4/13/2021: Cockroaches the king of insect intelligence?
Science may be confirming what some of us fanciers have known for a long time: when it comes to insects, cockroaches are smart cookies.
A new paper by Christopher Varnon and Ann Adams shows that cockroaches (Eublaberus posticus) are capable of habituation, a non-associative type of learning. While this may not be news to many roach keepers, this is the first time it has been formally studied, and in orange-heads no less.
Christopher reached out to me to purchase some adult orangeheads for future work, though unfortunately I’m currently out of them and waiting for my colony to recover. He was nice enough to share some additional behind-the-scenes information on the exciting field of cockroach intelligence, including some sentiments on unpublished findings regarding the even more thrilling possibility of associative learning in cockroaches.
“I have another paper I am writing on associative learning based on the work we did last summer. Yes, they do learn, and actually very quickly. So far, they are learning just as fast as bees, which is very exciting. I’m only having a little bit of difficulty right now getting motivated roaches, because it seems like colony density might matter for that.”I have many questions once the groundwork for future studies has been created, such as what cockroach species are the smartest, and why? Personally, I would expect species from stable environments, like orange-heads, to be relatively low on the intelligence scale. From what I’ve read, environmental complexity and disturbance tend to drive an organism’s need for thinking and learning. I would then expect that roaches from very complex environments with changing resources and conditions (such as those found in a city apartment) would need to learn more effectively and rapidly than those found in a stable, simple environment (such as a cave floor or the refuse in an ant nest). Perhaps Periplaneta americana will be found to be quite the genius among insects? How will that change the morality and ethics we apply to them as a pest? Fascinating stuff.
One final note while I can get my parting shot in… Many people think mantids are intelligent due to their habit of following their faces and “staring deeply and intimately”. Despite their close relationship to cockroaches, I must emphasize from experience and physiology that mantids are dumber than a box of rocks. Those giant eyes may be extremely discretionary and offer acute vision… but this is because mantids are essentially the closest nature has gotten to mindless killing machines and that trait allows them to effectively capture and consume the most prey possible. Those long, deep gazes are their way of figuring out if they can eviscerate and eat you, and, if not, how they can get away safely so they can then eviscerate and eat other things.
I’m not biased, it’s just science!