A Book of Natural History Part 14

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This little anecdote seems to set the moral character of the Bat in a very favorable light, at any rate as regards the family affections, and there is no doubt that the females of all the species of the group show considerable fondness for their young. In other respects, perhaps, they do not all s.h.i.+ne quite so brilliantly, for, as we have seen, the Fruit Bats squabble very selfishly for the most convenient sleeping places, as indeed do other gregarious species of the order, and some of the former quarrel and fight over their food. As regards amiability of character, however, there is probably considerable difference between different kinds of Bats; at any rate, in confinement, they show much diversity of temper, some of them being sullen, refusing food, and biting vigorously at their captors or the bars of their prison, while others are easily tamed and soon become familiar. Two of the commonest species, the Pipistrelle, and the Long-eared Bat are among the latter. The Pipistrelle, which appears to be abundant throughout Britain, and indeed in most of the northern temperate regions of the eastern hemisphere, is a small reddish-brown species, measuring little more than one inch and a half in length without the tail, but with a spread of wing of more than eight inches.

Its regular food consists chiefly of gnats, midges, and other small flies, in pursuit of which it often frequents the vicinity of water, but it has a curious predilection for raw meat, and in search of this it often makes its way into pantries, where the little thief will be found clinging to a joint of meat, and feeding upon it with avidity.

This fondness for meat makes the Pipistrelle very easy to keep in confinement, as it diminishes the necessity of finding it insect food, and the little creature will in time become so tame as to take pieces of meat from its owner's fingers. It is an active and lively little creature, flying, running, and climbing about with great ease; in the latter operation, according to Professor Bell, it makes use of the extreme tip of the tail as if it was a finger.

The Long-eared Bat, so called from the great size of its ears, which are nearly as long as the whole animal exclusive of the tail, has perhaps a wider distribution than the Pipistrelle, but is hardly so abundant in Britain. Its head and body measure nearly two inches long, while its wings spread to about ten inches. This Bat generally sleeps during the day under the roofs of houses and in church towers, and when sleeping its long ears are carefully stowed away under the folded wings, but the earlet or inner lobe of the ear still projects, so that the creature appears to have a pair of short-pointed ears. The Long-eared Bat flies very late in the evening, and indeed seems to continue its activity throughout the night; its food appears to consist to a great extent of the smaller moths, although other insects are by no means disdained. This species also soon becomes very tame and familiar; it will fly about the room, play with its fellows, and come fearlessly to take its food from the hand. Professor Bell gives an interesting account of one kept by Mr. James Sowerby, which, "when at liberty in the parlor, would fly to the hand of any of the young people who held up a fly toward it, and, pitching on the hand, take the fly without hesitation. If the insect was held between the lips, the Bat would then settle on its young patron's cheek, and take the fly with great gentleness from the mouth; and so far was this familiarity carried, that, when either of the young people made a humming noise with the mouth, in imitation of an insect, the Bat would search about the lips for the promised dainty." This habit of taking its food when off the wing, would seem to be natural to the Long-eared Bat under certain circ.u.mstances, as Mr. Tomes records his having seen one feeding in this manner upon the myriads of small moths which swarmed about a spindle tree in bloom.

[Ill.u.s.tration: LONG-EARED BAT.]

It is unnecessary to say that the creatures which display all this activity and intelligence are well endowed with at least all the senses possessed by the other animals of their cla.s.s. The organs of smell and hearing are well developed, and in many cases a.s.sociated with external membranous expansions of great size, as seen in the ears of the Long-eared Bat; and the eyes, though generally of small size except in the Fruit Bats, are bright and efficient, serving the creatures in good stead in the rapid pursuit of their insect-prey, which must be directed princ.i.p.ally by sight. The common expression "as blind as a Bat," must be taken to apply to Bats accidentally driven from their retreats in the day-time, when it must be confessed that they fly about in a dazed manner; but at night and in their dark retreats they show no such imbecility of purpose, but find their way with astonis.h.i.+ng precision and certainty. In fact, instead of being blind, the Bats must be especially sharp-sighted, if all their evolutions be guided by the sense of sight, for in many cases they habitually resort to the inmost recesses of caverns and other places where, so far as our judgment goes, no light can possibly penetrate.

