Chapter IV. The Narbonne Lycosa: the Burrow

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider

tarantula burrow

Lycosa Narbonensis

Michelet (1) has told us how, as a printer's appren­tice in a cellar, he established amicable relations with a Spider. At a certain hour of the day, a ray of sunlight would glint through the window of the gloomy workshop and light up the little compositor's case. Then his eight-legged neighbour would come down from her web and take her share of the sunshine on the edge of the case. The boy did not interfere with her; he welcomed the trusting visitor as a friend and as a pleasant diversion from the long monotony. When we lack the society of our fellow-men, we take refuge in that of animals, without always losing by the change.

I do not, thank God, suffer from the melancholy of a cellar: my solitude is gay with light and verdure; I attend, whenever I please, the fields' high festival, the Thrushes' concert, the Crickets' symphony; and yet my friendly commerce with the Spider is marked by an even greater devotion than the young typesetter's. I admit her to the intimacy of my study, I make room for her among my books, I set her in the sun on my window-ledge, I visit her assiduously at her home, in the country. The object of our relations is not to create a means of escape from the petty worries of life, pin-pricks whereof I have my share like other men, a very large share, indeed; I propose to submit to the Spider a host of questions whereto, at times, she condescends to reply.

To what fair problems does not the habit of frequenting her give rise! To set them forth worthily, the marvellous art which the little printer was to acquire were not too much. One needs the pen of a Michelet; and I have but a rough, blunt pencil. Let us try, nevertheless: even when poorly clad, truth is still beautiful.

I will therefore once more take up the story of the Spider's instinct, a story of which the preceding chapters have given but a very rough idea. Since I wrote those earlier essays, my field of observation has been greatly extended. My notes have been enriched by new and most remarkable facts. It is right that I should employ them for the purpose of a more detailed biography.

The exigencies of order and clearness expose me, it is true, to occasional repetitions. This is inevitable when one has to marshal in an harmonious whole a thousand items culled from day to day, often unexpectedly, and bearing no relation one to the other. The observer is not master of his time; opportunity leads him and by unsuspected ways. A certain question suggested by an earlier fact finds no reply until many years after. Its scope, moreover, is amplified and completed with views collected on the road. In a work, therefore, of this fragmentary character, repetitions, necessary for the due co-ordination of ideas, are inevitable. I shall be as sparing of them as I can.

Let us once more introduce our old friends the Epeira and the Lycosa, who are the most important Spiders in my district. The Narbonne Lycosa, or Black-bellied Tarantula, chooses her domicile in the waste, pebbly lands beloved of the thyme. Her dwelling, a fortress rather than a villa, is a burrow about nine inches deep and as wide as the neck of a claret-bottle. The direction is perpendicular, in so far as obstacles, frequent in a soil of this kind, permit. A bit of gravel can be extracted and hoisted outside; but a flint is an immovable boulder which the Spider avoids by giving a bend to her gallery. If more such are met with, the residence becomes a winding cave, with stone vaults, with lobbies communicating by means of sharp passages.

This lack of plan has no attendant drawbacks, so well does the owner, from long habit, know every corner and storey of her mansion. If any interesting buzz occur overhead, the Lycosa climbs up from her rugged manor with the same speed as from a vertical shaft. Perhaps she even finds the windings and turnings an advantage, when she has to drag into her den a prey that happens to defend itself.

As a rule, the end of the burrow widens into a side-chamber, a lounge or resting-place where the Spider meditates at length and is content to lead a life of quiet when her belly is full.

A silk coating, but a scanty one, for the Lycosa has not the wealth of silk possessed by the Weaving Spiders, lines the walls of the tube and keeps the loose earth from falling. This plaster, which cements the incohesive and smooths the rugged parts, is reserved more particularly for the top of the gallery, near the mouth. Here, in the day-time, if things be peaceful all around, the Lycosa stations herself, either to enjoy the warmth of the sun, her great delight, or to lie in wait for game. The threads of the silk lining afford a firm hold to the claws on every side, whether the object be to sit motionless for hours, revelling in the light and heat, or to pounce upon the passing prey.

Around the orifice of the burrow rises, to a greater or lesser height, a circular parapet, formed of tiny pebbles, twigs and straps borrowed from the dry leaves of the neighbouring grasses, all more or less dexterously tied together and cemented with silk. This work of rustic architecture is never missing, even though it be no more than a mere pad.

