Alien Cockroach Species Invading the U.S.

Photo of adult males of the Turkestan cockroach and the oriental cockroach.
Adult males of the Turkestan cockroach (left) and the oriental cockroach, two invaders to the U.S. Photograph by Entomological Society of America

New York City, home to eight million people and untold numbers of cockroaches, just got a few more of the latter.

A newly seen species, Periplaneta japonica, has just been discovered in New York’s elevated High Line park. As its name implies, the cockroach is native to Japan, and this is the first time it’s been spotted in the United States.

“It is closely related to the common American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) although it is a bit smaller,” said Dominic Evangelista, a Ph.D. candidate in insect biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who, with co-author Jessica Ware, documented the roach’s presence in a new study just published in the Journal of Economic Entomology.

What has New Yorkers’ ears perking up (and skin crawling) about the news isn’t just the fact that there’s a new bug in town, but that it boasts an unusual resistance to cold weather, which perhaps isn’t the most welcome development when it concerns a creature already popularly known for its hardiness and supposed ability to survive an atomic blast.

“It can survive outdoors, and thrives on ice,” said Ware, whose lab conducted the study, meaning the newcomers could have a better chance of toughing out a New York winter than their local cousins have. “It is possible that they will spread and thrive over the winter given their cold tolerance,” said Ware in an email.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how the newcomer arrived, the researchers suspect that imported ornamental plants in the High Line park could have brought the bugs as stowaways in their soil.

As for whether New York’s latest import will spread in its new environment: “We really don’t know yet,” said Evangelista. “We hear that they are very abundant on the High Line but so far haven’t been reported anywhere else.”

Evangelista added that New Yorkers who spot the small, black roach can help track the newly arrived species by sharing a photo with BugGuide.net or tweeting it to the Twitter handles @Roach_Brain or @NYInvasiveSpp.

The thought of yet another insect home invader to contend with may do little to help already-much-pestered New Yorkers rest easy, but the good news, according to Ware and Evangelista, is that the new species will have to compete with local roaches, which could have a limiting effect on both populations.

Net Effect

New York isn’t the only place seeing changes in its roach population. Throughout the southwestern United States, the invasive Turkestan cockroach (Blatta lateralis) is thought to be displacing the so-called oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis) in urban centers.

With a faster life cycle and larger broods, the Turkestan cockroach is thought to be outlaying and outpacing its competition.

“Clearly the Turkestan cockroach breeds faster than does the oriental cockroach,” Michael K. Rust, a professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of a new article on the subject in the Journal of Economic Entomology, said in an email.

“At this point, I think the greater reproductive capacity may be the reason that Turkestan cockroaches are displacing oriental cockroaches.”

Rust explained that the Turkestan cockroach is thought to originate from central Asia. While the origins of the oriental cockroach are more murky, he said recent studies suggest it may be from the Middle East.

Though its role has yet to be examined, the Internet may also be a contributing factor to its spread, as the Turkestan cockroach can be easily bought and sold online and is popular as live feed among animal breeders, particularly those dealing with reptiles.

“Since they can’t climb smooth surfaces and breed quickly for a large cockroach species, it appears to be pretty popular,” said Rust.

Insect Shifts

While the spread of invasive new roach species may constitute a demographic shift in the U.S. roach population, Ware pointed out that it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.

“The American cockroach invaded the U.S., probably with the slave trade, so we are experiencing perhaps another shift in pests in NYC,” she said. (Ware said the American cockroach is thought to have originated in Africa.)

Ware also put in a good word for the much-maligned insects, which, for all their creepiness, do little actual harm.

“Cockroaches are amazing, and of the roughly 4,500 species there are only two percent that are pests,” says Ware.

“The rest are remarkable.”

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Stefan Sirucek is a writer and journalist who reports from both sides of the Atlantic. He's written for the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @sirstefan.

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