The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
by Edward Blyth
(The Magazine of Natural History   Vol. 8. No. 1.  1835)

There is one fact, however, here to be observed, which is very well worthy of attention; and this is, that coloured varieties appear to have been chiefly produced in hot countries; which seems almost to induce the conclusion that they were originally efforts of nature, to enable the skin to withstand the scorching produced by exposure to the burning rays of a tropical sun.10  How far the structural peculiarities of the Negro and other races may not, in some cases, be the effects of breed, it would be impossible, perhaps, now to ascertain, and would be worse than presumption, in a novice like myself, to try to determine.
   Wherever a black individual was produced, especially among rude nations, if the breed was continued at all, the natural aversion it would certainly inspire would soon cause it to become isolated, and, before long, would, most probably, compel the race to seek for refuge in emigration.  That no example, however, of the first production of a black variety has been recorded, may be ascribed to various causes; it may have only taken place once since the creation of the human race, and that once in a horde of tropical barbarians remote from the then centres of comparative civilisation, where no sort of record would have been preserved.  But it is highly probable that analogous-born varieties may have given rise to the Mongolian, Malay, and certain others of the more diverse races of mankind; nay, we may even suppose that, in some cases, the difference, in the first instance, was much greater, and was considerably modified by the intermixture which must have taken place in the first generations.
   The mixed offspring of two different varieties of man thus generally blends the characters of each; though instances are not wanting of its entirely resembling (like the mixed produce of an ancon sheep) either one or the other of its parents; but in this case (as in the albino) the perfect characters of the other parent frequently show themselves in the next generation. I am entering, however, into a wide field, already well trodden by many philosophers; and the subject is already probably pretty well understood by the great majority of readers.  Those who are not so familiar with it, will find it ably treated in various works; especially in Dr. Pritchard's work on man, and in the published Lectures on the Natural History of Man, by Lawrence: some sound and excellent remarks on varieties will also be found in the second volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology.

Still, however, it may not be impertinent to remark here, that, as in the brute creation, by a wise provision, the typical characters of a species are, in a state of nature, preserved by those individuals chiefly propagating, whose organisation is the most perfect, and which, consequently, by their superior energy and physical powers, are enabled to vanquish and drive away the weak and sickly, so in the human race degeneration is, in great measure, prevented by the innate and natural preference which, and this is the principal and is always given to the most comely main reason why the varieties which are produced in savage tribes, must generally either become extinct in the first generation, or, if propagated, would most likely be left to themselves, and so become the origin of a new race; and in this we see an adequate cause for the obscurity in which the origin of different races is involved.
   In a civilised state of society there are other inducements, besides personal attractions, and a new variety in this case, unless very outre indeed, would be gradually merged, and in a few generations would disappear entirely by intermixture with the common race.  The inferior animals appear not to have the slightest predilection for superior personal appearance; the most dissimilar varieties of the same species mix as freely and readily together as the most typical individuals; the most powerful alone becomes the favourite. Instances of this are not rare in the breeds of dogs.

The above is confessedly a hasty and imperfect sketch, a mere approximation towards an apt classification of "varieties", but if it chance to meet the eye, and be fortunate enough to engage the attention, of any experienced naturalist, who shall think it worth his while to follow up the subject, and produce a better arrangement of these diversities, my object in indicting the present article will be amply recompensed.
   Here, however, I may observe, that the classification I have proposed for specific deviations in the animal creation, is equally applicable to those of the vegetable.  The "varieties" in both are strictly analogous.


I come now to the second division of my subject, which is to point out some periodical and other changes of appearance, which naturally take place in various British animals, and which do not constitute varieties.  Among our native Mammalia, I know of three principal modes whereby a change of colour is brought about; namely, an actual shedding of the coat; a partial shedding of the coat; and an actual change of colour in the coat itself.

