Heterolepisma sp., copyright Graeme Smith.

Belongs within: Zygentoma.

The Lepismatidae are a group of silverfish in which the body is covered with scales (Smith & Watson 1991). Members of the subfamily Heterolepismatinae have a collar of setae around the front of the pronotum (Mendes & Poinar 2008).

All that is silver is not fish
Published 28 August 2016
Common silverfish Lepisma saccharina, copyright Christian Fischer.

The insects are deservedly recognised as one of the most successful groups of organisms on the planet. Thanks in no small part to their unlocking the ability of flight, insects can be seen today in almost every part of the planet above sea level. But not all insects, of course, are flighted; many remain firmly on the ground. A large proportion of these are the descendents of flighted ancestors that returned to a terrestrial existence but there are also some whose ancestors never took to the skies. For most people, the most familiar of these original land-huggers are likely to be the silverfish of the family Lepismatidae.

Silverfish are long-bodied insects with a covering of reflective scales—hence the ‘silver’ part of their name. The ‘fish’ part probably refers to the manner of their movement; speaking from my own experience collecting them, these buggers move fast, slipping along the ground like a silver minnow. There are over 250 known species of Lepismatidae (Mendes 2002); probably many more remain to be described. They comprise over half the known species of the insect order Zygentoma (sometimes referred to as the Thysanura though most current entomologists tend to avoid that name due to its previous history referring to a now-obsolete grouping of the Zygentoma with the superficially similar Archaeognatha); the other families in the order are commonly subterranean and less commonly encountered by the average person. The highest diversity of silverfish occurs in tropical and subtropical parts of the world, particularly in arid or semi-arid regions. Adaptations of the rectal epithelium allow silverfish to absorb moisture straight from the atmosphere (or, to put it another way, they drink through their butt), making them ideally suited to tolerating the dryness of deserts. They are also suited to tolerating the relatively dry habitats offered by the interiors of human houses and several species have become our associates (in cooler parts of the world, these synathropic species are often the only lepismatids around). These include the common silverfish Lepisma saccharina and the giant silverfish Ctenolepisma longicaudata. The firebrat Thermobia domestica is a colourfully patterned human associate that likes it particularly warm; it is usually restricted to places like the backs of stoves or alongside hot-water cylinders where it can find the heat it craves. Being detritivores (that is, they feed on dust), human-associated silverfish are usually quite innocuous though they may cause problems if their numbers get too high or if they get into stored foodstuffs.

Firebrat Thermobia domestica, copyright David R. Madison.

In areas where they are native, silverfish may be quite diverse. Watson & Irish (1998) conducted a study of an area of the Namib Desert that was home to eight different species of silverfish. They found a tendency for the species to differ in their preferred microhabitat within the area: some were restricted to the upper parts of the sand dunes dominating the region, others were restricted to the rocky hollows separating the dunes. Those found in rocky lower zones resembled the familiar human-associated species (indeed, they included members of the same genus as the giant silverfish, Ctenolepisma) in being elongate and slender. In contrast, those species found higher in the dunes themselves were shorter and more flattened with well-developed spines covering the legs. These features allowed the dune silverfish to effectively ‘swim’ through the sand, using the spines on the legs to dig about and their flattened form to slip between grains.

