The Fascinating Truth about the World's Oldest Pests: Cockroaches

The biggest fossil cockroach ever found next to a modern day roach.
The biggest fossil cockroach ever found next to a modern day roach.

When Cockroaches were King

Most people will look with disgust upon a cockroach but as for myself, I have to stare at them with wonder. They are one of nature's most perfect creations. How do I know? Because the oldest cockroach fossil ever found was 350 million years old. To put that in perspective they predated the very first known dinosaurs by 150 million years and were around not only to watch their demise but also remain in our world today in a nearly unchanged form. In fact they've needed to evolve so little in all this time that fossils of the Mylacris species are nearly identical to living specimens found today.

By the time the Carboniferous Era came along, some 220 million years ago, cockroaches were so dominant a life form that paleontologists affectionately nicknamed this time period the Age of Cockroaches. At the time they were busy evolving to be the first living things on earth to master powered flight. They did this through the use of two sets of soft wings. This may not sound like much but it was a big step. Flight made traveling fair distances easier and the sky was free from competition and predators. They still ate the vegetation at the time and grew pretty big. In 1999 a student at Ohio University, Carly Easterday, unearthed a fossil of Arthropleura pustulatus, the largest cockroach fossil known. It dated back 300 million years and measured three and a half inches long, with a wider body than most modern roaches. The find was a great discovery as insects rarely preserve well in fossils (because of their lack of bones or hard shells.) This specimen was so detailed that its mouth, antennae, and the veins on it's wings could be clearly seen. Because of the problems insects have with fossilization this might not have been the largest cockroach living at the time. Indeed we are still finding bigger dinosaurs than in decades past.

Large size in these early cockroaches was for good reason. At the time they were likely the main course for many large amphibians, early reptiles, and other insects. Other insects had the same idea and centipede ancestors could grow up to five feet long and a foot wide. It paid to be large and flighted.

A beautiful Bush Cockroach
A beautiful Bush Cockroach
An Asian Cockroach
An Asian Cockroach

Modern Day Cockroaches

There are over 3,500 species of roaches currently believed to be living on earth today. Of these only 57 species reside within the US and only 20 or so species are equipped to live in manmade environments, that's less then 2% of all roaches. Not to fear though, where roaches leave off the termites will pick up. Termites are believed to have evolved from roaches around 70 million years ago.

Still cockroaches thrive where other species usually die off. None are known to be listed as endangered. Giant Cave Cockroaches are the largest known living species and can grow up to 4 inches in length, but they are not a pest species. Numerous pest species however are the fastest known runners on earth in comparison to their size. They have been clocked at 12 feet per second, quite an athletic feat! Even more amazing is their ability to live off the scantest of food. Several species even eat their own shed skin and empty egg cases. Cardboard seems a delicacy to many. However the most amazing fact about them lies in their tenacious ability to live through almost anything. Most people think it's an urban legend that cockroaches can live a week without a head, a little joke spread around by someone who was fed up with having too many of them in their home. However, this is not a myth. Death Head Cockroaches have six brains spread out through their bodies which regulate their biological needs, only one of these is in their head. The rest are in their legs. Since roaches do not have lungs (they breath through spiracles within each of their body segments that deliver oxygen straight to their bodies without the need of blood) and they do not have mammalian blood pressure (that would lead to a death from bleeding to death) they can indeed live, hypothetically possibly as much as month without their head. They will however eventually die to dehydration or possibly starvation, the cost of not having a mouth. Since they can live on such scant food (being cold blooded and all) then they can last for quite awhile. Interestingly cockroaches also have the highest tolerence for radiation known to any living species of animal, being able to absorb and live through 6-15 times the dose needed to kill a human.

Cockroaches today come in more than 4,000 colors, shapes, and sizes. Most live in tropical regions and many still retain the ability to fly, although there has been some improvements in their wings. Now instead of two soft pairs of wings they have one soft pair used for flight and one stiff pair used to protect the soft pair. Some have lost their wings alltogether. The heaviest of the known roach species, the Rhinoceros Cockroach, can live in excess of ten years, far beating out most of the insect species on the planet in longevity. It also weighs in at a hefty 33.5 grams.

Dead German Cockroach
Dead German Cockroach

Cockroaches as Pests

Cockroaches can be more than just pests, they can be a devastation to a manmade structure. People have been battling several roach species for hundreds of years since they brought them home as unsuspecting castaways on ships from tropical climates. The names of the pest roaches reveal much about our own psychology. You can bet with confidence that the loathed German Roach was not named by Germans, nor were the Oriental Roaches named by anyone of Asian decent. In fact most of the pest species are named after countries they didn't originally come from. Still, they provide an easy scapegoat don't they?

