The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 21.

Return to Santo Domingo. The birds of Chontales. The insects of Chontales. Mimetic forms. Departure from the mines. Nicaragua as a field for emigration. Journey to Greytown. Return to England.

HAVING finished our business at Masaya, we rode back to Granada on the evening of the second day, and the next morning took a passage in a fine steamboat that Mr. Hollenbeck, of Greytown, had placed on the lake to convey passengers and goods between Granada and San Carlos, at the head of the river San Juan. We arrived at San Ubaldo at two o’clock, and found our mules safe but foot-sore, through travelling over the rocky hills from Santo Claro. The San Jose plains were in a dreadfully muddy state, and for five miles we went plunging through the swamps. Most of the mules fell several times, and we had great difficulty in getting them up again. We passed two travellers with their mules up to their girths in mud, and incapable of extricating themselves, but could not help them, as we dared not allow ours to stand, or they would stick fast also. We had met, at San Ubaldo, the son of Dr. Seemann, on his way home to England. His pack-mule had stuck fast in the plains the night before, and he had passed the night sitting on his boxes, half sunk in the mud, and attacked by myriads of mosquitoes that had covered his hands, face, and neck with blisters.

It was two hours after dark before we got across the weary plains. We found shelter for the night at a small hut on their border, where, for a consideration, the occupants gave up to us their mosquito curtains and stretchers, and sat up themselves. I suppose in such situations people get used to the mosquitoes, but to us they were intolerable. They buzzed around us and settled on our hands and face, if the former were not incessantly employed driving them off. Those of our party who had no curtains had a lively time of it. A gentleman of colour, from Jamaica, who was returning to the mines after escorting young Mr. Seemann to the port, and who could find no place to rest in, excepting an old hammock, kept his long arms going round like a windmill, every now and then wakening every one up with a loud crack, as he tried to bring his flat hand down on one of his tormentors. A mosquito, however, is not to be caught, even in the dark, in such a way. It holds up its two hinder legs as feelers; the current of air driven before a descending blow warns it of the impending danger, and it darts off to one side, to renew its attack somewhere else. The most certain way to catch them in the dark is to move the outstretched finger cautiously towards where one is felt, until a safe striking distance is reached. But what is the use of killing one when they are in myriads? None whatever, excepting that it is some occupation for the sleepless victim. The black gentleman was a thinker and a scholar, and used to amuse himself at the mines by writing letters addressed to Mr. Jacob Elam, Esquire (himself), in which he informed himself that he had been left legacies of ten, twenty, or thirty thousand pounds, a few thousand more or less costing nothing. Pondering during that weary night over the purpose of creation, he startled me about one in the morning with the question, “Mr. Belt, sir, can you tell me what is the use of mosquitoes?”

“To enjoy themselves and be happy, Jacob.”

“Ah, sir! if I was only a mosquito!” said Jacob, as he came down with another fruitless whack.

At the first cock-crow we were up, and as the cheerful dawn lighted up the east, we were in our saddles, and the miseries of the night Were but the jests of the morning. The mules even seemed to be eager to leave that dismal swamp, where malaria hung in the air, and mosquitoes did their best to drive mankind away. The dry savannahs were before us, our hearts were young as the morning, the tormenting spirits of the night had flown away with the darkness, and jest and banter enlivened the road. We reached Acoyapo at nine o’clock; my good friend Don Dolores Bermudez lent me a fresh mule, and, riding all day, I reached Santo Domingo in the evening.

I have little more of interest to relate. Years had sped on at Santo Domingo; and the time approached when I should be set free from the worries and responsibilities attending the supervision of gold-mines, the products of which were just at that tantalising point, on the verge between profit and loss, that made their superintendence a most irksome and anxious duty. The difficulty of the task was vastly increased by the capital of the company having been originally wasted in the erection of machinery that proved to be useless; so that financial questions constantly retarded the completion of the works. This book has not been written, however, to tell the story of the struggles of a mining engineer; and I turn aside with pleasure from this slight digression to say what little more I have to tell of my natural history experiences.

