Chapter VI. The Burying Beetles: Experiments
Jean-Henri Fabre The Wonders of Instinct
American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus Americanus)
Let us proceed to the rational prowess which has earned for the Necrophorus the better part of his renown and, to begin with, let us submit the case related by Clairville--that of the too hard soil and the call for assistance--to experimental test.
With this object in view, I pave the centre of the space beneath the cover, level with the soil, with a brick and sprinkle the latter with a thin layer of sand. This will be the soil in which digging is impracticable. All about it, for some distance and on the same level, spreads the loose soil, which is easy to dig.
In order to approximate to the conditions of the little story, I must have a Mouse; with a Mole, a heavy mass, the work of removal would perhaps present too much difficulty. To obtain the Mouse I place my friends and neighbours under requisition; they laugh at my whim but none the less proffer their traps. Yet, the moment a Mouse is needed, that very common animal becomes rare. Braving decorum in his speech, which follows the Latin of his ancestors, the Proven?al says, but even more crudely than in my translation: „If you look for dung, the Asses become constipated!“
At last I possess the Mouse of my dreams! She comes to me from that refuge, furnished with a truss of straw, in which official charity gives the hospitality of a day to the beggar wandering over the face of the fertile earth; from that municipal hostel whence one invariably emerges verminous. O Reaumur, who used to invite marquises to see your caterpillars change their skins, what would you have said of a future disciple conversant with such wretchedness as this? Perhaps it is well that we should not be ignorant of it, so that we may take compassion on the sufferings of beasts.
The Mouse so greatly desired is mine. I place her upon the centre of the brick. The grave-diggers under the wire cover are now seven in number, of whom three are females. All have gone to earth: some are inactive, close to the surface; the rest are busy in their crypts. The presence of the fresh corpse is promptly perceived. About seven o'clock in the morning, three Necrophori hurry up, two males and a female. They slip under the Mouse, who moves in jerks, a sign of the efforts of the burying-party. An attempt is made to dig into the layer of sand which hides the brick, so that a bank of sand accumulates about the body.
For a couple of hours the jerks continue without results. I profit by the circumstance to investigate the manner in which the work is performed. The bare brick allows me to see what the excavated soil concealed from me. If it is necessary to move the body, the Beetle turns over; with his six claws he grips the hair of the dead animal, props himself upon his back and pushes, making a lever of his head and the tip of his abdomen. If digging is required, he resumes the normal position. So, turn and turn about, the sexton strives, now with his claws in the air, when it is a question of shifting the body or dragging it lower down; now with his feet on the ground, when it is necessary to deepen the grave.
The point at which the Mouse lies is finally recognized as unassailable. A male appears in the open. He explores the specimen, goes the round of it, scratches a little at random. He goes back; and immediately the body rocks. Is he advising his collaborators of what he has discovered? Is he arranging matters with a view to their establishing themselves elsewhere, on propitious soil?
The facts are far from confirming this idea. When he shakes the body, the others imitate him and push, but without combining their efforts in a given direction, for, after advancing a little towards the edge of the brick, the burden goes back again, returning to the point of departure. In the absence of any concerted understanding, their efforts of leverage are wasted. Nearly three hours are occupied by oscillations which mutually annul one another. The Mouse does not cross the little sand-hill heaped about it by the rakes of the workers.
For the second time a male emerges and makes a round of exploration. A bore is made in workable earth, close beside the brick. This is a trial excavation, to reveal the nature of the soil; a narrow well, of no great depth, into which the insect plunges to half its length. The well-sinker returns to the other workers, who arch their backs, and the load progresses a finger's-breadth towards the point recognized as favourable. Have they done the trick this time? No, for after a while the Mouse recoils. No progress towards a solution of the difficulty.
Now two males come out in search of information, each of his own accord. Instead of stopping at the point already sounded, a point most judiciously chosen, it seemed, on account of its proximity, which would save laborious transportation, they precipitately scour the whole area of the cage, sounding the soil on this side and on that and ploughing superficial furrows in it. They get as far from the brick as the limits of the enclosure permit.
They dig, by preference, against the base of the cover; here they make several borings, without any reason, so far as I can see, the bed of soil being everywhere equally assailable away from the brick; the first point sounded is abandoned for a second, which is rejected in its turn. A third and a fourth are tried; then another and yet another. At the sixth point the selection is made. In all these cases the excavation is by no means a grave destined to receive the Mouse, but a mere trial boring, of inconsiderable depth, its diameter being that of the digger's body.
A return is made to the Mouse, who suddenly quivers, oscillates, advances, recoils, first in one direction, then in another, until in the end the little hillock of sand is crossed. Now we are free of the brick and on excellent soil. Little by little the load advances. This is no cartage by a team hauling in the open, but a jerky displacement, the work of invisible levers. The body seems to move of its own accord.
This time, after so many hesitations, their efforts are concerted; at all events, the load reaches the region sounded far more rapidly than I expected. Then begins the burial, according to the usual method. It is one o'clock. The Necrophori have allowed the hour-hand of the clock to go half round the dial while verifying the condition of the surrounding spots and displacing the Mouse.
In this experiment it appears at the outset that the males play a major part in the affairs of the household. Better-equipped, perhaps, than their mates, they make investigations when a difficulty occurs; they inspect the soil, recognize whence the check arises and choose the point at which the grave shall be made. In the lengthy experiment of the brick, the two males alone explored the surroundings and set to work to solve the difficulty. Confiding in their assistance, the female, motionless beneath the Mouse, awaited the result of their investigations. The tests which are to follow will confirm the merits of these valiant auxiliaries.
In the second place, the point where the Mouse lay being recognized as presenting an insurmountable resistance, there was no grave dug in advance, a little farther off, in the light soil. All attempts were limited, I repeat, to shallow soundings which informed the insect of the possibility of inhumation.
It is absolute nonsense to speak of their first preparing the grave to which the body will afterwards be carted. To excavate the soil, our grave-diggers must feel the weight of their dead on their backs. They work only when stimulated by the contact of its fur. Never, never in this world do they venture to dig a grave unless the body to be buried already occupies the site of the cavity. This is absolutely confirmed by my two and a half months and more of daily observations.
The rest of Clairville's anecdote bears examination no better. We are told that the Necrophorus in difficulties goes in search of assistance and returns with companions who assist him to bury the Mouse. This, in another form, is the edifying story of the Sacred Beetle whose pellet had rolled into a rut. powerless to withdraw his treasure from the gulf, the wily Dung-beetle called together three or four of his neighbours, who benevolently recovered the pellet, returning to their labours after the work of salvage.
The exploit--so ill-interpreted--of the thieving pill-roller sets me on my guard against that of the undertaker. Shall I be too exigent if I enquire what precautions the observer adopted to recognize the owner of the Mouse on his return, when he reappears, as we are told, with four assistants? What sign denotes that one of the five who was able, in so rational a manner, to appeal for help? Can one even be sure that the one to disappear returns and forms one of the band? There is nothing to indicate it; and this was the essential point which a sterling observer was bound not to neglect. Were they not rather five chance Necrophori who, guided by the smell, without any previous understanding, hastened to the abandoned Mouse to exploit her on their own account? I incline to this opinion, the most likely of all in the absence of exact information.
Probability becomes certainty if we submit the case to the verification of experiment. The test with the brick already gives us some information. For six hours my three specimens exhausted themselves in efforts before they got to the length of removing their booty and placing it on practicable soil. In this long and heavy task helpful neighbours would have been anything but unwelcome. Four other Necrophori, buried here and there under a little sand, comrades and acquaintances, helpers of the day before, were occupying the same cage; and not one of those concerned thought of summoning them to give assistance. Despite their extreme embarrassment, the owners of the Mouse accomplished their task to the end, without the least help, though this could have been so easily requisitioned.
