The Beauties of Nature and the World We Live In, Part II of X

Chapter 2

There is no species of animal or plant which would not well repay, I will not say merely the study of a day, but even the devotion of a lifetime. Their form and structure, development and habits, geographical distribution, relation to other living beings, and past history, constitute an inexhaustible study.

When we consider how much we owe to the Dog, Man’s faithful friend, to the noble Horse, the patient Ox, the Cow, the Sheep, and our other domestic animals, we cannot be too grateful to them; and if we cannot, like some ancient nations, actually worship them, we have perhaps fallen into the other extreme, underrate the sacredness of animal life, and treat them too much like mere machines.

Some species, however, are no doubt more interesting than others, especially perhaps those which live together in true communities, and which offer so many traits some sad, some comical, and all interesting, which reproduce more or less closely the circumstances of our own life.

The modes of animal life are almost infinitely diversified; some live on land, some in water; of those which are aquatic some dwell in rivers, some in lakes or pools, some on the sea-shore, others in the depths of the ocean. Some burrow in the ground, some find their home in the air. Some live in the Arctic regions, some in the burning deserts; one little beetle (Hydrobius) in the thermal waters of Hammam-Meskoutin, at a temperature of 130 deg.. As to food, some are carnivorous and wage open war; some, more insidious, attack their victims from within; others feed on vegetable food, on leaves or wood, on seeds or fruits; in fact, there is scarcely an animal or vegetable substance which is not the special and favourite food of one or more species. Hence to adapt them to these various requirements we find the utmost differences of form and size and structure. Even the same individual often goes through great changes.


The development, indeed, of an animal from birth to maturity is no mere question of growth. The metamorphoses of Insects have long excited the wonder and admiration of all lovers of nature. They depend to a great extent on the fact that the little creatures quit the egg at an early stage of development, and lead a different life, so that the external forces acting on them, are very different from those by which they are affected when they arrive at maturity. A remarkable case is that of certain Beetles which are parasitic on Solitary Bees. The young larva is very active, with six strong legs. It conceals itself in some flower, and when the Bee comes in search of honey, leaps upon her, but is so minute as not to be perceived. The Bee constructs her cell, stores it with honey, and lays her egg. At that moment the little larva quits the Bee and jumps on to the egg, which she proceeds gradually to devour. Having finished the egg, she attacks the honey; but under these circumstances the activity which was at first so necessary has become useless; the legs which did such good service are no longer required; and the active slim larva changes into a white fleshy grub, which floats comfortably in the honey with its mouth just below the surface.

Even in the same group we may find great differences. For instance, in the family of Insects to which Bees and Wasps belong, some have grub larvae, such as the Bee and Ant; some have larvae like caterpillars, such as the Sawflies; and there is a group of minute forms the larvae of which live inside the eggs of other insects, and present very remarkable and abnormal forms.

These differences depend mainly on the mode of life and the character of the food.


Such modifications may be called adaptive, but there are others of a different origin that have reference to the changes which the race has passed through in bygone ages. In fact the great majority of animals do go through metamorphoses (many of them as remarkable, though not so familiar as those of insects), but in many cases they are passed through within the egg and thus escape popular observation. Naturalists who accept the theory of evolution, consider that the development of each individual represents to a certain extent that which the species has itself gone through in the lapse of ages; that every individual contains within itself, so to say, a history of the race. Thus the rudimentary teeth of Cows, Sheep, Whales, etc. (which never emerge from their sockets), the rudimentary toes of many mammals, the hind legs of Whales and of the Boa-constrictor, which are imbedded in the flesh, the rudimentary collar-bone of the Dog, etc., are indications of descent from ancestors in which these organs were fully developed. Again, though used for such different purposes, the paddle of a Whale, the leg of a Horse and of a Mole, the wing of a Bird or a Bat, and the arm of a Man, are all constructed on the same model, include corresponding bones, and are similarly arranged. The long neck of the Giraffe, and the short one of the Whale (if neck it can be called), contain the same number of vertebrae.

Even after birth the young of allied species resemble one another much more than the mature forms. The stripes on the young Lion, the spots on the young Blackbird, are well-known cases; and we find the same law prevalent among the lower animals, as, for instance, among Insects and Crustacea. The Lobster, Crab, Shrimp, and Barnacle are very unlike when full grown, but in their young stages go through essentially similar metamorphoses.

