THUD! A book is slapped shut. This is often the reaction that can be observed from many a bibliophage who has not already been introduced to the ‘bookworm’. The book had probably been sitting on the shelf for a long time, awaiting the attention of the owner. But what could have triggered this reaction?

Once in a while, the odd book is picked up to be read before retiring for the day. The sudden appearance of a little critter scares one enough to react in this manner. The book is reopened with a lot of trepidation to check the result of this act, stemming from the fear of the unknown. Once the page has been located, the eyes quickly scan the page. A hitherto non-existent blotch (the remains of the creature that was) on the page brings a smile to the face – the creature has been vanquished! The reading continues until one falls into slumber.

Before reacting so aggressively, do we even think what this little fellow was doing in a book, of all places? Perhaps never.

The `bookworm’ I am referring to is a silverfish. Silverfish is a misnomer. It is not a fish as the name suggests, but a primitive insect; possibly the silver colour of the body gave the silverfish its name. Silverfish, a wingless insect with long antennae, is nocturnal. The presence of 3 tails at the other end of its body is very characteristic.

But why a book? This question has bothered me for long.

The answer probably lies in the fact that silverfish thrive on a diet that is rich in carbohydrates. A quick look around the house will probably help us identify several items that match this criterion. Books, particularly old ones, find their way to the list easily. I say old books here because of the paste used in book binding those days, which was made with maida (bleached wheat flour), a good source of carbohydrates. Paper too can add to their nutritional requirement. This perhaps explains the clean holes drilled through several pages of old books.

In the natural world, many predators are also prey. Silverfish are devoured by earwigs and possibly tiny spiders too. They may also end up being food to other small creatures. These primitive animals have a complicated ritual as part of their mating process, with the female silverfish producing several whitish, oval eggs at a time, at the end. The nymphs are whitish in colour, and look like small adults. They shed their skin as they grow and become silvery adults.

The silverfish is perhaps amongst the most ancient insects on earth; they have been around even before dinosaurs came into being! The experience of the various vagaries that earth has gone through has made the silverfish very resilient – they can survive without food for a whole year. Their lifespan itself lasts 3-6 years.

But then, that also brings us to the question: what did silverfish do before paper was invented and books were made? The answer – they survived by feeding on plant matter.

Even today, in their natural environment, they can be seen under the bark of trees and amidst leaf litter, where they toil away to decompose organic matter and help with recycling nutrients. However, in our homes, one is likely to see silverfish in attics, bookshelves, closets, or for that matter, wherever it can find food and preferably humidity. In fact, if you encounter silverfish often, it may be an indication for you to check your home for issues that may stem from high moisture.

Now, as a mark of respect, would we want to revisit ‘that’ page to see the remains of the ancient critter that was only trying to recycle the books that we had left to gather dust?