Being three, one might say, they considered themselves sufficiently strong; they needed no one else to lend them a hand. The objection does not hold good. On many occasions and under conditions even more difficult than those presented by a stony soil, I have again and again seen isolated Necrophori exhausting themselves in striving against my artifices; yet not once did they leave their work to recruit helpers. Collaborators, it is true, did often arrive, but they were convoked by their sense of smell, not by the first possessor. They were fortuitous helpers; they were never called in. They were welcomed without disagreement, but also without gratitude. They were not summoned; they were tolerated. In the glazed shelter where I keep the cage I happened to catch one of these chance assistants in the act. Passing that way in the night and scenting dead flesh, he had entered where none of his kind had yet penetrated of his own free will. I surprised him on the wire-gauze dome of the cover. If the wire had not prevented him, he would have set to work incontinently, in company with the rest. Had my captives invited him? Assuredly not. He had hastened thither attracted by the odour of the Mole, heedless of the efforts of others. So it was with those whose obliging assistance is extolled. I repeat, in respect of their imaginary prowess, what I have said elsewhere of that of the Sacred Beetles: the story is a childish one, worthy of ranking with any fairy-tale written for the amusement of the simple.
A hard soil, necessitating the removal of the body, is not the only difficulty familiar to the Necrophori. Often, perhaps more often than not, the ground is covered with grass, above all with couch-grass, whose tenacious rootlets form an inextricable network below the surface. To dig in the interstices is possible, but to drag the dead animal through them is another matter: the meshes of the net are too close to give it passage. Will the grave-digger find himself reduced to impotence by such an impediment, which must be an extremely common one? That could not be.
Exposed to this or that habitual obstacle in the exercise of his calling, the animal is always equipped accordingly; otherwise his profession would be impracticable. No end is attained without the necessary means and aptitudes. Besides that of the excavator, the Necrophorus certainly possesses another art: the art of breaking the cables, the roots, the stolons, the slender rhizomes which check the body's descent into the grave. To the work of the shovel and the pick must be added that of the shears. All this is perfectly logical and may be foreseen with complete lucidity. Nevertheless, let us invoke experiment, the best of witnesses.
I borrow from the kitchen-range an iron trivet whose legs will supply a solid foundation for the engine which I am devising. This is a coarse network of strips of raphia, a fairly accurate imitation of the network of couch-grass roots. The very irregular meshes are nowhere wide enough to admit of the passage of the creature to be buried, which in this case is a Mole. The trivet is planted with its three feet in the soil of the cage; its top is level with the surface of the soil. A little sand conceals the meshes. The Mole is placed in the centre; and my squad of sextons is let loose upon the body.
Without a hitch the burial is accomplished in the course of an afternoon. The hammock of raphia, almost equivalent to the natural network of couch-grass turf, scarcely disturbs the process of inhumation. Matters do not go forward quite so quickly; and that is all. No attempt is made to shift the Mole, who sinks into the ground where he lies. The operation completed, I remove the trivet. The network is broken at the spot where the corpse lay. A few strips have been gnawed through; a small number, only so many as were strictly necessary to permit the passage of the body.
Well done, my undertakers! I expected no less of your savoir-faire. You have foiled the artifices of the experimenter by employing your resources against natural obstacles. With mandibles for shears, you have patiently cut my threads as you would have gnawed the cordage of the grass-roots. This is meritorious, if not deserving of exceptional glorification. The most limited of the insects which work in earth would have done as much if subjected to similar conditions.
Let us ascend a stage in the series of difficulties. The Mole is now fixed with a lashing of raphia fore and aft to a light horizontal cross-bar which rests on two firmly-planted forks. It is like a joint of venison on a spit, though rather oddly fastened. The dead animal touches the ground throughout the length of its body.
