Chapter III. The Narbonne Lycosa
Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider
Black-bellied Tarantula (Lycosa narbonnensis)
The Epeira, who displays such astonishing industry to give her eggs a dwelling-house of incomparable perfection, becomes, after that, careless of her family. For what reason? She lacks the time. She has to die when the first cold comes, whereas the eggs are destined to pass the winter in their downy snuggery. The desertion of the nest is inevitable, owing to the very force of things. But, if the hatching were earlier and took place in the Epeira's lifetime, I imagine that she would rival the bird in devotion.
So I gather from the, analogy of Thomisus onustus, WALCK., a shapely Spider who weaves no web, lies in wait for her prey and walks sideways, after the manner of the Crab. I have spoken elsewhere (1) of her encounters with the Domestic Bee, whom she jugulates by biting her in the neck.
Skilful in the prompt despatch of her prey, the little Crab Spider is no less well-versed in the nesting art. I find her settled on a privet in the enclosure. Here, in the heart of a cluster of flowers, the luxurious creature plaits a little pocket of white satin, shaped like a wee thimble. It is the receptacle for the eggs. A round, flat lid, of a felted fabric, closes the mouth.
Above this ceiling rises a dome of stretched threads and faded flowerets which have fallen from the cluster. This is the watcher's belvedere, her conning-tower. An opening, which is always free, gives access to this post.
Here the Spider remains on constant duty. She has thinned greatly since she laid her eggs, has almost lost her corporation. At the least alarm, she sallies forth, waves a threatening limb at the passing stranger and invites him, with a gesture, to keep his distance. Having put the intruder to flight, she quickly returns indoors.
And what does she do in there, under her arch of withered flowers and silk? Night and day, she shields the precious eggs with her poor body spread out flat. Eating is neglected. No more lying in wait, no more Bees drained to the last drop of blood. Motionless, rapt in meditation, the Spider is in an incubating posture, in other words, she is sitting on her eggs. Strictly speaking, the word ‚incubating‘ means that and nothing else.
The brooding Hen is no more assiduous, but she is also a heating-apparatus and, with the gentle warmth of her body, awakens the germs to life. For the Spider, the heat of the sun suffices; and this alone keeps me from saying that she ‚broods.‘
For two or three weeks, more and more wrinkled by abstinence, the little Spider never relaxes her position. Then comes the hatching. The youngsters stretch a few threads in swing-like curves from twig to twig. The tiny rope-dancers practise for some days in the sun; then they disperse, each intent upon his own affairs.
Let us now look at the watch-tower of the nest. The mother is still there, but this time lifeless. The devoted creature has known the delight of seeing her family born; she has assisted the weaklings through the trap-door; and, when her duty was done, very gently she died. The Hen does not reach this height of self-abnegation.
Other Spiders do better still, as, for instance, the Narbonne Lycosa, or Black-bellied Tarantula (Lycosa narbonnensis, WALCK.), whose prowess has been described in an earlier chapter. The reader will remember her burrow, her pit of a bottle-neck's width, dug in the pebbly soil beloved by the lavender and the thyme. The mouth is rimmed by a bastion of gravel and bits of wood cemented with silk. There is nothing else around her dwelling: no web, no snares of any kind.
From her inch-high turret, the Lycosa lies in wait for the passing Locust. She gives a bound, pursues the prey and suddenly deprives it of motion with a bite in the neck. The game is consumed on the spot, or else in the lair; the insect's tough hide arouses no disgust. The sturdy huntress is not a drinker of blood, like the Epeira; she needs solid food, food that crackles between the jaws. She is like a Dog devouring his bone.
Would you care to bring her to the light of day from the depths of her well? Insert a thin straw into the burrow and move it about. Uneasy as to what is happening above, the recluse hastens to climb up and stops, in a threatening attitude, at some distance from the orifice. You see her eight eyes gleaming like diamonds in the dark; you see her powerful poison-fangs yawning, ready to bite. He who is not accustomed to the sight of this horror, rising from under the ground, cannot suppress a shiver. B-r-r-r-r! Let us leave the beast alone.
Chance, a poor stand-by, sometimes contrives very well. At the beginning of the month of August, the children call me to the far side of the enclosure, rejoicing in a find which they have made under the rosemary-bushes. It is a magnificent Lycosa, with an enormous belly, the sign of an impending delivery.
