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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   [before 24 July 1873]1

Some months ago (vol. vii. p. 443) I sent you an extract from a letter from Mr. Hague, a geologist residing in California, who gave me a very curious account of the terrifying effect on the other ants of the sight of a few which he had killed on one of their paths.2 Mr. Traherne Moggridge saw this account in Nature, and wrote to me that he had heard from a gentleman who had lived in Australia that merely drawing a finger across the path deters ants from crossing the line.3

Mr. Moggridge tried this experiment with some ants a Mentone with similar effects. I therefore sent the letter to Mr. Hague, and asked him to observe whether his ants were alarmed by the smell left by the finger, or were really terrified by the sight of their dead and dying comrades. The case appears curious, as I believe no one has ever observed an invertebrate animal realising danger by seeing the corpses of a fellow species. It is indeed very doubtful whether the higher animals can draw any such inferences from the sight; but I believe that everyone who has had experience in trapping animals is convinced that individuals who have never been caught learn that a trap is dangerous by seeing others caught.

Here follows Mr. Hague’s letter, fully confirming his former statement.4

Charles Darwin


The date is established by the date of this letter’s publication in Nature.
The extract from James Duncan Hague’s letter of 26 February 1873 was published in Nature, 10 April 1873, p. 444 (see second letter to Nature, [before 3 April 1873]).
The letter from Moggridge has not been found.


Sends a letter from J. D. Hague confirming his earlier observation [see 8788] of frightened behaviour of ants when they come upon dead ants. CD had asked for confirmation because J. T. Moggridge had suggested that the ants’ behaviour was alarm at the scent of the observer’s fingers.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Nature, 24 July 1873, p. 244

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8985,” accessed on 25 November 2017,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21