From Deep Look.
What *is* that bizarre fishlike thing squirming in your sink at night? Firebrats and silverfish are pretty darn similar to some of the earliest insects on Earth. With three long filaments poking out their back, no wings and mini-me babies, they have something to teach us about survival.
DEEP LOOK is an ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.
Look closely at the firebrat munching on cereal in your kitchen or getting cozy in a pile of newspapers. You’ll see traits some of the earliest insects had around 400 million years ago.
Take its three tail-looking filaments. The two outer ones are called cerci. They work like antennae, detecting chemicals and predators like house centipedes.
Other insects, like cockroaches, have a short pair of cerci. But very few insects have the middle filament that firebrats and silverfish possess. Called the median caudal filament, it has tiny hairs that can detect the faintest air currents.
— What do firebrats eat?
Cereal, spices and books – both the pages and the glue in the binding. Only a handful of the 500 to 600 species of firebrats and silverfish live with us. In nature, they feed on leaves, stems, needles and bark.
“And they will also eat, well, each other,” said entomologist Art Appel from Auburn University.
— Are firebrats dangerous?
No, they don’t bite or sting.
— What is the difference between silverfish and firebrats?
Silverfish generally prefer cooler parts of the house, while firebrats are drawn to warmer corners, like a water heater – hence their name.
— Does evolution have a goal?
When you look at a firebrat, with its ancient traits, you might wonder why it hasn’t changed to be more like other insects. For example, when insects developed wings around 325 million years ago this led to an explosion in insect diversity. So why did firebrats remain wingless, like the earliest insects?
“When we see a creature that looks pretty similar to things that were probably living 400 million years ago, we think, ‘Why isn’t that creature doing a better job of being modern?’” said Sandra Schachat, a doctoral student who researches insect evolution at Stanford University. “But the way that evolution works is that it doesn’t really have an optimum that things are being driven towards. You don’t need to be the most abundant species in your habitat in order to survive. You only need to be abundant enough that you can maintain some kind of population over time.”
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