Chapter IX. The Spiders. The Narbonne Lycosa, or Black-Bellied Tarantula. The Burrow.
Jean-Henri Fabre The Wonders of Instinct
Narbonne Lycosa or Black-Bellied Tarantula
Michelet has told us how, as a printer's apprentice in a cellar, he established amicable relations with a Spider (1). 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 on the edge of the case take her share of the sunshine. 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 type-setter'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.
The most robust Spider in my district is the Narbonne Lycosa, or Black-bellied Tarantula, clad in black velvet on the lower surface, especially under the belly, with brown chevrons on the abdomen and grey and white rings around the legs. Her favourite home is the dry, pebbly ground, covered with sun-scorched thyme. In my harmas laboratory there are quite twenty of this Spider's burrows. Rarely do I pass by one of these haunts without giving a glance down the pit where gleam, like diamonds, the four great eyes, the four telescopes, of the hermit. The four others, which are much smaller, are not visible at that depth.
Would I have greater riches, I have but to walk a hundred yards from my house, on the neighbouring plateau, once a shady forest, to-day a dreary solitude where the Cricket browses and the Wheat-ear flits from stone to stone. The love of lucre has laid waste the land. Because wine paid handsomely, they pulled up the forest to plant the vine. Then came the Phylloxera, the vine-stocks perished and the once green table-land is now no more than a desolate stretch where a few tufts of hardy grasses sprout among the pebbles. This waste-land is the Lycosa's paradise: in an hour's time, if need were, I should discover a hundred burrows within a limited range.
These dwellings are pits about a foot deep, perpendicular at first and then bent elbow-wise. The average diameter is an inch. On the edge of the hole stands a kerb, formed of straw, bits and scraps of all sorts and even small pebbles, the size of a hazel-nut. The whole is kept in place and cemented with silk. Often, the Spider confines herself to drawing together the dry blades of the nearest grass, which she ties down with the straps from her spinnerets, without removing the blades from the stems; often, also, she rejects this scaffolding in favour of a masonry constructed of small stones. The nature of the kerb is decided by the nature of the materials within the Lycosa's reach, in the close neighbourhood of the building-yard. There is no selection: everything meets with approval, provided that it be near at hand.
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.
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 demand 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 Spider, who 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.
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.
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.
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 hardy concave paten, now no longer receives anything 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.
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.
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 meet at times, 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 consequence beyond an ephemeral carting. When hatching-time arrives, early in the case of 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 inquiry, 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.
For three weeks and more the Lycosa trails the bag of eggs hanging to her spinnerets. The reader will remember the experiments described in the preceding section, particularly those with the cork ball and the thread pellet which the Spider so foolishly accepts in exchange for the real pill. Well, this exceedingly dull-witted mother, satisfied with aught that knocks against her heels, is about to make us wonder at her devotion.
Whether she come up from her shaft to lean upon the kerb and bask in the sun, whether she suddenly retire underground in the face of danger, or whether she be roaming the country before settling down, never does she let go her precious bag, that very cumbrous burden in walking, climbing or leaping. If, by some accident, it become detached from the fastening to which it is hung, she flings herself madly on her treasure and lovingly embraces it, ready to bite whoso would take it from her. I myself am sometimes the thief. I then hear the points of the poison-fangs grinding against the steel of my pincers, which tug in one direction while the Lycosa tugs in the other. But let us leave the animal alone: with a quick touch of the spinnerets, the pill is restored to its place; and the Spider strides off, still menacing.
Towards the end of summer, all the householders, old or young, whether in captivity on the window-sill or at liberty in the paths of the enclosure, supply me daily with the following improving sight. In the morning, as soon as the sun is hot and beats upon their burrow, the anchorites come up from the bottom with their bag and station themselves at the opening. Long siestas on the threshold in the sun are the order of the day throughout the fine season; but, at the present time, the position adopted is a different one. Formerly, the Lycosa came out into the sun for her own sake. Leaning on the parapet, she had the front half of her body outside the pit and the hinder half inside. The eyes took their fill of light; the belly remained in the dark. When carrying her egg-bag, the Spider reverses the posture: the front is in the pit, the rear outside. With her hind-legs she holds the white pill bulging with germs lifted above the entrance; gently she turns and turns it, so as to present every side to the life-giving rays. And this goes on for half the day, so long as the temperature is high; and it is repeated daily, with exquisite patience, during three or four weeks. To hatch its eggs, the bird covers them with the quilt of its breast; it strains them to the furnace of its heart. The Lycosa turns hers in front of the hearth of hearths: she gives them the sun as an incubator.
