The Confessions of a Beachcomber, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter VII

“The Lord and Master of Flies”

Among the curious creatures native to the island is a fierce cannibalistic fly. Fully an inch in length and bulky in proportion, it somewhat resembles a house-fly on a gigantic scale, but is lustrous grey in colour, with blond eyes, fawn legs, and transparent, iridescent wings, with a brassy glint in them. The broad, comparatively short wings carry a body possessing a muscular system of the highest development, for the note flight produces indicates the extraordinary rapidity of the wing vibrations. Some swift-flying insects are said to make about eight hundred down strokes of the wing per second. This big fair fellow’s machinery may not be equipped for such marvellous momentum, but the high key that he sounds under certain circumstances indicates rare force and speed. No library of reference is available. The specific scientific title of the insect cannot therefore be supplied. Possibly it does not yet possess one, but it is a true fly of the family ASILIDAE, and being a veritable monster to merely sportful and persistent if annoying flies of lesser growth, no doubt it will continue to perform its part even though without a formal distinction. Its presence is announced by an ominous, booming hum. It passes on one side with a flight so rapid as to render it almost invisible. You hear a boom which has something of a whistle, and see a yellowish glint; the rest is space and silence. In half a minute the creature returns; and thus he scoops about, booming and making innocent lightnings in the clear air. The tone is demonstrative, aggressive, triumphant; but the monster is only reconnoitring — seeing whether you have any flies about you. You may have boasted to yourself — there being no friends about to tolerate your egotistical confidences that there are no flies about you; but the big, booming creature has his suspicions. Apparently in his opinion you are just the sort of country to attract and encourage flies, and he does not immediately satisfy himself to the contrary. But should you witlessly happen to have attracted the companionship of ever so innocent a fly, the awful presence seizes it on the wing and is away with the twang of a bullet. It will pick a fly from your sunburnt arm — no occasion for coats here — with neatness and despatch and leave wondering comprehension far behind. And having seized its prey, it may, haply, seek as it booms along the nearest support on which to enjoy its meal. Then you see what a terrific creature it is. One favoured me with a minute’s close observation. By a hook on one of the anterior legs (it possesses the regulation half-dozen) it had attached itself to a tiny splinter on the under-side of the verandah rail, and so hung, the body being at right angles to its support. Thus stretched, the leg appeared fully two inches long, and with the rest of its legs it clasped to its bosom the unfortunate little fly, shrunken with distress, the very embodiment of hopeless dismay. No sight which comes to memory’s call equals for utter despair that of the little insect, which no doubt in its day had provoked a big lump of irritation and strong but ineffective language. Hugged by its great enemy, it seemed aware of its fate, yet unreconciled to it. Pendant by the one long, slender leg, as if hung by a thread, the blond monster seemed quite at ease over its repast. That was its customary pose and attitude at meal-times. As far as observation permitted, it was pumping out the blood of its prey, but before the operation was finished it forbade closer scrutiny by humming away with a note of savage resentment — a rumble, a grumble and a growl, ending in a swelling shriek.

It would be interesting to know how many flies of the common vexing kind such a ferocious creature disposes of during the day. He preys upon the lustrous bluish-green fly, which draws blood almost on the moment of alighting, and also on the sluggish “march” fly, which goes about the business of blood-sucking in a lazy, dreamy, lackadaisical style; and I am inclined to acknowledge him as a friend and as a blessing to humanity generally.

A Tragedy in Yellow

Quite a distinct tragedy occurred the other day. The little yellow diurnal moth commonly known as “the wanderer” has a partiality for the nectar of the “bachelor’s button,” as yellow as itself. The morning was gay with butterflies. A “wanderer” poised over a yellow cushion fluttered spasmodically, and remained fixed and steadfast with tightly-closed wings. It allowed itself to be touched without showing uneasiness, and when a brisk movement was made to frighten it to flight it was still steady as a statue. Closer inspection revealed the cause. The body was tightly-gripped in the mandibles of a spider, a yellow rotund spider with long, slender, greeny-yellowy legs. Under cover of the yellow flower the yellow spider had seized the yellow moth. A general inspection showed that the tragedy was almost as universal as the flowers. There were few flowers which did not conceal a spider, and few spiders which had not murdered a moth. The conspiracy between the flower and the spider for the undoing of the moth (a conspiracy from which both profited) was repeated thousands of times this bright morning, and it illustrated the profundity of Nature’s lesser tragedies, the sternness with which she adjusts her equilibriums.