Hence it was long since suspected that some other sense than that of sight must come to their aid when they plunge into such outer darkness as prevails in some places through which they fly with the greatest freedom, and more than a century ago numerous experiment were made by a distinguished Italian naturalist, the Abbe Spallanzani, in order to discover, if possible, what might be the secret of these curious phenomena.

He set free, in a long pa.s.sage which was bent at a right angle about the middle of its length, a blinded Bat, which flew through the whole of this pa.s.sage, turning the corner correctly, without anywhere touching the walls; while flying, too, it in some mysterious manner detected a hole in the roof at a distance of eighteen inches, and proceeded at once to ensconce itself in this shelter. In another experiment the Abbe took two Bats, one blinded, the other not, and placed them in a s.p.a.ce shut off from a garden and roofed in with nets, and with sixteen strings suspended from the top in different parts.

Both Bats flew about briskly and avoided the hanging strings equally well, until at length the _blinded_ Bat discovered that the meshes of the net were large enough for him to get through, when he at once made his escape, and after flying about for a short time, went off directly to the only roof in the vicinity, under which he disappeared. In short, from these experiments it became perfectly clear that under these circ.u.mstances the sense of sight was not of primary importance in guiding the course of the Bat. Similar trials with the organs of smell and hearing showed that they had nothing to do with it, and the only other sense that could be appealed to was the general sense of touch. Baron Cuvier, the great French comparative anatomist, was the first to suggest, from the consideration of the results obtained by the Abbe Spallanzani and others, especially by M. de Jurine, of Geneva, that the peculiar phenomena in question might be accounted for by the existence, especially in the great membranous expansions of the wings, of a most delicate sensibility; and subsequent investigations of the structure of those organs has tended to confirm this view, so that it is now the one generally accepted. It is found that these great membranes are traversed in all parts by numerous nerves, the delicate terminations of which form little loops, exactly resembling those which occur in our skin in those parts where the sense of touch is most highly developed; and this resemblance is heightened by the fact that the membrane is covered with rows of little points. Even the organs of circulation in the wings are so constructed as to render it almost certain that those organs have a quite exceptional sensibility.

Their ramifications are very numerous, and the veins as well as the arteries have contractile walls, rendering the circulation of the blood exceedingly active, the conditions, as Professor St. George Mivart remarks, being almost those of a state of inflammation.

If these membranous expansions have the functions just ascribed to them, we can easily understand that the larger they are the better, and this will explain why the Bats generally exhibit so great a tendency to run out into naked membranes. Thus although the ears, as organs of hearing, have probably nothing to do with guiding the Bat when flying in dark places, we find that in a great number of species the external ears are exceedingly large and delicately membranous, of which indeed we have an example in the British Long-eared Bat already referred to. In like manner, while the nose, as a nose, may also be left out of consideration, the development of membranous appendages of the part of the face in which the nostrils open is one of the most curious peculiarities of a vast number of Bats, in many of which these singular nose-leaves almost rival the ears in size, while their structure often renders them most grotesque. We have two Bats thus adorned in Britain, namely, the Greater and the Lesser Horseshoe Bats, but most of the leaf-nosed species are inhabitants of warmer regions, and it is there that they run out into the most remarkable eccentricities of structure. In Blainville's Bat, a small species inhabiting South America and the West Indies, these expansions of the skin of the face seem to have reached the utmost possible grotesqueness, but the membranous leaves are larger and the ears much more developed in many species allied to our own Horseshoe Bats, especially such as the Megaderms. We can hardly imagine that these great membranous expansions of the outer ears and the region of the nose can have any other purpose than that of enlarging the surface of highly sensitive skin specially adapted for the perception of external impressions, and it is a remarkable fact, strictly in accordance with this view, that, so far as we know, the Bats so endowed are more decidedly nocturnal in their habits and frequent darker retreats than their less gifted fellows. Thus our Long-eared Bat, as already stated, continues active on the wing throughout the whole night, and the Horseshoe Bats are distinguished as specially affecting dark caves.

HOW SNAKES EAT

(FROM SNAKES.)

BY CATHERINE C. HOPLEY.

[Ill.u.s.tration: HAMADRYAD SNAKE.]

