Chapter XIII. The Glow-Worm

Jean-Henri Fabre The Wonders of Instinct

glow worm

The Glow Worm

What is his object in thus sponging himself, in dusting and polishing himself so carefully? It is a question, apparently, of removing a few atoms of dust or else some traces of viscidity that remain from the evil contact with the Snail. A wash and brush-up is not superfluous when one leaves the tub in which the Mollusc has been treated.

If the Glow-worm possessed no other talent than that of chloroforming his prey by means of a few tweaks resembling kisses, he would be unknown to the vulgar herd; but he also knows how to light himself like a beacon; he shines, which is an excellent manner of achieving fame. Let us consider more particularly the female, who, while retaining her larval shape, becomes marriageable and glows at her best during the hottest part of summer. The lighting-apparatus occupies the last three segments of the abdomen. On each of the first two it takes the form, on the ventral surface, of a wide belt covering almost the whole of the arch; on the third the luminous part is much less and consists simply of two small crescent-shaped markings, or rather two spots which shine through to the back and are visible both above and below the animal. Belts and spots emit a glorious white light, delicately tinged with blue. The general lighting of the Glow-worm thus comprises two groups: first, the wide belts of the two segments preceding the last; secondly, the two spots of the final segments. The two belts, the exclusive attribute of the marriageable female, are the parts richest in light: to glorify her wedding, the future mother dons her brightest gauds; she lights her two resplendent scarves. But, before that, from the time of the hatching, she had only the modest rush-light of the stern. This efflorescence of light is the equivalent of the final metamorphosis, which is usually represented by the gift of wings and flight. Its brilliance heralds the pairing-time. Wings and flight there will be none: the female retains her humble larval form, but she kindles her blazing beacon.

The male, on his side, is fully transformed, changes his shape, acquires wings and wing-cases; nevertheless, like the female, he possesses, from the time when he is hatched, the pale lamp of the end segment. This luminous aspect of the stern is characteristic of the entire Glow-worm tribe, independently of sex and season. It appears upon the budding grub and continues throughout life unchanged. And we must not forget to add that it is visible on the dorsal as well as on the ventral surface, whereas the two large belts peculiar to the female shine only under the abdomen.

My hand is not so steady nor my sight so good as once they were; but, as far as they allow me, I consult anatomy for the structure of the luminous organs. I take a scrap of the epidermis and manage to separate pretty nearly half of one of the shining belts. I place my preparation under the microscope. On the skin a sort of white-wash lies spread, formed of a very fine, granular substance. This is certainly the light-producing matter. To examine this white layer more closely is beyond the power of my weary eyes. Just beside it is a curious air-tube, whose short and remarkably wide stem branches suddenly into a sort of bushy tuft of very delicate ramifications. These creep over the luminous sheet, or even dip into it. That is all.

The luminescence, therefore, is controlled by the respiratory organs and the work produced is an oxidation. The white sheet supplies the oxidizable matter and the thick air-tube spreading into a tufty bush distributes the flow of air over it. There remains the question of the substance whereof this sheet is formed. The first suggestion was phosphorus, in the chemist's sense of the word. The Glow-worm was calcined and treated with the violent reagents that bring the simple substances to light; but no one, so far as I know, has obtained a satisfactory answer along these lines. Phosphorus seems to play no part here, in spite of the name of phosphorescence which is sometimes bestowed upon the Glow-worm's gleam. The answer lies elsewhere, no one knows where.

We are better-informed as regards another question. Has the Glow-worm a free control of the light which he emits? Can he turn it on or down or put it out as he pleases? Has he an opaque screen which is drawn over the flame at will, or is that flame always left exposed? There is no need for any such mechanism: the insect has something better for its revolving light.

The thick air-tube supplying the light-producing sheet increases the flow of air and the light is intensified; the same tube, swayed by the animal's will, slackens or even suspends the passage of air and the light grows fainter or even goes out. It is, in short, the mechanism of a lamp which is regulated by the access of air to the wick.

Excitement can set the attendant air-duct in motion. We must here distinguish between two cases: that of the gorgeous scarves, the exclusive ornament of the female ripe for matrimony, and that of the modest fairy-lamp on the last segment, which both sexes kindle at any age. In the second case, the extinction caused by a flurry is sudden and complete, or nearly so. In my nocturnal hunts for young Glow-worms, measuring about 5 millimetres long (.195 inch.), I can plainly see the glimmer on the blades of grass; but, should the least false step disturb a neighbouring twig, the light goes out at once and the coveted insect becomes invisible. Upon the full-grown females, lit up with their nuptial scarves, even a violent start has but a slight effect and often none at all.

I fire a gun beside a wire-gauze cage in which I am rearing my menagerie of females in the open air. The explosion produces no result. The illumination continues, as bright and placid as before. I take a spray and rain down a slight shower of cold water upon the flock. Not one of my animals puts out its light; at the very most, there is a brief pause in the radiance; and then only in some cases. I send a puff of smoke from my pipe into the cage. This time the pause is more marked. There are even some extinctions, but these do not last long. Calm soon returns and the light is renewed as brightly as ever. I take some of the captives in my fingers, turn and return them, tease them a little. The illumination continues and is not much diminished, if I do not press hard with my thumb. At this period, with the pairing close at hand, the insect is in all the fervour of its passionate splendour, and nothing short of very serious reasons would make it put out its signals altogether.

All things considered, there is not a doubt but that the Glow-worm himself manages his lighting apparatus, extinguishing and rekindling it at will; but there is one point at which the voluntary agency of the insect is without effect. I detach a strip of the epidermis showing one of the luminescent sheets and place it in a glass tube, which I close with a plug of damp wadding, to avoid an over-rapid evaporation. Well, this scrap of carcass shines away merrily, although not quite as brilliantly as on the living body.