I did not, until near the conclusion of my stay, commence collecting the skins of birds, contenting myself with watching and noting their habits. I obtained the skins of ninety-two species only; but small as this collection was, it proved an important addition to the knowledge of the bird-fauna of Nicaragua. The eminent ornithologist, Mr. Osbert Salvin, published in the “Ibis” for July 1872 a list of seventy-three species that I had up to that time sent to England. Altogether, only one hundred and fifty species, including those that I had collected, were known from Nicaragua. Fragmentary as our knowledge is, it is sufficient, in Mr. Salvin’s opinion, to indicate, with tolerable accuracy, to which of the two sub-provinces of the Central American fauna the forest region of Chontales belongs. The birds I sent to England proved nearly conclusively that the Costa–Rican sub-province included Chontales in Nicaragua, and that the boundary between it and the sub-province of Southern Mexico and Guatemala must be sought for more to the north-west.

Of the southern species, which in Chontales find their northern limit, so far as is known, there are in my small collection thirty-two species, whilst belonging to the northern sub-province, and not known to range further south, there are only seven species; showing that the connection with Costa Rica and the south is much closer than that with Guatemala and the north, and that the boundary between the two sub-provinces is not found, as was supposed, in the depression of the isthmus occupied by the great lakes and their outlet the San Juan river, but must exist further towards, if not in, Honduras. Mr. Salvin says, “What I suspect to be the case, though I cannot as yet bring evidence to prove it, is, that the forests of Chontales spread uninterruptedly into Costa Rica, but that towards the north and north-west a decided break occurs, and that this break determines the range of the prevalent Costa Rican and Guatemalan forest forms.”1 I can confirm Mr. Salvin’s supposition. The San Juan river forms no greater break in the forest than a dozen other rivers that run through it and fall into the Atlantic. But a decided interruption does occur to the north-west. It is found in the valleys of Humuya and Goascoran in Honduras, which, along with the central plain of Comayagua, constitute a great transverse valley running north and south from sea to sea, and cutting completely through the chain of the Cordilleras.2 The highest point of this pass is 2850 feet above the sea, and the country around is composed of undulating savannahs and plains covered with grass. The Gulf of Honduras, cutting deeply into the continent, also plays an important part in preventing the intermingling of the faunas of the two sub-provinces, but the principal barrier is the termination of the great Atlantic forest north-westward, which even at Cape Gracias begins to give place to plains and savannahs next the coast.

1 “The Ibis” July 1872 page 312.

2 Squier “States of Central America” page 681.

Longicorn Beetles of Chontales.

Longicorn Beetles of Chontales.

1. Evander nobilis, Bates. 2. Gymnocerus beltii, Bates. 3. Polyrhaphis fabricii, Thom. 4. Deliathis nivea, Bates. 5. Taeniotes praeclarus, Bates. 6. Chalastinus rubrocinctus, Bates. 7. Cosmisoma Titania, Bates. 8. Carneades superba, Bates. 9. Amphionyca princeps, Bates.

My entomological collections were much more complete than my collections of birds, especially those of the butterflies and beetles.1 Mr. W.C. Hewitson has described twenty-five new species, but no list of the whole of the butterflies known from Nicaragua has yet been published. In Coleoptera I made large collections, but the extensive families of the Elateridae, Lamellicorns, and others are still uncatalogued, and very many species remain to be described. The only beetles that have been catalogued as yet with sufficient completeness to warrant any general conclusions are the Longicorns. I collected about 300 different species, and Mr. H.W. Bates has enumerated 242 of these in a paper “On the Longicorn Coleoptera of Chontales, Nicaragua,” published in the “Transactions of the Entomological Society” for 1872. In an interesting summary of the results he gives the following analysis of the range of the species:—

Peculiar to Chontales: 133 species.
Common to Chontales and Mexico: 38 species.
Common to Do. and the West India Islands: 5 species.
Common to Do. and the United States: 5 species.
Common to Do. and New Grenada or Venezuela: 24 species.
Common to Do. and the Amazon Region: 22 species.
Common to Do. and South Brazil: 10 species.
Generally distributed in Tropical America: 5 species.
Total: 242 species.

