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A science teacher explains: Are cockroaches resistant to nuclear radiation?

Extensive research has proved that roaches have a remarkable ability to endure radiations!

By Rachna Arora

A cockroach is undoubtedly one of the toughest and most resilient creatures planet earth has ever known. Crawling and buzzing around for nearly 250 million years and belonging to the Jurassic period, they roamed with cavemen and witnessed the evolution of humankind. Having survived the giant asteroid 66 million years ago, which wiped out the mighty dinosaurs, cockroaches have an uncanny ability to survive and flourish in both arctic and extreme tropical conditions.

Practically unstoppable, you cannot block them as they can amazingly squeeze through a crevice as thin as a quarter of their body height in less than a second while capable of running at a speed of about 50 body lengths per second nearly equivalent to a human running at 320 km/h. Capable of withstanding forces more than 900 times their body weight without sustaining an injury, one cannot crush them easily. These exquisite creatures can live for nearly a week without their heads. Without highly pressurised blood vessels, unlike humans, they do not bleed out. Instead, their neck seals off the opening. With an open circulatory system, they can breathe through spiracles without the head and eventually die of thirst. Surprisingly, they can survive without food till about a month and without water, for about a week. While they cannot regenerate their heads, they are blessed with impressive regenerating powers capable of regrowing lost limbs, antennae and even their eyes.

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They can run, walk, jump, almost fly and swim while holding their breath for 40 minutes. With a diverse diet ranging from normal food – sugar, meat cheese and even cardboard, nails, blood including rotten food they can find a meal just about anywhere even though it may be poisonous to most animals. Equipped with a super-strong immune system that seeks out and kills harmful microbes, no environment is unhygienic, no food inedible for them.

With remarkable talents, abilities akin to superpowers, they are so smelly, slimy, greasy and gross, that we do not have a superhero “Cockroach Man”, despite roaches being an ideal candidate for the same while we do have superhero characters based on much less capable and primitive creatures like the spider, ant and wasp.

According to urban legend, cockroaches have the grit to withstand and outlive a nuclear disaster. This theory further got credence because after the disaster bombs namely “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ubiquitous cockroaches were seen on the site of rubble and destruction. The question is, is this fact or fiction?

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Actually, it is a bit of both! Extensive research has proved that roaches have a remarkable ability to endure radiations. While radiation of 1000 radon units (rad), which was emitted in Hiroshima, Nagasaki explosions is fatal for humans when exposed for 10 minutes, 50 percent of the roaches exposed to this level remain alive and kicking and even at 10000 rad about 30 percent would be healthy. This is seemingly the tolerance limit as when exposed to a higher level of radiation, their survival rate was marginal. With much slower cell reproduction cycle, roaches can withstand radiation, unless they are going through the ‘molting process’ or ‘exoskeleton growing phase’ when they are weak and vulnerable to the exposure with a high probability of fatality. Directly exposed to a nuclear blast, they succumb to intense heat.

The extraordinary abilities of roaches have inspired scientists to develop rescue robots that could be used to locate survivors in confined spaces in the event of a natural calamity like earthquakes or manmade disasters.

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Will the roaches survive the nuclear apocalypse and inherit the earth?

The answer is a clear no, notwithstanding being “insectes extraordinaire” unlike fruit flies, flower beetles and scorpions, the roaches cannot endure Nuclear Armageddon much against the common perception at large.

(The writer is PGT- Physics at Shiv Nadar School, Noida)

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