Celebrate blattodeans

Giant blattodean (Megaloblatta blaberoides) was until recently considered to be the largest member of its order. [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 x 580EXII]

In 1994 I took a tropical ecology course in Costa Rica, which was my first exposure to a Neotropical rainforest. The course itself did not convince me to become an ecologist, but at the same time it ignited my fascination with Neotropical biodiversity that has remained strong to this day. While there I made an interesting discovery, or at least I thought I did, because, as it turned out, I was a bit too late.

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.

The exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History devoted to blattodeans (which are, apparently, also known as cockroaches.) [iPhone 4GS]

A few years later I made another interesting observation on blattodean behavior, this time truly new, and Dr. Roth and I published our first paper together. We collaborated on a few additional publications, but unfortunately, while working on a large treatment of Costa Rican blattodeans, he passed away in 2003 at the age of 85.

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.

One of Marc Socié’s drawings from the exhibit.

6 thoughts on “Celebrate blattodeans

    • Hi,

      I’m Marc Socié. The illustrator who worked on this exhibition.
      You’re so right. I based this precise illustration on Brierley’s photo.
      It would have been tricky to draw directly from a living mantid eating.

  1. Thank you so much Piotr for mentioning me on your blog and putting there one my illustrations.

    Hope people will discover the diversity of cockroaches and be at least less afraid of them after seeing the exhibition.

    Marc

  2. H. Bernard Hartman says:
    When you met Lou Roth and discussed stridulation, he should have referred you to the earliest paper on the subject that we published in 1967 (Nature 213:1243-1244). I enjoyed you homage to Lou; he was a wonderful post doctoral mentor. Retired here on the “left’ coast” I missed the cockroach exhibit at the museum. If you have a high resolution photo of the exhibit, I’d enjoy seeing it.

  3. Aw, this was a really nice post. Spending some time and
    actual effort to make a superb article… but what can I say… I
    procrastinate a whole lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

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