THE ANT-LION

BY J. H. FABRE
("The Insects' Homer")

Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

My big and little readers, look at the picture illustrating this story and tell me what you see. First of all, a hideous little monster. It has six short legs and an enormous body—the sign of an insatiable appetite—and carries on its head two sharp-pointed, curved, movable horns, which open and shut like a savage pair of pincers. Suppose we were to hear that, in a desert island, a monster like that, but the size of a wolf, was just emerging from the thick jungle and making for a traveller, for some modern Robinson Crusoe, and that, in another moment, it would be sticking its tusks into him, how thrilling we should find it! We should hope that the man whose life was in danger was armed with the most effective weapons, which would help him to come victorious out of the contest: a twelve-chambered revolver at least, to say nothing of a breech-loading rifle and explosive bullets!

But we must not take an unfair advantage of the animal's ugly appearance in order to provoke unnatural excitement, for what I am about to tell is history and not a fairy-tale: proper, genuine history. I will lose no time in saying that the creature is quite harmless to any of us, even the smallest. By this I do not mean to suggest that it has not a very fierce and brutal temper; only, the victims of its bloodthirsty instincts move in a world so tiny that we tread it under foot unnoticed. It is an ogre, ever hungering after fresh meat, like the famous ogre of your fairy-tales: you know, the one who welcomed Hop-o'-my-Thumb and his brothers to his house one evening, meaning to put them all in a pie like so many pigeons; in short, just the sort of ogre who makes your blood run cold.

Our little monster, then, wants its dinner, a thing not always easy to find in this world, especially for an ogre. Hunger is gnawing at its inside; it must eat or die. Its usual prey is the Ant, a good runner, whose nimble legs promptly take to flight and baffle the clumsy, corpulent hunter's attempts to attack her. You might as well tell the Tortoise to run and catch the Gazelle. Our ogre possesses no greater agility in comparison with the Ant; and moreover there is another reason that makes it quite impossible for him to run after anything: like the Crab, he can only really walk backwards, which is not exactly the way to overtake your quarry when it's in front of you.

To be fat and heavy, to walk backwards and to be obliged to have live Ant for one's dinner is a difficult, a very difficult problem. What would you do in such a case? Come, try to find something! Rack your brains! You can think of nothing? Well, never mind: plenty of others, including myself, could not think of anything either.

Everyday common-sense, expressed in proverbs, tells us over and over again that necessity is the mother of invention. This great truth, which we have learnt by personal experience, we shall learn once more from the Ant-hunter. But first let us give him a name, to simplify our story. Naturalists call him the Ant-lion, a very happy term, which reminds us that, like the Lion, he lives by carnage, slaughtering live prey, in this case Ants. Now that we have christened him we can go on.

When he wants his dinner, the Ant-lion says to himself:

"You're a fat little beggar, you know, short-legged and slow-moving; you'll never catch Ants by running after them. On the other hand, you can walk backwards, that's capital; you have a head flattened like a navvy's shovel, that's first-rate; your pincers are long and grip like a knife, that's perfect, absolutely perfect. We'll use that talent for walking backwards; we'll use those tools, the shovel and tongs; we'll make craft take the place of the agility which we lack; and the dinner will come along."

No sooner said than done. In a nice dry spot, warmed by the sun and sheltered from the rain by an overhanging rock, the wily animal selects a place where Ants are incessantly moving to and fro on household matters. Gravely, with the mathematical accuracy of an engineer tracing the foundation of a well-planned building, the Ant-lion walks backwards, with his body dug into the sand; he turns and turns and in this way hollows out a groove shaped like a perfect circle. Then, still moving backwards and still digging deeper and deeper into the sand, he repeats the circuit many times over, but gradually coming nearer the centre, where he arrives in the end. If any obstacle, such as a large bit of gravel, which would spoil the work, makes its appearance, the Ant-lion takes it on his flat head and, with a vigorous jerk of his neck, flings it to a distance over the edge of the hole. We should use a shovel in exactly the same way to throw out the rubbish when digging.