No animal is perhaps in this respect more interesting than the Horse. The skull of a Horse and that of a Man, though differing so much, are, says Flower, “composed of exactly the same number of bones, having the same general arrangement and relation to each other. Not only the individual bones, but every ridge and surface for the attachment of muscles, and every hole for the passage of artery or nerve, seen in the one can be traced in the other.” It is often said that the Horse presents a remarkable peculiarity in that the canine teeth grow but once. There are, however, in most Horses certain spicules or minute points which are shed before the appearance of the permanent canines, and which are probably the last remnants of the true milk canines.

The foot is reduced to a single toe, representing the third digit, but the second and fourth, though rudimentary, are represented by the splint bones; while the foot also contains traces of several muscles, originally belonging to the toes which have now disappeared, and which “linger as it were behind, with new relations and uses, sometimes in a reduced, and almost, if not quite, functionless condition.” Even Man himself presents traces of gill-openings, and indications of other organs which are fully developed in lower animals.


There is in New Zealand a form of Crow (Hura), in which the female has undergone a very curious modification. It is the only case I know, in which the bill is differently shaped in the two sexes. The bird has taken on the habits of a Woodpecker, and the stout crow-like bill of the cock-bird is admirably adapted to tap trees, and if they sound hollow, to dig down to the burrow of the Insect; but it lacks the horny-pointed tip of the tongue, which in the true Woodpecker is provided with recurved hairs, thus enabling that bird to pierce the grub and draw it out. In the Hura, however, the bill of the hen-bird has become much elongated and slightly curved, and when the cock has dug down to the burrow, the hen inserts her long bill and draws out the grub, which they then divide between them: a very pretty illustration of the wife as helpmate to the husband.

It was indeed until lately the general opinion that animals and plants came into existence just as we now see them. We took pleasure in their beauty; their adaptation to their habits and mode of life in many cases could not be overlooked or misunderstood. Nevertheless the book of Nature was like some missal richly illuminated, but written in an unknown tongue. The graceful forms of the letters, the beauty of the colouring, excited our wonder and admiration; but of the true meaning little was known to us; indeed we scarcely realised that there was any meaning to decipher. Now glimpses of the truth are gradually revealing themselves, we perceive that there is a reason, and in many cases we know what the reason is, for every difference in form, in size, and in colour; for every bone and every feather, almost for every hair.


The colours of animals, generally, I believe, serve as a protection. In some, however, they probably render them more attractive to their mates, of which the Peacock is one of the most remarkable illustrations.

In richness of colour birds and insects vie even with flowers. One fine red admiral butterfly, says Jefferies, “whose broad wings, stretched out like fans, looked simply splendid floating round and round the willows which marked the margin of a dry pool. His blue markings were really blue blue velvet his red and the white stroke shone as if sunbeams were in his wings. I wish there were more of these butterflies; in summer, dry summer, when the flowers seem gone and the grass is not so dear to us, and the leaves are dull with heat, a little colour is so pleasant. To me colour is a sort of food; every spot of colour is a drop of wine to the spirit.”

The varied colours which add so much to the beauty of animals and plants are not only thus a delight to the eye, but afford us also some of the most interesting problems in Natural History. Some probably are not in themselves of any direct advantage. The brilliant mother-of-pearl of certain shells, which during life is completely hidden, the rich colours of some internal organs of animals, are not perhaps of any direct benefit, but are incidental, like the rich and brilliant hues of many minerals and precious stones.

But although this may be true, I believe that most of these colours are now of some advantage. “The black back and silvery belly of fishes” have been recently referred to by a distinguished naturalist as being obviously of no direct benefit. I should on the contrary have quoted this case as one where the advantage was obvious. The dark back renders the fish less conspicuous to an eye looking down into the water; while the white under-surface makes them less visible from below. The animals of the desert are sand-coloured; those of the Arctic regions are white like snow, especially in winter; and pelagic animals are blue.

Let us take certain special cases. The Lion, like other desert animals, is sand-coloured; the Tiger which lives in the Jungle has vertical stripes, making him difficult to see among the upright grass; Leopards and the tree-cats are spotted, like rays of light seen through leaves.

An interesting case is that of the animals living in the Sargasso or gulf-weed of the Atlantic. These creatures Fish, Crustacea, and Mollusks alike are characterised by a peculiar colouring, not continuously olive like the Seaweed itself, but blotched with rounded more or less irregular patches of bright, opaque white, so as closely to resemble fronds covered with patches of Flustra or Barnacles.