Colour Effects

A favourite food of the great green, gold and black butterfly (ORNITHOPTERA CASSANDRA) is the nectar of the hard, dull-red flowers of the umbrella-tree, and this fact assisted in an observation which seems to prove that plants play tricks on insects. Among the introduced plants of the island is one of the acalyphas. Butterflies which have feasted among the umbrella-trees on the beach and on the edge of the jungle flit about the garden and almost invariably visit the red but nectarless acalypha. One began at the end of the row, examined the topmost leaves, flitted to the next, and so on, lured by the colour and disappointed by the absence of nectar, twenty-five times, in succession, until it blundered on the red hibiscus bushes and began to feed.

The gorgeous blue swallow-tail (PAPILIO ULYSSES) seems to have a fancy for yellow, for it pays frequent visits to the golden trumpets of the tecoma and the alamanda. The living gold of the flowers and the imperial blue of the insect form a sumptuous if everyday scene.

Musical Frogs

A marked feature of the wet season is the varied chant of happy frogs. During the day silence is the rule. A low gurgle of content at the sounding rain is occasionally heard on the part of a flabby, moist creature unable to restrain its sentiments until the approach of evening. But as the sun sets, each of the countless host utters a song of thankfulness and pleasure. To the unappreciative it may appear merely an inharmonious vocal go-as-you-please, in which each frog is the embodiment of the idea that upon its jubilant efforts the honour and reputation of the race as vocalists depend. But to one class of listener the opera is decently if not scientifically constituted. There is the loud and cheerful, if not shrill, bleating of the soprano, the strenuous booming of the bass, the velvety softness and depth of the contralto and the thin high tenor. Hordes of the alert, sharp-featured, far-leaping grass frog represent the chorus, and they have a perfectly rehearsed theme. Down on the flat along the edge of the pandanus grove the preliminary chords are uttered — a merry, unreflective, chirrupy strain, gay as “the Fishermen’s Chorus.” The motive is taken up nearer among the coco-nuts, and is in full swing in the pools below the terrace. Thence the sound passes on through the wattles and bloodwoods to the narrow tea-tree swamp lined with dwarf bamboos and dies in echoes in the distance. A brief interlude, and the pandanus choir gives voice again, stronger and resonant; the companions of the coco-nuts join lustily, the strain reverberates from the wet lands below, resounds through the forest, and is lost in the mellow distance of the tea-trees. And so the sound rises and falls, swells and dwindles away in chords and harmonies, until presently every amphibian is alert and tremulous with emotion and emulation. If an attempt is made to analyse the music, you may discover sounds sharp as those of the fife, deep and hollow as drum-beats, sonorous and acrid, tinny and mellow.

I have heard that those who are not disciples of Wagner find it necessary to undergo a process of education ere they acquire an unaffected taste for the composer’s masterpieces. Possibly those who have not listened, wet season after wet season, to the light-hearted chant, may be inclined to suggest that there can be no such thing as music in the panting bellows of a North Queensland frog. But music “is of a relative nature, and what is harmony to one ear may be dissonance to another.” The Chinese opera proves that “nations do not always express the same passions by the same sounds.” If one obtains music from the clang and clamour of full-throated frogs, may it not be because his ears are more attuned to natural than to artificial harmonies, not because, of any defect in, or aberration of, hearing, or any lack of melody on the part of the frogs?

Acts Well its Part

“A living drollery! Now I will believe That there are unicorns; that in Arabia There is one tree, the phoenix throne; one phoenix At this hour reigning.”

Few insects repay observation better than the mantis and the stick insect, which generally, of most voracious habits themselves, resort to all manner of disguises and devices to elude their enemies and lure their prey. Nearly all furnish striking examples of colour protection. One variety of the mantis here is black and rugged, and is to be found only on charred wood. The wing-cases present the characteristic grain and glint of fresh charcoal, distinctly showing the influence of the condition of its environment. Another is grey, to match its groundwork of dead wood; another brown and slightly hairy, to coincide with the bark of the particular eucalyptus upon which it lurks. Another, and the most graceful, resembles two bright green leaves, the midrib and the nerve system being imitated perfectly.