In the early days of September the young ones, who have been some time hatched, are ready to come out.
The whole family emerges from the bag straightway. Then and there, the youngsters climb to the mother's back. As for the empty bag, now a worthless shred, it is flung out of the burrow; the Lycosa does not give it a further thought. Huddled together, sometimes in two or three layers, according to their number, the little ones cover the whole back of the mother, who, for seven or eight months to come, will carry her family night and day. Nowhere can we hope to see a more edifying domestic picture than that of the Lycosa clothed in her young.
From time to time I meet a little band of gipsies passing along the high-road on their way to some neighbouring fair. The new-born babe mewls on the mother's breast, in a hammock formed out of a kerchief. The last-weaned is carried pick-a-back; a third toddles clinging to its mother's skirts; others follow closely, the biggest in the rear, ferreting in the blackberry-laden hedgerows. It is a magnificent spectacle of happy-go-lucky fruitfulness. They go their way, penniless and rejoicing. The sun is hot and the earth is fertile.
But how this picture pales before that of the Lycosa, that incomparable gipsy whose brats are numbered by the hundred! And one and all of them, from September to April, without a moment's respite, find room upon the patient creature's back, where they are content to lead a tranquil life and to be carted about.
The little ones are very good; none moves, none seeks a quarrel with his neighbours. Clinging together, they form a continuous drapery, a shaggy ulster under which the mother becomes unrecognizable. Is it an animal, a fluff of wool, a cluster of small seeds fastened to one another? 'Tis impossible to tell at the first glance.
The equilibrium of this living blanket is not so firm but that falls often occur, especially when the mother climbs from indoors and comes to the threshold to let the little ones take the sun. The least brush against the gallery unseats a part of the family. The mishap is not serious. The Hen, fidgeting about her Chicks, looks for the strays, calls them, gathers them together. The Lycosa knows not these maternal alarms. Impassively, she leaves those who drop off to manage their own difficulty, which they do with wonderful quickness. Commend me to those youngsters for getting up without whining, dusting themselves and resuming their seat in the saddle! The unhorsed ones promptly find a leg of the mother, the usual climbing-pole; they swarm up it as fast as they can and recover their places on the bearer's back. The living bark of animals is reconstructed in the twinkling of an eye.
To speak here of mother-love were, I think, extravagant. The Lycosa's affection for her offspring hardly surpasses that of the plant, which is unacquainted with any tender feeling and nevertheless bestows the nicest and most delicate care upon its seeds. The animal, in many cases, knows no other sense of motherhood. What cares the Lycosa for her brood! She accepts another's as readily as her own; she is satisfied so long as her back is burdened with a swarming crowd, whether it issue from her ovaries or elsewhere. There is no question here of real maternal affection.
I have described elsewhere the prowess of the Copris watching over cells that are not her handiwork and do not contain her offspring. With a zeal which even the additional labour laid upon her does not easily weary, she removes the mildew from the alien dung-balls, which far exceed the regular nests in number; she gently scrapes and polishes and repairs them; she listens attentively and enquires by ear into each nurseling's progress. Her real collection could not receive greater care. Her own family or another's: it is all one to her.
The Lycosa is equally indifferent. I take a hair-pencil and sweep the living burden from one of my Spiders, making it fall close to another covered with her little ones. The evicted youngsters scamper about, find the new mother's legs outspread, nimbly clamber up these and mount on the back of the obliging creature, who quietly lets them have their way. They slip in among the others, or, when the layer is too thick, push to the front and pass from the abdomen to the thorax and even to the head, though leaving the region of the eyes uncovered. It does not do to blind the bearer: the common safety demands that. They know this and respect the lenses of the eyes, however populous the assembly be. The whole animal is now covered with a swarming carpet of young, all except the legs, which must preserve their freedom of action, and the under part of the body, where contact with the ground is to be feared.
My pencil forces a third family upon the already over-burdened Spider; and this too is peacefully accepted. The youngsters huddle up closer, lie one on top of the other in layers and room is found for all. The Lycosa has lost the last semblance of an animal, has become a nameless bristling thing that walks about. Falls are frequent and are followed by continual climbings.
