Wondernose: What has three tails, looks like a fish, and lives in the kitchen?

by Rebecca Martin | Apr 1, 2022 | 0 comments

This is a real puzzler, Wondernose. To make our riddle even more puzzling, here are a few additional facts. Above all, our mystery animal likes to eat starchy things, such as flour or bread crumbs—or paste. Do you know where it will go to find lots of paste? Why, into books. Especially into the bindings, because paste is used to bind books. If you find an old book with a crumbly, useless binding, you may be sure that our mystery insect has been at work.

Oops, I gave you a hint there. Yes, our mystery animal is an insect—but some of the main characteristics of insects are missing. The World Book Encyclopedia states that an insect has three body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen. From looking at our insect, you might not notice those three parts, at least at first glance. It appears simply like one sleek body. The fact is, though, its abdomen has eleven segments.

The World Book also says that insects go through a metamorphosis—from egg to larva to pupa to adult. But our little insect looks like an adult immediately upon hatching. Instead of changing from larva to pupa as it grows, it simply molts up to thirty-five times. You know what molting is, Wondernose, don’t you? It’s when the insect’s skin becomes too tight and is shed.

Another way in which this insect is different from most others is the fact that it has no wings. I know, there are other wingless insects, but by far the greatest percentage of them do fly.

As the riddle has suggested, our insect resembles a fish, a tiny fish scurrying around on the kitchen floor! It even has scales. They’re so tiny that they come off like powder on your skin if you handle one of these insects.

Yes, Wondernose, that’s the answer to our riddle—silverfish. I’m sure you’ve seen one or two of these scuttling away, perhaps when you picked up a dirty sock that had been lying on the bathroom floor. The silverfish has only one thing in mind—to get away from the light as fast as it can. It hates light. Mostly it comes out after dark.

The silverfish also hates dryness. If it wants to stay alive, it must keep its body damp. So, in that respect, it also resembles a fish. Years ago, people didn’t even recognize these creatures as insects; they truly thought they must be related to fish. I guess that’s how they got their name.

Actually, silverfish belong to a whole group of insects called bristletails, of which there are about 350 kinds worldwide. That’s the feature they have in common—those two or three bristle-like “tails” at the back end.

Besides being hard on book bindings, bristletails also like to eat the paste off wallpaper. They sometimes damage certain fabrics as well. However, the damage they do is usually not widespread enough to call bristletails pests.

Maybe I’ve given you the impression that all bristletails live in houses. This is not the case. There are many damp, dark habitats for them outdoors as well, such as under logs or fallen trees. Some bristletails live in ant or termite nests.

Most bristletails are tiny—less than a quarter of an inch long. At the very longest, they are an inch long, though I’ve never seen a silverfish that size. I hope I never do.

Another fairly common type of bristletail is called the firebrat. Take a guess why it has that name, Wondernose! Correct—firebrats like warm places. They can be found near stoves or boilers or chimneys. Firebrats are white rather than silver in color, with a few dark spots. On the whole, I’d say they don’t look as “fishy” as the silverfish.

Silverfish. Photo © Dreamstime.com.

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