, emits, one after the other, a certain number of grubs, about ten or so. True, her visits will be repeated, increasing the family at a rate of which I am ignorant.
The new-born worms, thanks to a slight viscidity, cling for a moment to the wire-gauze; they swarm, wriggle, release themselves and leap into the chasm. It is a nine-inch drop at least. When this is done, the mother makes off, knowing for a certainty that her offspring will shift for themselves. If they fall on the meat, well and good; if they fall elsewhere, they can reach the morsel by crawling.
This confidence in the unknown factor of the precipice, with no indication but that of smell, deserves fuller investigation. From what height will the Flesh-fly dare to let her children drop? I top the test-tube with another tube, the width of the neck of a claret-bottle. The mouth is closed either with wire-gauze or with a paper cover with a slight cut in it. Altogether, the apparatus measures twenty-five inches in height. No matter: the fall is not serious for the lithe backs of the young grubs; and, in a few days, the test-tube is filled with larvae, in which it is easy to recognize the Flesh-fly's family by the fringed coronet that opens and shuts at the maggot's stern like the petals of a little flower. I did not see the mother operating: I was not there at the time; but there is no doubt possible of her coming, nor of the great dive taken by the family: the contents of the test-tube furnish me with a duly authenticated certificate.
I admire the leap and, to obtain one better still, I replace the tube by another, so that the apparatus now stands forty-six inches high. The column is erected at a spot frequented by Flies, in a dim light. Its mouth, closed with a wire-gauze cover, reaches the level of various other appliances, test-tubes and jars, which are already stocked or awaiting their colony of vermin. When the position is well-known to the Flies, I remove the other tubes and leave the column, lest the visitors should turn aside to easier ground.
From time to time the Bluebottle and the Flesh-fly perch on the trellis-work, make a short investigation and then decamp. Throughout the summer season, for three whole months, the apparatus remains where it is, without result: never a worm. What is the reason? Does the stench of the meat not spread, coming from that depth? Certainly it spreads: it is unmistakable to my dulled nostrils and still more so to the nostrils of my children, whom I call to bear witness. Then why does the Flesh-fly, who but now was dropping her grubs from a goodly height, refuse to let them fall from the top of a column twice as high? Does she fear lest her worms should be bruised by an excessive drop? There is nothing about her to point to anxiety aroused by the length of the shaft. I never see her explore the tube or take its size. She stands on the trellised orifice; and there the matter ends. Can she be apprised of the depth of the chasm by the comparative faintness of the offensive odours that arise from it? Can the sense of smel l measure the distance and judge whether it be acceptable or not? Perhaps.
The fact remains that, despite the attraction of the scent, the Flesh-fly does not expose her worms to disproportionate falls. Can she know beforehand that, when the chrysalids break, her winged family, knocking with a sudden flight against the sides of a tall chimney, will be unable to get out? This foresight would be in agreement with the rules which order maternal instinct according to future needs.
But, when the fall does not exceed a certain depth, the budding worms of the Flesh-fly are dropped without a qualm, as all our experiments show. This principle has a practical application which is not without its value in matters of domestic economy. It is as well that the wonders of entomology should sometimes give us a hint of commonplace utility.
The usual meat-safe is a sort of large cage with a top and bottom of wood and four wire-gauze sides. Hooks fixed into the top are used whereby to hang pieces which we wish to protect from the Flies. Often, so as to employ the space to the best advantage, these pieces are simply laid on the floor of the cage. With these arrangements, are we sure of warding off the Fly and her vermin?
Not at all. We may protect ourselves against the Bluebottle, who is not much inclined to lay her eggs at a distance from the meat; but there is still the Flesh-fly, who is more venturesome and goes more briskly to work and who will slip the grubs through a hole in the meshes and drop them inside the safe. Agile as they are and well able to crawl, the worms will easily reach anything on the floor; the only things secure from their attacks will be the pieces hanging from the ceiling. It is not in the nature of maggots to explore the heights, especially if this implies climbing down a string in addition.
People also use wire-gauze dish-covers. The trellised dome protects the contents even less than does the meat-safe. The Flesh-fly takes no heed of it. She can drop her worms through the meshes on the covered joint.
