The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 17.

Cattle-raising. Don Filiberto Trano’s new house. Horse-flies and wasps. Teustepe. Spider imitating ants. Mimetic species. Animals with special means of defence are conspicuously marked, or in other ways attract attention. Accident to horse. The “Mygale.” Illness. Conclusion of journey.

AFTER crossing the trachytic plain, we reached a large cattle hacienda, and beyond, the river Chocoyo, on the banks of which was some good, though stony, pasture land. We saw here some fine cattle, and learnt that a little more care was taken in breeding them than is usual in Nicaragua. The country, with its rolling savannahs, covered with grass, is admirably suited for cattle-raising, and great numbers are exported to the neighbouring country of Costa Rica. Scarcely any attention is, however, paid to the improvement of the breeds. Few stations have reserve potreros of grass. In consequence, whenever an unusually dry season occurs, the cattle die by hundreds, and their bones may be seen lying all over the plains. Both Para and Guinea grass grow, when planted and protected, with the greatest luxuriance; and the latter especially forms an excellent reserve, as it grows in dense tufts that cannot be destroyed by the cattle. When not protected by fencing, however, the cattle and mules prefer these grasses so much to the native ones, that they are always close-cropped, and when the natural pasturage fails there is no reserve of the other to fall back on. I planted both the Para and Guinea grasses largely at the mines and at Pital, and we were able to keep our mules always in good condition with them.

About four o’clock in the afternoon our animals were getting tired, and we ourselves were rather fatigued, having been in the saddle since daylight, with the exception of a few minutes’ rest at Tierrabona. We halted at a thatched cottage on some high stony savannah land, and were hospitably received by the peasant proprietor, Don Filiberto Trano. He informed us that we had entered the township of Teustepe, and that the town itself was eight leagues distant. The family consisted of Don Filiberto, his wife, and four or five children. They had just prepared for their own dinner a young fowl, stewed with green beans and other vegetables, and this they placed before us, saying that they would soon cook something else for themselves. We were too hungry to make any scruples, and after the poor, coarse fare we had been used to, the savoury repast seemed the most delicious I ever tasted. I think we only got two meals on the whole journey that we really enjoyed. This was one, the other the supper that the padre’s housekeeper at Palacaguina cooked for us, and I have recorded at length the names of the parties to whom we were indebted for them.

Don Filiberto had about twenty cows, all of which that could be found were driven in at dusk, and the calves tied up. As they came in, the fowls were on the look-out for the garrapatos, or ticks; and the cows, accustomed to the process, stood quietly, while they flew up and picked them off their necks and flanks. The calves are always turned out with the cows in the morning, after the latter are milked, so that if not found again for some days, as is often the case in this bushy and unenclosed country, the cows are milked by them and do not go dry. They give very little milk, probably due to the entire want of care in breeding them. It is at once made into cheese, which forms a staple article of food amongst the poorer natives.

The small house was divided into three compartments, one being used as a kitchen. It was in rather a dilapidated condition, and Don Filiberto told me that he was busy building a new residence. I was curious to see what progress he was making with it, and he took me outside and showed me four old posts used for tying the cows to, which had evidently been in the ground for many years. “There,” he said, “are the corner-posts, and I shall roof it with tiles.” He was quite grave, but I could not help smiling at his faith. I have no doubt that, as long as he lives, he will lounge about all day, and in the evening, when his wife and children are milking the cows, will come out, smoke his cigarette, leaning against the door-post of his patched and propped-up dwelling, and contemplate the four old posts with a proud feeling of satisfaction that he is building a new house. Such a picture is typical of Nicaragua.

Don Filiberto told us that there was a limestone quarry not far from his house; and as I wished to learn whether it occurred in beds or veins, I proposed next morning to walk over to it, but he said we should need the mules to cross the river. Thinking, from his description, that it was only about a mile distant, I started on mule-back with him; but after riding fully a league, discovered that he actually did not know himself where it was, but was seeking for another man to show him. We at last arrived at the house of this man. He was absent. A boy showed us a small piece of the limestone. It was concretionary, and I learnt from him that it occurred in veins. I was vexed about the time we had lost, and the extra work we had given the poor mules; my only consolation was that as we rode back I picked a fine new longicorn beetle off the leaves of an overhanging tree.