I perceive that I have reached the limits, not of the bearer's good-will, but of equilibrium. The Spider would adopt an indefinite further number of foundlings, if the dimensions of her back afforded them a firm hold. Let us be content with this. Let us restore each family to its mother, drawing at random from the lot. There must necessarily be interchanges, but that is of no importance: real children and adopted children are the same thing in the Lycosa's eyes.
One would like to know if, apart from my artifices, in circumstances where I do not interfere, the good-natured dry-nurse sometimes burdens herself with a supplementary family; it would also be interesting to learn what comes of this association of lawful offspring and strangers. I have ample materials wherewith to obtain an answer to both questions. I have housed in the same cage two elderly matrons laden with youngsters. Each has her home as far removed from the other's as the size of the common pan permits. The distance is nine inches or more. It is not enough. Proximity soon kindles fierce jealousies between those intolerant creatures, who are obliged to live far apart so as to secure adequate hunting-grounds.
One morning I catch the two harridans fighting out their quarrel on the floor. The loser is laid flat upon her back; the victress, belly to belly with her adversary, clutches her with her legs and prevents her from moving a limb. Both have their poison-fangs wide open, ready to bite without yet daring, so mutually formidable are they. After a certain period of waiting, during which the pair merely exchange threats, the stronger of the two, the one on top, closes her lethal engine and grinds the head of the prostrate foe. Then she calmly devours the deceased by small mouthfuls.
Now what do the youngsters do, while their mother is being eaten? Easily consoled, heedless of the atrocious scene, they climb on the conqueror's back and quietly take their places among the lawful family. The ogress raises no objection, accepts them as her own. She makes a meal off the mother and adopts the orphans.
Let us add that, for many months yet, until the final emancipation comes, she will carry them without drawing any distinction between them and her own young. Henceforth the two families, united in so tragic a fashion, will form but one. We see how greatly out of place it would be to speak, in this connection, of mother-love and its fond manifestations.
Does the Lycosa at least feed the younglings who, for seven months, swarm upon her back? Does she invite them to the banquet when she has secured a prize? I thought so at first; and, anxious to assist at the family repast, I devoted special attention to watching the mothers eat. As a rule, the prey is consumed out of sight, in the burrow; but sometimes also a meal is taken on the threshold, in the open air. Besides, it is easy to rear the Lycosa and her family in a wire-gauze cage, with a layer of earth wherein the captive will never dream of sinking a well, such work being out of season. Everything then happens in the open.
Well, while the mother munches, chews, expresses the juices and swallows, the youngsters do not budge from their camping-ground on her back. Not one quits its place nor gives a sign of wishing to slip down and join in the meal. Nor does the mother extend an invitation to them to come and recruit themselves, nor put any broken victuals aside for them. She feeds and the others look on, or rather remain indifferent to what is happening. Their perfect quiet during the Lycosa's feast points to the possession of a stomach that knows no cravings.
Then with what are they sustained, during their seven months' upbringing on the mother's back? One conceives a notion of exudations supplied by the bearer's body, in which case the young would feed on their mother, after the manner of parasitic vermin, and gradually drain her strength.
We must abandon this notion. Never are they seen to put their mouths to the skin that should be a sort of teat to them. On the other hand, the Lycosa, far from being exhausted and shrivelling, keeps perfectly well and plump. She has the same pot-belly when she finishes rearing her young as when she began. She has not lost weight: far from it; on the contrary, she has put on flesh: she has gained the wherewithal to beget a new family next summer, one as numerous as to-day's.
Once more, with what do the little ones keep up their strength? We do not like to suggest reserves supplied by the egg as rectifying the animal's expenditure of vital force, especially when we consider that those reserves, themselves so close to nothing, must be economized in view of the silk, a material of the highest importance, of which a plentiful use will be made presently. There must be other powers at play in the tiny animal's machinery.
