Copyright
Charles Darwin.

The Voyage of the Beagle online

. (page 5 of 51)
Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 5 of 51)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Coleoptera, that I caught sixty-eight species of that order. Among
these, there were only two of the Carabidae, four Brachelytra,
fifteen Rhyncophora, and fourteen of the Chrysomelidae.
Thirty-seven species of Arachnidae, which I brought home, will be
sufficient to prove that I was not paying overmuch attention to the
generally favoured order of Coleoptera.) The cabinets of Europe
can, as yet, boast only of the larger species from tropical
climates. It is sufficient to disturb the composure of an
entomologist's mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a
complete catalogue. The carnivorous beetles, or Carabidae, appear
in extremely few numbers within the tropics: this is the more
remarkable when compared to the case of the carnivorous quadrupeds,
which are so abundant in hot countries. I was struck with this
observation both on entering Brazil, and when I saw the many
elegant and active forms of the Harpalidae reappearing on the
temperate plains of La Plata. Do the very numerous spiders and
rapacious Hymenoptera supply the place of the carnivorous beetles?
The carrion-feeders and Brachelytra are very uncommon; on the other
hand, the Rhyncophora and Chrysomelidae, all of which depend on the
vegetable world for subsistence, are present in astonishing
numbers. I do not here refer to the number of different species,
but to that of the individual insects; for on this it is that the
most striking character in the entomology of different countries
depends. The orders Orthoptera and Hemiptera are particularly
numerous; as likewise is the stinging division of the Hymenoptera;
the bees, perhaps, being excepted. A person, on first entering a
tropical forest, is astonished at the labours of the ants:
well-beaten paths branch off in every direction, on which an army
of never-failing foragers may be seen, some going forth, and others
returning, burdened with pieces of green leaf, often larger than
their own bodies.

A small dark-coloured ant sometimes migrates in countless numbers.
One day, at Bahia, my attention was drawn by observing many
spiders, cockroaches, and other insects, and some lizards, rushing
in the greatest agitation across a bare piece of ground. A little
way behind, every stalk and leaf was blackened by a small ant. The
swarm having crossed the bare space, divided itself, and descended
an old wall. By this means many insects were fairly enclosed; and
the efforts which the poor little creatures made to extricate
themselves from such a death were wonderful. When the ants came to
the road they changed their course, and in narrow files reascended
the wall. Having placed a small stone so as to intercept one of the
lines, the whole body attacked it, and then immediately retired.
Shortly afterwards another body came to the charge, and again
having failed to make any impression, this line of march was
entirely given up. By going an inch round, the file might have
avoided the stone, and this doubtless would have happened, if it
had been originally there: but having been attacked, the
lion-hearted little warriors scorned the idea of yielding.

Certain wasp-like insects, which construct in the corners of the
verandahs clay cells for their larvae, are very numerous in the
neighbourhood of Rio. These cells they stuff full of half-dead
spiders and caterpillars, which they seem wonderfully to know how
to sting to that degree as to leave them paralysed but alive, until
their eggs are hatched; and the larvae feed on the horrid mass of
powerless, half-killed victims - a sight which has been described by
an enthusiastic naturalist as curious and pleasing! (2/8. In a
Manuscript in the British Museum by Mr. Abbott, who made his
observations in Georgia; see Mr. A. White's paper in the "Annals of
Natural History" volume 7 page 472. Lieutenant Hutton has described
a sphex with similar habits in India, in the "Journal of the
Asiatic Society" volume 1 page 555.) I was much interested one day
by watching a deadly contest between a Pepsis and a large spider of
the genus Lycosa. The wasp made a sudden dash at its prey, and then
flew away: the spider was evidently wounded, for, trying to escape,
it rolled down a little slope, but had still strength sufficient to
crawl into a thick tuft of grass. The wasp soon returned, and
seemed surprised at not immediately finding its victim. It then
commenced as regular a hunt as ever hound did after fox; making
short semicircular casts, and all the time rapidly vibrating its
wings and antennae. The spider, though well concealed, was soon
discovered, and the wasp, evidently still afraid of its adversary's
jaws, after much manoeuvring, inflicted two stings on the under
side of its thorax. At last, carefully examining with its antennae
the now motionless spider, it proceeded to drag away the body. But
I stopped both tyrant and prey. (2/9. Don Felix Azara volume 1 page
175, mentioning a hymenopterous insect, probably of the same genus,
says he saw it dragging a dead spider through tall grass, in a
straight line to its nest, which was one hundred and sixty-three
paces distant. He adds that the wasp, in order to find the road,
every now and then made "demi-tours d'environ trois palmes.")