When we came to settle up with our host he proposed to charge us twenty-five cents, just one shilling, or fourpence each. They had given us a good dinner and put themselves to much inconvenience to provide me with a bedstead, and this was their modest charge. Nor did they make it with any expectation that we would give more. It is the universal custom amongst the Mestizo peasantry to entertain travellers; to give them the best they have and to charge for the bare value of the provisions, and nothing for the lodging. We could so depend upon the hospitality of the lower classes that every day we travelled on without any settled place to pass the night, convinced that we should be received with welcome at any hut that we might arrive at when our mules got tired or night came on. The only place in the whole journey where we had been received with hesitation was at the Indian house a day’s journey beyond Olama. There the people were pure Indians, and other circumstances made me conclude that the Indians were not so hospitable as the Mestizos.

We finally started about nine o’clock and rode over dry savannahs, where, although there was little grass, I was told that cattle did well browsing on the small brushwood with which the hills were covered. All the forenoon we travelled over stony ranges and dry plains and savannahs. At noon we reached the dry bed of a river and crossed it several times, but could find no water to quench our thirst, whilst the sun shone down on us with pitiless heat. About one o’clock we came to some pools where the bed of the river was bare rock with rounded hollows containing water, warm but clean, as the cattle could not walk over the smooth slopes to get at it. Here we halted for an hour and had some tiste and maize cakes, and cut some Guinea grass that grew amongst the rocks for our mules. Over the heated rocks scampered brown lizards, chasing each other and revelling in the sunshine. Butterflies on lazy wings came and settled on damp spots, and the cicada kept up his shrill continuous monotone, but not so loudly as he would later on when it got cooler. The cicada is supposed by some to pipe only during midday, but both in Central America and Brazil I found them loudest towards sunset, keeping up their shrill music until it was taken up by night-vocal crickets and locusts.

We were returning parallel to our course in going to Segovia, but several leagues to the westward, and this made a wonderful difference in the climate. There we were wading through muddy swamps and drenched with continual rains. Here the plains were parched with heat, vegetation was dried up, and there was scarcely any water in the river beds. The north-east trade-wind, before it reaches thus far, gives up its moisture to the forests of the Atlantic slope, and now passed over without even a cloud to relieve the deep blue of the sky or temper the rays of the sun.

The vegetation on the plains was almost entirely composed of thorny plants and shrubs; acacias, cacti, and bromeliae were the most abundant. Animal life was scarce; there were a few flycatchers amongst the birds, and armadillos were the only mammals. Horse-flies (Tabanus) were too numerous, and drops of blood trickled down our mules’ faces where they had feasted. In some parts large, banded black and yellow wasps (Monedula surinamensis, Fabr.) came flying round us and had a threatening look as they hovered before our faces, but they were old acquaintances of mine in Brazil, and I knew that they were only searching about for the horse-flies with which they store their nests, just as other wasps do with spiders, first benumbing them with their sting. I noted here another instance of the instinctive dread that insects have of their natural enemies. The horse-flies were so bloodthirsty that we could kill them with the greatest ease with our hands on the mules’ necks, or if we drove them away they would return immediately. As soon, however, as a wasp came hawking round, the flies lost their sluggish apathy and disappeared amongst the bushes, and I do not think that excepting when gorged with blood they would easily fall a prey to their pursuers.

We were joined on the road by a storekeeper on his way to Teustepe. He was armed with pistols, which it is the fashion to carry in Nicaragua, though many travellers have nothing more formidable in their holsters than a spirit flask and some biscuits. He talked as usual of threatened revolutionary risings, but these form the staple conversation throughout Central America amongst the middle classes, and until they really do break out it is best not to believe in them. He told us also that the drought had been very great around Teustepe, and that the crops were destroyed by it.

About three we reached the town, and after buying some provisions to take with us, pushed on again. Below Teustepe we crossed the river Malacatoyo which empties into the Lake of Nicaragua, and beyond it the road passed over a wild alluvial flat with high trees, amongst which we saw a troop of white-faced monkeys.

