Archive for January 6th, 2010

Science at home: Cockroach courtship

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Madagascar hissing cockroach (this one's a female). Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Madagascar hissing cockroach (this one's a female). Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Our animal caretaker has been away for the holidays, so I, along with a couple other members of the staff, am caring for the museum’s critters (professionally known as our living collections). In one tank we have some juvenile cockroaches, some of which are Madagascar Hissing Roaches. When I feed them, they receive a slice of vegetable such as zucchini or squash. I also spritz their tank with water to keep the humidity up inside of it. Recently I had to dig around in the substrate of the tank to find the old piece of vegetable before dropping in a fresh slice. My finger bumped into one the hissing roaches and it chirped at me! I’ve heard these roaches hiss before – it’s pretty impressive – but never have I heard a chirp. I gave the little guy a rub on his back and was rewarded with lots of chirping, just like a bird.

I thought that was pretty cool so I shared my chirping roach story with my co-workers. Jason’s response: “change your perfume!” Turns out, male hissing roaches woo females with song – I’m being courted by a cockroach!

Research performed at the University of Paris XI-Orsay and the University of Exeter in Penryn, England, determined that these male hissing roaches create vibrations in the air and through the ground that act as “sweet nothings” for female hissing roaches. The chirps and whistles are actually very complex and sound almost bird-like. For the most impressive whistle, the hissing roach male can use two voices at the same time!

The male hissing roach songs are created not by the rubbing of body parts against one another (like most insects do) but by “squirting air out of specialized holes in their abdomens.” This use of air to produce song makes the male hissing roaches more like mammals and birds in their courting ritual. As for a male hissing roach that doesn’t chirp? It doesn’t get the ladies!

Come meet our Romeo Roach at this Saturday’s Meet the Animals program, January 9, from 11 am to 2 pm.

January 2010

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