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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/188

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184
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

to fly. Hudson states in his most interesting "Naturalist on the La Plata" that the common partridge of the pampas, when captured, "after a few violent struggles to escape drops its head, gasps two or three times, and to all appearances dies. If, when you have seen this, you release your hold, the eyes open instantly, and with startling suddenness and noise of wings, it is up and away and beyond your reach forever."

In mammals the instinct is so well shown in one of the lower members of the group, the opossum, that the expression "playing possum" is familiar to every one. Foxes when trapped or hard pressed often drop down limp and apparently lifeless and will even endure a good deal of maltreatment without making any response. Hudson records that he was "once riding with a gaucho when we saw, on the open level ground before us, a fox not yet fully grown standing still and watching our approach. All at once it dropped, and when we came up to the spot it was lying stretched out, with eyes closed, and apparently dead. Before passing on my companion, who said it was not the first time he had seen such a thing, lashed it vigorously with his whip for some moments, but without producing the slightest effect."

Mr. Morgan in his book on the beaver gives the following instance on what he assures us is excellent authority: "A fox one night entered the hen-house of a farmer, and after destroying a large number of fowls, gorged himself to such repletion that he could not pass out through the small aperture by which he had entered. The proprietor found him in the morning sprawled out upon the floor apparently dead from surfeit; and taking him up by the legs carried him out unsuspectingly, and for some distance to the side of his house, where he dropped him upon the grass. No sooner did Reynard find himself free than he sprang to his feet and made his escape." Dogs are frequently deceived by this ruse of the fox and doubtless foxes have many times owed their lives to its aid. It has been often noticed that if one withdraws from a fox when it is feigning it may be seen to slowly open its eyes, then raise its head and carefully look around to see if its foes are at a safe distance, and finally scamper off.

While in insects the instinct of feigning death is probably a simple reflex reaction to outer stimuli, it is doubtless associated in birds and especially mammals with a tolerably acute consciousness of the situation. It involves a more or less deliberate intention to profit by the deception, yet at the same time it is probably not a result of conscious reflection. The instinct is there, or else such a course of action would not occur to the animal's mind. Were it otherwise it would be difficult to understand why the ruse is adopted only by certain species while many others, equally intelligent and for whom it would be an equally advantageous stratagem never manifest it. There can be little doubt that a fox which slowly opens its eye and warily looks around is