When she reaches maturity and is once settled, the Lycosa becomes eminently domesticated. I have been living in close communion with her for the last three years. I have installed her in large earthen pans on the window-sills of my study and I have her daily under my eyes. Well, it is very rarely that I happen on her outside, a few inches from her hole, back to which she bolts at the least alarm.

We may take it, then, that, when not in captivity, the Lycosa does not go far afield to gather the wherewithal to build her parapet and that she makes shift with what she finds upon her threshold. In these conditions, the building-stones are soon exhausted and the masonry ceases for lack of materials.

The wish came over me to see what dimensions the circular edifice would assume, if the Spider were given an unlimited supply. With captives to whom I myself act as purveyor the thing is easy enough. Were it only with a view to helping whoso may one day care to continue these relations with the big Spider of the waste-lands, let me describe how my subjects are housed.

A good-sized earthenware pan, some nine inches deep, is filled with a red, clayey earth, rich in pebbles, similar, in short, to that of the places haunted by the Lycosa. Properly moistened into a paste, the artificial soil is heaped, layer by layer, around a central reed, of a bore equal to that of the animal's natural burrow. When the receptacle is filled to the top, I withdraw the reed, which leaves a yawning, perpendicular shaft. I thus obtain the abode which shall replace that of the fields.

To find the hermit to inhabit it is merely the matter of a walk in the neighbourhood. When removed from her own dwelling, which is turned topsy-turvy by my trowel, and placed in possession of the den produced by my art, the Lycosa at once disappears into that den. She does not come out again, seeks nothing better elsewhere. A large wire-gauze cover rests on the soil in the pan and prevents escape.

In any case, the watch, in this respect, makes no demands upon my diligence. The prisoner is satisfied with her new abode and manifests no regret for her natural burrow. There is no attempt at flight on her part. Let me not omit to add that each pan must receive not more than one inhabitant. The Lycosa is very intolerant. To her, a neighbour is fair game, to be eaten without scruple when one has might on one's side. Time was when, unaware of this fierce intolerance, which is more savage still at breeding-time, I saw hideous orgies perpetrated in my overstocked cages. I shall have occasion to describe those tragedies later.

Let us meanwhile consider the isolated Lycosae. They do not touch up the dwelling which I have moulded for them with a bit of reed; at most, now and again, perhaps with the object of forming a lounge or bedroom at the bottom, they fling out a few loads of rubbish. But all, little by little, build the kerb that is to edge the mouth.

I have given them plenty of first-rate materials, far superior to those which they use when left to their own resources. These consist, first, for the foundations, of little smooth stones, some of which are as large as an almond. With this road-metal are mingled short strips of raphia, or palm-fibre, flexible ribbons, easily bent. These stand for the Spider's usual basket-work, consisting of slender stalks and dry blades of grass. Lastly, by way of an unprecedented treasure, never yet employed by a Lycosa, I place at my captives' disposal some thick threads of wool, cut into inch lengths.

As I wish, at the same time, to find out whether my animals, with the magnificent lenses of their eyes, are able to distinguish colours and prefer one colour to another, I mix up bits of wool of different hues: there are red, green, white and yellow pieces. If the Spider have any preference, she can choose where she pleases.

The Lycosa always works at night, a regrettable circumstance, which does not allow me to follow the worker's methods. I see the result; and that is all. Were I to visit the building-yard by the light of a lantern, I should be no wiser. The animal, which is very shy, would at once dive into her lair; and I should have lost my sleep for nothing. Furthermore, she is not a very diligent labourer; she likes to take her time. Two or three bits of wool or raphia placed in position represent a whole night's work. And to this slowness we must add long spells of utter idleness.

Two months pass; and the result of my liberality surpasses my expectations. Possessing more windfalls than they know what to do with, all picked up in their immediate neighbourhood, my Lycosae have built themselves donjon-keeps the like of which their race has not yet known. Around the orifice, on a slightly sloping bank, small, flat, smooth stones have been laid to form a broken, flagged pavement. The larger stones, which are Cyclopean blocks compared with the size of the animal that has shifted them, are employed as abundantly as the others.

