THIRD JOURNEY

In the far-extending wilds of Guiana the traveller will be astonished at the immense quantity of ants which he perceives on the ground and in the trees. They have nests in the branches four or five times as large as that of the rook; and they have a covered way from them to the ground. In this covered way thousands are perpetually passing and repassing; and if you destroy part of it, they turn to and immediately repair it.

Other species of ants again have no covered way, but travel exposed to view upon the surface of the earth. You will sometimes see a string of these ants a mile long, each carrying in its mouth, to its nest, a green leaf the size of a sixpence. It is wonderful to observe the order in which they move, and with what pains and labour they surmount the obstructions of the path.

The ants have their enemies as well as the rest of animated nature. Amongst the foremost of these stand the three species of ant-bears. The smallest is not much larger than a rat; the next is nearly the size of a fox; and the third a stout and powerful animal, measuring about six feet from the snout to the end of the tail. He is the most inoffensive of all animals, and never injures the property of man. He is chiefly found in the inmost recesses of the forest, and seems partial to the low and swampy parts near creeks, where the troely-tree grows. There he goes up and down in quest of ants, of which there is never the least scarcity; so that he soon obtains a sufficient supply of food with very little trouble. He cannot travel fast; man is superior to him in speed. Without swiftness to enable him to escape from his enemies, without teeth, the possession of which would assist him in self-defence, and without the power of burrowing in the ground, by which he might conceal himself from his pursuers, he still is capable of ranging through these wilds in perfect safety; nor does he fear the fatal pressure of the serpent's fold or the teeth of the famished jaguar. Nature has formed his fore-legs wonderfully thick and strong and muscular, and armed his feet with three tremendous sharp and crooked claws. Whenever he seizes an animal with these formidable weapons he hugs it close to his body, and keeps it there till it dies through pressure or through want of food. Nor does the ant-bear, in the meantime, suffer much from loss of aliment, as it is a well-known fact that he can go longer without food than, perhaps, any other animal, except the land-tortoise. His skin is of a texture that perfectly resists the bite of a dog; his hinder-parts are protected by thick and shaggy hair, while his immense tail is large enough to cover his whole body.

The Indians have a great dread of coming in contact with the ant-bear and, after disabling him in the chase, never think of approaching him till he be quite dead. It is perhaps on account of this caution that naturalists have never yet given to the world a true and correct drawing of this singular animal, or described the peculiar position of his fore-feet when he walks or stands. If, in taking a drawing from a dead ant-bear, you judge of the position in which he stands from that of all other terrestrial animals, the sloth excepted, you will be in error. Examine only a figure of this animal in books of natural history, or inspect a stuffed specimen in the best museums, and you will see that the fore-claws are just in the same forward attitude as those of a dog, or a common bear when he walks or stands. But this is a distorted and unnatural position, and in life would be a painful and intolerable attitude for the ant-bear. The length and curve of his claws cannot admit of such a position. When he walks or stands his feet have somewhat the appearance of a club-hand. He goes entirely on the outer side of his fore-feet, which are quite bent inwards, the claws collected into a point, and going under the foot. In this position he is quite at ease, while his long claws are disposed of in a manner to render them harmless to him and are prevented from becoming dull and worn, like those of the dog, which would inevitably be the case did their points come in actual contact with the ground; for his claws have not that retractile power which is given to animals of the feline species, by which they are enabled to preserve the sharpness of their claws on the most flinty path. A slight inspection of the fore-feet of the ant-bear will immediately convince you of the mistake artists and naturalists have fallen into by putting his fore-feet in the same position as those of other quadrupeds, for you will perceive that the whole outer side of his foot is not only deprived of hair, but is hard and callous: proof positive of its being in perpetual contact with the ground. Now, on the contrary, the inner side of the bottom of his foot is soft and rather hairy.

There is another singularity in the anatomy of the ant-bear, I believe as yet unnoticed in the page of natural history. He has two very large glands situated below the root of the tongue. From these is emitted a glutinous liquid, with which his long tongue is lubricated when he puts it into the ants' nests. These glands are of the same substance as those found in the lower jaw of the woodpecker. The secretion from them, when wet, is very clammy and adhesive, but on being dried it loses these qualities, and you can pulverise it betwixt your finger and thumb; so that in dissection, if any of it has got upon the fur of the animal or the feathers of the bird, allow it to dry there, and then it may be removed without leaving the least stain behind.