On the leaves of the bushes there were many curious species of Buprestidae, and I struck these and other beetles off with my net as I rode along.1 After one such capture I observed what appeared to be one of the black stinging ants on the net. It was a small spider that closely resembled an ant, and so perfect was the imitation that it was not until I killed it that I determined that it was a spider and that I had needlessly feared its sting. What added greatly to the resemblance was that, unlike other spiders, it held up its two fore-legs like antennae, and moved them about just like an ant. Other species of spiders closely resemble stinging ants; in all of them the body is drawn out long like an ant, and in some the maxillary palpi are lengthened and thickened so as to resemble the head of one.

1 Naturally the example of their chief inspired all the mining officials with an ardour for collecting insects; but, when riding with any of them through the forest or over the plains, Belt’s trained eyes always saw so many more than the others that a saying arose that his mule assisted him by stopping before any specimen he had failed to notice!

Ant-like spiders have been noticed throughout tropical America and also in Africa.1 The use that the deceptive resemblance is to them has been explained to be the facility it affords them for approaching ants on which they prey. I am convinced that this explanation is incorrect so far as the Central American species are concerned. Ants, and especially the stinging species, are, so far as my experience goes, not preyed upon by any other insects. No disguise need be adopted to approach them, as they are so bold that they are more likely to attack a spider than a spider them. Neither have they wings to escape by flying, and generally go in large bodies easily found and approached. The real use is, I doubt not, the protection the disguise affords against small insectivorous birds. I have found the crops of some humming-birds full of small soft-bodied spiders, and many other birds feed on them. Stinging ants, like bees and wasps, are closely resembled by a host of other insects; indeed, whenever I found any insect provided with special means of defence I looked for imitative forms, and was never disappointed in finding them.

1 See “Nature” volume 3 page 508.)

Stinging ants are not only closely copied in form and movements by spiders but by species of Hemiptera and Coleoptera, and the resemblance is often wonderfully close.1 All over the world wasps are imitated in form and movements by other insects, and in the tropics these mimetic forms are endless. In many cases the insect imitating is so widely removed, in the normal form of the order to which it belongs, from that of the insect imitated, that it is difficult to imagine how the first steps in the process of imitation took place. Looking however at the immense variety of insect life in the tropics, and remembering that in early tertiary times nearly the whole world was in the same favourable condition as regards temperature (vegetation, according to Heer, extending to the poles), and must have supported a vast number of species and genera that were destroyed during the glacial period, we must suppose that, in that great variety of forms, it sometimes occurred that two species belonging to distinct orders somewhat resembled each other in form or colouration, and that the resemblance was gradually increased, when one species had special means of protection, by the other being benefited the more nearly it approached it in appearance.

1 Amongst the longicorn beetles of Chontales, Mallocera spinicollis, Neoclytus Oesopus, and Diphyrama singularis, Bates, all closely resemble stinging ants when moving about on fallen logs.

It is to be remarked that the forms imitated have always some kind of defence against insectivorous birds or mammals; they are provided with stings or unpleasant odours or flavours, or are exceedingly swift in flight; excepting where inanimate nature is imitated for concealment. Thus I had an opportunity of proving in Brazil that some birds, if not all, reject the Heliconii butterflies, which are closely resembled by butterflies of other families and by moths. I observed a pair of birds that were bringing butterflies and dragon-flies to their young, and although the Heliconii swarmed in the neighbourhood and are of weak flight so as to be easily caught, the birds never brought one to their nest. I had a still better means of testing both these and other insects that are mimicked in Nicaragua. The tame white-faced monkey I have already mentioned was extremely fond of insects, and would greedily munch up beetle or butterfly given to him, and I used to bring to him any insects that I found imitated by others to see whether they were distasteful or not. I found he would never eat the Heliconii. He was too polite not to take them when they were offered to him, and would sometimes smell them, but invariably rolled them up in his hand and dropped them quietly again after a few moments. There could be no doubt, however, from the monkey’s actions, that they were distasteful to him. A large species of spider (Nephila) also used to drop them out of its web when I put them into it. Another spider that frequented flowers seemed to be fond of them, and I have already mentioned a wasp that caught them to store its nest with.

