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Cockroaches are cool! : Short Wave

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You’re listening to SHORT WAVE…

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: …From NPR.

REBECCA RAMIREZ, HOST:

Hey, duderinos. It’s Rebecca Ramirez.

THOMAS LU, BYLINE: And me, Thomas Lu. Howdy, howdy.

RAMIREZ: So, T. Lu, what you got for us today?

LU: Right. Rebecca, tell me. Do you know what alien life form leaves a green spectral trail?

RAMIREZ: Oh, wait. Don’t tell me. It was on Final Jeopardy last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “MEN IN BLACK”)

TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Kay) Zed, we have a bug.

RAMIREZ: Is that “Men In Black”? You just love a man in a suit.

LU: You know me so well, Rebecca, but not the men in black specifically. I want to talk about a misunderstood, wildly underappreciated character.

RAMIREZ: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “MEN IN BLACK”)

JONES: (As Kay) Bugs thrive on carnage, Tiger. They consume, infest, destroy, live off…

RAMIREZ: Oh, my God. Thomas, do you want to talk about the villain?

LU: You bet I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “MEN IN BLACK”)

JONES: (As Kay) Imagine a giant cockroach with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex and a real short temper is tear-assing around Manhattan Island.

LU: So today on the show, it’s another round of Fact Smack…

PERRY BEASLEY-HALL: My Twitter bio maybe does mention that I’m a lesbian cockroach defender.

LU: …Where we give the stage to one researcher to tell us why their critter is simply the best.

BEASLEY-HALL: Cockroaches get an immensely bad rap. When we tend to think of roaches more generally, we’ll imagine pest species that are unhygienic, invading our houses and eating all of our food. But these animals perform some really amazing services for our ecosystems, and they have a whole amazing variety of things like biodiversity, life history traits, evolutionary history, even.

RAMIREZ: We’ll talk all things roach and why one researcher thinks we should give this often hated, seldom understood little creature some more love, which I disagree with.

LU: Plus a quick detour about an insect many of us are familiar with but may not know are highly specialized roaches.

RAMIREZ: You’re listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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RAMIREZ: OK, Thomas Lu. I do not love cockroaches. I’m only doing this episode ’cause I love you.

LU: Aw.

RAMIREZ: So let’s just get right to it. Cockroaches – what’s the deal?

LU: That’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard all day. So, Rebecca.

RAMIREZ: Yes.

LU: Let me add to that. Cockroaches are everywhere.

BEASLEY-HALL: We know that cockroaches occur on basically every continent in the world, except Antarctica, as far as I know. And they also occur in almost every habitat you can think of, with the exception of a lot of aquatic habitats. So you can find cockroaches in desert environments, in alpine habitats or even in rainforests.

LU: So that’s Perry Beasley-Hall.

RAMIREZ: Our lesbian cockroach defender.

LU: Yes, that’s her. Perry is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. And she tells me that there are about 5,000 known species of cockroaches around the world.

BEASLEY-HALL: That might actually go up to 10,000 when we consider ones that just don’t have names yet and haven’t been studied.

RAMIREZ: Thomas, my skin is crawling. (Laughter) Like, this is not a good sell of roaches. I have to be honest. You’re just like, yeah, that bug you hate – there’s thousands of them.

LU: Rebecca, what do you have against them? I mean, they’re just minding their own business and going about their day just like you and me.

RAMIREZ: Yeah. But, Thomas, they’re gross and they’re pests.

LU: Whatever. No.

RAMIREZ: Yes.

LU: At least not – no, not all of them, OK? Perry tells me that of the 10,000 possible roaches out there, only 30 are considered pests to humans…

RAMIREZ: OK.

LU: …Which is less than 1% of cockroaches.

RAMIREZ: Fine.

LU: They can be up to 2 inches long.

BEASLEY-HALL: But they can also be very small. And that’s part of the reason they’re really good at living in houses – right? – because they can get into small spaces, small crevices, things like that.

LU: So in the U.S., you know, we generally come into contact with a handful of those pest species, a common one being the American cockroach.

