Ancient insect in a modern world: Silverfish, Lepismatidae

Ancient insect in a modern world: Silverfish, Lepismatidae

 

In the wild, shining silvery scales mark the presence of a silverfish amongst the leaf-litter of the forest floor.

In the wild, shining silvery scales mark the presence of a silverfish amongst the leaf-litter of the forest floor.

 

This week let’s time travel a little bit. Not the teeny, across the centuries travels Claire Fraser undertakes in Outlander. Nah, let’s journey back hundreds of millions of years long before T. rex walked the earth to the ancient origins of insects. In times when giant tree ferns ruled earth’s forests, primordial relatives of silverfish, the Triassomachilidae, foraged for starchy remains of plants on the verdant forest floor. Now fast forward several hundred million years to last Tuesday, when a handsome silverfish appeared at 6:10 am on the bathroom wall. With ancient decaying tree ferns conspicuously absent from my home, I wondered what delicacies silverfish discover inside a residential dwelling.

Among the most ancient of insects are the silverfish. On rare occasions I am graced by their presence early in the morning on my bathroom wall or maybe in the sink. My catch and release policy ensures they can find more natural surroundings when I release them outdoors.

Actually, we share many carbohydrate-rich food sources with plants found at the time of the world’s first silverfish. Modern food on the silverfishes’ menu include those high in starchy materials such as the cellulose found in paper goods and glue, the kind you were told not to eat in first grade, the glue that binds pages of books together. It is not surprising then, that some species of silverfish are important pests in libraries and museums where starchy materials abound. Other tasty treats for silverfish include natural fabrics such as linen, silk, and cotton, cereals, preserved meat, and dead insects, including other silverfish. Of course, in the geological time scale, frame houses are a fairly recent contrivance and typical natural habitats for silverfish are decaying logs and leaf litter, caves and crevices, and, for some species, ant nests.

When they are not on the wall, sometimes they are in the sink.

When they are not on the wall, sometimes they are in the sink.

The name silverfish was coined in part from the silvery scales found on the insect’s exoskeleton. The “fish” part apparently refers to the resemblance of the silverfish’s scales to those of fish. If you find silverfish scurrying around your home and wonder about the source, have a close look in dark, damp corners of the basement or other places where books or garments might be stored. Infested books or clothing can be placed in plastic bags and deposited in a freezer for a few days to kill attendant silverfish. Silverfish also thrive in conditions of high humidity and dehumidifiers placed in damp rooms may help reduce the suitability of these locations for silverfish. Removing clutter, storing books and garments in airtight containers, and vacuuming closets and storage areas will also help reduce populations of silverfish and other nuisance pests around the home. So, where is the wellspring for my silverfish? Well, just beneath my bathroom floor lies a pantry used to store paper goods and other household items. Sometimes it is a bit musty and maybe it could use a more regular visit with a vacuum. But, I have to admit, there is something remarkable about a morning greeting by a creature older than dinosaurs. I usually just catch these old timers in a paper cup, warn them to socially distance especially when predators are near, and release them in the wild.  

Acknowledgements

To learn more about silverfish, please check out the fascinating fact sheet “Common name: silverfish, scientific name: Lepisma saccharina Linnaeus (Insecta: Zygentoma: Lepismatidae), Introduction – Distribution – Description – Life Stages and Biology – Hosts – Economic Importance – Survey and Detection – Management – Selected References” by Eleanor F. Phillips and Jennifer L. Gillett-Kaufman. It can be found at this link: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/URBAN/silverfish.HTM

This post appeared first on Bug of the Week

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