The Life of the Spider by Jean-Henri Fabre


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Page 1

Must we take these queer things seriously or laugh at them? From the
little that I have seen, I hesitate to pronounce an opinion. Nothing
tells us that the bite of the Tarantula may not provoke, in weak and very
impressionable people, a nervous disorder which music will relieve;
nothing tells us that a profuse perspiration, resulting from a very
energetic dance, is not likely to diminish the discomfort by diminishing
the cause of the ailment. So far from laughing, I reflect and enquire,
when the Calabrian peasant talks to me of his Tarantula, the Pujaud
reaper of his _Theridion lugubre_, the Corsican husbandman of his
Malmignatte. Those Spiders might easily deserve, at least partly, their
terrible reputation.

The most powerful Spider in my district, the Black-bellied Tarantula,
will presently give us something to think about, in this connection. It
is not my business to discuss a medical point, I interest myself
especially in matters of instinct; but, as the poison-fangs play a
leading part in the huntress' manoeuvres of war, I shall speak of their
effects by the way. The habits of the Tarantula, her ambushes, her
artifices, her methods of killing her prey: these constitute my subject.
I will preface it with an account by Leon Dufour, {2} one of those
accounts in which I used to delight and which did much to bring me into
closer touch with the insect. The Wizard of the Landes tells us of the
ordinary Tarantula, that of the Calabrias, observed by him in Spain:

'_Lycosa tarantula_ by preference inhabits open places, dry, arid,
uncultivated places, exposed to the sun. She lives generally--at
least when full-grown--in underground passages, regular burrows, which
she digs for herself. These burrows are cylindrical; they are often
an inch in diameter and run into the ground to a depth of more than a
foot; but they are not perpendicular. The inhabitant of this gut
proves that she is at the same time a skilful hunter and an able
engineer. It was a question for her not only of constructing a deep
retreat that could hide her from the pursuit of her foes: she also had
to set up her observatory whence to watch for her prey and dart out
upon it. The Tarantula provides for every contingency: the
underground passage, in fact, begins by being vertical, but, at four
or five inches from the surface, it bends at an obtuse angle, forms a
horizontal turning and then becomes perpendicular once more. It is at
the elbow of this tunnel that the Tarantula posts herself as a
vigilant sentry and does not for a moment lose sight of the door of
her dwelling; it was there that, at the period when I was hunting her,
I used to see those eyes gleaming like diamonds, bright as a cat's
eyes in the dark.

'The outer orifice of the Tarantula's burrow is usually surmounted by
a shaft constructed throughout by herself. It is a genuine work of
architecture, standing as much as an inch above the ground and
sometimes two inches in diameter, so that it is wider than the burrow
itself. This last circumstance, which seems to have been calculated
by the industrious Spider, lends itself admirably to the necessary
extension of the legs at the moment when the prey is to be seized. The
shaft is composed mainly of bits of dry wood joined by a little clay
and so artistically laid, one above the other, that they form the
scaffolding of a straight column, the inside of which is a hollow
cylinder. The solidity of this tubular building, of this outwork, is
ensured above all by the fact that it is lined, upholstered within,
with a texture woven by the Lycosa's {3} spinnerets and continued
throughout the interior of the burrow. It is easy to imagine how
useful this cleverly-manufactured lining must be for preventing
landslip or warping, for maintaining cleanliness and for helping her
claws to scale the fortress.

'I hinted that this outwork of the burrow was not there invariably; as
a matter of fact, I have often come across Tarantulas' holes without a
trace of it, perhaps because it had been accidentally destroyed by the
weather, or because the Lycosa may not always light upon the proper
building-materials, or, lastly, because architectural talent is
possibly declared only in individuals that have reached the final
stage, the period of perfection of their physical and intellectual
development.

'One thing is certain, that I have had numerous opportunities of
seeing these shafts, these out-works of the Tarantula's abode; they
remind me, on a larger scale, of the tubes of certain Caddis-worms.
The Arachnid had more than one object in view in constructing them:
she shelters her retreat from the floods; she protects it from the
fall of foreign bodies which, swept by the wind, might end by
obstructing it; lastly, she uses it as a snare by offering the Flies
and other insects whereon she feeds a projecting point to settle on.
Who shall tell us all the wiles employed by this clever and daring
huntress?

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Thu 27th Jun 2019, 8:52