RAMIREZ: Oh, yeah. I am unfortunately well acquainted with those. Those are the fast, brownish, oval-looking ones, right?

LU: Oh, my God. You sound like you’re best friends.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter).

LU: But, yes, Rebecca, you just described the general shape of many of the world’s known cockroaches, pests and non-pests like. Here. Perry puts it this way.

BEASLEY-HALL: Cockroaches are dorsoventrally compressed. They’re flat like a pancake. And that is the case for every cockroach species pretty much that you’ll ever see. So I tend to avoid making generalizations about these guys, but that’s certainly true. They also have their head directed downwards almost all the time, so it essentially means that the first segment of their body acts like a shield protecting the head.

LU: And many of them even have wings.

BEASLEY-HALL: When they do have wings, they have a really unique adaptation that their hind wings that cover their full wings are actually leathery and hard. So it means that when they lay them flat against their body, they’ll act like a bit of a shield.

LU: And it’s this flattish body and hard exoskeleton that allows cockroaches, like the American cockroach, to withstand 300 to 900 times their body weight.

RAMIREZ: Oh, wow.

LU: Some species might even roll up into a ball to protect themselves from predators.

RAMIREZ: Stop. Are you telling me I might not be able to squish them? That’s, like, my one power over them, Thomas.

LU: Well, yes, yes, yes. You know, you can definitely squish them if you use enough force.

RAMIREZ: Oh, I will.

LU: I mean, we squish roaches all the time. It’s just amazing how much weight their bodies can withstand relative to their size, which, you know, actually makes them really interesting to study. Like a couple years ago, researchers were looking into the American cockroach’s body structure and their ability to compress to see if they can build robots that can be used in search and rescue missions.

RAMIREZ: So while you’re doing all this reframing for me, I have another hang-up.

LU: OK. What is this?

RAMIREZ: I’ve just – I’ve heard that they’re actually pretty clean, which is reassuring, but I still think that they’re pretty gross. It’s like a mental block that I have.

LU: So, yeah, this really does depend on the species and our own framing of them.

BEASLEY-HALL: The rest of cockroaches that aren’t pests that are actually really helpful, beautiful and beneficial.

LU: So cockroaches in the wild – the 99% of roaches – Perry says really play an ecological role as, you know, recyclers. Take the Australian burrowing cockroach, for example.

BEASLEY-HALL: And this particular group is responsible for actually recycling things like leaf litter, twigs and seeds and really reducing things like fuel load for bushfires that we might have.

RAMIREZ: Oh, well, I do love that it sounds like they’re little environmentalists.

LU: Yeah, isn’t that sweet? And they’re basically, you know, helping fertilize the soil around them by releasing nutrients like nitrogen and making it available to the plants in their environment. And by the way, the Australian burrowing cockroach is one of the biggest cockroaches currently known, coming in about, you know, 3 inches and up to 30 grams, or about an ounce.

RAMIREZ: It’s like a little certified big boy right there…

LU: Right.

RAMIREZ: …In insect terms.

LU: Exactly, exactly.

RAMIREZ: You know, Thomas, on the other hand, when we think about the pest cockroaches in our homes or in the city – you know, that, like, less than 1% you were talking about – it seems like they’re not likely recycling the environment in the same way, right?

LU: Right. Sure. Sure, sure. Yeah. So they’ve adapted to scavenging scraps that humans leave behind, going from one unsanitary location to another. So, you know, we start to associate them with garbage and uncleanliness. And here’s where it gets a little bit complicated. Roaches can pick up pathogens from their environment. Their droppings can contain bacteria that can make people sick, and roaches can also trigger asthma and exacerbate allergies. But interestingly, though, Perry says they’re also big groomers.

BEASLEY-HALL: When you think of these guys in isolation, they’re much cleaner than a lot of other animals would be. You know, I love dogs and cats as much as the next person.

(LAUGHTER)

BEASLEY-HALL: But I would say that insects are probably far more fastidious…

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