Chapter III. The Empusa
Jean-Henri Fabre The Wonders of Instinct
The sea, life's first foster-mother, still preserves in her depths many of those singular and incongruous shapes which were the earliest attempts of the animal kingdom; the land, less fruitful, but with more capacity for progress, has almost wholly lost the strange forms of other days. The few that remain belong especially to the series of primitive insects, insects exceedingly limited in their industrial powers and subject to very summary metamorphoses, if to any at all. In my district, in the front rank of those entomological anomalies which remind us of the denizens of the old coal-forests, stand the Mantidae, including the Praying Mantis, so curious in habits and structure. Here also is the Empusa (E. pauperata, Latr.), the subject of this chapter.
Her larva is certainly the strangest creature among the terrestrial fauna of Provence: a slim, swaying thing of so fantastic an appearance that uninitiated fingers dare not lay hold of it. The children of my neighbourhood, impressed by its startling shape, call it „the Devilkin.“ In their imaginations, the queer little creature savours of witchcraft. One comes across it, though always sparsely, in spring, up to May; in autumn; and sometimes in winter, if the sun be strong. The tough grasses of the waste-lands, the stunted bushes which catch the sun and are sheltered from the wind by a few heaps of stones are the chilly Empusa's favourite abode.
Let us give a rapid sketch of her. The abdomen, which always curls up so as to join the back, spreads paddle wise and twists into a crook. Pointed scales, a sort of foliaceous expansions arranged in three rows, cover the lower surface, which becomes the upper surface because of the crook aforesaid. The scaly crook is propped on four long, thin stilts, on four legs armed with knee-pieces, that is to say, carrying at the end of the thigh, where it joins the shin, a curved, projecting blade not unlike that of a cleaver.
Above this base, this four-legged stool, rises, at a sudden angle, the stiff corselet, disproportionately long and almost perpendicular. The end of this bust, round and slender as a straw, carries the hunting-trap, the grappling limbs, copied from those of the Mantis. They consist of a terminal harpoon, sharper than a needle, and a cruel vice, with the jaws toothed like a saw. The jaw formed by the arm proper is hollowed into a groove and carries on either side five long spikes, with smaller indentations in between. The jaw formed by the forearm is similarly furrowed, but its double saw, which fits into the groove of the upper arm when at rest, is formed of finer, closer and more regular teeth. The magnifying-glass reveals a score of equal points in each row. The machine only lacks size to be a fearful implement of torture.
The head is in keeping with this arsenal. What a queer-shaped head it is! A pointed face, with walrus moustaches furnished by the palpi; large goggle eyes; between them, a dirk, a halberd blade; and, on the forehead a mad, unheard of thing: a sort of tall mitre, an extravagant head-dress that juts forward, spreading right and left into peaked wings and cleft along the top. What does the Devilkin want with that monstrous pointed cap, than which no wise man of the East, no astrologer of old ever wore a more splendiferous? This we shall learn when we see her out hunting.
The dress is commonplace; grey tints predominate. Towards the end of the larval period, after a few moultings, it begins to give a glimpse of the adult's richer livery and becomes striped, still very faintly, with pale-green, white and pink. Already the two sexes are distinguished by their antennae. Those of the future mothers are thread-like; those of the future males are distended into a spindle at the lower half, forming a case or sheath whence graceful plumes will spring at a later date.
Behold the creature, worthy of a Callot's fantastic pencil (1). If you come across it in the bramble-bushes, it sways upon its four stilts, it wags its head, it looks at you with a knowing air, it twists its mitre round and peers over its shoulder. You seem to read mischief in its pointed face. You try to take hold of it. The imposing attitude ceases forthwith, the raised corselet is lowered and the creature makes off with mighty strides, helping itself along with its fighting-limbs, which clutch the twigs. The flight need not last long, if you have a practised eye. The Empusa is captured, put into a screw of paper, which will save her frail limbs from sprains, and lastly penned in a wire-gauze cage. In this way, in October, I obtain a flock sufficient for my purpose.