The Necrophori disappear under the corpse, and, feeling the contact of its fur, begin to dig. The grave grows deeper and an empty space appears, but the coveted object does not descend, retained as it is by the cross-bar which the two forks keep in place. The digging slackens, the hesitations become prolonged.
However, one of the grave-diggers ascends to the surface, wanders over the Mole, inspects him and ends by perceiving the hinder strap. Tenaciously he gnaws and ravels it. I hear the click of the shears that completes the rupture. Crack! The thing is done. Dragged down by his own weight, the Mole sinks into the grave, but slantwise, with his head still outside, kept in place by the second ligature.
The Beetles proceed to the burial of the hinder part of the Mole; they twitch and jerk it now in this direction, now in that. Nothing comes of it; the thing refuses to give. A fresh sortie is made by one of them to discover what is happening overhead. The second ligature is perceived, is severed in turn, and henceforth the work proceeds as well as could be desired.
My compliments, perspicacious cable-cutters! But I must not exaggerate. The lashings of the Mole were for you the little cords with which you are so familiar in turfy soil. You have severed them, as well as the hammock of the previous experiment, just as you sever with the blades of your shears any natural filament which stretches across your catacombs. It is, in your calling, an indispensable knack. If you had had to learn it by experience, to think it out before practising it, your race would have disappeared, killed by the hesitations of its apprenticeship, for the spots fertile in Moles, Frogs, Lizards and other victuals to your taste are usually grass-covered.
You are capable of far better things yet; but, before proceeding to these, let us examine the case when the ground bristles with slender brushwood, which holds the corpse at a short distance from the ground. Will the find thus suspended by the hazard of its fall remain unemployed? Will the Necrophori pass on, indifferent to the superb tit-bit which they see and smell a few inches above their heads, or will they make it descend from its gibbet?
Game does not abound to such a point that it can be disdained if a few efforts will obtain it. Before I see the thing happen I am persuaded that it will fall, that the Necrophori, often confronted by the difficulties of a body which is not lying on the soil, must possess the instinct to shake it to the ground. The fortuitous support of a few bits of stubble, of a few interlaced brambles, a thing so common in the fields, should not be able to baffle them. The overthrow of the suspended body, if placed too high, should certainly form part of their instinctive methods. For the rest, let us watch them at work.
I plant in the sand of the cage a meagre tuft of thyme. The shrub is at most some four inches in height. In the branches I place a Mouse, entangling the tail, the paws and the neck among the twigs in order to increase the difficulty. The population of the cage now consists of fourteen Necrophori and will remain the same until the close of my investigations. Of course they do not all take part simultaneously in the day's work; the majority remain underground, somnolent, or occupied in setting their cellars in order. Sometimes only one, often two, three or four, rarely more, busy themselves with the dead creature which I offer them. To-day two hasten to the Mouse, who is soon perceived overhead in the tuft of thyme.
They gain the summit of the plant by way of the wire trellis of the cage. Here are repeated, with increased hesitation, due to the inconvenient nature of the support, the tactics employed to remove the body when the soil is unfavourable. The insect props itself against a branch, thrusting alternately with back and claws, jerking and shaking vigorously until the point where at it is working is freed from its fetters. In one brief shift, by dint of heaving their backs, the two collaborators extricate the body from the entanglement of twigs. Yet another shake; and the Mouse is down. The burial follows.
There is nothing new in this experiment; the find has been dealt with just as though it lay upon soil unsuitable for burial. The fall is the result of an attempt to transport the load.
The time has come to set up the Frog's gibbet celebrated by Gledditsch. The batrachian is not indispensable; a Mole will serve as well or even better. With a ligament of raphia I fix him, by his hind-legs, to a twig which I plant vertically in the ground, inserting it to no great depth. The creature hangs plumb against the gibbet, its head and shoulders making ample contact with the soil.
