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Bill Thayer

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Part 4

This webpage reproduces part of the Introduction to
the Cynegetica and Halieutica


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

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Part 6

to Oppian

p. lxix Some Animal Idiosyncrasies

1. Narce, Torpedo, Crampfish, or Electric Ray: H. I.104, II.56 ff., H. III.149 ff. In all the Torpedoes the electric organ consists of a large patch of hexagonal cells, as many as 400 in the larger species. These are placed under the skin on each side of the head, below and behind the eye, and covering the base of the enlarged pectoral fin. They are modified muscle-cells and each is filled with a clear jelly-like substance. The shock which the animal communicates when touched is capable of being carried along a metallic conductor, such as a knife or spear, and is said to render the needle magnetic and to decompose chemical compounds. The exercise of this power soon exhausts its possessor and renders a period of recuperation necessary.

2. Fox feigning death: H. II.107 ff.º "When a fox is caught in a trap or run down by dogs he fights savagely at first, but by-and‑by he 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 p. lxxdeath, 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 captured 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." W. H. Hudson, The Naturalist in La Plata (1903).

3. Deer and Snakes: C. II.233 ff, H. II.289 ff. "The gauchos of the pampas give a reason for the powerful smell of the male deer. . . . They say that the effluvium of Cervus campestris is abhorrent to snakes of all kinds . . . and even go so far as to describe its effect as fatal to them; according to this, the smell is therefore a protection to the deer. In places where venomous snakes are extremely abundant, as in the Sierra district on the southern pampas of Buenos Ayres, the gaucho frequently ties a strip p. lxxiof the male deer's skin, which retains its powerful odour for an indefinite time, round the neck of a valuable horse as a protection. . . . Considering then the conditions in which C. campestris is placed — and it might also be supposed that venomous snakes have in past times been much more numerous than they are now — it is not impossible to believe that the powerful smell it emits has been made protective. . . . The gaucho also affirms that the deer cherishes a wonderful animosity against snakes; that it becomes greatly excited when it sees on and proceeds at once to destroy it, they say, by running round and round it in a circle, emitting its violent smell in larger measure, until the snake dies of suffocation. It is hard to believe that the effect can be so great; but that the deer is a snake hater and killer is certainly true: in North America, Ceylon, and other districts deer have been observed excitedly leaping on serpents, and killing them with their sharp-cutting hoofs." W. H. Hudson, op. cit.

4. The Life-history of the Eel (Anguilla vulgaris): H. I.513 ff. The propagation of the Eel is referred to several times in Aristotle's History of Animals: 538 A3 "The Eel is neither male nor female and engenders nothing of itself. Those who assert that they are sometimes found with hairy or worm-like attachments speak inconsiderately, not observing the situation of these attachments. For no such animal is viviparous without being oviparous and no Eel has ever been seen with an egg; and viviparous animals have their young in the womb and closely attached, not in the belly." To the same effect 570 Asq. where he adds: "Eels spring from the so‑called p. lxxii'earth's entrails' (γῆς ἔντερα, earth-worms), which grow spontaneously in mud and moist ground. Eels have in fact sometimes been seen to emerge from such earth-worms and at other times have been rendered visible when the earth-worms were laid open by scraping or cutting. Such earth-worms are found both in the sea and in rivers, particularly where there is decayed matter." Cf. 517 B8, 567 A21, 569 A6, 608 A5.

Till within the last half-century or so the problem remained in much the same position as it was in the time of Aristotle, but in recent years and in particular through the systematic and elaborate investigations of Dr. J. Schmidt, the life-history of the Eel has been greatly elucidated. The result of these investigations may be briefly summarized:

The Eel is oviparous and its spawning-ground is in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean near the Bermudas. Thence the larval "Ribbon-eels" travel eastward, a direction of migration which is instinctive and not due to the drift of the current, as is proved by experiments with bottles and the like cast overboard. After a journey which lasts for about two years the young Eels in their third year, when about three inches in length, enter the European rivers, being now known as Elvers or "Glass-Eels." They ascend the rivers in spring, travelling in compact bodies and swimming close to the river-banks. They show remarkable determination in their upward journey, overcoming such obstacles as waterfalls by wriggling through the grass upon the banks. Examination of the growth-rings on the minute scales, on the otoliths ("ear-stones"), and on the centra of the vertebrae, shows that at three years of age, after a year in fresh p. lxxiiiwater, an eel is about 3½ inches long, at 5 years it is about 6 inches, at 8 years about 1 foot, and at 13 years nearly 2 feet in length.

Eels do not spawn in fresh waters. When the period of maturity approaches and with it the reproductive impulse, at the age of from 6 to 10 years, they become silvery in appearance ("Silver-eels"), their eyes become larger, and they make for the rivers in which they descend to the sea. Having reached the sea they travel oceanwards, at an average rate of more than 9 miles a day, on their final journey — pour l'amour et pour la mort — of over 2000 miles to their breeding-ground in the depth so like Ocean, where they spawn and die.

The occurrence of Eels in land-locked waters, which seemed to complicate the problem of their origin and mode of propagation, is explained by the ability of the Eel to exist for a considerable time out of the water (A. 592 A13, Plin. IX c. 38) and to the agility of the young Eels in travelling for some distance overland (A. Part. An. 696 A5, Theophrast. περὶ ἰχθύων τῶν ἐν τῷ ξηρῷ διατριβόντων fr. 171), and so making their way even into waters from which the adult Eels under the reproductive impulse in vain endeavour to escape. On the other hand there are no Eels in the Danube, nor in the Black Sea or the Caspian Sea, these waters being beyond the reach of the young eels migrating from the Atlantic Ocean.

Cf. J. Schmidt, "The Breeding-place of the Eel," Ann. Rep. Smithsonian Inst. Washington, 1924 [1925], pp279‑316; C. Rabot, "Les Anguilles du Pacifique," Nature, Paris, 1926, pp113‑118; K. Marcus, "Über Alter und Wachstum des Aales," Jahrb. Hamburg wiss. Anst. XXXVI (1919), pp1‑70.

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