Amongst the beetles there is a family that is just as much mimicked as the Heliconii are amongst the butterflies. These are the Lampyridae, to which the fireflies belong. Many of the genera are not phosphorescent, but all appear to be distasteful to insectivorous mammals and birds. I found they were invariably rejected by the monkey, and my fowls would not touch them.

The genus Calopteron belonging to this family is not phosphorescent. In some of the species, as in C. basalis (Klug), the wing-covers are widened out behind in a peculiar manner. This and other species of Calopteron are not only imitated in their colour and markings by other families of beetles, but also in this peculiar widening of the elytra. Besides this, the Calopteron when walking on a leaf raises and depresses its wing cases, and I observed exactly the same movement in a longicorn beetle (Evander nobilis, Bates), which is evidently a mimetic form of this genus. In addition to being mimicked by other families of beetles, Calopteron is closely resembled by a species of moth (Pionia lycoides, Walker). This moth varies itself in colour; in one of the varieties it has a central black band across the wings, when it resembles Calopteron vicinum (Deyrolle), in another this black band is wanting, when it resembles C. basalis. Professor Westwood has also pointed out to me that the resemblance to the beetle is still further increased in the moth by raised lines of scales running lengthwise down the thorax.

The phosphorescent species of Lampyridae, the fireflies, so numerous in tropical America, are equally distasteful, and are also much mimicked by other insects. I found different species of cockroaches so much like them in shape and colour that they could not be distinguished without examination. These cockroaches, instead of hiding in crevices and under logs like their brethren, rest during the day exposed on the surface of leaves, in the same manner as the fireflies they mimic.

Protective resemblances amongst insects are so numerous and widespread, and they have been so ably described by Bates and Wallace, that I shall only mention a few of the most noticeable examples that came under my attention, and which have not been described by other authors. Amongst these were the striking modifications of some beetles belonging to the Mordellidae. These, in their normal form, are curious wedge-shaped beetles, which are common on flowers, and leap like fleas. In some of the Nicaraguan species the body is lengthened, and the thorax and elytra coloured, so as to resemble wasps and flies. In the Mordellidae the head is small, and nearly concealed beneath the large thorax; and in the mimetic forms the latter is coloured so as to resemble the large head and eyes of the wasp or fly imitated. The species that resembles a wasp moves its antennae restlessly, like the latter insect.

The movements, as well as the shape and colour of the insect imitated, are mimicked. I one day observed what appeared to be a hornet, with brown semi-transparent wings and yellow antennae. It ran along the ground vibrating its wings and antennae exactly like a hornet, and I caught it in my net, believing it to be one. On examining it, however, I found it to belong to a widely different order. It was one of the Hemiptera, Spiniger luteicornis (Walk.), and had every part coloured like the hornet (Priocnemis) that it resembled. In its vibrating coloured wing-cases it departed greatly from the normal character of the Hemiptera, and assumed that of the hornets.

All the insects that have special means of protection, by which they are guarded from the attacks of insectivorous mammals and birds, have peculiar forms, or strongly contrasted, conspicuous colours, and often make odd movements that attract attention to them. There is no attempt at concealment, but, on the contrary, they appear to endeavour to make their presence known. The long narrow wings of the Heliconii butterflies, banded with black, yellow, and red, distinguish them from all others, excepting the mimetic species. The banded bodies of many wasps, or the rich metallic colours of others, and their constant jerky motions, make them very conspicuous. Bees announce their presence by a noisy humming. The beetles of the genus Calopteron have their wing-cases curiously distended, and move them up and down, so as to attract attention; and other species of Lampyridae are phosphorescent, holding out danger signals that they are not eatable. The reason in all these cases appears to be the same as Mr. Wallace has shown to hold good with banded, hairy, and brightly coloured caterpillars. These are distasteful to birds, and, in consequence of their conspicuous colours, are easily known and avoided. If they were like other caterpillars, they might be seized and injured before it was known they were not fit for food.1

1 In a paper on “Mimicry, and other Protective Resemblances amongst Animals” first published in the “Westminster Review” July 1867, afterwards in “Natural Selection”, Wallace has elaborately discussed this question. My observations are supplemental to his and to the original ones of Bates.


