Kafka couldn’t have imagined it better. Two specimens of the cockroach phylum were going about their business in a Myanmar cave about 99 million years ago. One day they got trapped in tree resin, which then turned to amber and preserved their little bodies to this day to tell us an impressive tale of time, life, death, and metamorphosis.
Both belonged to the Nocticolidae family, which comprises a couple dozen cockroach species inhabiting caves and caverns. Our small but hardy hairy-legged friends probably even managed to survive the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs along with three-quarters of all life on the planet. The researchers, who recently published their findings in Gondwana Research, labeled the two fellas “the only known dinosaur age cave survivors”. It goes to show that cave roaches are far older than we used to think. Before this discovery, it was commonly held that they date back to 65 million years ago (the Cenozoic era).
From now on, we should know better than to underestimate them.
Let’s Get to Know Them Better!
The two species now carry the names of Mulleriblattina bowangi and Crenocticola svadba. While being pretty similar to each other, the Mulleriblattina seems to have been confined to the cave life, whereas Crenocticola was a bit more curious and probably ventured outside the cave.
The planet was not a friendly place back in the Mesozoic era. But our roaches didn’t seem to mind. Resilient as they were, they developed adequate traits that would allow them to thrive in damp and dark cave environments where no other creatures are known to have existed back then. Their very long antennae allowed them to better explore their gloomy surroundings, where eyes were almost useless. The wings got stunted since they no longer needed them. The insects weren’t brown or black like their modern-day domestic relatives, but yellowish or even transparent. What use is color anyway in a place that never gets any light?
What’s even more amazing is that all of those features make the Mulleriblattina look strikingly similar to its modern cave relatives. Some things never change, and neither does the roaches’ penchant for darkness.
Scary or Not So Scary?
By this point, you’re probably beginning to wonder about their size. No reason to shiver on that account! They were actually very small – just under 5 mm (roughly 1/4in). That wouldn’t make you cringe to the depths of your soul now, would it?
The length of their limbs probably would though. Especially the cerci (a pair of appendages protruding from underneath the bug’s rear end), which were significantly longer than in your average domestic roach.
But what did they eat? While the dinosaurs were still there, these two beauties may have feasted on their droppings that they would have found near the cave entrances. Once the gigantic reptiles went extinct, they probably made do with bats’ poop. How’s that for adaptability? The scientists even spotted some particles of undigested food in their lower abdomen. Ew!
There’s another mystery the researchers had to face. How did the tree resin make it into the cave to form amber? There is no exact answer. It probably poured down through cracks and crevices on the cave’s roof. Nature sure is resourceful while taking its course.
Let’s Get Serious for a Moment… Could We Operate on These Ancient Bugs?
You guessed right – this beautiful story about ancient roaches trapped in amber is particularly exciting for us roach-loving nerds at Backyard Brains. As you may or may not know, we’ve been harboring a lifelong appreciation and even love for roaches of all shapes, sizes, and ages.
So it’s only natural that our first thought after reading the Gondwana Research paper was whether a Mulleriblatina or a Crenocticola could possibly carry a RoboRoach backpack. Alas, both were small and, frankly, too fragile for so heavy a burden. (Okay, maybe we could build a peewee backpack for them to sport). Our next concern was: if they lived here and now, would they readily lend themselves to one of our experiments? We weren’t happy with the answer. Their legs would have been too short and slender for us to operate on.
In fact, the longer cerci might even provide for new opportunities to record and stimulate the nervous system of the cockroach in interesting ways! Researchers have already used our SpikerBox kits to record from the cerci, and we even had a summer research fellow pursue a research project for a version of the RoboRoach which could control EVERY direction the roach moves by stimulating both the antenna and cerci.
The third thought was a sensible husbandry dilemma: would they want to even taste some of our lettuce or carrots for that buffet-style dinner? (It’s tough to get ahold of an ounce or two of dinosaur guano these days.) That one went unresolved.
Do They Resemble Our Domestic Roach?
After all, we have to acknowledge both the similarities and differences between, say, your average Periplaneta americana (American Cockroach) and these two antediluvian beauties. All roaches are fond of gloom, and all of them are apt survivors. There’s hardly such thing as picky eating among this crowd! Those are traces of their common, eons-old ancestry. It dates back 300 million years ago, to the time before the ancient supercontinent Gondwana broke up to huge chunks of land now known as Antarctica, Africa, South America, Australia, India.