The gravediggers set to work beneath the part which lies upon the ground, at the very foot of the stake; they dig a funnel-shaped hole, into which the muzzle, the head and the neck of the mole sink little by little. The gibbet becomes uprooted as they sink and eventually falls, dragged over by the weight of its heavy burden. I am assisting at the spectacle of the overturned stake, one of the most astonishing examples of rational accomplishment which has ever been recorded to the credit of the insect.
This, for one who is considering the problem of instinct, is an exciting moment. But let us beware of forming conclusions as yet; we might be in too great a hurry. Let us ask ourselves first whether the fall of the stake was intentional or fortuitous. Did the Necrophori lay it bare with the express intention of causing it to fall? Or did they, on the contrary, dig at its base solely in order to bury that part of the mole which lay on the ground? that is the question, which, for the rest, is very easy to answer.
The experiment is repeated; but this time the gibbet is slanting and the Mole, hanging in a vertical position, touches the ground at a couple of inches from the base of the gibbet. Under these conditions absolutely no attempt is made to overthrow the latter. Not the least scrape of a claw is delivered at the foot of the gibbet. The entire work of excavation is accomplished at a distance, under the body, whose shoulders are lying on the ground. There--and there only--a hole is dug to receive the free portion of the body, the part accessible to the sextons.
A difference of an inch in the position of the suspended animal annihilates the famous legend. Even so, many a time, the most elementary sieve, handled with a little logic, is enough to winnow the confused mass of affirmations and to release the good grain of truth.
Yet another shake of the sieve. The gibbet is oblique or vertical indifferently; but the Mole, always fixed by a hinder limb to the top of the twig, does not touch the soil; he hangs a few fingers'-breadths from the ground, out of the sextons' reach.
What will the latter do? Will they scrape at the foot of the gibbet in order to overturn it? By no means; and the ingenuous observer who looked for such tactics would be greatly disappointed. No attention is paid to the base of the support. It is not vouchsafed even a stroke of the rake. Nothing is done to overturn it, nothing, absolutely nothing! It is by other methods that the Burying-beetles obtain the Mole.
These decisive experiments, repeated under many different forms, prove that never, never in this world do the Necrophori dig, or even give a superficial scrape, at the foot of the gallows, unless the hanging body touch the ground at that point. And, in the latter case, if the twig should happen to fall, its fall is in nowise an intentional result, but a mere fortuitous effect of the burial already commenced.
What, then, did the owner of the Frog of whom Gledditsch tells us really see? If his stick was overturned, the body placed to dry beyond the assaults of the Necrophori must certainly have touched the soil: a strange precaution against robbers and the damp! We may fittingly attribute more foresight to the preparer of dried Frogs and allow him to hang the creature some inches from the ground. In this case all my experiments emphatically assert that the fall of the stake undermined by the sextons is a pure matter of imagination.
Yet another of the fine arguments in favour of the reasoning power of animals flies from the light of investigation and founders in the slough of error! I admire your simple faith, you masters who take seriously the statements of chance-met observers, richer in imagination than in veracity; I admire your credulous zeal, when, without criticism, you build up your theories on such absurdities.
Let us proceed. The stake is henceforth planted vertically, but the body hanging on it does not reach the base: a condition which suffices to ensure that there is never any digging at this point. I make use of a Mouse, who, by reason of her trifling weight, will lend herself better to the insect's manoeuvres. The dead body is fixed by the hind-legs to the top of the stake with a ligature of raphia. It hangs plumb, in contact with the stick.
Very soon two Necrophori have discovered the tit-bit. They climb up the miniature mast; they explore the body, dividing its fur by thrusts of the head. It is recognized to be an excellent find. So to work. Here we have again, but under far more difficult conditions, the tactics employed when it was necessary to displace the unfavourably situated body: the two collaborators slip between the Mouse and the stake, when, taking a grip of the latter and exerting a leverage with their backs, they jerk and shake the body, which oscillates, twirls about, swings away from the stake and relapses. All the morning is passed in vain attempts, interrupted by explorations on the animal's body.
