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    Ch. 15: The Death-feigning Instinct

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    Chapter 16
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    Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of "death-feigning,"
    commonly seen in coleopterous insects, and in many spiders. This highly
    curious instinct is also possessed by some vertebrates. In insects it is
    probably due to temporary paralysis occasioned by sudden concussion, for
    when beetles alight abruptly, though voluntarily, they assume that
    appearance of death, which lasts for a few moments. Some species,
    indeed, are so highly sensitive that the slightest touch, or even a
    sudden menace, will instantly throw them into this motionless,
    death-simulating condition. Curiously enough, the same causes which
    produce this trance in slow-moving species, like those of Scarabseus for
    example, have a precisely contrary effect on species endowed with great
    activity. Rapacious beetles, when disturbed, scuttle quickly out of
    sight, and some water-beetles spin about the surface, in circles or
    zigzag lines, so rapidly as to confuse the eye. Our common long-legged
    spiders (Pholcus) when approached draw their feet together in the middle
    of the web, and spin the body round with such velocity as to resemble a
    whirligig.

    Certain mammals and birds also possess the death-simulating instinct,
    though it is hardly possible to believe that the action springs from the
    same immediate cause in vertebrates and in insects. In the latter it
    appears to be a purely physical instinct, the direct result of an
    extraneous cause, and resembling the motions of a plant. In mammals and
    birds it is evident that violent emotion, and not the rough handling
    experienced, is the final cause of the swoon.

    Passing over venomous snakes, skunks, and a few other species in which
    the presence of danger excites only anger, fear has a powerful, and in
    some cases a disabling, effect on animals; and it is this paralyzing
    effect of fear on which the death-feigning instinct, found only in a few
    widely-separated species, has probably been built up by the slow
    cumulative process of natural selection.

    I have met with some curious instances of the paralyzing effect of fear.
    I was told by some hunters in an outlying district of the pampas of its
    effect on a jaguar they started, and which took refuge in a dense clump
    of dry reeds. Though they could see it, it was impossible to throw the
    lasso over its head, and, after vainly trying to dislodge it, they at
    length set fire to the reeds. Still it refused to stir, but lay with
    head erect, fiercely glaring at them through the flames. Finally it
    disappeared from sight in the black smoke; and when the fire had burnt
    itself out, it was found, dead and charred, in the same spot.

    On the pampas the gauchos frequently take the black-necked swan by
    frightening it. When the birds are feeding or resting on the grass, two
    or three men or boys on horseback go quietly to leeward of the flock,
    and when opposite to it suddenly wheel and charge it at full speed,
    uttering loud shouts, by which the birds are thrown into such terror
    that they are incapable of flying, and are quickly despatched.

    I have also seen gaucho boys catch the Silver-bill (Lichenops
    perspicillata) by hurling a stick or stone at the bird, then rushing at
    it, when it sits perfectly still, disabled by fear, and allows itself to
    be taken. I myself once succeeded in taking a small bird of another
    species in the same way.

    Amongst mammals our common fox (Canis azarae), and one of the opossums
    (Didelphys azarae), are strangely subject to the death-simulating swoon.
    For it does indeed seem strange that animals so powerful, fierce, and
    able to inflict such terrible injury with their teeth should also
    possess this safeguard, apparently more suited to weak inactive
    creatures that cannot resist or escape from an enemy and to animals very
    low down in the scale of being. When a fox is caught in a trap or run
    down by dogs he fights savagely at first, but by-and-by relaxes his
    efforts, drops on the ground, and apparently yields up the ghost. The
    deception is so well carried out, that dogs are constantly taken in by
    it, and no one, not previously acquainted with this clever trickery of
    nature, but would at once pronounce the creature dead, and worthy of
    some praise for having perished in so brave a spirit. Now, when in this
    condition of feigning death, I am quite sure that the animal does not
    altogether lose consciousness. It is exceedingly difficult to discover
    any evidence of life in the opossum; but when one withdraws a little way
    from the feigning fox, and watches him very attentively, a slight
    opening of the eye may be detected; and, finally, when left to himself,
    he does not recover and start up like an animal that has been stunned,
    but slowly and cautiously raises his head first, and only gets up when
    his foes are at a safe distance. Yet I have seen gauchos, who are very
    cruel to animals, practise the most barbarous experiments on a captive
    fox without being able to rouse it into exhibiting any sign of life.
    This has greatly puzzled me, since, if death-feigning is simply a
    cunning habit, the animal could not suffer itself to be mutilated
    without wincing. I can only believe that the fox, though not insensible,
    as its behaviour on being left to itself appears to prove, yet has its
    body thrown by extreme terror into that benumbed condition which
    simulates death, and during which it is unable to feel the tortures
    practised on it.

    The swoon sometimes actually takes place before the animal has been
    touched, and even when the exciting cause is at a considerable distance.
    I was once riding with a gaucho, when we saw, on the open level ground
    before us, a fox, not yet fully grown, standing still and watching our
    approach. All at once it dropped, and when we came up to the spot it was
    lying stretched out, with eyes closed, and apparently dead. Before
    passing on my companion, who said it was not the first time he had seen
    such a thing, lashed it vigorously with his whip for some moments, but
    without producing the slightest effect.

    The death-feigning instinct is possessed in a very marked degree by the
    spotted tinamou or common partridge of the pampas (Nothura maculosa).
    When captured, after a few violent struggles to escape, it drops its
    head, gasps two or three times, and to all appearances dies. If, when
    you have seen this, you release your hold, the eyes open instantly, and,
    with startling suddenness and a noise of wings, it is up and away, and
    beyond your reach for ever. Possibly, while your grasp is on the bird it
    does actually become insensible, though its recovery from that condition
    is almost instantaneous. Birds when captured do sometimes die in the
    hand, purely from terror. The tinamou is excessively timid, and
    sometimes when birds of this species are chased--for gaucho boys
    frequently run them down on horseback--and when they find no burrows or
    thickets to escape into, they actually drop down dead on the plain.
    Probably, when they feign death in their captor's hand, they are in
    reality very near to death.
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