German cockroaches are probably the widest known simply because they can make rabbits look like they're not trying (in relation to their reproductive abilities.) They gain sexual maturity at a younger age than most species and also lay more eggs, which the females carry on their back and protect from things that might kill an abandoned egg sack. Since they are communal creatures they will set up a metropolis under your counters faster then you can say Supercalifragelistic Expialidocious. Since they can eat anything including soap, cardboard, and wood, they can also cause quite a bit of damage.

Most people think cockroaches are filthy, but actually cockroaches spend much of their time preening. However this fact should be weighed in with the fact these are also animals who could probably live off eating nothing but rat droppings and pieces of rancid meat that has rolled under the stove. This is why they spread disease.

It's funny to think that the same roaches people claim will inherit the earth someday are the same species that will likely perish without our constant companionship. Being tropical most pest species would die if we didn't heat our home year round.

Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
True Death Head Cockroach - a ornate pretty species.
True Death Head Cockroach - an ornate pretty species.

Domesticating the Roach?

Roaches are now being bred purposely in captivity. The first of these roaches were probably Madagascar Hissing Roaches that were bred in laboratories to do radiation testing. However the laboratory proved to be only one of many niches they filled. With the growing popularity of reptilian pets many people started importing various tropical roach species to breed in captivity as food for their lizards, frogs, and various other reptilian and amphibian pets. Some cultures had already taken to breeding them for human consumption but this is something that has gained little popularity in the West. Finally roaches started being bred as pets themselves. Many of the imported species were ill-equipped to live feral within households making them ideal for domestication.

Roaches can come in all sorts of parrot-like colors and since many aren't capable of biting they were seen as good first pets for children. Their diet might as well been free (table scraps) and their slow metabolism made cage cleaning a practically annual ritual. Madagascar Hissing Roaches are still the best known pet species as they are large and exhibit a hissing behavior when they are threatened that seems to entertain curious onlookers. These cockroaches are also watched like fish by insect enthusiasts who often put at least three males in with a colony of females so they can see the 'satellite' behavior of the less dominant males. Males in this species can be easily distinguished by a bump on their head. Since they are wingless all that is needed to keep them in an open container or aquarium is a ring of Vaseline around the top of the container (so if they climb up they'll slip back down.)

Comments 25 comments

Cybermouse profile image

Cybermouse 8 years ago from Bentonville, AR

Great hub! I did not know hardly any of these things about cockroaches. It seems to me these creatures have a fascinating history which all too many people dismiss without a thought. One could say they kind of flew under the radar all this time. Although I doubt I'd ever want to find a Rhinocerous Cockroach under my fridge.

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 8 years ago from New England Author

Well, see, if I found a rhino roach under my fridge I'd be inclined to wonder why... being a non-native and burrowing species. I'd be pretty perplexed. I'd be way too enthusiastic about finding a zebra roach though, they're just so amazingly pretty with all their bright colors... I'm glad my childhood passion for paleontology and creepy crawlies has opened a few eyes...

Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Makes me want to go out and find a cockroach for a pet!

Great, lucid writing as always.

MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 8 years ago from Sydney

lucid is not the word.

What an amazing hub.

i knew nothing. In fact someone did tell me 'See one and

there are a thousand more around the nearest dark corner.

thank you greatly for your creation of knowledge.

I am certainly glad that you stopped by to give me a little of your knwowledge

Angela Harris profile image

Angela Harris 8 years ago from Around the USA

Fascinating facts about cockroaches, but I still hate them. And the thought of eating a cockroach is about to make me lose my lunch. Cool hub, though!

Zarm Nefilin 7 years ago

I wonder what a highly evolved sentient roach lifeform would look like in 400 million years?

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 7 years ago from New England Author

I don't know... Probably would look something like this... (I'm told that weird little puppet isn't a cockroach but I swear he is...)

Ony 7 years ago

don't create any more species, because we have much

Megh 7 years ago

From an environmental educator who uses hissing cockroaches as a learning tool::: Thanks!

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 7 years ago from New England Author

You're welcome! I do wonder what enviroment you're educating on though :)

Ben 7 years ago

Just wanted to let you know that cockroach radiation is 6-15 times greater than humans, but we're weak, many other insects can hold out better than a cockroach.

