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.
You never know what might capture a students’ attention and passion… Maybe the recent photo of a black hole inspires a student to learn about astrophysics, or maybe an experiment involving cockroaches inspires a student to want to learn more about neuroscience!
Recently, we heard word from two graduating high school seniors in Ohio who started a “Cockroach Club.” This after-school club is dedicated to neuroscience and invertebrate electrophysiology! Two students, Emma and Krista, were introduced to neuroscience in one of their PLTW classes with the Neuron SpikerBox, Roboroach, The Claw, and the Human-Human Interface.
Emma and Krista were fascinated by the labs, and wanted to learn more! But, as need not be said, the PLTW curriculum doesn’t leave a lot of room for digression: So, they started an after-school club to pursue Neuroscience! Enough from me though, let’s hear about it in their words.
From Krista, 12th grade; Passionate about art, music, and biology.
Cockroach club is a student-led learning group we put together following the ever-increasing amount of questions we had for my biology teacher. She prompted us to get together after school to talk about science and biology, and she also suggested we take a look at a cool kit she had made by Backyard Brains where we could create and control a cyborg cockroach (The Roboroach). Ever since then, we’ve had numerous club meetings and we have all learned a lot about science as well as teamwork!
When I first saw the cockroaches, I wasn’t too fond of them. They were little bugs that moved a little too fast for me. After our many experiments and working with the insects for so long, I have taken a liking to them. I help feed and care for the roaches from time to time. We’ve even given a few of them names. They’re pretty cool, but I still refuse to touch them myself (I let other members of the club handle them!)
Although we have learned a bit about neuroscience in school, the Roboroach was one of the first times I was able to see it in action, along with the human to human interface. I knew that neuroscience was super interesting and has a lot of potential, but after seeing it up close and personal, my curiosity and interest in the field has definitely increased.
This was my senior year, and I was not planning on pursuing neuroscience or engineering, but cockroach club and PLTW have helped me learn about a lot of different topics in science and biology fields. They not only exposed me to an extensive number of topics but also encouraged my love for science and biology. Cockroach club and PLTW allowed me to cultivate my curiosity and ask more questions than I ever have.
From Emma, 12th grade; Passionate about dancing, biology, art, reading/writing.
Cockroach club allows us to use the science equipment available in class for personal projects and other things. For example, we can mount slides with things we want to look at under a microscope but that aren’t relevant to in-class topics. Our teacher supervises all of our work so that we do things safely and correctly.
The cockroaches made me a bit uncomfortable at first. But, as with most things in biology, after I learned a little more about their biology, saw them more often, and accidentally touched them a couple times, I was okay with handling them. Not before initial anesthesia though; I’m not afraid of the roaches, but I am afraid of losing them!
In class, the more mechanical parts of neuroscience aren’t discussed as in-depth, so using neuroscience technology in tandem with the body’s nervous system was something I hadn’t thought about until we started using the tech in cockroach club.
One quick experiment we came up with was using the human-to-human interface on a fellow student’s eyelid as opposed to on his arm (with his consent and complete knowledge) and it worked out well. We were able to twitch his eyelids shut with another student’s arm.
I am graduating this year too, and I’m still super undecided about everything because of how far apart my interests are from one another but in general, PLTW and Cockroach Club combined have inspired me to look towards the sciences for my future.
Cockroach Club’s Future
With many members of Cockroach Club graduating, the club’s advisor and the remaining members are working to rally interest for the club for next year. The goal is to continue to offer the opportunity for students to pursue their personal science interests in the club, but perhaps the pursuit of the interests could turn into formal research projects! We’ll be sure to keep you updated of how this fantastic example of student-driven learning continues next year!
My work for these five weeks was to develop a novel low-cost system to study the circadian rhythm of cockroaches. I’m working with my beautiful friends discoid cockroaches (B. discoidalis).
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. In the case of these nocturnal creatures the changes in locomotor activity (what I’m measuring) goes from sleeping during daylight, and activity during night. The sleep-wake cycle is generated by an internal clock that is synchronized to the light-dark cycle of the environment. Because they are nocturnal, light may directly inhibit locomotor activity.
We asked what would happen to the activity patterns of discoid roaches if they kept a normal 12 hour light/dark cycle for ten days and then switched to 24 hours of darkness for another ten days, and then with constant light. In the absence of external cues to tell the cockroach what time of day it is, our hypothesis is that we will see free-running, and a new activity cycle will develop based solely on the internal biological clock. To track this, we measure the activity of the cockroach with running-wheels throughout the day in free-running conditions (no external cues), along with sensors to track light and temperature. From this we hope to develop the cockroach wheel as a model for educating students about circadian rhythms, animal behavior, and neuroscience, and to provide a simple, low-cost, but flexible experimental system for research into the behavioral effects of various commonly consumed substances such as caffeine.
