The Descent of Man – Day 132 of 151

Equal Transmission of Ornamental Characters to Both Sexes

With many birds, ornaments, which analogy leads us to believe were primarily acquired by the males, have been transmitted equally, or almost equally, to both sexes; and we may now enquire how far this view applies to mammals. With a considerable number of species, especially of the smaller kinds, both sexes have been coloured, independently of sexual selection, for the sake of protection; but not, as far as I can judge, in so many cases, nor in so striking a manner, as in most of the lower classes. Audubon remarks that he often mistook the musk-rat (35. Fiber zibethicus, Audubon and Bachman, ‘The Quadrupeds of North America,’ 1846, p. 109.), whilst sitting on the banks of a muddy stream, for a clod of earth, so complete was the resemblance. The hare on her form is a familiar instance of concealment through colour; yet this principle partly fails in a closely-allied species, the rabbit, for when running to its burrow, it is made conspicuous to the sportsman, and no doubt to all beasts of prey, by its upturned white tail. No one doubts that the quadrupeds inhabiting snow-clad regions have been rendered white to protect them from their enemies, or to favour their stealing on their prey. In regions where snow never lies for long, a white coat would be injurious; consequently, species of this colour are extremely rare in the hotter parts of the world. It deserves notice that many quadrupeds inhabiting moderately cold regions, although they do not assume a white winter dress, become paler during this season; and this apparently is the direct result of the conditions to which they have long been exposed. Pallas (36. ‘Novae species Quadrupedum e Glirium ordine,’ 1778, p. 7. What I have called the roe is the Capreolus sibiricus subecaudatus of Pallas.) states that in Siberia a change of this nature occurs with the wolf, two species of Mustela, the domestic horse, the Equus hemionus, the domestic cow, two species of antelopes, the musk-deer, the roe, elk, and reindeer. The roe, for instance, has a red summer and a greyish-white winter coat; and the latter may perhaps serve as a protection to the animal whilst wandering through the leafless thickets, sprinkled with snow and hoar-frost. If the above-named animals were gradually to extend their range into regions perpetually covered with snow, their pale winter-coats would probably be rendered through natural selection, whiter and whiter, until they became as white as snow.

Mr. Reeks has given me a curious instance of an animal profiting by being peculiarly coloured. He raised from fifty to sixty white and brown piebald rabbits in a large walled orchard; and he had at the same time some similarly coloured cats in his house. Such cats, as I have often noticed, are very conspicuous during day; but as they used to lie in watch during the dusk at the mouths of the burrows, the rabbits apparently did not distinguish them from their parti-coloured brethren. The result was that, within eighteen months, every one of these parti-coloured rabbits was destroyed; and there was evidence that this was effected by the cats. Colour seems to be advantageous to another animal, the skunk, in a manner of which we have had many instances in other classes. No animal will voluntarily attack one of these creatures on account of the dreadful odour which it emits when irritated; but during the dusk it would not easily be recognised and might be attacked by a beast of prey. Hence it is, as Mr. Belt believes (37. ‘The Naturalist in Nicaragua,’ p. 249.), that the skunk is provided with a great white bushy tail, which serves as a conspicuous warning.

Tragelaphus scriptus, male (from the Knowsley Menagerie).

Figure 70: Tragelaphus scriptus, male (from the Knowsley Menagerie).

Damalis pygarga, male (from the Knowsley Menagerie).

Figure 71: Damalis pygarga, male (from the Knowsley Menagerie).

