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Instinct - Chapter VIII - Origin of Species

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Some species of Molothrus, a widely distinct genus of American birds, allied to our starlings, have parasitic habits like those of the cuckoo; and the species present an interesting gradation in the perfection of their instincts. The sexes of Molothrus badius are stated by an excellent observer, Mr. Hudson, sometimes to live promiscuously together in flocks, and sometimes to pair. They either build a nest of their own or seize on one belonging to some other bird, occasionally throwing out the nestlings of the stranger. They either lay their eggs in the nest thus appropriated, or oddly enough build one for themselves on the top of it. They usually sit on their own eggs and rear their own young; but Mr. Hudson says it is probable that they are occasionally parasitic, for he has seen the young of this species following old birds of a distinct kind and clamouring to be fed by them. The parasitic habits of another species of Molothrus, the M. bonariensis, are much more highly developed than those of the last, but are still far from perfect. This bird, as far as it is known, invariably lays its eggs in the nests of strangers; but it is remarkable that several together sometimes commence to build an irregular untidy nest of their own, placed in singular ill-adapted situations, as on the leaves of a large thistle. They never, however, as far as Mr. Hudson has ascertained, complete a nest for themselves. They often lay so many eggs--from fifteen to twenty--in the same foster-nest, that few or none can possibly be hatched. They have, moreover, the extraordinary habit of pecking holes in the eggs, whether of their own species or of their foster parents, which they find in the appropriated nests. They drop also many eggs on the bare ground, which are thus wasted. A third species, the M. pecoris of North America, has acquired instincts as perfect as those of the cuckoo, for it never lays more than one egg in a foster-nest, so that the young bird is securely reared. Mr. Hudson is a strong disbeliever in evolution, but he appears to have been so much struck by the imperfect instincts of the Molothrus bonariensis that he quotes my words, and asks, "Must we consider these habits, not as especially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, namely, transition?"

Various birds, as has already been remarked, occasionally lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. This habit is not very uncommon with the Gallinaceae, and throws some light on the singular instinct of the ostrich. In this family several hen birds unite and lay first a few eggs in one nest and then in another; and these are hatched by the males. This instinct may probably be accounted for by the fact of the hens laying a large number of eggs, but, as with the cuckoo, at intervals of two or three days. The instinct, however, of the American ostrich, as in the case of the Molothrus bonariensis, has not as yet been perfected; for a surprising number of eggs lie strewed over the plains, so that in one day's hunting I picked up no less than twenty lost and wasted eggs.

Many bees are parasitic, and regularly lay their eggs in the nests of other kinds of bees. This case is more remarkable than that of the cuckoo; for these bees have not only had their instincts but their structure modified in accordance with their parasitic habits; for they do not possess the pollen-collecting apparatus which would have been indispensable if they had stored up food for their own young. Some species of Sphegidae (wasp-like insects) are likewise parasitic; and M. Fabre has lately shown good reason for believing that, although the Tachytes nigra generally makes its own burrow and stores it with paralysed prey for its own larvae, yet that, when this insect finds a burrow already made and stored by another sphex, it takes advantage of the prize, and becomes for the occasion parasitic. In this case, as with that of the Molothrus or cuckoo, I can see no difficulty in natural selection making an occasional habit permanent, if of advantage to the species, and if the insect whose nest and stored food are feloniously appropriated, be not thus exterminated.


This remarkable instinct was first discovered in the Formica (Polyerges) rufescens by Pierre Huber, a better observer even than his celebrated father. This ant is absolutely dependent on its slaves; without their aid, the species would certainly become extinct in a single year. The males and fertile females do no work of any kind, and the workers or sterile females, though most energetic and courageous in capturing slaves, do no other work. They are incapable of making their own nests, or of feeding their own larvae. When the old nest is found inconvenient, and they have to migrate, it is the slaves which determine the migration, and actually carry their masters in their jaws. So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them without a slave, but with plenty of the food which they like best, and with their larvae and pupae to stimulate them to work, they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves, and many perished of hunger. Huber then introduced a single slave (F. fusca), and she instantly set to work, fed and saved the survivors; made some cells and tended the larvae, and put all to rights. What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts? If we had not known of any other slave-making ant, it would have been hopeless to speculate how so wonderful an instinct could have been perfected.

Another species, Formica sanguinea, was likewise first discovered by P. Huber to be a slave-making ant. This species is found in the southern parts of England, and its habits have been attended to by Mr. F. Smith, of the British Museum, to whom I am much indebted for information on this and other subjects. Although fully trusting to the statements of Huber and Mr. Smith, I tried to approach the subject in a sceptical frame of mind, as any one may well be excused for doubting the existence of so extraordinary an instinct as that of making slaves. Hence, I will give the observations which I made in some little detail. I opened fourteen nests of F. sanguinea, and found a few slaves in all. Males and fertile females of the slave-species (F. fusca) are found only in their own proper communities, and have never been observed in the nests of F. sanguinea. The slaves are black and not above half the size of their red masters, so that the contrast in their appearance is great. When the nest is slightly disturbed, the slaves occasionally come out, and like their masters are much agitated and defend the nest: when the nest is much disturbed, and the larvae and pupae are exposed, the slaves work energetically together with their masters in carrying them away to a place of safety. Hence, it is clear that the slaves feel quite at home. During the months of June and July, on three successive years, I watched for many hours several nests in Surrey and Sussex, and never saw a slave either leave or enter a nest. As, during these months, the slaves are very few in number, I thought that they might behave differently when more numerous; but Mr. Smith informs me that he has watched the nests at various hours during May, June and August, both in Surrey and Hampshire, and has never seen the slaves, though present in large numbers in August, either leave or enter the nest. Hence, he considers them as strictly household slaves. The masters, on the other hand, may be constantly seen bringing in materials for the nest, and food of all kinds. During the year 1860, however, in the month of July, I came across a community with an unusually large stock of slaves, and I observed a few slaves mingled with their masters leaving the nest, and marching along the same road to a tall Scotch-fir tree, twenty-five yards distant, which they ascended together, probably in search of aphides or cocci. According to Huber, who had ample opportunities for observation, the slaves in Switzerland habitually work with their masters in making the nest, and they alone open and close the doors in the morning and evening; and, as Huber expressly states, their principal office is to search for aphides. This difference in the usual habits of the masters and slaves in the two countries, probably depends merely on the slaves being captured in greater numbers in Switzerland than in England.

One day I fortunately witnessed a migration of F. sanguinea from one nest to another, and it was a most interesting spectacle to behold the masters carefully carrying their slaves in their jaws instead of being carried by them, as in the case of F. rufescens. Another day my attention was struck by about a score of the slave-makers haunting the same spot, and evidently not in search of food; they approached and were vigorously repulsed by an independent community of the slave species (F. fusca); sometimes as many as three of these ants clinging to the legs of the slave-making F. sanguinea. The latter ruthlessly killed their small opponents and carried their dead bodies as food to their nest, twenty-nine yards distant; but they were prevented from getting any pupae to rear as slaves. I then dug up a small parcel of the pupae of F. fusca from another nest, and put them down on a bare spot near the place of combat; they were eagerly seized and carried off by the tyrants, who perhaps fancied that, after all, they had been victorious in their late combat.

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