Take the case of caterpillars, which are especially defenceless, and which as a rule feed on leaves. The smallest and youngest are green, like the leaves on which they live. When they become larger, they are characterised by longitudinal lines, which break up the surface and thus render them less conspicuous. On older and larger ones the lines are diagonal, like the nerves of leaves. Conspicuous caterpillars are generally either nauseous in taste, or protected by hairs.

I say “generally,” because there are some interesting exceptions. The large caterpillars of some of the Elephant Hawkmoths are very conspicuous, and rendered all the more so by the presence of a pair of large eyelike spots. Every one who sees one of these caterpillars is struck by its likeness to a snake, and the so-called “eyes” do much to increase the deception. Moreover, the ring on which they are placed is swollen, and the insect, when in danger, has the habit of retracting its head and front segments, which gives it an additional resemblance to some small reptile. That small birds are, as a matter of fact, afraid of these caterpillars (which, however, I need not say, are in reality altogether harmless) Weismann has proved by actual experiment. He put one of these caterpillars in a tray, in which he was accustomed to place seed for birds. Soon a little flock of sparrows and other small birds assembled to feed as usual. One of them lit on the edge of this tray, and was just going to hop in, when she spied the caterpillar. Immediately she began bobbing her head up and down in the odd way which some small birds have, but was afraid to go nearer. Another joined her and then another, until at last there was a little company of ten or twelve birds all looking on in astonishment, but not one ventured into the tray; while one bird, which lit in it unsuspectingly, beat a hasty retreat in evident alarm as soon as she perceived the caterpillar. After waiting for some time, Weismann removed it, when the birds soon attacked the seeds. Other caterpillars also are probably protected by their curious resemblance to spotted snakes. One of the large Indian caterpillars has even acquired the power of hissing.

Among perfect insects many resemble closely the substances near which they live. Some moths are mottled so as to mimic the bark of trees, or moss, or the surface of stones. One beautiful tropical butterfly has a dark wing on which are painted a series of green leaf tips, so that it closely resembles the edge of a pinnate leaf projecting out of shade into sunshine.

The argument is strengthened by those cases in which the protection, or other advantage, is due not merely to colour, but partly also to form. Such are the insects which resemble sticks or leaves. Again, there are cases in which insects mimic others, which, for some reason or other, are less liable to danger. So also many harmless animals mimic others which are poisonous or otherwise well protected. Some butterflies, as Mr. Bates has pointed out, mimic others which are nauseous in taste, and therefore not attacked by birds. In these cases it is generally only the females that are mimetic, and in some cases only a part of them, so that there are two, or even three, kinds of females, the one retaining the normal colouring of the group, the other mimicking another species. Some spiders closely resemble Ants, and several other insects mimic Wasps or Hornets.

Some reptiles and fish have actually the power of changing the colour of their skin so as to adapt themselves to their surroundings.

Many cases in which the colouring does not at first sight appear to be protective, will on consideration be found to be so. It has, for instance, been objected that sheep are not coloured green; but every mountaineer knows that sheep could not have had a colour more adapted to render them inconspicuous, and that it is almost impossible to distinguish them from the rocks which so constantly crop up on hill sides. Even the brilliant blue of the Kingfisher, which in a museum renders it so conspicuous, in its native haunts, on the contrary, makes it difficult to distinguish from a flash of light upon the water; and the richly-coloured Woodpecker wears the genuine dress of a Forester the green coat and crimson cap.

It has been found that some brilliantly coloured and conspicuous animals are either nauseous or poisonous. In these cases the brilliant colour is doubtless a protection by rendering them more unmistakable.


Some animals may delight us especially by their beauty, such as birds or butterflies; others may surprise us by their size, as Elephants and Whales, or the still more marvellous monsters of ancient times; may fascinate us by their exquisite forms, such as many microscopic shells; or compel our reluctant attention by their similarity to us in structure; but none offer more points of interest than those which live in communities. I do not allude to the temporary assemblages of Starlings, Swallows, and other birds at certain times of year, nor even to the permanent associations of animals brought together by common wants in suitable localities, but to regular and more or less organised associations. Such colonies as those of Rooks and Beavers have no doubt interesting revelations and surprises in store for us, but they have not been as yet so much studied as those of some insects. Among these the Hive Bees, from the beauty and regularity of their cells, from their utility to man, and from the debt we owe them for their unconscious agency in the improvement of flowers, hold a very high place; but they are probably less intelligent, and their relations with other animals and with one another are less complex than in the case of Ants, which have been so well studied by Gould, Huber, Forel, M’Cook, and other naturalists.

