At the Las Cruces Biological Station near the Panamanian border, I found nymphs of the giant blattodean Megaloblatta blaberoides, which, until recently was considered to be the largest member of this group of insects in the world (a larger species was found in SE Asia a few years ago.) They had a peculiar behavior, which I thought was something previously unknown in this order – they stridulated loudly when disturbed, and the sound they made was eerily reminiscent of that of a rattlesnake, both in its frequency and loudness. I recorded and collected a few individuals, and dissected them to examine their sound-producing mechanism. I found out that they had paired sound-producing stridulatory organs on the ventral side of the abdomen, and made the sound by shaking the last few abdominal segments from side to side in a way very similar indeed to the way a rattlesnake uses its rattle. I took SEM photos of the structures, analyzed the sound recordings (which in fact had the same acoustic characteristics as those of the snakes), and drafted a manuscript about this unusual behavior. But before submitting the paper I decided to contact Dr. Louis Roth at Harvard University, the world’s preeminent blattodean specialist, to share the discovery with him.
I met him at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in a room filled from floor to ceiling with containers holding colonies of live blattodeans. It was feeding time, and he was busy throwing chicken wings into the cages, which I found peculiar because I thought that those insects were exclusively herbivorous. Dr. Roth listened to my story about the stridulation, and then pulled out a paper from a stack of reprints. It was a paper published twelve years earlier by Schal et al. (J. Insect Physiol. 28: 541-552), and it contained everything that I had put in my manuscript, and more. I was crushed. But the experience was also the first of many lessons in how science works, the most important ones being: (1) if you think that your discovery is great then somebody has probably already made it, and (2) do a comprehensive background research before putting anything on paper.
Today a new exhibit that highlights Dr. Roth’s work on blattodeans opens at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It is a small but beautifully presented celebration of both this scientist’s work and the diversity of a fascinating group of insects. During its preparation the museum was fortunate to be assisted by Marc Socié, a visiting French artist, who created wonderful, unconventional drawings of blattodeans and their relatives. The exhibit will be open for a year, and if you find yourself in Boston between now and the next fall, I urge you to stop by and see it.