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Pique ’n your interest

A fish tale




There are many things in this world which - as talk-show host Arsenio Hall annoyingly mused, finger-to-lips and, perhaps, once too often before his equal-opportunity gong show was mercifully laid to rest-make you go "hmmm..."

For me, these usually fall into the category of callous human actions, like: how it's possible for anyone in 2010 to leave empty bottles and cans in a shared public space like a disc golf course (you might know who you are, but since you clearly can't read, this subtle message is moot); the profound depth of absurdity in being handed stewardship of an unsustainable practice like old-growth logging, commensurate not with an ability to make a choice over the matter, but a proviso to continue in ignorance (you definitely know who you are); and the notion that blurbs on the cover of Oprah Magazine like "Don't change your body-change your jeans!" are somehow empowering (sadly, you have no idea who you are).

Now, you may be going "hmmm..." in realization that I managed to get all that off my chest before tipping my hat to the real point of this column, but here it is. Being well-familiar with the natural world as a biologist and occasional science journalist, seldom do I find myself pondering the more arcane wonders that gurgle up from nature's depths. For example, I know that certain frogs turn off their digestive juices, swallow their tadpoles, and raise the kids in their stomachs; I know that flamingos are pink because they eat shrimp, and; I know that although the sub-telomeric chromosomal DNA in booze-producing Saccharomyces yeasts is gene poor, repetitive, and transiently silenced, it evolves rapidly due to transposon activity, increased recombination and a surprising level of nucleotide divergence. What I have never known or understood, however, is the what, where, why and how of those miserable metallic commas you regularly encounter, in even the most fastidiously clean of abodes, bending surreptitiously around faucet handles and scuttling along countertops. So I put it to you here, the way Discovery channel would never dare: silverfish-WTF?

Indeed. These denizens of darkness, exclusively revealed when you flick on a light in the kitchen or bathroom, are always a surprise. Perhaps not the horrifying revelation of a rat, or the gross-out of cockroaches, but a surprise that nonetheless begs its fair share of questions: What is it doing here? Where did it come from? Does it bite? Is it the vanguard of an infestation? Should I call my strata? Not to mention the query perpetually on my mind: What's up with an animal that, as demonstrated by late-Carboniferous fossils, has been around in identical form for some 300,000,000 years but whose natural habitat seems to be my sink? The animal hasn't changed, but something is fishy. Hmmm...