The Hamadryad's appointed diet is one ring-snake per week; but "Ophi,"

as we now call him, is occasionally required--and with no sacrifice of his principles either--to eat an extra snake to satisfy the curiosity of some distinguished visitor. Sometimes, too, colubers are plentiful, and two small ones are not too much for his ten or twelve feet of appet.i.te. This splendid serpent has rewarded care by remaining in perfect health, and growing several feet. He was between eight and nine feet long when he came, and is now not far short of twelve and proportionately larger in circ.u.mference. Sometimes during winter, when ring-snakes are scarce, "Ophi" is compelled to fast; for he is not then to be tempted with other food. During the first year of his residence in the Gardens, the supply was good, and he ate no less than eighty-two fellow-creatures before the winter was well over. Towards spring, however, the supply ran short, and only two more remained for him. He had now fasted two entire weeks, and looked hungry and eager.

The keeper offered him a guinea-pig, at which he took great offence, raising his hood and hissing angrily for a long while. Eggs he declined, also a lizard and a rat, in great disgust. In India the Ophiophagi are said to feed on lizards and fish occasionally, but _our_ Ophiophagus preferred to fast. At last one of the two ring-snakes was produced, and Ophio was to be regaled. It was the 31st of March, 1876, and he had been a denizen of the Gardens just one year. My note-book informs me that it was a lovely, soft spring day, and that Ophio was quite lively. He had rejected frogs on his own account, but in the uncertainty of more ring-snakes arriving, he was now decoyed into eating half a dozen. Holland contrived that the snake destined for his dinner should answer the purpose of a feast, and had allowed it to eat as many frogs as it chose. Like the poor wretch who, doomed to the gallows, is permitted to fare sumptuously the last morning of his life, the ring-snake ate three frogs, by which the Ophiophagus was to derive chief benefit; he, all unconscious of the cause of his victim's unusual plumpness, swallowed him speedily.

Soon after this Ophio doffed his winter coat entire, and having again fasted for ten days, was at once rewarded by the last remaining ring-snake in a similarly plethoric condition, namely, with three more frogs inside him. Now and then during the winter months the scarcity of ring-snakes has compelled the sacrifice of some far rarer colubers to Ophio's cannibal tastes. And yet each year we hear of hundreds of ring-snakes being ruthlessly killed in country districts, while at great cost and trouble others are purchased or brought from the Continent for the Hamadryad's sustenance. Lord Lilford, one of the Ophidarium's best patrons, sometimes sends presents of game in the shape of ring-snakes to the Hamadryad.

While watching this snake-eater over his dinner, one is struck with the remarkable tenacity of life exhibited in the victim, or the slow action of the venom if poisoned in the first grasp. The Ophiophagus seizes it anywhere, that is, at whichever part happens to come first, and then, after holding it quietly for a time, works his jaws up to the head in the usual hand-over-hand, or "jaw-after-jaw" fas.h.i.+on, invariably swallowing the snake head first. On one occasion when I watched attentively, Ophio, having seized a ring-snake by the middle, held it doggedly still for one quarter of an hour, while the lesser snake did its very best to work its way out of the jaws, and also to fetter its captor by twirling itself over his head and coiling round his neck. This continued while Ophio, with his head and neck raised, remained motionless, and after the quarter of an hour commenced to work his jaws up towards the head of the ring snake, which, as more and more of its own body was free for action, twirled itself about, and at length coiled its tail round the bit of branch nailed into the cage.

Persistently, like a sailor making his vessel fast to the windla.s.s, the ring snake lashed as much of himself as was free round the branch a foot off, and so pulled and pulled till he looked in danger of severing himself in two. Meanwhile Ophio, slowly but surely advancing, caused its head and neck to disappear, grasping tightly with his venomous jaws, as if he would say, "We'll see who is master." It was a close tussle, so firmly did the little coluber retain his hold on the "tree"; but as the upper part of him was gradually drawn into those unrelaxing jaws, he by degrees gave way, and by and by was gone.

Not far short of an hour was occupied in this meal, during which the victim showed no signs of being poisoned, nor were his coils round the stump relaxed in the slightest degree, till Ophio reached the tail.

