The good-fellowship between the dainty fish—resplendent in carmine, with a broad collar, and waist-band of silvery lavender (or rather silver shot with lavender) and outlined with purple—and the great anemone is apparent. If the finger is presented to any part of the latter, it becomes adherent; or if the anemone is not in the mood for food, it curls and shrinks away with a repulsive demeanour. But the beautiful fish on the least alarm retires within the many folds of its host, entirely disappearing, presently to peep out again shyly at the intruder. It is almost as elusive as a sunbeam, and most difficult to catch, for if the anemone is disturbed it contracts its folds, and shrinks away, offering inviolable sanctuary. If the fish be disassociated from its host, it soon dies. It cannot live apart, though the anemone, as far as can be judged from outward appearances, endures the separation without a pang.
However, it is safe to assert that the association between the stolid anemone and the painted fish—only an inch and a half long—is for their mutual welfare, the fish attracting microscopic food to its host. And why should one anemone greedily seize a fish, and another find pleasure in the companionship of one of the most beautiful and delicate of the tribe?
This hospitable anemone occasionally takes another lodger—very frail and beautiful. All that is visible on casual inspection is an irregular smear of watery, translucent violet, flitting about in association with disjointed threads—stiff, erratic, and delicately white. There is no apparent connection between the spectral patch of colour and the animated threads, though they are in company. If, determined to investigate the mystery, the finger is presented, the colour evades it. It is conscious and abhors the touch of man. Follow it up in the pellucid water, and make of your hand a scoop, and you will find that you have captured, not a phantom but a prawn, compact of one bewildering blotch—and that is a word of doubtful propriety in connection with so elfin an organism—a mere shadow tinted the palest violet, and transparencies, with legs and antennae frail as silken threads.
"Substance might be called what shadow seemed, For each seemed either."
So far I have never seen this lovely lodger in the same anemone with the painted fish. The latter, perhaps, admires it too ardently and literally.
Another marvel, the sea-hare (APLYSIA), is a crudely wedge-shaped body but incomparable in its ruggedness to that or any other model, and the colour of mud and sand and of coral, dead and sea-stained. It reposes, with its back flush with the surface, beside a block of coral or stone defiantly indistinguishable from the ocean floor—a stolid, solid, inert creature, eight or ten inches long, the under part smooth, presenting the appearance of wet chamois-leather, and irresponsive to touch—"the mother tongue of all the senses." Ugly, loathsome, and tough of texture, it is so helpless that if it is placed on the sand it is extremely doubtful whether of its own volition it could regain its natural position. The surge of the sea might roll it over, and it might then be able to regain the grovelling attitude essential to life. Otherwise, I am inclined to think fatal results would follow the mere placing of the creature sideways on the sand. It seems to possess but the feeblest spark of life, and yet it has its sentiments and love for its kind, for often three or four are huddled together. And how, it may be asked, is this creature, so apt at concealment and so completely disguised, made visible to human eyes?
The answer is that if by chance the animal is disturbed it makes a supreme effort at further concealment, and that impulse—perfect as it may be when set in opposition to the wit of the creature's nervous and apprehensive enemies—reveals it most boldly to man. From a funnel-shaped opening between two obscure flaps on the back—ordinarily invisible—there is emitted a gush of liquid, royal purple in hue, which stains the sea with an impenetrable dye for yards around. The colour, which is delightfully gorgeous, mingles with the water in jets and curling feathery sprays, enchanting the beholder with unique and ever-changing shapes until a glorious cloud is created and he forgets the ugliness and forgives the humility of the originator in the enjoyment of an artistic treat. If the cloud which Jupiter assumed was of the imperial tone and of the fascinating fashion which the groveller in the mud creates, Aegina would have been superfeminine had she not joyously surrendered. Between the neutral tints of the squalid sprawler and the fluid which it excretes the contrast is so surprising that one involuntarily raises his hat by way of apology for any slighting thoughts which may have arisen from first and imperfect acquaintance.
There are grounds for the entertainment of the belief that the ejected fluid not only effectually conceals the scarcely discernible animal but that it harshly affects the sensibilities of fish.
In a partially submerged coral grotto were two small spotted sharks (Wobbegong, CROSSORHINUS sp.) notoriously sluggish and averse from eviction from their quarters during daylight. The larger callously disregarded the tickling of a light fish spear, but lashed out vigorously when a decisive prod was administered. In its flurry it must have disturbed one of the dye-secreting molluscs, which had escaped my notice, for in a few seconds the water was richly imbued. Thereupon both the sharks began to manifest great uneasiness, and eventually with fluster and splashing they worked among the fissures of the coral and shot out into the unimpregnated sea. The sharks seemed to find the presence of the forlorn groveller in the mud unendurable when it stained the water red, though apparently indifferent to its presence as long, as it remained quiescent, which facts lend confirmation to the popular opinion that the fluid possesses a caustic-like principle violently irritative to the skin.
And why should this uncouth creature with scarcely more of life than a lump of coral have within it a fountain filled with Tyrian dye? Why? Because it has enemies; and though it seems to be SANS mouth, SANS eyes, SANS ears, SANS everything it is instinct with the first law of Nature—self-preservation.
A fairly common inhabitant of the sandy shallows diversifying the coral reef is a slim snake (? AIPYSINAS FUSCUS), sand-coloured, with a conspicuous dark brown stock, defined with white edgings, a whitish nose and pectoral fins so large as to remind one of those defiant collars which Gladstone was wont to wear with such excellent effect. Blacks invariably give the snake and its retreat a wide berth on the principle enunciated by Josh Billings: "Wen I see a snaik's hed sticking out of a hole I sez that hole belongs to that snaik." Among them this species has the reputation of attacking off-hand whosoever disturbs it, and of being provided with deadly venom. My experience, however, bids me say that the pretty snake has the typical dread of the family of man, which dread expresses itself in frenzied efforts to get out of the way when suddenly molested. For the most part it lives in a neat hole, oubliette-shaped, and in its eagerness to locate and reach its retreat it darts about with a nimbleness which almost eludes perception. These frantic quarterings, I believe, led to the opinion that the snake is specially savage, whereas it is merely exceptionally nervous and eager for the security of its home. Twice recently when I have startled one in an enclosed pool it has darted hither and thither in extreme excitement, even passing between my legs without offering any violence or venom, and has eventually disappeared in a miniature maelstrom of mud, as the reptile often does. Like that lively fellow of whom Chaucer tells:
"He is heer and there, He is so variant, he bideth nowhere."
Dickens had in his mind a similarly elusive character when he wrote: "You look at him and there he is. You look again—and there he isn't."
This habit of furiously seeking a lair might pass casually but for an astonishing detail, of which I was not well assured until it was confirmed by repeated observations and by knowledge current among the blacks. When the scared snake descends into its own well-defined well, very little disturbance and no discoloration of the water takes place. But when in desperation it disappears down a haphazard hole, a dense little cloud of sediment is created. By careful watching I discovered that the snake entered its home head first, but in any other hole the tail had precedence, and that the frantic wriggling as it bored its way down caused the obscuration. Moreover the snake—as subtle as any beast of the field—first detects a befitting temporary retreat from apparent or fancied danger, and then deliberately turns and enters tail first. Does the fact justify the conclusion that the creature, in the moment intervening between the detection of a present refuge in time of trouble and its dignified retreat thereinto, calculates the possibility that the unfamiliar habitation may be so narrow as to prevent the act of turning round? Does this sea-snake match its wonderful nimbleness of body with an equally wonderful nimbleness of brain? I do not presume to theorise on such a conundrum of Nature, but mention an undoubted fact for others to ponder.
One of the salt sea snakes is distinguished by its odd, deceptive shape—a broad, flattened tail whence the body consistently diminishes to the head, which is the thinnest part. Other aquatic snakes have paddle-shaped tails.
Another singular denizen of the reef is a species of Acrozoanthus (?)—a compound animal having a single body and several heads. The body is contained in a perpendicular, parchment-like, splay-footed tube a foot and a half or two feet long, whence the heads obtrude alternately as buds along a growing branch. Many of the tubes are vacant—the skeletons of the departed. From those which are occupied the heads appear as bosses of polished malachite veined and fringed with dusky purple, and yellow-centred.
SPAWN OF THE SEA
"The dewdrop slips into the shining sea."
So Edwin Arnold. Here is an observation illustrating the manner in which certain pellucid sea-drops materialise and ultimately shed themselves as living organisms "into the shining sea."
On November 6, 1908, the sea tossed up on the beach an exceptionally large and absolutely perfect specimen of the egg-cluster of that spacious and useful mollusc known as the Bailer Shell (MELO DIADEMA or CYMBIUM FLAMMEUM). Its measurements were: length, 16 in.; circumference at base, 12 in.; at middle, 11 in.; at apex 7 1/8 in. It weighed 1 lb. and comprised 126 distinct capsules. The photograph presents a candid likeness.
During the same month and the first two weeks of December portions of several other egg-clusters came ashore, and as they were in nicely graduated stages of development I was enabled to indulge in an exceptionally entertaining study—no less than the observation of the transformation of glistening fluid into solid matter and life. In passing it may be mentioned that the first and the last two months of the year appear to constitute the period when the offspring of the species see the light of day, proving that the natural impulses of some molluscs are subject to rule and regulation similarly to those of birds and other terrestrial forms.
