Chapter V. The Narbonne Lycosa: the Family
Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider
***Black Bellied Tarantula (Lycosa Narbonensis)**
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 third chapter of this volume, 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 returns 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 pill rips open along the middle fold. We read of the origin of this fold in an earlier chapter (1). Does the mother, feeling the brood quicken inside the satin wrapper, herself break open the vessel at the opportune moment? It seems probable. On the other hand, there may be a spontaneous bursting, such as we shall see later in the Banded Epeira's balloon, a tough wallet which opens a breach of its own accord, long after the mother has ceased to exist.
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 elsewhence. There is no question here of real maternal affection.
I have described elsewhere the prowess of the Copris (2) 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 to them attentively and enquires by ear into each nursling'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 overburdened 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 posession 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 beastie'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, although 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 beastie 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 food-stuffs. 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 would 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 returned 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. It is repeated in the same way daily, if the weather be mild, until the hour of emancipation comes, followed by the first mouthfuls of solid food.
1. Chapter III. of the present volume.
2. A species of Dung-beetle. Cf. The Life and Love of the Insect, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chap. v.