Among the most singular is one of the stick insects (PHASMA). A fair specimen may be a foot and more long. The body presents the general appearance of a dry stick; the posterior legs, held at different and erratic angles to the grey and brown body, are as sunburnt twigs; the intermediary pair seem to be used primarily as supports. The anterior are stretched out to their fullest extent parallel to each other, and so close together as to resemble one tapering termination, with the head closely packed between the thighs, in each of which is a complementary depression for its accommodation. When the insect is motionless it is difficult to detect. By its long posterior legs, stiffly held aloft, it proclaims to every bird —“Do not be so absurd as to imagine these dry twigs to be legs, belonging to a body good to eat.” And if the bird does not take the resemblance for granted and is inquisitive and approaches too familiarly, it finds that instead of a dinner it has discovered a snake. The insect seems to say —“I am a stick! Look at the twigs. No, I am a snake! Long live the serpent!”

The long, slender anterior legs — used more frequently as arms than as legs — form the tapering tail; the other end is the head with mouth open, ready for action — eyes and jaws and protruding tongue complete. This end sways as does the head of an excited snake, and curves round as if to strike, and the boldest of little birds fly off with a note of apprehension and alarm. I have had these strange creatures under observation many weeks, and invariably found that when one was interfered with in any way it used its snake-like aft end as a bogey, curving it round towards the molesting hand. A fowl that will attack an 8-inch centipede without hesitation, makes a sensational fuss and clatter when it detects a stick insect, especially when the stick insect feints, however ineffectually, with its perfectly harmless tail. If it is capable of imposing upon a sagacious fowl, the effect of its terrifying aspect upon an unsophisticated little bird can well be understood.

Richard Kerr, the author of NATURE: CURIOUS AND BEAUTIFUL, describes a specimen of the stick insect from a cabinet specimen and a pen-and-ink drawing in the museum of the Hon. W. Rothschild, at Tring. This particular insect originally came from Malacca, and is jointed somewhat after the style of a Malacca cane, and of it the author says —“It is said that when the insect is attacked by its foe, or is in danger of attack, it has the power to protrude telescopically the tenth (terminal) segment, which has a mouth-like opening and a tongue-like organ which at once gives the creature the appearance of a snake. There is also a spot that answers to the appearance of an eye on the ninth segment.”

The Dunk Island representative of the family does not possess the power of protruding and withdrawing its terminal segment, but it certainly assumes a resemblance to a snake, and a pugnacious snake too. Further, the Tring insect does not appear to possess wings. My friend does — though she flies as the Scotchman admitted he joked —“wi’ deefeeculty.” She spreads her light, gauzy, grey, and shockingly inadequate, skirts, and romps and rollicks away, giving one a fleeting impression of a bold and most disorderly ballet girl. “She” is quite the proper mode of address, for there can be no mistake as to the sex.

The male is a slim individual, not half the length, and about one-fourth of the circumference of the female. Though (unlike his consort) he is in his general demeanour sprightly and alert, taking to the wing at the slightest impulse, in his love-making he is most deliberate, courtly and formal, the consummation of it all continuing for several days. So we see that the character of the snake which the female plays with so much art is not disturbed during the most emotional period of her existence. Nature holds the mirror to herself with inimitable skill. While the male takes long flights, those of the female are short and uncertain and seldom voluntary. Immediately she alights the anterior legs are extended, the head is depressed between the thighs, and the legs which are at liberty become as rigid as twigs. Among the branches of a shrub her action is cautious and stealthy; but the stick insect is seldom to be caught napping. It is very wide awake when it plays the dual part of a sleepy snake and four crooked twigs. In youth, the colouring of the female is ashy green, almost exactly the tint of the most common of arboreal snakes, and at the time of life when it is less able to defend itself it seems to spend all its days in the snake-like posture.

In some respects this insect resembles the MANTIS RELIGIOSA; but it does not seem to possess the voracious appetite of that insect, which assumes the supplicatory attitude that it may the more readily seize its prey. Indeed, although two specimens were under observation for three months, at morning, noon and eve, I only once saw one eating, and then it was partaking sparingly of orange leaves. The insect is well-known as a vegetarian, but the manner of its feeding is singular. The part that it takes of a motionless snake would be ineffective if the head moved while eating, and Nature provides against any blundering of that sort. The edge of a leaf is guided to the mouth, which appears to open vertically — not horizontally as mouths usually do — by a set of palpi or feelers, three on each side. The palpi move the leaf along, the while a crescent-shaped strip is rapidly nibbled away. Then they move the leaf back again to the original starting point, and another crescent is devoured, and so on, while the extended anterior legs, hooked on to a twig, pull the body forward with a gliding, almost imperceptible motion as the leaf is gradually consumed. Between meals, the palpi are folded flat close to the mouth, like the blades of a pocket-knife.