Each of the capsules composing the cluster is a cone with the apex free and interior, while the base is external and adherent to its immediate neighbours, but not completely so throughout its circumference. It follows, therefore, that the cluster of capsules is hollow and that water flushes it throughout. In appearance it resembles a combination of the pineapple and the corncob, and to the base a portion of the coral-stem to which it had been anchored by its considerate parent was firmly attached.
When the cluster of capsules (the substance of which is tough, semi-transparent, gelatine, opal-tinted, soon to be sea-stained a yellowish green) is slowly expelled from the parent's body—I have been witness to the birth—each contains about one-sixth ounce of vital element, fluid and glistening. Physical changes in this protoplasm manifest themselves in the course of a few days. The central portion becomes a little less fluid, and from an inchoate blur a resemblance to a diaphanous shell develops and floats, cloud-like, in a perfectly limpid atmosphere. Gradually it becomes denser though still translucent, as it seemingly absorbs some of the fluid by which it is surrounded. The model of the future animal, exact even to the dainty contours and furrows around that which represents the spire of the ultimate shell, is still without trace of visible organs. That, however, its substance is highly complex is obvious, for as imperceptible development progresses the exterior is transformed into a substance resembling rice tissue-paper—an infinitely fragile covering—which from day to day insensibly toughens in texture and becomes separate from the animal. Faint opaque, transverse ribs are at this stage apparent, though disappearing later on. Opacity is primarily manifested at the aperture of the infant mollusc where a seeming resemblance to an operculum forms, possibly for the protection of vital organs during nascency. This plaque of frail armour is, however, soon dismantled, and of course much more happens in the never-ceasing process than is revealed to the uninitiated.
As the calcareous envelope becomes opaque and solid, the animal within loses its transparent delicacy, and coincidentally the apex of the capsule opens slightly. In the meantime the fluid contents have disappeared, as if the animal had resulted from its solidification. The animal, too, is a very easy fit in its compartment, and incapable, in its extreme fragility of withstanding the pressure of a finger. Now it begins to increase rapidly in bulk and sturdiness; the shell becomes hard, and as the exit widens it screws its way out of a very ragged cradle, emerging sound and whole as a bee from its cell, all its organs equipped to ply their respective offices.
With pardonable affectation of vanity it has finally fitted itself for appearance in public by the assumption of three or four buff and brown decorations upon its milk-white shell, which quickly blend into a pattern varying in individuals, of blotches and clouds in brown, yellow, and white. In maturity the mollusc weighs several pounds, its shell has a capacity for as much as two gallons of water, and is coloured uniformly buff, while in old age infantile milk-white reasserts itself.
It is not for such as I am in respect of the teachings of science to say whether the development of the perfect animal from a few drops of translucent jelly—as free from earthly leaven as a dewdrop—is to be more distinctly traced, in the case of this huge mollusc than in other elementary forms. All that it becomes an unversed student of life's mysteries to suggest is that this example gives bold advertisement to the marvellous process.
Many of the secrets of life are written in script so cryptic and obscure that none but the wise and greatly skilled may decipher it, and they only, when aided by the special equipment which science supplies. In this case the firm but facile miracle is recorded in words that he that runs may read. Independent of microscope the unskilled observer may trace continuity in the transformation of jelly to life.
The sea-drop, lovely in its purity, knowing neither blemish nor flaw, becomes an animal with form and features distinctive from all others, with all essential organs, means of locomotion, its appetite, its dislikes, its care of itself, its love for its kind, its inherent malice towards its enemies—all evolved in a brief period from the concentrated essence of life.
"If, as is believed, the development of the perfect animal from protoplasm epitomises the series of changes which represent the successive forms through which its ancestors passed in the process of evolution" (these are the words of Professor Francis Darwin) what a graphic, what a luminous demonstration of evolution is here presented!
In a brief previous reference to this mollusc it was stated that the infants in their separate capsules were in a state of progressive development from the base to the apex of the cluster, those in the base being the farther advanced. Investigations lead to a revision of such statement. No favour seems to be enjoyed by first-born capsules. Development is equable and orderly, but as in other forms of life the contents of certain capsules seem to start into being with a more vigorous initial impulse than others, and these mature the more speedily. A sturdy infant may be screwing its way out of its cradle, while in a weakly and degenerate brother alongside the thrills of life may be far less imperative.
The pictures illustrate isolated scenes in the life-history of the mollusc, which in a certain sense offers a solution to, the conundrum stated by job "Who, hath begotten the drops of dew?"
July 17, 1909.
Found a small cowry shell of remarkable beauty on dead coral in the Bay. At first sight it appeared as a brilliant scarlet boss on the brown coral, and upon touching it the mantle slowly parted and was withdrawn, revealing a shell of lavender in two shades in irregular bands and irregularly dotted with reddish brown spots; the apertures were richly stained with orange, and the whole enamel exceedingly lustrous. Most of the molluscs of the species conceal themselves under mantles so closely resembling their environments as to often render them invisible. In this case the disguise assumed similitude to a most conspicuous but common object of anomalous growth, seeming to be a combination of slime and sponge.
SOME CURIOUS BIVALVES
Though certain species of molluscs have their respective habitats, and that which is considered rare in one part may be common in another, there are few which have not a general interest for the scientific conchologist. Collectors prize shells on account of their rarity and beauty; the man of science because of the assistance they afford in the working out of the universal problems of nature. Neither a collector nor a scientific student, my attitude towards marine objects is that of a mere observer—an interested and often wonder-struck observer—so that when I classify one species of mollusc as common and another as rare I am judging them in accordance with my own environment and information, not from a general knowledge of one of the most entertaining branches of natural history. From this standpoint I may refer to four or five species which stand out from the rest in interest and comparative rarity.
An oyster (OSTREA DENDOSTREA FOLIUM), too mean of proportions, too dull and commonplace of colour to be termed pretty, worth nothing, and justifying, in appearances its worthlessness, is remarkable for the exercise of a certain sort of deliberate wit in accordance with special conditions. Nature provides various species of the great oyster family with respective methods of holding their own in the sea, and in the case under review she permits the individual to exercise a choice of two different methods of fixture as chance and the drift of circumstances decide its location. From the bases of the valves spring three or more pairs of hook-like processes which, if Fate decides upon a certain coral host, encircle a slim "twig," creating for the mollusc a curious resemblance to a short-limbed sloth hugging tightly the branch of a tree. When the spat happens to settle in places where coral is not available the hooks or arms are but crudely developed. It becomes a club-footed cripple, its feet adherent by agglutination or fusion to a rock or other and larger mollusc, dead or alive. In fact, the shrewd little oyster responds to its environment, clasping a twig with claws or cementing itself to an unembraceable host in accordance as contingencies insist.
Another mollusc (AVICULA LATA), sometimes found in company with the clinging oyster, resembles, when the fragile valves are expanded, a decapitated butterfly, brick-red in colour, with an overshirt of fine and elaborate network, orange tinted. The interior is scarcely less attractive, the nacre having a pink and bluish lustre, while the "lip" is dark red. This is found (in my experience) only in association with a certain species of coral (GORGONIA), which flourishes in strong currents on a stony bottom three or four fathoms deep. Apart from the unusual shape and pleasing colours of the shell, it is remarkable because it seems to be actually incorporated with its host. The foot of the mollusc is extended into a peduncle, consisting of fibres and tendons, by which the animal is a fixture to a spur of coral. At the point of union (to facilitate which there is a hiatus in the margins of the peduncle) the sarcode or "flesh" of the coral is denuded, its place being occupied by ligaments, which by minute ramifications adhere so intimately to the coral stock or stem that severance therefrom cannot be effected without loss of life to the mollusc.
On a single spray of ruddy Gorgonia several of these commensal molluscs may occur in various stages of development—the smaller no bigger than the wing of a fly and almost as frail, the larger three and four inches long, and each whatsoever its proportions securely budded on and growing from a spur, while frequently the valves of the large are bossed with limpets and other encumbrances. In appearance the shell represents a deformity in usurpation of a thin pencilate "growth" of coral a foot long, for the exterior colouration is that of the coral. Quite independent of their host for existence, these molluscs are not to be stigmatised as parasites, though the individual spur to which each is attached is invariably destroyed by the union, merely sufficient remaining for the support of the intruder. Natural science provides many illustrations of symbiosis, or the intimate association of two distinct organisms. This example may be out of the common, and therefore worthy of inclusion in a general reference to the life of the coral reef.
A third species, rare in a certain sense only, is of a most retiring, not to say secretive, disposition. For several years I sought in vain a living specimen of a flattened elongated bivalve (VALSELLA), buff-coloured externally, very lustrous within, with a hinge the centre of which resembles a split pearl. The blacks could offer no information beyond that which was delightfully indefinite. "That fella plenty alonga reef. You look out. B'mbi might you catch 'em!" "Tom," who never wilfully parades his ignorance, boldly asserted that they favoured rocks, but he had no name for them, and no living specimen was ever forthcoming to substantiate confident opinions.
