Wormholes — made by actual worms in wood, not gravitational forces in space — are a key to the past. These holes are where beetles lay their young, in trees, furniture, and even great works of art.. And now scientists say the wormholes in ancient paintings reveal the movements of insect species hundreds of years ago.
Many old wood prints show the characteristic signs of burrowing damage. Insects would burrow out from the woodblocks where the prints were carved, leaving holes in the print. Since these prints are usually dated and come from a known location, any time the insect that caused the damage can be identified, we are able to figure out where and when they were active.
Biologist Blair Hedges has identified the insects that caused most of these "trace fossils" in Europe as two species, both of which coexist in modern Europe. However, over the past 500 years, there was a much more significant north-south divide between the two. In southern Europe, he found larger wormholes than in the north.
In a release, Hedges explained:
"The northern European wormholes most likely were made by the Common Furniture Beetle, Anobium punctatum. The wormholes in southern Europe most likely were made by the Mediterranean Furniture Beetle, Oligomerus ptilinoides."
For centuries, these two species stayed on separate sides of Europe, and it's only the last 100 years of mobility and traffic that led to the current distribution of the species.
This technique can not only tell us where insects were in the past, but could potentially be used to help identify the time and place of origin of art of otherwise unknown provenance. All from tiny little holes in prints and woodblocks.
Image: Renaissance woodcut art print, The Rich Man by Cornelis Anthonisz (1541), showing printed wormholes. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.