Life's aid is now superfluous. The oxidizable substance, the luminescent sheet, is in direct communication with the surrounding atmosphere; the flow of oxygen through an air-tube is not necessary; and the luminous emission continues to take place, in the same way as when it is produced by the contact of the air with the real phosphorus of the chemists. Let us add that, in aerated water, the luminousness continues as brilliant as in the free air, but that it is extinguished in water deprived of its air by boiling. No better proof could be found of what I have already propounded, namely, that the Glow-worm's light is the effect of a slow oxidation.

The light is white, calm and soft to the eyes and suggests a spark dropped by the full moon. Despite its splendour, it is a very feeble illuminant. If we move a Glow-worm along a line of print, in perfect darkness, we can easily make out the letters, one by one, and even words, when these are not too long; but nothing more is visible beyond a narrow zone. A lantern of this kind soon tires the reader's patience.

Suppose a group of Glow-worms placed almost touching one another. Each of them sheds its glimmer, which ought, one would think, to light up its neighbours by reflexion and give us a clear view of each individual specimen. But not at all: the luminous party is a chaos in which our eyes are unable to distinguish any definite form at a medium distance. The collective lights confuse the light-bearers into one vague whole.

Photography gives us a striking proof of this. I have a score of females, all at the height of their splendour, in a wire-gauze cage in the open air. A tuft of thyme forms a grove in the centre of their establishment. When night comes, my captives clamber to this pinnacle and strive to show off their luminous charms to the best advantage at every point of the horizon, thus forming along the twigs marvellous clusters from which I expected magnificent effects on the photographer's pla­tes and paper. My hopes were disappointed. All that I obtain is white, shapeless patches, denser here and less dense there according to the numbers forming the group. There is no picture of the Glow-worms themselves; not a trace either of the tuft of thyme. For want of satisfactory light, the glorious firework is represented by a blurred splash of white on a black ground.

The beacons of the female Glow-worms are evidently nuptial signals, invitations to the pairing; but observe that they are lighted on the lower surface of the abdomen and face the ground, whereas the summoned males, whose flights are sudden and uncertain, travel overhead, in the air, sometimes a great way up. In its normal position, therefore, the glittering lure is concealed from the eyes of those concerned; it is covered by the thick bulk of the bride. The lantern ought really to gleam on the back and not under the belly; otherwise the light is hidden under a bushel.

The anomaly is corrected in a very ingenious fashion, for every female has her little wiles of coquetry. At nightfall, every evening, my caged captives make for the tuft of thyme with which I have thoughtfully furnished the prison and climb to the top of the upper branches, those most in sight. Here, instead of keeping quiet, as they did at the foot of the bush just now, they indulge in violent exercises, twist the tip of their very flexible abdomen, turn it to one side, turn it to the other, jerk it in every direction. In this way, the searchlight cannot fail to gleam, at one moment or another, before the eyes of every male who goes a-wooing in the neighbourhood, whether on the ground or in the air.

It is very like the working of the revolving mirror used in catching Larks. If stationary, the little contrivance would leave the bird indifferent; turning and breaking up its light in rapid flashes, it excites it.

While the female Glow-worm has her tricks for summoning her swains, the male, on his side, is provided with an optical apparatus suited to catch from afar the least reflection of the calling signal. His corselet expands into a shield and overlaps his head considerably in the form of a peaked cap or a shade, the object of which appears to be to limit the field of vision and concentrate the view upon the luminous speck to be discerned. Under this arch are the two eyes, which are relatively enormous, exceedingly convex, shaped like a skull-cap and contiguous to the extent of leaving only a narrow groove for the insertion of the antennae. This double eye, occupying almost the whole face of the insect and contained in the cavern formed by the spreading peak of the corselet, is a regular Cyclops' eye.

At the moment of the pairing the illumination becomes much fainter, is almost extinguished; all that remains alight is the humble fairy-lamp of the last segment. This discreet night-light is enough for the wedding, while, all around, the host of nocturnal insects, lingering over their respective affairs, murmur the universal marriage-hymn. The laying follows very soon. The round, white eggs are laid, or rather strewn at random, without the least care on the mother's part, either on the more or less cool earth or on a blade of grass. These brilliant ones know nothing at all of family affection.

Here is a very singular thing: the Glow-worm's eggs are luminous even when still contained in the mother's womb. If I happen by accident to crush a female big with germs that have reached maturity, a shiny streak runs along my fingers, as though I had broken some vessel filled with a phosphorescent fluid. The lens shows me that I am wrong. The luminosity comes from the cluster of eggs forced out of the ovary. Besides, as laying-time approaches, the phosphorescence of the eggs is already made manifest through this clumsy midwifery. A soft opalescent light shines through the integument of the belly.

The hatching follows soon after the laying. The young of either sex have two little rush-lights on the last segment. At the approach of the severe weather they go down into the ground, but not very far. In my rearing-jars, which are supplied with fine and very loose earth, they descend to a depth of three or four inches at most. I dig up a few in mid-winter. I always find them carrying their faint stern-light. About the month of April they come up again to the surface, there to continue and complete their evolution.

From start to finish the Glow-worm's life is one great orgy of light. The eggs are luminous; the grubs likewise. The full-grown females are magnificent lighthouses, the adult males retain the glimmer which the grubs already possessed. We can understand the object of the feminine beacon; but of what use is all the rest of the pyrotechnic display? To my great regret, I cannot tell. It is and will be, for many a day to come, perhaps for all time, the secret of animal physics, which is deeper than the physics of the books.


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