“Kafka knew what buttons he was pushing”
What will be the last creature on Earth?
A cockroach expert answers
Three people, one big question. In this edition: apocalypse critters.
Richard Schweid is a Barcelona-based documentarian from Nashville. The writer first got interested in the Periplaneta americana when he was living in Texas in 1994, forced to do nightly battle with American cockroaches as long as your middle finger. He was so moved by the gnarly immortal critters that he wrote a book about them: The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore. To tie in with Season 01: THE BIG BANG, TOPIA asked Richard: What will be the last creature on Earth? This is his case for the cockroach.
Richard Schweid‘s 3-minute noodles
“Cockroaches are an evolutionary success story designed to last. They were here millions of years before we were, and will be here millions of years after we’re gone, making their homes everywhere from New York City to the remotest jungle. They were here before the age of dinosaurs, crawling and creeping as long ago as 325 million B.C., making themselves at home on the planet even before it broke up into continents, when it was still one unbroken landmass. All the other species of insect fossils discovered from that time period are extinct, but roaches are far from it. They have carried on through ice ages, comet collisions and mass extinctions.
They dine on damn well near anything. Unlike the naked mole rat, with its delicate vegetarian palate, or the tardigrade with its specialised feeding tube, cockroaches are true omnivores. They will dine on their own young, human or animal excrement and garbage. They find the flesh, fingernails and eyelashes of dead or living humans quite tasty. They’ll gladly consume the glue used to bind pages into books, then they’ll eat the pages as well. I’m pretty certain that cockroaches would find naked mole-rat to be delicious. Post-apocalypse conditions may be dire, but it is likely that cockroaches won’t have any trouble finding something they can eat. Theirs is a simple, straightforward biological system.
Cockroaches have more friends than a social media addict and keep them a lot closer. Imagining that we are packed into a small, dark space with lots of cockroaches touching us on all sides is downright nightmarish, but there’s nothing a roach likes better. Unlike us, sitting alone in our rooms staring at a screen, roaches want to be really close to each other, close enough to touch They are happiest when they are surrounded by a bunch of other roaches huddled tightly around them. This behaviour is called ‘positive thigmotaxis’ and will serve them well when all hell breaks loose.
They can survive atomic blasts. Cockroaches were reported to have survived the atomic bomb devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Researchers have found them to be far more resistant to the effects of radiation than people and most other animals.
They are experts at laying low. Cockroaches and humans may spend their entire lives living as close to each other as the width of a wall, but most of the time we don’t even know they are there. They live in their own world, huddled close together during daylight hours, going out to feed at night. Unless we come into the kitchen and turn on the light late at night, we’re not likely to even see one. Should we spot a roach during the day it’s a bad sign because it means their colony contains so many roaches that there’s no room left.
Their capacity to mutate is as good as it gets. It far outstrips anything we can imagine for ourselves, even if we employ the highest tech at our disposal. Not only do they readily mutate, but thousands of species have been identified around the world, and thousands more remain to be discovered. The late, great cockroach entomologist Lou Roth, opened his own mail in his tiny Harvard office. Envelopes often came from far away with a dead cockroach inside for him to identify. Many times he was the first entomologist to ever see whatever cockroach was in that envelope, and he identified over 350 previously unknown species. In fact, if humans disappear, the vast majority of roach species won’t even know we’re gone, because they never knew we were on earth in the first place.
They regrow body parts. Cockroaches go through half a dozen moults in their lives, regenerating new, bigger, and better bodies with each moult. If a cockroach loses a leg, or breaks an antenna, when it next moults it will re-grow the missing part. They have such a simple, straightforward design that big American cockroaches, often euphemistically referred to as waterbugs, have long been favorite animals to take apart for both their size and abundance. Many a biology student has learned dissection skills by cutting up cockroach bodies.
Humans are domestic cockroaches’s greatest threat. Cockroaches have plenty of predators, including birds, lizards, and rats, but the greatest threat to them comes from us. When we wipe ourselves off the face of the planet the domestic roaches will have it a lot easier.
They mutate! Humans currently spend vast sums of money trying to develop effective methods of killing them. Even so, when an effective poison is found, the affected cockroaches often mutate and develop a resistance to it within a few generations. As we develop ever-more potent and lethal insecticides in this ancient battle, we could be doing more harm to ourselves than to the roaches as we may suffer lasting effects of long-term exposure to these chemicals. They are just plain hard to eradicate.
They have strict personal hygiene. Often during the course of a day, a roach will pass its antennae through its mouth to keep them finely tuned. A cockroach antenna has 147 segments, each with its specialised task devoted to a wide variety of senses including smells, sounds, reproductive behaviour, threat, and who knows what else, maybe even love. That’s the premise of Donald Harrington’s wonderful novel, The Cockroaches of Stay More. Unlike either the tardigrade or the naked mole-rat, cockroaches are iconic, showing up frequently in books and films. Franz Kafka knew what buttons he was pushing when he wrote The Metamorphosis.
Cockroaches can survive an atom-bomb. Tardigrades can withstand the vacuum of space. And naked mole-rats don’t age. Read more 3-MINUTE NOODLES, a regular series that asks three brilliant people one big question and gives them three minutes to rant.
What’s so good about this?
Are you curious about cockroaches’ amazing superpowers? While some species of these evolutionary superstars do plague our kitchens and restaurants, exacerbate our asthma and carry disease, our belief in their total villainy is misplaced. Check out Richard Schweid’s book The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore for more about the croton bug, aka waterbug, aka apocalypse critter. And don’t even get us started on lichen, fungi or the mummichog fish.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the brain behind the world of TOPIA, and might not behave as good as gold, but thinks good is golden. The Barcelona-based founder, creative director and editor-in-chief of TOPIA has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. To understand how TOPIA really came about, read Mind Blown, because: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”