Systematics of Lepismatidae
    |  i. s.: Leucolepisma arenaria Wall 1954F90
    |         Stylifera gigantea Escherich 1905F90
    |         Mirolepisma deserticola Silvestri 1938F90
    |         Lepismodes inquilinusSW91
    |         Onycholepisma arizonaeMP08
    |         PeliolepismaRD77
    |         Lampropholis burmiticus Cockerell 1917P92
    |--Acrotelsa Escherich 1905W39 [AcrotelsatinaeMP08]
    |    `--A. collaris (Fabricius 1793) [incl. Lepisma mucronata Packard 1873]F90
    |--Lepismatinae [Ctenolepismatidae]MP08
    |    |--ParacrotelsaMP08
    |    |--Tricholepisma Paclt 1967MP08
    |    |--Afrolepisma Mendes 1981MP08
    |    |--Neoasterolepisma Mendes 1988MP08
    |    |--Lepitrochisma Mendes 1988MP08
    |    |--Burmalepisma Mendes & Poinar 2008MP08
    |    |    `--*B. cretacicum Mendes & Poinar 2008MP08
    |    |--Xenolepisma Mendes 1981MP08
    |    |    `--X. penangiSE12
    |    |--Allacrotelsa Silvestri 1934W39
    |    |    |--A. burmiticaR02
    |    |    |--A. dubiaR02
    |    |    `--A. spinulata (Packard 1873) [incl. Stachisma mexicana Wygodzinsky 1949]F90
    |    |--Lepisma Linnaeus 1758W39
    |    |    |--*L. saccharina Linnaeus 1758W39
    |    |    |--L. lineataSJ92
    |    |    |--L. niveofasciataG89
    |    |    `--L. terrestris Linnaeus 1758L58
    |    |--MormismaMP08
    |    |--Acrotelsella Silvestri 1934W39
    |    |    |--A. devriesiana (Silvestri 1908) [=Acrotelsa devriesiana]W39
    |    |    |    |--A. d. devriesianaW39
    |    |    |    |--A. d. perspinataW39 [=Acrotelsa devriesiana perspinataNR26]
    |    |    |    `--A. d. westralis (Nicholls & Richardson 1925)W39 [=Acrotelsa westralisNR26]
    |    |    |--A. escherichi Womersley 1939W39
    |    |    |--A. producta (Escherich 1905) [=Acrotelsa producta]W39
    |    |    |--A. silvestri Womersley 1939W39
    |    |    `--A. splendens (Nicholls & Richardson 1925) (see below for synonymy)W39
    |    |--Thermobia Bergroth 1890W39
    |    |    |--T. campbelli (Barnhart 1951)F90
    |    |    `--T. domestica (Packard 1873)SC17, F90 [incl. Thermophila furnorum Rovelli 1889W39]
    |    `--Ctenolepisma Escherich 1905W39
    |         |--C. burmanicaMP08
    |         |--C. ciliata (Dufour 1831)F90
    |         |--C. diversisquamis Silvestri 1908 [incl. C. reducta Folsom 1923]F90
    |         |--C. lineataRS10
    |         |    |--C. l. lineataF90
    |         |    `--C. l. pilifera (Lucas 1840) (see below for synonymy)F90
    |         |--C. longicaudata Escherich 1905 [incl. C. urbana Slabaugh 1940]F90
    |         |--C. targionii (Grassi & Rovelli 1889)F90
    |         `--C. terebransC90
         |--Anisolepisma Paclt 1967MC13, S13
         |    `--*A. hartmeyeri (Silvestri 1908) [=Heterolepisma hartmeyeri]S13
         `--Heterolepisma Escherich 1905 [incl. Isolepisma Escherich 1905, Notolepisma Tillyard 1924]S13
              |--*H. pampeana (Silvestri 1902) [=Lepisma pampeana]S13
              |--H. andina (Silvestri 1902) [=Lepisma andina]S13
              |--H. annectans (Silvestri 1924)S13
              |--H. bisetosa (Carpenter 1916)S13
              |--H. dispar Uchida 1944S13
              |--H. exacta (Silvestri 1918)S13
              |--H. horni Stach 1933S13
              |--H. howensis Womersley 1942S13
              |--H. insularis (Banks 1901)S13
              |--H. japonica (Uchida 1968)S13
              |--H. kraepelini Silvestri 1908S13
              |--H. michaelseni Silvestri 1908S13
              |--H. mossambicensis Mendes 1993S13
              |--H. parva Smith 2013S13
              |--H. primafra (Silvestri 1949)S13
              |--H. rouxi (Silvestri 1915)S13
              |--H. serranoi Mendes 2011S13
              |--H. stilivarians Silvestri 1908S13
              |--H. trisetosa (Escherich 1905) [=*Isolepisma trisetosa]S13
              `--H. zealandica (Tillyard 1924) [=*Notolepisma zealandica]S13

Acrotelsella splendens (Nicholls & Richardson 1925) [=Acrotelsa splendens; incl. Acrotelsella producta var. pacifica Silvestri 1934, Acrotelsella producta var. procedens Silvestri 1934]W39

Ctenolepisma lineata pilifera (Lucas 1840) [incl. Lepisma quadriseriata Packard 1873, L. reticulata Schött 1897, L. rubroviolacea Schött 1897]F90

*Type species of generic name indicated


[C90] Crawford, C. S. 1990. Scorpiones, Solifugae, and associated desert taxa. In: Dindal, D. L. (ed.) Soil Biology Guide pp. 421–475. John Wiley & Sones: New York.