Although we must admit that many quadrupeds have received their present tints either as a protection, or as an aid in procuring prey, yet with a host of species, the colours are far too conspicuous and too singularly arranged to allow us to suppose that they serve for these purposes. We may take as an illustration certain antelopes; when we see the square white patch on the throat, the white marks on the fetlocks, and the round black spots on the ears, all more distinct in the male of the Portax picta, than in the female;–when we see that the colours are more vivid, that the narrow white lines on the flank and the broad white bar on the shoulder are more distinct in the male Oreas derbyanus than in the female;–when we see a similar difference between the sexes of the curiously-ornamented Tragelaphus scriptus (Fig. 70),–we cannot believe that differences of this kind are of any service to either sex in their daily habits of life. It seems a much more probable conclusion that the various marks were first acquired by the males and their colours intensified through sexual selection, and then partially transferred to the females. If this view be admitted, there can be little doubt that the equally singular colours and marks of many other antelopes, though common to both sexes, have been gained and transmitted in a like manner. Both sexes, for instance, of the koodoo (Strepsiceros kudu) (Fig. 64) have narrow white vertical lines on their hind flanks, and an elegant angular white mark on their foreheads. Both sexes in the genus Damalis are very oddly coloured; in D. pygarga the back and neck are purplish-red, shading on the flanks into black; and these colours are abruptly separated from the white belly and from a large white space on the buttocks; the head is still more oddly coloured, a large oblong white mask, narrowly-edged with black, covers the face up to the eyes (Fig. 71); there are three white stripes on the forehead, and the ears are marked with white. The fawns of this species are of a uniform pale yellowish-brown. In Damalis albifrons the colouring of the head differs from that in the last species in a single white stripe replacing the three stripes, and in the ears being almost wholly white. (38. See the fine plates in A. Smith’s ‘Zoology of South Africa,’ and Dr. Gray’s ‘Gleanings from the Menagerie of Knowsley.’) After having studied to the best of my ability the sexual differences of animals belonging to all classes, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the curiously-arranged colours of many antelopes, though common to both sexes, are the result of sexual selection primarily applied to the male.

The same conclusion may perhaps be extended to the tiger, one of the most beautiful animals in the world, the sexes of which cannot be distinguished by colour, even by the dealers in wild beasts. Mr. Wallace believes (39. ‘Westminster Review,’ July 1, 1867, p. 5.) that the striped coat of the tiger “so assimilates with the vertical stems of the bamboo, as to assist greatly in concealing him from his approaching prey.” But this view does not appear to me satisfactory. We have some slight evidence that his beauty may be due to sexual selection, for in two species of Felis the analogous marks and colours are rather brighter in the male than in the female. The zebra is conspicuously striped, and stripes cannot afford any protection in the open plains of South Africa. Burchell (40. ‘Travels in South Africa,’ 1824, vol. ii. p. 315.) in describing a herd says, “their sleek ribs glistened in the sun, and the brightness and regularity of their striped coats presented a picture of extraordinary beauty, in which probably they are not surpassed by any other quadruped.” But as throughout the whole group of the Equidae the sexes are identical in colour, we have here no evidence of sexual selection. Nevertheless he who attributes the white and dark vertical stripes on the flanks of various antelopes to this process, will probably extend the same view to the Royal Tiger and beautiful Zebra.

