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The Cockroach and its Elaborate Social Structure

Distribution and habitat

Cockroaches are abundant throughout the world and live in a wide range of environments, especially in the tropics and subtropics. Cockroaches can withstand extremely cold temperatures, allowing them to live in the Arctic. Some species are capable of surviving temperatures of −188 °F (−122 °C) by manufacturing an antifreeze made out of glycerol. In North America, 50 species separated into five families are found throughout the continent. 450 species are found in Australia. Only about four widespread species are commonly regarded as pests.

Cockroaches occupy a wide range of habitats. Many live in leaf litter, among the stems of matted vegetation, in rotting wood, in holes in stumps, in cavities under bark, under log piles and among debris. Some live in arid regions and have developed mechanisms to survive without access to water sources. Others are aquatic, living near the surface of water bodies, including bromeliad phytotelmata, and diving to forage for food. Most of these respire by piercing the water surface with the tip of the abdomen which acts as a snorkel, but some carry a bubble of air under their thoracic shield when they submerge. Others live in the forest canopy where they may be one of the main types of invertebrate present. Here they may hide during the day in crevices, among dead leaves, in bird and insect nests or among epiphytes, emerging at night to feed.


Cockroaches are social insects; a large number of species are either gregarious or inclined to aggregate, and a slightly smaller number exhibit parental care. It used to be thought that cockroaches aggregated because they were reacting to environmental cues, but it is now believed that pheromones are involved in these behaviors. Some species secrete these in their feces with gut microbial symbionts being involved, while others use glands located on their mandibles. Pheromones produced by the cuticle may enable cockroaches to distinguish between different populations of cockroach by odor. The behaviors involved have only been studied in a few species, but German cockroaches leave fecal trails with an odor gradient. Other cockroaches follow such trails to discover sources of food and water, and where other cockroaches are hiding. Thus, cockroaches have emergent behavior, in which group or swarm behavior emerges from a simple set of individual interactions.

Daily rhythms may also be regulated by a complex set of hormonal controls of which only a small subset have been understood. In 2005, the role of one of these proteins, pigment dispersing factor, was isolated and found to be a key mediator in the circadian rhythms of the cockroach.

Pest species adapt readily to a variety of environments, but prefer warm conditions found within buildings. Many tropical species prefer even warmer environments. Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and run away when exposed to light. An exception to this is the Asian cockroach, which flies mostly at night but is attracted to brightly-lit surfaces and pale colors.


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