It came into existence on Earth some 354 million years ago. It silently watched the great dinosaurs of the formidable reptilian age die out. It has been witness to such mass extinctions and will survive through the current sixth mass extinction as well. It saw the birth of our species and successfully found ways to gatecrash into our abodes.
If we consider each species of fauna as an individual, then it is like a grandparent to humans. We tend to enjoy the care of our grandparents. We respect them and love them. But our feelings towards this species are far from that. It is of disgust!
I am talking of the despicable creature with spiny legs and a shiny cuticle – the cockroach. Dear readers, I am as petrified as you are of them and am not asking you to nurse cockroaches in your backyard. It’s altogether another issue that they do not need you to either! For instance, one evening my room-mate and I were enjoying our favourite wine and watching a movie in a semi-dark room. Thirty minutes into the movie my eyes picked up a very familiar eerie creature coming out from underneath the bed. It headed determinedly towards my wine glass, climbed up and went inside the contour of the glass, hung from its ceiling and drank my precious drink!
Shell-shocked is an understatement for how I felt.
Was the roach showing rude indifference or reckless arrogance? I decided it was probably the former. If cockroaches were reckless they would have been wiped out ages ago.
For instance, the 90s saw the innovation of bait traps in the US. Humans thought they had won the war but our success was too good to last. By the early 2000s cockroaches were fighting back and bait traps were defeated miserably. They evolved an aversion to glucose. The sweetener that roaches originally found to be irresistible now registered as bitter. Humans are such arrogant fools, the roaches were probably laughing at us at this point. For these creatures successfully came up with solutions for almost everything that was thrown at them for more than 300 million years. When we start throwing nuclear bombs at each other cockroaches will survive that too and, finally, when we bite the dust they will feast on our rotting remains!
Once my pet cat cocked and bobbed its head as it followed the movement of a loving prey – the cockroach. Cats just love to win the battle. But oh my! How the cockroach moved! We talk of the agility of cheetahs. We need to observe the cockroach more.
Its legs are like a spring rod and the spines on them help it move through difficult terrain without a stumble. After detecting the wind generated by the attacking predator roaches initially respond by rapidly turning away to avoid the first strike followed by continued running.
It runs up to 1.5 metres per second with high manoeuvrability in the most difficult of terrains. When given a sideways poke, it quickly regains composure, in less than 10 milliseconds – the ultimate example of self-stabilisation. This provided inspiration for robotic legs created by professor Robert Full in biomechanics at the University of Berkeley!
But even Full’s designed robots are incapable of mimicking the agility of the cockroach. How many of us have seen the cockroach swing out of sight? Like vanish completely? This is because a roach can flip under a ledge by swinging its body around like a pendulum and can hang underneath. Here too, the spines of its legs come to the rescue – they help it hold on firmly like a gecko. The movement occurs so fast that the human eye is incapable of processing it. They can cover 50 times their body length in just a second. On a human scale, that’s about 200 miles/hour! To the naked eye it appears as if the cockroach has disappeared!
Cockroaches have inspired not only scientists but artists too. The popular pop-star Madonna once said, “I am a survivor, just like a cockroach. You cannot get rid of me.” Even the boxing coach Freddie Roach was nicknamed La Cucaracha, meaning ‘The Cockroach,’ when he was still competing as a fighter. Others have delved deeper. The rock group Modest Mouse sang a song Doin The Cockroach, where they tell people that we are no better than the vermin we despise. Just like cockroaches survive to live on, people live a similar life in their made-up-little world – wake up, work, eat, sleep. In short, we are living insignificant lives without trying to change it.
Other artists have painted the cockroach in a different light. In the movie Twilight of the Cockroaches, an extermination of cockroaches in a holocaust is depicted where ultimately the film ends with the pregnant protagonist cockroach, Naomi, escaping to mother many generations. In the book, Revolt of the Cockroach People, an autobiography penned by Oscar Zeta Acosta, cockroaches are used as a metaphor for tormented and subjugated minorities of the 1960s and 70s in the US. Finally, in Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles, giant cockroaches befriend humans in the imaginary Underland. They and their toddler friend, whom they affectionately call ‘the princess’, love each other a lot.
Do these grand-dads then teach us to find a different meaning to existence itself? One that can give meaning to other’s lives and at the same time speaks out loud against oppressive forces?