Then what are we to do? Nothing could be simpler. We need only wrap the birds which we wish to preserve--Thrushes, Partridges, Snipe and so on--in separate paper envelopes; and the same with our beef and mutton. This defensive armour alone, while leaving ample room for the air to circulate, makes any invasion by the worms impossible; even without a cover or a meat-safe: not that paper possesses any special preservative virtues, but solely because it forms an impenetrable barrier. The Bluebottle carefully refrains from laying her eggs upon it and the Flesh-fly from bringing forth her offspring, both of them knowing that their new-born young are incapable of piercing the obstacle.
Paper is equally successful in our strife against the Moths, those plagues of our furs and clothes. To keep away these wholesale ravagers, people generally use camphor, naphthalene, tobacco, bunches of lavender, and other strong-scented remedies. Without wishing to malign those preservatives, we are bound to admit that the means employed are none too effective. The smell does very little to prevent the havoc of the Moths.
I would therefore advise our housewives, instead of all this chemist's stuff, to use newspapers of a suitable shape and size. Take whatever you wish to protect--your furs, your flannel, or your clothes--and pack each article carefully in a newspaper, joining the edges with a double fold, well pinned. If this joining is properly done, the Moth will never get inside. Since my advice has been taken and this method employed in my household, the old damage has no longer been repeated.
To return to the Fly. A piece of meat is hidden in a jar under a layer of fine, dry sand, a finger's-breadth thick. The jar has a wide mouth and is left quite open. Let whoso come that will, attracted by the smell. The Bluebottles are not long in inspecting what I have prepared for them: they enter the jar, go out and come back again, inquiring into the invisible thing revealed by its fragrance. A diligent watch enables me to see them fussing about, exploring the sandy expanse, tapping it with their feet, sounding it with their proboscis. I leave the visitors undisturbed for a fortnight or three weeks. None of them lays any eggs.
This is a repetition of what the paper bag, with its dead bird, showed me. The Flies refuse to lay on the sand, apparently for the same reasons. The paper was considered an obstacle which the frail vermin would not be able to overcome. With sand, the case is worse. Its grittiness would hurt the new-born weaklings, its dryness would absorb the moisture indispensable to their movements. Later, when preparing for the metamorphosis, when their strength has come to them, the grubs will dig the earth quite well and be able to descend: but, at the start, that would be very dangerous for them. Knowing these difficulties, the mothers, however greatly tempted by the smell, abstain from breeding. As a matter of fact, after long waiting, fearing lest some packets of eggs may have escaped my attention, I inspect the contents of the jar from top to bottom. Meat and sand contain neither larvae nor pupae: the whole is absolutely deserted.
The layer of sand being only a finger's-breadth thick, this experiment requires certain precautions. The meat may expand a little, in going bad, and protrude in one or two places. However small the fleshy eyots that show above the surface, the Flies come to them and breed. Sometimes also the juices oozing from the putrid meat soak a small extent of the sandy floor. That is enough for the maggot's first establishment. These causes of failure are avoided with a layer of sand about an inch thick. Then the Bluebottle, the Flesh-fly, and other Flies whose grubs batten on dead bodies are kept at a proper distance.
In the hope of awakening us to a proper sense of our insignificance, pulpit orators sometimes make an unfair use of the grave and its worms. Let us put no faith in their doleful rhetoric. The chemistry of man's final dissolution is eloquent enough of our emptiness: there is no need to add imaginary horrors. The worm of the sepulchre is an invention of cantankerous minds, incapable of seeing things as they are. Covered by but a few inches of earth, the dead can sleep their quiet sleep: no Fly will ever come to take advantage of them.
At the surface of the soil, exposed to the air, the hideous invasion is possible; aye, it is the invariable rule. For the melting down and remoulding of matter, man is no better, corpse for corpse, than the lowest of the brutes. Then the Fly exercises her rights and deals with us as she does with any ordinary animal refuse. Nature treats us with magnificent indifference in her great regenerating factory: placed in her crucibles, animals and men, beggars and kings are 1 and all alike. There you have true equality, the only equality in this world of ours: equality in the presence of the maggot.
CHAPTER 8. THE PINE-PROCESSIONARY.
Drover Dingdong's Sheep followed the Ram which Panurge had maliciously thrown overboard and leapt nimbly into the sea, one after the other, "for you know," says Rabelais, "it is the nature of the sheep always to follow the first, wheresoever it goes."
The Pine caterpillar is even more sheeplike, not from foolishness, but from necessity: where the first goes all the others go, in a regular string, with not an empty space between them.
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