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A BARREN PROMISEby@jeanhenrifabre
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A BARREN PROMISE

by Jean-Henri FabreJune 5th, 2023
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In the nymph of Onthophagus Taurus there rises, on the front edge of the corselet, a single horn, as strong as the two others and shaped like a cylinder ending in a conical knob. It points forward and is fixed in the middle of the frontal crescent, projecting a little beyond it. The arrangement is gloriously original. The carvers of hieroglyphics would have beheld in it the crescent of Isis wherein dips the edge of the world. Other singularities complete the curious nymph. To right and left, the stomach is armed, on either side, with four little horns resembling crystal spikes. Total, eleven pieces on the harness: two on the forehead; one on the thorax; eight on the abdomen. The beast of yore delighted in queer horns: certain reptiles of the geological period stuck a pointed spur on their upper eyelids. The Onthophagus, more daring, sports eight on the sides of his belly, in addition to the spear which he plants upon his back. The frontal horns may be excused: they are pretty generally worn; but what does he propose to do with the others? Nothing. They are passing fancies, jewels of early youth; the adult insect will not retain the least trace of them.
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The Life and Love of the Insect by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. A BARREN PROMISE

CHAPTER VII. A BARREN PROMISE

In the nymph of Onthophagus Taurus there rises, on the front edge of the corselet, a single horn, as strong as the two others and shaped like a cylinder ending in a conical knob. It points forward and is fixed in the middle of the frontal crescent, projecting a little beyond it. The arrangement is gloriously original. The carvers of hieroglyphics would have beheld in it the crescent of Isis wherein dips the edge of the world.

Other singularities complete the curious nymph. To right and left, the stomach is armed, on either side, with four little horns resembling crystal spikes. Total, eleven pieces on the harness: two on the forehead; one on the thorax; eight on the abdomen. The beast of yore delighted in queer horns: certain reptiles of the geological period stuck a pointed spur on their upper eyelids. The Onthophagus, more daring, sports eight on the sides of his belly, in addition to the spear which he plants upon his back. The frontal horns may be excused: they are pretty generally worn; but what does he propose to do with the others? Nothing. They are passing fancies, jewels of early youth; the adult insect will not retain the least trace of them.

The nymph matures. The appendages of the forehead, at first quite crystalline, now show, transparently, a streak [89]of reddish brown, curved arc-wise. These are real horns taking shape, consistency and colour. The appendage of the corselet and those of the belly, on the other hand, preserve their glassy appearance. They are barren sacks, void of any self-developing germ. The organism produced them in an impetuous moment; now, scornful, or perhaps powerless, it allows the work to wither and become useless.

When the nymph sheds its covering and the fine tunic of the adult form is torn, these strange horns crumble into shreds, which fall away with the rest of the cast clothing. In the hope of finding at least a trace of the vanished things, the lens in vain explores the bases but lately occupied. There is nothing appreciable left: smoothness takes the place of protuberance; nullity succeeds to reality. Of the accessory panoply that promised so much, absolutely naught remains: everything has disappeared, evaporated, so to speak.

Onthophagus Taurus is not the only one endowed with those fleeting appendages, which vanish wholly when the nymph sheds its clothes. The other members of the tribe possess similar horny manifestations on their bellies and corselets. These all disappear entirely in the perfect insect.

A simple setting forth of the facts does not suffice us: we should like to guess at the motive of this corniculate display. Is it a vague memory of the customs of olden time, when life spent its excess of young sap upon quaint creations, banished to-day from our better-balanced world? Is the Onthophagus the dwarfed representative of an old race of horned animals now extinct? Does it give us a faint image of the past?

The surmise rests upon no valid foundation. The [90]Dung-beetle is recent in the general chronology of created beings; he ranks among the last-comers. With him there is no means of going back to the mists of the past, so favourable to the invention of imaginary precursors. The geological layers and even the lacustrian layers, rich in Diptera and Weevils, have so far furnished not the slightest relic of the Dung-workers. This being so, it is wiser not to refer to distant horned ancestors as accounting for their degenerate descendant, the Onthophagus.

