Bristletail vs Silverfish: Uncovering the Key Differences

Bristletail and silverfish are two types of insects that often cause confusion due to their similar appearance. Both insects belong to the ancient order Thysanura and can be frequently found in our homes. However, there are key differences between them that set them apart.

Silverfish, scientifically known as Lepisma saccharina, are small, wingless insects with a silvery appearance. Their bodies are covered in scales, giving them a unique fish-like look. They are known for wreaking havoc in homes by eating various items, such as paper, clothing, and pantry goods.

On the other hand, bristletails, such as the firebrat (Thermobia domestica), have a different coloration, ranging from light gray to dark brown. Similar to silverfish, bristletails are also wingless, possess elongated bodies, and have three long, tail-like appendages at the end of their abdomen. The firebrat, in particular, prefers warmer environments, usually near sources of heat like ovens or furnaces.

Bristletail vs Silverfish

Physical Characteristics

Bristletails and silverfish are both wingless insects with flattened bodies. They share some similar features, such as:

  • Long antennae at the front of their head
  • Three long bristle-like tails at the end of their body

However, there are some differences in their appearance. For example, silverfish are typically silver or gray in color, while bristletails can vary in color.

Feature Bristletail Silverfish
Color Varies (brown, gray, etc) Silver or gray
Body shape Flattened Flattened
Antennae Long Long
Tails 3 bristle-like 3 bristle-like

Species and Family

Both silverfish and bristletails belong to the insect order Thysanura. There are various species within each group, like the Lepisma saccharina, Ctenolepisma longicaudata, and Ctenolepisma quadriseriata for silverfish, and Thermobia domestica for firebrats, a type of bristletail.

Environment and Habitat

Bristletails and silverfish differ in their preferred environments. While both can be found indoors, silverfish are usually found in cool, damp, dark places, such as basements or bathrooms. Bristletails, on the other hand, prefer warmer, more humid areas.

Behavior and Movements

These insects are nocturnal, scavenging for food at night. They both feed on a variety of items, such as stored foods, paper, and other household materials. Their movements are known to be swift, with a wiggle-like motion. The primary difference in behavior is their habitat preferences, as mentioned earlier.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Starch Consumption

Bristletails and silverfish consume various sources of starch. For example:

  • Paper: Both insects feed on cellulose found in paper products.
  • Starchy foods: Bristletails and silverfish are attracted to common household items like flour, cereal, and other starches.

These insects thrive in moist and humid environments. They are more active in areas with high humidity and consume starches to obtain energy.

Algae, Fungi, and Lichens

Bristletails and silverfish consume other organic materials, like:

These organisms provide essential nutrients, such as proteins, sugar, and cellulose.

Impact on Human Environments

Bristletails and silverfish can cause damage in homes. For example:

  • Property damage: Feeding on paper and other organic materials can lead to damage.
  • Dust: Their feeding habits can contribute to dust in humid environments.
  • Firebrats: A close relative of silverfish, firebrats thrive in warmer temperatures and can be found in areas near heat sources.
Bristletail Silverfish
Starch
Paper
Moist environments
Humidity
Algae
Fungi
Lichens
Dust production
Property damage
Firebrats Related species Related species

Pros of bristletails and silverfish:

  • Help break down organic materials

Cons of bristletails and silverfish:

  • Can cause property damage
  • Contribute to dust in the home
  • Certain species (firebrats) can pose potential fire hazards

Pest Control and Prevention

Identifying Infestations

Bristletails and silverfish are both pests that can infest homes. To identify an infestation, look for these characteristics:

  • Silverfish: Silver-gray, teardrop-shaped body, with three long tail-like appendages at the hind end
  • Bristletails: Similar appearance to silverfish, often brown or reddish-brown

Both can be found in moist areas, like basements, bathrooms, and kitchens. They feed on algae, fungi, and other organic material.

Prevention Measures

Preventing these pests involves managing moisture and sealing up entry points:

  • Use a dehumidifier to reduce humidity levels
  • Fix leaks and seal cracks and crevices
  • Store food in tightly sealed containers
  • Keep basements clean and clutter-free

Natural Predators

Some natural predators can help control bristletail and silverfish populations:

  • Spiders
  • Centipedes

Encouraging these predators’ presence in your home can help keep infestations at bay.

Professional Extermination

If infestations persist, consider professional extermination. Exterminators may use methods such as:

  • Diatomaceous earth: A natural, abrasive powder that damages pests’ exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate and die
  • Boric acid: A chemical pesticide toxic to insects, killing them through ingestion or contact
Method Pros Cons
Diatomaceous Earth Natural, non-toxic for humans/pets Less effective in humid environments
Boric Acid Effective at killing pests Toxic to humans and pets in high doses

Remember not to use exaggerated claims or make false promises when discussing pest control methods.

Impact on Human Environments

Damage to Books and Paper Goods

Bristletails and silverfish can cause significant damage to paper goods, such as books and wallpaper. Both insects are attracted to starchy substances found in glue, which makes books and old books particularly vulnerable. They can also damage textiles and-cardboard.