Amongst the mammals, I think the skunk is an example of the same kind. Its white tail, laid back on its black body, makes it very conspicuous in the dusk when it roams about, so that it is not likely to be pounced upon by any of the carnivora mistaking it for other night-roaming animals. In reptiles, the beautifully banded coral snake (Elaps), whose bite is deadly, is marked as conspicuously as any noxious caterpillar with bright bands of black, yellow, and red. I only met with one other example amongst the vertebrata, and it was also a reptile. In the woods around Santo Domingo there are many frogs. Some are green or brown, and imitate green or dead leaves, and live amongst foliage. Others are dull earth-coloured, and hide in holes and under logs. All these come out only at night to feed, and they are all preyed upon by snakes and birds. In contrast with these obscurely coloured species, another little frog hops about in the daytime dressed in a bright livery of red and blue. He cannot be mistaken for any other, and his flaming vest and blue stockings show that he does not court concealment. He is very abundant in the damp woods, and I was convinced he was uneatable so soon as I made his acquaintance and saw the happy sense of security with which he hopped about. I took a few specimens home with me, and tried my fowls and ducks with them, but none would touch them. At last, by throwing down pieces of meat, for which there was a great competition amongst them, I managed to entice a young duck into snatching up one of the little frogs. Instead of swallowing it, however, it instantly threw it out of its mouth, and went about jerking its head as if trying to throw off some unpleasant taste.1

1 Probably the strongly contrasted colours of the spotted salamander of Southern Europe and the warning noise made by the rattlesnake may be useful in a similar manner, as has been suggested by Darwin.)

After travelling three leagues beyond Teustepe, we reached, near dusk, a small house by the roadside, at which had put up for the night a party of muleteers, with their mules and cargoes. Our beasts were too tired to go further, so we determined to take our chance of finding room for our hammocks. Soon after we alighted, as I sat on a stone near the door of the house, a gun went off close to us, and my horse sprang forward, nearly upon me. We soon found it was our own gun, which had been given to Rito to carry. He had strapped it behind his saddle, and one of the other mules had come up, rubbed against it, and let it off. The poor horse was only four feet from the muzzle, and the contents were lodged in its loin. A large wound was made from which the blood flowed in a great stream, until Velasquez got some burnt cloth and stanched it. Fortunately the charge in the gun was a very light one, and no vital part was touched. We arranged with the muleteers to take our cargo to Juigalpa for us, and determined to leave Rito behind to lead the horse gently to Pital. The horse, which was a very good one, ultimately recovered.

At this house the woman had eight children, the eldest, I think, not more than twelve years of age. The man who passed as her husband was the father of the youngest only. Amongst the lower classes of Nicaragua men and women often change their mates. In such cases the children remain with the mother, and take their surname from her. Baptism is considered an indispensable rite, but the marriage ceremony is often dispensed with; and I did not notice that those who lived together without it suffered in the estimation of their neighbours. The European ladies at Santo Domingo were sometimes visited by the unmarried matrons of the village, who were very indignant when they found that there were scruples about receiving them. They were so used to their own social observances, that they thought those of the Europeans unwarrantable prudery.

Before turning out the mules, Rito got some limes and squeezed the juice out upon their feet, just above the hoof. He did this to prevent them from being bitten by the tarantula spider, a species of Mygale that makes its nest in the ground, and is said to abound in this locality. Many of the mules are bitten in the feet on the savannahs by some venomous animal. The animal bitten immediately goes lame, and cannot be cured in less than six months, as the hoof comes off, and has to be renewed. The natives say that the Mygale is the aggressor; that it gets on the mule’s foot to bite off the hairs to line its nest with, and that if not disturbed it does not injure the mule, but that if the latter tries to dislodge it, it bites immediately. I do not know whether this story be true or not, and I had no opportunity of examining a Mygale’s nest to see if it was lined with hairs, but Professor Westwood informs me that all that he knows are lined with fine silk. Possibly the mules, when rambling about, step on the spider, and are then bitten by it. Velasquez told me that when he was a boy he and other children used to amuse themselves by pulling the Mygale out of its hole, which is about a foot deep in the ground. To get it out they fastened a small ball of soft wax to a piece of string, and lowered it down the hole, jerking it up and down until the spider got exasperated so far as to bury its formidable jaws in the wax, when it could be drawn to the surface.

