Why cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust

A lot of people have heard the predictions that the humble cockroach, those unwelcome denizens of our homes and workplaces,  will out-survive humans if we should ever be so unfortunate as to experience nuclear holocaust.  I have to say that I was skeptical about this broad, sweeping statement the first time I heard it.  I’m a scientist after all and we tend to be a rather skeptical bunch.  However, I have since witnessed firsthand how resilient those little buggers really are and have decided this is absolutely true.  Allow me to share the observations that led me to this opinion. This is the building I work in:

Forbes building

My building

I think it’s an amazing building.  It is the second oldest building on campus, so it’s got this great old feel to it.  There are columns and pillars and marble and old, old wood everywhere.  Some of the windows can still be opened, unlike most of the windows on campus, and there is a lot of natural light in most rooms.  I have an antique brass doorknob on my office door that I absolutely love that’s probably been on my door since it was installed in the early 1900’s.  My office itself is this bizarre little narrow room with an enormously high ceiling.  I have it all to myself AND it has a window that opens.  Love it, love it, love it!

However, every room has it’s downsides.  My office has a roach problem.  In fact, the whole building has a roach problem.  I’m commonly greeted by large, dead roaches when I walk into the building in the morning.  Dead roaches litter the otherwise elegant marble staircase.  They wander across my desk in broad daylight.  I’m scared to eat off of anything that’s been sitting in the entomology department kitchen because the brown banded roaches in that room just might number in the millions.  I don’t mind roaches, but there are SO very many in the kitchen that even I am a little disturbed.

Brown banded cockroaches. Image from a University of AZ publication on roach control, http://ag.arizona.edu/urbanipm/buglist/ cockroaches.pdf.

Allow me to relate one particularly memorable roach experience in the entomology kitchen to give you a better idea of the level of infestation.  At some point, everyone stopped loading paper towels into the dispenser and started setting them on top. After several months of finding the paper towels on top, I decided to do something about it.  I popped the front off the dispenser, happy that I was finally making things right.  But I was greeted with a horrific sight: about 300 roaches were hiding among the pile of 30 paper towels in the dispenser!  They didn’t take too kindly to my exposing their roachy hideout either and decided to flee the scene.  This unfortunately meant that they all came out the front of the dispenser and down my arms.  Having 100+ of them scurrying rapidly down my arms toward my face was a little much even for me.  I slammed the dispenser shut and never complained about the paper towels being on top of the dispenser again.

So there’s a serious roach problem in my building and the center of activity seems to be the entomology kitchen.  However, the microwave and the fridge are in the kitchen, so it’s hard to avoid going in there.  Furthermore, if you’re me, you have to drink at least 12 cups of hot tea a day, which means you go into the kitchen several times a day.  Sometimes there are roaches in the microwave.  Normally, I scoop them out before I put my mug of water in, but one day the roaches on the walls were irritating me more than usual.  I decided I was going to be really mean and microwave my water with the roaches still inside.

I spent the next three minutes reading all the snarky notices telling people to wash their own dishes and keep their dead animals out of the fridge.  I watched some roaches crawling on the walls and thought about the four in the microwave that were meeting their demise.  Upon hearing the buzzer, I opened the microwave door and pulled out my steaming mug, expecting to see four dead roaches in the microwave.  Instead, all four of them were not only still alive, but scurrying about inside the microwave like nothing had even happened!  They were microwaved on high THREE MINUTES and it didn’t seem to faze them a bit.  Amazing!

Armed with this new observation, I have since microwaved several other roaches.  I have yet to see one die, regardless of how long they’ve been nuked.  I cooked a frozen meal for 7 minutes once and the roach accompanying my delicious mac and cheese looked fine.  I think this is simply astounding! The microwaves almost have to be doing something bad to them.  I do worry a little that I’m creating a breed of giant super roaches by microwaving so many of them.  After all, this is the sort of thing that results in giant insects going on rampages in horror movies.  Ever see Mimic?  I’m sure there are giant roaches like those lurking in the basement of my building somewhere!



But I can’t help it.  I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that these insects are able to withstand 7 minutes in the microwave.  And if they can stand that, I’m pretty sure they can withstand a nuclear holocaust.*  Now I’ll admit that my evidence is rather circumstantial.  I haven’t done a proper experiment with the roaches.  It’s possible that their reproductive abilities are altered by the microwaves (e.g. egg proteins are denatured), impacting their overall fitness.  They might not survive long past their stint in the microwave (they almost have to be getting hot enough to start denaturing proteins) and I haven’t followed them or kept them in cages to find out.  But still, how many animals are you aware of that can be microwaved 7 minutes and look as fresh and sprightly coming out as they did going in?  Yep, roaches are going to outlast us all.

* <DISCLAIMER> As pointed out by a reader in a comment below, I wish to clarify: microwaves are not at all the same sort of radiation as that which would occur during nuclear fallout.  Microwaves work by rearranging water and other molecules and that motion generates heat, so they’re not going to cause genetic rearrangements or other similarly catastrophic results.  In case it isn’t clear, the point of this post is simply to demonstrate the remarkable abilities of roaches to withstand some pretty unforgiving conditions by relating observations I’ve made personally that I thought were fascinating.  I’m not qualified to make any real claims regarding the ability of roaches to withstand nuclear fallout and simply wish to suggest that if anything is going to be able to withstand a tragedy of this nature, an animal that can survive being microwaved for 7 minutes is a good candidate. </DISCLAIMER>


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