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Learning in Cockroaches

By Mary Colvard



Skills:

  • Recording Data
  • Making Observations
  • Acquiring information
  • Analyzing data
  • Interpreting data
  • Manipulating material
  • Observing

Target Audience:

  • High School Biology
  • Middle School Life Science

Lab Purpose:

To see, if by providing a positive stimulus, students can detect learning in cockroaches. A secondary purpose is to provide students with the opportunity to carefully observe and work with an insect they normally find offensive. Thus students will develop a keener appreciation of the complexities of experimental design and of animal life.

Description:

First students make careful observations of cockroach anatomy and behavior. Due to the reputation of the cockroach, students find them intriguing subjects of study. Assessing the behavior of these insects in a maze, allows students to decide if the cockroach manifests learning or an inability to learn. The strongest piece of this activity is challenging students to design their own controlled experiment which assesses some aspect of cockroach behavior.


Background Notes for the teacher:

Classification:

The cockroach species selected for use in this activity is classified as follows:

  • Kingdom: Animal
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Dictyoptera
  • Family: Blaberoidea
  • Genus: Blaberus
  • Species: giganteus

General Information:

There are many other varieties with which this type of student investigation could be conducted, but we have chosen Blaberus for several reasons. Its large size makes its immediately attractive, yet repulsive to students. Its life cycle is easy to follow and the seven or eight molts required to reach the adult stage beautifully illustrate insect growth and incomplete metamorphosis. The nymphs require from 140 to 200 days to reach maturity. The adult, if provided with optimum conditions can be expected to live for up to 20 months.

Blaberus is readily available in standard, school science supply catalogs (as the Giant Cockroach) at a reasonable price. It is confined to the American tropics and temperate South America making it unlikely that the organism would be successful in establishing large breeding populations in colder regions of the country. Another important point, Blaberus does not bite and prefers to scurry rather than fly. It does have an adhesive organ between the claws on its feet and can climb smooth surfaces.

History:

The cockroach is a prime candidate for most loathsome, obnoxious, and disgusting insect. The pest status of the cockroach derives mainly from an esthetic abhorrence more than anything else. It is associated with thriving in unclean conditions, rapidly producing large populations, and moving rapidly in an unpredictable manner. These animals have been clocked at a speed of 50 body lengths per second on a treadmill located in the research lab of biologist Roy Ritzmann at Case Western Reserve University. This is the equivalent of Carl Lewis doing the 100-meter in 1.09 seconds! (Kelly, 1994)

The word cockroach is supposedly derived from the Spanish word "cucaracha." One early name was "lucifuga" stemming from its habit of shunning light. Throughout history, tales of the cockroach have been recorded. Rau wrote that, "one often reads of the injury done to the eyebrows of sleeping children by Periplameta americana in Central and South America. The story, incredulous as it may seem, is that roaches at night find sleeping children and feed upon their eyebrows. From my own experience - I was awakened by a tickling sensation on my face only to find upon opening my eyes, a pair of long cockroach antennae playing delicately for sense impressions while the cockroach's extended mouth parts were imbibing moist nourishment from my nostrils." (Rau, 1940)

Cockroaches are ancient insects having existed very successfully, relatively unchanged, for approximately 400 million years. This means that they have inhabited Earth 100 times longer than humans. Fossil cockroaches are found in rock layers dating from the Carboniferous era which is known for high humidity and huge populations of plants. They evolved with the flora, rapidly outnumbering all other groups of winged insects. They have remained relatively unchanged and unspecialized from the Carboniferous to present. Presently there are 3,500 known species, most of which are tropical.

Cockroaches show a great diversity in size and coloration. Many species are diurnal (active in the daytime) while others are nocturnal, some are semi-aquatic, some are wood-boring, and fewer than 1% are house pests. Many of the tropical varieties are omnivorous scavengers. What has attracted some species to human dwellings is the diversity and quantity of food available. Cockroaches are great opportunists with some even being accomplished sailors. According to an old Japanese Navy communication, "a seaman who has captured 300 cockroaches will be granted one day shore leave." (Cornwell, 1968) However, few species are good at tolerating cold temperatures. Today, as in the past, most are found in warm, moist low places with much vegetation.

