Cockroach Species that Can Withstand Winter Cold Shows Up at NYC's 'The High Line' Tourist Hotspot


The High Line, the New York park that turned a dilapidated stretch of elevated railway on Manhattan's West Side into one of the city's newest tourist attractions, may have brought a different kind of visitor: a cockroach never seen before in the US that can withstand the harsh winter cold.

Insect biologists at the city's Rutgers Univeristy, Jessica Ware and Dominic Evangelista, said the species Periplaneta japonica is well-documented in Asia but has never been confirmed in the US – until now.

The scientists, whose findings were published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, say it is too soon to predict the impact but there is probably little cause for concern. "Because this species is very similar to cockroach species that already exist in the urban environment," Evangelista said, "they likely will compete with each other for space and for food."

That competition, Ware said, will likely keep the population low "because more time and energy spent competing means less time and energy to devote to reproduction".

But Michael Scharf, a professor of urban entomology at Purdue University, said the situation should be monitored. "To be truly invasive, a species has to move in and take over and out-compete a native species," he said. "There's no evidence of that, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about it."

The newcomer was first spotted in New York in 2012 by an exterminator working on the High Line. The scientists suspect the insect was likely a stowaway in the soil of ornamental plants used to adorn the park. "Many nurseries in the United States have some native plants and some imported plants," Ware said. "It's not a far stretch to picture that that is the source."

Periplaneta japonica has special powers not seen in the local cockroach population, including the fact that it can survive outdoors in the freezing cold. "There has been some confirmation that it does very well in cold climates, so it is very conceivable that it could live outdoors during winter in New York," Ware said. "I could imagine japonica being outside and walking around, though I don't know how well it would do in dirty New York snow."

The likelihood that the new species will mate with the locals to create a hybrid super-roach is slim, Evangelista says. "The male and female genitalia fit together like a lock and key, and that differs by species," she said. "So we assume that one won't fit the other."

Cockroaches are among the most hardy creatures on the planet. Among the 4,000 or so known species are those that withstand ice burial, hefty doses of radiation, and having their heads chopped off. The headlessinsects survive because their neck wounds clot, and they breathe through little holes in their body segments. The head lives on, too, for a few hours, and longer if given nutrients.

The insects survive in part because of their impressive ability to adapt to new environments and eat almost anything.

Earlier this year, researchers at North Carolina State University found German cockroaches evolved to avoid toxic bait balls through a sensory tweak that made sugar in the bait taste bitter.

Researchers once thought the insects wandered around randomly, but work on German cockroaches found they left trails of dung behind them that they later used to find their way. In major infestations, these brown tracks are visible and give off a noticeable odour. Some species can produce tens of thousands of nymphs in their lifetime.

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