The ring snake is not a constrictor, yet he thus tied himself round the tree by the coils of his tail.

One more singular case of tenacity of life must be recorded. A ring-snake had been caught in the usual way, and the usual struggle ensued between captor and captive. Coluber, with its head tightly gripped in the jaws of his enemy, had still all the rest of himself at liberty and in full activity, and after wriggling a violent protest, he coiled what was left of himself so closely round the neck of his persecutor that the latter made little or no progress with his dinner for a time. He seemed to be deliberating how to proceed next, and asking, "What is the meaning of this?" then shook his head, lowered it to the s.h.i.+ngle, and tried to rub off the coils. The only result thus achieved was that the extreme end of Coluber's tail was loosened for a moment, but only to coil afresh around Ophio's jaws, which nevertheless slowly and surely advanced.

For nearly an hour the progress was very slow; but when the ring-snake was nearly all swallowed except a few inches of tail, these became so tight a muzzle that Ophio in turn was the victim. Shaking his head and vainly endeavoring to free his jaws of this muzzle, a minute or two elapsed, during which he seemed to suffer some discomfort, when suddenly his mouth opened widely, and out crawled Natrix, apparently none the worse for this temporary entombment. He had turned round when two or three feet from daylight, and come back to see the world once more. But it so happened that Ophio closed his jaws in time over the few inches of tail which still remained between them. Nor did he once relax his grasp of this, but quickly and patiently began to work his way up to the head and recommence his meal, and this time with better success. An hour and a quarter I watched, nor was any evidence of poison seen, so as to reduce the powers of the bitten snake; for bitten it must have been in those prolonged and forcible grasps.

[Ill.u.s.tration]

In these conflicts one could but observe a dogged stupidity on the part of the venomous snake, who, had he but brought coils to his aid, might have simplified matters so easily. The little Heterodons, and even the Lacertines, often a.s.sist themselves with coils in managing their prey, though not themselves constrictors; but the venomous ones have not the slightest notion of helping themselves in this way, as if confident that in time their venom would do its work.

[Ill.u.s.tration]

WHAT WORMS DO

(FROM THE FORMATION OF VEGETABLE MOULD.)

BY CHARLES DARWIN.

[Ill.u.s.tration]

We now come to treat of a curious and important subject,--namely, the amount of earth which is brought up by worms from beneath the surface, and is afterwards spread out more or less completely by the rain and wind. The amount can be judged of by two methods,--by the rate at which objects left on the surface are buried, and more accurately by weighing the quant.i.ty brought up within a given time. We will begin with the first method, as it was first followed.

Near Maer Hall in Staffords.h.i.+re, quick-lime had been spread, about the year 1827, thickly over a field of good pasture-land, which had not since been ploughed. Some square holes were dug in this field in the beginning of October, 1837, and the sections showed a layer of turf, formed by the matted roots of the gra.s.ses, inch in thickness, beneath which, at a depth of 2 inches (or 3 inches from the surface), a layer of the lime in powder or in small lumps could be distinctly seen running all round the vertical sides of the holes. The soil beneath the layer of lime was either gravelly or of a coa.r.s.e sandy nature, and differed considerably in appearance from the overlying dark-coloured fine mould. Coal-cinders had been spread over a part of this same field either in the year 1833 or 1834; and when the above holes were dug, that is, after an interval of 3 or 4 years, the cinders formed a line of black spots round the holes, at a depth of 1 inch beneath the surface, parallel to and above the white layer of lime. Over another part of this field cinders had been strewed, only about half a year before, and these either still lay on the surface or were entangled among the roots of the gra.s.ses; and I here saw the commencement of the burying process, for worm-castings had been heaped on several of the smaller fragments. After an interval of 4 years this field was re-examined, and now the two layers of lime and cinders were found almost everywhere at a greater depth than before by nearly 1 inch, we will say by of an inch. Therefore, mould to an average thickness of .22 of an inch had been annually brought up by the worms, and had been spread over the surface of this field.

