66 million years ago, a strange cockroach trait helped them survive dinosaurs

If the rock now known as the Chicxulub impactor, which crashed out of space and crashed into Earth 66 million years ago, there were cockroaches. The impact caused a massive earthquake, and scientists believe it also triggered volcanic eruptions thousands of miles from the impact site. Three-fourths of the plants and animals on Earth were wiped out, including all dinosaurs except for a few species that were ancestors of modern-day birds.

How could cockroaches a few inches long survive when so many mighty animals went extinct? It turns out they were well-equipped to weather a meteoric cataclysm.

If you’ve ever seen a cockroach, you’ve probably noticed that their bodies are very flat. This is not an accident. Flatter insects can squeeze into tighter spaces. This allows them to hide almost anywhere – and it may have helped them survive the Chicxulub impact.

Cockroaches have flat bodies that help them squeeze through tiny gaps. They are also strong and fast.

When the meteor struck, temperatures on the Earth’s surface skyrocketed. Many animals had nowhere to escape, but cockroaches were able to hide in tiny crevices in the ground, which provide excellent protection from the heat.

The impact of the meteor triggered a cascade of effects. So much dust kicked up that the sky darkened. As the sun darkened, temperatures dropped and conditions turned wintry around the globe. With little sunlight, surviving plants struggled to grow, and many other organisms that relied on these plants suffered starvation.

However, no cockroaches. Unlike some insects that prefer to eat a specific plant, cockroaches are omnivores. That means they eat most foods that come from animals or plants, as well as cardboard, some types of clothing, and even feces. An indiscriminate appetite has allowed cockroaches to survive lean times since the Chicxulub extinction and other natural disasters.

Another helpful feature is that cockroaches lay their eggs in small protective shells. These egg cartons look like dried beans and are called ootheca, which means “egg crates.” Like phone cases, oothecae are tough and protect their contents from physical damage and other threats like floods and droughts. Some roaches may have been waiting out some of the Chicxulub disaster comfortably in their ootheca.

Modern cockroaches are small survivors that can live almost anywhere on land, from the heat of the tropics to some of the coldest parts of the world. Scientists estimate that there are over 4,000 species of cockroaches.

A handful of these species enjoy living with humans and quickly become pests. Once roaches have established themselves in a building, it is difficult to rid every little crevice of these insects and their oothecae. When cockroaches are in large numbers in unhygienic places, they can transmit disease. The greatest threat to human health is the allergens they produce, which can trigger asthma attacks and allergic reactions in some people.

Cockroach pests are difficult to control because they can withstand many chemical insecticides and because they have the same abilities that helped their ancestors survive many dinosaurs. Still, cockroaches are much more than a pest to control. Researchers study cockroaches to understand how they move and what their bodies are made of to get ideas for building better robots.

As a scientist, I see all insects as beautiful, six-legged inspirations. Cockroaches have already overcome odds too great for dinosaurs. If another meteorite hit earth, I’d worry more about people than cockroaches.

This article was originally published on The conversation from Brian Lovett at the West Virginia University. Read the original article here.

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