Languedocian Scorpion is bigby@jeanhenrifabre

Languedocian Scorpion is big

by Jean-Henri FabreJune 16th, 2023
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Book-knowledge is a poor resource in the problems of life; assiduous converse with facts is preferable here to the best-stocked library. In many cases, ignorance is a good thing: the mind retains its freedom of investigation and does not stray along roads that lead nowhither, suggested by one’s reading. I have experienced this once again. An anatomical monograph—the work, indeed, of a master—had told me that the Languedocian Scorpion is big with young in September. Oh, how much better should I have done not to consult it! The thing happens much earlier, at least in my part of the country; and, as the rearing does not last long, I should have seen nothing, had I tarried for September. A third year of observation, tiresome to wait for, would have become necessary, in order at last to witness a sight which I foresaw to be of the highest interest. But for exceptional circumstances, I should have allowed the fleeting opportunity to pass, lost a year and perhaps even abandoned the subject.
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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. THE LANGUEDOCIAN SCORPION: THE FAMILY


Book-knowledge is a poor resource in the problems of life; assiduous converse with facts is preferable here to the best-stocked library. In many cases, ignorance is a good thing: the mind retains its freedom of investigation and does not stray along roads that lead nowhither, suggested by one’s reading. I have experienced this once again.

An anatomical monograph—the work, indeed, of a master—had told me that the Languedocian Scorpion is big with young in September. Oh, how much better should I have done not to consult it! The thing happens much earlier, at least in my part of the country; and, as the rearing does not last long, I should have seen nothing, had I tarried for September. A third year of observation, tiresome to wait for, would have become necessary, in order at last to witness a sight which I foresaw to be of the highest interest. But for exceptional circumstances, I should have allowed the fleeting opportunity to pass, lost a year and perhaps even abandoned the subject.

Yes, ignorance can have its advantages; the new is found far from the beaten track. One of our most illustrious masters, little suspecting the lesson he was giving me, taught me that some time since. One fine day, Pasteur rang unexpectedly at my front-door: the same [244]who was soon to acquire such world-wide celebrity. His name was familiar to me. I had read the scholar’s fine work on the dissymmetry of tartaric acid; I had followed with the greatest interest his researches on the generation of Infusoria.

Each period has its scientific crotchet: to-day, we have transformism; at that time, they had spontaneous generation. With his balloons made sterile or fecund at will, with his experiments so magnificent in their severity and simplicity, Pasteur gave the death-blow to the lunacy which pretended to see life springing from a chemical conflict in the seat of putrefaction.

In the midst of this contest so victoriously elucidated, I welcomed my distinguished visitor as best I could. The savant came to me first of all for certain particulars. I owed this signal honour to my standing as his colleague in physics and chemistry. Oh, such a poor, obscure colleague!

Pasteur’s tour through the Avignon region had sericiculture for its object. For some years, the silk-worm nurseries had been in confusion, ravaged by unknown plagues. The worms, for no appreciable reason, were falling into a putrid deliquescence, hardening, so to speak, into plaster sugar-plums. The downcast peasant saw one of his chief crops disappearing; after much care and trouble, he had to fling his nurseries on the dung-heap.

A few words were exchanged on the prevailing blight; and then, without further preamble, my visitor said:

“I should like to see some cocoons. I have never seen any; I know them only by name. Could you get me some?”

“Nothing easier. My landlord happens to sell cocoons; and he lives in the next house. If you will wait a moment, I will bring you what you want.”

Four steps took me to my neighbour’s, where I crammed my pockets with cocoons. I came back and handed them to the savant. He took one, turned and turned it between his fingers; he examined it curiously, as one would a strange object from the other end of the world. He put it to his ear and shook it:

“Why, it makes a noise!” he said, quite surprised. “There’s something inside!”

“Of course there is.”

“What is it?”

“The chrysalis.”

“How do you mean, the chrysalis?”

“I mean the sort of mummy into which the caterpillar changes before becoming a moth.”

“And has every cocoon one of those things inside it?”

“Obviously. It is to protect the chrysalis that the caterpillar spins.”