But they are also mutually different. The American roach is your regular cohabitant that you may notice as it forages through your dimly lit basement. Even though it likes darkness, it will still tolerate some traces of light – that’s how much it loves your bread crumbs or even your dandruff! And luckily for our experiments that include bug leg surgery, it boasts a giant size compared to its distant relatives Mulleriblattina and Crenocticola. Its 1.6 inches of length is just enough to scare the wits out of you as it scuttles across your dinner table. It’s also known to be a genius in the evenings and a moron in the mornings. (Which makes us think that our cave-dwelling roaches must have been Einsteins!)
So next time you reach for your phone to dial pest control, think twice. Maybe it would be more ethical to let those little guys carry on with their lives. Some of them might even make it into history books one day.
Backyard Brains is live from inside the classroom of Colegio Alberto Blest Gana in Santiago to present you 5 group projects brought to life by creative and passionate students. and the methodology we used to choose the projects. This high school has been like a second lab for Backyard Brains, where the students beta test our hardware prototypes and invent new classroom exercises. This year was the first year where the classroom made independent group projects, with a class size of about 15 students, ranging from 7th grade to high school seniors.
It can be a challenge to involve students in independent projects when it is their first time, so it is important to let the students conceive their own project ideas from the beginning. The ideas need to come from inspiration, not mandated from above. That’s why, to help out in the creative process, we devised an interview that would work like a conversation, where the student can start to imagine what they would like to build, or what problem they would like to solve. You can use this pdf as a guide
To guide some shy students that weren’t sure what they wanted to build, we suggested projects that the students could modify so that they could begin to feel that the idea we gave them is also their own. We then place the people that had similar ideas and interests into the same group. As a suggestion, if you are working with students with very different ages, it is important to mix it up a little in this area: always have a mix of older students with younger students.
The interview resulted in 5 projects:
The Electrocardiogram of the Clam.
This project was chosen by students that had an interest in animal physiological systems. Most of the students didn’t know before this experiment that a clam has a heart, because when you open it, the clam’s organs just look like a blob. It isn’t easy to notice distinct anatomical parts that look so different from the organs of vertebrates. After finding the heart, a challenge for students (and even for us teachers), we needed to make sure the heart was still moving and contracting. Unlike a vertebrate heart, the beat is not like a regular clock, it can stop a long time and then restart again.
When we saw a heart beat, we placed one red signal electrode in the atrium and the other in the ventricle. The third electrode (ground-black) was placed farther away the clam. These three electrodes were connected to the Backyard Brains Heart and Brain SpikerBox to make the recordings.
And glory of glories, we had success!
However, we don’t know if what the students recorded is in fact an artifact arising from relative movement of the recording electrodes, giving rise to a baseline shift that mimics in some ways the P and QRS features of a typical ECG. Our next step is to manually deform the heart to see if similar features arise. If not, then perhaps we observed a real biologically-generated clam electrocardiogram. You can download our recording here.
In this project, chosen by one gamer and talented student, he used the electricity generated by voluntary muscle contraction to take over the keyboard of a computer.
The appeal of this project is that muscle interfaces work like a charm, a microcontroller is easy to program, and it’s all very low cost. To accomplish this, we decided to control a very easy and accessible video game with the electrical impulses of the muscles, using our Muscle SpikerShield combined with the Arduino Leonardo. The advantage of an Arduino Leonardo is a computer can recognize the Leonardo as a keyboard input. The video game he chose was Google Chrome’s offline dinosaur video game: you can play it fine with only one key on the keyboard (the space bar makes the dinosaur jump…though pressing the down arrow key also makes the dinosaur duck). It’s fun, and you don’t need internet or any specialized gamer hardware to run it. You can download the code here.
The idea of this project was to build a labyrinth to learn about cockroach behavior and food preferences. Could they learn the route to reach a preferred food source faster over time, say, a banana slice instead of a potato slice?
Unfortunately, this project was done in the open air during winter, with a temperature of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which cockroaches are not that hungry and not highly active, so using food as an incentive didn’t work. Also, another problem was that the cockroaches were able to climb the walls of the labyrinth. Nevertheless, the students got over these obstacles and had success with one experiment: they placed a lid on half of the labyrinth to make that section dark, and left the other half uncovered, so light could get in. They released the cockroaches, and after one minute, all of the three cockroaches were in the dark side, just like Anakin Skywalker. A small sample size, but convincing evidence of what was suspected all along: cockroaches prefer dark spaces.
The Polygraph Lie Detector.
This project was from a group of students interested in the physiology of lying. At Backyard Brains we love to extract and read physiological signals, and as the traditional polygraph measures skin conductance, respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate, building a DIY polygraph is right in our wheelhouse. To keep it simple in the beginning, together with the students we decided to focus on skin conductance alone, something we have been asked to study before many times.
When someone lies, there is the hypothesis that the persons subtly increases sweating. Since sweat is salty water, and salty water is much more conductive than dry skin, we should be able to measure a decrease in skin resistance across the palms when a person is lying.