Since the past explains nothing, let us turn to the future. If the thoracic horn be not a reminiscence, it may be a promise. It represents a timid attempt, which the ages will harden into a permanent weapon. It lets us assist at the slow and gradual evolution of a new organ; it shows us life working on a portion of the adult’s corselet, which does not yet exist, but which is to exist some day. We take the genesis of the species in the act; the present teaches us how the future is prepared.

And what does the insect that has conceived the ambition of later planting a spear upon its chine propose to make of its projected work? At least as an adjunct of masculine finery, the thing is in fashion among various foreign Scarabs that feed themselves and their grubs on vegetable matters in a state of decomposition. These giants among the wing-cased tribe delight in associating their placid corpulence with halberds terrible to gaze upon.

Look at this one—Dynastes Hercules his name—an inmate of the rotten tree-stumps under the torrid West-Indian skies. The peaceable colossus well deserves his name: he measures three inches long. Of what service can the threatening rapier of the corselet and the toothed lifting-jack of the forehead be to him, unless it [91]be to make him look grand in the presence of his female, herself deprived of these extravagances? Perhaps also they are of use to him in certain works, even as the trident helps Minotaurus in crumbling the pellets and carting the rubbish. Implements of which we do not know the use always strike us as singular. Having never associated with the West-Indian Hercules, I must content myself with suspicions touching the purpose of his fearsome equipment.

Well, one of the subjects in my voleries would achieve a similar savage finery if he persisted in his attempts. I speak of Onthophagus Vacca. His nymph has on its forehead a thick horn, one only, bent backward; on its corselet it possesses a like horn, jutting forward. The two, approaching their tips, look like a sort of pincers. What does the insect lack in order to acquire, on a smaller scale, the eccentric ornament of the West-Indian Scarab? It lacks perseverance. It matures the appendage of the forehead and allows that of the corselet to perish atrophied. It succeeds no better than Onthophagus Taurus in its attempt to grow a pointed stake upon its chine; it loses a glorious opportunity of making itself fine for the wedding and terrible in battle.

The others are no more successful. I bring up six different species. All, in the chrysalis state, possess the thoracic horn and the eight-pointed ventral coronet; not one benefits by these advantages, which disappear altogether when the adult splits its case. My near neighbourhood numbers a dozen species of Onthophagi; the world contains some hundreds. All, natives and foreigners, have the same general structure; all most probably possess the dorsal appendage at an early age; and none of them, in spite of the variety of the climate, torrid in [92]one place, moderate in another, has succeeded in hardening it into a permanent horn.

Could the future not complete a work the design of which is so very clearly traced? We ask ourselves this the more readily inasmuch as every appearance encourages the question. Examine under the magnifying-glass the frontal horns of Onthophagus Taurus in the pupa state; then consider as carefully the spear upon the corselet. At first, there is no difference between them, except the general configuration. In both cases, we find the same glassy aspect, the same sheath swollen with a crystalline moisture, the same incipient organ plainly marked. A leg in formation is not more clearly declared than the horn on the corselet or those on the forehead.

Can time be lacking for the thoracic growth to organize itself into a stiff and lasting appendage? The evolution of the nymph is swift; the insect is perfect in a few weeks. Could it not be that, though this brief space suffice to promote the maturity of the horns on the forehead, the thoracic horn requires a longer time to ripen? Let us prolong the nymphal period artificially and give the germ time to develop itself. It seems to me that a decrease of temperature, moderated and maintained for some weeks, for months if necessary, should be capable of bringing about this result, by delaying the progress of the evolution. Then, with a gentle slowness, favourable to delicate formations, the promised organ will crystallize, so to speak, and become the spear heralded by appearances.