Coal-cinders had been strewed over another field, at a date which could not be positively ascertained, so thickly that they formed (October, 1837) a layer, 1 inch in thickness at a depth of about 3 inches from the surface. The layer was so continuous that the overlying dark vegetable mould was connected with the sub-soil of red clay only by the roots of the gra.s.ses; and when these were broken, the mould and the red clay fell apart. In a third field, on which coal-cinders and burnt marl had been strewed several times at unknown dates, holes were dug in 1842; and a layer of cinders could be traced at a depth of 3 inches, beneath which at a depth of 9 inches from the surface there was a line of cinders together with burnt marl. On the sides of one hole there were two layers of cinders, at 2 and 3 inches beneath the surface; and below them at a depth in parts of 9, and in other parts of 10 inches there were fragments of burnt marl.

In a fourth field two layers of lime, one above the other could be distinctly traced, and beneath them a layer of cinders and burnt marl at a depth of from 10 to 12 inches below the surface.

A piece of waste land was enclosed, drained, ploughed, harrowed, and thickly covered in the year 1822 with burnt marl and cinders. It was sowed with gra.s.s seeds, and now supports a tolerably good but coa.r.s.e pasture. Holes were dug in this field in 1837, or 15 years after its reclamation, and we see in the accompanying diagram (Fig. 1) reduced to half of the natural scale, that the turf was inch thick, beneath which there was a layer of vegetable mould 2 inches thick. This layer did not contain fragments of any kind; but beneath it there was a layer of mould, 1 inch in thickness, full of fragments of burnt marl, conspicuous from their red color, one of which near the bottom was an inch in length; and other fragments of coal-cinders together with a few white quartz pebbles. Beneath this layer and at a depth of 4 inches from the surface, the original black, peaty, sandy soil with a few quartz pebbles was encountered. Here, therefore, the fragments of burnt marl and cinders had been covered in the course of 15 years by a layer of fine vegetable mould, only 2 inches in thickness, excluding the turf. Six and a half years subsequently this field was re-examined, and the fragments were now found at from 4 to 5 inches beneath the surface. So that in this interval of 6 years, about 1 inch of mould had been added to the superficial layer. I am surprised that a greater quant.i.ty had not been brought up during the whole 21 years, for in the closely underlying black, peaty soil there were many worms. It is, however, probable that formerly, whilst the land remained poor, worms were scanty; and the mould would then have acc.u.mulated slowly. The average annual increase of thickness for the whole period is .19 of an inch.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 1.

Section of the vegetable mould in a field, drained and reclaimed fifteen years previously; a, turf; b, vegetable mould without any stones; c, mould with fragments of burnt marl, coal cinders, and pebbles; d, sub-soil of black, peaty sand with quartz pebbles.]

Two other cases are worth recording. In the spring of 1835 a field, which had long existed as poor pasture, and was so swampy that it trembled slightly when stamped on, was thickly covered with red sand so that the whole surface appeared at first bright red. When holes were dug in this field after an interval of about 2 years, the sand formed a layer at a depth of inch beneath the surface. In 1842 (i.e., seven years after the sand had been laid on) fresh holes were dug, and now the red sand formed a distinct layer, 2 inches beneath the surface, or 1 inch beneath the turf; so that on an average .21 inches of mould had been annually brought to the surface. Immediately beneath the layer of red sand the original sub-stratum of black, sandy peat extended.

A gra.s.s field, likewise not far from Maer Hall, had formerly been thickly covered with marl, and was then left for several years as pasture; it was afterwards ploughed. A friend had three trenches dug in this field 28 years after the application of the marl, and a layer of the marl fragments could be traced at a depth, carefully measured, of 12 inches in some parts, and of 14 inches in other parts.

This difference in depth depended on the layer being horizontal, whilst the surface consisted of ridges and furrows from the field having been ploughed. The tenant a.s.sured me that it had never been turned up to a greater depth than from 6 to 8 inches; and as the fragments formed an unbroken horizontal layer from 12 to 14 inches beneath the surface, these must have been buried by the worms whilst the land was in pasture before it was ploughed, for otherwise they would have been indiscriminately scattered by the plough throughout the whole thickness of the soil. Four and a half years afterwards I had three holes dug in this field, in which potatoes had been lately planted, and the layer of marl fragments was now found 13 inches beneath the bottoms of the furrows, and therefore probably 15 inches beneath the general level of the field. It should, however, be observed that the thickness of the blackish, sandy soil, which had been thrown up by the worms above the marl fragments in the course of 32 years, would have measured less than 15 inches, if the field had always remained as pasture, for the soil would in this case have been much more compact. The fragments of marl almost rested on an undisturbed sub-stratum of white sand with quartz pebbles; and as this would be little attractive to worms, the mould would hereafter be very slowly increased by their action.