Omitting the peculiar species and those generally distributed in Tropical America, we have thus forty-three that are found in Chontales and in Mexico or the United States, and sixty-one that are found in Chontales and countries lying to the southward. The preponderance of southern forms is not so great as in the birds, but when we reflect on the large number of peculiar species, and that the Longicorns of the Atlantic slope of Costa Rica are yet scarcely known, it appears likely that many of the Chontales species will be found ranging southward across the San Juan river, and that the Insect fauna will be shown to have the same relations as the Bird fauna; for, as the Atlantic forest continues unbroken much further southward than northward, so will the insects peculiar to the forest region have a greater range in that direction.

1 The author’s bird and insect collections were purchased at his death by Messrs Godman and Salvin who also acquired from Mr. H.W. Bates the types and other specimens of coleoptera described by him which had not remained in the original collection. These are all now in the British Museum, together with the Hewitson bequest, in which are many of the lepidoptera types. It may not be out of place to add that Mr. Hewitson left in his will the sum of two hundred pounds to Belt in recognition of the way in which the latter’s collections had been placed at his service.

Mr. Hollick has beautifully drawn on wood a few of the characteristic Longicorns of Chontales, all of them, with one exception (Polyrhaphis fabricii), being as yet only known from that province, but probably extending into Costa Rica.

One of these, the lovely little Cosmisoma Titania, Number 7 in Plate 25, has been appropriately named after the Queen of the Fairies by Mr. Bates. It was first found by Mr. Janson, junior, who came out to Chontales purposely to collect insects; and I afterwards obtained it in great numbers. The use of the curious brushes on the antennae is not known. Another longicorn, about the same size (Coremia hirtipes), has its two hindmost legs greatly lengthened, and furnished with brushes: one I saw on a branch was flourishing these in the air, and I thought at first they were two black flies hovering over the branch, my attention being taken from the body of the beetle by the movement of the brushes.

Another fine longicorn, figured in Plate 25, Deliathis nivea, looks as if made of pure white porcelain spotted with black. It is a rare beetle, one or two specimens each season being generally all that are taken. It is usually found on the leaves of young trees from twelve to twenty feet from the ground. I have taken the rather heavy-bodied female by throwing a stone at it and causing it to fall within reach, but the male is more active on the wing, and it was long before I obtained a specimen.

Leaf Insect.

Amongst the insects of Chontales none are more worthy of notice than the many curious species of Orthoptera that look like green and faded leaves of trees. I have already described one species that resembles a green leaf, and so much so that it even deceived the acute senses of the foraging ants; other species, belonging to a closely-related genus (Pterochroza), imitate leaves in every stage of decay, some being faded-green, blotched with yellow; others, as in the species figured, resemble a brown withered leaf, the resemblance being increased by a transparent hole through both wings that looks like a piece taken out of the leaf. In many butterflies that resemble leaves on the under side of their wings, the wings being raised and closed together when at rest so as to hide the bright colours of the upper surface, there are similar transparent spots that imitate holes; and others again are jagged at the edge, as if pieces had been taken out of them. Many chrysalides also have mirror-like spots that resemble holes; and one that I found hanging from the under side of a leaf had a real hole through it, formed by a horn that projected from the thorax and doubled back to the body, leaving a space between. Another insect, of which I only found two specimens, had a wonderful resemblance to a piece of moss, amongst which it concealed itself in the daytime, and was not to be distinguished except when accidentally shaken out. It is the larval stage of a species of Phasma.

Moss Insect.