On this rockwork stands the donjon. It is an interlacing of raphia and bits of wool, picked up at random, without distinction of shade. Red and white, green and yellow are mixed without any attempt at order. The Lycosa is indifferent to the joys of colour.

The ultimate result is a sort of muff, a couple of inches high. Bands of silk, supplied by the spinnerets, unite the pieces, so that the whole resembles a coarse fabric. Without being absolutely faultless, for there are always awkward pieces on the outside, which the worker could not handle, the gaudy building is not devoid of merit. The bird lining its nest would do no better. Whoso sees the curious, many-coloured productions in my pans takes them for an outcome of my industry, contrived with a view to some experimental mischief; and his surprise is great when I confess who the real author is. No one would ever believe the Spider capable of constructing such a monument.

It goes without saying that, in a state of liberty, on our barren waste-lands, the Lycosa does not indulge in such sumptuous architecture. I have given the reason: she is too great a stay-at-home to go in search of materials and she makes use of the limited resources which she finds around her. Bits of earth, small chips of stone, a few twigs, a few withered grasses: that is all, or nearly all. Wherefore the work is generally quite modest and reduced to a parapet that hardly attracts attention.

My captives teach us that, when materials are plentiful, especially textile materials that remove all fears of landslip, the Lycosa delights in tall turrets. She understands the art of donjon-building and puts it into practice as often as she possesses the means.

This art is akin to another, from which it is apparently derived. If the sun be fierce or if rain threaten, the Lycosa closes the entrance to her dwelling with a silken trellis-work, wherein she embeds different matters, often the remnants of victims which she has devoured. The ancient Gael nailed the heads of his vanquished enemies to the door of his hut. In the same way, the fierce Spider sticks the skulls of her prey into the lid of her cave. These lumps look very well on the ogre's roof; but we must be careful not to mistake them for warlike trophies. The animal knows nothing of our barbarous bravado. Everything at the threshold of the burrow is used indiscriminately: fragments of Locust, vegetable remains and especially particles of earth. A Dragon-fly's head baked by the sun is as good as a bit of gravel and no better.

And so, with silk and all sorts of tiny materials, the Lycosa builds a lidded cap to the entrance of her home. I am not well acquainted with the reasons that prompt her to barricade herself indoors, particularly as the seclusion is only temporary and varies greatly in duration. I obtain precise details from a tribe of Lycosae wherewith the enclosure, as will be seen later, happens to be thronged in consequence of my investigations into the dispersal of the family.

At the time of the tropical August heat, I see my Lycosae, now this batch, now that, building, at the entrance to the burrow, a convex ceiling, which is difficult to distinguish from the surrounding soil. Can it be to protect themselves from the too-vivid light? This is doubtful; for, a few days later, though the power of the sun remain the same, the roof is broken open and the Spider reappears at her door, where she revels in the torrid heat of the dog-days.

Later, when October comes, if it be rainy weather, she retires once more under a roof, as though she were guarding herself against the damp. Let us not be too positive of anything, however: often, when it is raining hard, the Spider bursts her ceiling and leaves her house open to the skies.

Perhaps the lid is only put on for serious domestic events, notably for the laying. I do, in fact, perceive young Lycosae who shut themselves in before they have attained the dignity of motherhood and who reappear, some time later, with the bag containing the eggs hung to their stern. The inference that they close the door with the object of securing greater quiet while spinning the maternal cocoon would not be in keeping with the unconcern displayed by the majority. I find some who lay their eggs in an open burrow; I come upon some who weave their cocoon and cram it with eggs in the open air, before they even own a residence. In short, I do not succeed in fathoming the reasons that cause the burrow to be closed, no matter what the weather, hot or cold, wet or dry.

The fact remains that the lid is broken and repaired repeatedly, sometimes on the same day. In spite of the earthy casing, the silk woof gives it the requisite pliancy to cleave when pushed by the anchorite and to rip open without falling into ruins. Swept back to the circumference of the mouth and increased by the wreckage of further ceilings, it becomes a parapet, which the Lycosa raises by degrees in her long moments of leisure. The bastion which surmounts the burrow, therefore, takes its origin from the temporary lid. The turret derives from the split ceiling.