We had part of the kitchen to sleep in, and were so tired, and getting so accustomed to sleep anywhere, that we had a good night’s rest, rose early next morning, and were soon on the road again, leaving Rito to bring on the lamed horse. We had a good view of the rock of San Lorenzo, a high cliff capping a hill, and resembling the rocks of Cuapo and Pena Blanca, but with less perpendicular sides. About this part, which lay high, as well as where we stayed the night before, there had been rains; but on the lowlands lying between the two places there had been none. Our road again lay over grassy plains and low, lightly-timbered hills, with very few houses — probably not more than one in a league. The country was now greener; they had had showers of rain, and fine grass had sprung up. Passing as we did from a dried-up district into one covered with verdure, feelings were awakened akin to those with which in the temperate zone we welcome the spring after a long winter.

As we rode on, the grass increased; there were swampy places in the hollows, and now and then very muddy spots on the road. On every side the prospect was bounded by long ranges of hills — some of them precipitous, others covered to the summits with dark foliaged trees, looking nearly black in the distance. About noon we came in sight of the Amerrique range, which I recognised at once, and knew that we had reached the Juigalpa district, though still several leagues distant from the town. Travelling on without halting we arrived at the hacienda of San Diego at four o’clock. Velasquez expected to find in the owner an old acquaintance of his, and we had intended staying with him for the night, as our mules were tired out; but on riding up to the house we found it untenanted, the doors thrown down, and cattle stabling in it. We pushed on again. I thought I could make La Puerta, a hacienda three leagues nearer Libertad than Juigalpa, and as the road to it branched off from that to Juigalpa soon after passing San Diego, and Velasquez had to go to the latter place to make arrangements for getting our luggage sent on, I parted with him, and pushed on alone. Soon after, I crossed rather a deep river, and in a short time my mule, which had shown symptoms of distress, became almost unable to proceed, so that it was only with the greatest difficulty I could get along at all. After leading — almost dragging — it slowly for about a mile I reached a small hut, where they told me that it was three leagues to La Puerta, and only one to Juigalpa. The road to Puerta was all up hill, and it was clearly impossible for me to reach it that night, so I turned off across the savannahs, in the direction of Juigalpa, wishing that I had not separated from Velasquez. My poor beast was dragged along with much labour, and I was getting thoroughly knocked up myself. Several small temporary huts were passed, in which lived families that had come down from the mountains, bringing with them their cows to feed on the plains during the wet season. I was tempted to put up at one of these, but all were full of people, and I persevered on until it got quite dark. Just then I arrived at a hacienda near the river, and engaged a young fellow to get his horse and ride with me to the town. When my mule had a companion it went better, and being very tired I got on its back again. It was extremely dark, and I should not have found the road without a guide. We passed over the small plain, where the broken statues lie, but my guide, who had lived all his life within a mile of them, had never heard of them. My mule fell heavily with me in a rocky pass, but I escaped with a slight bruise. We had great trouble to get it on its legs again, and ultimately reached Juigalpa about nine o’clock.

Next morning I awoke with a dreadful headache and pain in my back, brought on either by the fatigue of the day before, or by having been tempted to eat some half-ripe guayavas when coming across the plains tired and hungry. I lay in the hammock until ten o’clock, and then feeling a little better, got on my mule and started. I was so ill as to be obliged to hold on to the pommel of my saddle and several times to get off and lie down. We had brought some “tiste” with us made from chocolate and maize, and drinks of this relieved me. I at last reached Libertad at four o’clock, and went to bed immediately. Having fasted all day in place of taking medicine, I rose pretty well next morning, and we rode through the forest to the mines, reaching them at noon on the 29th July, after an absence of nineteen days.

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