  • Bristletails: More commonly found in outdoor environments
  • Silverfish: Often found indoors, especially on bookshelves and in damp areas

Kitchen and Bathroom Incidents

Both insects can often be found in kitchens and bathrooms. Silverfish, in particular, are drawn to damp areas such as water pipes. To prevent these pests from infesting your home, keep these areas:

  1. Clean
  2. Dry
  3. Free of food debris

Proper maintenance of kitchens and bathrooms can significantly reduce the occurrence of bristletails and silverfish.

Insect Kitchen Presence Bathroom Presence
Bristletail Less frequent Less frequent
Silverfish Common Common

Allergens and Health Implications

While bristletails and silverfish are not known for spreading diseases or being dangerous, they do leave behind feces that can contribute to allergens. Vacuuming regularly can help reduce allergens in your home. Although they may resemble earwigs, neither insect poses a direct threat to human health.

To recap, here are some characteristics of bristletails and silverfish:

  • Bristletails:
    • More common outdoors
    • Less likely to cause damage in kitchens and bathrooms
  • Silverfish:
    • More common indoors
    • Likely to cause damage to books, wallpaper, and textiles
    • Often found in damp environments, such as kitchens and bathrooms

Interesting Facts and Biology

The Ancient and Unique Lineage

Silverfish and jumping bristletails belong to two different insect orders, Thysanura and Archaeognatha, respectively. Both groups form part of the wingless insects’ subclass called Apterygota. These ancient insects have existed since the Late Devonian period, around 360 million years ago, demonstrating their well-adapted survival skills.

Development and Evolution

These insects exhibit ametabolous development, meaning they don’t undergo complete metamorphosis. Instead, they grow by molting, gradually increasing in size and maturity. This primitive mode of growth displays their ancient lineage within the Hexapod class.

Silverfish:

  • North American species
  • Found in warm, damp environments such as bathrooms
  • Feeds on organic matter

Jumping Bristletails:

  • Belongs to the family Machilidae
  • Known for their jumping ability
  • Mottled, camouflaging body patterns

Wingless Insects

Silverfish and bristletails are wingless insects with elongated, flattened bodies. Both have distinctive features, such as threadlike, lengthy antennae and scale-covered bodies.

Comparison table

Feature / Species Silverfish Jumping Bristletail
Order Thysanura Archaeognatha
Family Lepismatidae Machilidae
Insect group Apterygota Apterygota
Body shape Flattened Flattened
Antennae Long, threadlike Long, threadlike
Scales Yes Yes

Mysterious Movements

Silverfish and bristletails have unique locomotion methods. Silverfish wiggle their bodies in a fish-like manner, hence the name. On the other hand, bristletails boast a jumping ability, propelling their bodies for a short distance with astonishing force. Their distinct movement patterns and behavior make them intriguing subjects within the insect world.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Hello I live in England and I was hoping you could help me work out what the bugs I have in my lavatory are .They are small brown ,worm like and they move by slithering along the floor they remind me of silverfish the way they move but are the wrong colour.
thankyou
Angela Thompson

Hi Angela,
Firebrats are close relatives of Silverfish and are brownish in color. They prefer warm areas, and might be attracted to the heat in your bathroom. They are similar in habits to the silverfish, and are also household pests that feed on starchy substances like book bindings, starched clothing and wall paper paste.

Letter 2 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

These little things are ratherr shiny, jump great lengths compared to their size. The one in the picture is about 1/4 inch long – I’ve seen them up to about 1/2 inch. We had the house fumigated for termites 8 weeks ago; these were among the earliest re-entrant critters. Can you identify this thing?
Thanks, … Al

Dear Al,
You have a Jumping Bristletail, Family Meinertellidae. They are related to silverfish and are found in leaf litter and in old stone walls. Some species invade houses. Most species are nocturnal, abhor light and are secretive in their habits.

Letter 3 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Are the legs of the silverfish poisonous? I highly doubt they are, but my father in law claims they are.
Thanks,
Colin

Dear Colin,
No the legs of silverfish are not poisonous.

Letter 4 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Dear What’s that Bug,
Last night in yoga class, while doing a spinal twist, I spotted a silverfish darting across the floorboards very near my mat. I broke my pose, grabbed a purple foam block, and squished the silverfish, leaving its mutilated body on the gleaming hardwood floors. I have two questions. First of all, is it bad karma to kill a bug in yoga class? Also, is there any way that I might bring an infestation back to my home?
Thank you,
Lethal Lotus

Dear Lethal Lotus,
Though we here at What’s That Bug? are not practicing Buddhists, we are aware that it is a Zen canon to think of ourselves as one with the universe, and that includes silverfish. Can’t we all just get along? Was the silverfish harming you in any way? I would strongly suggest that you do some karmic retribution.
Regarding your second question, to which former HomeBody of the Month Miss Swanlund will strongly attest, once silverfish become naturalized, they are nearly impossible for even the cleanest homemaker to eradicate. The silverfish themselves do not ascribe to the Zen way of life, hence they are interested in overrunning homes and eating books with little thought of how this might affect the human tenants. War is war. Silverfish are notorious for seeking out cramped quarters and crevices, especially those of the dark moist variety. It is entirely possible to transport one of the wily critters on your person, especially if it should somehow find itself in an environment not conducive to its needs, like a brightly lit room full of contorted bodies where the odds of getting squished are high. It is also possible that one of your fellow yoga enthusiasts transported the victim of your brutal attack, and its siblings, to the site of your encounter.