The number of spiders, in proportion to other insects, is here
compared with England very much larger; perhaps more so than with
any other division of the articulate animals. The variety of
species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite. The
genus, or rather family of Epeira, is here characterized by many
singular forms; some species have pointed coriaceous shells, others
enlarged and spiny tibiae. Every path in the forest is barricaded
with the strong yellow web of a species, belonging to the same
division with the Epeira clavipes of Fabricius, which was formerly
said by Sloane to make, in the West Indies, webs so strong as to
catch birds. A small and pretty kind of spider, with very long
fore-legs, and which appears to belong to an undescribed genus,
lives as a parasite on almost every one of these webs. I suppose it
is too insignificant to be noticed by the great Epeira, and is
therefore allowed to prey on the minute insects, which, adhering to
the lines, would otherwise be wasted. When frightened, this little
spider either feigns death by extending its front legs, or suddenly
drops from the web. A large Epeira of the same division with Epeira
tuberculata and conica is extremely common, especially in dry
situations. Its web, which is generally placed among the great
leaves of the common agave, is sometimes strengthened near the
centre by a pair or even four zigzag ribbons, which connect two
adjoining rays. When any large insect, as a grasshopper or wasp, is
caught, the spider, by a dexterous movement, makes it revolve very
rapidly, and at the same time emitting a band of threads from its
spinners, soon envelops its prey in a case like the cocoon of a
silkworm. The spider now examines the powerless victim, and gives
the fatal bite on the hinder part of its thorax; then retreating,
patiently waits till the poison has taken effect. The virulence of
this poison may be judged of from the fact that in half a minute I
opened the mesh, and found a large wasp quite lifeless. This Epeira
always stands with its head downwards near the centre of the web.
When disturbed, it acts differently according to circumstances: if
there is a thicket below, it suddenly falls down; and I have
distinctly seen the thread from the spinners lengthened by the
animal while yet stationary, as preparatory to its fall. If the
ground is clear beneath, the Epeira seldom falls, but moves quickly
through a central passage from one to the other side. When still
further disturbed, it practises a most curious manoeuvre: standing
in the middle, it violently jerks the web, which is attached to
elastic twigs, till at last the whole acquires such a rapid
vibratory movement, that even the outline of the spider's body
becomes indistinct.

It is well known that most of the British spiders, when a large
insect is caught in their webs, endeavour to cut the lines and
liberate their prey, to save their nets from being entirely
spoiled. I once, however, saw in a hot-house in Shropshire a large
female wasp caught in the irregular web of a quite small spider;
and this spider, instead of cutting the web, most perseveringly
continued to entangle the body, and especially the wings, of its
prey. The wasp at first aimed in vain repeated thrusts with its
sting at its little antagonist. Pitying the wasp, after allowing it
to struggle for more than an hour, I killed it and put it back into
the web. The spider soon returned; and an hour afterwards I was
much surprised to find it with its jaws buried in the orifice
through which the sting is protruded by the living wasp. I drove
the spider away two or three times, but for the next twenty-four
hours I always found it again sucking at the same place. The spider
became much distended by the juices of its prey, which was many
times larger than itself.

I may here just mention, that I found, near St. Fe Bajada, many
large black spiders, with ruby-coloured marks on their backs,
having gregarious habits. The webs were placed vertically, as is
invariably the case with the genus Epeira: they were separated from
each other by a space of about two feet, but were all attached to
certain common lines, which were of great length, and extended to
all parts of the community. In this manner the tops of some large
bushes were encompassed by the united nets. Azara has described a
gregarious spider in Paraguay, which Walckanaer thinks must be a
Theridion, but probably it is an Epeira, and perhaps even the same
species with mine. (2/10. Azara's "Voyage" volume 1 page 213.) I
cannot, however, recollect seeing a central nest as large as a hat,
in which, during autumn, when the spiders die, Azara says the eggs
are deposited. As all the spiders which I saw were of the same
size, they must have been nearly of the same age. This gregarious
habit, in so typical a genus as Epeira, among insects, which are so
bloodthirsty and solitary that even the two sexes attack each
other, is a very singular fact.

