The Descent of Man – Day 123 of 151

Chapter XVII: Secondary Sexual Characters of Mammals

  • The law of battle
  • Special weapons, confined to the males
  • Cause of absence of weapons in the female
  • Weapons common to both sexes, yet primarily acquired by the male
  • Other uses of such weapons
  • Their high importance
  • Greater size of the male
  • Means of defence
  • On the preference shown by either sex in the pairing of quadrupeds

With mammals the male appears to win the female much more through the law of battle than through the display of his charms. The most timid animals, not provided with any special weapons for fighting, engage in desperate conflicts during the season of love. Two male hares have been seen to fight together until one was killed; male moles often fight, and sometimes with fatal results; male squirrels engage in frequent contests, “and often wound each other severely”; as do male beavers, so that “hardly a skin is without scars.” (1. See Waterton’s account of two hares fighting, ‘Zoologist,’ vol. i. 1843, p. 211. On moles, Bell, ‘Hist. of British Quadrupeds,’ 1st ed., p. 100. On squirrels, Audubon and Bachman, Viviparous Quadrupeds of N. America, 1846, p. 269. On beavers, Mr. A.H. Green, in ‘Journal of Linnean Society, Zoology,’ vol. x. 1869, p. 362.) I observed the same fact with the hides of the guanacoes in Patagonia; and on one occasion several were so absorbed in fighting that they fearlessly rushed close by me. Livingstone speaks of the males of the many animals in Southern Africa as almost invariably shewing the scars received in former contests.

The law of battle prevails with aquatic as with terrestrial mammals. It is notorious how desperately male seals fight, both with their teeth and claws, during the breeding-season; and their hides are likewise often covered with scars. Male sperm-whales are very jealous at this season; and in their battles “they often lock their jaws together, and turn on their sides and twist about”; so that their lower jaws often become distorted. (2. On the battles of seals, see Capt. C. Abbott in ‘Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1868, p. 191; Mr. R. Brown, ibid. 1868, p. 436; also L. Lloyd, ‘Game Birds of Sweden,’ 1867, p. 412; also Pennant. On the sperm-whale see Mr. J.H. Thompson, in ‘Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1867, p. 246.)

All male animals which are furnished with special weapons for fighting, are well known to engage in fierce battles. The courage and the desperate conflicts of stags have often been described; their skeletons have been found in various parts of the world, with the horns inextricably locked together, shewing how miserably the victor and vanquished had perished. (3. See Scrope (‘Art of Deer-stalking,’ p. 17) on the locking of the horns with the Cervus elaphus. Richardson, in ‘Fauna Bor. Americana,’ 1829, p. 252, says that the wapiti, moose, and reindeer have been found thus locked together. Sir. A. Smith found at the Cape of Good Hope the skeletons of two gnus in the same condition.) No animal in the world is so dangerous as an elephant in must. Lord Tankerville has given me a graphic description of the battles between the wild bulls in Chillingham Park, the descendants, degenerated in size but not in courage, of the gigantic Bos primigenius. In 1861 several contended for mastery; and it was observed that two of the younger bulls attacked in concert the old leader of the herd, overthrew and disabled him, so that he was believed by the keepers to be lying mortally wounded in a neighbouring wood. But a few days afterwards one of the young bulls approached the wood alone; and then the “monarch of the chase,” who had been lashing himself up for vengeance, came out and, in a short time, killed his antagonist. He then quietly joined the herd, and long held undisputed sway. Admiral Sir B.J. Sulivan informs me that, when he lived in the Falkland Islands, he imported a young English stallion, which frequented the hills near Port William with eight mares. On these hills there were two wild stallions, each with a small troop of mares; “and it is certain that these stallions would never have approached each other without fighting. Both had tried singly to fight the English horse and drive away his mares, but had failed. One day they came in together and attacked him. This was seen by the capitan who had charge of the horses, and who, on riding to the spot, found one of the two stallions engaged with the English horse, whilst the other was driving away the mares, and had already separated four from the rest. The capitan settled the matter by driving the whole party into the corral, for the wild stallions would not leave the mares.”