The subject is a wide one, for there are at least a thousand species of Ants, no two of which have the same habits. In this country we have rather more than thirty, most of which I have kept in confinement. Their life is comparatively long: I have had working Ants which were seven years old, and a Queen Ant lived in one of my nests for fifteen years. The community consists, in addition to the young, of males, which do no work, of wingless workers, and one or more Queen mothers, who have at first wings, which, however, after one Marriage flight, they throw off, as they never leave the nest again, and in it wings would of course be useless. The workers do not, except occasionally, lay eggs, but carry on all the affairs of the community. Some of them, and especially the younger ones, remain in the nest, excavate chambers and tunnels, and tend the young, which are sorted up according to age, so that my nests often had the appearance of a school, with the children arranged in classes.

In our English Ants the workers in each species are all similar except in size, but among foreign species there are some in which there are two or even more classes of workers, differing greatly not only in size, but also in form. The differences are not the result of age, nor of race, but are adaptations to different functions, the nature of which, however, is not yet well understood. Among the Termites those of one class certainly seem to act as soldiers, and among the true Ants also some have comparatively immense heads and powerful jaws. It is doubtful, however, whether they form a real army. Bates observed that on a foraging expedition the large-headed individuals did not walk in the regular ranks, nor on the return did they carry any of the booty, but marched along at the side, and at tolerably regular intervals, “like subaltern officers in a marching regiment.” He is disposed, however, to ascribe to them a much humbler function, namely, to serve merely “as indigestible morsels to the ant thrushes.” This, I confess, seems to me improbable.

Solomon was, so far as we yet know, quite correct in describing Ants as having “neither guide, overseer, nor ruler.” The so-called Queens are really Mothers. Nevertheless it is true, and it is curious, that the working Ants and Bees always turn their heads towards the Queen. It seems as if the sight of her gave them pleasure. On one occasion, while moving some Ants from one nest into another for exhibition at the Royal Institution, I unfortunately crushed the Queen and killed her. The others, however, did not desert her, or draw her out as they do dead workers, but on the contrary carried her into the new nest, and subsequently into a larger one with which I supplied them, congregating round her for weeks just as if she had been alive. One could hardly help fancying that they were mourning her loss, or hoping anxiously for her recovery.

The Communities of Ants are sometimes very large, numbering even up to 500,000 individuals; and it is a lesson to us, that no one has ever yet seen a quarrel between any two Ants belonging to the same community. On the other hand it must be admitted that they are in hostility, not only with most other insects, including Ants of different species, but even with those of the same species if belonging to different communities. I have over and over again introduced Ants from one of my nests into another nest of the same species, and they were invariably attacked, seized by a leg or an antenna, and dragged out.

It is evident therefore that the Ants of each community all recognise one another, which is very remarkable. But more than this, I several times divided a nest into two halves, and found that even after a separation of a year and nine months they recognised one another, and were perfectly friendly; while they at once attacked Ants from a different nest, although of the same species.

It has been suggested that the Ants of each nest have some sign or password by which they recognise one another. To test this I made some insensible. First I tried chloroform, but this was fatal to them; and as therefore they were practically dead, I did not consider the test satisfactory. I decided therefore to intoxicate them. This was less easy than I had expected. None of my Ants would voluntarily degrade themselves by getting drunk. However, I got over the difficulty by putting them into whisky for a few moments. I took fifty specimens, twenty-five from one nest and twenty-five from another, made them dead drunk, marked each with a spot of paint, and put them on a table close to where other Ants from one of the nests were feeding. The table was surrounded as usual with a moat of water to prevent them from straying. The Ants which were feeding soon noticed those which I had made drunk. They seemed quite astonished to find their comrades in such a disgraceful condition, and as much at a loss to know what to do with their drunkards as we are. After a while, however, to cut my story short, they carried them all away: the strangers they took to the edge of the moat and dropped into the water, while they bore their friends home into the nest, where by degrees they slept off the effects of the spirit. Thus it is evident that they know their friends even when incapable of giving any sign or password.

