Chapter IV. The Capricorne

Jean-Henri Fabre The Wonders of Instinct

capricorne beetle

Capricorne beetle (Hylotrupes bajulus)

My youthful meditations owe some happy moments to Condillac's famous statue which, when endowed with the sense of smell, inhales the scent of a rose and out of that single impression creates a whole world of ideas (1). My twenty-year-old mind, full of faith in syllogisms, loved to follow the deductive jugglery of the abb?-philosopher: I saw, or seemed to see, the statue take life in that action of the nostrils, acquiring attention, memory, judgment and all the psychological paraphernalia, even as still waters are aroused and rippled by the impact of a grain of sand. I recovered from my illusion under the instruction of my abler master, the animal. The Capricorn shall teach us that the problem is more obscure than the abb? led me to believe.

When wedge and mallet are at work, preparing my provision of firewood under the grey sky that heralds winter, a favourite relaxation creates a welcome break in my daily output of prose. By my express orders, the woodman has selected the oldest and most ravaged trunks in his stack. My tastes bring a smile to his lips; he wonders by what whimsy I prefer wood that is worm-eaten--chirouna, as he calls it--to sound wood which burns so much better. I have my views on the subject; and the worthy man submits to them.

And now to us two, O my fine oak-trunk seamed with scars, gashed with wounds whence trickle the brown drops smelling of the tan-yard. The mallet drives home, the wedges bite, the wood splits. What do your flanks contain? Real treasures for my studies. In the dry and hollow parts, groups of various insects, capable of living through the bad season of the year, have taken up their winter quarters: in the low-roofed galleries, galleries which some Buprestis-beetle has built, Osmia-bees, working their paste of masticated leaves, have piled their cells, one above the other; in the deserted chambers and vestibules, Megachiles (2) have arranged their leafy jars; in the live wood, filled with juicy saps, the larvae of the Capricorn (Cerambyx miles), the chief author of the oak's undoing, have set up their home.

Strange creatures, of a verity, are these grubs, for an insect of superior organization: bits of intestines crawling about! At this time of year, the middle of autumn, I meet them of two different ages. The older are almost as thick as one's finger; the others hardly attain the diameter of a pencil. I find, in addition, pupae more or less fully coloured, perfect insects, with a distended abdomen, ready to leave the trunk when the hot weather comes again. Life inside the wood, therefore, lasts three years. How is this long period of solitude and captivity spent? In wandering lazily through the thickness of the oak, in making roads whose rubbish serves as food. The horse in Job swallows the ground in a figure of speech; the Capricorn's grub literally eats its way (3). With its carpenter's gouge, a strong black mandible, short, devoid of notches, scooped into a sharp-edged spoon, it digs the opening of its tunnel. The piece cut out is a mouthful which, as it enters the stomach, yields its scanty juices and accumulates behind the worker in heaps of wormed wood. The refuse leaves room in front by passing through the worker. A labour at once of nutrition and of road-making, the path is devoured while constructed; it is blocked behind as it makes way ahead. That, however, is how all the borers who look to wood for victuals and lodging set about their business.

For the harsh work of its two gouges, or curved chisels, the larva of the Capricorn concentrates its muscular strength in the front of its body, which swells into a pestle-head. The Buprestis-grubs, those other industrious carpenters, adopt a similar form; they even exaggerate their pestle. The part that toils and carves hard wood requires a robust structure; the rest of the body, which has but to follow after, continues slim. The essential thing is that the implement of the jaws should possess a solid support and a powerful motor. The Cerambyx-larva strengthens its chisels with a stout, black, horny armour that surrounds the mouth; yet, apart from its skull and its equipment of tools, the grub has a skin as fine as satin and white as ivory. This dead white comes from a copious layer of grease which the animal's spare diet would not lead us to suspect. True, it has nothing to do, at every hour of the day and night, but gnaw. The quantity of wood that passes into its stomach makes up for the dearth of nourishing elements.

The legs, consisting of three pieces, the first globular, the last sharp-pointed, are mere rudiments, vestiges. They are hardly a millimetre long (4). For this reason they are of no use whatever for walking; they do not even bear upon the supporting surface, being kept off it by the obesity of the chest. The organs of locomotion are something altogether different. The grub of the Capricorn moves at the same time on its back and belly; instead of the useless legs of the thorax, it has a walking-apparatus almost resembling feet, which appear, contrary to every rule, on the dorsal surface.

