Cockroaches often get a bad reputation; they’re dirty, invade people’s homes, and spread disease. But because they’re generally attracted to unsanitary, damp conditions, cockroaches actually find most homes uninviting. They’re seldom found in clean living areas. And in fact, of the 4,500 species of cockroaches found worldwide, only 30 are associated with human dwellings, and just four of these are considered common pests. Most cockroaches, like the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa), which is a common insect pet, prefer to live outdoors, often in rotting wood and leaf litter.
This is fortunate for us because cockroaches are one of the hardiest insects out there. Modern-looking cockroaches likely appeared about 200 million years ago, around the time of the first dinosaurs, meaning that these ancient insects have been able to survive millions of years of habitat, predator, and climate change. (It’s also thought that termites evolved from early cockroaches.) Today’s cockroaches can withstand extreme levels of radiation and manage to live off as little as the glue on postage stamps, among other incredible feats (but probably not as impressive as the amazing tardigrade). Many have even been found to have rapidly evolved an aversion to sugar (specifically glucose) after generations were exposed to human-made sugar-laced poisons. Luckily, there are nontoxic ways of handling unwanted roach populations, such as using parasitic wasps that eat the pests’ eggs.
Despite the skin-crawling sensation that cockroaches give many people, Madagascar hissing cockroaches actually make safe, fascinating, educational pets that are simple to care for – these roaches, which can reach two to three inches long, take up little space, are fairly clean, are easy to feed, and usually live two to three years (but sometimes up to five years). They can be purchased from online suppliers or sometimes local dealers – if you live near the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, you can purchase some from their gift shop and even see them compete in entertaining cockroach races at special events!
So while you wouldn’t want some of the few pest species of cockroaches wandering loose in your house, if you want to get up-close with these resilient, ancient critters, consider checking out some Madagascar hissing cockroaches in captivity!
For further reading:
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Animals Both Commonplace and Bizarre
- F. B. Peairs’ article “Cockroaches” at the Colorado State University Extension
- Rebecca Smithers’ article “Evolution Saves Cockroaches From Taking the Bait” at NPR
- Ayako Wada-Katsumata, Jules Silverman, and Coby Schal’s article “Changes in Taste Neurons Support the Emergence of an Adaptive Behavior in Cockroaches” in Science
- Emery Cowan’s article “Catching critters” in Colorado Magazine at the University of Colorado Boulder