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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 2

Wormholes in Woodblock Prints Can Solve Mysteries in Art and Science

Wormholes in art trace species through time
woodblock, print, art print, wormhole



RIJKSMUSEUM, AMSTERDAM

Wormholes aren't just for time travel or teleportation anymore. Some very real and ancient wormholes are now helping to trace the distribution of insect species and artwork.

A biologist found himself in the unlikely world of centuries-old European woodblock print art. There he discovered that many of the small imperfections in the prints could be identified and traced back to specific species of bugs that had burrowed through the surface of the original woodblock before the print was made. By matching the scientist, Blair Hedges, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, has been able to paint a historic record of wood-boring beetle distribution across Europe—patterns that had previously been unknown. He published his findings in February in the journal Biology Letters.

Hedges has nicknamed these telltale traces the “wormhole record.” Adult beetles lay eggs in the crannies of a piece of wood. Once the larvae hatch, they slowly descend into the wood, spending three or four years living there and feasting on the cellulose. After these wormlike larvae transform into adult beetles, they burrow out of the wood, creating the holes that have textured so many woodblock prints.

The scientist studied 3,263 wormholes visible in 473 different prints made between 1462 and 1899. He found that there were two distinct sizes of holes: some were 2.3 millimeters across, and others were closer to 1.4 millimeters wide. And there was a distinct pattern of these hole sizes across the European continent: all the smaller holes were found on prints made in the northeast, and the larger holes came from the southwest. He was then able to deduce the species of each beetle: the common furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum) in the northeast and the Mediterranean furniture beetle (Oligomerus ptilinoides) in the southwest. Hedge's print-based method could help examine wood-boring species' distribution and historical ranges throughout the world, thus indicating changes in local populations and arrival times of invasive species. The technique might also help solve some art-world mysteries, such as the origins of a book or print.

This article was originally published with the title "Boring Beetles."

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