What is the purpose of this turret? My pans will tell us that. An enthusiastic votary of the chase, so long as she is not permanently fixed, the Lycosa, once she has set up house, prefers to lie in ambush and wait for the quarry. Every day, when the heat is greatest, I see my captives come up slowly from under ground and lean upon the battlements of their woolly castle-keep. They are then really magnificent in their stately gravity. With their swelling belly contained within the aperture, their head outside, their glassy eyes staring, their legs gathered for a spring, for hours and hours they wait, motionless, bathing voluptuously in the sun.

Should a tit-bit to her liking happen to pass, forthwith the watcher darts from her tall tower, swift as an arrow from the bow. With a dagger-thrust in the neck, she stabs the jugular of the Locust, Dragon-fly or other prey whereof I am the purveyor; and she as quickly scales the donjon and retires with her capture. The performance is a wonderful exhibition of skill and speed.

Very seldom is a quarry missed, provided that it pass at a convenient distance, within the range of the huntress' bound. But, if the prey be at some distance, for instance on the wire of the cage, the Lycosa takes no notice of it. Scorning to go in pursuit, she allows it to roam at will. She never strikes except when sure of her stroke. She achieves this by means of her tower. Hiding behind the wall, she sees the stranger advancing, keeps her eyes on him and suddenly pounces when he comes within reach. These abrupt tactics make the thing a certainty. Though he were winged and swift of flight, the unwary one who approaches the ambush is lost.

This presumes, it is true, an exemplary patience on the Lycosa's part; for the burrow has naught that can serve to entice victims. At best, the ledge provided by the turret may, at rare intervals, tempt some weary wayfarer to use it as a resting-place. But, if the quarry do not come to-day, it is sure to come to-morrow, the next day, or later, for the Locusts hop innumerable in the waste-land, nor are they always able to regulate their leaps. Some day or other, chance is bound to bring one of them within the purlieus of the burrow. This is the moment to spring upon the pilgrim from the ramparts. Until then, we maintain a stoical vigilance. We shall dine when we can; but we shall end by dining.

The Lycosa, therefore, well aware of these lingering eventualities, waits and is not unduly distressed by a prolonged abstinence. She has an accommodating stomach, which is satisfied to be gorged to-day and to remain empty afterwards for goodness knows how long. I have sometimes neglected my catering-duties for weeks at a time; and my boarders have been none the worse for it. After a more or less protracted fast, they do not pine away, but are smitten with a wolf-like hunger. All these ravenous eaters are alike: they guzzle to excess to-day, in anticipation of to-morrow's dearth.

In her youth, before she has a burrow, the Lycosa earns her living in another manner. Clad in grey like her elders, but without the black-velvet apron which she receives on attaining the marriageable age, she roams among the scrubby grass. This is true hunting. Should a suitable quarry heave in sight, the Spider pursues it, drives it from its shelters, follows it hot-foot. The fugitive gains the heights, makes as though to fly away. He has not the time. With an upward leap, the Lycosa grabs him before he can rise.

I am charmed with the agility wherewith my yearling boarders seize the Flies which I provide for them. In vain does the Fly take refuge a couple of inches up, on some blade of grass. With a sudden spring into the air, the Spider pounces on the prey. No Cat is quicker in catching her Mouse.

But these are the feats of youth not handicapped by obesity. Later, when a heavy paunch, dilated with eggs and silk, has to be trailed along, those gymnastic performances become impracticable. The Lycosa then digs herself a settled abode, a hunting-box, and sits in her watch-tower, on the look-out for game.

When and how is the burrow obtained wherein the Lycosa, once a vagrant, now a stay-at-home, is to spend the remainder of her long life? We are in autumn, the weather is already turning cool. This is how the Field Cricket sets to work: as long as the days are fine and the nights not too cold, the future chorister of spring rambles over the fallows, careless of a local habitation. At critical moments, the cover of a dead leaf provides him with a temporary shelter. In the end, the burrow, the permanent dwelling, is dug as the inclement season draws nigh.

The Lycosa shares the Cricket's views: like him, she finds a thousand pleasures in the vagabond life. With September comes the nuptial badge, the black-velvet bib. The Spiders meet at night, by the soft moonlight: they romp together, they eat the beloved shortly after the wedding; by day, they scour the country, they track the game on the short-pile, grassy carpet, they take their fill of the joys of the sun. That is much better than solitary meditation at the bottom of a well. And so it is not rare to see young mothers dragging their bag of eggs, or even already carrying their family, and as yet without a home.