The experiment attracted me. I was unable to undertake it for lack of the means whereby to produce a cold, even and lasting temperature. What should I have obtained if my penury had not made me abandon the [93]enterprise? A retarding of the progress of the metamorphosis, but nothing more, apparently. The horn on the corselet would have persisted in its sterility and, sooner or later, would have disappeared.

I have reasons for my conviction. The abode of the Onthophagus while engaged on his metamorphosis is not deep down; variations of temperature are easily felt. On the other hand, the seasons are capricious, especially the spring. Under the skies of Provence, the months of May and June, if the mistral lend a hand, have periods when the thermometer drops in such a way as to suggest a return of winter.

To these vicissitudes let us add the influence of a more northerly climate. The Onthophagi occupy a wide zone of latitude. Those of the north, less favoured by the sun than those of the south, can, if changing circumstances assist at the time of the transformation, undergo long weeks of a decreased temperature which spins out the work of evolution and ought therefore to permit the thoracic armour, at long intervals and casually, to consolidate into a horn. Here and there, then, the conditions of a moderate, or even cold temperature, at the time of the nymphosis, are realized without the aid of my artifices.

Well, what becomes of this surplus time placed at the service of the organic labour? Does the promised horn ripen? Not a bit of it: it withers just as it does under the stimulus of a hot sun. The records of entomology have never spoken of an Onthophagus carrying a horn upon his corselet. No one would even have suspected the possibility of such an armour, if I had not rumoured the strange appearance of the nymph. The influence of climate, therefore, goes for nothing here.[94]

Pushed further still, the question becomes more complicated. The horny appendages of the Onthophagus, of the Copris, of Minotaurus and of so many others are the male’s prerogative; the female is without them or wears them only on a reduced and very modest scale. We must look upon these corniculate products as personal ornaments much rather than as implements of labour. The male makes himself fine for the pairing; but, with the exception of Minotaurus, who pins down the dry pellet that needs crushing and holds it in position with his trident, I know none that uses his armour as a tool. Horns and prongs on the forehead, crests and crescents on the corselet are jewels of masculine vanity and nothing more. The other sex requires no such baits to attract suitors: its femininity is enough; and finery is neglected.

Now here is something to give us food for thought. The nymph of the Onthophagus of the female sex, a nymph with an unarmed forehead, carries on its thorax a vitreous horn as long, as rich in promise as that of the other sex. If this latter excrescence be an incompletely-realized incipient ornament, then the former would be so too, in which case the two sexes, both anxious for self-embellishment, would work with equal zeal to grow a horn upon their thorax. We should be witnessing the genesis of a species that would not be really an Onthophagus, but a derivative of the group; we should be beholding the commencement of singularities banished hitherto from among the Dung-beetles, none of whom, of either sex, has thought of planting a spear upon his chine. Stranger still: the female, always the more humbly attired throughout the entomological order, would be vying with the male in her propensity for eccentric adornment. An ambition of this sort leaves me incredulous.[95]

We must therefore believe that, if the possibilities of the future should ever produce a Dung-beetle carrying a horn upon his corselet, this upsetter of present customs will not be the Onthophagus succeeding in maturing the thoracic appendage of the nymph, but rather an insect resulting from a new model. The creative power throws aside the old moulds and replaces them by others, fashioned with fresh care, after plans of an inexhaustible variety. Its laboratory is not a peddling rag-fair, where the living assume the cast clothes of the dead: it is a medallist’s studio, where each effigy receives the stamp of a special die. Its treasure-house of forms, of unbounded wealth, excludes any niggardly patching of the old to make the new. It breaks up every mould once used; it does away with it, without resorting to shabby after-touches.

Then what is the meaning of those horny preparations, which are always blighted before they come to aught? Without feeling greatly abashed by my ignorance, I confess that I am absolutely unable to say. In the absence of an appearance of learning, my answer has at least one merit, that of perfect sincerity.

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This book is part of the public domain. Jean-Henri Fabre (2022). The Life and Love of the Insect. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/68974/pg68974-images.html

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