An exceptionally low tide revealed several hitherto cautiously preserved secrets of the reef, among them the location of a species of sponge, dark brown, some semi-spherical, some turreted in fantastic fashion. Embedded upright in the sponges, like almonds in plum-puddings, so that merely the extremities of the valves were visible as narrow slits, were the long-sought-for molluscs. Judging by the extreme care of the species for its own protection—for it is ill-fitted in model and texture for a rough-and-tumble struggle for existence—one is inclined to the opinion that it must have many enemies. The valves are frail and brittle, and only when they gape are they revealed, and the gape is self consciously polite. The sponge embraces the slender mollusc so maternally that rude yawning is forbidden. It may lisp only and in smooth phrases, such as "prunes" and "prisms"; and, moreover, the host further insures it against molestation by the diffusion of an exceptionally powerful odour, which, though to my sense of smell resembles phosphorus, is, I am informed on indubitable authority, derivable from the active form of oxygen known as ozone. Experimentally I have placed these molluscs in fresh water, to find it quickly dyed to a rich amber colour while acquiring quite remarkable pungency. Even after the third change the water was impregnated.
Interest in the mollusc became secondary upon the discovery of the host and in consideration of the part it plays in the production of one of the special effects of coral reefs; but the mollusc serves another and timely purpose—purely personal and yet not to be disregarded. It indicates a dilemma with which the wilful amateur in the first-hand study of conchology is confronted. Although, as I have said, no local knowledge of identity was available, reference to a well-disposed expert secured the information that its title in science is VULSELLA LINGULATA; that some twenty species are known; that they all associate with sponges, and that possibly different species inhabit different kinds of sponges. It may seem unpardonably gratuitous on the part of one professedly ignorant to offer general observations upon natural phenomena; but as I find myself among the great majority who do not know and who may be more or less interested and anxious to learn, I claim justification in describing that which to me is novel and rare. In this splendid isolation I cannot hope to illuminate primary investigations with the searching light in which science basks unblinkingly, for the nearest library of text-books is close on a thousand miles away. Nor can I keep all my observations to myself. There are some which, like murder, "will out," conscious though I am of meriting the censure of the learned.
With this off my mind, let me return to the tenement sponges, which may be likened to so many independent and flourishing manufactories of ozone. Apart from the odour of brine common to every ocean and the scents of the algae and some of the flowering plants of the sea, which are similar all over the world, a coral reef has a strong and specific effluence. The skeletonless coral (ALCYONARIA) has a sulphurous savour of its own, and the echini and bche-de-mer are also to be separately distinguished by their fumes. Anemones, great and small, seem to disperse a recognisable scent as from a mild and watery solution of fish and phosphorus. But of all the occupants of the reef none are so powerful or so characteristic in this respect as sponges. Puissant and aggressive, these exhalations are at times so strong as to almost make the eyes water, while exciting vivid reminiscences of old-fashioned matches and chemical experiments. Substantial, wholesome, and clean—though generated by a wet, helpless creature having no personal charms, and which, having passed the phase of life in which it enjoyed the gift of locomotion, has become a plant-like fixture to one spot—the gas mingles with other diffusions of the reef, recalling villanous salt-petre and sheepdips and brimstone and treacle to the stimulation of the mental faculties generally.
Invariably an afternoon's exploration of the coral reef is followed by a drowsy evening and a night of exceptionally sweet repose. No ill dreams molest the soothing hours during which the nervous system is burnished and lubricated, and you wake refreshed and invigorated beyond measure. I have endeavoured to account for the undoubted physical replenishment and mental exhilaration largely from the breathing of air saturated with emanations from the coral and sea things generally.
In the course of three hours' parade and splashing in the tepid water, ever so many varieties of gas more or less pungent and vitalising—gas which seems to search and strengthen the mechanism of the lungs with chemically enriched air, to tonic the whole system, and to brighten the perceptive faculties, have been imbibed. Exercise and the eagerness with which wonders are sought out and admired may account in part for present elation and balmy succeeding sleep, but the vital functions seem, if my own sensations are typical, to receive also a general toning up. Twice a month at least a man should spend an afternoon on a coral reef for the betterment of body and brain. On the face of it this is counsel of perfection. Only to the happy few is such agreeable and blest physic proffered gratis. Yet the whole world might be brighter and better if coral reefs were more generously distributed. Breathing such subtle and sturdy air, men would live longer; while the extravagant life of the reef, appealing to him in fine colours and strange shapes, would avert his thoughts from paltry and mean amusements and over-exciting pleasures. The pomp of the world he would find personated by coral polyps; its vanities by coy and painted fish; its artfulness represented by crabs that think and plan; its scavenging performed by aureoled worms.
Although students of conchology are familiar with several species of LIMA, I am eager to include it in these haphazard references, because my first acquaintance with a living specimen afforded yet another experience of the versatility of the designs of Nature. It is truly one of the "strange fellows" which Nature in her time has framed. Living obscurely in cavities, under stones, inoffensive and humble, the Lima enjoys the distinction of being, the permanent exemplification of the misfit, its body being several sizes too large as well as too robust for its fragile, shelly covering. The valves are obtusely oblong, while the animal is almost a flattened oval, the mantle being fringed with numerous bright pink tentacles, almost electrical in their sensitiveness.
Though anything but rotund, so full in habit (comparatively speaking) is the body of the lima that the valves cannot compress it. Except at the hinges they are for ever divorced, an unfair proportion of the bulging body being exposed naked to the inclemency and hostility of the world. "All too full in the bud" for those frail unpuritanical stays, the animal seems to be at a palpable disadvantage in the battle of life, yet the lima is equipped with special apparatus for the maintenance of its right to live. By the expansion and partial closing of the valves it swims or is propelled with a curiously energetic, fussy, mechanical action, while the ever-active pink rays—a living, nimbus—beat rhythmically, imperiously waving intruders off the track.
The appearance and activities of the creature are such as to establish the delusion that it is not altogether amicable in its attitude towards even such a bumptious and authoritative product of Nature as man. Its agitated demonstrations—whatever their vital purpose may be—to the superficial observer are danger signals, a means of self-preservation, as a substitute for the hard calcareous armour bestowed upon other molluscs. The fussy red rays may impose upon enemies a sense of discretion which constrains them to avoid the lima, which, though hostile in appearance, is one of the mildest of creatures. The tentacles, too, have a certain sort of independence, for they occasionally separate themselves from the animal upon the touch of man, adhering to the fingers, while maintaining harmonic action, just as the tip of a lizard's tail wriggles and squirms after severance.
Most of the blocks of submerged, denuded coral are the homes of certain species of burrowing molluscs, the most notable of which are the "date mussels" (LITHOPHAGA). The adult of that designated L. TERES is over two inches long and half an inch in diameter; glossy black, with the surface delicately sculptured in wavy lines; the interior nacreous, with a bluish tinge. This excavates a perfectly cylindrical tunnel, upon the sides of which are exposed the stellar structure of the coral. A closely related species (STRAMINEA), slightly longer, and generally of smooth exterior, partially coated with plaster, muddy grey in colour, adds to the comfort and security of existence by lining its tunnel with a smooth material, a distinction which cannot fail to impress the observer. In each case the mollusc is a loose fit in its burrow, having ample room for rotation, but the aperture of the latter is what is known as a cassinian oval, and generally projects slightly above the surface of the coral.
The animal is a voluntary life prisoner, for the aperture has the least dimension of the tunnel. The genus is known to be self luminous—a decided advantage in so dark and narrow an habitation. It seems to me to be worthy of special note that an animal enclosed by Nature in tightly fitting valves should also be endowed with the power of mixing plaster or secreting the enamel with which its tunnel is lined and of depositing it with like regularity and, smoothness to that exhibited in its more personal covering which grows with its growth. The mollusc in its burrow in the depths of a block of coral, white as marble, with its own light and its self-constructed independent wall, appeals to my mind as evidence of the care of Nature for the preservation of types, while from such retiring yet virile creatures man learns earth-shifting lessons. A quotation from Lyell's "Principles of Geology" says that the perforations of Lithophagi in limestone cliffs and in the three upright columns of the Temple of Jupiter Serapis at Puzzuoli afford conclusive evidence of changes in the level of sea-coasts in modern times—the borings of the mollusc prove that the pillars of the temple must have been depressed to a corresponding depth in the sea, and to have been raised up again without losing their perpendicularity.
The date-mussels play an important part in the conversion of sea-contained minerals into dry land. Massive blocks of lime secreted by coral polyps being weakened by the tunnels of the mussels are the more easily broken by wave force; and being reduced finally to mud, the lime, in association with sand and other constituents, forms solid rock.
A feature of another of the coral rock disintegrating agents is its extreme weakness. It is a rotund mollusc with frail white valves, closely fitting the cavity in which it lives. As it cannot revolve, the excavation of the cavity is, possibly, effected by persistent but necessarily extremely slight "play" of the valves; but the animal appears to be quite content in its cramped cell with a tiny circular aperture (generally so obscured as to be invisible), through which it accepts the doles of the teeming, incessant sea.
BARRIER REEF CRABS
"Reasoning, oft admire How Nature, wise and frugal, could commit Such dispositions with superfluous hand."