In October, it is time to settle down. We then, in fact, find two sorts of burrows, which differ in diameter. The larger, bottle-neck burrows belong to the old matrons, who have owned their house for two years at least. The smaller, of the width of a thick lead-pencil, contain the young mothers, born that year. By dint of long and leisurely alterations, the novice's earths will increase in depth as well as in diameter and become roomy abodes, similar to those of the grandmothers. In both, we find the owner and her family, the latter sometimes already hatched and sometimes still enclosed in the satin wallet.

Seeing no digging-tools, such as the excavation of the dwelling seemed to me to require, I wondered whether the Lycosa might not avail herself of some chance gallery, the work of the Cicada or the Earth-worm. This ready-made tunnel, thought I, must shorten the labours of the Spider, who appears to be so badly off for tools; she would only have to enlarge it and put it in order. I was wrong: the burrow is excavated, from start to finish, by her unaided labour.

Then where are the digging-implements? We think of the legs, of the claws. We think of them, but reflection tells us that tools such as these would not do: they are too long and too difficult to wield in a confined space. What is required is the miner's short-handled pick, wherewith to drive hard, to insert, to lever and to extract; what is required is the sharp point that enters the earth and crumbles it into fragments. There remain the Lycosa's fangs, delicate weapons which we at first hesitate to associate with such work, so illogical does it seem to dig a pit with surgeon's scalpels.

The fangs are a pair of sharp, curved points, which, when at rest, crook like a finger and take shelter between two strong pillars. The Cat sheathes her claws under the velvet of the paw, to preserve their edge and sharpness. In the same way, the Lycosa protects her poisoned daggers by folding them within the case of two powerful columns, which come plumb on the surface and contain the muscles that work them.

Well, this surgical outfit, intended for stabbing the jugular artery of the prey, suddenly becomes a pick-axe and does rough navvy's work. To witness the underground digging is impossible; but we can, at least, with the exercise of a little patience, see the rubbish carted away. If I watch my captives, without tiring, at a very early hour—for the work takes place mostly at night and at long intervals—in the end I catch them coming up with a load. Contrary to what I expected, the legs take no part in the carting. It is the mouth that acts as the barrow. A tiny ball of earth is held between the fangs and is supported by the palpi, or feelers, which are little arms employed in the service of the mouth-parts. The Lycosa descends cautiously from her turret, goes to some distance to get rid of her burden and quickly dives down again to bring up more.

We have seen enough: we know that the Lycosa's fangs, those lethal weapons, are not afraid to bite into clay and gravel. They knead the excavated rubbish into pellets, take up the mass of earth and carry it outside. The rest follows naturally; it is the fangs that dig, delve and extract. How finely-tempered they must be, not to be blunted by this well-sinker's work and to do duty presently in the surgical operation of stabbing the neck!

I have said that the repairs and extensions of the burrow are made at long intervals. From time to time, the circular parapet receives additions and becomes a little higher; less frequently still, the dwelling is enlarged and deepened. As a rule, the mansion remains as it was for a whole season. Towards the end of winter, in March more than at any other period, the Lycosa seems to wish to give herself a little more space. This is the moment to subject her to certain tests.

We know that the Field Cricket, when removed from his burrow and caged under conditions that would allow him to dig himself a new home should the fit seize him, prefers to tramp from one casual shelter to another, or rather abandons every idea of creating a permanent residence. There is a short season whereat the instinct for building a subterranean gallery is imperatively aroused. When this season is past, the excavating artist, if accidentally deprived of his abode, becomes a wandering Bohemian, careless of a lodging. He has forgotten his talents and he sleeps out.

That the bird, the nest-builder, should neglect its art when it has no brood to care for is perfectly logical: it builds for its family, not for itself. But what shall we say of the Cricket, who is exposed to a thousand mishaps when away from home? The protection of a roof would be of great use to him; and the giddy-pate does not give it a thought, though he is very strong and more capable than ever of digging with his powerful jaws.

What reason can we allege for this neglect? None, unless it be that the season of strenuous burrowing is past. The instincts have a calendar of their own. At the given hour, suddenly they awaken; as suddenly, afterwards, they fall asleep. The ingenious become incompetent when the prescribed period is ended.

