Page:Darwinism by Alfred Wallace 1889.djvu/255

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chap. ix


The Skunk as illustrating Warning Coloration.

While staying a few days, in July 1887, at the Summit Hotel on the Central Pacific Railway, I strolled out one evening after dinner, and on the road, not fifty yards from the house, I saw a pretty little white and black animal with a bushy tail coming towards me. As it came on at a slow pace and without any fear, although it evidently saw me, I thought at first that it must be some tame creature, when it suddenly occurred to me that it was a skunk. It came on till within five or six yards of me, then quietly climbed over a dwarf wall and disappeared under a small outhouse, in search of chickens, as the landlord afterwards told me. This animal possesses, as is well known, a most offensive secretion, which it has the power of ejecting over its enemies, and which effectually protects it from attack. The odour of this substance is so penetrating that it taints, and renders useless, everything it touches, or in its vicinity. Provisions near it become uneatable, and clothes saturated with it will retain the smell for several weeks, even though they are repeatedly washed and dried. A drop of the liquid in the eyes will cause blindness, and Indians are said not unfrequently to lose their sight from this cause. Owing to this remarkable power of offence the skunk is rarely attacked by other animals, and its black and white fur, and the bushy white tail carried erect when disturbed, form the danger-signals by which it is easily distinguished in the twilight or moonlight from unprotected animals. Its consciousness that it needs only to be seen to be avoided gives it that slowness of motion and fearlessness of aspect which are, as we shall see, characteristic of most creatures so protected.


Warning Colours among Insects.

It is among insects that warning colours are best developed, and most abundant. We all know how well marked and conspicuous are the colours and forms of the stinging wasps and bees, no one of which in any part of the world is known to be protectively coloured like the majority of defenceless insects. Most of the great tribe of Malacoderms among beetles are distasteful to insect-eating animals. Our red and