So much of the time of the Beachcomber is spent sweeping with hopeful eyes the breadths of the empty sea, policing the uproarious beaches, overhauling the hordes of roguish reefs, and the medley concealed in cosy caves by waves that storm at the bare mention of the rights of private property, that he cannot avoid casual acquaintance with the scores of animated things which ceaselessly woo him from the pursuit of his calling. Should he be inclined to ignore the boldly obvious distractions from serious affairs, there are others, not readily discernible, which have singularly direct and successful methods of fixing attention upon themselves.
Roseate or sombre your humour as you patrol the reefs, it is liable to be changed in a flash into clashing tints by inadvertent contact with a warty ghoul of a sea-urchin, a single one of whose agonising spines never fails to bring you face to face with one of the vividest realities of life. A slim but shapely mollusc known as Terebellum or augur, to mention another conceited little disturber of your meditations, stands on its spire in the sand, and screws as you tread, cutting, a delightfully symmetrical hole in the sole of your foot, and retaining the core—perfect as that of a diamond drill.
Many and varied are the inconspicuous creatures with office to remind the barefooted trespasser that no charter of the isles and their wrecks is flawless, and that they are prepared to inflict curious pains and limping penalties for every incautious intrusion on their domicile. Few of the denizens of the unkempt coral gardens are more remarkable than the crabs. By reef and shore I have come literally into contact with so many quaint specimens, and they have so often afforded exhilarating diversion and sent brand-new startling sensations scurrying along such curious and complicated byways, that courtesy bids me tender a portrait of one of the family which (in appearance only) may be described as a dandy, and to tell of two or three others whose intimacy is invariably enlivening.
Shall I dispose of the dandy first? Perhaps it were better so, for I confess to a very slight acquaintanceship with him, and as I am ignorant, too, of its ceremonious as well as familiar title, the pleasure of a formal introduction is denied. In the portrait the ruling passions—modesty and meekness—are graphically displayed. When it lies close—and it moves rarely, and then with a gentle lateral swaying—the fancy dress of seaweed is a garment of invisibility. It is far more true to character alive than as a museum specimen, for its natural complexion is a yellowish grey, the neutral tint of the blending of sand and coral mud upon which it resides. The preserving fluid added a pinkish tinge to the body and limbs. Blame, therefore, the embalmer for the over-conspicuous form which is not in the habit of the creature as it lived. Neither are the plumes those of pomp and ceremony, but merely the insignia of self-conscious meekness—the masquerade under which the shrinking crab moves about, creating as little din and stir as possible, in an ever-hungry world. With such unfaltering art does it act its part that it is difficult to realise the crab's real self unless aided by mischance. Conscious of the terrors of discovery, it rocks to and fro, that its plumes may sway, as it were, in rhythm with the surge of the sea. Can there be such a thing as an unconscious mimic? If not, then the portrait is that of an ideal artist.
Those who know only the great flat, ruddy crabs with ponderous pincers and pugnacious mien, which frequent fish shop windows, can form but a very unflattering opinion of the fancy varieties which people every mile of the Barrier Reef.
The struggle for existence in this vast, crowded, and most cruel of arenas is so appalling that the great crab family has been battered by circumstances into weird and fantastic forms. Only a few come up to the human conception of the beautiful either in figure or colouring. While some shrink from observation, others, though themselves obscure to the vanishing-point, seem to be endowed with a vicious yearning for notoriety.
A certain cute little pursuer of fame is absolutely invisible until you find it stuck fast to one of your toes with a serrated dorsal spur a quarter of an inch long. It is invisible, because Nature sends it into this breathing world masquerading, as she did Richard III, deformed, unfashioned, scarce half made-up. In general appearance it closely resembles a crazy root-stalk of alga—green and not quite opaque, and clinging to such alga it lives, and lives so placidly that it cannot be distinguished from its prototype except by the sense of touch. When you pick it gingerly from between your toes there is a malicious gleam in the pin-point black eyes, and then you understand that it is one of the many inventions designed for the torment of trespassers.
I have often sought specimens of this poor relation of the fish-shop window aristocrat, but invariably in vain, until I have found myself suddenly shouting "Eureka!" while balancing myself on one foot eager for the easement of the other, and the giggling demeanour of the imp as it parts company with his spur gives a sort of comic relief to the thrilling sensations of the moment. Upon examination this imp seems to be an example of arrested development. Whimsical fate has played upon it a grim practical joke, flattering it primarily by resemblance to a grotesquely valorous unicorn, and then, having changed her mood to mere pettishness, finished it offhand by adding a section of semi-animate seaweed.
Although among the commonest of the species, the grey sand crab, which burrows bolt-holes in the beaches, is by no means an uninteresting character. Surrounded by enemies, and yet living on the bare, coverless beach, its faculties for self-preservation are exceptionally refined. The eyes are elongated ovals, based on singularly mobile pivots, while the pupils resemble the bubble of a spirit-level. Not only is the range of vision a complete circle, but the crab seems able to concentrate its gaze upon any two given points instantly and automatically. To spite all its skill as a digger, to set at naught its superb visual alertness, the sand crab has a special enemy in the bird policeman which patrols the beach. Vigilant and obnoxiously interfering, the policeman has a long and curiously curved beak, designed for probing into the affairs of crabs, and unless the "hatter" has hastily stopped the mouth of its shaft with a bundle of loose sand—which to the prying bird signifies "Out! Please return after lunch!"—will be disposed of with scant ceremony and no grace, for the manners of the policeman are shocking.
This quick-footed sand-digger enhances its reputation by the performance of feats of subtlety and skill. Its bolt-hole is sometimes three feet deep, generally on an incline. Piled in a mound the spoil would inevitably betray the site of the operations to the policeman, thus seriously facilitating the duties of that official towards the suppression of the species. From remote depths the crab carries a bundle of sand. You remember the trenchant way in which Pip's sister cut the bread and butter, her left hand jamming the loaf hard and fast against her bib? Just so the crab with its bundle of loose sand, though it has the advantage in the number of limbs which may be pressed into service. The feat of carrying an armful of sliding sand in proportion to bulk about one-third of the body, is far away and beyond the capacities of human beings, but to the crab, which has acquired the trick of temporary consolidation by pressure, it is merely child's play. Arrived at the mouth of the shaft, it elevates its eyes (which in the dark have rested in neatly fitting recesses) for the purpose of a cautious yet sweeping survey. Seeing nothing alarming, it emerges with the alertness of a jack-in-the-box, races several inches, and scatters the load broadcast as the sower of seed who went forth to sow. Then, as suddenly, the crab pauses and flattens itself—its body merging with its surroundings almost to invisibility—preparatory for a spurt for home. During these exertions the intellect of the crab has been concentrated for outwitting the vigilance of enemies, for the plodding policeman is not singular in appreciation. The lordly red-backed sea-eagle occasionally condescends to such humble fare, and the crab must needs be alert to evade the scrutiny with which the eagle searches the sand.
This passing reference to the wit and deftness of the crab would be quite uncomplimentary in default of special notice of the plug of sand with which it stops its burrow. As a rule it is about an inch thick, and in content far more than a crab could carry in a single load. How does the creature, working from below and with such refractory material, so arrange that the plug shall be flush with the surface and sufficiently consolidated to retain its own weight? Of what art in loose masonry has the crab the unique secret? Shakespeare speaks of stairs of sand, and Poe laments the "how few" grains of golden sand which crept through his fingers to the deep; but who but a crab possesses the secret for the building of a roof of the material which is the popular emblem of instability and shiftiness?
The impartial student must not restrict his notions as to the possibilities of sand to the admirable accomplishments of crabs. He may also inspect with profit the handicraft of a lowly mollusc which agglutinates sand-grains into a kind of plaque, in the substance of which numerous eggs are deposited.
To attribute manual dexterity and a calculating mind to a mere crab, is, no doubt, an insult to the intelligence of those who "view all culogium on the brute creation with a very considerable degree of suspicion and who look upon every compliment which is paid to the ape as high treason to the dignity of man." But the truthful historian of the capabilities of crabs, the duty of one who stands sponsor to some of the species and who has the hardihood to indite some of the manifestations of their intelligence, wit, and craft, must discard the prejudices of his race, abandon all flattering sense of superiority, forbear the smiles of patronage, and contemplate them from the standpoint of fellowship and sympathy.
In this spirit he watches another expert digger which has a sharp-edged shovel affixed to the end of each of its eight legs, and is so deft in their use that it disappears in the sand on the instant of detection, without visible effort, and almost as quickly as a stone sinks in water.
Unless a crab is a giant in armour, or is endowed with almost supernatural alertness, or is an artist in the art of mimicry, or unless it cultivates some method of rapid disappearance, it has little chance of holding its own in the battle raging unceasingly over the vast areas of the Great Barrier Reef.
THE BLOCKADE OF THE MULLET
"Up with a sally and a flash of speed As if they scorned."
The rains which came at the New Year flooded all the creeks of the Island. Accumulations of sand usually form beds through which the sweet water slowly mingles with the salt, but with the violence and impetus of a downpour of ten inches during the night, each torrent had cut a channel, through which it raced from the seclusion of the jungle to the free, open sea. Twice in the twenty-four hours the impassive flowing tide subdued the impertinence of each of the brawlers, smothered its gurgling, and forced it back among the ferns and jungle and banana-plants which crowded its banks.