The result of this labour is a sort of funnel, two inches wide and a little less in depth. For that matter, each Ant-lion scoops himself out one proportioned to his size: the larger ones, the giants of the family, produce one almost big enough to hold an orange; the younger and smaller ones are content with a hollow which a walnut would fill. But, whether great funnels or modest dents, all these cavities are constructed on one and the same principle: the slope is very steep and formed of extremely loose sand; nothing, however light, can set foot upon it without producing a landslip, followed by a headlong fall.

When the work is finished, the scoundrel buries himself in the sand, right at the bottom of the funnel; his pincers alone appear outside, ever ready to snap, but nevertheless hidden as far as possible. And now the Ant-lion remains completely motionless and waits; he waits for hours, for days, for weeks, if necessary, for his patience is unequalled; he waits for his dinner to come to him, as he cannot go after his dinner himself.

Let us do as he does and wait, very attentively. What will happen? See, an Ant comes trotting along, suspecting no harm, bringing a little honey in her crop for her mates, who are working at a distance, just as the goodwife, on the stroke of noon, brings the reaper his midday meal in the fields. In her hurry, or perhaps in her heedlessness, she has not seen the precipice. She steps upon it, but only just on the edge. It makes no difference: as soon as her foot is on the perfidious slope, the sand gives way and the poor thing is dragged down. If our eyes were sharp enough, we should see signs of fierce delight betrayed by the formidable jaws at the bottom.

Thank goodness! A microscopic bit of straw has interfered with the landslide. The fall ends in the middle of the slope; and the Ant, recovering her balance, tries to scramble back to the top. The sand trickles under her feet; no matter: she goes to work with so much prudence, she so skilfully makes use of the smallest solid support, she is so careful to move sideways instead of going straight up the slope that it looks as though the climb ought to be achieved without fresh impediment. Her knees, her delicate feelers seem atremble with excitement. One more effort, only a little effort, and the thing is done. The edge is there, close by; the Ant must reach it.

Alas, she does not reach it! Suddenly from the sky there falls upon the poor wretch, thick as hailstones, a rain of grains of sand, which, for the tiny Ant, is as bad as a regular rain of pebbles. Who is the brute that takes delight in thus stoning the distressed Ant, who clings in her despair now to this side, now to that, as best she may, so as not to roll to the bottom of the precipice? The brute is the Ant-lion, the ruffian, lying in ambush down in his funnel. See what he is doing. He takes on his flat head a load, a shovelful of sand, and flings it in the air towards the Ant, with a sudden, quick jerk of the neck, like the movement of a spring. The shovelfuls follow rapidly, one after the other. Whoosh! And whoosh! Do you want another? There's one! You don't want another? There's one all the same!

What can the Ant do, I ask you, on the slope of that terrible trap, where the ground falls from under her in a rushing torrent, while a hail of pebbles dashes down from above? In vain she struggles, with all the pluck of despair: for each step forward she takes three back, coming nearer and nearer to the dreadful jaws that are waiting for her at the bottom of the funnel. Bruised and dazed with the stoning, she rolls over and over, right into the jaws. The jaws seize her and everything disappears under the sand; not a trace remains of the recent tragedy.

Peacefully buried in the sand of his lair, the Ant-lion devours his astutely-captured prey. When the meal is over, there remains a dry carcass, which must be thrown away, for, if left in the funnel, it might frighten any game in future and betray the hunter in his ambush. A jerk of the shovel, that is to say, a toss of the flat head, flings it outside the hole.

Then the Ant-lion repairs the damage done to his trap, removes the coarser grains of sand, touches up the slopes to make them ready for a new slide. He buries himself as I have described and awaits the coming of the next Ant.

That is how the Ant-lion secures his dinner. And yet there are people who say that animals have no sense!