Blacks classify most of the works of Nature under two headings —“Good to eat,” “Not good to eat,” and nearly everything is included under the former. The “Taloo” or “Yam-boo” is included in the larger class. Ruthlessly deprived of its limbs, the insect is placed squirming on hot embers until it becomes crisp, when it is eaten with great relish.

Green-Ant Cordial

White ants, black ants, red ants, brown ants, grey ants, green ants; ants large, ants small; ants slothful, ants brisk; meat-eating ants, grain-eating ants, fruit-eating ants, nectar-imbibing ants; ants that fight, ants that run away; ants that live under coldest stone, ants that dwell among the treetops; silent ants, ants that literally “kick up” a row; good ants, bad ants, ants that are merely so so — we have them all and would not part with any — not even the stinging green ants, which are among the most singular of the tribe, nor even the “white ant” (which is not an ant), that would literally eat us out of house and home if not rigorously excluded and warred against with poison, for they are the great scavengers of woodeny debris.

Green ants do disfigure orange and mango trees with their “nests,” and they have the temper of furies; but they wage war on many of the insects which bother plants, and clear away insect carrion, and carrion, in fact, of all sorts. This ant, to which has been given the official title of “emerald-coloured leaf dweller,” constructs a pocket with leaves of living trees (and, very rarely, of the blades of living grass), and dwelling therein establishes populous colonies. The queen or mother ant sets up her separate establishment by curling a small leaf or the corner of a large one, joining the edges with a white cottony fabric, and forthwith begins to raise a family. She is a portly creature — unlike her slim, semi-transparent workers and warriors — and most prolific, and her family increases marvellously. As it multiplies, ingenious additions of living leaves are made to the pocket or purse, until it may assume the size of a football and be the home of millions of alert, pugnacious, inquisitive, foraging insects, whose bites are dreaded by individuals whose skin is extra sensitive.

Is it not astonishing that insects, possessing even in combination such trivial muscular power as the green tree-ant, should be able to cause leaves 12 inches long by 8 inches wide to curl up so that the apex shall almost touch the base, or that the parallel borders shall be brought together with the nicest apposition? The astonishment increases when it is recognised that at the founding of a colony there are but few workers to co-operate in the undertaking.

The minute caterpillar of a certain species of moth mines leaves, and eating away the cellular structures, causes them to twist irregularly, and eventually spins on the spot a cocoon of green silk in which it undergoes metamorphosis. A local caterpillar, too, converts the tough harsh leaves of a fig-tree (FICUS FASCICULATA) into a close and perfect scroll by an elaborate system of haulage, spinning silken strands as required, having primarily rendered the leaf the more easy to manipulate by nibbling away a portion of the midrib. In this scroll the insect dozes until in process of time it is transformed, and emerges a bright but short-lived butterfly.

But, as far as my personal observation goes, the green tree-ants do not effect any alteration in the superficial appearance nor destroy the structure of leaves, nor employ any physical power at the first stages of the construction of a habitation. The process by which a leaf is curled extends over several days, and but few take part in it. Half a dozen ants may be seen perpetually engaged in, apparently, an unmethodical but extremely minute and critical inspection of the rhachis and the nerves or ribs of the leaf. Days pass. The ants are there all the time, examining the leaf and communicating with each other whensoever they meet. Imperceptibly the leaf begins to curl. The ants continue to make mesmeric passes over the nerves with ever-waving antennae.

In accordance with the will and the design of the architects, who merely stand by and gesticulate, the opposite margins approach, or the apex curls towards the base, or towards one of the sides to form a miniature funnel. When the extremities are so close that the intervening space may be spanned, threads of white gossamer are laced across, and the slack being taken up by degrees, in a few days a cosy pocket with closely-fitting seams is completed.