Male animals which are provided with efficient cutting or tearing teeth for the ordinary purposes of life, such as the carnivora, insectivora, and rodents, are seldom furnished with weapons especially adapted for fighting with their rivals. The case is very different with the males of many other animals. We see this in the horns of stags and of certain kinds of antelopes in which the females are hornless. With many animals the canine teeth in the upper or lower jaw, or in both, are much larger in the males than in the females, or are absent in the latter, with the exception sometimes of a hidden rudiment. Certain antelopes, the musk-deer, camel, horse, boar, various apes, seals, and the walrus, offer instances. In the females of the walrus the tusks are sometimes quite absent. (4. Mr. Lamont (‘Seasons with the Sea-Horses,’ 1861, p. 143) says that a good tusk of the male walrus weighs 4 pounds, and is longer than that of the female, which weighs about 3 pounds. The males are described as fighting ferociously. On the occasional absence of the tusks in the female, see Mr. R. Brown, ‘Proceedings, Zoological Society,’ 1868, p. 429.) In the male elephant of India and in the male dugong (5. Owen, ‘Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 283.) the upper incisors form offensive weapons. In the male narwhal the left canine alone is developed into the well-known, spirally-twisted, so-called horn, which is sometimes from nine to ten feet in length. It is believed that the males use these horns for fighting together; for “an unbroken one can rarely be got, and occasionally one may be found with the point of another jammed into the broken place.” (6. Mr. R. Brown, in ‘Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1869, p. 553. See Prof. Turner, in ‘Journal of Anat. and Phys.’ 1872, p. 76, on the homological nature of these tusks. Also Mr. J.W. Clarke on two tusks being developed in the males, in ‘Proceedings of the Zoological Society,’ 1871, p. 42.) The tooth on the opposite side of the head in the male consists of a rudiment about ten inches in length, which is embedded in the jaw; but sometimes, though rarely, both are equally developed on the two sides. In the female both are always rudimentary. The male cachalot has a larger head than that of the female, and it no doubt aids him in his aquatic battles. Lastly, the adult male ornithorhynchus is provided with a remarkable apparatus, namely a spur on the foreleg, closely resembling the poison-fang of a venomous snake; but according to Harting, the secretion from the gland is not poisonous; and on the leg of the female there is a hollow, apparently for the reception of the spur. (7. Owen on the cachalot and Ornithorhynchus, ibid. vol. iii. pp. 638, 641. Harting is quoted by Dr. Zouteveen in the Dutch translation of this work, vol. ii. p. 292.)

When the males are provided with weapons which in the females are absent, there can be hardly a doubt that these serve for fighting with other males; and that they were acquired through sexual selection, and were transmitted to the male sex alone. It is not probable, at least in most cases, that the females have been prevented from acquiring such weapons, on account of their being useless, superfluous, or in some way injurious. On the contrary, as they are often used by the males for various purposes, more especially as a defence against their enemies, it is a surprising fact that they are so poorly developed, or quite absent, in the females of so many animals. With female deer the development during each recurrent season of great branching horns, and with female elephants the development of immense tusks, would be a great waste of vital power, supposing that they were of no use to the females. Consequently, they would have tended to be eliminated in the female through natural selection; that is, if the successive variations were limited in their transmission to the female sex, for otherwise the weapons of the males would have been injuriously affected, and this would have been a greater evil. On the whole, and from the consideration of the following facts, it seems probable that when the various weapons differ in the two sexes, this has generally depended on the kind of transmission which has prevailed.

As the reindeer is the one species in the whole family of Deer, in which the female is furnished with horns, though they are somewhat smaller, thinner, and less branched than in the male, it might naturally be thought that, at least in this case, they must be of some special service to her. The female retains her horns from the time when they are fully developed, namely, in September, throughout the winter until April or May, when she brings forth her young. Mr. Crotch made particular enquiries for me in Norway, and it appears that the females at this season conceal themselves for about a fortnight in order to bring forth their young, and then reappear, generally hornless. In Nova Scotia, however, as I hear from Mr. H. Reeks, the female sometimes retains her horns longer. The male on the other hand casts his horns much earlier, towards the end of November. As both sexes have the same requirements and follow the same habits of life, and as the male is destitute of horns during the winter, it is improbable that they can be of any special service to the female during this season, which includes the larger part of the time during which she is horned. Nor is it probable that she can have inherited horns from some ancient progenitor of the family of deer, for, from the fact of the females of so many species in all quarters of the globe not having horns, we may conclude that this was the primordial character of the group. (8. On the structure and shedding of the horns of the reindeer, Hoffberg, ‘Amoenitates Acad.’ vol. iv. 1788, p. 149. See Richardson, ‘Fauna Bor. Americana,’ p. 241, in regard to the American variety or species: also Major W. Ross King, ‘The Sportsman in Canada,’ 1866, p. 80.)

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