Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Great Entomologists: Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre

Ontogeny has a new series (I hope it's a series) of posts highlighting famous entomologists. What a great idea! I could have sworn I saw another post about Fabricius, but now I cannot find it. So, first up is Fabre, someone whom I knew almost nothing about and now am quite impressed by.

From the Trivia section of Wikipedia, a Caterpillar Death Spiral!

The renowned French Naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, in an experiment with processionary caterpillars was able to entice them on to the rim of a large flowerpot. Processionary caterpillars move through the forest in a long procession feeding on pine needles. They derive their name from their habit of following a lead caterpillar, each with its eyes half closed and head fitted snugly against the rear end of the preceding caterpillar.

Fabre succeeded in getting the lead caterpillar to connect up with the last one, creating a complete circle, which moved around the pot in a never ending procession. He thought that after a few circles of the pot, the caterpillars would discover their predicament or tire of their endless progression and move off in another direction. But they never varied their movements.

Through force of habit, the caterpillars kept moving relentlessly around the pot at about the same pace for a period of seven days. They would have continued even longer if they had not stopped from sheer exhaustion and hunger. As part of the experiment, food had been placed close by in sight of the group, but because it was out of the path of the circle, they continued in their procession to what could have been their ultimate destruction.link Processionary caterpillars
From an article by Stephen Jay Gould:

J. H. Fabre, the great nineteenth-century French entomologist, who remains to this day the preeminently literate natural historian of insects, made a special study of parasitic wasps and wrote with an unabashed anthropocentrism about the struggles of paralyzed victims (see his books Insect Life and The Wonders of Instinct). He describes some imperfectly paralyzed caterpillars that struggle so violently every time a parasite approaches that the wasp larvae must feed with unusual caution. They attach themselves to a silken strand from the roof of their burrow and descend upon a safe and exposed part of the caterpillar:

The grub is at dinner: head downwards, it is digging into the limp belly of one of the caterpillars . . . At the least sign of danger in the heap of caterpillars, the larva retreats . . . and climbs back to the ceiling, where the swarming rabble cannot reach it. When peace is restored, it slides down its silken cord... and returns to table, with its head over the viands and its rear upturned and ready to withdraw in case of need.

In another chapter, he describes the fate of a paralyzed cricket:

One may see the cricket, bitten to the quick, vainly move its antennae and abdominal styles, open and close its empty jaws, and even move a foot, but the larva is safe and searches its vitals with impunity. What an awful nightmare for the paralyzed cricket!

Fabre even learned to feed some paralyzed victims by placing a syrup of sugar and water on their mouthparts-- thus showing that they remained alive, sentient, and, by implication, grateful for any palliation of their inevitable fate. If Jesus, immobile and thirsting on the cross, received only vinegar from his tormentors, Fabre at least could make an ending bittersweet.

Also from the trivia section of Wikipedia:

From a user comment on IMDB (could this French film be about the famed entomologist? I think so):
Henri Diamant-Berger seems to have been a competent director, no more, who made one fine film. I enjoyed Monsieur Fabre enormously; Pierre Fresnay impressed me very strongly as the headstrong entomologist who was awarded the Legion d'honneur and then was hounded out of his teaching post for instructing the youth of Avignon in sex in the animal kingdom. I suppose the ramifications of Victorian scientific research are affecting us still: witness the creationism debate going on in the United States today.

It's Fresnay's film from beginning to end. The actor who played in Le Corbeau, Monsieur Vincent and many other films is just wonderful. I thought √Člina Labourdette was going to have a substantial part, but we only see her in the brief Paris scenes (sigh).
From Today in Science History:
Victor Hugo dubbed him "the insects’ Homer and Edmond Rostand named him the "Virgil of insects." Darwin described him as "an incomparable observer."
He's a Capricorn on the cusp of Sagittarius. According to astrology.com:
Those born on this cusp are both ambitious and disciplined, determined and dedicated to achieving their goals. They are also practical and realistic, cautious not to get in over their head. Sagittarius/Capricorns are the scholars and learners of the zodiac. They seek the truth and the meaning of life, and they love to explore. The astrological symbol of Sagittarius is the Archer. The Archer is a Centaur, half man and half horse, and it is the only sign of the zodiac that is half man and half beast. Centaurs were the great scholars and intellectuals of Greek and Roman myth, but they could also be hotheaded and aggressive.
Who says astrology is crap?

Read the rest of the Wikipedia article here
Read Fabre's Book of Insects on Google Book Search here

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