This little experiment also shows that they help comrades in distress. If a Wolf or a Rook be ill or injured, we are told that it is driven away or even killed by its comrades. Not so with Ants. For instance, in one of my nests an unfortunate Ant, in emerging from the chrysalis skin, injured her legs so much that she lay on her back quite helpless. For three months, however, she was carefully fed and tended by the other Ants. In another case an Ant in the same manner had injured her antennae. I watched her also carefully to see what would happen. For some days she did not leave the nest. At last one day she ventured outside, and after a while met a stranger Ant of the same species, but belonging to another nest, by whom she was at once attacked. I tried to separate them, but whether by her enemy, or perhaps by my well-meant but clumsy kindness, she was evidently much hurt and lay helplessly on her side. Several other Ants passed her without taking any notice, but soon one came up, examined her carefully with her antennae, and carried her off tenderly to the nest. No one, I think, who saw it could have denied to that Ant one attribute of humanity, the quality of kindness.

The existence of such communities as those of Ants or Bees implies, no doubt, some power of communication, but the amount is still a matter of doubt. It is well known that if one Bee or Ant discovers a store of food, others soon find their way to it. This, however, does not prove much. It makes all the difference whether they are brought or sent. If they merely accompany on her return a companion who has brought a store of food, it does not imply much. To test this, therefore, I made several experiments. For instance, one cold day my Ants were almost all in their nests. One only was out hunting and about six feet from home. I took a dead bluebottle fly, pinned it on to a piece of cork, and put it down just in front of her. She at once tried to carry off the fly, but to her surprise found it immovable. She tugged and tugged, first one way and then another for about twenty minutes, and then went straight off to the nest. During that time not a single Ant had come out; in fact she was the only Ant of that nest out at the time. She went straight in, but in a few seconds less than half a minute, came out again with no less than twelve friends, who trooped off with her, and eventually tore up the dead fly, carrying it off in triumph.

Now the first Ant took nothing home with her; she must therefore somehow have made her friends understand that she had found some food, and wanted them to come and help her to secure it. In all such cases, however, so far as my experience goes, the Ants brought their friends, and some of my experiments indicated that they are unable to send them.

Certain species of Ants, again, make slaves of others, as Huber first observed. If a colony of the slave-making Ants is changing the nest, a matter which is left to the discretion of the slaves, the latter carry their mistresses to their new home. Again, if I uncovered one of my nests of the Fuscous Ant (Formica fusca), they all began running about in search of some place of refuge. If now I covered over one small part of the nest, after a while some Ant discovered it. In such a case, however, the brave little insect never remained there, she came out in search of her friends, and the first one she met she took up in her jaws, threw over her shoulder (their way of carrying friends), and took into the covered part; then both came out again, found two more friends and brought them in, the same manoeuvre being repeated until the whole community was in a place of safety. This I think says much for their public spirit, but seems to prove that, in F. fusca at least, the powers of communication are but limited.

One kind of slave-making Ant has become so completely dependent on their slaves, that even if provided with food they will die of hunger, unless there is a slave to put it into their mouth. I found, however, that they would thrive very well if supplied with a slave for an hour or so once a week to clean and feed them.

But in many cases the community does not consist of Ants only. They have domestic animals, and indeed it is not going too far to say that they have domesticated more animals than we have. Of these the most important are Aphides. Some species keep Aphides on trees and bushes, others collect root-feeding Aphides into their nests. They serve as cows to the Ants, which feed on the honey-dew secreted by the Aphides. Not only, moreover, do the Ants protect the Aphides themselves, but collect their eggs in autumn, and tend them carefully through the winter, ready for the next spring. Many other insects are also domesticated by Ants, and some of them, from living constantly underground, have completely lost their eyes and become quite blind.

But I must not let myself be carried away by this fascinating subject, which I have treated more at length in another work. I will only say that though their intelligence is no doubt limited, still I do not think that any one who has studied the life-history of Ants can draw any fundamental line of separation between instinct and reason.

When we see a community of Ants working together in perfect harmony, it is impossible not to ask ourselves how far they are mere exquisite automatons; how far they are conscious beings? When we watch an ant-hill tenanted by thousands of industrious inhabitants, excavating chambers, forming tunnels, making roads, guarding their home, gathering food, feeding the young, tending their domestic animals each one fulfilling its duties industriously, and without confusion, it is difficult altogether to deny to them the gift of reason; and all our recent observations tend to confirm the opinion that their mental powers differ from those of men, not so much in kind as in degree.

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