We all know the old joke about how the only things that will survive a nuclear holocaust are Twinkies and cockroaches (and probably Keith Richards). Well it turns out there’s a very good reason why those annoying little bugs will bury us all–they are indestructible little transforming tanks.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have been studying how and why cockroaches manage to get anywhere and everywhere, no matter how improbable it may seem, and what they found is that the resilient buggers have the ability to shrink themselves and still withstand unbelievable squishes at the same time.
U.C. Berkeley researchers Kaushik Jayaram and Robert Full published their cockroach study in PNAS. Yes, their results will make you worried that your home will never truly be safe from cockroaches (it won’t), their findings might also save your life one day.
What they found is that even though a cockroach has an average height of 12 millimeters, it can actually compress its body, hard exoskeleton and all, to get through a gap merely 3 millimeters tall. The plates making up those exoskeletons are “jointed,” allowing cockroaches to “retain the soft-bodied, shape-changing ability to explore confined environments” that makes them so adaptable. This was an “unexplored mode of locomotion” that Jayaram and Full researched, something they call “body-friction legged crawling.” Or creepy crawling.
And when cockroaches are compressed, the team also found that they are still incredibly fast runners, almost impossible to crush.
Even in a shrunken state a cockroach can run 60 centimeters per second, or around “20 body lengths per second.” The insects aren’t more vulnerable when compressed either. Test cockroaches reliably survived forces over 900 times their own body weight without harm.
Okay, I agree, all of this would be absolutely amazing if it wasn’t also inherently creepy, but here’s where things get cool. The U.C. Berkeley researchers are using these results to make it so one day you might not only be relieved to see a bunch of cockroaches heading your way, but your life might actually depend on them.
How is that possible? Robo-roaches.
Jayaram and Full are now developing “search-and-rescue” robotic cockroaches that are also capable of compressing themselves and withstanding strong forces, just like the real bugs. That would make the robotic versions ideal for looking for survivors in a disaster area. Imagine a swarm of them deploying into a collapsed building. Instead of humans pulling random debris and hoping to find someone, the robotic roaches could locate exactly where a person is trapped, saving precious time.
As the video points out, the robot version is still too big, but it’s a start. Other researchers have been working on a similar idea, outfitting real cockroaches with implanted electrodes — cyborg as opposed to robot cockroaches. Truly we are living in the Golden Age of Cockroach Technology.
Does any of this change your opinion on cockroaches, or do they still bug you? We’ve got our own Comments Motel below, so head on in and tell us your thoughts.