Sean 6 years ago

I recently bought two hissers from a herptologist convention in Colombia,South was probably stupid that i did cause i didn't know anything about them at the time.of course now that i stuffed myself full of research,i know just about everything about them.

milo 5 years ago

thanks dud u really help me with my hw ..

mara 5 years ago

I am curious if anyone else has noted the size increas in roaches these last 5 to 10 years?? I grew up in Arizona (after moving from much colder climbs) and having to come to terms with living, both indoors and outdoors, with cockroaches was unsettling to say the VERY least. After growing up and lots of moving about and never really seeing many beyond the occasional outdoor "sewer" roach I moved to a Phoenix suburb (Gilbert) and suddenly ran into roaches that look identical to the roaches I remember from childhood (German, Oriental) only they are much more aggressive (the first one I found walked directly into my show while I was walking down my back hallway *crunch* *squeal* *retch* you get the idea!! :p It seemed to be of the oriental variety only thrice as large. All the roaches I remember as a child were at least smart enough to run AWAY from humans.

Then when the German's invaded the size difference was apparent there also. In fact, I just spent my morning fighting off a hoard of them that live in the cracks between my house's walls and the cement back porch of my house (they love that weird paper/cardboard crud cement pourers place around wet cement to help with temp. changes I suppose *shrug*... wish I could pull every inch of it out because the little buggers adore eating it). I refuse to use insectacides since it's bad for mother earth, the birds I feed, and not to mention, ME! So I'm left fighting hand to antanae combat hoping for some small advantage. I still have yet to find their hidden entrance into my house. At some times during the year a morning isn't complete unless I've found 1 or 2 of these monster roaches rowing backwards across my kitchen or bathroom tiles (the struggling movement all roaches seem to make when found on their backs).

Believe me, I know my roaches and these buggers are German and Oriental and as I said thrice as large (or more) as they were in the 70's & early 80's when I was growing up. They're as big and bigger than sewer roaches now. They used to be no longer than an average female human's nail bed, now they are nearing the length of my whole thumb... ick! Hoping you might have some insight.


ps Fabulously written article!!

andrebreynolds profile image

andrebreynolds 5 years ago

I think this is good :)

sheila Tagle 4 years ago

Still I do not like cockroaches I do not want them in my house I would rather have a guinea pig

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 4 years ago from New England Author

Mara: Cockroaches do differ in size depending on climate and food availability. Roaches in warmer climates are going to get bigger than they do here in the cold states of New England. Also it's entirely possible you were only seeing young cockroaches until now. They are more populous in number than the adults. Either way I haven't heard anything about them growing bigger as a species, though I hear people say the same of rats. It's sort of funny!

Eve 4 years ago

AMAZING!!!! I too became sympathetic towards these tennacious beetles. Infact, I have never killed one and refuse the highly toxic sprays (which are actually are cancerous causing agents to us humans...AVOID them esp if you have 'pets'-esp if they eat a sprayed insect you will poision your pet (use nux vomica 30c and bachflower:crab apple homeopathic drops if it happens) and babies or pregnant). Why should I, Cockies have the right and respect to live out their lives in their own biodiversity to help feed all the other animals depending on them to live. I watched a Cockie climb my kitchen cupboard right to the top, and he paused for a moment, placing his tiny little strong legs ontop of the wood, stretched his neck, holding on tightly with his back legs and looked down in the cupboard to see if he could make it...he's a thinker incredibly intelligent and quite beautifully cute actually. I let him go about living his life with compassion. And you will find if you keep your kitchen and bathroom 'clean' then you don't have to worry about disease. Disease and plague proportions only happen when people don't clean up after themselves. They are shy, smart and harmless and facinating Beetles! :-)

david 2 years ago


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 2 years ago from New England Author

.... either your post got cut off or you are trying to correct a typo somewhere...? I am not sure what you are trying to say david but thanks for stopping by!

Magalli 2 years ago

It facainates me how faciainated you are by Roaches. I have a phobia of cockroaches.

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 2 years ago from New England Author

Thank you Magali, your comment made me laugh. I am sorry you have a phobia, fascination is just the opposite reaction. ;)

Louise 19 months ago

Thanks. Really great text, saved my homework :D

Dr. Jack Schuster 15 months ago

Watch your dates. The Permian ended 251 million years ago and the Carboniferous came before that....

Mariah 5 months ago

I have a huge interest in roaches. I do have a 2 pet roaches at the moment. I have a female smoky brown roach in a 10gal which I have vaseline on the top. I had her since she was a subadult nymph in november. I just recently got a female hisser who is quite tame since she hasn't hissed yet. One roach does interest me in the future. They are thought to be extint in the wild because they were only found in one single cave system and it got destroyed by mining. They now only exist in the roach/insect hobby. They are the Simandoa conserfariam. They are gorgeous! :)

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