How is this folding of the leaf accomplished? A theory which presents itself is that the ants eject some active chemical principle into certain of the cells of the leaf tissue, and that the stimulus is transmitted by excitation from cell to cell, bringing about a general and uniform contraction without destroying the vitality of the leaf. Further, by the application of the injection to specific cells the ants convey impulses to specific nerves, causing the leaf to curl longitudinally or laterally, or at any angle they design. The poison that a single ant injects into the neck of a brawny man so affects his nervous system that he twists and writhes and stamps his feet with energy sufficient to destroy millions of the species. Maybe a slightly different compound is reserved for vegetable substances, which can offer only a flabby sort of remonstrance. If this theory be supported on investigation, surely the green tree-ant will deserve to be catalogued among creatures who have solved labour-saving problems — who employ consciousness, if not rational thought, to compensate for physical frailty. This theory is applicable to the manipulation of a single leaf only, and of a leaf of considerable size. Yet these feeble folk more frequently take up their quarters in trees bearing small leaves, of which scores are embodied in a mansion. Immense and concentrated exertion is necessary to draw far-flung branchlets and leaves together, and the feverish host accomplishes a seemingly impossible feat by an organised combination of engineering with co-operative labour. Spaces between leaves and twigs four and five inches wide are bridged by chains of ants — each individual clasping with its mandibles above the abdominal segment its immediate companion; occasionally the ant grips its fellow by the posterior legs, and is so held by the next in order. In the construction of these chains ants hastily mass at each side of the gulf to be spanned, and crawling, or rather running over each other, form pendant strands, each ant a living link. The chains sway until the terminal links engage, when they are immediately shortened up. Several of these chains are swung across parallel to each other with astonishing rapidity; and in addition to the constant strain of the hauling workers at each end they are used as bridges by innumerable other workers and fussy superintendents, the traffic on them being almost as voluminous and bustling as that of a Thames thoroughfare. Gradually the most obstinate branchlet with its spray of leaves is drawn into juxtaposition with the main part of the mansion. Then the living spans become more numerous, presenting the appearance of great stitches. As the edges of the leaves are brought together they are fastened with white gossamer while the tireless workers strain themselves, heroically holding the edges in apposition. The gossamer seems to be obtained in part from the pupuae, which, borne in the mandibles of workers, are passed to and fro as weavers’ shuttles. As a rule, insects which house themselves in leaves are vegetarian, but the green ant is demonstratively carnivorous, using leaves solely for shelter.

An aboriginal — to repeat perhaps a needless observation — regards the most of things of this earth from a dietetic standpoint. He does not so regard the green tree-ant in vain. He knows when the pocket is packed with white larvae and white helpless infant ants, or with helpless green ones big of abdomen, and consenting to the assaults of the adults, cuts away the supporting branch and shakes off the furious citizens, or expels them with the smoke and fire of paper-bark torches, or, maybe, casts the pocket into water so that the adult ants may swim ashore, abandoning those that cannot, on account of immaturity or incompetence, to their fate.

Eaten raw, the larvae are pungent morsels, or macerated in water in company with relatives distended to the degree of helplessness, form a cordial that is sharp to the palate, scarifying to the throat, and consoling to the stomach replete with the cold and sodden foods with which blacks often have to be content.

Tetchy and quarrelsome, staccato in action, the warriors of a colony bury their forceps in the skin and stand upon their heads to give all their weight to the attack; but each individual retains its grip until squashed and crumpled up, and the human being who has suffered the assault comments on it in language corresponding with the sensitiveness or otherwise of his skin. Consequently the green tree-ant is not as a rule regarded with any tenderness or consideration, and there never existed a green ant which hesitated to attack the greatest man. He is quite as heroic as a bee — though armed much less efficiently — and far more resentful.

A brilliant black ant imitates its green cousin in the construction of a leafy dwelling somewhat similar in design but on a smaller scale, and having no apparent weapon of defence, save odour — and not very much of that — adopts a novel plan of protecting its refuge against assaults. However gently the leafy house is touched the denizens set up a violent agitation, the simultaneous efforts of hundreds making a sound quite loud enough to scare away intruders whose senses are attuned to the silence and rustlings of the jungle. The noise, which resembles that which results from the easy agitation of coarse sand in a crisp paper envelope, seems to be caused by the ants kicking or drumming on the sides and partitions of the house, the partitions being composed of a light brown fabric, tense, tough and resonant.

Wooing with Wings

Among the many engaging scenes and frolics that are ever taking place along the flounces of the jungle, where the serrated leaves of the fern of God make living lacework up and among the tangle of foliage, none is prettier than the love flight of the green and gold butterfly (ORNITHOPTERA CASSANDRA). Human beings, who in their marriage ceremonies array themselves to the best advantage and assume their most charming traits, can hardly withhold attention from other and more ethereal creatures when they become subject to the divine passion. All have their moments of bliss, and the butterfly —“the embodiment of pure felicity — happy in what it has and happier still in searching for something else”— reveals its “love-sickness and pain” as the bloom of its gay and sportful existence.