We have seen in a former chapter that when young animals belonging to any class follow nearly the same habits of life as their parents, and yet are coloured in a different manner, it may be inferred that they have retained the colouring of some ancient and extinct progenitor. In the family of pigs, and in the tapirs, the young are marked with longitudinal stripes, and thus differ from all the existing adult species in these two groups. With many kinds of deer the young are marked with elegant white spots, of which their parents exhibit not a trace. A graduated series can be followed from the axis deer, both sexes of which at all ages and during all seasons are beautifully spotted (the male being rather more strongly coloured than the female), to species in which neither the old nor the young are spotted. I will specify some of the steps in this series. The Mantchurian deer (Cervus mantchuricus) is spotted during the whole year, but, as I have seen in the Zoological Gardens, the spots are much plainer during the summer, when the general colour of the coat is lighter, than during the winter, when the general colour is darker and the horns are fully developed. In the hog-deer (Hyelaphus porcinus) the spots are extremely conspicuous during the summer when the coat is reddish-brown, but quite disappear during the winter when the coat is brown. (41. Dr. Gray, ‘Gleanings from the Menagerie of Knowsley,’ p. 64. Mr. Blyth, in speaking (‘Land and Water,’ 1869, p. 42) of the hog-deer of Ceylon, says it is more brightly spotted with white than the common hog-deer, at the season when it renews its horns.) In both these species the young are spotted. In the Virginian deer the young are likewise spotted, and about five per cent. of the adult animals living in Judge Caton’s park, as I am informed by him, temporarily exhibit at the period when the red summer coat is being replaced by the bluish winter coat, a row of spots on each flank, which are always the same in number, though very variable in distinctness. From this condition there is but a very small step to the complete absence of spots in the adults at all seasons; and, lastly, to their absence at all ages and seasons, as occurs with certain species. From the existence of this perfect series, and more especially from the fawns of so many species being spotted, we may conclude that the now living members of the deer family are the descendants of some ancient species which, like the axis deer, was spotted at all ages and seasons. A still more ancient progenitor probably somewhat resembled the Hyomoschus aquaticus–for this animal is spotted, and the hornless males have large exserted canine teeth, of which some few true deer still retain rudiments. Hyomoschus, also, offers one of those interesting cases of a form linking together two groups, for it is intermediate in certain osteological characters between the pachyderms and ruminants, which were formerly thought to be quite distinct. (42. Falconer and Cautley, ‘Proc. Geolog. Soc.’ 1843; and Falconer’s ‘Pal. Memoirs,’ vol. i. p. 196.)

A curious difficulty here arises. If we admit that coloured spots and stripes were first acquired as ornaments, how comes it that so many existing deer, the descendants of an aboriginally spotted animal, and all the species of pigs and tapirs, the descendants of an aboriginally striped animal, have lost in their adult state their former ornaments? I cannot satisfactorily answer this question. We may feel almost sure that the spots and stripes disappeared at or near maturity in the progenitors of our existing species, so that they were still retained by the young; and, owing to the law of inheritance at corresponding ages, were transmitted to the young of all succeeding generations. It may have been a great advantage to the lion and puma, from the open nature of their usual haunts, to have lost their stripes, and to have been thus rendered less conspicuous to their prey; and if the successive variations, by which this end was gained, occurred rather late in life, the young would have retained their stripes, as is now the case. As to deer, pigs, and tapirs, Fritz Muller has suggested to me that these animals, by the removal of their spots or stripes through natural selection, would have been less easily seen by their enemies; and that they would have especially required this protection, as soon as the carnivora increased in size and number during the tertiary periods. This may be the true explanation, but it is rather strange that the young should not have been thus protected, and still more so that the adults of some species should have retained their spots, either partially or completely, during part of the year. We know that, when the domestic ass varies and becomes reddish-brown, grey, or black, the stripes on the shoulders and even on the spine frequently disappear, though we cannot explain the cause. Very few horses, except dun-coloured kinds, have stripes on any part of their bodies, yet we have good reason to believe that the aboriginal horse was striped on the legs and spine, and probably on the shoulders. (43. The ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ 1868, vol. i. pp. 61-64.) Hence the disappearance of the spots and stripes in our adult existing deer, pigs, and tapirs, may be due to a change in the general colour of their coats; but whether this change was effected through sexual or natural selection, or was due to the direct action of the conditions of life, or to some other unknown cause, it is impossible to decide. An observation made by Mr. Sclater well illustrates our ignorance of the laws which regulate the appearance and disappearance of stripes; the species of Asinus which inhabit the Asiatic continent are destitute of stripes, not having even the cross shoulder-stripe, whilst those which inhabit Africa are conspicuously striped, with the partial exception of A. taeniopus, which has only the cross shoulder-stripe and generally some faint bars on the legs; and this species inhabits the almost intermediate region of Upper Egypt and Abyssinia. (44. ‘Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1862, p. 164. See, also, Dr. Hartmann, ‘Ann. d. Landw.’ Bd. xliii. s. 222.)

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