One feature that makes the cockroach different from its close relatives the locusts and crickets is its lack of a visible ovipositor (egg depositor). Through time it has become smaller in size and is not visible externally. Its function, in many species, is to guide eggs into an abdominal cavity in the female where eggs are held and incubated internally until hatching. It is thought that the cricket ovipositor is more like that of ancient cockroaches. It was probably used to deposit single eggs in the ground or in plant stems. Fern fossils found in the same area as cockroach fossils often show a row of slits which could have been made by an ovipositor. At some point in the cockroach's evolution, the eggs were contained within a hardened sac and/or the female's body to protect them from drying and to increase the chance of survival. Most of what is known about ancient cockroaches comes from a study of fossilized wings. There are more wing fossils than of any other part of the insect. Quite often predators will discard wings when consuming the rest of the insect.

Sensory Receptors:

The main sensory receptors students will be interested in for the purpose of this investigation are briefly described below. There are others.

  • Eyes: The cockroach has a pair of compound eyes comprised of a number of small ommatidia (facets) each with a biconvex lens. The lens is formed from transparent cuticle. Some species have a pair of simple eyes or ocelli. The ocelli have a single lens and cannot perceive form. They seem to be merely light collecting organs.
  • Contact Receptors: The cockroach is aware of its immediate surroundings primarily through touch. The antennae have tactile hairs for this purpose. There are also spines for this purpose on the legs and body.
  • Hemoreceptors: The cockroach is not very fussy in its choice of food. Through experimentation it has been learned that the mouth parts do have "flavor" receptors giving the cockroach a sense of taste.
  • Auditory Receptors: Hearing is not very well developed in the cockroach. They respond to air movements and ground vibrations which are detected by hairs on the body and cerci. Cerci are feeler-like extensions located on the posterior. No tympanum or eardrum such as is seen in grasshoppers and crickets is present.

Pedagogical Information:

This activity nicely lends itself to the cooperative learning approach. Each team of three students should have a Recorder, an Animal Handler, and a Maze Master. The tasks for each individual are described in the student section of the lab.

Materials:

For each cooperative group of three students

  • One Y-maze, one E-maze
  • One clear (Plexiglas) maze covers
  • One roach hut
  • One opaque cardboard cover for a maze arm
  • One or two disposable latex glove
  • One giant cockroach
  • One small plastic container with a lid
  • Three of each of the student information sheets and six of the Y and E maze outlines


Procedure

Maintenance

In order to keep your cockroaches alive and well, their temperature should be regulated so as to stay between 27 degrees to 30 degrees C. For a large culture for classroom use, a 15 gallon aquarium of glass or plastic with or without a lid can be used. A container 30 x 30 cm is large enough for 24 cockroaches. The inside rim of the tank should be smeared with a 2 inch wide band of Vaseline to prevent escape. A few egg cartons, some reversed plastic containers with holes to allow entrance and exit, or some strips of cardboard arranged in layers will provide suitable shelters. A thin layer of sawdust is suitable for the bottom of the cage.

For food, dog food, rat chow, rolled oats, wheat germ, potato, or apple will provide variety for a balanced diet. Water can be provided by the inverted vial method or by placing a piece of dental packing tucked in a small vial. Mold and drowning are sometimes problems associated with water supply. The easiest way to prevent both and to provide nourishment is to keep a fresh slice of potato or apple in the roach habitat at all times instead of the water container.

Material Preparation

Each maze should be constructed according to the specifications which follow on the next two pages. White foam core board, which can be purchased at many drug stores and office supply stores, works well for the sides. Plain cardboard is fine for the base. Clear package tape holds the maze sections together. The sections can be cut from the foam core board with a mat knife.

First measure the section and mark it off on the board. Then use the mat knife to cut through the top layer of the foam board. Turn the board over, gently bend upward along the cut, and then with it still in the bent position, use the knife to cut through the remainder of the board. This should provide a smooth section. One piece of foam core board is not quite enough to construct a pair of Y and E-mazes. It takes a bit of time to cut the maze sections and to tape them all together. Enlisting the talents of a student or two might be a good idea.