The rhythm in cockroaches is controlled by the sub-oesophageal ganglion. The photoreceptors on eyes detects light or darkness, transduce the signal, this signal goes through the optical nerve to the optic lobe (where is located the clock), this one receives the message and output the activity. I will control the external cue (light) that her brain used to output the activity that corresponds to the time.
Want to study with cockroaches?
When I came here 5 weeks ago I began with a microcontroller (BeagleBone Black), the green board with sensors, a wheel with some black,
and white stripes, a devilish code to run all of this, and knowing nothing about anything of the electrical and computer science work that I was needed to do.
As soon as possible I put everything to work. My older set-up looks like the photo at the right-it was in a box that I carried to my house several times in order to record data. I need them this way because the BeagleBone wasn’t, at the time programmed to access Internet through an ethernet cable, so I needed it, at all times, connected to my computer and my laptop turned on. The most difficult objective to complete was to have the code with all the commands in the correct way so it can collect good data. There seemed to always be a problem with missing, commented, uncommented, or extra lines that made this code a stressful thing to work with.
I now have five 3D printed running-wheels with plenty space for the cockroach and a good object sensor at the back, the light sensor to tell when the lights go on and off, and temperature sensors that showed the environment was constant. I attached these to the support of the wheel, all in a comfortable locker with soundproofing foam (to eliminate outside noise), and a device that control when the lights goes on and off. The board with these sensors is attached to the BeagleBone Black, and the BBB runs through Wi-Fi (no easy feat). Though not done yet, my code is getting better with the help of people like Stanislav our programmer, and Max and Nick-our resident super-engineers. Now the system is complete and beautiful:
Outlet Timer Wi-Fi adapter Research in Progress
Sensors at the back Object sensor with B/W Stripes Microcontroller with breadboard (red)
The Fantastic Five
Let there be (12 hour cycle) light! Cockroach Rave
Want to see cool cockroaches running on the wheel? Click here:
I put my cockroaches in a controlled environment with no external cues interfering, such as noise or light during night, that could let them know what time of day it is. We don’t want them to potentially associate other external cues to time because their rhythm will be based on other cues, and not on light cues which we control and provide. In order to achieve this I put them in a locker with soundproofing foam, a stripe of LED lights (sun light), and the green board that contains the sensors attached to the 3D printed running-wheel for a sexy and clean set-up.
Understanding the collected data
Now that we have all the set-up, let’s move to the best part-Science! In my data I have a range of arbitrary values that will represent whether the sensor received lots of infrared light back or not. That usually goes from 2500 to 4000-A value of 2500 means that the sensor was in front of a white stripe, and if in front of black stripe the value can go up to 4000. Every time the cockroach moves, the stripes do too, and so I can see in my data the movements in a wave that goes from white (2500) to black (4000).
How object sensor works
Set-up to collect data
First ever collection of complete 23.3 hours of data!
Cockroaches are nocturnal animals, that’s why light may directly inhibit locomotor activity in a them. I’m looking for a pattern of activity-once I have that, I will begin with the dark/dark cycle, and compare this data to the normal cycle they exhibit.
You’re seeing two circadian rhythms of two different cockroaches in the same environment. As you see, It showed a rhythmicity, although does not follow the light cycle. This may have been because the cockroaches were living in a dark room. A couple of weeks are needed for them to adjust to the light cycle.This is the most astounding data I ever saw. This is the first time data is collected and plotted in an actogram. Hope you enjoyed like I do.
Why study circadian rhythms
My main goal for this project is to prove the system is viable to study the circadian rhythms of cockroaches, and I did it. Research in this area can lead to knowledge about how the daily cycle in humans works, and what are the consequences of disruptions to it. It is known that disruptions to the circadian rhythms are highly related to cancer, obesity, mood disorders, stress, and other health issues.
You made it! Thanks for taking the time to read how it is going with my research.
Behind this project is
The Alpha Dog, also called Karina M. Matos Fernández. I study Psychology and Mental Health in the University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, and I’m a proudly intern in Backyard Brains. For this project I’m using papers such as Control of the circadian rhythm of activity in the cockroach by John Brady, along with Recording and Analysis of Circadian Rhythms in Running-wheel Activity in Rodents by Verwey, Robinson, and Amir.
I’ve never known anything about what a microcontroller is or could do, and this month I programed six of the most finicky kind-BeagleBones. That’s why I’m called The Alpha Dog. Also it never crossed my mind that I would be so close to a cockroach… And yet, now I love them. How could one not love these amazing creatures?
If you are wondering how I beat my fear of cockroaches, let me tell you that I’m still working on that. In case no one was available to grab them, I used a special mechanism I invented consisting of a cup and a lid: these two helped me to grab them. However, I still feel a special love for them.
I’ll be glad to know who you are, and what are your questions and comments. I hope that now you’re interested in making research with cool model systems such as this one. Whoever is out there, I want to know more about you. Keep in touch to know more about the progress of the project.