In the afternoon the cause of the check is at last recognized; not very clearly, for in the first place the two obstinate riflers of the gallows attack the hind-legs of the Mouse, a little below the ligature. They strip them bare, flay them and cut away the flesh about the heel. They have reached the bone, when one of them finds the raphia beneath his mandibles. This, to him, is a familiar thing, representing the gramineous fibre so frequent in the case of burial in grass-covered soil. Tenaciously the shears gnaw at the bond; the vegetable fetter is severed and the Mouse falls, to be buried a little later.
If it were isolated, this severance of the suspending tie would be a magnificent performance; but considered in connection with the sum of the Beetle's customary labours it loses all far-reaching significance. Before attacking the ligature, which was not concealed in any way, the insect exerted itself for a whole morning in shaking the body, its usual method. Finally, finding the cord, it severed it, as it would have severed a ligament of couch-grass encountered underground.
Under the conditions devised for the Beetle, the use of the shears is the indispensable complement of the use of the shovel; and the modicum of discernment at his disposal is enough to inform him when the blades of his shears will be useful. He cuts what embarrasses him with no more exercise of reason than he displays when placing the corpse underground. So little does he grasp the connection between cause and effect that he strives to break the bone of the leg before gnawing at the bast which is knotted close beside him. The difficult task is attacked before the extremely simple.
Difficult, yes, but not impossible, provided that the Mouse be young. I begin again with a ligature of iron wire, on which the shears of the insect can obtain no purchase, and a tender Mouselet, half the size of an adult. This time a tibia is gnawed through, cut in two by the Beetle's mandibles near the spring of the heel. The detached member leaves plenty of space for the other, which readily slips from the metallic band; and the little body falls to the ground.
But, if the bone be too hard, if the body suspended be that of a Mole, an adult Mouse, or a Sparrow, the wire ligament opposes an insurmountable obstacle to the attempts of the Necrophori, who, for nearly a week, work at the hanging body, partly stripping it of fur or feather and dishevelling it until it forms a lamentable object, and at last abandon it, when desiccation sets in. A last resource, however, remains, one as rational as infallible. It is to overthrow the stake. Of course, not one dreams of doing so.
For the last time let us change our artifices. The top of the gibbet consists of a little fork, with the prongs widely opened and measuring barely two-fifths of an inch in length. With a thread of hemp, less easily attacked than a strip of raphia, I bind together, a little above the heels, the hind-legs of an adult Mouse; and between the legs I slip one of the prongs of the fork. To make the body fall it is enough to slide it a little way upwards; it is like a young Rabbit hanging in the front of a poulterer's shop.
Five Necrophori come to inspect my preparations. After a great deal of futile shaking, the tibiae are attacked. This, it seems, is the method usually employed when the body is retained by one of its limbs in some narrow fork of a low-growing plant. While trying to saw through the bone--a heavy job this time--one of the workers slips between the shackled limbs. So situated, he feels against his back the furry touch of the Mouse. Nothing more is needed to arouse his propensity to thrust with his back. With a few heaves of the lever the thing is done; the Mouse rises a little, slides over the supporting peg and falls to the ground.
Is this manoeuvre really thought out? Has the insect indeed perceived, by the light of a flash of reason, that in order to make the tit-bit fall it was necessary to unhook it by sliding it along the peg? Has it really perceived the mechanism of suspension? I know some persons--indeed, I know many--who, in the presence of this magnificent result, would be satisfied without further investigation.
More difficult to convince, I modify the experiment before drawing a conclusion. I suspect that the Necrophorus, without any prevision of the consequences of his action, heaved his back simply because he felt the legs of the creature above him. With the system of suspension adopted, the push of the back, employed in all cases of difficulty, was brought to bear first upon the point of support; and the fall resulted from this happy coincidence. That point, which has to be slipped along the peg in order to unhook the object, ought really to be situated at a short distance from the Mouse, so that the Necrophori shall no longer feel her directly against their backs when they push.