On a subject of this kind, we can consult the Spider of the waste-lands. I catch an old Lycosa in the fields and house her, that same day, under wire, in a burrow where I have prepared a soil to her liking. If, by my contrivances and with a bit of reed, I have previously moulded a burrow roughly representing the one from which I took her, the Spider enters it forthwith and seems pleased with her new residence. The product of my art is accepted as her lawful property and undergoes hardly any alterations. In course of time, a bastion is erected around the orifice; the top of the gallery is cemented with silk; and that is all. In this establishment of my building, the animal's behaviour remains what it would be under natural conditions.

But place the Lycosa on the surface of the ground, without first shaping a burrow. What will the homeless Spider do? Dig herself a dwelling, one would think. She has the strength to do so; she is in the prime of life. Besides, the soil is similar to that whence I ousted her and suits the operation perfectly. We therefore expect to see the Spider settled before long in a shaft of her own construction.

We are disappointed. Weeks pass and not an effort is made, not one. Demoralized by the absence of an ambush, the Lycosa hardly vouchsafes a glance at the game which I serve up. The Crickets pass within her reach in vain; most often she scorns them. She slowly wastes away with fasting and boredom. At length, she dies.

Take up your miner's trade again, poor fool! Make yourself a home, since you know how to, and life will be sweet to you for many a long day yet: the weather is fine and victuals plentiful. Dig, delve, go underground, where safety lies. Like an idiot, you refrain; and you perish. Why?

Because the craft which you were wont to ply is forgotten; because the days of patient digging are past and your poor brain is unable to work back. To do a second time what has been done already is beyond your wit. For all your meditative air, you cannot solve the problem of how to reconstruct that which is vanished and gone.

Let us now see what we can do with younger Lycosae, who are at the burrowing-stage. I dig out five or six at the end of February. They are half the size of the old ones; their burrows are equal in diameter to my little finger. Rubbish quite fresh-spread around the pit bears witness to the recent date of the excavations.

Relegated to their wire cages, these young Lycosae behave differently according as the soil placed at their disposal is or is not already provided with a burrow made by me. A burrow is hardly the word: I give them but the nucleus of a shaft, about an inch deep, to lure them on. When in possession of this rudimentary lair, the Spider does not hesitate to pursue the work which I have interrupted in the fields. At night, she digs with a will. I can see this by the heap of rubbish flung aside. She at last obtains a house to suit her, a house surmounted by the usual turret.

The others, on the contrary, those Spiders for whom the thrust of my pencil has not contrived an entrance-hall representing, to a certain extent, the natural gallery whence I dislodged them, absolutely refuse to work; and they die, notwithstanding the abundance of provisions.

The first pursue the season's task. They were digging when I caught them; and, carried away by the enthusiasm of their activity, they go on digging inside my cages. Taken in by my decoy-shaft, they deepen the imprint of the pencil as though they were deepening their real vestibule. They do not begin their labours over again; they continue them.

The second, not having this inducement, this semblance of a burrow mistaken for their own work, forsake the idea of digging and allow themselves to die, because they would have to travel back along the chain of actions and to resume the pick-strokes of the start. To begin all over again requires reflection, a quality wherewith they are not endowed.

To the insect—and we have seen this in many earlier cases—what is done is done and cannot be taken up again. The hands of a watch do not move backwards. The insect behaves in much the same way. Its activity urges it in one direction, ever forwards, without allowing it to retrace its steps, even when an accident makes this necessary.

What the Mason-bees and the others taught us erewhile the Lycosa now confirms in her manner. Incapable of taking fresh pains to build herself a second dwelling, when the first is done for, she will go on the tramp, she will break into a neighbour's house, she will run the risk of being eaten should she not prove the stronger, but she will never think of making herself a home by starting afresh.

What a strange intellect is that of the animal, a mixture of mechanical routine and subtle brain-power! Does it contain gleams that contrive, wishes that pursue a definite object? Following in the wake of so many others, the Lycosa warrants us in entertaining a doubt.

Translator's No­te:

1. Jules Michelet (1798–1874), author of L'Oiseau and L'Insecte, in addition to the historical works for which he is chiefly known. As a lad, he helped his father, a printer by trade, in setting type.

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