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Cockroaches… In the Dungeon! Thought You Ought to Know….


Hey all, it’s Alex again! I have completed quite a bit since my previous post. If you already forgot about who I am (you monster!), I’m the intern performing the operant conditioning research on cockroaches! I’m trying to get them to favor the taste of peppermint (which they naturally dislike) over vanilla (which they naturally love). Picking up where I left off last, remember that box I laser cut? That was my testing and housing environment and it started me off on a good foot. I have run preference tests with the Americana cockroaches with mixed positive and negative results. Initially I got a lot of

“zero activity” with the cockroaches, which means that the cockroaches during the preference test did not complete the task within the four minute test. Science is frustrating, yet fun! I tried to decipher what was going wrong by isolating individual variables, so I contacted two authors from two different papers that are similar to my experiment, and one responded back to me and recommended that I cut the amount of total light to almost nothing, isolate the animals in the training room so that they feel comfortable in there, and deprive the animals of food for a few days to encourage the searching for food behavior. Even after attempting to change all those variables, I still had very little success; Greg had suggested to me that I switch to a new breed of cockroaches called: Blaberus discoidalis. These new roaches were the trick and they have given me pilot data for my experiment. The reason why it is only pilot data is because the infrared camera we had ordered for my project had stopped working and I was the only one who saw my data live in action; I can’t prove any of it actually happened. Fortunately, I just gotten two new cameras to play around with and I’ve set up and run the new preference tests and training sessions with new cockroaches to get the real data that I will use for my paper. How about I just stop boring you with my story and let you check out these awesome pictures?

Discoid vs Americana


This is my experimental room setup, where I run all my experiments, the light has since been adjusted and you cannot see anything in there since I’ve eliminated all the lights. I use an IR camera and a dim red headlamp to run all my experiments; I’d have a picture of the current setup but… It’s too dark (the walls are painted black in the chamber).


initial pt
The initial preference test for my pilot data.

As you can see the initial preference test shows that the roaches have a 28.57% Peppermint Preference Index. The PPI is the time spent at Peppermint divided by the time spent at both peppermint and vanilla. Each little tick mark on my data set equals one probing of the odor source. I have changed my time from four minutes to eight minutes because it shows an increase in activity.

roach10Final PT2
These are some examples of my data collection tables and, in the middle, is roach#10 participating in a preference test!

My initial training session is an example of how I know I have “trained” a cockroach. Cockroach #10 was observed, during a training session, drinking from the PM + sucrose water tray. The light has been amplified for the sake of a picture. I know I’ve been saying I can’t run in bright lights, but I wanted a picture of the testing while my IR camera was on the way. I have run four preference tests and three training sessions with the cockroaches and have had an increase of 28% to 62% of favoring peppermint. Although the final preference test, which was three training sessions later, had a lot less activity with the cockroaches and had significantly fewer cockroaches because a few of them had somehow fallen ill and died. On the brighter side, I’ve gotten some sort of activity from these roaches and am now waiting on new ones to run my, what I hope are, my final tests to gather conclusive data.

I’ve hit a few bumps along the way, science isn’t as smooth as it sounds on paper. I’ve had roaches die on me, data collection go poorly, and a ton of time spent in a room with no air conditioning or lights for hours on end each day. The data collection going poorly was a result of the roaches not being accustomed to the rooms that they’re in, so they kind of freak out when they’re throw into a brand new room and need time to relax. I mean wouldn’t you freak out too if you were thrown into a brand new living space and had no idea where you were at? So I’ve spent a few days just waiting on these roaches to adjust to their surroundings so I can work with them. Not only have I waited and waited, I have been sitting in a dark, hot room, for several hours a day staring at cockroaches drinking water.  It feels like this… in there, in my dungeon:

These cockroaches are my dragon…

The grunt work behind science is what is not commonly known to the average person, who only hears the results. Waiting for animals who don’t want to cooperate with you because they do not have the ability because they do not know what they are doing, is extraordinarily frustrating. It has been a tough few weeks down in my “dungeon” The experience has really helped me develop an appreciation for other researchers and their teams. Science isn’t easy, but that’s what makes it worth it.

I call it a dungeon because I’m sharing the space with Cort and I think he might actually be a troll… I don’t know if the purpose of the dark room is to keep light out, or to keep Cort in…

“And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Me in the dungeon as I witness my roaches perform their sacred rites of preference testing.

I have just cut out and designed a new training room to eliminate the corners and edges in the room because I noticed all the cockroaches during training tried escaping from the room and attempting to burrow into the corners of the box.

john bendning plastictraining chamber
Blueprint of the training chamber that I cut with the sophisticated heat beam, John bending the plastic for me, and the completed training room. This design came from a previous paper I had read.

In the upcoming days of my internship here at BYB I hope to finish up and gather convincing data about my experiment and have a publishable scientific paper. We’re down to the final few weeks and we’ve all been stressed out and exhausted, but we have been grinding it out day after day to get work done and to gather data. On July 23rd, the interns and I will be presenting at the MID-SURE, which is a symposium for undergrads doing research, so I’m really looking forward to doing that (

On a side note to my science experiment, the interns and I took a break from our research and went to go see some epic and incredible man. His name you ask? Well… None other than Bill Nye the Science Guy! Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet him, but he sure is an incredible and inspirational guy to see. As a kid he was my science idol and made me love science, as I’m sure he does with a lot of kids, and is one of the reasons why I am pursuing the science field today. So I have to thank Bill Nye for putting on an awesome show in Ann Arbor and being an informative and knowledgeable man.
Well I have some more science to attend to, so I’m off! Allons-Y!

bill nye


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