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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 18:58 GMT


Sci/Tech

Cockroaches: World champion side-steppers

Cockroaches can dodge more rapidly than anything else on Earth

In the natural world, dodging disaster is vital if you are not going to be pounced on by predators. Now, the world champion dodger has been crowned - the cockroach.


Jeff Camhi explains why they watched the cockroaches dodging
The bug has been filmed making 25 twists and turns in a single second. Scientists in Israel captured the incredible scuttling action in an attempt to find out how the cockroach achieves its fantastic sure-footedness.

"We saw that the cockroach can do something no other animal can, so we wanted to look at that," Professor Jeff Camhi, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told BBC News Online.

What has baffled his team is how the cockroach can change direction to avoid obstacles so rapidly and so often. To change direction, an electrical impulse has to travel from the tip of its long antennae into the brain and then onto the legs. The nerve cells in the antennae are very narrow and therefore should transmit the information slowly.

Video nasty

The roaches were filmed by a high-speed video camera (recording 250 frames per second) as they ran along a tin wall. With a straight wall, they kept a constant distance away, apparently using their long antennae as a guide.

The bugs managed to repeat the feat when a zigzag wall was used. To make sure they were not using their eyes to spot the turns, the researchers blindfolded the cockroaches with drops of darkened wax. They still twisted and turned expertly.

The Periplaneta americana cockroach is three to four centimetres long but has five centimetre long antennae. They can run at up to 1 metre per second, which is the scaled equivalent of a human running at about 150 km/h (90 mph).


Professor Camhi argues that cockroaches are valuable
Professor Camhi says that most of their research on cockroaches uses their nervous system as a simpler model of those found in all animals. "I don't admire him in my home, but I do in the lab - his nervous system is really beautiful," he said.

The research is reported in New Scientist magazine. Roy Ritzmann studies cockroach behaviour at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio and told the magazine: "The most talented roboticist in the world is not going to come close to what a cockroach can do - I'm amazed by them."

Photographs courtesy of Professor Joe Kunkel, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.



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