It is probably safe to say that nobody has ever friended a cockroach on Facebook, but its will to survive isn’t dependant on social networking or welcome mats. The cockroach family (Blattidae) was prolific 350 million years ago and is found all over the world today. When we see a cockroach, it’s probably in someone’s home, but close to 4,000 species of cockroach don’t even want to live with humans.
Last week I mentioned the leaproach, a previously unknown species which to me is the most interesting one on this year’s list of newly-found life forms. It’s a South African cockroach, discovered by Mike Picker from the University of Capetown when he was looking for something else. It can leap 48 times its body length, while the other 4000 species of cockroaches don’t hop at all. The leaproach is a better jumper than the grasshopper, which jumps 20 body lengths, It has no wings to help with stability, though cockroaches are thought to have been the first flying animals. It does have specialized antenna sockets that make its shape more aerodynamic, and a joint that facilitates backwards motion at take-off. It also has bulging eyes that enable it to target its ‘landing strip".
The leaproach’s greatest assets are its enormous hind legs and a lump of resilin, an elastic protein, on its knees. The resilin works like an elastic band or a spring-loaded coil and stores the energy of the flexing leg muscles to give them a powerful boost for jumping. The leaproach’s rate of acceleration is 23 times greater than the earth’s gravity, which is 9.81 metres every second. The muscles of the leaproach’s femurs are one-fifth of its total body weight.
There is a name for the process of distantly related species, like grasshoppers and cockroaches, becoming similar over time when they share a habitat and have the same problems to solve. The term is convergent evolution. Both grasshoppers and cockroaches have to move through sedge grass and it is much easier to jump between stems ( or soar above them) than to scurry along the ground. However, it’s a mystery why other species of cockroach in the same environment haven’t also evolved as high jumpers. Like the leaproach, they have to find mates, forage for food and escape predators in grassy fields, but unlike the leaproach, they do it the hard way.
I wonder what wondrous creatures that we don’t know about yet will make it to next year’s Top 10. Entomologist, Quentin Wheeler at Arizona State University says that there are probably 10,000 unnamed, unclassified life-forms that we must study before we can understand the diversity and complexity of life on this planet.