We will now give some cases of the action of worms, on land differing widely from the dry, sandy, or the swampy pasture just described. The chalk formation extends all round my house in Kent; and its surface, from having been exposed during an immense period to the dissolving action of rain-water, is extremely irregular, being abruptly festooned and penetrated by many deep, well-like cavities. During the dissolution of the chalk the insoluble matter, including a vast number of unrolled flints of all sizes, has been left on the surface and forms a bed of stiff red clay, full of flints, and generally from 6 to 14 feet in thickness. Over the red clay, wherever the land has long remained as pasture, there is a layer a few inches in thickness of dark-coloured vegetable mould.

A quant.i.ty of broken chalk was spread, on December 20, 1842, over a part of a field near my house, which had existed as pasture certainly for 30, probably for twice or thrice as many, years. The chalk was laid on the land for the sake of observing at some future period to what depth it would become buried. At the end of November, 1871, that is, after an interval of twenty-nine years, a trench was dug across this part of the field; and a line of white nodules could be traced on both sides of the trench, at a depth of 7 inches from the surface. The mould, therefore (excluding the turf), had here been thrown up at an average rate of .22 inches per year. Beneath the line of chalk nodules there was in parts hardly any fine earth free of flints, while in other parts there was a layer 2 inches in thickness. In this latter case the mould was altogether 9 inches thick; and in one such spot a nodule of chalk and a smooth flint pebble, both of which must have been left at some former time on the surface, were found at this depth. At from 11 to 12 inches beneath the surface, the undisturbed reddish clay, full of flints, extended. The appearance of the above nodules of chalk surprised me much at first, as they closely resembled water-worn pebbles, whereas the freshly-broken fragments had been angular. But on examining the nodules with a lens, they no longer appeared water-worn, for their surfaces were pitted through unequal corrosion, and minute, sharp points, formed of broken fossil sh.e.l.ls, projected from them. It was evident that the corners of the original fragments of chalk had been wholly dissolved, from presenting a large surface to the carbonic acid dissolved in the rain-water and to that generated in soil containing vegetable matter, as well as the humus-acids. The projecting corners would also, relatively to the other parts, have been embraced by a larger number of living rootlets; and these have the power of even attacking marble, as Sachs has shown.

Thus, in the course of twenty-nine years, buried angular fragments of chalk had been converted into well-rounded nodules.

Another part of this same field was mossy, and as it was thought that sifted coal-cinders would improve the pasture, a thick layer was spread over this part either in 1842 or 1843, and another layer some years afterwards. In 1871 a trench was here dug, and many cinders lay in a line at a depth of 7 inches beneath the surface, with another line at a depth of 5 inches parallel to the one beneath. In another part of this field, which had formerly existed as a separate one, and which it was believed had been pasture-land for more than a century, trenches were dug to see how thick the vegetable mould was. By chance the first trench was made at a spot where at some former period, certainly more than forty years before, a large hole had been filled up with coa.r.s.e, red clay, flints, fragments of chalk, and gravel; and here the fine vegetable mould was only from 4? to 4? inches in thickness. In another and undisturbed place, the mould varied much in thickness, namely, from 6 to 8 inches; beneath which a few small fragments of brick were found in one place. From these several cases, it would appear, that during the last 29 years mould has been heaped on the surface at an average annual rate of from .2 to .22 of an inch. But in this district when a ploughed field is first laid down in gra.s.s, the mould acc.u.mulates at a much slower rate. The rate, also, must become very much slower after a bed of mould, several inches in thickness, has been formed; for the worms then live chiefly near the surface, and burrow down to a greater depth so as to bring up fresh earth from below, only during the winter, when the weather is very cold (at which time worms were found in this field at a depth of 26 inches), and during summer, when the weather is very dry.