Total abstinence from food could be understood, if it were accompanied by inertia: immobility is not life. But the young Lycosae, though usually quiet on their mother's back, are at all times ready for exercise and for agile swarming. When they fall from the maternal perambulator, they briskly pick themselves up, briskly scramble up a leg and make their way to the top. It is a splendidly nimble and spirited performance. Besides, once seated, they have to keep a firm balance in the mass; they have to stretch and stiffen their little limbs in order to hang on to their neighbours. As a matter of fact, there is no absolute rest for them. Now physiology teaches us that not a fibre works without some expenditure of energy. The animal, which can be likened, in no small measure, to our industrial machines, demands, on the one hand, the renovation of its organism, which wears out with movement, and, on the other, the maintenance of the heat transformed into action. We can compare it with the locomotive-engine. As the iron horse performs its work, it gradually wears out its pistons, its rods, its wheels, its boiler-tubes, all of which have to be made good from time to time. The founder and the smith repair it, supply it, so to speak, with ‚plastic food,‘ the food that becomes embodied with the whole and forms part of it. But, though it have just come from the engine-shop, it is still inert. To acquire the power of movement it must receive from the stoker a supply of ‚energy-producing food‘; in other words, he lights a few shovelfuls of coal in its inside. This heat will produce mechanical work.
Even so with the beast. As nothing is made from nothing, the egg supplies first the materials of the new-born animal; then the plastic food, the smith of living creatures, increases the body, up to a certain limit, and renews it as it wears away. The stoker works at the same time, without stopping. Fuel, the source of energy, makes but a short stay in the system, where it is consumed and furnishes heat, whence movement is derived. Life is a fire-box. Warmed by its food, the animal machine moves, walks, runs, jumps, swims, flies, sets its locomotory apparatus going in a thousand manners.
To return to the young Lycosae, they grow no larger until the period of their emancipation. I find them at the age of seven months the same as when I saw them at their birth. The egg supplied the materials necessary for their tiny frames; and, as the loss of waste substance is, for the moment, excessively small, or even nil, additional plastic food is not needed so long as the wee creature does not grow. In this respect, the prolonged abstinence presents no difficulty. But there remains the question of energy-producing food, which is indispensable, for the little Lycosa moves, when necessary, and very actively at that. To what shall we attribute the heat expended upon action, when the animal takes absolutely no nourishment?
An idea suggests itself. We say to ourselves that, without being life, a machine is something more than matter, for man has added a little of his mind to it. Now the iron beast, consuming its ration of coal, is really browsing the ancient foliage of arborescent ferns in which solar energy has accumulated.
Beasts of flesh and blood act no otherwise. Whether they mutually devour one another or levy tribute on the plant, they invariably quicken themselves with the stimulant of the sun's heat, a heat stored in grass, fruit, seed and those which feed on such. The sun, the soul of the universe, is the supreme dispenser of energy.
Instead of being served up through the intermediary of food and passing through the ignominious circuit of gastric chemistry, could not this solar energy penetrate the animal directly and charge it with activity, even as the battery charges an accumulator with power? Why not live on sun, seeing that, after all, we find naught but sun in the fruits which we consume?
Chemical science, that bold revolutionary, promises to provide us with synthetic foodstuffs. The laboratory and the factory will take the place of the farm. Why should not physical science step in as well? It would leave the preparation of plastic food to the chemist's retorts; it would reserve for itself that of energy-producing food which, reduced to its exact terms, ceases to be matter. With the aid of some ingenious apparatus, it would pump into us our daily ration of solar energy, to be later expended in movement, whereby the machine would be kept going without the often painful assistance of the stomach and its adjuncts. What a delightful world, where one could lunch off a ray of sunshine!
Is it a dream, or the anticipation of a remote reality? The problem is one of the most important that science can set us. Let us first hear the evidence of the young Lycosae regarding its possibilities.
For seven months, without any material nourishment, they expend strength in moving. To wind up the mechanism of their muscles, they recruit themselves direct with heat and light. During the time when she was dragging the bag of eggs behind her, the mother, at the best moments of the day, came and held up her pill to the sun. With her two hind-legs she lifted it out of the ground into the full light; slowly she turned it and turned it, so that every side might receive its share of the vivifying rays. Well, this bath of life, which awakened the germs, is now prolonged to keep the tender babes active.
Daily, if the sky be clear, the Lycosa, carrying her young, comes up from the burrow, leans on the kerb and spends long hours basking in the sun. Here, on their mother's back, the youngsters stretch their limbs delightedly, saturate themselves with heat, take in reserves of motor-power, absorb energy.
They are motionless; but, if I only blow upon them, they stampede as nimbly as though a hurricane were passing. Hurriedly, they disperse; hurriedly, they reassemble: a proof that, without material nourishment, the little animal machine is always at full pressure, ready to work. When the shade comes, mother and sons go down again, surfeited with solar emanations. The feast of energy at the Sun Tavern is finished for the day.
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.