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Nature of the Checks to Increase - Chapter V - Origin of Species

Page 33 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page


The eyes of moles and of some burrowing rodents are rudimentary in size, and in some cases are quite covered by skin and fur. This state of the eyes is probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection. In South America, a burrowing rodent, the tuco-tuco, or Ctenomys, is even more subterranean in its habits than the mole; and I was assured by a Spaniard, who had often caught them, that they were frequently blind. One which I kept alive was certainly in this condition, the cause, as appeared on dissection, having been inflammation of the nictitating membrane. As frequent inflammation of the eyes must be injurious to any animal, and as eyes are certainly not necessary to animals having subterranean habits, a reduction in their size, with the adhesion of the eyelids and growth of fur over them, might in such case be an advantage; and if so, natural selection would aid the effects of disuse.

It is well known that several animals, belonging to the most different classes, which inhabit the caves of Carniola and Kentucky, are blind. In some of the crabs the foot-stalk for the eye remains, though the eye is gone; the stand for the telescope is there, though the telescope with its glasses has been lost. As it is difficult to imagine that eyes, though useless, could be in any way injurious to animals living in darkness, their loss may be attributed to disuse. In one of the blind animals, namely, the cave-rat (Neotoma), two of which were captured by Professor Silliman at above half a mile distance from the mouth of the cave, and therefore not in the profoundest depths, the eyes were lustrous and of large size; and these animals, as I am informed by Professor Silliman, after having been exposed for about a month to a graduated light, acquired a dim perception of objects.

It is difficult to imagine conditions of life more similar than deep limestone caverns under a nearly similar climate; so that, in accordance with the old view of the blind animals having been separately created for the American and European caverns, very close similarity in their organisation and affinities might have been expected. This is certainly not the case if we look at the two whole faunas; with respect to the insects alone, Schiodte has remarked: "We are accordingly prevented from considering the entire phenomenon in any other light than something purely local, and the similarity which is exhibited in a few forms between the Mammoth Cave (in Kentucky) and the caves in Carniola, otherwise than as a very plain expression of that analogy which subsists generally between the fauna of Europe and of North America." On my view we must suppose that American animals, having in most cases ordinary powers of vision, slowly migrated by successive generations from the outer world into the deeper and deeper recesses of the Kentucky caves, as did European animals into the caves of Europe. We have some evidence of this gradation of habit; for, as Schiodte remarks: "We accordingly look upon the subterranean faunas as small ramifications which have penetrated into the earth from the geographically limited faunas of the adjacent tracts, and which, as they extended themselves into darkness, have been accommodated to surrounding circumstances. Animals not far remote from ordinary forms, prepare the transition from light to darkness. Next follow those that are constructed for twilight; and, last of all, those destined for total darkness, and whose formation is quite peculiar." These remarks of Schiodte's it should be understood, apply not to the same, but to distinct species. By the time that an animal had reached, after numberless generations, the deepest recesses, disuse will on this view have more or less perfectly obliterated its eyes, and natural selection will often have effected other changes, such as an increase in the length of the antennae or palpi, as a compensation for blindness. Notwithstanding such modifications, we might expect still to see in the cave-animals of America, affinities to the other inhabitants of that continent, and in those of Europe to the inhabitants of the European continent. And this is the case with some of the American cave-animals, as I hear from Professor Dana; and some of the European cave-insects are very closely allied to those of the surrounding country. It would be difficult to give any rational explanation of the affinities of the blind cave-animals to the other inhabitants of the two continents on the ordinary view of their independent creation. That several of the inhabitants of the caves of the Old and New Worlds should be closely related, we might expect from the well-known relationship of most of their other productions. As a blind species of Bathyscia is found in abundance on shady rocks far from caves, the loss of vision in the cave species of this one genus has probably had no relation to its dark habitation; for it is natural that an insect already deprived of vision should readily become adapted to dark caverns. Another blind genus (Anophthalmus) offers this remarkable peculiarity, that the species, as Mr. Murray observes, have not as yet been found anywhere except in caves; yet those which inhabit the several caves of Europe and America are distinct; but it is possible that the progenitors of these several species, while they were furnished with eyes, may formerly have ranged over both continents, and then have become extinct, excepting in their present secluded abodes. Far from feeling surprise that some of the cave-animals should be very anomalous, as Agassiz has remarked in regard to the blind fish, the Amblyopsis, and as is the case with the blind Proteus, with reference to the reptiles of Europe, I am only surprised that more wrecks of ancient life have not been preserved, owing to the less severe competition to which the scanty inhabitants of these dark abodes will have been exposed.

ACCLIMATISATION.

Habit is hereditary with plants, as in the period of flowering, in the time of sleep, in the amount of rain requisite for seeds to germinate, etc., and this leads me to say a few words on acclimatisation. As it is extremely common for distinct species belonging to the same genus to inhabit hot and cold countries, if it be true that all the species of the same genus are descended from a single parent-form, acclimatisation must be readily effected during a long course of descent. It is notorious that each species is adapted to the climate of its own home: species from an arctic or even from a temperate region cannot endure a tropical climate, or conversely. So again, many succulent plants cannot endure a damp climate. But the degree of adaptation of species to the climates under which they live is often overrated. We may infer this from our frequent inability to predict whether or not an imported plant will endure our climate, and from the number of plants and animals brought from different countries which are here perfectly healthy. We have reason to believe that species in a state of nature are closely limited in their ranges by the competition of other organic beings quite as much as, or more than, by adaptation to particular climates. But whether or not this adaptation is in most cases very close, we have evidence with some few plants, of their becoming, to a certain extent, naturally habituated to different temperatures; that is, they become acclimatised: thus the pines and rhododendrons, raised from seed collected by Dr. Hooker from the same species growing at different heights on the Himalayas, were found to possess in this country different constitutional powers of resisting cold. Mr. Thwaites informs me that he has observed similar facts in Ceylon; analogous observations have been made by Mr. H.C. Watson on European species of plants brought from the Azores to England; and I could give other cases. In regard to animals, several authentic instances could be adduced of species having largely extended, within historical times, their range from warmer to colder latitudes, and conversely; but we do not positively know that these animals were strictly adapted to their native climate, though in all ordinary cases we assume such to be the case; nor do we know that they have subsequently become specially acclimatised to their new homes, so as to be better fitted for them than they were at first.

As we may infer that our domestic animals were originally chosen by uncivilised man because they were useful, and because they bred readily under confinement, and not because they were subsequently found capable of far-extended transportation, the common and extraordinary capacity in our domestic animals of not only withstanding the most different climates, but of being perfectly fertile (a far severer test) under them, may be used as an argument that a large proportion of other animals now in a state of nature could easily be brought to bear widely different climates. We must not, however, push the foregoing argument too far, on account of the probable origin of some of our domestic animals from several wild stocks: the blood, for instance, of a tropical and arctic wolf may perhaps be mingled in our domestic breeds. The rat and mouse cannot be considered as domestic animals, but they have been transported by man to many parts of the world, and now have a far wider range than any other rodent; for they live under the cold climate of Faroe in the north and of the Falklands in the south, and on many an island in the torrid zones. Hence adaptation to any special climate may be looked at as a quality readily grafted on an innate wide flexibility of constitution, common to most animals. On this view, the capacity of enduring the most different climates by man himself and by his domestic animals, and the fact of the extinct elephant and rhinoceros having formerly endured a glacial climate, whereas the living species are now all tropical or sub-tropical in their habits, ought not to be looked at as anomalies, but as examples of a very common flexibility of constitution, brought, under peculiar circumstances, into action.

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