  1. As an example of change of appearance produced by actual shedding of the coat, may be instanced the fallow deer (Cervus dama), whose white spots disappear with the annual casting of its coat in autumn.
  2. Partial shedding of the coat takes place in those animals which acquire in autumn a covering of two different kinds: one long, downy, and warm, which is shed in spring; the other short and glossy, which is retained.  This change of appearance is exemplified in the common water shrew (Sorex fodiens), the short summer coat of which is much blacker than the longer downy covering which conceals this in winter.
       In this little animal the additional winter coat is shed about the latter end of March, or beginning of April; and does not take place uniformly, but progressively, beginning on the head, and ceasing at the hinder extremities; and exhibiting in its progress, throughout, a well-defined line of separation.  Animals which (as the British Mustelinae) have two sorts of fur, the shorter of which is the more warm and downy, do not undergo this change, but retain both sorts throughout the year. In these the young have only one kind, which is close and woolly. as is well exemplified in the common polecat (Putorius furc), the young of which are of a very uniform dark brown, and very unlike the old animals.
  3. Actual change of colour in the coat itself is exhibited in the appearance of the fallow deer's white spots in spring, and in the case of the mountain hare (Lepus variabilis), which is in summer grey, adapted to the hue of the lichens on which it squats; and in winter white, hardly to be discerned upon the snow.  The same change also takes place in the stoat or ermine (Putorius ermineus), although this is doubted by Mr. Berry [VII, 591].11
       In mild winters, such as we have of late experienced in the South of England, but few of the stoats become white, and some of these not until the latter part of the season.  The change takes place quickly, but not uniformly, the animal assuming for a short time a pied appearance; but I have not succeeded in ascertaining whether it is accelerated by sudden cold, as the animals are not always to be seen exactly when we want them.  One perfectly changed, however, was seen in this neighbourhood soon after the one or two days of very cold weather in the beginning of last October.  In reference to Mr. Berry's communication, I may observe, that in many dozens of stoats which I have seen in summer, I have never yet seen a white one; whereas in winter, I have seen in the same neighbourhoods a considerable number of white stoats.  Where the climate is excessive, and the transitions of the seasons are more sudden, this change is much more likely to take place generally.  In the fur countries, the ermine's change of hue is, I believe, most regular.
There has been, strangely enough, a difference of opinion among naturalists, as to whether these seasonal changes of colour were intended by Providence as an adaptation to change of temperature, or as a means of preserving the various species from the observation of their foes, by adapting their hues to the colour of the surface; against which latter opinion it has been plausibly enough argued, that "nature provides for the preyer as well as for the prey."12  The fact is, they answer both purposes; and they are among those striking instances of design, which so clearly and forcibly attest the existence of an omniscient great First Cause.
   Experiment demonstrates the soundness of the first opinion; and sufficient proof can be adduced to show that the other is also sound.  Some arctic species are white, which have no enemy to fear, as the polar bear, the gyrfalcon, the arctic eagle-owl, the snowy owl, and even the stoat; and therefore, in these, the whiteness can only be to preserve the temperature of their bodies [VI, 79]; but when we perceive that the colour of nocturnal animals, and of those defenceless species whose habits lead them to be much exposed, especially to enemies from above, are invariably of the same colour with their respective natural haunts, we can only presume that this is because they should not appear too conspicuous to their enemies.  Thus, in the eloquent language of Mr. Mudie, who, however, advocates the first opinion, "the ptarmigan is lichen rock in summer, hoar frost in autumn, and snow in winter.  Grouse are brown heather, black game are peat bank and shingle, and partridges are clods and withered stalks, all the year round."13
   So, also, on the Continent, the common red-legged partridge (Erythropus vulgaris) is of the colour of the gravelly and sandy soils on which it is found.  So, also, are the different larks, the common quail, the various snipes, and all the other ground squatters, of the hue of their peculiar localities.  So, also, are the numerous small Grallatores which haunt the margin of the ocean, adapted to the colour of the sand.  So, also, are those sylvan birds, which quit the dense umbrage of healthy growing trees, to seek their food and expose themselves on bare trunks and leafless decaying branches, of the hue of their particular haunts.  "So exquisitely are they fitted for their office," says Mr. Mudie, "that the several woodpeckers vary in tint with the general colours of the trees which they select.  If it is an alternation of green moss, yellow lichen, and ruby tinted cups, with here and there a spot of black, then the green woodpecker comes in charge; but if it is the black and white lichens of the alpine forest or the harshjuiced tree, then we may look for the spotted races upon the bark."14  The wryneck is the colour of the lichened branch; and the night swallow and the owls resemble their peculiar places of concealment. So, also, the gayer colours of nocturnal moths are always on the hinder wings,15 and the anterior, which, when they rest, conceal these, are adapted to the hues of the various places where by day they are found: even the bright upper wings of the tiger moths (Arctia caja, and A. villica) are with difficulty recognised upon a lichened bank or paling.16  It is curious, indeed, the resemblance which subsists between the colours of nocturnal birds and night Lepidoptera; the buff tip moth (Pygaera bucsyhala) thus reminds us of the barn owl (Strix vulgaris); and the goat moth (Cossus ligniperda), and a host of others, are similar in their tints to most of the Strigidae: in both cases they are doubtless intended for the same purpose, that of concealment.