The obese Spider is gravely devouring something in the midst of a circle of onlookers. And what? The remains of a Lycosa a little smaller than herself, the remains of her male. It is the end of the tragedy that concludes the nuptials. The sweetheart is eating her lover. I allow the matrimonial rites to be fulfilled in all their horror; and, when the last morsel of the unhappy wretch has been scrunched up, I incarcerate the terrible matron under a cage standing in an earthen pan filled with sand.
Early one morning, ten days later, I find her preparing for her confinement. A silk network is first spun on the ground, covering an extent about equal to the palm of one's hand. It is coarse and shapeless, but firmly fixed. This is the floor on which the Spider means to operate.
On this foundation, which acts as a protection from the sand, the Lycosa fashions a round mat, the size of a two-franc piece and made of superb white silk. With a gentle, uniform movement, which might be regulated by the wheels of a delicate piece of clockwork, the tip of the abdomen rises and falls, each time touching the supporting base a little farther away, until the extreme scope of the mechanism is attained.
Then, without the Spider's moving her position, the oscillation is resumed in the opposite direction. By means of this alternate motion, interspersed with numerous contacts, a segment of the sheet is obtained, of a very accurate texture. When this is done, the Spider moves a little along a circular line and the loom works in the same manner on another segment.
The silk disk, a sort of hardly concave paten, now no longer receives aught from the spinnerets in its centre; the marginal belt alone increases in thickness. The piece thus becomes a bowl-shaped porringer, surrounded by a wide, flat edge.
The time for the laying has come. With one quick emission, the viscous, pale-yellow eggs are laid in the basin, where they heap together in the shape of a globe which projects largely outside the cavity. The spinnerets are once more set going. With short movements, as the tip of the abdomen rises and falls to weave the round mat, they cover up the exposed hemisphere. The result is a pill set in the middle of a circular carpet.
The legs, hitherto idle, are now working. They take up and break off one by one the threads that keep the round mat stretched on the coarse supporting network. At the same time, the fangs grip this sheet, lift it by degrees, tear it from its base and fold it over upon the globe of eggs. It is a laborious operation. The whole edifice totters, the floor collapses, fouled with sand. By a movement of the legs, those soiled shreds are cast aside. Briefly, by means of violent tugs of the fangs, which pull, and broom-like efforts of the legs, which clear away, the Lycosa extricates the bag of eggs and removes it as a clear-cut mass, free from any adhesion.
It is a white-silk pill, soft to the touch and glutinous. Its size is that of an average cherry. An observant eye will notice, running horizontally around the middle, a fold which a needle is able to raise without breaking it. This hem, generally undistinguishable from the rest of the surface, is none other than the edge of the circular mat, drawn over the lower hemisphere. The other hemisphere, through which the youngsters will go out, is less well fortified: its only wrapper is the texture spun over the eggs immediately after they were laid.
Inside, there is nothing but the eggs: no mattress, no soft eiderdown, like that of the Epeirae. The Lycosa, indeed, has no need to guard her eggs against the inclemencies of the winter, for the hatching will take place long before the cold weather comes. Similarly, the Thomisus, with her early brood, takes good care not to incur useless expenditure: she gives her eggs, for their protection, a simple purse of satin.
The work of spinning, followed by that of tearing, is continued for a whole morning, from five to nine o'clock. Worn out with fatigue, the mother embraces her dear pill and remains motionless. I shall see no more to-day. Next morning, I find the Spider carrying the bag of eggs slung from her stern.
Henceforth, until the hatching, she does not leave go of the precious burden, which, fastened to the spinnerets by a short ligament, drags and bumps along the ground. With this load banging against her heels, she goes about her business; she walks or rests, she seeks her prey, attacks it and devours it. Should some accident cause the wallet to drop off, it is soon replaced. The spinnerets touch it somewhere, anywhere, and that is enough: adhesion is at once restored.
The Lycosa is a stay-at-home. She never goes out except to snap up some game passing within her hunting-domains, near the burrow. At the end of August, however, it is not unusual to meet her roaming about, dragging her wallet behind her. Her hesitations make one think that she is looking for her home, which she has left for the moment and has a difficulty in finding.
Why these rambles? There are two reasons: first the pairing and then the making of the pill. There is a lack of space in the burrow, which provides only room enough for the Spider engaged in long contemplation. Now the preparations for the egg-bag require an extensive flooring, a supporting frame-work about the size of one's hand, as my caged prisoner has shown us. The Lycosa has not so much space at her disposal, in her well; hence the necessity for coming out and working at her wallet in the open air, doubtless in the quiet hours of the night.