How to feed them? My Devilkins are very little; they are a month or two old at most. I give them Locusts suited to their size, the smallest that I can find. They refuse them. Nay more, they are frightened of them. Should a thoughtless Locust meekly approach one of the Empusae, suspended by her four hind-legs to the trellised dome, the intruder meets with a bad reception. The pointed mitre is lowered; and an angry thrust sends him rolling. We have it: the wizard's cap is a defensive weapon, a protective crest. The Ram charges with his forehead, the Empusa butts with her mitre.
But this does not mean dinner. I serve up the House-fly, alive. She is accepted, without hesitation. The moment that the Fly comes within reach, the watchful Devilkin turns her head, bends the stalk of her corselet slantwise and, flinging out her fore-limb, harpoons the Fly and grips her between her two saws. No Cat pouncing upon a Mouse could be quicker.
The game, however small, is enough for a meal. It is enough for the whole day, often for several days. This is my first surprise: the extreme abstemiousness of these fiercely-armed insects. I was prepared for ogres: I find ascetics satisfied with a meagre collation at rare intervals. A Fly fills their belly for twenty-four hours at least.
Thus passes the late autumn: the Empusae, more and more temperate from day to day, hang motionless from the wire gauze. Their natural abstinence is my best ally, for Flies grow scarce; and a time comes when I should be hard put to it to keep the menageries supplied with provisions.
During the three winter months, nothing stirs. From time to time, on fine days, I expose the cage to the sun's rays, in the window. Under the influence of this heat-bath, the captives stretch their legs a little, sway from side to side, make up their minds to move about, but without displaying any awakening appetite. The rare Midges that fall to my assiduous efforts do not appear to tempt them. It is a rule for them to spend the cold season in a state of complete abstinence.
My cages tell me what must happen outside, during the winter. Ensconced in the crannies of the rockwork, in the sunniest places, the young Empusae wait, in a state of torpor, for the return of the hot weather. Notwithstanding the shelter of a heap of stones, there must be painful moments when the frost is prolonged and the snow penetrates little by little into the best-protected crevices. No matter: hardier than they look, the refugees escape the dangers of the winter season. Sometimes, when the sun is strong, they venture out of their hiding-place and come to see if spring be nigh.
Spring comes. We are in March. My prisoners bestir themselves, change their skin. They need victuals. My catering difficulties recommence. The House-fly, so easy to catch, is lacking in these days. I fall back upon earlier Diptera: Eristales, or Drone-flies. The Empusa refuses them. They are too big for her and can offer too strenuous a resistance. She wards off their approach with blows of her mitre.
A few tender morsels, in the shape of very young Grasshoppers, are readily accepted. Unfortunately, such windfalls do not often find their way into my sweeping-net. Abstinence becomes obligatory until the arrival of the first Butterflies. Henceforth, Pieris brassicae, the White Cabbage Butterfly, will contribute the greater portion of the victuals.
Let loose in the wire cage, the Pieris is regarded as excellent game. The Empusa lies in wait for her, seizes her, but releases her at once, lacking the strength to overpower her. The Butterfly's great wings, beating the air, give her shock after shock and compel her to let go. I come to the weakling's assistance and cut the wings of her prey with my scissors. The maimed ones, still full of life, clamber up the trellis-work and are forthwith grabbed by the Empusae, who, in no way frightened by their protests, crunch them up. The dish is to their taste and, moreover, plentiful, so much so that there are always some despised remnants.
The head only and the upper portion of the breast are devoured: the rest--the plump abdomen, the best part of the thorax, the legs and lastly, of course, the wing-stumps--is flung aside untouched. Does this mean that the tenderest and most succulent morsels are chosen? No, for the belly is certainly more juicy; and the Empusa refuses it, though she eats up her House-fly to the last particle. It is a strategy of war. I am again in the presence of a neck-specialist as expert as the Mantis herself in the art of swiftly slaying a victim that struggles and, in struggling, spoils the meal.
Once warned, I soon perceive that the game, be it Fly, Locust, Grasshopper, or Butterfly, is always struck in the neck, from behind. The first bite is aimed at the point containing the cervical ganglia and produces sudden death or immobility. Complete inertia will leave the consumer in peace, the essential condition of every satisfactory repast.
