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Ch. 4: Some Curious Animal Weapons

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
entire.

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
away.

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.

W. H. Hudson