And, without more words, the cocoons passed into the pocket of the savant, who was to instruct himself at his leisure touching that great novelty, the chrysalis. I was struck by this magnificent assurance. Pasteur had come to regenerate the silk-worm, while knowing nothing about caterpillars, cocoons, chrysalises or metamorphoses. The ancient gymnasts came naked to the fight. The talented combatant of the plague of our silk-worm nurseries hastened to the battle likewise naked, that is to say, destitute of the simplest notions about the insect which he was to deliver from danger. I was staggered; nay, more, I was wonderstruck.

I was not so much amazed by what followed. Pasteur was occupied at the time with another question, that [246]of the improvement of wine by heating. Suddenly changing the conversation:

“Show me your cellar,” he said.

I! I show my cellar, my private cellar, poor I, who, in those days, with my pitiful teacher’s salary, could not indulge in the luxury of a little wine and brewed myself a sort of small cider by setting a handful of moist sugar and some apples already steeped in spoilt cider to ferment in a cask! My cellar! Show my cellar! Why not my barrels, my cobwebbed bottles, each labelled with its age and vintage! My cellar!

Full of confusion, I avoided the request and tried to turn the conversation. But he persisted:

“Show me your cellar, please.”

There was no resisting such firmness. I pointed with my finger to a corner in the kitchen where stood a chair with no seat to it; and, on that chair, a demi-john containing two or three gallons:

“That’s my cellar, sir.”

“Is that your cellar?”

“I have no other.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes, that is all, alas!”


Not a word more; nothing further from the savant. Pasteur, that was evident, had never tasted the highly-spiced dish which the vulgar call la vache enragée. Though my cellar—the dilapidated chair and the more than half-empty demi-john—said nothing about the fermentation to be combated by heating, it spoke eloquently of another thing which my illustrious visitor seemed not to understand. A microbe escaped from it and a very terrible microbe: that of ill-fortune strangling good-will.[247]

In spite of the unlucky introduction of the cellar, I remain none the less struck by his serene assurance. He knows nothing of the transformation of insects; he has just seen a cocoon for the first time and learnt that there is something inside that cocoon, the rough draft of the moth that shall be; he is ignorant of what is known to the meanest school-boy of our southern parts; and this novice, whose artless questions surprise me so greatly, is about to revolutionize the hygiene of the silk-worm nurseries. In the same way, he will revolutionize medicine and general hygiene.

His weapon is thought, heedless of details and soaring over the whole question. What cares he for metamorphoses, larvæ, nymphæ, cocoons, pupæ, chrysalises and the thousand and one little secrets of entomology! For the purposes of his problem, perhaps, it is just as well to be ignorant of all that. Ideas retain their independence and their daring flight more easily; movements are freer, when released from the leading-strings of the known.

Encouraged by the magnificent example of the cocoons rattling in Pasteur’s astonished ears, I have made it a rule to adopt the method of ignorance in my investigations into instincts. I read very little. Instead of turning the pages of books, an expensive proceeding quite beyond my means, instead of consulting other people, I persist in obstinately interviewing my subject until I succeed in making him speak. I know nothing. So much the better: my queries will be all the freer, now in this direction, now in the opposite, according to the lights obtained. And if, by chance, I do open a book, I take care to leave a pigeon-hole in my mind wide open to doubt; for the soil which I am clearing bristles with weeds and brambles.[248]

For lack of taking this precaution, I very nearly lost a year. Relying on what I had read, I did not look for the family of the Languedocian Scorpion until September; and I obtained it quite unexpectedly in July. This difference between the real and the anticipated date I ascribe to the disparity of the climate: I make my observations in Provence and my informant, Léon Dufour, made his in Spain. Notwithstanding the master’s high authority, I ought to have been on my guard. I was not; and I should have lost the opportunity if, as luck would have it, the Common Black Scorpion had not taught me. Ah, how right was Pasteur not to know the chrysalis!

The Common Scorpion, smaller and much less active than the other, was brought up, for purposes of comparison, in humble glass jars that stood on the table in my study. The modest apparatus did not take up much room and were easy to examine; and I made a point of visiting them daily. Every morning, before sitting down to blacken a few pages of my diary with prose, I invariably lifted the piece of cardboard which I used to shelter my boarders and enquired into the happenings of the night. These daily visits were not so feasible in the large glass cage, whose numerous dwellings required a general over-throw, if they were to be examined one by one and then methodically replaced in condition as discovered. With my jars of Black Scorpions, the inspection was the matter of a moment.

It was well for me that I always had this auxiliary establishment before my eyes. On the 22nd of July, at six o’clock in the morning, raising the cardboard screen, I found the mother beneath it, with her little ones grouped on her chine like a sort of white mantlet. I experienced [249]one of those seconds of sweet contentment which, at intervals, reward the long-suffering observer. For the first time, I had before my eyes the fine spectacle of the Scorpioness clad in her young. The delivery was quite recent; it must have taken place during the night; for, on the previous evening, the mother was bare.

Further successes awaited me: on the next day, a second mother is whitened with her brood; the day after that, two others at a time are in the same condition. That makes four. It is more than my ambition hoped for. With four families of Scorpions and a few quiet days before me, I can find sweets in life.

All the more so as fortune loads me with her favours. Ever since the first discovery in the jars, I have been thinking of the glass cage and asking myself whether the Languedocian Scorpion might not be as precocious as her black sister. Let us go quick and see.

I turn over the twenty-five tiles. A glorious success! I feel one of those hot waves of enthusiasm with which I was familiar at twenty rush through my old veins. Under three of the lot of tiles, I find a mother burdened with her family. One has little ones already shooting up, about a week old, as the sequel of my observations informed me; the two others have borne their children recently, in the course of last night, as is proved by certain remnants jealously guarded under the paunch. We shall see presently what those remnants represent.

July runs to an end, August and September pass and nothing more occurs to swell my collection. The period of the family, therefore, for both Scorpions is the second fortnight in July. From that time onward, everything is finished. And yet, among my guests in the glass cage, there remain females as big and fat as those [250]from whom I have obtained an offspring. I reckoned on these too for an increase in the population; all the appearances authorized me to do so. Winter comes and none of them has answered my expectations. The business, which seemed close at hand, has been put off to next year: a fresh proof of long pregnancy, very singular in the case of an animal of an inferior order.

I transfer each mother and her product, separately, into medium-sized receptacles, which facilitate the niceties of the observation. At the early hour of my visit, those brought to bed during the night have still a part of the brood sheltered under their belly. Pushing the mother aside with a straw, I discover, amid the heap of young not yet hoisted on the maternal back, objects that utterly upset all that the books have taught me on this subject. The Scorpions, they say, are viviparous. The learned expression lacks exactitude: the young do not see the light directly with the formation which we know of.

And this must be so. How would you have the outstretched claws, the sprawling legs, the shrivelled tails go through the maternal passages? The cumbrous little animal could never pass through the narrow outlets. It must needs come into the world packed up and sparing of space.

The remnants found under the mothers, in fact, show me eggs, real eggs, similar, or very nearly, to those which anatomy extracts from the ovaries at an advanced stage of pregnancy. The little animal, economically compressed to the dimensions of a grain of rice, has its tail laid along its belly, its claws flattened against its chest, its legs pressed to its sides, so that the small, easy-gliding, oval lump leaves not the smallest protuberance. On the forehead, dots of an intense black mark the eyes. The [251]tiny insect floats in a drop of transparent moisture, which is for the moment its world, its atmosphere, contained by a pellicle of exquisite delicacy.

These objects are really eggs. There were thirty or forty of them, at first, in the Languedocian Scorpion’s litter; not quite so many in the Black Scorpion’s. Interfering too late in the nocturnal lying-in, I am present at the finish. The little that remains, however, is sufficient to convince me. The Scorpion is in reality oviparous; only her eggs hatch very speedily and the liberation of the young follows very soon after the laying.

Now how does this liberation take place? I enjoy the remarkable privilege of witnessing it. I see the mother with the point of her mandibles delicately seizing, lacerating, tearing off and lastly swallowing the membrane of the egg. She strips her new-born offspring with the fastidious care and fondness of the sheep and the cat when eating the fetal wrappers. Not a scratch on that scarce-formed flesh, not a strain, in spite of the clumsiness of the tool employed.

I cannot get over my surprise: the Scorpion has initiated the living into acts of maternity bordering on our own. In the distant days of the coal vegetation, when the first Scorpion appeared, the gentle passions of childbirth were already preparing. The egg, the equivalent of the long-sleeping seed, the egg, as already possessed by the reptile and the fish and later to be possessed by the bird and almost the whole body of insects, was the contemporary of an infinitely more delicate organism which ushered in the viviparousness of the higher animals. The incubation of the germ did not take place outside, in the heart of the threatening conflict of things; it was accomplished in the mother’s womb.[252]

The progressive movements of life know no gradual stages, from fair to good, from good to excellent; they proceed by leaps and bounds, in some cases advancing, in some recoiling. The ocean has its ebb and flow. Life, that other ocean, more unfathomable than the ocean of the waters, has its ebb and flow likewise. Will it have any others? Who can say that it will? Who can say that it will not?

If the sheep were not to assist by swallowing the wrappers after picking them up with her lips, never would the lamb succeed in extricating itself from its swaddling-clothes. In the same way, the little Scorpion calls for its mother’s aid. I see some that, caught in stickiness, move about helplessly in the half-torn ovarian sac and are unable to free themselves. It wants a touch of the mother’s teeth to complete the deliverance. It is doubtful even whether the young insect contributes to effect the laceration. Its weakness is of no avail against that other weakness, the natal envelope, though this be as slender as the inner integument of an onion-skin.

The young chick has a temporary callosity at the end of its beak, which it uses to peck, to break the shell. The young Scorpion, condensed to the dimensions of a grain of rice to economize space, waits inertly for help from without. The mother has to do everything. She works with such a will that the accessories of childbirth disappear altogether, even the few sterile eggs being swept away with the others in the general flow. Not a remnant lingers behind of the now useless tatters; everything has returned to the mother’s stomach; and the spot of ground that has received the laying is swept absolutely clear.


1.The Languedocian Scorpion devouring a cricket.
2.After pairing-time: the female feasting on her Scorpion.
3.The mother and her family, with emancipation-time at hand.

So here we have the young nicely wiped, clean and free. They are white. Their length, from the forehead to the [253]tip of the tail, measures nine millimetres1 in the Languedocian Scorpion and four2 in the Black. As the liberating toilet is completed, they climb, first one and then the other, on the maternal spine, hoisting themselves, without excessive haste, along the claws, which the Scorpion keeps flat on the ground, in order to facilitate the ascent. Close-grouped one against the other, entangled at random, they form a continuous cloth on the mother’s back. With the aid of their little claws, they are pretty firmly settled. One finds some difficulty in sweeping them away with the point of a hair pencil without more or less hurting the feeble creatures. In this state, neither steed nor burden budges: it is the fit moment for experimenting.

The Scorpion, clad in her young assembled to form a white muslin mantlet, is a spectacle worthy of attention. She remains motionless, with her tail curled on high. If I bring a rush of straw too near the family, she at once lifts her two claws in an angry attitude, rarely adopted in her own defence. The two fists are raised in a sparring posture, the nippers open wide, ready to thrust and parry. The tail is seldom brandished: to loosen it suddenly would give a shock to the spine and perhaps make a part of the burden fall to the ground. The bold, sudden, imposing menace of the fists suffices.

My curiosity takes no notice of it. I push off one of the little ones and place it facing its mother, at a finger’s breadth away. The mother does not seem to trouble about the accident: motionless she was, motionless she remains. Why excite herself about that slip? The fallen child will be quite able to manage for itself. It gesticulates, it moves about; and then, finding one of [254]the maternal claws within its reach, it clambers up pretty nimbly and joins the crowd of its brothers. It resumes its seat in the saddle, but without, by a long way, displaying the agility of the Lycosa’s sons, who are expert riders, versed in the art of vaulting on horseback.

The test is repeated on a larger scale. This time, I sweep a part of the load to the ground; the little ones are scattered, to no very great distance. There is a somewhat prolonged moment of hesitation. While the brats wander about, without quite knowing where to go, the mother at last becomes alarmed at the state of things. With her two arms—I am speaking of the chelæ—with her two arms joined in a semi-circle, she rakes and gathers the sand so as to bring the strayers to her. This is done awkwardly, clumsily, with no precautions against accidental crushing. The Hen, with a soft clucking call, makes the wandering chicks return to the pale; the Scorpion collects her family with a sweep of the rake. All are safe and sound nevertheless. As soon as they come in contact with the mother, they climb up and form themselves again into a dorsal group.

Strangers are admitted to this group, as well as the legitimate offspring. If, with the camel-hair broom, I dislodge a mother’s family, wholly or in part, and place it within reach of a second mother, herself carrying her family, the latter will collect the young ones by armfuls, as she would her own offspring, and very kindly allow the newcomers to mount upon her back. One would say that she adopts them, were the expression not too ambitious. There is no adoption. It is the same blindness as that of the Lycosa, who is incapable of distinguishing between her own family and the family of others, and welcomes all that swarms about her legs.[255]

I expected to come upon excursions similar to those of the Lycosa, whom it is not unusual to meet scouring the heath with her pack of children on her back. The Scorpion knows nothing of these diversions. Once she becomes a mother, for some time she does not leave her home, not even in the evening, at the hour when others sally forth to frolic. Barricaded in her cell, not troubling to eat, she watches over the upbringing of her young.

As a matter of fact, those frail creatures have a delicate test to undergo: they have, one might say, to be born a second time. They prepare for it by immobility and by an inward labour not unlike that which turns the larva into the perfect insect. In spite of their fairly correct appearance as Scorpions, the young ones have rather indistinct features, which look as though seen through a mist. One is inclined to credit them with a sort of child’s smock, which they must throw off in order to become slim and acquire a definite shape.

Eight days spent without moving, on the mother’s back, are necessary to this work. Then there takes place an excoriation which I hesitate to describe by the expression “casting of the skin,” so greatly does it differ from the true casting of the skin, undergone later at repeated intervals. For the latter, the skin splits over the thorax; and the animal emerges through this single fissure, leaving a dry cast garment behind it, similar in shape to the Scorpion that has just thrown it off. The empty mould retains the exact outline of the moulded animal.

But, this time, it is something different. I place a few young ones in course of excoriation on a sheet of glass. They are motionless, sorely tried, it seems, almost spent. The skin bursts, without special lines of cleavage; it tears at one and the same time in front, behind, at the [256]sides; the legs come out of their gaiters, the claws leave their gauntlets, the tail quits its scabbard. The cast skin falls in rags on every side at a time. It is a flaying without order and in tatters. When it is done, the flayed insects present the normal appearance of Scorpions. They have also acquired agility. Although still pale in tint, they are nimble, quick to set foot to earth in order to run and play near the mother. The most striking part of this progress is the brisk growth. The young of the Languedocian Scorpion measured nine millimetres in length; they now measure fourteen.3 Those of the Black Scorpion have grown from four to six or seven millimetres.4 The length increases by one half, which nearly trebles the volume.

Surprised at this sudden growth, one asks one’s self what the cause can be; for the little ones have taken no food. The weight has not increased: on the contrary, it has diminished; for we must remember that the skin has been cast. The volume grows, but not the bulk. It is therefore a distension up to a certain point and may be compared with that of inorganic bodies under the influence of heat. A secret change takes place, which groups the living molecules into a more spacious combination; and the volume increases without the addition of fresh materials. One who, possessed of a fine patience and suitably equipped, cared to follow the rapid changes of this architecture would, I think, reap a harvest of some value. I, in my penury, abandon the problem to others.

The remains of the excoriation are white strips, silky rags, which, so far from falling to the ground, attach themselves [257]to the back of the Scorpion, especially near the basal segments of the legs, and there tangle themselves into a soft carpet on which the lately-flayed insects rest. The steed now carries a saddle-cloth well-adapted to hold her restless riders in position. Whether these have to alight or to remount, the layer of tatters, now become a solid harness, affords supports for rapid evolutions.

When I topple over the family with a slight stroke of the camel-hair pencil, it is amusing to see how quickly the unhorsed ones resume their seat in the saddle. The fringes of the housings are grasped, the tail is used as a lever and, with a bound, the horseman is in his place. This curious carpet, a real boarding-netting which allows of easy scaling, lasts, without dislocations, for nearly a week, that is to say, until the emancipation. Then it comes off of its own accord, either as a whole or piecemeal, and nothing remains of it when the young are scattered around.

Meantime, signs of the colouring appear; the tail and belly are tinged with saffron, the claws assume the soft brilliancy of transparent amber. Youth beautifies all things. The little Languedocian Scorpions are really splendid. If they remained thus, if they did not carry a poison-still, soon to become threatening, they would be pretty creatures which one would find a pleasure in rearing. Soon the wish for emancipation awakens in them. They gladly descend from the mother’s back to frolic merrily in the neighbourhood. If they stray too far, the mother cautions them and brings them back again by sweeping the rake of her arms over the sand.

At dozing-time, the sight furnished by the Scorpioness is almost as good as that of the hen and her chicks resting. [258]Most of the young ones are on the ground, pressed close against the mother; a few are stationed on the white saddle-cloth, a delightful cushion. There are some who clamber up the mother’s tail, perch on the top of the bend and seem to delight in looking down from that point of vantage upon the crowd. More acrobats arrive, who dislodge them and take their places. All want their share in the curiosities provided by the gazebo.

The bulk of the family is around the mother; there is a constant swarm of brats that crawl under the belly and there squat, leaving their forehead, with the gleaming black eye-points, outside. The more restless prefer the mother’s legs, which to them represent a gymnasium; they here swing as on a trapeze. Next, at their leisure, the whole troop climb up to the spine again, resume their places, settle down; and nothing more stirs, neither mother nor little ones.

This period wherein the emancipation is matured and prepared lasts for a week, exactly as long as the strange labour that trebles the volume without food. The family remains upon the mother’s back for a fortnight, all told. The Lycosa carries her young for six or seven months, during which time they are always active and lively, although unfed. What do those of the Scorpion eat, at least after the excoriation that has given them agility and a new life? Does the mother invite them to her meals and reserve the tenderest morsels of her repasts for them? She invites nobody; she reserves nothing.

I serve her a Cricket, chosen among the small game that seems to me best-suited to the delicate nature of her sons. While she gnaws the morsel, without troubling in the least about her surroundings, one of the little ones [259]slips down her spine, crawls along her forehead and leans over to see what is happening. He touches the jaws with the tip of his leg; then briskly he retreats, startled. He goes away; and he is well-advised. The abyss engaged in the work of mastication, so far from reserving him a mouthful, might perhaps snap him up and swallow him without giving him a further thought.

A second is hanging on behind the Cricket, of whom the mother is munching the front. He nibbles, he pulls, eager for a bit. His perseverance comes to nothing: the fare is too tough.

I have seen it pretty often: the appetite awakens; the young would gladly accept food, if the mother took the least care to offer them any, especially food adjusted to the weakness of their stomachs; but she just eats for herself and that is all.

What do you want, O my pretty little Scorpions, who have provided me with such delightful moments? You want to go away, to some distant place, in search of victuals, of the tiniest of tiny beasties. I can see it by your restless roving. You run away from the mother, who, on her side, ceases to know you. You are strong enough; the hour has come to disperse.

If I knew exactly the infinitesimal game that suited you and if I had sufficient time to procure it for you, I should love to continue your upbringing; but not among the potsherds of the native cage, in the company of your elders. I know their intolerant spirit. The ogres would eat you up, my children. Your own mothers would not spare you. You are strangers to them henceforth. Next year, at the wedding-season, they would eat you, the jealous creatures! You had better go; prudence demands it.[260]

Where could I lodge you and how could I feed you? The best thing is to say good-bye, not without a certain regret on my part. One of these days, I will take you and scatter you in your territory, the rock-strewn slope where the sun is so hot. There you will find brothers and sisters who, hardly larger than yourselves, are already leading solitary lives, under their little stones, sometimes no bigger than a thumb-nail. There you will learn the hard struggle for life better than you would with me.


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