[F90] Ferguson, L. M. 1990. Insecta: Microcoryphia and Thysanura. In: Dindal, D. L. (ed.) Soil Biology Guide pp. 935–949. John Wiley & Sones: New York.

[G89] Gestro, R. 1889. Viaggio ab Assab nel Mar Rosso dei signori G. Doria ed O. Beccari con il R. Avviso “Esploratore” dal 16 Novembre 1879 al 26 Febbraio 1880.—IV. Coleotteri. Annali del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova, Serie 2a, 7: 5–72.

[L58] Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema Naturae per Regna Tria Naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Laurentii Salvii: Holmiae.

[MC13] Majer, J. D., S. K. Callan, K. Edwards, N. R. Gunawardene & C. K. Taylor. 2013. Baseline survey of the terrestrial invertebrate fauna of Barrow Island. Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 83: 13–112.

Mendes, L. F. 2002. Taxonomy of Zygentoma and Microcoryphia: historical overview, present status and goals for the new millennium. Pedobiologia 46: 225–233.

[MP08] Mendes, L. F., & G. O. Poinar. 2008. A new fossil silverfish (Zygentoma: Insecta) in Mesozoic Burmese amber. European Journal of Soil Biology 44: 491–494.

[NR26] Nicholls, G. E., & K. E. Richardson. 1926. A description of two new species of Acrotelsa. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia 12 (15): 133–140.

[P92] Poinar, G. O., Jr. 1992. Life in Amber. Stanford University Press: Stanford.

[R02] Rasnitsyn, A. P. 2002. Subclass Lepismatona Latreille, 1804. The wingless insects (=Thysanura Latreille 1796, s. l.) In: Rasnitsyn, A. P., & D. L. J. Quicke (eds) History of Insects pp. 69–74. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht.

[RS10] Regier, J. C., J. W. Shultz, A. Zwick, A. Hussey, B. Ball, R. Wetzer, J. W. Martin & C. W. Cunningham. 2010. Arthropod relationships revealed by phylogenomic analysis of nuclear protein-coding sequences. Nature 463: 1079–1083.

[RD77] Richards, O. W., & R. G. Davies. 1977. Imms’ General Textbook of Entomology 10th ed. vol. 2. Classification and Biology. Chapman and Hall: London.

[SJ92] Schlegel, H. G., & H. W. Jannasch. 1992. Prokaryotes and their habitats. In: Balows, A., H. G. Trüper, M. Dworkin, W. Harder & K.-H. Schleifer (eds) The Prokaryotes: A handbook on the biology of bacteria: Ecophysiology, isolation, identification, applications 2nd ed. vol. 1 pp. 75–125. Springer-Verlag: New York.

[SC17] Schwentner, M., D. J. Combosch, J. P. Nelson & G. Giribet. 2017. A phylogenomic solution to the origin of insects by resolving crustacean-hexapod relationships. Current Biology 27: 1818–1824.

[S13] Smith, G. 2013. A new species of Heterolepisma from Barrow Island (Zygentoma: Lepismatidae). Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 83: 229–240.

[SE12] Smith, G. B., S. M. Eberhard, G. Perina & T. Finston. 2012. New species of short range endemic troglobitic silverfish (Zygentoma: Nicoletiidae) from subterranean habitats in Western Australia’s semi-arid Pilbara region. Records of the Western Australian Museum 27 (2): 101–116.

[SW91] Smith, G. B., & J. A. L. Watson. 1991. Thysanura. Zygentoma (silverfish). In: CSIRO. The Insects of Australia: A textbook for students and research workers 2nd ed. vol. 1 pp. 275–278. Melbourne University Press: Carlton (Victoria).

Watson, R. T., & J. Irish. 1998. An introduction to the Lepismatidae (Thysanura: Insecta) of the Namib Desert sand dunes. Madoqua 15 (4): 285–293.

[W39] Womersley, H. 1939. Primitive Insects of South Australia: Silverfish, springtails, and their allies. South Australian Branch of the British Science Guild: Adelaide.

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