The Devilkin, therefore, frail though she be, possesses the secret of immediately destroying the resistance of her prey. She bites at the back of the neck first, in order to give the finishing stroke. She goes on nibbling around the original attacking-point. In this way the Butterfly's head and the upper part of the breast are disposed of. But, by that time, the huntress is surfeited: she wants so little! The rest lies on the ground, disdained, not for lack of flavour, but because there is too much of it. A Cabbage Butterfly far exceeds the capacity of the Empusa's stomach. The Ants will benefit by what is left.
There is one other matter to be mentioned, before observing the metamorphosis. The position adopted by the young Empusae in the wire-gauze cage is invariably the same from start to finish. Gripping the trellis-work by the claws of its four hind-legs, the insect occupies the top of the dome and hangs motionless, back downwards, with the whole of its body supported by the four suspension-points. If it wishes to move, the front harpoons open, stretch out, grasp a mesh and draw it to them. When the short walk is over, the lethal arms are brought back against the chest. One may say that it is nearly always the four hind-shanks which alone support the suspended insect.
And this reversed position, which seems to us so trying, lasts for no short while: it is prolonged, in my cages, for ten months without a break. The Fly on the ceiling, it is true, occupies the same attitude; but she has her moments of rest: she flies, she walks in a normal posture, she spreads herself flat in the sun. Besides, her acrobatic feats do not cover a long period. The Empusa, on the other hand, maintains her curious equilibrium for ten months on end, without a break. Hanging from the trellis-work, back downwards, she hunts, eats, digests, dozes, casts her skin, undergoes her transformation, mates, lays her eggs and dies. She clambered up there when she was still quite young; she falls down, full of days, a corpse.
Things do not happen exactly like this under natural conditions. The insect stands on the bushes back upwards; it keeps its balance in the regular attitude and turns over only in circumstances that occur at long intervals. The protracted suspension of my captives is all the more remarkable inasmuch as it is not at all an innate habit of their race.
It reminds one of the Bats, who hang, head downwards, by their hind-legs from the roof of their caves. A special formation of the toes enables birds to sleep on one leg, which automatically and without fatigue clutches the swaying bough. The Empusa shows me nothing akin to their contrivance. The extremity of her walking-legs has the ordinary structure: a double claw at the tip, a double steelyard-hook; and that is all.
I could wish that anatomy would show me the working of the muscles and nerves in those tarsi, in those legs more slender than threads, the action of the tendons that control the claws and keep them gripped for ten months, unwearied in waking and sleeping. If some dexterous scalpel should ever investigate this problem, I can recommend another, even more singular than that of the Empusa, the Bat and the bird. I refer to the attitude of certain Wasps and Bees during the night's rest.
An Ammophila with red fore-legs (A. holosericea) is plentiful in my enclosure towards the end of August and selects a certain lavender-border for her dormitory. At dusk, especially after a stifling day, when a storm is brewing, I am sure to find the strange sleeper settled there. Never was more eccentric attitude adopted for a night's rest! The mandibles bite right into the lavender-stem. Its square shape supplies a firmer hold than a round stalk would do. With this one and only prop, the animal's body juts out stiffly, at full length, with legs folded. It forms a right angle with the supporting axis, so much so that the whole weight of the insect, which has turned itself into the arm of a lever rests upon the mandibles.
The Ammophila sleeps extended in space by virtue of her mighty jaws. It takes an animal to think of a thing like that, which upsets all our preconceived ideas of repose. Should the threatening storm burst, should the stalk sway in the wind, the sleeper is not troubled by her swinging hammock; at most, she presses her fore-legs for a moment against the tossed mast. As soon as equilibrium is restored, the favourite posture, that of the horizontal lever, is resumed. perhaps the mandibles, like the bird's toes, possess the faculty of gripping tighter in proportion to the rocking of the wind.
The Ammophila is not the only one to sleep in this singular position, which is copied by many others--Anthidia (2), Odyneri (3), Eucerae (4)--and mainly by the males. All grip a stalk with their mandibles and sleep with their bodies outstretched and their legs folded back. Some, the stouter species, allow themselves to rest the tip of their arched abdomen against the pole.