Once the mazes are constructed, they can be used from one year to the next, making setup time for this activity minimal in the future. Diagrams showing the arrangement of the foam core sections and dimensions are located at the end of the teacher section. Plexiglas can also be used to make the sides of the maze. The easiest way to do this is to ask the local supplier if they will cut the Plexiglas to your specification. Sometimes they charge a little extra to do this. If Plexiglas sides are used, the maze will be durable enough to not require a bottom piece. Use the counter surface as the floor of the maze. This makes wiping with a dilute Lysol solution between trials much easier. The wiping isn't necessary, but does make the experiment more scientifically valid. Sophisticated students will wonder if cockroaches use pheromone trails and the rinsing of the surface with a cleaner between trial runs will eliminate such trails if they exist.

A piece of Plexiglas of standard thickness works well for the maze cover. It is transparent so that the animal's activities are readily observed. It is also rigid and fairly heavy (to a cockroach) so that it fits snugly over the maze sections. This makes it less likely that the animal will escape during a trial run. Plexiglas can be obtained at many hardware stores and frame shops. There are also establishments that deal exclusively in glass and Plexiglas.

The cardboard base can be cut from any box that is large enough. A piece of scrap cut to a length of 5 inches and a width of 2.5 inches (approximately) will be folded in the shape of an inverted "U" and serve as the roach hut. Cardboard cut 3.25 inches wide and 7 inches long will serve as the light barrier by covering the "y" arms as needed. The same barrier can be used on the E-maze even though the arms of the "E" are shorter. Do not let the barrier cover any portion of the long section of the E-maze.

Disposable latex gloves can be ordered by the box from standard science supply companies. Don't buy the clear polyethylene gloves because students will not be able to securely hold the cockroaches. These gloves are not form fitting and are slippery.

The cockroaches can be obtained from a science supply house such as Carolina Biological or Ward's Natural Science Establishment. Order them a month or more before doing the activity. This will allow your students to acclimate to the insects and to become increasingly curious about them. The average cost is $26.00 for 12 animals. Both the adults and the older nymphs can be used in the maze activity.

Trials

When all of the materials are ready and the students have received their instructions, the Animal Handler can then pick up the team's cockroach from the teacher. Have the animal in a small plastic container with a snap on lid. A yogurt or sour cream container will be fine.

Once the Recorder is set with the Observations Sheet and the appropriate Maze Outline Sheet, the Maze Master should slide the Plexiglas so that the cockroach can be gently deposited in end of the tail of the Y-maze. They should start with the Y-maze since if offers the cockroach only two options or decisions rather than three as in the E-maze. As soon as the animal is in place, the Plexiglas should be slid back into place to prevent escape!

Initially, the animal should be permitted to explore the maze and students should make ten observations describing the cockroach and its behavior. It should be noted which arm of the Y-maze the cockroach first enters. The opaque cover will be place over the opposite arm when the trial begin.

After the observations are completed, the Maze Master should slide the cover back and the Animal Handler will remove the cockroach and return it to the plastic cup. Allow a minute to pass. A piece of cardboard folded in the shape of a U should be placed at the end of the arm of the "Y" that is going to be covered.

Safety Notes

Since Blaberus does not bite and is pathogen free (having come from a science supply house rather than the wild) two of the largest safety concerns when handling animals are immediately eliminated. Be sure to keep the culture tank clean and mold free. If the water container gets dumped and the floor of the container is wet for a period of time, mold may begin to grow. Mold can quickly decimate your cockroach population and perhaps cause allergic reactions in your students.

Caution students when handling the organisms not to squeeze them too tightly and to be careful not to let them escape. If the cockroaches are transported in the small plastic containers and the lids are kept on the mazes during trials, there should be little chance of run away roaches.

The greatest concern during the activity is for the safety and well-being of the cockroaches. With proper discussion before the lab, everyone should be fine - invertebrates and vertebrates alike!

Time

The initial introduction and maze trials will take one class period (45 minutes) and perhaps a little more. You might want to introduce the cockroach to students during one class period and allow them to do the observations run. Tell them not to record Y-maze arm preference.

The next class period could be spent discussing a few of their observations and pointing out the difference between observations and inferences and opinions. Then have them place a new cockroach in the Y-maze and the E-maze and answer the questions. Their homework would be to design the next experiment and have it ready for the next lab session. Their original experiments will take another 45 minute class period.


Teaching Tips and Logistics

  • The Animal Handler should be permitted to wear a latex glove on the hand the student will be using to hold the cockroach. One for each hand would be nice if you have enough. It provides the handler with more confidence. For some it is not enough to be told that cockroaches don't bite - the protective barrier provided by the glove is comforting. Have the handler write his/her name on the glove and it can then, if necessary, be saved an used on successive days of the experiment.