A piece of wire binds together now the tarsi of a Sparrow, now the heels of a Mouse and is bent, at a distance of three-quarters of an inch or so, into a little ring, which slips very loosely over one of the prongs of the fork, a short, almost horizontal prong. To make the hanging body fall, the slightest thrust upon this ring is sufficient; and, owing to its projection from the peg, it lends itself excellently to the insect's methods. In short, the arrangement is the same as it was just now, with this difference, that the point of support is at a short distance from the suspended animal.
My trick, simple though it be, is fully successful. For a long time the body is repeatedly shaken, but in vain; the tibiae or tarsi, unduly hard, refuse to yield to the patient saw. Sparrows and Mice grow dry and shrivelled, unused, upon the gibbet. Sooner in one case, later in another, my Necrophori abandon the insoluble problem in mechanics: to push, ever so little, the movable support and so to unhook the coveted carcass.
Curious reasoners, in faith! If they had had, but now, a lucid idea of the mutual relations between the shackled limbs and the suspending peg; if they had made the Mouse fall by a reasoned manoeuvre, whence comes it that the present artifice, no less simple than the first, is to them an insurmountable obstacle? For days and days they work on the body, examine it from head to foot, without becoming aware of the movable support, the cause of their misadventure. In vain do I prolong my watch; never do I see a single one of them push it with his foot or butt it with his head.
Their defeat is not due to lack of strength. Like the Geotrupes, they are vigorous excavators. Grasped in the closed hand, they insinuate themselves through the interstices of the fingers and plough up your skin in a fashion to make you very quickly loose your hold. With his head, a robust ploughshare, the Beetle might very easily push the ring off its short support. He is not able to do so because he does not think of it; he does not think of it because he is devoid of the faculty attributed to him, in order to support its thesis, by the dangerous prodigality of transformism.
Divine reason, sun of the intellect, what a clumsy slap in thy august countenance, when the glorifiers of the animal degrade thee with such dullness!
Let us now examine under another aspect the mental obscurity of the Necrophori. My captives are not so satisfied with their sumptuous lodging that they do not seek to escape, especially when there is a dearth of labour, that sovran consoler of the afflicted, man or beast. Internment within the wire cover palls upon them. So, the Mole buried and all in order in the cellar, they stray uneasily over the wire-gauze of the dome; they clamber up, descend, ascend again and take to flight, a flight which instantly becomes a fall, owing to collision with the wire grating. They pick themselves up and begin again. The sky is superb; the weather is hot, calm and propitious for those in search of the Lizard crushed beside the footpath. Perhaps the effluvia of the gamy tit-bit have reached them, coming from afar, imperceptible to any other sense than that of the Sexton-beetles. So my Necrophori are fain to go their ways.
Can they? Nothing would be easier if a glimmer of reason were to aid them. Through the wire network, over which they have so often strayed, they have seen, outside, the free soil, the promised land which they long to reach. A hundred times if once have they dug at the foot of the rampart. There, in vertical wells, they take up their station, drowsing whole days on end while unemployed. If I give them a fresh Mole, they emerge from their retreat by the entrance corridor and come to hide themselves beneath the belly of the beast. The burial over, they return, one here, one there, to the confines of the enclosure and disappear beneath the soil.
Well, in two and a half months of captivity, despite long stays at the base of the trellis, at a depth of three-quarters of an inch beneath the surface, it is rare indeed for a Necrophorus to succeed in circumventing the obstacle, to prolong his excavation beneath the barrier, to make an elbow in it and to bring it out on the other side, a trifling task for these vigorous creatures. Of fourteen only one succeeded in escaping.
A chance deliverance and not premeditated; for, if the happy event had been the result of a mental combination, the other prisoners, practically his equals in powers of perception, would all, from first to last, discover by rational means the elbowed path leading to the outer world; and the cage would promptly be deserted. The failure of the great majority proves that the single fugitive was simply digging at random. Circumstances favoured him; and that is all. Do not let us make it a merit that he succeeded where all the others failed.