The first seven segments of the abdomen have, both above and below, a four-sided facet, bristling with rough protuberances. This the grub can either expand or contract, making it stick out or lie flat at will. The upper facets consist of two excrescences separated by the mid-dorsal line; the lower ones have not this divided appearance. These are the organs of locomotion, the ambulacra. When the larva wishes to move forwards, it expands its hinder ambulacra, those on the back as well as those on the belly, and contracts its front ones. Fixed to the side of the narrow gallery by their ridges, the hind-pads give the grub a purchase. The flattening of the fore-pads, by decreasing the diameter, allows it to slip forward and to take half a step. To complete the step the hind-quarters have to be brought up the same distance. With this object, the front pads fill out and provide support, while those behind shrink and leave free scope for their segments to contract.

With the double support of its back and belly, with alternate puffings and shrinkings, the animal easily advances or retreats along its gallery, a sort of mould which the contents fill without a gap. But if the locomotory pads grip only on one side progress becomes impossible. When placed on the smooth wood of my table, the animal wriggles slowly; it lengthens and shortens without advancing by a hair's-breadth. Laid on the surface of a piece of split oak, a rough, uneven surface, due to the gash made by the wedge, it twists and writhes, moves the front part of its body very slowly from left to right and right to left, lifts it a little, lowers it and begins again. These are the most extensive movements made. The vestigial legs remain inert and absolutely useless. Then why are they there? It were better to lose them altogether, if it be true that crawling inside the oak has deprived the animal of the good legs with which it started. The influence of environment, so well-inspired in endowing the grub with ambulatory pads, becomes a mockery when it leaves it these ridiculous stumps. Can the structure, perchance, be obeying other rules than those of environment?

Though the useless legs, the germs of the future limbs, persist, there is no sign in the grub of the eyes wherewith the Cerambyx will be richly gifted. The larva has not the least trace of organs of vision. What would it do with sight in the murky thickness of a tree-trunk? Hearing is likewise absent. In the never-troubled silence of the oak's inmost heart, the sense of hearing would be a non-sense. Where sounds are lacking, of what use is the faculty of discerning them? Should there be any doubts, I will reply to them with the following experiment. Split lengthwise, the grub's abode leaves a half-tunnel wherein I can watch the occupant's doings. When left alone, it now gnaws the front of its gallery, now rests, fixed by its ambulacra to the two sides of the channel. I avail myself of these moments of quiet to inquire into its power of perceiving sounds. The banging of hard bodies, the ring of metallic objects, the grating of a file upon a saw are tried in vain. The animal remains impassive. Not a wince, not a movement of the skin; no sign of awakened attention. I succeed no better when I scratch the wood close by with a hard point, to imitate the sound of some neighbouring larva gnawing the intervening thickness. The indifference to my noisy tricks could be no greater in a lifeless object. The animal is deaf.

Can it smell? Everything tells us no. Scent is of assistance in the search for food. But the Capricorn grub need not go in quest of eatables: it feeds on its home, it lives on the wood that gives it shelter. Let us make an attempt or two, however. I scoop in a log of fresh cypress-wood a groove of the same diameter as that of the natural galleries and I place the worm inside it. Cypress-wood is strongly scented; it possesses in a high degree that resinous aroma which characterizes most of the pine family. Well, when laid in the odoriferous channel, the larva goes to the end, as far as it can go, and makes no further movement. Does not this placid quiescence point to the absence of a sense of smell? The resinous flavour, so strange to the grub which has always lived in oak, ought to vex it, to trouble it; and the disagreeable impression ought to be revealed by a certain commotion, by certain attempts to get away. Well, nothing of the kind happens: once the larva has found the right position in the groove, it does not stir. I do more: I set before it, at a very short distance, in its normal canal, a piece of camphor. Again, no effect. Camphor is followed by naphthaline. Still nothing. After these fruitless endeavours, I do not think that I am going too far when I deny the creature a sense of smell.

Taste is there, no doubt. But such taste! The food is without variety: oak, for three years at a stretch, and nothing else. What can the grub's palate appreciate in this monotonous fare? The tannic relish of a fresh piece, oozing with sap, the uninteresting flavour of an over-dry piece, robbed of its natural condiment: these probably represent the whole gustative scale.