The first experiment this group did was very simple. They checked the skin resistance using a multimeter and patch electrodes across our inner palms before and after running on the treadmill The results were the following:
Before running 5 kilometers
After running 5 kilometers (24 minutes)
The results are crystal clear, a body covered in sweat is much less resistant to electrical current than dry skin.
The next step was to find a way to graph skin resistance in real time, and test it using lies instead of jogging. The students made a simple circuit in Arduino where the grey cables go from 5 V input to analog 0 in arduino, buuuutttt, the cable is cut and the person must grab each end of the cut cable with each hand. They then used the sample code “graph” which graphs the voltage value of the analog input, which, of course, will change depending on the resistance of the skin across the student’s hands.
When they tested using lies, there was no significant change in the value of the skin resistance, as the effect is simply too subtle, if it even exists at all, to measure using our equipment. Although the final test wasn’t successful, at least the students tore down the myth that galvanic skin response can detect lies by itself. That’s why complete polygraph machines also measures respiration, blood pressure and heart rate, and the combination of all these elements supposedly makes the polygraph a more reliable tool for detecting lies. If we continue this project in the future, we will look into integrating these other physiological signals in addition to skin conductance.
Muscle Electrophysiology in soccer.
This group of students was interested in how electromyography changes when making different strength kicks in soccer: kicks made for small distances, like close passes, and kicks made for big distances, like aiming for the goal or to a player that’s far away. To do this, the group placed two signal electrodes in the abductor muscle of the quadriceps, and the ground on the knee. The students then placed masking tape in the floor, marking the distance in meters, and the subject kicked the soccer ball to a friend waiting at the various meter marks.
The different distances they used were 5 meters (16.4 feet), 3 meters (32.8 feet), 15 meters (49.2 feet), 20 meters (65.5 feet), 25 meters (82 feet), 30 meters (98.5 feet), and 35 meters (114.8 feet). Below is a sample of the data they recollected:
As you can see quite nicely, the amplitude of the EMG of the quadriceps increases as the soccer ball kicks become more forceful. This was our hypothesis, that as you recruit more and more muscle fibers during a movement, the EMG signal amplitude will increase due to the higher number of action potentials generated and the superposition that results.
This experiment on the physiology of sports was very fun for the students. They also tried baseball pitches, but the rapid “snap-back” movement of the arm would always cause the cables attached to the triceps to come flying off. With basketball, they did not notice a dramatic difference between two point and three point shots. So, as the students were happy to report, for now, soccer is the best for studying the physiology of sports using our equipment! We will keep trying with baseball for all the Detroit Tigers fans out there.
These final projects were worked on once a week, for 1.5 hours, for 2.5 months, and on October 30th, the students presented their results to the community to much success. The sports physiology and the clam EKG experiment will be the first to be transformed into formal Backyard Brains experiments on our webpage, so stay tuned! If you are interested to having the students in your school working on personal group projects, feel free to contact us, and we investigate the world together!
From left to right: Top: Greg Gage (Not a Fellow), Zachary, Jaimie, Spencer, Nathan, Ilya Bottom: Joud, Christy, Haley
It’s early on a warm Ann Arbor morning and the office is buzzing with excitement! Our Summer 2017 research fellows are here! Today, our fellows are getting to know the staff and space at Backyard Brains, but more importantly, they’re planning, because for the next ten weeks they will be working on neuroscience and engineering research projects. The projects include work with Squids, Songbirds, Dragonflies, Mosquitoes, EEG recordings, and Electric Fish. The fellows work to create inexpensive, DIY methodology (the BYB way) to tackle their research problems and then present their findings at a poster presentation and in a journal publication. The fellows also develop experimental-grade versions of their projects so that other students and teachers can perform the experiments themselves!
Meet the Fellows, See the Projects
The fellows are off to a great start! Check out their blog posts introducing their projects:
After a morning of introductions and orientation, we took a quick break for lunch, then hurried back to the office to perform some recordings. For many of our fellows, working with our SpikerBoxes was their first opportunity to perform real neuron recordings! This is just the beginning of a summer of hands on science, rapid prototyping, troubleshooting, and data collection.
Quick Italian Buffet for Lunch
Recording from Earthworm neurons. Spikes!
As part of the fellowship, the students will be keeping you updated with frequent blog posts. These posts are a great window in the world of research! From start to finish, you can follow along with our fellows as they experience the triumphs and pitfalls of scientific inquiry.
You’ll be hearing a lot about our fellows and their projects for the next ten weeks. They’re excited to introduce themselves and their projects to you soon. Keep an eye out here, on our Facebook page, and Twitter for project updates and more!