Gradation of Secondary Sexual Characters.—Cases of gradation are important, as shewing us that highly complex ornaments may be acquired by small successive steps. In order to discover the actual steps by which the male of any existing bird has acquired his magnificent colours or other ornaments, we ought to behold the long line of his extinct progenitors; but this is obviously impossible. We may, however, generally gain a clue by comparing all the species of the same group, if it be a large one; for some of them will probably retain, at least partially, traces of their former characters. Instead of entering on tedious details respecting various groups, in which striking instances of gradation could be given, it seems the best plan to take one or two strongly marked cases, for instance that of the peacock, in order to see if light can be thrown on the steps by which this bird has become so splendidly decorated. The peacock is chiefly remarkable from the extraordinary length of his tail-coverts; the tail itself not being much elongated. The barbs along nearly the whole length of these feathers stand separate or are decomposed; but this is the case with the feathers of many species, and with some varieties of the domestic fowl and pigeon. The barbs coalesce towards the extremity of the shaft forming the oval disc or ocellus, which is certainly one of the most beautiful objects in the world. It consists of an iridescent, intensely blue, indented centre, surrounded by a rich green zone, this by a broad coppery-brown zone, and this by five other narrow zones of slightly different iridescent shades. A trifling character in the disc deserves notice; the barbs, for a space along one of the concentric zones are more or less destitute of their barbules, so that a part of the disc is surrounded by an almost transparent zone, which gives it a highly finished aspect. But I have elsewhere described an exactly analogous variation in the hackles of a sub-variety of the game-cock, in which the tips, having a metallic lustre, "are separated from the lower part of the feather by a symmetrically shaped transparent zone, composed of the naked portions of the barbs." The lower margin or base of the dark-blue centre of the ocellus is deeply indented on the line of the shaft. The surrounding zones likewise shew traces, as may be seen in the drawing (fig. 54), of indentations, or rather breaks. These indentations are common to the Indian and Javan peacocks (Pavo cristatus and P. muticus), and they seemed to deserve particular attention, as probably connected with the development of the ocellus; but for a long time I could not conjecture their meaning.
- 'Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,' vol. i. p. 254.