The largest stream at high water was four feet deep. As I prepared to wade across George, the black boy, shouted over his shoulder towards a slowly swaying cloud in the deep pool overhung with foremost flounces of the jungle. The cloud was a shoal of sea mullet. Save for a clear margin of about three feet, the fish filled the pond—an alert, greyish-blue mass edged with cream-coloured sand. There were several hundred fish, all bearing a family resemblance as to size as well as to feature.
It was slack water. The fish were, no doubt, about to move down-stream to the sea, for all headed that way when the disturbing presence of man blocked the passage. A thrill went through the phalanx, and it swayed to the left and then to the right. The movement—spontaneous and mechanical—slightly elongated the formation, and three scouts in single file slid down to reconnoitre, and with a nervous splash as they scented danger, dashed back and blended imperceptibly with the mass.
"We catch plenty big fella mullet!" George exclaimed, as he gleefully splashed the water, and the cloud contracted and shrank back. The stream was about ten feet wide. Our equipment for sport consisted of a tomahawk and a grass-tree spear so frail that any of the mullet could have swum off with it without inconvenience.
Straddling the stream side by side we splashed and "shooed" when the slightest symptom of a sally on the part of the fish was betrayed. A few brave leaders darted down, generally in pairs, and flashed back in fright at our noisy demonstrations, and so the blockade of the mullet began.
While I stood guard shouting and "shooing" and making such commotion as I trusted would convince the fish that the blockading force was ever so much stronger and more truculent than it really was, George began to construct a pre-eminently practical wall. Its design was evolved ages upon ages ago by black students of hydrostatics and fish. George had imbibed the principles of its construction with his mother's milk. He cut down several saplings, and, screwing the butt ends into the soft sand about a foot apart, interlaced them with branches of mangrove and beach-trailers and swathes of grass. But the tide began to ebb. The pent-up current, strong and rapid, frequently carried portions of the structure away. George had to duck and dive to tie the vines and creepers to the stakes close down to the sandy bottom. Though armfuls of leafage floated to the surface and rolled out to sea, George worked with joyful desperation. Presently the fish began to make determined rushes. Shouting and splashing, tearing down branches, capturing driftwood, diving and gasping, his efforts were unceasing. Understanding the guile of the fish, he sought to make the deeper part of the weir secure, and for an hour or so he laboured in the water with head, hands, and feet. While with deft fingers he weaved creepers and branches to the stakes, his feet beat the surface into surf and surge to the scaring of the fish to the remote limits of their retreat. But the tighter the weir became, the more the pressure was on it. Fast as repairs were made at one spot gaps appeared in another which demanded immediate attention. The quantity of material that our works absorbed was scarcely to be realised. But a double-ended, amphibious black boy can work every-day wonders. Not a single fish had escaped. We had the whole shoal at our mercy, for George had confidently provided against all contingencies.
Buoyant on the bosom of the stream came a good-sized log with raking, shortened limbs. Under its cover the fish sallied forth a hundred strong, strenuous in bravery and resolution. The log swept past me, making a terrible breach in our weir, through which many fish shot. Some leaped high overhead. Two landed on the sand, helplessly flapping and gasping. George occupied the breach, and as he waved his arms and shouted, a four-pounder, leaping high, struck him on the forehead. He sat down emphatically, and another gap was made. As he struggled to his feet the vanquished members of the assaulting party fled to the main host. Honours were with the besieged. Blood oozed from a lump on George's forehead, there were cruel breaches in the weir, the fish had gained confidence and knowledge of our works, and only two were prisoners.
Now the sallies became frequent. Sometimes the fish came as scouts, more often in battalions, and in the dashes for liberty many were successful. George toiled like a fiend. His repairs looked all right on the surface, but ever and anon considerable flotsam indicated vital gaps. In spite of splashing and "shooing" and the complications of the weir, we had had the mortification of seeing hosts escape.
Then George changed his tactics. Abandoning his faith in the weir, he converted it into what he called, in his enthusiastic excitement, "a bed." He laid branches of the weir so that the leaves and twigs interlaced and crossed, buttressing the structure with another row of palisades. His theory was that the fish, as the water became shallower, would cease their efforts to wriggle through, and, leaping high, would land on the bed and be easily captured. No preliminary shouting and splashing affected the solidity of that determined array. Mullet knew all about blackfellows' weirs and their beds. Some slid through. Many leaped, and, curving gracefully in the air, struck the "bed" at such an angle that it offered no more resistance to them than a sheet of damp tissue-paper. They sniggered as they went through it, and splashed wildly to the sea. They were grand fish—undaunted, afraid of no man or his paltry obstacles to liberty, up to every cunning manoeuvre.
Were we to be beaten by a lot of silly, slippery fish in a shallow stream? Never! January's unsheltered sun played upon my tanned, wet, and shameless back; the salt sweat coursed down my shoulders and dripped from my face. The scrub fowl babbled and chuckled, cockatoos jeered from the topmost branches of giant milkwood trees and nodded with yellow crests grave approval of the deeds of the besieged; fleet white pigeons flew from a banquet of blue fruits to a diet of crude seeds, and not a single one of the canons of the gentle art of fishing but was scandalously violated. It was a coarse and unmanly encounter—the wit, strategy, finesse, and boldness of fish pitted against the empty noise and bluster of inferior man and the flimsiness of his despicable barriers.
In silence and magnificent resolve they came at us. We fought with sticks and all the power of our lungs. Rest was out of the question. The leafy dyke and "bed" stood ever in need of repair; the sallies were continuous and determined. The "bed" was not made for those knightly fish to lie ignobly upon. A single fish would slip down-stream, and, gathering speed and effort, leap with the glitter of heroism in its eyes. One such George caught in his arms. Another slipped through my fingers and struck me on the shoulders, and I bore the mark of the assault for a week. George's brow was bleeding. Indeed, all his blood was up. His "heroic rage" was at bursting point. We had toiled for two hours and counted but three fish, while as many hundred had battled past our siege works. Quite as many remained, and time, as it generally does, seemed to be in favour of the attacking party.
Was Charles Lamb right when he spoke of "the uncommunicating muteness of fishes"? These beleaguered mullet surely exchanged ideas and acted with deliberation and in concert. All swayed this way or that in accordance, so it seemed, with the will of the front rank. A tremor there was repeated instantly at the rear. When a detachment made a bid for liberty it was in response to a common impulse. When a single individual started on a forlorn hope the others seemed to watch our hostile demonstrations as it leaped—flashing silvery lights from its scales—to prove the unworthiness of weirs and beds, and we, of the ranks of Tuscany, cheered if its deed of derring do was neatly and successfully achieved.
Fish to the number of five having fallen into our clutches, we stood by and watched the rest. Most of them leaped gloriously to liberty. Some ignominiously wriggled. Others remained in the pool, their nerves so shattered by bluster and assault that they had not the melancholy courage to slip away. In his wrath—for blood still oozed from his forehead— George would have exterminated the skulkers, and, checked in his bloodthirstiness, he showered upon them contemptible titles while he cooked two of those we had captured. Wrapped in several folds of banana and "ginger" leaves, and steamed in hot sand, the full flavour of the fish was retained and something of the aroma of the leaves imparted. I was not, therefore, astonished when George, having eaten a three-pounder, finished off my leavings—nothing to boast of, by the way—and proceeded to cook another (for the dog); and Barry, I am bound to say, got fairly liberal pickings. The weather was close, and being satisfied, and, for once, frugal, George cooked the two remaining fish, and swathing them neatly in fresh green leaves, sauntered away, cooing a corroboree of content.
WET SEASON DAYS
"The north-east spends his rage; he now shut up Within his iron cave, the effusive south Warms the wide air and o'er the vault of heaven Breathes the big clouds with vernal showers distent."
Just as in the spring a young man's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of love, so at the beginning of each new year in tropical Queensland the minds of the weather sages become sensitive and impressionable. All the tarnish is rubbed off the recollection of former ill manners on the part of the weather, when about the middle of January the wind begins to bluster and to abuse good-natured trees, shaking off twigs and whirling branches like a tipsy bully striving to dislocate a weak man's arm at the shoulder. We remember dubious events all too vividly when the recitation of them does not make for mutual consolation.
In January, 1909, for two days the sea burst on the black rocks of the islet in the bay in clouds of foam. It was all bombast, froth and bubble, or rather a gentle back-hander, for the cyclone was playing all sorts of naughty pranks elsewhere. But why were we apprehensive? In disobedience to the scriptural injunction, we had observed the clouds and the birds. Twice a flock of lesser frigate-birds, those dark, fish-tailed high-fliers which are for ever cutting animated "W's" in the air with long lithe wings—had appeared. Seldom do they come unless as harbingers of boisterous weather. On each recent occasion they had been absolutely trustworthy messengers. Watching them soaring and swooping, we said one to another: "Behold the cyclone cometh!" But it did not. With a passing flick of its tail it passed elsewhere.
