60-Second Science

Old Book's Wormholes Show Geographic Origin

By measuring wormholes in ancient texts, researchers can identify the larval attackers and then limit the origin site for the individual book. Rose Eveleth reports

No matter how seldom you've opened that calculus textbook on your shelf, the chances of worms having eaten it are pretty low. But books written back in the Renaissance have had much better odds of becoming worm food. Now we know that the holes left by worms as they dine can be used as data. A study in the journal Biology Letters explains how. [Link to come.]

Researchers measured more than 3,000 wormholes in books and artwork created between 1462 to 1899. Based on hole size, they figured out that there were two main culprits: larvae of the Common Furniture Beetle and the Mediterranean Furniture Beetle.

Today both of those beetles are found all over Europe. But during the Renaissance the two beetle species were geographically isolated. It wasn't until we started shipping furniture that they crossed that divide.

Museums today keep insects away from their precious specimens. So researchers may be able to use the sizes of the wormholes in items of uncertain origin to identify their larval attackers. Which then offers clues about the item’s geographical history. Really gives a new meaning to the phrase “book worm.”

—Rose Eveleth

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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