It would indeed be easy to extend this list of examples considerably further, but I shall only now mention the common hare, which, when in form, would hardly ever be seen were it not for its brilliant eye; if its eye were closed, which it probably was before its quick sense of hearing had warned it of our approach, it would almost always, perhaps, wholly escape our observation.  This ever continued watchfulness must have given rise to the supposition, that the hare always sleeps with its eyes open.
   Seeing, therefore, so many most striking adaptations of colour to haunt, in cases where the concealment thus afforded can be the only purpose, I think it is not too much to infer, that the changes of colour in many arctic animals were intended by Providence for the double purpose of preserving their bodily heat, and of enabling them to elude the observation of their enemies.  Certain it is, that their conspicuousness would otherwise expose them to inevitable destruction.  If I had here space, I could satisfactorily prove that the high-flying Falconidae can, in most cases, only perceive their prey when it is moving; just, as on the seashore, we can only distinguish sanderlings when they move.
   Small Mammalia which frequent open situations are rarely much abroad, except in the twilight; and ground-feeding birds are ever on the watch, and even the smaller kinds (as I have repeatedly observed) can perceive a hovering falcon long before it comes within the sphere of human vision; and they instantly flee to shelter, or they crouch, and lying motionless, so exactly resemble a portion of the surface, that even a hawk's eye cannot distinguish them.  Why should the falcon race be endowed with such wonderful powers of enduring hunger and fatigue, if, as is said, at the elevations at which they soar, they can clearly distinguish every living object scattered over the wide expanse beneath them?  It is only on such animals as are off their guard that they descend; or otherwise, food being so abundant, they would soon multiply to the extirpation of their prey; which, of course, would be very speedily followed by that of the preyer.

How beautifully do we thus perceive, as in a thousand other instances, the balance of nature preserved: and even here we see another reason why sickly or degenerate animals (those, I mean, which are less able to maintain the necessary vigilance) must soon disappear; and why the slightest deviation from the natural hue must generally prove fatal to the animal.  How different, thus, are even simple variations from the seasonal changes of colour which naturally take place!  Properly followed up, this subject might lead to some highly interesting and important results.
   It certainly points to the conclusion, that every, even the slightest, tint and marking has some decided use, and is intimately connected with the habits and welfare of the animal; and it also furnishes a satisfactory reason, why closely allied animals (or, in other words, animals of very similar form and habits) should so very commonly nearly resemble each other in their colours and in the general character of their markings.


10.   See Dr. Stark "on the influence of colour on heat and odours," in Jameson's Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for July
        1834; also Professor Powell's reply to it, in the number for October 1834.
11.   This gentleman should have mentioned, in his account of the white stoats seen in summer, whether the tail was white
        or black.  If the former, they were doubtless albinos; if the latter, some constitutional debility may have prevented
        them from resuming their natural hues.  I have seen white stoats late in March, but never after this.  Both in these and
        in the white ferret (a domestic albino variation of the polecat) a decided tinge of yellow is always more or less noticeable.
12.   See Dr. Stark's paper, before cited, in Jameson's Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for July 1834.
13.   See Mudie's Feathered Tribes of the British Islands, Vol. 1, p. 50.
14.   Ibid., Vol.l, p.190.
15.   Among day-flying Lepidoptera, the more gaudy colours are usually on the fore wings.
16.   Animals of bright and gaudy colours are generally very retiring in their habits: even the common robin mostly turns away
        his breast as you approach.

Editing note:  Because the original text is so dense (paragraphs of half a page or more in length are not uncommon) I have introduced additional paragraph breaks and 'white space' to make it easier to read - on a VDU or in hard copy.  Other than that the text is unedited.

Go to other sections
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 2 - The Mystery Begins
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 4 - He Who Hesitates ...
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 9 - ... Father to the Man
Part 10 - Mr Wallace, Mr Blyth ...
Part 11 - ... and 'Mr' Lyell
Part 12 - The Final Frontier
Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1
Appendix H - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2
Appendix I - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix J - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4