Altogether, however, we had very queer weather and two or three "rum" sorts of nights. On the 19th the morning was calm, the sky brilliantly clear. A north-east breeze sprang up at noon. Deep violet thunder-clouds gathered in the west, and, muttering and grumbling, rolled across the narrow strait slowly and sullenly. Australia scowled at our penitent Island, threatening direful inflictions—lightning, thunder, and an overwhelming cataclysm. Behind that frowning Providence there was a smiling face. The good storm, albeit black and angry, behaved benignly. Gentle rain came, and a picturesque little electrical display to a humming accompaniment of far distant thunder, followed by a soothingly cool south-westerly breeze. Just at sundown the weather-god, repenting of his frown, bestowed a glorious benediction.
All afternoon a damp pall had overhung the Island, mopping up feeble sounds and strangely muffling the stronger. Now it was translated. Lifting so that the summits only of the hills were capped, the haze (for it became nothing more) assumed a luminous yellow saffron suffused with sage green. Against this singularly lovely, ample "cloth" branches and leaves of steadfast trees stood out in high relief. All the lower levels became transparently clear, the definition of distant objects magically sharpened, spaces translucent. In a sea which shone like polished silver the islet was a gem—green enamel, amethyst rocks, golden sand. The bold white trunks of giant tea-trees glowed; the creamy blooms of bloodwoods were as flecks of snow; the tips of the fronds of coco-nut palms flickered vividly as burnished steel; the white-painted house assumed speckless purity. All light colours were heightened; ruddy browns and sombre greens seemed to have been smartened up by touches of fresh paint and varnish. An idealistic artist had revealed for once living tints and uncomprehended hues.
Was it not a landscape fresh from Nature's brush divinely transmogrified by one bold smudge of yellow-green haze? Or was the effect partly due to the dust raised by the golden fringe of the blue mantle which the sun trailed over the glowing hills? I know naught of the chemistry of colours, nor why this yellow-green medium should so clarify and etherealise the atmosphere. But was ever clear sunset half so affecting? This tinted, luminous cloud had bewitched the commonplace, converting familiar surroundings into fairyland itself. If all the world's a stage, this truly was one of the rarest transformation scenes.
What was about to happen? Surely this mysterious colouring portended some astounding phenomena? Again, nothing did happen, save a stilly night and grey.
VEGETATION AND MOISTURE
It seems fitting and quite safe to point a moral, by allusion to certain conditions prevalent during 1907. Between January 1st and June 30th 80.80 inches of rain were registered. July, August, September, and October provided only 1.74 inches, which quantity bespeaks quite a phenomenal draught. The catchment area of the creek which discharges into Brammo Bay is less than forty acres, and for the most part consists of exceedingly steep declivities. The head of the creek is seven hundred feet above sea level, and its total length less than three-quarters of a mile. Yet, notwithstanding the circumscribed extent of the catchment, the steep, in places almost precipitous, descents, and that for months the rain was insufficient to cause a surface flow, the creek which had cut a gully or canyon forty feet deep across the plateau, never ceased running, the turbulence of the wet season having merely subsided into a tinkling trickle. During the dry period the atmosphere was the reverse of humid; but the almost impenetrable shield of vegetation—the beauty and glory of the Island—discounted loss by evaporation. One can well imagine that in the absence of this gracious protection the creek would cease to flow a week or so after the cessation of rain.
The marked but consistent decrease of water in the creek by day and its rise during the night having excited interest, a series of measurements was taken, the result being somewhat astonishing. One day's readings will suffice, for scarcely any variation from them was recorded for weeks, concurrent meteorological conditions undergoing no sudden or decided change while the experiment was in progress:
Sunday, November 10, 1907.
Inches. 6.30 a.m. 10 1/4 9 " 10 Noon (high tide) 6 5/8 3 p.m. 3 5.30 p.m. 1 1/2 6.10 " (sundown) 1 1/2 7.10 " 3 7/8 9 " 10 1/8
At 7 a.m. on the 11th and 12th the water stood at 10 1/4 inches and I assume that to have been the constant level throughout the night.
The conclusion I draw (rightly or wrongly) from the fact emphasised by these figures is that the mass of vegetation exercises a direct and immediate effect upon the flow of water by gravitation from the catchment. A continual and increasing demand for refreshment existing during the day, the root spongioles are in active operation intercepting the moisture in its descent and absorbing it, while with the lessening of the temperature on the going down of the sun reaction begins, the stomata of the leaves exercise their functions, and by the absorption of gas react on the root films, which for the time relax their duty of arresting the passage of minute particles of water, with a very definite result on the nocturnal flow.
THE ODOUR OF THE DEATH ADDER
February 2, 1909.
Whenever I take my walks abroad I have the companionship of a couple of Irish terriers, enthusiastic hunters of all sorts of "vermin," from the jeering scrub fowl, which they never catch, to the slothful, spiny ant-eater, which they are counselled not to molest. Lizards and occasionally snakes are disposed of without ceremony, though in the case of the snakes the tactics of the dogs are quite discreet. Several years ago the dogs (not those which now faithfully attend my walks, for more than one generation has passed away) attracted attention by yapping enthusiastically. I flatter myself that I understand the language of my own dogs sufficiently to enable me to judge when they have detected something demanding my co-operation in the killing. When assistance is needed, there are notes of urgent appeal in their exclamations. As a rule my opinion is not asked in respect of lizards, or rats, or the like; but snakes are invariably held up until an armed force arrives.
On the occasion referred to I found them in a frenzy of excitement, feinting and snapping at something sheltering at the base of a tussock of grass. Peering closely, I saw, half concealed beneath grass, sand, and leaves, what I took to be a death adder, which I summarily shot. Then it became apparent that the dogs had blundered, for the reptile was a lizard. The mistake in identity, was, however, excusable, for in size, shape, colouring, and marking it so closely resembled an adder that I was not readily convinced to the contrary. Placing the two pieces into which the shot had divided the creature in juxtaposition, I sympathised with the dogs more strongly, feeling certain that no one would have hesitated to give the harmless lizard a very bad character. Before firing the fatal shot the distention of the body had confirmed my opinion as to identity, and the method of partial concealment and of lying inert were significant of the dangerous little snake. I had no doubt at the time, too, that it emitted a deceptive odour, which, being similar to that of the adder, had been chiefly instrumental in exciting extraordinary suspicion on the part of the terriers.
Dogs of another generation were concerned in a repetition of this experience in its significant details more recently. Having crossed a creek ahead, frantic appeals were made, but before I could reach the spot the excitement got beyond bounds, and I saw one of them snap up something, shake it viciously, and toss it away with every manifestation of repugnance and caution. Again I presumed the squirming reptile to be an adder, for the dogs, with bristling backs and uplifted lips, walked round it gingerly, sniffing and starting as if it were most fearsome and detestable. The bulk of the reptile gradually subsided, confirming the opinion that the dog had actually killed an adder, a feat I had never known it perform. Investigation again proved that an innocent lizard parading as an offensive snake had lost its life. Does not this evidence suggest that the lizard assumes the similitude and the odour of the adder, its tactics of concealment, and its characteristic habit of puffing itself out in order to warn off its foes? The spontaneous, unsuborned, and independent evidence of two sets of dogs cannot be wholly disregarded.
Testimony confirmatory of the contention that adders do diffuse a specific odour, too subtle for man's perception though readily detectable by the sensitive faculties of lower animals, and that such odour affrights and therefore protects them from the reptiles, is contained in Captain Parker Gillmore's work, "The Great Thirst Land." Having killed a small specimen of the horned adder—the "poor venomous fowl" with which Cleopatra ended her gaudy days—and having handled it to examine the poison glands and returned to his pony, he writes: "As soon as I advanced my hand to his head-stall to reverse the reins over his head, he shied back as if in great alarm, and it required some minutes before he would permit me to closely approach. The reason of this conduct in so staid and proper-minded an animal is obvious. In handling the adder some of the smell attached to its body must have adhered to my hands."
When four dogs and one horse, all apparently honourable and well brought up, agree on such a point, to theorise to the contrary would be ungracious.
February 16, 1909.
An easterly breeze coincident with a flowing tide occasionally (though not invariably) creates a gentle swirl in Brammo Bay, a swirl so placid as to be imperceptible in default of such indices as driftwood. Under such a condition Neptune makes playthings which possibly in some future age may puzzle men who happen to ponder seriously on first causes. I recall an afternoon when such playthings were being manufactured abundantly. Globular, oval, and sausage-shaped dollops of dark-grey mud were twirling and rolling on the fringe of listless wavelets. The uniformity of the several models and their apparent solidity excited curiosity. Upon investigation all the large examples were more or less coated with sand. Some were so completely and smoothly enveloped that they appeared to be actual balls of sand and shell grit. The mass, however, was found to be mud mixed with fine sand, with generally a shell or portion thereof, or a fragment of coral as a kernel or core. In fact, each of the dollops was a fair sample of the material of the ocean floor extending from the inner edge of the coral to the beach.
With so many samples in view one could observe the whole process of formation. The crescentic sweep of the wavelets rolled fragments of shell or coral in the mud, successive revolutions adding to the respective bulks by accretion. As the tide rose each piece was trundled on to the sloping beach, to be rolled and compressed until coated with a mosaic of white shell chips, angularities of silica and micaceous spangles, the finished article being cast aside as the tide receded.