The meeting with the male seems likewise to demand an excursion. Running the risk of being eaten alive, will he venture to plunge into his lady's cave, into a lair whence flight would be impossible? It is very doubtful. Prudence demands that matters should take place outside. Here at least there is some chance of beating a hasty retreat which will enable the rash swain to escape the attacks of his horrible bride.
The interview in the open air lessens the danger without removing it entirely. We had proof of this when we caught the Lycosa in the act of devouring her lover aboveground, in a part of the enclosure which had been broken for planting and which was therefore not suitable for the Spider's establishment. The burrow must have been some way off; and the meeting of the pair took place at the very spot of the tragic catastrophe. Although he had a clear road, the male was not quick enough in getting away and was duly eaten.
After this cannibal orgy, does the Lycosa go back home? Perhaps not, for a while. Besides, she would have to go out a second time, to manufacture her pill on a level space of sufficient extent.
When the work is done, some of them emancipate themselves, think they will have a look at the country before retiring for good and all. It is these whom we sometimes meet wandering aimlessly and dragging their bag behind them. Sooner or later, however, the vagrants return home; and the month of August is not over before a straw rustled in any burrow will bring the mother up, with her wallet slung behind her. I am able to procure as many as I want and, with them, to indulge in certain experiments of the highest interest.
It is a sight worth seeing, that of the Lycosa dragging her treasure after her, never leaving it, day or night, sleeping or waking, and defending it with a courage that strikes the beholder with awe. If I try to take the bag from her, she presses it to her breast in despair, hangs on to my pincers, bites them with her poison-fangs. I can hear the daggers grating on the steel. No, she would not allow herself to be robbed of the wallet with impunity, if my fingers were not supplied with an implement.
By dint of pulling and shaking the pill with the forceps, I take it from the Lycosa, who protests furiously. I fling her in exchange a pill taken from another Lycosa. It is at once seized in the fangs, embraced by the legs and hung on to the spinneret. Her own or another's: it is all one to the Spider, who walks away proudly with the alien wallet. This was to be expected, in view of the similarity of the pills exchanged.
A test of another kind, with a second subject, renders the mistake more striking. I substitute, in the place of the lawful bag which I have removed, the work of the Silky Epeira. The colour and softness of the material are the same in both cases; but the shape is quite different. The stolen object is a globe; the object presented in exchange is an elliptical conoid studded with angular projections along the edge of the base. The Spider takes no account of this dissimilarity. She promptly glues the queer bag to her spinnerets and is as pleased as though she were in possession of her real pill. My experimental villainies have no other consequences beyond an ephemeral carting. When hatching-time arrives, early in the case of the Lycosa, late in that of the Epeira, the gulled Spider abandons the strange bag and pays it no further attention.
Let us penetrate yet deeper into the wallet-bearer's stupidity. After depriving the Lycosa of her eggs, I throw her a ball of cork, roughly polished with a file and of the same size as the stolen pill. She accepts the corky substance, so different from the silk purse, without the least demur. One would have thought that she would recognize her mistake with those eight eyes of hers, which gleam like precious stones. The silly creature pays no attention. Lovingly she embraces the cork ball, fondles it with her palpi, fastens it to her spinnerets and thenceforth drags it after her as though she were dragging her own bag.
Let us give another the choice between the imitation and the real. The rightful pill and the cork ball are placed together on the floor of the jar. Will the Spider be able to know the one that belongs to her? The fool is incapable of doing so. She makes a wild rush and seizes haphazard at one time her property, at another my sham product. Whatever is first touched becomes a good capture and is forthwith hung up.
If I increase the number of cork balls, if I put in four or five of them, with the real pill among them, it is seldom that the Lycosa recovers her own property. Attempts at enquiry, attempts at selection there are none. Whatever she snaps up at random she sticks to, be it good or bad. As there are more of the sham pills of cork, these are the most often seized by the Spider.
This obtuseness baffles me. Can the animal be deceived by the soft contact of the cork? I replace the cork balls by pellets of cotton or paper, kept in their round shape with a few bands of thread. Both are very readily accepted instead of the real bag that has been removed.
Can the illusion be due to the colouring, which is light in the cork and not unlike the tint of the silk globe when soiled with a little earth, while it is white in the paper and the cotton, when it is identical with that of the original pill? I give the Lycosa, in exchange for her work, a pellet of silk thread, chosen of a fine red, the brightest of all colours. The uncommon pill is as readily accepted and as jealously guarded as the others.
