THE NARBONNE LYCOSA: THE FAMILY





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. {24}

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 {25} 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.





THE NARBONNE LYCOSA: THE CLIMBING-INSTINCT THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback