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    Ch. 4: Some Curious Animal Weapons

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    Chapter 5
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    Strictly speaking, the only weapons of vertebrates are teeth, claws,
    horns, and spurs. Horns belong only to the ruminants, and the spur is a
    rare weapon. There are also many animals in which teeth and claws are
    not suited to inflict injury, or in which the proper instincts and
    courage to use and develop them are wanted; and these would seem, to be
    in a very defenceless condition. Defenceless they are in one sense, but
    as a fact they are no worse off than the well-armed species, having
    either a protective colouring or a greater swiftness or cunning to
    assist them in escaping from their enemies. And there are also many of
    these practically toothless and clawless species which have yet been
    provided with other organs and means of offence and defence out of
    Nature's curious armoury, and concerning a few of these species I
    propose to speak in this place.

    Probably such distinctive weapons as horns, spurs, tusks and spines
    would be much more common in nature if the conditions of life always
    remained the same. But these things are long in fashioning; meanwhile,
    conditions are changing; climate, soil, vegetation vary; foes and rivals
    diminish or increase; the old go, and others with different weapons and
    a new strategy take their place; and just as a skilful man "fighting the
    wilderness" fashions a plough from a hunting-knife, turns his implements
    into weapons of war, and for everything he possesses discovers a use
    never contemplated by its maker, so does Nature--only with an ingenuity
    exceeding that of man--use the means she has to meet all contingencies,
    and enable her creatures, seemingly so ill-provided, to maintain their
    fight for life. Natural selection, like an angry man, can make a weapon
    of anything; and, using the word in this wide sense, the mucous
    secretions the huanaco discharges into the face of an adversary, and the
    pestilential drops "distilled" by the skunk, are weapons, and may be as
    effectual in defensive warfare as spines, fangs and tushes.

    I do not know of a more striking instance in the animal kingdom of
    adaptation of structure to habit than is afforded by the hairy
    armadillo--Dasypus villosus. He appears to us, roughly speaking, to
    resemble an ant-eater saddled with a dish cover; yet this creature, with
    the cunning Avhich Nature has given it to supplement all deficiencies,
    has discovered in its bony encumbrance a highly efficient weapon of
    offence. Most other edentates are diurnal and almost exclusively
    insectivorous, some feeding only on ants; they have unchangeable habits,
    very limited intelligence, and vanish before civilization. The hairy
    armadillo alone has struck out a line for itself. Like its fast
    disappearing congeners, it is an insect-eater still, but does not like
    them seek its food on the surface and in the ant-hill only; all kinds of
    insects are preyed on, and by means of its keen scent it discovers worms
    and larvae several inches beneath the surface. Its method of taking
    worms and grubs resembles that of probing birds, for it throws up no
    earth, but forces its sharp snout and wedge-shaped head down to the
    required depth; and probably while working it moves round in a circle,
    for the hole is conical, though the head of the animal is flat. Where it
    has found a rich hunting-ground, the earth is seen pitted with hundreds
    of these neat symmetrical bores. It is also an enemy to ground-nesting
    birds, being fond of eggs and fledglings; and when unable to capture
    prey it will feed on carrion as readily as a wild dog or vulture,
    returning night after night to the carcase of a horse or cow as long as
    the flesh lasts. Failing animal food, it subsists on vegetable diet; and
    I have frequently found their stomachs stuffed with clover, and,
    stranger still, with the large, hard grains of the maize, swallowed

    It is not, therefore, strange that at all seasons, and even when other
    animals are starving, the hairy armadillo is always fat and vigorous. In
    the desert it is diurnal; but where man appears it becomes more and more
    nocturnal, and in populous districts does not go abroad until long after
    dark. Yet when a district becomes thickly settled it increases in
    numbers; so readily does it adapt itself to new conditions. It is not to
    be wondered at that the gauchos, keen observers of nature as they are,
    should make this species the hero of many of their fables of the "Uncle
    Remus" type, representing it as a versatile creature, exceedingly
    fertile in expedients, and duping its sworn friend the fox in various
    ways, just as "Brer Rabbit" serves the fox in the North American fables.

    The hairy armadillo will, doubtless, long survive all the other
    armadillos, and on this account alone it will have an ever-increasing
    interest for the naturalist. I have elsewhere described how it captures
    mice; when preying on snakes it proceeds in another manner. A friend of
    mine, a careful observer, who was engaged in cattle-breeding amongst the
    stony sierras near Cape Corrientes, described to me an encounter he
    witnessed between an armadillo and a poisonous snake. While seated on
    the hillside one day he observed a snake, about twenty inches in length,
    lying coiled up on a stoue five or six yards beneath him. By-and-by, a
    hairy armadillo appeared trotting directly towards it. Apparently the
    snake perceived and feared its approach, for it quickly uncoiled itself
    and began gliding away. Instantly the armadillo rushed on to it, and,
    squatting close down, began swaying its body backward and forward with a
    regular sawing motion, thus lacerating its victim with the sharp,
    deep-cut edges of its bony covering. The snake struggled to free itself,
    biting savagely at its aggressor, for its head and neck were disengaged.
    Its bites made no impression, and very soon it dropped its head, and
    when its enemy drew off, it was dead and very much mangled. The
    armadillo at once began its meal, taking the tail in its mouth and
    slowly progressing towards the head; but when about a third of the snake
    still remained it seemed satisfied, and, leaving that portion, trotted

    Altogether, in its rapacious and varied habits this armadillo appears to
    have some points of resemblance with the hedgehog; and possibly, like
    the little European mammal it resembles, it is not harmed by the bite of
    venomous snakes.

    I once had a cat that killed every snake it found, purely for sport,
    since it never ate them. It would jump nimbly round and across its
    victim, occasionally dealing it a blow with its cruel claws. The enemies
    of the snake are legion. Burrowing owls feed largely on them; so do
    herons and storks, killing them with a blow of their javelin beaks, and
    swallowing them entire. The sulphur tyrant-bird picks up the young snake
    by the tail, and, flying to a branch or stone, uses it like a flail till
    its life is battered out. The bird is highly commended in consequence,
    reminding one of very ancient words: "Happy shall he be that taketh thy
    little ones and dasheth them against the stones." In arraying such a
    variety of enemies against the snake, nature has made ample amends for
    having endowed it with deadly weapons. Besides, the power possessed by
    venomous snakes only seems to us disproportionate; it is not really so,
    except in occasional individual encounters. Venomous snakes are always
    greatly outnumbered by non-venomous ones in the same district; at any
    rate this is the case on the pampas. The greater activity of the latter
    counts for more in the result than the deadly weapons of the former.

    The large teguexin lizard of the pampas, called iguana by the country
    people, is a notable snake-killer. Snakes have in fact, no more
    formidable enemy, for he is quick to see, and swift to overtake them. He
    is practically invulnerable, and deals them sudden death with his
    powerful tail. The gauchos say that dogs attacking the iguana are
    sometimes known to have their legs broken, and I do not doubt it. A
    friend of mine was out riding one day after his cattle, and having
    attached one end of his lasso to the saddle, He let it trail on the
    ground. He noticed a large iguana lying apparently asleep in the sun,
    and though he rode by it very closely, it did not stir; but no sooner
    had he passed it, than it raised its head, and fixed its attention on
    the forty feet of lasso slowly trailing by. Suddenly it rushed after the
    rope, and dealt it a succession of violent blows with its tail. When the
    whole of the lasso, several yards of which had been pounded in vain, had
    been dragged by, the lizard, with uplifted head, continued gazing after
    it with the greatest astonishment. Never had such a wonderful snake
    crossed its path before!

    Molina, in his _Natural History of Chill,_ says the vizcacha uses its
    tail as a weapon; but then Molina is not always reliable. I have
    observed vizcachas all my life, and never detected them making use of
    any weapon except their chisel teeth. The tail is certainly very
    curious, being straight at the base, then curving up outwardly, and
    slightly down again at the tip, resembling the spout of a china teapot.
    The under surface of the straight portion of the base is padded with a
    thick, naked, corneous skin; and, when the animal performs the curious
    sportive antics in which it occasionally indulges, it gives rapid
    loud-sounding blows on the ground with this part of the tail. The
    peculiar form of the tail also makes it a capital support, enabling the
    vizcacha to sit erect, with ease and security.

    The frog is a most timid, inoffensive creature, saving itself, when
    pursued, by a series of saltatory feats unparalleled amongst
    vertebrates. Consequently, when I find a frog, I have no hesitation in
    placing my hands upon it, and the cold sensation it gives one is the
    worse result I fear. It came to pass, however, that I once encountered a
    frog that was not like other frogs, for it possessed an instinct and
    weapons of offence which greatly astonished me. I was out snipe shooting
    one day when, peering into an old disused burrow, two or three feet
    deep, I perceived a burly-looking frog sitting it. It was larger and
    stouter-looking than our common Rana, though like it in colour, and I at
    once dropped on to my knees and set about its capture. Though it watched
    me attentively, the frog remained perfectly motionless, and this greatly
    surprised me. Before I was sufficiently near to make a grab, it sprang
    straight at my hand, and, catching two of my fingers round with its fore
    legs, administered a hug so sudden and violent as to cause an acute
    sensation of pain; then, at the very instant I experienced this feeling,
    which made me start back quickly, it released its hold and bounded out
    and away. I flew after it, and barely managed to overtake it before it
    could gain the water. Holding it firmly pressed behind the shoulders, it
    was powerless to attack me, and I then noticed the enormous development
    of the muscles of the fore legs, usually small in frogs, bulging out in
    this individual, like a second pair of thighs, and giving-it a strangely
    bold and formidable appearance. On holding my gun within its reach, it
    clasped the barrel with such energy as to bruise the skin of its breast
    and legs. After allowing it to partially exhaust itself in these
    fruitless huggings, I experimented by letting it seize my hand again,
    and I noticed that invariably after each squeeze it made a quick,
    violent attempt to free itself. Believing that I had discovered a frog
    differing in structure from all known species, and possessing a strange
    unique instinct of self-preservation, I carried my captive home,
    intending to show it to Dr. Burmeister, the director of the National
    Museum at Buenos Ayres-Unfortunately, after I had kept it some days, it
    effected its escape by pushing up the glass cover of its box, and I have
    never since met with another individual like it. That this singular
    frog has it in its power to seriously injure an opponent is, of course,
    out of the question; but its unexpected attack must be of great
    advantage. The effect of the sudden opening of an umbrella in the face
    of an angry bull gives, I think, only a faint idea of the astonishment
    and confusion it must cause an adversary by its leap, quick as
    lightning, and the violent hug it administers; and in the confusion it
    finds time to escape. I cannot for a moment believe that an instinct so
    admirable, correlated as it is with the structure of the fore legs, can
    be merely an individual variation; and I confidently expect that all I
    have said about my lost frog will some day be confirmed by others. Rana
    luctator would be a good name for this species.

    The toad is a slow-moving creature that puts itself in the way of
    persecution; yet, strange to say, the acrid juice it exudes when
    irritated is a surer protection to it than venomous fangs are to the
    deadliest snake. Toads are, in fact, with a very few exceptions, only
    attacked and devoured by snakes, by lizards, and by their own venomous
    relative, Ceratophrys ornata. Possibly the cold sluggish natures of all
    these creatures protects them against the toad's secretion, which would
    be poison to most warm-blooded animals, but I am not so sure that all
    fish enjoy a like immunity. I one day noticed a good-sized fish (bagras)
    floating, belly upmost, on the water. It had apparently just died, and
    had such a glossy, well-nourished look about it, and appeared so full, I
    was curious to know the cause of its death. On opening it I found its
    stomach quite filled with a very large toad it had swallowed. The toad
    looked perfectly fresh, not even a faint discoloration of the skin
    showing that the gastric juices had begun to take effect; the fish, in
    fact, must have died immediately after swallowing the toad. The country
    people in South America believe that the milky secretion exuded by the
    toad possesses wonderful curative properties; it is their invariable
    specific for shingles--a painful, dangerous malady common amongst them,
    and to cure it living toads are applied to the inflamed parb. I dare say
    learned physicians would laugh at this cure, but then, if I mistake not,
    the learned have in past times laughed at other specifics used by the
    vulgar, but which now have honourable places in the pharmacopoeia--
    pepsine, for example. More than two centuries ago (very ancient times
    for South America) the gauchos were accustomed to take the lining of the
    rhea's stomach, dried and powdered, for ailments caused by impaired
    digestion; and the remedy is popular still. Science has gone over to
    them, and the ostrich-hunter now makes a double profit, one from the
    feathers, and the other from the dried stomachs which he supplies to the
    chemists of Buenos Ayres. Yet he was formerly told that to take the
    stomach of the ostrich to improve his digestion was as wild an idea as
    it would be to swallow birds' feathers in order to fly.

    I just now called Ceratophrys ornata venomous, though its teeth are not
    formed to inject poison into the veins, like serpents' teeth. It is a
    singular creature, known as _escuerzo_ in the vernacular, and though
    beautiful in colour, is in form hideous beyond description. The skin is
    of a rich brilliant green, with chocolate-coloured patches, oval in
    form, and symmetrically disposed. The lips are bright yellow, the
    cavernous mouth pale flesh colour, the throat and under-surface dull
    white. The body is lumpy, and about the size of a large man's fist. The
    eyes, placed on the summit of a disproportionately large head, are
    embedded in horn-like protuberances, capable of being elevated or
    depressed at pleasure. When the creature is undisturbed, the eyes, which
    are of a pale gold colour, look out as from a couple of watch towers,
    but when touched on the head or menaced, the prominences sink down to a
    level with the head, closing the eyes completely, and giving the
    creature the appearance of being eyeless. The upper jaw is armed with
    minute teeth, and there are two teeth in the centre of the lower jaw,
    the remaining portions of the jaw being armed with two exceedingly
    sharp-edged bony plates. In place of a tongue, it has a round muscular
    process with a rough flat disc the size of a halfpenny.

    It is common all over the pampas, ranging as far south as the Rio
    Colorado in Patagonia. In the breeding season it congregates in pools,
    and one is then struck by their extraordinary vocal powers, which they
    exercise by night. The performance in no way resembles the series of
    percussive sounds uttered by most batrachians. The notes it utters are
    long, as of a wind instrument, not unmelodious, and so powerful as to
    make themselves heard distinctly a mile off on still evenings. After the
    amorous period these toads retire to moist places and sit inactive,
    buried just deep enough to leave the broad green back on a level with
    the surface, and it is then very difficult to detect them. In this
    position they wait for their prey--frogs, toads, birds, and small
    mammals. Often they capture and attempt to swallow things too large for
    them, a mistake often made by snakes. In very wet springs they sometimes
    come about houses and lie in wait for chickens and ducklings. In
    disposition they are most truculent, savagely biting at anything that
    comes near them; and when they bite they hang on with the tenacity of a
    bulldog, poisoning the blood with their glandular secretions. When
    teased, the creature swells itself out to such an extent one almost
    expects to see him burst; he follows his tormentors about with slow
    awkward leaps, his vast mouth wide open, and uttering an incessant harsh
    croaking sound. A gaucho I knew was once bitten by one. He sat down on
    the grass, and, dropping his hand at his side, had it seized, and only
    freed himself by using his hunting knife to force the creature's mouth
    open. He washed and bandaged the wound, and no bad result followed; but
    when the toad cannot be shaken off, then the result is different. One
    summer two horses were found dead on the plain near my home. One, while
    lying down, had been seized by a fold in the skin near the belly; the
    other had been grasped by the nose while cropping grass. In both
    instances the vicious toad was found dead, with jaws tightly closed,
    still hanging to the dead horse. Perhaps they are sometimes incapable of
    letting go at will, and like honey bees, destroy themselves in these
    savage attacks.
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