The extraordinary perfection of these mimetic resemblances is most wonderful. I have heard this urged as a reason for believing that they could not have been produced by natural selection, because a much less degree of resemblance would have protected the mimetic species. To this it may be answered, that natural selection not only tends to pick out and preserve the forms that have protective resemblances, but to increase the perceptions of the predatory species of insects and birds, so that there is a continual progression towards a perfectly mimetic form. This progressive improvement in means of defence and of attack may be illustrated in this way. Suppose a number of not very swift hares and a number of slow-running dogs were placed on an island where there was plenty of food for the hares but none for the dogs, except the hares they could catch; the slowest of the hares would be first killed, and the swifter preserved. Then the slowest-running dogs would suffer, and having less food than the fleeter ones, would have least chance of living, and the swiftest dogs would be preserved; thus the fleetness of both dogs and hares would be gradually but surely perfected by natural selection, until the greatest speed was reached that it was possible for them to attain. I have in this supposed example confined myself to the question of speed alone, but in reality other means of pursuit and of escape would come into play and be improved. The dogs might increase in cunning, or combine together to work in couples or in packs by the same selective process; and the hares on their part might acquire means of concealment or stratagem to elude their enemies; but, on both sides, the improvement would be progressive until the highest form of excellence was reached. Viewed in this light, the wonderful perfection of mimetic forms is a natural consequence of the selection of the individuals that, on the one side, were more and more mimetic, and on the other (that of their enemies) more and more able to penetrate through the assumed disguises. It has doubtless happened in some cases that species, having many foes, have entirely thrown off some of them through the disguises they have been brought to assume, but others they still cannot elude.

Since Mr. Bates first brought forward the theory of mimetic resemblances its importance has been more and more demonstrated, as it has been found how very largely animal life has been influenced in form and colour by the natural selection of the varieties that were preserved from their enemies, or enabled to approach their prey, through the resemblance they bore to something else. So general are these deceptive resemblances throughout nature, that it is often difficult to determine whether sexual preferences or the preservation of mimetic forms has been most potent in moulding the form and coloration of species, and in some the two forces are seen to be opposed in their operation. Thus in some butterflies that mimic the Heliconidae, the females only are mimetic, the males retaining the normal form and coloration of the group to which they belong. In such cases it appears as if the females have not been checked in gradually assuming the disguise they wear, and it is important that they should be protected, as they are more exposed to destruction while seeking for places to deposit their eggs; but that both sexes should not have inherited the change in form and colour when it would have been beneficial to both can only be explained, I think, on the supposition that the females had a choice of mates and preferred those that retained the primordial appearance of the group. This view is supported by the fact that many of the males of the mimetic Leptalides have the upper half of the lower wing of a pure white, whilst all the rest of the wings is barred and spotted with black, red, and yellow, like the species they mimic. The females have not this white patch, and the males usually conceal it by covering it with the upper wing, so that I cannot imagine its being of any other use to them excepting as an attraction in courtship, to exhibit to the females, and thus gratify a deep-seated preference for the normal colour of the order to which the Leptalides belong.

I finally left the mines September 6th, 1872, on my way to England. I was accompanied through the forest by several of the mining officials. Though glad to return to Europe, it was not without some feeling of regret that I rode for the last time through the forest where I had so often wandered during the years I had been at Santo Domingo. The woods had become as familiar to me as home scenes. No more should I see the white-headed ruby humming-bird come darting down the brook, chasing away the green-throat from its bathing-place; no more watch the flocks of many-coloured birds hunting the insects in the forests, or admire the wonderful instincts of the tropical ants. I listened with pleasure to the last hoarse cries of the mot-mots, and tried to impress on my memory the curious forms of vegetation — the palms, the gigantic arums, the tangled lianas, and perching epiphytes.

