There are many animals that have acquired what seem to be superpowers through their use in popular culture, despite the facts to the contrary. We see sharks as cold-blooded murderers lurking just out of sight at every beach, waiting for their moment to slash and bite – yet according to statistics from the CDC, cows murder more people per year. We see rats as scummy, conniving, and evil, often using their name as a slur for someone untrustworthy or wily – yet there is a growing population of rat-owners who are only too happy to point out that rats can be as clean and intelligent as many other pets, if not more so. And of course, the cockroach. Supposedly immortal, the cockroach is often portrayed as one of the few species that will continue to thrive long after we’ve all blown ourselves away with nukes. The difference is, for the most part this is true.
The average human can survive doses of radiation between 100 to 200 rads, the unit used to measure the severity of radiation, although they would still become ill. Two hundred to 1,000 rads will cause serious illness and the closer to 1,000 rads you get, the less likely you are to survive the experience. Enter the cockroach: in an experiment conducted by the Myth Busters, three groups of cockroaches were exposed to three different levels of radiation: 1,000 rads, which can kill a human being within 10 minutes; 10,000 rads, the level of radiation emitted by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during WWII; and 100,000 rads, which is crazy radioactive. After a month of exposure, 50% of the cockroaches in the 1,000 rad environment were still alive and well, and 10% of those in the 10,000 rad environment were still kicking. None of those in the 100,000 rad environment survived, but honestly I’m glad there’s a limit. These critters already make me feel bad for how easily I sunburn. They don’t need to be literally unkillable.
Because of their reputation for surviving one of humanity’s most powerful weapons, they’re sometimes portrayed as immense and terrifying beasts who take over the Earth long after we’re gone. In fact, in the animated Justice League series, there’s a two-episode story arc titled “Hereafter” where (SPOILER ALERT) Superman is transported to a possible future where humanity was wiped out. For some reason in this timeline, cockroaches took only a few thousand years to grow to the size of small houses.
This is particularly silly because one of the largest species of cockroach is the Madagascar Hisser, and they are known to get to a whopping 2-3 inches long. The transition between that and house-sized would be immensely difficult, especially for a roach. See, Hissers have exoskeletons that they have to molt out of multiple times before reaching maturity because chitin, the substance they’re made from, doesn’t grow with them. They’ll molt 7 times before they finish growing, and that’s when their final size is 2 inches. How many times would they molt before they cast a shadow on most suburban homes?
And then think about defense mechanisms. The Hisser is called such because it, you guessed it, hisses. Its only defense mechanism against predators is to breathe in a way that annoys its enemies. Admittedly, the males have horns which they use for territorial battles with other roaches and for mating displays, but that’s a far cry from the weaponized monstrosities you see above.
To contrast, some films use cockroaches as props to make a setting seem creepy or unclean. Part of this is likely our association with them living in places where humans don’t or can’t go, but I think it’s deeper than that. Ever since America deployed nuclear weapons against Japan, we’ve known cockroaches to be immensely resilient. I think that scares us. Humanity has always been preoccupied with the notion that we are specially adapted to make the most of our environment and, while most creatures in the animal kingdom need to adapt to survive in their environment, we have the capability to change our environment to suit us. So when we developed this potential planet-killer and found that such a supposedly lowly creature could withstand it far better than we could, it scared us.
I admit that these portrayals have had an effect on me. I find cockroaches and most other insects to be “creepy-crawly,” for lack of a better word. My supervisor, Aleisha, tried to get me to hold one of the Hissers housed here at WonderLab and I thought that I’d be able to handle it… yet I was physically incapable of reaching out to let it climb onto me. I usually tend to pride myself on self-awareness and on my ability to overcome problems that I’m able to name, but my fear of this tiny, quite harmless critter overcame that reasoning ability. I mean, I’m 6” tall, over 200 lbs – I’m not small or weak. It’s something that, for now, I’m just going to have to label as “irrational fear”.
They’re not even that hard to fathom, and have more in common with people than most would be willing to acknowledge. For example: they give live birth. The larvae will gestate within eggs, but the eggs hatch inside their mother. Once they do, the mother pushes them out of her body and the Hisser population grows by about 30-60.
These creatures we portray as nightmares and unclean are just another neighbor we have to deal with, whether we find them beautiful or creepy. And for those of us who take the latter approach, don’t worry: their resistance to radiation is put down to the small size and simplicity of their bodies rather than superpowers or the overwhelming malice required to make sure humanity dies first. It’s unlikely that any of us will have to go through what Superman and Vandal Savage once did.
Samuel Zlotnick is 23 years old and a self-described “scifi/fantasy geek”. Though his go-to fictional universe is Star Wars, Harry Potter has been a part of his life since childhood. He just began an internship at WonderLab in its Marketing/PR department which he feels will compliment his eventual Bachelor’s Degree in Professional & Technical Writing. He hopes to see you at WonderLab’s upcoming “Fantastic Beasts” event on November 11, 2017. He will not be participating in the cockroach races.