Look out! It’s a cockroach

Geetha Iyer

“The study of roaches may lack the aesthetic values of bird-watching and the glamour of space flight, but nonetheless it would seem to be one of the more worthwhile of human activities.”H.E. Evans – Life on a Little Known Planet

Looking out for cockroaches is one activity humans indulge in to ensure that they do not invade our living space. Despite the best of our efforts, cockroaches have the upper hand and effortlessly enter spaces occupied by humans. Which then raises a question: have we really studied the cockroach or just ‘watched’ it long enough to squash or spray it? The escape response of the cockroach has been clocked at 40 milliseconds (a millisecond is one-thousandth of a second), no wonder they get away from many of us easily!

cockroach Cockroaches are studied in our biology classes. They are the chosen examples in the middle to high schools for studying insects or when permitted, for performing dissection. The latter mentioned activity is no longer a part of school curriculum, but most of today’s biology teachers would remember dissecting cockroaches to study their systems. Has all this made us any the wiser about the cockroach?

There are about 5000 species of cockroaches found worldwide, of which only 1 per cent are pests. The rest live away from human habitations and are ecologically important creatures of their habitats. As we are familiar only with the pest species we think of them only with disgust. How different are they?

Cryptocercus sp is a cockroach found in montane forests that is capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Many cockroaches found in tropical areas harbour methanogenic bacteria in their hindgut and hence emit methane. Would they be contributing to climate change then? A question to ponder in the biology class. A study in 1997 found that in the lowland forests of Borneo, cockroaches were the main pollinators of the plant species found in the understorey. It is believed that in tropical forests there might be a variety of ecological relationship between plants and cockroaches. Epilampra irmleri found in the forests of Central Amazon is responsible for the consumption of 6 per cent of the annual leaf litter. L N Anisyutkin, a Russian entomologist believes that from an evolutionary point, the cockroach species of South India and Sri Lanka may represent possible links between the fauna of Gondwana and Laurasia.

The author is a consultant for science and environment education. She can be reached at scopsowl@gmail.com.

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