In a lofty valley of the Cordillera, near Mendoza, I found another
spider with a singularly-formed web. Strong lines radiated in a
vertical plane from a common centre, where the insect had its
station; but only two of the rays were connected by a symmetrical
mesh-work; so that the net, instead of being, as is generally the
case, circular, consisted of a wedge-shaped segment. All the webs
were similarly constructed.




(PLATE 14. DARWIN'S PAPILIO FERONIA, 1833, NOW CALLED AGERONIA
FERONIA, 1889.)

CHAPTER III.

(PLATE 15. HYDROCHAERUS CAPYBARA OR WATER-HOG.)

Monte Video.
Maldonado.
Excursion to R. Polanco.
Lazo and Bolas.
Partridges.
Absence of Trees.
Deer.
Capybara, or River Hog.
Tucutuco.
Molothrus, cuckoo-like habits.
Tyrant-flycatcher.
Mocking-bird.
Carrion Hawks.
Tubes formed by Lightning.
House struck.

MALDONADO.

JULY 5, 1832.



In the morning we got under way, and stood out of the splendid
harbour of Rio de Janeiro. In our passage to the Plata, we saw
nothing particular, excepting on one day a great shoal of
porpoises, many hundreds in number. The whole sea was in places
furrowed by them; and a most extraordinary spectacle was presented,
as hundreds, proceeding together by jumps, in which their whole
bodies were exposed, thus cut the water. When the ship was running
nine knots an hour, these animals could cross and recross the bows
with the greatest ease, and then dash away right ahead. As soon as
we entered the estuary of the Plata, the weather was very
unsettled. One dark night we were surrounded by numerous seals and
penguins, which made such strange noises, that the officer on watch
reported he could hear the cattle bellowing on shore. On a second
night we witnessed a splendid scene of natural fireworks; the
mast-head and yard-arm-ends shone with St. Elmo's light; and the
form of the vane could almost be traced, as if it had been rubbed
with phosphorus. The sea was so highly luminous, that the tracks of
the penguins were marked by a fiery wake, and the darkness of the
sky was momentarily illuminated by the most vivid lightning.

When within the mouth of the river, I was interested by observing
how slowly the waters of the sea and river mixed. The latter, muddy
and discoloured, from its less specific gravity, floated on the
surface of the salt water. This was curiously exhibited in the wake
of the vessel, where a line of blue water was seen mingling in
little eddies with the adjoining fluid.

JULY 26, 1832.

We anchored at Monte Video. The "Beagle" was employed in surveying
the extreme southern and eastern coasts of America, south of the
Plata, during the two succeeding years. To prevent useless
repetitions, I will extract those parts of my journal which refer
to the same districts, without always attending to the order in
which we visited them.

MALDONADO is situated on the northern bank of the Plata, and not
very far from the mouth of the estuary. It is a most quiet,
forlorn, little town; built, as is universally the case in these
countries, with the streets running at right angles to each other,
and having in the middle a large plaza or square, which, from its
size, renders the scantiness of the population more evident. It
possesses scarcely any trade; the exports being confined to a few
hides and living cattle. The inhabitants are chiefly landowners,
together with a few shopkeepers and the necessary tradesmen, such
as blacksmiths and carpenters, who do nearly all the business for a
circuit of fifty miles round. The town is separated from the river
by a band of sand-hillocks, about a mile broad: it is surrounded on
all other sides by an open slightly-undulating country, covered by
one uniform layer of fine green turf, on which countless herds of
cattle, sheep, and horses graze. There is very little land
cultivated even close to the town. A few hedges made of cacti and
agave mark out where some wheat or Indian corn has been planted.
The features of the country are very similar along the whole
northern bank of the Plata. The only difference is, that here the
granitic hills are a little bolder. The scenery is very
uninteresting; there is scarcely a house, an enclosed piece of
ground, or even a tree, to give it an air of cheerfulness. Yet,
after being imprisoned for some time in a ship, there is a charm in
the unconfined feeling of walking over boundless plains of turf.
Moreover, if your view is limited to a small space, many objects
possess beauty. Some of the smaller birds are brilliantly coloured;
and the bright green sward, browsed short by the cattle, is
ornamented by dwarf flowers, among which a plant, looking like the
daisy, claimed the place of an old friend. What would a florist say
to whole tracts, so thickly covered by the Verbena melindres, as,
even at a distance, to appear of the most gaudy scarlet?

