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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   24 April 1870

Swanzy’s Factory | Accra

April 24. ’70

My dear Sir

I enclose a specimen of the insect I mentioned to you in my last letter.1 It carries as you see a number of dead ants on its back. The specimen was taken from the charred end of a trunk of a tree which had fallen across the path & had been burnt in two— There were various chinks & crevices in the charred part of the tree (ie its inner part or heart) & there they resided. Their load being composed completely of black ants assimilated them to their habitat. The “imitation” was almost perfect—

On the upper part of the trunk I found one; but this one had something (a seed or a ball of clay) of brown colour on its back, perhaps to assimilate it to the colour of the tree.

The first I ever saw were near Falaba (200 miles NE of Sierra Leone). They lived in the crevices of a clay hillock. They had sometimes an ant but usually brown leaves on them; I also found one in a path near here, which had no ants, but a morsel of dead leaf—

I kept the enclosed alive with others for some days. When the load is taken off very gently one can see that it is attached to the posterior segment of the body the surface of which I think is slightly hollowed, by a substance resembling a spiders web. In one large specimen (which escaped) I had the load dangling by this thread the true nature of which I cd. not discern, not having a lens here. The enclosed died of its own accord.

The insect left to itself soon puts it on again; examining it first, it passes in front of it takes it up with the tip of one hind leg & puts it on its back, & then uses both of the hindermost legs to adjust it properly reminding me forcibly of a native woman “fixing” her child in the usual seat behind her back. It is not particular about taking up the same load; but the first that comes. A big one will often take the load off a small one’s back.

On one occasion removing a load I left the insect by itself in the box with nothing but a pellet of paper as enclosed. It put it on. I then put in some of the dead ants &c. It put them on, but did not take off the paper. I then removed all together; separated the paper, & the ants, and the insect resumed not only the ants, but also the paper showing that animals will not only use new material when the old one cannot be procured but having once used that new material may continue to use it (however incongruous & under ordinary circumstances unfit for the purpose) after the necessity for so using it is passed. I say “may” not “must”. A smaller one in the box at the same time preferred remaining naked till the ants were restored; & when the enclosed insect was stripped again (by another, person) it did not again put on the paper. That is why you do not see it there. It is possible that the load will come off in the letter but you will at all events see the materials.

When I put small ants in the box they went up to the insect without suspicion which seized it with its fore feet & killed it slowly, & clumsily. In one case I saw it pass the ants to its hind foot as if to put it on its back, but did not do so. The movement of the insect is by no means speedy; it has a nodding motion when it walks like “a coach on springs” as a lady cleverly remarked in reference to a Manti out here, whose gait is precisely similar—(Letters from Sierra Leone Murray).2

I have not been able to get any information about these insects from the natives. I shall make such arrangements here that they can be procured, if ordered.

I have been here at Akropong German mission 1500 ft above sea-level for a fortnight, and go off tomorrow to spend a few days with a German missionary who has lived in his station near the banks of the Volta, for 20 years3 & is therefore pretty well up in the natives of those parts which are sharply divided from these here; who belong to the same family as the Ashantis & are uncircumcised; the others are circumcised & belong to the Dahomy family—4 It is therefore a good place for observation, and I hope to get something for you. I shall write to you again before I leave here which will be in June to go up to the Confluence of the Niger if I can get a passage.

I hope you are in good health & that the great work is progressing. I have been smoking too much, eating too much and reading too much—faults of the Germans. Perhaps I am, like the enclosed, “assimilating” myself to my present habitat

I remain | Yours very truly | Winwood Reade


See letter from W. W. Reade, [c. 8 or 9 April 1870].
Reade refers to a passage on a praying mantis in Elizabeth Helen Melville’s A residence at Sierra Leone ([Melville] 1849, p. 217). [Melville] 1849 was published by John Murray.
The missionary has not been identified.
The Ashanti are an ethnic group who are the principal inhabitants of the Ashanti region of present-day Ghana; the Dahomey, or Fon, are the largest ethnic group in Benin, formerly known as Dahomey (Columbia gazetteer of the world).


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

[Melville, Elizabeth Helen.] 1849. A residence at Sierra Leone: described from a journal kept on the spot, and from letters written to friends at home by a lady. Edited by Caroline Sheridan Norton. London: J. Murray.


Sends insect that carries dead ants, dead leaves, etc., on its back, as protective imitation.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 37
Physical description
ALS 4pp, CD note

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7172,” accessed on 4 March 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18