After reaching Pital I rode rapidly over the savannahs, where the swallows were skimming over the top of the long grass to frighten up the insects which rested there. After another flounder across the San Jose plains, I reached San Ubaldo without incident, excepting a tumble with my mule in the mud. Much of the land between Pital and the lake is well fitted for the cultivation of maize, sugar, and plantains, and near the river at Acoyapo the soil is very fertile. Little of it is occupied, and it is open to any one to squat down on it and fence it in. All that is required is that the form shall be gone through of obtaining permission from the alcalde of the township, which is never refused. Nicaragua offers a tempting field for the emigrant, but there are some other considerations which should not be lost sight of. When a man finds he can live easily without much work, that all his neighbours are contented with the scantiest clothing, the coarsest food, and the poorest dwellings, he is very apt to fall into the same slothful habits. Even if he himself has innate energy enough to ward off the insidious foe, he will see his children growing up exposed to all the temptations to lead an easy life that a tropical climate offers, and without any example of industry or enterprise around them to arouse or cultivate a spirit of emulation. The consequence is that nearly all the foreign settlers in Nicaragua from amongst the European and North American labouring classes have fallen into the same lazy habits as the Nicaraguans, and whenever I have been inclined to blame the natives for their indolence, some recollection of a fellow-countryman who has succumbed to the same influences has arrested my harsher judgment. I cannot recommend Nicaragua, with all its natural wealth, its perpetual summer, its magnificent lakes, and its teeming soil, as a place of emigration for isolated families, and even for larger schemes of colonisation I do not think it so suitable as our own colonies and the United States. A large body of emigrants would carry with them the healthful influence of the good and industrious, and the spirit of emulation and progress might be preserved if the community could be kept together, but I fear this could not be. After a while the tastes of one individual would lead in one, those of another in an opposite direction. Where all were free to choose, the idle would go away from the influences that urged them to industry, the sensual from the restraints of morality. Many will, however, smile at the objection I have to emigration to Nicaragua, when they perceive that it is founded only on the ease with which people can live in plenty there. There is one form of colonisation that will be successful, and that is the gradual moving down southward of the people of the United States. When the destiny of Mexico is fulfilled, with one stride the Anglo–American will bound to the Isthmus of Panama, and Central America will be filled with cattle estates, and with coffee, sugar, indigo, cotton, and cacao plantations. Railways will then keep up a healthful and continuous intercourse with the enterprising North, and the sluggard and the sensual will not be able to stand before the competition of the vigorous and virtuous. Nor will the Anglo–American long be stayed by the Isthmus in his progress southward. Unless some such catastrophe happens as a few years ago threatened to cover North America with standing armies as in Europe, which God forbid, not many centuries will roll over before the English language will be spoken from the frozen soil of the far north to Tierra del Fuego in the south.

The fine steamer that the enterprise of Mr. Hollenbeck had placed on the lake, and which he had named the “Elizabeth” after his amiable wife, had been wrecked a short time before I left the country, and Mr. Hollenbeck’s own health had greatly suffered by the labours he undertook in endeavouring to get the vessel off the sunken rock on which it had struck. Notwithstanding this and other misfortunes, enough to try a man’s mettle to its foundation, his native pluck carried him through all his difficulties, and he was away to the States to get new vessels and blow another blast at fortune’s iron gates. Whilst I write these last few pages I learn that a new steamer ploughs the lake, and that his transit service is again in complete working order. Success attend him.

The result of the wreck of the “Elizabeth”, so far as I was concerned, was that I had to take a passage down the lake to San Carlos in a bungo packet, so full as to necessitate closer acquaintanceship with many amiable Nicaraguans than was agreeable to my insular prejudices. When in the middle of the night an old woman tried to roll me off the soft plank I had found for myself into a litter of crying babies, I indulged in some bitter reflections on the race, that, I am happy to say, were as transitory as the inconvenience to which I was put. At San Carlos we changed to the river steamer under my old friend Captain Birdsall. As I have already described the scenery of the San Juan in the account of my journey up, I shall not repeat the story, but simply state that we reached Greytown on the 11th September, and on the 16th embarked on the West Indian Mail Packet. I arrived in England within a month, to find my native town (Newcastle) wealthier and dirtier than ever, with thousands of furnaces belching out smoke and poisonous gases; to find the people of England fretting about the probable exhaustion of her coal-fields in a few hundred years, actually dreading the time when she will no longer be the smithy of the world, but the centre of the science, philosophy, literature, and art of the Anglo–Saxon race — that race whose sons all over the globe will then look up to her with loving reverence as the mother of nations, the coloniser of the world, the pioneer of freedom, progress, and morality.

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