There remains touch, the far-spreading, passive sense common to all live flesh that quivers under the goad of pain. The sensitive schedule of the Cerambyx-grub, therefore, is limited to taste and touch, both exceedingly obtuse. This almost brings us to Condillac's statue. The imaginary being of the philosopher had one sense only, that of smell, equal in delicacy to our own; the real being, the ravager of the oak, has two, inferior, even when put together, to the former, which so plainly perceived the scent of a rose and distinguished it so clearly from any other. The real case will bear comparison with the fictitious.

What can be the psychology of a creature possessing such a powerful digestive organism combined with such a feeble set of senses? A vain wish has often come to me in my dreams; it is to be able to think, for a few minutes, with the crude brain of my Dog, to see the world with the faceted eyes of a Gnat. How things would change in appearance! They would change much more if interpreted by the intellect of the grub. What have the lessons of touch and taste contributed to that rudimentary receptacle of impressions? Very little; almost nothing. The animal knows that the best bits possess an astringent flavour; that the sides of a passage not carefully planed are painful to the skin. This is the utmost limit of its acquired wisdom. In comparison, the statue with the sensitive nostrils was a marvel of knowledge, a paragon too generously endowed by its inventor. It remembered, compared, judged, reasoned: does the drowsily digesting paunch remember? Does it compare? Does it reason? I defined the Capricorn-grub as a bit of an intestine that crawls about. The undeniable accuracy of this definition provides me with my answer: the grub has the aggregate of sense-impressions that a bit of an intestine may hope to have.

And this nothing-at-all is capable of marvellous acts of foresight; this belly, which knows hardly aught of the present, sees very clearly into the future. Let us take an illustration on this curious subject. For three years on end the larva wanders about in the thick of the trunk; it goes up, goes down, turns to this side and that; it leaves one vein for another of better flavour, but without moving too far from the inner depths, where the temperature is milder and greater safety reigns. A day is at hand, a dangerous day for the recluse obliged to quit its excellent retreat and face the perils of the surface. Eating is not everything: we have to get out of this. The larva, so well-equipped with tools and muscular strength, finds no difficulty in going where it pleases, by boring through the wood; but does the coming Capricorn, whose short spell of life must be spent in the open air, possess the same advantages? Hatched inside the trunk, will the long-horned insect be able to clear itself a way of escape?

That is the difficulty which the worm solves by inspiration. Less versed in things of the future, despite my gleams of reason, I resort to experiment with a view to fathoming the question. I begin by ascertaining that the Capricorn, when he wishes to leave the trunk, is absolutely unable to make use of the tunnel wrought by the larva. It is a very long and very irregular maze, blocked with great heaps of wormed wood. Its diameter decreases progressively from the final blind alley to the starting-point. The larva entered the timber as slim as a tiny bit of straw; it is to-day as thick as my finger. In its three years' wanderings it always dug its gallery according to the mould of its body. Evidently, the road by which the larva entered and moved about cannot be the Capricorn's exit-way: his immoderate antennae, his long legs, his inflexible armour-plates would encounter an insuperable obstacle in the narrow, winding corridor, which would have to be cleared of its wormed wood and, moreover, greatly enlarged. It would be less fatiguing to attack the untouched timber and dig straight ahead. Is the insect capable of doing so? We shall see.

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 (5). 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 (6). The two axes of the cross-section vary: the horizontal measures twenty-five to thirty millimetres (7); the vertical measures only fifteen (8). 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 (9). 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 cementing 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, the 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 outside, 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 much 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!

Translator's No­tes:

1. Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Abbe de Mureaux (1715–80), the leading exponent of sensational philosophy. His most important work is the „Trait? des sensations,“ in which he imagines a statue, organized like a man, and endows it with the senses one by one, beginning with that of smell. He argues by a process of imaginative reconstruction that all human faculties and all human knowledge are merely transformed sensation, to the exclusion of any other principle, that, in short, everything has its source in sensation: man is nothing but what he has acquired.

2. Leaf-cutting Bees.

3. „Chafing and raging, he swalloweth the ground, neither doth he make account when the noise of the trumpet soundeth.“--Job 39, 23 (Douai version).

4. .039 inch.

5. .078 to .117 inch.

6. 3 to 4 inches.

7. .975 to 1.17 inch.

8. .585 inch.

9. .039 inch.

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