Letter 5 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Hi,
I was restiching a pair of pants yesterday when out crawled a strange looking bug. It startled me and frightened me because I hadn’t ever seen anything like it before. It was no longer than say 4-6 mm. It was basically yellow, but with other colors on it. It had 2 "thingies" trailing behind it. It was rather flat and narrow and moved fairly fast considering it’s size. I killed it so I’m going by a 5-10 second memory recall. The pants are made of 100% polyester, from Guatemala. I realize that I haven’t given you much to work with , but if you can identify it I’d be appreciative.
Thanks for your time,
Mrs. Irish

It sounds like the dreaded silverfish, a household pest which will devour any and everything in the house. Sadly, and much to our embarassment here at What’s That Bug?, the silverfish is our one big failure story. As much as we tried, it seems we could never figure out a way for Miss Swanlund, former Homebody of the Month, to eradicate the pestilence from her tiny and cozy Hollywood starlet apartment, forcing her to buy a home and leave many of her prized books and possessions behind.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Hello I live in England and I was hoping you could help me work out what the bugs I have in my lavatory are .They are small brown ,worm like and they move by slithering along the floor they remind me of silverfish the way they move but are the wrong colour.
thankyou
Angela Thompson

Hi Angela,
Firebrats are close relatives of Silverfish and are brownish in color. They prefer warm areas, and might be attracted to the heat in your bathroom. They are similar in habits to the silverfish, and are also household pests that feed on starchy substances like book bindings, starched clothing and wall paper paste.

Letter 2 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

These little things are ratherr shiny, jump great lengths compared to their size. The one in the picture is about 1/4 inch long – I’ve seen them up to about 1/2 inch. We had the house fumigated for termites 8 weeks ago; these were among the earliest re-entrant critters. Can you identify this thing?
Thanks, … Al

Dear Al,
You have a Jumping Bristletail, Family Meinertellidae. They are related to silverfish and are found in leaf litter and in old stone walls. Some species invade houses. Most species are nocturnal, abhor light and are secretive in their habits.

Letter 3 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Are the legs of the silverfish poisonous? I highly doubt they are, but my father in law claims they are.
Thanks,
Colin

Dear Colin,
No the legs of silverfish are not poisonous.

Letter 4 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Dear What’s that Bug,
Last night in yoga class, while doing a spinal twist, I spotted a silverfish darting across the floorboards very near my mat. I broke my pose, grabbed a purple foam block, and squished the silverfish, leaving its mutilated body on the gleaming hardwood floors. I have two questions. First of all, is it bad karma to kill a bug in yoga class? Also, is there any way that I might bring an infestation back to my home?
Thank you,
Lethal Lotus

Dear Lethal Lotus,
Though we here at What’s That Bug? are not practicing Buddhists, we are aware that it is a Zen canon to think of ourselves as one with the universe, and that includes silverfish. Can’t we all just get along? Was the silverfish harming you in any way? I would strongly suggest that you do some karmic retribution.
Regarding your second question, to which former HomeBody of the Month Miss Swanlund will strongly attest, once silverfish become naturalized, they are nearly impossible for even the cleanest homemaker to eradicate. The silverfish themselves do not ascribe to the Zen way of life, hence they are interested in overrunning homes and eating books with little thought of how this might affect the human tenants. War is war. Silverfish are notorious for seeking out cramped quarters and crevices, especially those of the dark moist variety. It is entirely possible to transport one of the wily critters on your person, especially if it should somehow find itself in an environment not conducive to its needs, like a brightly lit room full of contorted bodies where the odds of getting squished are high. It is also possible that one of your fellow yoga enthusiasts transported the victim of your brutal attack, and its siblings, to the site of your encounter.

Letter 5 – Silverfish, Bristletails and Firebrats

 

Hi,
I was restiching a pair of pants yesterday when out crawled a strange looking bug. It startled me and frightened me because I hadn’t ever seen anything like it before. It was no longer than say 4-6 mm. It was basically yellow, but with other colors on it. It had 2 "thingies" trailing behind it. It was rather flat and narrow and moved fairly fast considering it’s size. I killed it so I’m going by a 5-10 second memory recall. The pants are made of 100% polyester, from Guatemala. I realize that I haven’t given you much to work with , but if you can identify it I’d be appreciative.
Thanks for your time,
Mrs. Irish

It sounds like the dreaded silverfish, a household pest which will devour any and everything in the house. Sadly, and much to our embarassment here at What’s That Bug?, the silverfish is our one big failure story. As much as we tried, it seems we could never figure out a way for Miss Swanlund, former Homebody of the Month, to eradicate the pestilence from her tiny and cozy Hollywood starlet apartment, forcing her to buy a home and leave many of her prized books and possessions behind.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Authors

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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