New Cold-Resistant Cockroach Found in NYC, But Does It Live Up To The Hype?

A group of exterminators working on the High Line Park in Manhattan recently uncovered a strange species of cockroach that was unknown to them. After sending it to an Entomologists for analysis it was confirmed that they had discovered an Asian species of roach that was never before found in the United States. Following this news came a torrent of reports with a slew of sensationalized headlines about the new “invaders”. Most of the articles are focused on the fact that this new species of cockroach is far more resistant to cold temperatures than other roaches native to New York, and they are capable of living both indoors and outdoors even in the winter. Some articles even suggest that these new roaches may breed with other species, creating some kind of “super roach”. In this situation scare tactics such as these are used to drum up publicity around the story. In many cases misinformation about “bugs” can feed into unnecessary worries or paranoia that has been known to endanger the welfare of perfectly harmless species of insects. It is a shame that so many species that are actually beneficial to both humans and the environment are demonized and targeted for destruction. It is doubtful that the threat of this roach will be nearly as severe as the headlines suggest.

The Facts About The New Asian Roach Species (Periplaneta Japonica):

  • It is believed that they may have arrived in New York hidden in the soil of potted plants used in the construction of the High Line urban park (on Manhattan’s West Side)
  • The cockroaches are unique in their ability to survive outdoors in the snow and in temperatures as low as 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • These roaches are able to adapt to freezing temperatures using a natural antifreeze chemical known as Trehalose that is found throughout their bodies. As the temperature drops, they have a natural survival mechanism which dehydrates them enough that the fluid in their bodies will not freeze. After the cold has subsided they re-hydrate and are again filled with fluid.
  • Although never before encountered in the United States, these roaches are common throughout Asia. This is why their ability to withstand cold is well known and documented.

Ways That The Impact of These Roaches May Have Been Overstated

Here are some claims (and myths) that have been made about the potential threat of the new Asian cockroaches, along with some quotes from other articles and headlines around the web:

  • Myth: These new Asian roaches are an invasive species. “Invasive cockroach found in NYC” Fact: There is not yet evidence that this roach even fits the definition of an invasive species. So many species exist outside of their native environments that at this point defining all non-native species as invasive is just too broad a distinction. To be truly invasive, a species must “adversely affect or disrupt their habitat” In other words when a species is introduced that has no natural predators, it can multiply out of control and cause damage to an ecosystem by throwing off the natural balance. Since this new roach will be in direct competition with other well-established roach species already in New York, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to gain dominance over all the other species. Although  it is difficult to fully predict their impact, it is likely that this species will remain small in number or live alongside other roaches in direct competition, not throw off the whole ecosystem the way an invasive species would. 
  • Myth: The ability of these roaches to resist the cold makes them more of a threat. “A winter-proof cockroach… it’s just New York’s latest invader” Fact: The ability of these roaches to survive a New York winter is untested. Asian studies that examined the cold resistance of these roaches used fresh, undisturbed snow. It is still unclear whether the roaches would be able to survive in the adverse conditions of New York. According to Michael Scharf, a professor of Urban Entomology at Purdue University, “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. I could imagine japonica being outside and walking around, though I don’t know how well it would do in the dirty New York snow.”
  • Myth: The japonica roach species could breed with other roach species creating a super roach. Fact: Cockroach genitalia are highly specialized and complex. Similar looking species often have very different genitalia, which fit together “like lock and key”. Some entomologists will even use a roach’s genitalia to identify it because it may be one of the few characteristics that distinguish it from other species. This makes it highly unlikely that the new species of roach will be able to interbreed with other species.
  • These roaches will have a huge disadvantage in that they have never been exposed to the types of pesticide that are used in New York. Other species have survived many attempts to exterminate them and adapted to a wide variety of chemical pesticides. This means that they have developed a crucial resistance that the new japonica species will not have
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