I stayed ten weeks at Maldonado, in which time a nearly perfect
collection of the animals, birds, and reptiles, was procured.
Before making any observations respecting them, I will give an
account of a little excursion I made as far as the river Polanco,
which is about seventy miles distant, in a northerly direction. I
may mention, as a proof how cheap everything is in this country,
that I paid only two dollars a day or eight shillings, for two men,
together with a troop of about a dozen riding-horses. My companions
were well armed with pistols and sabres; a precaution which I
thought rather unnecessary; but the first piece of news we heard
was, that, the day before, a traveller from Monte Video had been
found dead on the road, with his throat cut. This happened close to
a cross, the record of a former murder.

On the first night we slept at a retired little country-house; and
there I soon found out that I possessed two or three articles,
especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment.
In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid,
together with a map, to point out the direction of various places.
It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger,
should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this
open country) to places where I had never been. At one house a
young woman who was ill in bed, sent to entreat me to come and show
her the compass. If their surprise was great, mine was greater, to
find such ignorance among people who possessed their thousands of
cattle, and "estancias" of great extent. It can only be accounted
for by the circumstance that this retired part of the country is
seldom visited by foreigners. I was asked whether the earth or sun
moved; whether it was hotter or colder to the north; where Spain
was, and many other such questions. The greater number of the
inhabitants had an indistinct idea that England, London, and North
America, were different names for the same place; but the better
informed well knew that London and North America were separate
countries close together, and that England was a large town in
London! I carried with me some promethean matches, which I ignited
by biting; it was thought so wonderful that a man should strike
fire with his teeth, that it was usual to collect the whole family
to see it: I was once offered a dollar for a single one. Washing my
face in the morning caused much speculation at the village of Las
Minas; a superior tradesman closely cross-questioned me about so
singular a practice; and likewise why on board we wore our beards;
for he had heard from my guide that we did so. He eyed me with much
suspicion; perhaps he had heard of ablutions in the Mahomedan
religion, and knowing me to be a heretic, probably he came to the
conclusion that all heretics were Turks. It is the general custom
in this country to ask for a night's lodging at the first
convenient house. The astonishment at the compass, and my other
feats of jugglery, was to a certain degree advantageous, as with
that, and the long stories my guides told of my breaking stones,
knowing venomous from harmless snakes, collecting insects, etc., I
repaid them for their hospitality. I am writing as if I had been
among the inhabitants of Central Africa: Banda Oriental would not
be flattered by the comparison; but such were my feelings at the
time.

The next day we rode to the village of Las Minas. The country was
rather more hilly, but otherwise continued the same; an inhabitant
of the Pampas no doubt would have considered it as truly alpine.
The country is so thinly inhabited, that during the whole day we
scarcely met a single person. Las Minas is much smaller even than
Maldonado. It is seated on a little plain, and is surrounded by low
rocky mountains. It is of the usual symmetrical form, and with its
whitewashed church standing in the centre, had rather a pretty
appearance. The outskirting houses rose out of the plain like
isolated beings, without the accompaniment of gardens or
courtyards. This is generally the case in the country, and all the
houses have, in consequence, an uncomfortable aspect. At night we
stopped at a pulperia, or drinking-shop. During the evening a great
number of Gauchos came in to drink spirits and smoke cigars: their
appearance is very striking; they are generally tall and handsome,
but with a proud and dissolute expression of countenance. They
frequently wear their moustaches, and long black hair curling down
their backs. With their brightly coloured garments, great spurs
clanking about their heels, and knives stuck as daggers (and often
so used) at their waists, they look a very different race of men
from what might be expected from their name of Gauchos, or simple
countrymen. Their politeness is excessive; they never drink their
spirits without expecting you to taste it; but whilst making their
exceedingly graceful bow, they seem quite as ready, if occasion
offered, to cut your throat.