Let us also beware of attributing to the Necrophori an understanding more limited than is usual in entomological psychology. I find the ineptness of the undertaker in all the insects reared under the wire cover, on the bed of sand into which the rim of the dome sinks a little way. With very rare exceptions, fortuitous accidents, no insect has thought of circumventing the barrier by way of the base; none has succeeded in gaining the exterior by means of a slanting tunnel, not even though it were a miner by profession, as are the Dung-beetles par excellence. Captives under the wire dome, but desirous of escape, Sacred Beetles, Geotrupes, Copres, Gymnopleuri, Sisyphi, all see about them the freedom of space, the joys of the open sunlight; and not one thinks of going round under the rampart, a front which would present no difficulty to their pick-axes.
Even in the higher ranks of animality, examples of similar mental obfuscation are not lacking. Audubon relates how, in his days, the wild Turkeys were caught in North America.
In a clearing known to be frequented by these birds, a great cage was constructed with stakes driven into the ground. In the centre of the enclosure opened a short tunnel, which dipped under the palisade and returned to the surface outside the cage by a gentle slope, which was open to the sky. The central opening, large enough to give a bird free passage, occupied only a portion of the enclosure, leaving around it, against the circle of stakes, a wide unbroken zone. A few handfuls of maize were scattered in the interior of the trap, as well as round about it, and in particular along the sloping path, which passed under a sort of bridge and led to the centre of the contrivance. In short, the Turkey-trap presented an ever-open door. The bird found it in order to enter, but did not think of looking for it in order to return by it.
According to the famous American ornithologist, the Turkeys, lured by the grains of maize, descended the insidious slope, entered the short underground passage and beheld, at the end of it, plunder and the light. A few steps farther and the gluttons emerged, one by one, from beneath the bridge. They distributed themselves about the enclosure. The maize was abundant; and the Turkeys' crops grew swollen.
When all was gathered, the band wished to retreat, but not one of the prisoners paid any attention to the central hole by which he had arrived. Gobbling uneasily, they passed again and again across the bridge whose arch was yawning beside them; they circled round against the palisade, treading a hundred times in their own footprints; they thrust their necks, with their crimson wattles, through the bars; and there, with beaks in the open air, they remained until they were exhausted.
Remember, inept fowl, the occurrences of a little while ago; think of the tunnel which led you hither! If there be in that poor brain of yours an atom of capacity, put two ideas together and remind yourself that the passage by which you entered is there and open for your escape! You will do nothing of the kind. The light, an irresistible attraction, holds you subjugated against the palisade; and the shadow of the yawning pit, which has but lately permitted you to enter and will quite as readily permit of your exit, leaves you indifferent. To recognize the use of this opening you would have to reflect a little, to evolve the past; but this tiny retrospective calculation is beyond your powers. So the trapper, returning a few days later, will find a rich booty, the entire flock imprisoned!
Of poor intellectual repute, does the Turkey deserve his name for stupidity? He does not appear to be more limited than another. Audubon depicts him as endowed with certain useful ruses, in particular when he has to baffle the attacks of his nocturnal enemy, the Virginian Owl. As for his actions in the snare with the underground passage, any other bird, impassioned of the light, would do the same.
Under rather more difficult conditions, the Necrophorus repeats the ineptness of the Turkey. When he wishes to return to the open daylight, after resting in a short burrow against the rim of the wire cover, the Beetle, seeing a little light filtering down through the loose soil, reascends by the path of entry, incapable of telling himself that it would suffice to prolong the tunnel as far in the opposite direction for him to reach the outer world beyond the wall and gain his freedom. Here again is one in whom we shall seek in vain for any indication of reflection. Like the rest, in spite of his legendary renown, he has no guide but the unconscious promptings of instinct.