We will leave the wallet-bearer alone; we know all that we want to know about her poverty of intellect. Let us wait for the hatching, which takes place in the first fortnight in September. As they come out of the pill, the youngsters, to the number of about a couple of hundred, clamber on the Spider's back and there sit motionless, jammed close together, forming a sort of bark of mingled legs and paunches. The mother is unrecognizable under this live mantilla. When the hatching is over, the wallet is loosened from the spinnerets and cast aside as a worthless rag.
The little ones are very good: none stirs none tries to get more room for himself at his neighbours' expense. What are they doing there, so quietly? They allow themselves to be carted about, like the young of the Opossum. Whether she sit in long meditation at the bottom of her den, or come to the orifice, in mild weather, to bask in the sun, the Lycosa never throws off her great-coat of swarming youngsters until the fine season comes.
If, in the middle of winter, in January or February, I happen, out in the fields, to ransack the Spider's dwelling, after the rain, snow and frost have battered it and, as a rule, dismantled the bastion at the entrance, I always find her at home, still full of vigour, still carrying her family. This vehicular upbringing lasts five or six months at least, without interruption. The celebrated American carrier, the Opossum, who emancipates her offspring after a few weeks' carting, cuts a poor figure beside the Lycosa.
What do the little ones eat, on the maternal spine? Nothing, so far as I know. I do not see them grow larger. I find them, at the tardy period of their emancipation, just as they were when they left the bag.
During the bad season, the mother herself is extremely abstemious. At long intervals, she accepts, in my jars, a belated Locust, whom I have captured, for her benefit, in the sunnier nooks. In order to keep herself in condition, as when she is dug up in the course of my winter excavations, she must therefore sometimes break her fast and come out in search of prey, without, of course, discarding her live mantilla.
The expedition has its dangers. The youngsters may be brushed off by a blade of grass. What becomes of them when they have a fall? Does the mother give them a thought? Does she come to their assistance and help them to regain their place on her back? Not at all. The affection of a Spider's heart, divided among some hundreds, can spare but a very feeble portion to each. The Lycosa hardly troubles, whether one youngster fall from his place, or six, or all of them. She waits impassively for the victims of the mishap to get out of their own difficulty, which they do, for that matter, and very nimbly.
I sweep the whole family from the back of one of my boarders with a hair-pencil. Not a sign of emotion, not an attempt at search on the part of the denuded one. After trotting about a little on the sand, the dislodged youngsters find, these here, those there, one or other of the mother's legs, spread wide in a circle. By means of these climbing-poles, they swarm to the top and soon the dorsal group resumes its original form. Not one of the lot is missing. The Lycosa's sons know their trade as acrobats to perfection: the mother need not trouble her head about their fall.
With a sweep of the pencil, I make the family of one Spider fall around another laden with her own family. The dislodged ones nimbly scramble up the legs and climb on the back of their new mother, who kindly allows them to behave as though they belonged to her. There is no room on the abdomen, the regulation resting-place, which is already occupied by the real sons. The invaders thereupon encamp on the front part, beset the thorax and change the carrier into a horrible pin-cushion that no longer bears the least resemblance to a Spider form. Meanwhile, the sufferer raises no sort of protest against this access of family. She placidly accepts them all and walks them all about.
The youngsters, on their side, are unable to distinguish between what is permitted and forbidden. Remarkable acrobats that they are, they climb on the first Spider that comes along, even when of a different species, provided that she be of a fair size. I place them in the presence of a big Epeira marked with a white cross on a pale-orange ground (Epeira pallida, OLIV.). The little ones, as soon as they are dislodged from the back of the Lycosa their mother, clamber up the stranger without hesitation.
Intolerant of these familiarities, the Spider shakes the leg encroached upon and flings the intruders to a distance. The assault is doggedly resumed, to such good purpose that a dozen succeed in hoisting themselves to the top. The Epeira, who is not accustomed to the tickling of such a load, turns over on her back and rolls on the ground in the manner of a donkey when his hide is itching. Some are lamed, some are even crushed. This does not deter the others, who repeat the escalade as soon as the Epeira is on her legs again. Then come more somersaults, more rollings on the back, until the giddy swarm are all discomfited and leave the Spider in peace.
1. In Chap. VIII. of the present volume.