A field which adjoins the one just described, slopes in one part rather steeply (viz., at from 10 to 15); this part was last ploughed in 1841, was then harrowed and left to become pasture-land. For several years it was clothed with an extremely scant vegetation, and was so thickly covered with small and large flints (some of them half as large as a child's head) that the field was always called by my sons "the stony field." When they ran down the slope the stones clattered together. I remember doubting whether I should live to see these larger flints covered with vegetable mould and turf. But the smaller stones disappeared before many years had elapsed, as did every one of the larger ones after a time; so that after thirty years (1871) a horse could gallop over the compact turf from one end of the field to the other, and not strike a single stone with his shoes. To anyone who remembered the appearance of the field in 1842, the transformation was wonderful. This was certainly the work of the worms, for though castings were not frequent for several years, yet some were thrown up month after month, and these gradually increased in numbers as the pasture improved. In the year 1871 a trench was dug on the above slope, and the blades of gra.s.s were cut off close to the roots, so that the thickness of the turf and of the vegetable mould could be measured accurately. The turf was rather less than half an inch, and the mould, which did not contain any stones, 2 inches in thickness.

Beneath this lay coa.r.s.e, clayey earth full of flints, like that in any of the neighboring ploughed fields. This coa.r.s.e earth easily fell apart from the overlying mould when a split was lifted up. The average rate of acc.u.mulation of the mould during the whole thirty years was only .083 inch per year (i.e., nearly one inch in twelve years); but the rate must have been much slower at first, and afterwards considerably quicker.

The transformation in the appearance of this field, which had been effected beneath my eyes, was afterwards rendered the more striking, when I examined in Knole Park a dense forest of lofty beech-trees, beneath which nothing grew. Here the ground was thickly strewed with large, naked stones, and worm-castings were almost wholly absent.

Obscure lines and irregularities on the surface indicated that the land had been cultivated some centuries ago. It is probable that a thick wood of young beech-trees sprung up so quickly, that time enough was not allowed for worms to cover up the stone with their castings, before the site became unfitted for their existence. Anyhow, the contrast between the state of the now miscalled "stony field," well stocked with worms, and the present state of the ground beneath the old beech-trees in Knole Park, where worms appeared to be absent, was striking.

A narrow path running across part of my lawn was paved in 1843 with small flag-stones, set edgeways; but worms threw up many castings, and weeds grew thickly between them. During several years the path was weeded and swept; but ultimately the weeds and worms prevailed, and the gardener ceased to sweep, merely moving off the weeds, as often as the lawn was mowed. The path soon became almost covered up, and after several years no trace of it was left. On removing, in 1877, the thin overlaying layer of turf, the small flag-stones, all in their proper places, were found covered by an inch of fine mould.

Two recently published accounts of substances strewed on the surface of pasture-land, having become buried through the action of worms, may be here noticed. The Rev. H. C. Key had a ditch cut in a field, over which coal-ashes had been spread, as it was believed, 18 years before, and on the clean-cut perpendicular sides of the ditch, at a depth of at least 7 inches, there could be seen, for a length of 60 yards, "a distinct, very even, narrow line of coal-ashes, mixed with small coal, perfectly parallel with the top-sward." This parallelism and the length of the section gives interest to the case. Secondly, Mr. Dancer states that crushed bones had been thickly strewed over a field, and "some years afterwards" these were found "several inches below the surface, at a uniform depth." Worms appear to act in the same manner in New Zealand as in Europe; for Professor J. von Haast has described a section near the coast, consisting of mica-schist, "covered by 5 or 6 feet of loess, above which about 12 inches of vegetable soil had acc.u.mulated." Between the loess and the mould there was a layer from 3 to 6 inches in thickness, consisting of "cores, implements, flakes, and chips, all manufactured from hard basaltic rock." It is, therefore, probable, that the aborigines, at some former period, had left these objects on the surface, and that they had afterwards been slowly covered up by the castings of worms.

Farmers in England are well aware that objects of all kinds, left on the surface of pasture-lands, after a time disappear, or, as they say, work themselves downwards. How powdered lime, cinders, and heavy stones, can work down, and at the same rate, through the matted roots of a gra.s.s-covered surface, is a question which has probably never occurred to them.

A Book of Natural History Part 14

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A Book of Natural History Part 14 summary

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