Sometimes the wavelets did the kneading and rolling so clumsily that the nodule was malformed, but the majority were singularly symmetrical, evidencing nice adjustment between the degree of adhesiveness of the "pug" and the applied force of the wave. Several weighed nearly a quarter of a pound, while the majority were not much bigger than marbles, and the oval was the most frequent form.
Is it reasonable to conjecture that some of these singular formations which Neptune turned out by the score during an idle afternoon may be preserved—kernels of sedimentary rock each in a case of sandstone— throughout the wreck of matter to form the texts of scientific homilies in ages to come?
THE ATROCITY OF THE SNAKE
September 28, 1909.
A red snake discovered in a coop with a hen and clutch of chicks. The coop had been deemed snake-proof, but the slim snake had easily passed in at the half-inch mesh wire-netting in front. Upon investigation it was found that the snake had swallowed one chick (and had thereby become a prisoner), had killed three others and maimed a fifth so that it died, and that the hen had killed the snake by pecking its head. The snake (a non-venomous species) was about a yard long and had killed the chicks by constriction. If snakes are in the habit of killing more than they can eat of the broods of wild birds, how enormous the toll they take!
"Some day ere I grow too old to think I trust to be able to throw away all pursuits, save natural history, and to die with my mind full of God's facts instead of men's lies."—CHARLES KINGSLEY.
August 2, 1909.
A lanky grasshopper with keeled back and pointed prow flew before me, settling on a leaf of blady grass, at once became fidgety and restless; flew to another blade and was similarly uneasy. It was bluff in colour with a narrow longitudinal streak of fawn, while the blades of grass whereon it rested momentarily were green. Each time it settled it adjusted itself to the blade of grass, became conscious of discomfort or apprehensive of danger, and sought another. Presently it settled on a yellowing leaf, the tints of which exactly corresponded with its own. The longitudinal streak became absorbed in the midrib of the blade, and the insect rested secure in its invisibility. The event demonstrated the purpose of its previous restlessness.
October 6, 1909.
This morning the soda siphon (which had not been used for a couple of days) refused duty, owing to a plug of terra-cotta-coloured clay. Upon the spout being probed the gush of gas expelled a quantity of clay and thirty-five small spiders, representative of about six different species. The spout had been converted into a nursery and larder by a carnivorous wasp, for in addition to the moribund spiders stored for the sustenance of future grubs were several unhatched eggs. Such wasps are exceedingly common, some building "nests" as large as a tea-cup, the last compartment being fitted with an elegantly fashioned funnel, the purpose of which is not obvious. If these nests are broken up, after the hatching out, the grubs are found-several in each compartment—feasting on the comatose spiders or caterpillars stored for their refreshment. Others of the species build a series of nests, detached or semi-detached, and shaped in resemblance to Greek amphora. Another species selects hollows in wood in which the eggs and insects are scaled. The larger wasps are not fearful of attacking so-called tarantulas, one sting rendering them paralytic.
November 10 1909.
Blue has a decided fascination for the bloodsucking "March" flies. In the "blue" tub of the laundry hundreds are lured to suicide, while the other tubs alongside count no voluntary victims. Blue clothing attracts scores, whereas the effect of any other colour is normal upon the appreciative sense of the flies. I am not well assured whether an attack of the "humph"—"the humph which is black and blue"—is not also diagnosed by the contemplative insects and forthwith attended to. Certainly if one has the misfortune to have become associated for the time being with devils of cerulean hue, the company of the flies seems all the more persistent and provocative of vexation. Imagination reels before the consequences of a blue costume, "all's blue," and the thrice intensified attacks of the indolent but persevering blood-suckers.
November 16, 1909.
Found a flat hairy spider, about 1 in. in diameter of body, mottled pale brown and grey, brooding over a flat egg capsule almost of the same tints as itself. It was on the trunk of the jack fruit tree, and so closely resembles the egg-capsule produced by contiguous fungi as to be absolutely invisible unless the gaze happened to be concentrated on the spot. No doubt in my mind that the similitude of the spider, together with its egg-capsule, to the adjacent discs of fungi enabled it to escape detection. When disturbed the spider whisked into absolute invisibility. I inspected the trunk of the tree for several minutes before I found it, within six inches of its original resting-place, perfectly still, acting the part of an obscure vegetable.
TARANTULAS AND TARANTISMUS
A few months ago I read in a text-book a dogmatic assertion to the effect that the so-called tarantulas were perfectly innocent of venom, and formidable only to the insects on which they prey. The great, good-tempered fellow, as uncouth in its hairiness as Nebuchadnezzar during his lamentable but salutary attack of boanthropy, is regarded with a good deal of suspicion, if not dread, though it pays for its lodging by reason of its large appetite, which latter statement seems self-contradictory. To satisfy its pangs of hunger it captures numbers of small insects which, willy nilly, tenant our homes.
In well-ordered establishments the aid of a tarantula or two in the suppression of insignificant undesirable creatures should, it might be argued, be unnecessary. Indeed, does not the presence of a fat, flat fellow lurking behind a rafter or in some gloomy corner, ever ready to seize cockroach or beetle, imply lack of order? Yet I have known homes where the tarantula was an honoured, if not a petted, lodger. When it had cleared one room it was coaxed on to a card and thereon transported to the next, and so it went the rounds. The children were wont to say that it knew its carriage, and would sidle on it whenever it was presented. To those of us who live in the bush, and who suffer fresh incursions almost every hour of the day, the help of a long-limbed, obese-bodied spider whose docility is beyond question, whose non-poisonous character is vouched for by high authorities, is by no means unwelcome.
But in spite of negative knowledge I have had my suspicions that the tarantula was not altogether wholesome in his anger, and now I have proof in support of my doubts. In a cool, dark cavity under a log in the bush were two huge representatives of the race. Each had its own compartment, a smooth, worn gallery, and they appear to have been on good terms until the moment of disturbance, for which each seemed to blame the other. They fought. It was a very brief, casual, and unentertaining encounter; but in less than half a minute one was dead, shrivelled and shrunk as though fire had passed over it. As no dismemberment or wound was apparent, I was fairly well satisfied that poison, very rapid in its effect, was at the service of the tarantula when its anger was aroused.
The next fact settled the point. Tom, the black boy, felt a nip on the arm as he put on a clean shirt an evening or two ago, and, reversing the sleeve, found a tarantula. Blood was oozing from two tiny incisions, the space between which was slightly raised. For two days Tom suffered pain in the arm, which became slightly swollen, headache, and great uneasiness.
Reading my text-book, I found that the original tarantula spider (from which the Australian species are misnamed) is so called from the town of Tarentum, in Italy. Among the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood it was a deeply-rooted belief that if any one was bitten by a tarantula he would be instantly inflicted with a singular disease known as tarantismus, which exhibited itself in two extremes, the one being a profound and silent melancholy and the other a continual convulsive movement of the whole body. It was thought that this disease could only be cured by music, and that a certain tune was needful in each particular case. This was the legend.
It will be remembered that among the tales told by "a great traveller" to Pepys was one on the subject of the tarantula. He says that all the harvest long (about which time they are most busy) there are fiddlers go up and down the fields everywhere in expectation of being hired by those who are stung.
Of the disease there is no doubt, and that it could be cured by dancing stimulated by music is a natural conclusion. Each patient indulged in long and violent exercise, which produced profuse perspiration; he then fell exhausted, slept calmly, and awoke cured.
For the best part of a day Tom lay stretched on his face in the sun. Like David the psalmist, he refused to be comforted. A profound and silent melancholy subdued the wandering spirit which invariably manifests itself on Sunday. He just "sweated out" the day he usually devotes to hunting, and on Monday was himself again, save for a greyish blue tinge encircling each of the little wounds on his arm.
Though it is certain that the tarantula of Italy and the spider which robbed Tom of his Sunday are of different species, yet one is struck by the similarity of the toxic effects of the bite with that of the manifestations of the disease of tarantismus. The fact that after a good sweating—hot sand and unshaded sun are fairly active sudorifics—all untoward effects (physical and mental) passed away seems to suggest close intimacy between the symptoms of the poison of tarantula and the disease.
I do not apologise for thus gravely recording an incident of the bush which has neither humour nor romance to recommend it, because I think, friendly as I am to the "tarantula," the truth—the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth—should be told about him. Like the pet pussy-cat, "if you don't hurt him he'll do you no harm"; but put him in a tight corner and offer him violence and he will heroically defend himself and be very nasty about it. Having studied Tom's demeanour while under the effects of the poison, I am satisfied that if one desires a visit from "divinest melancholy" without any of the thrills of poetry, let him provoke an angry tarantula to assault him. All "vain, deluding joys" will pass away, and for twenty-four hours he will be as dull as a log, and as sweatful as a fat Southerner in a canefield.
The local name of the house-haunting "tarantula," though befitting and unique, imposes a singularly slight strain upon the resources of the alphabet. What combination of eight letters could be softer and more coaxing? And yet the startled Eves of Dunk Island were wont not only to specialise the spider but to shriek out affright at its unexpected presence by the exclamation "Oo-boo-boo!"