On the third day we pursued rather an irregular course, as I was
employed in examining some beds of marble. On the fine plains of
turf we saw many ostriches (Struthio rhea). Some of the flocks
contained as many as twenty or thirty birds. These, when standing
on any little eminence, and seen against the clear sky, presented a
very noble appearance. I never met with such tame ostriches in any
other part of the country: it was easy to gallop up within a short
distance of them; but then, expanding their wings, they made all
sail right before the wind, and soon left the horse astern.

At night we came to the house of Don Juan Fuentes, a rich landed
proprietor, but not personally known to either of my companions. On
approaching the house of a stranger, it is usual to follow several
little points of etiquette: riding up slowly to the door, the
salutation of Ave Maria is given, and until somebody comes out and
asks you to alight, it is not customary even to get off your horse:
the formal answer of the owner is, "sin pecado concebida" - that is,
conceived without sin. Having entered the house, some general
conversation is kept up for a few minutes, till permission is asked
to pass the night there. This is granted as a matter of course. The
stranger then takes his meals with the family, and a room is
assigned him, where with the horsecloths belonging to his recado
(or saddle of the Pampas) he makes his bed. It is curious how
similar circumstances produce such similar results in manners. At
the Cape of Good Hope the same hospitality, and very nearly the
same points of etiquette, are universally observed. The difference,
however, between the character of the Spaniard and that of the
Dutch boor is shown, by the former never asking his guest a single
question beyond the strictest rule of politeness, whilst the honest
Dutchman demands where he has been, where he is going, what is his
business, and even how many brothers, sisters, or children he may
happen to have.

Shortly after our arrival at Don Juan's one of the largest herds of
cattle was driven in towards the house, and three beasts were
picked out to be slaughtered for the supply of the establishment.
These half-wild cattle are very active; and knowing full well the
fatal lazo, they led the horses a long and laborious chase. After
witnessing the rude wealth displayed in the number of cattle, men,
and horses, Don Juan's miserable house was quite curious. The floor
consisted of hardened mud, and the windows were without glass; the
sitting-room boasted only of a few of the roughest chairs and
stools, with a couple of tables. The supper, although several
strangers were present, consisted of two huge piles, one of roast
beef, the other of boiled, with some pieces of pumpkin: besides
this latter there was no other vegetable, and not even a morsel of
bread. For drinking, a large earthenware jug of water served the
whole party. Yet this man was the owner of several square miles of
land, of which nearly every acre would produce corn, and, with a
little trouble, all the common vegetables. The evening was spent in
smoking, with a little impromptu singing, accompanied by the
guitar. The signoritas all sat together in one corner of the room,
and did not sup with the men.

(PLATE 16. RECADO OR SURCINGLE OF GAUCHO.)

So many works have been written about these countries, that it is
almost superfluous to describe either the lazo or the bolas. The
lazo consists of a very strong, but thin, well-plaited rope, made
of raw hide. One end is attached to the broad surcingle, which
fastens together the complicated gear of the recado, or saddle used
in the Pampas; the other is terminated by a small ring of iron or
brass, by which a noose can be formed. The Gaucho, when he is going
to use the lazo, keeps a small coil in his bridle-hand, and in the
other holds the running noose, which is made very large, generally
having a diameter of about eight feet. This he whirls round his
head, and by the dexterous movement of his wrist keeps the noose
open; then, throwing it, he causes it to fall on any particular
spot he chooses. The lazo, when not used, is tied up in a small
coil to the after part of the recado. The bolas, or balls, are of
two kinds: the simplest, which is chiefly used for catching
ostriches, consists of two round stones, covered with leather, and
united by a thin plaited thong, about eight feet long. (See Chapter
11.) The other kind differs only in having three balls united by
the thongs to a common centre. The Gaucho holds the smallest of the
three in his hand, and whirls the other two round and round his



Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 5 of 51)