This visit to the dormitory of certain Wasps and Bees does not explain the problem of the Empusa; it sets up another one, no less difficult. It shows us how deficient we are in insight, when it comes to differentiating between fatigue and rest in the cogs of the animal machine. The Ammophila, with the static paradox afforded by her mandibles; the Empusa, with her claws unwearied by ten months' hanging, leave the physiologist perplexed and make him wonder what really constitutes rest. In absolute fact, there is no rest, apart from that which puts an end to life. The struggle never ceases; some muscle is always toiling, some nerve straining. Sleep, which resembles a return to the peace of non-existence, is, like waking, an effort, here of the leg, of the curled tail; there of the claw, of the jaws.
The transformation is effected about the middle of May, and the adult Empusa makes her appearance. She is even more remarkable in figure and attire than the Praying Mantis. Of her youthful eccentricities, she retains the pointed mitre, the saw-like arm-guards, the long bust, the knee-pieces, the three rows of scales on the lower surface of the belly; but the abdomen is now no longer twisted into a crook and the animal is comelier to look upon. Large pale-green wings, pink at the shoulder and swift in flight in both sexes, cover the belly, which is striped white and green underneath. The male, the dandy sex, adorns himself with plumed antennae, like those of certain Moths, the Bombyx tribe. In respect of size, he is almost the equal of his mate.
Save for a few slight structural details, the Empusa is the Praying Mantis. The peasant confuses them. When, in spring, he meets the mitred insect, he thinks he sees the common Pr?go-Dieu, who is a daughter of the autumn. Similar forms would seem to indicate similarity of habits. In fact, led away by the extraordinary armour, we should be tempted to attribute to the Empusa a mode of life even more atrocious than that of the Mantis. I myself thought so at first; and any one, relying upon false analogies, would think the same. It is a fresh error: for all her warlike aspect, the Empusa is a peaceful creature that hardly repays the trouble of rearing.
Installed under the gauze bell, whether in assemblies of half a dozen or in separate couples, she at no time loses her placidity. Like the larva, she is very abstemious and contents herself with a Fly or two as her daily ration.
Big eaters are naturally quarrelsome. The Mantis, bloated with Locusts, soon becomes irritated and shows fight. The Empusa, with her frugal meals, does not indulge in hostile demonstrations. There is no strife among neighbours nor any of those sudden unfurlings of the wings so dear to the Mantis when she assumes the spectral attitude and puffs like a startled Adder; never the least inclination for those cannibal banquets whereat the sister who has been worsted in the fight is devoured. Such atrocities or here unknown.
Unknown also are tragic nuptials. The male is enterprising and assiduous and is subjected to a long trial before succeeding. For days and days he worries his mate, who ends by yielding. Due decorum is preserved after the wedding. The feathered groom retires, respected by his bride, and does his little bit of hunting, without danger of being apprehended and gobbled up.
The two sexes live together in peace and mutual indifference until the middle of July. Then the male, grown old and decrepit, takes counsel with himself, hunts no more, becomes shaky in his walk, creeps down from the lofty heights of the trellised dome and at last collapses on the ground. His end comes by a natural death. And remember that the other, the male of the Praying Mantis, ends in the stomach of his gluttonous spouse.
The laying follows close upon the disappearance of the males.
One word more on comparative manners. The Mantis goes in for battle and cannibalism; the Empusa is peaceable and respects her kind. To what cause are these profound moral differences due, when the organic structure is the same? Perhaps to the difference of diet. Frugality, in fact, softens character, in animals as in men; gross feeding brutalizes it. The gormandizer gorged with meat and strong drink, a fruitful source of savage outbursts, could not possess the gentleness of the ascetic who dips his bread into a cup of milk. The Mantis is that gormandizer, the Empusa that ascetic.
Granted. But whence does the one derive her voracious appetite, the other her temperate ways, when it would seem as though their almost identical structure ought to produce an identity of needs? These insects tell us, in their fashion, what many have already told us: that propensities and aptitudes do not depend exclusively upon anatomy; high above the physical laws that govern matter rise other laws that govern instincts.
1. Jacques Callot (1592–1635), the French engraver and painter, famed for the grotesque nature of his subjects.
3. A genus of Mason-wasps.
4. A species of Burrowing-bees.