In the courtship of this particular species the male exercises a singular fascination, while the female gracefully and without hesitation submits to the spell. He has flitted airily in the sunshine, glorying in a livery of green and gold and black, has daintily sipped nectar from the scarlet hibiscus flowers, has soared over the highest bloodwood in wild but idle impulse, and in a flash, is fervently in love. Judged by appearance alone he has chosen quite an unworthy bride. She is much the larger, darker and heavier, and has little of the colouring of her passionate wooer on her wings, though her body is decorated with unexpected red. Her flight, ordinarily, is cumbersome and slow, and her demeanour pensive — almost prim. She seems to be of a steady, matronly disposition, whereas the shape of the wings of her mate alone denotes quite a different ideal of life. He is all alert, charged to the full with nervous energy — free, careless, inconsequent, but absolutely irresistible.

When the pair meet, what time the fancies of butterflies lightly turn to thoughts of love, he swoops impetuously towards her and rises in a graceful curve, seeming to enchant her with the display of his colours. She forthwith amends her staid behaviour, and begins a quivering, fluttering flight, rising and falling with gentle, rhythmical grace. He, hovering about with rapid wing movements, harmoniously responds to her undulations. Still maintaining her coy contours she floats over the tree-tops, or descends among the ferns or bushes, past the blue berries of the native ginger, while with quaint courtliness he pays his compliments and bewilders by his audacity. As the amorous dalliance proceeds, he flits in brilliant spirals round and before her, and again resumes his tremulous flight, consonant with her emotional flutterings. However intricate, however long the dance she leads, he follows, blithesomeness and confidence in all his poses. Exhausting work this aerial flirtation. The bride alights among the red knobs of the umbrella-tree for refreshment. Her wings quiver as she sips, while her admirer poises a yard in the air above her, flashes hither and thither, briefly steadying his flight in positions whence all his loveliness may be advantageously revealed; poises again a yard above her; gyrates with the air of a dandy of over-weening assurance, vanity, and pride; swoops until his wings in their down-strokes salute her; and then the dainty pair dance into the sunless mazes of the jungle.

It is all a vivid but soundless symphony — a concord of tender harmonies and sprightly trills and passionate phrases.

The Greed of the Snake

In another place in these artless chronicles proof has been given of the fact that though serpents were long enough ago declared to be the most subtle of the beasts of the field, they may be imposed upon. I would like now to cite an instance of their greed and their grasping nature. Our chicken coops were made snake-proof, but a more than ordinarily, crafty individual burglariously broke into one, and the hen and chickens sounded the alarm. It was night, and the lantern revealed the snake. The affrighted chickens with their anxious parent issued forth as soon as the door was opened, all save two, one at each end of the snake. A gunshot through the open door divided the snake. When the coop was lifted away, each end retained tightly a dead chicken, one partially swallowed, the other throttled and held by three encircling coils of the tail. Apart from the gunshot there was a tragic element in this case. When once it has firmly seized with its teeth its prey, a snake must swallow it whole or burst in the attempt. Nature has denied some species the privilege of rejection. Now the chicks were several sizes too large for the snake, and consequently the sides of its mouth, its neck and body, for a length of about 4 inches, had been ripped in the vain endeavour to perform an impossibility.

A Swallowing Feat

Everyone knows that small snakes are capable of swallowing comparatively large eggs. But is the way in which the feat is accomplished generally understood? That is the question. No doubt a big snake glides jauntily to a moderately-sized egg, grips it with its in-curved teeth, the jaws loosen and begin their alternating movement, and unhook themselves at the bases to permit of the eggs passing down the throat. That is easy. But how does a small snake, the neck of which is an inch and a half in circumference, swallow whole an egg 5 inches and more in circumference? Actual observation enables me to explain. If the snake were to begin the act straightforwardly, the egg, presenting but little resistance, would be continuously pushed away. The snake slides its head and neck over the egg, and pressing downward upon it with that part of its body which for the present purpose may be termed the bosom, prevents it moving. The head turns over as if the snake was preparing for a somersault; the jaws fit over the end of the egg, the upper below and the lower above, and begin to work. Presently the upper and lower jaws become entirely disassociated, the egg is encompassed and forced down into the throat. The process seems a most distressing one to the snake, for so great is the distension of the flesh tissues and the skin that they become semitransparent, revealing the colour of the egg. When the egg is safe in the stomach, the shell submits to the action of the gastric juices, and the meal is digested. That is if it is a hen’s egg. A porcelain counterfeit, which the most subtle snake cannot distinguish from a natural egg, passes on its way unblemished,

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32