  • More advanced students may want to do timed trials rather than just tracings of the cockroach paths. They might also be interested in determining the frequency of error once the team has established that the cockroach has learned the direction the students want it to travel. Other insects (such as crickets, meal worms, beetles, and ants) can be used and the results compared to the cockroach findings. Ants leave a pheromone trail. Students unaware of this might find it puzzling why all subsequent ants tried in the maze will know exactly where to go once the original ant has been "trained". (Note: The trial doesn't last long so time is critically important)

  • By establishing appropriate cooperative groups, all students can be assigned a role which is appropriate to their talents. If necessary, a fourth assignment, Organizer, can be made. The Organizer will make sure that all of the others are fulfilling their assignments.

Answers to Questions

  1. If after several trials, the cockroach runs directly into the covered side of the maze, the student can claim that their animal's behavior is evidence that learning has occurred. It may be that this is true only with the Y-maze and not the E-maze. If the cockroach consistently shows erratic behavior and never demonstrates an awareness of the presence of the darkness and hut in one arm, the student can claim there is no evidence of learning. Almost any answer based on the student's data is acceptable.

  2. Students can reference the fact that the cockroach went to the shaded side 6 times out of ten. They could claim that after making several mistakes, the cockroach went to the shaded side almost every trial. As evidence of no learning, the student can refer to the fact that the cockroach's pattern of movement was totally unpredictable. Again, almost any reasonable answer is acceptable.

  3. If the cockroach is able to learn, then it could easily return to dark, moist areas where it can hide from predators and spend the day. It would also be useful in finding rich food supplies and successfully returning to them. If it is unable to learn, perhaps the unpredictable nature of its behavior would be beneficial. It would not be locked into specific food caches or hiding places. More intelligent predators might have difficulty with this type of response.

  4. Students might decide to run two or three different cockroaches through the Y-maze at different times. If they all respond in a similar fashion with the same relative number of errors, it can be concluded that the animals are equally intelligent. If one of the cockroaches heads to the darkened side with a greater degree of correctness, it could be concluded that animal is smarter. Students could use the same procedure and setup as in the cockroach experiment they just completed. To see if the cockroach is smarter than other animals, students could repeat the same maze experiment using sowbugs or crickets or mealworm beetles. All of these organisms show a definite preference for darkened areas.

  5. This is a tough question. Just because cockroaches can see blue and yellow, it doesn't mean that they prefer them over other colors. Students could suggest that one arm of the Y-maze have a strip of either yellow or blue paper placed in it. The other arm could be left plain cardboard or covered with a strip of paper some other color with a brightness comparable to the yellow or blue. Tracings could be made to determine if the cockroach went to one arm of the maze more than any other color, students could conclude that the animals can see the difference in the color. Does this mean they prefer it? If they go to the other arm more often, this might be an indication that they can see the difference in the two colors and are more attracted to the other one.

Extensions

  • An interesting extension would be to see how long the cockroach remembers which arm of the maze is darkened and contains the roach hut. After running the trials, doing the tracings, and determining that the cockroach now knows which way to travel, a period of time selected by the team should be allowed to elapse. The cockroach can then be reintroduced into the maze and students can then observe, do tracings, and decide if there has been a retention of information. Varying lengths of time can be used.

  • The orientation of the maze in relation to light can be changed. Students can then decide if cockroaches use the angle of the sun's rays to successfully navigate.

  • Invite an animal behavior specialist to talk to the class about animal senses and learning.

References

  • Bell, W.J. and K.G. Adiyodi, editors. (1982). The American Cockroach, Chapman and Hall, London.
  • Cornwall, P.B. (1968). The Cockroach, Volume I, Hutchinson & Company, Ltd., London.
  • Guthrie, D.M. and A.R. Tindall (1968). The Biology of the Cockroach, Edward Arnold (publishers) Ltd., London.
  • Kelly, J.P. (1994). "Starring the Cockroach Kid". Ohio Magazine, May, 18-21.
  • Rau, P. (1940). The Life History of the American Cockroach, Periplametaamericana Linn. (orthop.: Blattidae). Ent. News, 51.


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