To prove that the "Oo-boo-boo" is not always victorious in the fights which take place in the dark, let me tell of a combat between a giant and a slim-waisted orange and black wasp. The latter buzzed about angrily, and, following up a feint, stung the "Oo-boo-boo," which became nerveless on the instant and fell. As it was all too heavy to fly away with, the wasp dragged it along the ground with much labour and incessant fuss. The terra-cotta larder was in a hollow log, and only after immense exertions and many failures was the limp carcass tugged to the spot. Then there was more buzzing than ever, for the wasp discovered that its prey was many sizes too large for the clay compartment prepared for it. No amount of trampling and shoving of the limp tarantula was of any avail. Several minutes elapsed before the obvious fact dawned upon the baffled insect. Then it abandoned its efforts at compression, and with many loads of moist clay moulded a special compartment in which the tarantula, still in a state of suspended animation, was snugly stowed.
Just one more. A wasp dropped on the bench a few inches from my nose—a tiny wasp with a rollicking gait. Closer inspection showed half a wasp only. It had been neatly severed at the delicate waist and on the thatch above was an Oo-boo-boo—a big Oo-boo-boo—and it seemed to me to be beaming with that broad, self-satisfied expression that the cat wears when it has eaten the canary.
I. A BIRD SCOUT
Among those birds of North Queensland jungles which have marked individualistic characters is that known as the koel cuckoo, which the blacks of some localities have named "calloo-calloo"—a mimetic term imitative of the most frequent notes of the bird. The male is lustrous black, the female mottled brown, and during most parts of the year both are extremely shy, though noisy enough in accustomed and quiet haunts. The principal note of the male is loud, ringing, and most pleasant, but its vocabulary is fairly extensive. Sometimes it yelps loud and long like a puppy complaining of a smart whipping, sometimes in the gloom of the evening it moans and wails pitifully like an evil thing tortured mentally and physically, sometimes it announces the detection of unwelcome intruders upon its haunts with a blending of purr and hiss.
When "calloo-calloo" comes to the islands, resident blacks look to the flowering of the bean-tree, for the events are coincident; while as they understand all its vocal inflections an important secret is often revealed to them by noisy exclamations. Living in flowerland among the tops of the trees, the bird is favourably located for the discovery of snakes, but being strong and lusty there is reason to believe that the presence of slim green and grey arboreal species is ignored. The important office that it holds in the domestic economy of the blacks is in the detection of carpet snakes, which to them form an ever welcome article of diet. Thus when "calloo-calloo" shouts "snake" in excited, chattering phrases they run off in the hope of being able to find the game, and generally one suffices to rid the bird of a deceitful and implacable enemy and to provide the camp with a substantial meal.
A few months ago a friend who owns a fruitful estate fronting one of the rivers of the mainland, who was not aware of the aptitude of the bird, was working with his blacks when "calloo-calloo" gave voice. "That's one!" exclaimed Dilly Boy, as he rushed into a thick patch of jungle; "he bin lookout snake!" The boss, concluding that Dilly Boy had merely invented a plausible excuse for a spell, smiled to himself when he came back in half an hour wearing an air of philosophic disappointment. "That fella snake along a tree; bin lookout; too much leep [leaf]. That calloo-calloo, him sing out proper. Him no more humbug!"
Huge carpet snakes frequently coil themselves so carefully among parasitic ferns and orchids in the trees that it is impossible to detect them from below. A couple of days after work was proceeding in the same locality when a snake, 12 feet long, was found and killed, but the fact was then not accepted as proof of the theory of the blacks. In the course of a few days the bird again proclaimed "snake," and all the blacks hastened to the spot to set about a systematic search. Applying the detective principle of isolation to various parts of the tree in which by general consent (corroborating the evidence of the bird) the snake was concluded to be, the blacks at last decided that the only possible place of concealment was a mass of elk's-horn fern encircling the trunk about 40 feet from the ground. One of them thereupon climbed the tree, and soon a carpet snake, 14 feet 6 inches long and 12 inches in girth, was writhing on the ground. It is well known that these snakes are frequently found in pairs, and no doubt the "calloo-calloo" had signified the presence of the mate on the occasion of the first alarm.
Other instances of the shrewdness of the bird and its care for the wellbeing of the order generally by detecting and proclaiming the presence of the universal enemy might be cited. One authority asserts that the bird and the snake are nearly always found together, and seems to imply that a friendship exists between them, for the bird is referred to as a "messmate" of the snake. "The bird," he writes, "flies over the snake with a 'clucky' chirp, and whenever the natives hear it in the dense scrubs they sneak in to discover the reptile, which is caught by being grabbed at the back of the head."
In heralding the flower of the bean-tree, and thus awakening thoughts of the beans, and in indicating snakes (both desirable and indeed essential articles of food), the "calloo-calloo" performs such valuable service that it is highly commended. Those who are familiar with the unreflective omnivority of the blacks and their indelicate appetites generally, may with difficulty credit the fact that in those districts in which the bird is recognised as a trustworthy guide it is honoured, and under no circumstances will they kill it. Of course, the blacks of North Queensland in native worth have not much art in the killing of birds, but in every case "calloo-calloo" is tabu.
One instance may be quoted. A great outcry was heard on the edge of the jungle, and upon investigation a grey falcon and a "calloo-calloo" were found in such preoccupied "holts" that both were captured. Here was an opportunity for a meal. The birds were parted, and the falcon given over to the custody of a gin for execution, while the "calloo-calloo," which was dazed, was petted and revived until it at last flew away with a glad call, the blacks assuring a witness, "B'mbi that fella look out snake belong me fella!"
II. DO BIRDS PLAY?
A somewhat too rigorous critic of the antics of birds has expressed the opinion that playfulness is unknown among them, that their occasional friskiness is not an exhibition of lightness of heart, but merely a martial exercise. The corroboree of native companions (ANTIGONE AUSTRALASIANA) may certainly be the practice of a defensive manoeuvre, though it has the appearance of a graceful dance. A partially disabled bird will pirouette on tiptoes and flap its wings wildly in the face of its foe, and it is reasonable to imagine that the great birds in community would keep themselves well trained in their particular methods of self-defence.
A flock of dotterels bobbing, bowing, skipping, and shouldering one another may be merely practising some evolution with serious intent, though it is far more natural to conclude that the frail little birds are in holiday humour. For all their exercises, they have but one resort in the presence of a superior foe or an alert single enemy, and that is in hasty and inconsiderate flight.
From my own experience may be drawn proof of the contention that birds do practise defensive and offensive tactics, and also that they have their moments of unreflecting play.
The cassowary (CASUARIUS AUSTRALIS) is a skilful fighter. It hits out with such force and precision that a weaponless man who stands before the bird when it is angry and vicious is ridiculously overmatched. The great bird is so quick that you do not realise that it has got its blow in first until you see the blood flow. It strikes with its middle toe, and that toe is a lance, keen if not bright. How does the regal bird of the jungles of North Queensland acquire this lightning-like stroke? The answer is, by constant and intelligent practice while young. A year or two ago I had frequent opportunities for observing a pair of young cassowaries patiently, yet playfully, performing martial exercises. They were about the size of a full grown bustard (say, 28 lb. weight); but if their bulk had been in ratio to their lightheartedness and playfulness, they would have loomed large as bullocks.
Their favourite spot was round and about a stout post about three feet high, the ground encircling which had been beaten down by constant use to polished smoothness. That the ruling passion of the young birds during their idle hours was determination to acquire skill and alertness there can be no doubt. Invariably the game began in a particular way. One of the pair striding round the post—apparently oblivious of its existence—would lurch against it as a man inspired with rum might treat a lamp-post intent on getting in his way. Leering at the post for a second, the bird would march round again to shoulder it roughly a second time. Then a queer look of simulated petulance and indignation would spread over its features, and, taking in its measure, the bird would lash out at the post with grim earnestness. A cyclonic attack ensued. With many feints and huddling up of its neck, and dodges, and ducks, and lateral movements of the head quick as thought, the post was chastised for its insolence and stolid stupidity. It seemed to be hit in several places at one and the same moment. Its features bore ever increasing scores and furrows, for it was used for hours every day as a punching-ball.
When one bird grew tired the other imitated most laughably the antics of its brother, first ignoring the presence of the post, and then, having lurched dreamily against it, assaulting it with unrestrained fury. Play and significant offensive tactics were undoubtedly blended in the pastimes of the cassowary.
Before the boldest of these birds grew to maturity it became such an expert boxer and so pugnacious and truculent that it was declared unfit to be at large, and as the State offered no secure asylum the death penalty was pronounced and duly carried into effect. By good luck I happened along before all the roast leg had been disposed of, and in spite of testimony to the contrary have pleasure in declaring that, notwithstanding the heroic training to which the youthful bird had subjected itself, the flesh was as tender and as gamey as that of a young plain turkey.
The other case in point may be briefly cited. While yet young there came into our possession a magpie (GYMNORHINA TIBICEN), to which as soon as it was fit for responsibilities full liberty was cheerfully granted. Breakfast, several tiffens, lunches, and afternoon snacks, and a full evening's dinner was provided. The dish of scraps was always available. At will the pet flew in and out of the kitchen, and if by chance food was not spread out at the accustomed place it protested loudly, and always effectively. Although a large quantity of food was self-earned, there was always a substantial meal in reserve.