A Moment of Creativity: Reconsidering blattodeans

A while back someone asked me if I had any plans to put up a gallery page for blattodeans on this website. That was indeed something I had in mind; This is one of my favorite insect groups, so it would not do them justice if they are unrepresented here. I hate to admit, but my issue with uploading photos of blattodeans is mainly due to difficulties in identifying some of the species I photographed. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that the Blattodea gallery is now up and running.

Blattodeans suffer an extremely undeserved bad reputation. The majority of Blattodea species live in natural habitats such as forests, deserts, sand dunes, and meadows, leading a cryptic lifestyle away from humans. Only a tiny fraction of them, less than 1%, lives in proximity to humans and considered as pests. For this reason I decided to ditch the word “cockroaches” and follow Piotr Naskrecki by adopting the word “blattodeans”. In the sad reality that we live in today, the word “cockroach” often carries a negative connotation in people’s minds. It is associated with something unwanted, menacing, dirty, and harmful. This could not be further from the truth: many blattodean species help to break down decaying organic matter, making crucial nutrients available for other organisms. They are, along with ants and flies, nature’s cleaning service (you’re welcome). Some species are also important pollinators. And that is without even mentioning their numerous adaptations to avoid predators, their maternal care, and social behavior.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white "socks." If you don't think he's cute you might want to check your pulse.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white “socks.” If you don’t think he’s cute you might want to check your pulse.

A long time ago I had the idea of photographing blattodeans right after molting, while they are still fresh and pigment-free. My goal was to see whether people would recognize the animal presented to them, now that it lacks some of its identifiable characters. By the way, I have been doing the same thing with whip spiders.

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect's internal network.

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect’s internal network.

The first attempts were done with Periplaneta americana, a common species that most people associate with pests. When presented with an all-white Periplaneta, almost everyone said it looked “cute”.

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Above is a freshly molted male Madagascar hisser (Gromphadorhina portentosa) from a colony we kept at the museum I worked at (for more details see my previous post). We used to isolate individuals that showed signs of an approaching molt, to use them in class displays for students. Large males like this one were always a special treat, with their impressive horns. I took this photo in 2006. Even though I have seen and photographed many freshly molted blattodeans, I still see this old photo as one of my best captures. There is something about it that speaks to people. They no longer recognize an insect they are repulsed by; instead many people see something that reminds them of a cat. Recently I was delighted to learn that this photo has provided inspiration for an artist: I stumble upon an article in Chinese encouraging people to learn more about blattodeans. It featured my photo (=copyright infringement), followed by a drawing of an innocent-looking girl wearing the male horned hisser as a hat. Cute girls with cat ears (referred to as nekomimi, or in the case of other animals’ ears – kemonomimi) is a popular theme especially in manga and anime in Japan, and the blattodean serves a similar purpose here. As a matter of fact, early on I gave my photo the title 猫ちゃん (neko-chan), which translates to “kitty” in Japanese.

Blattodean kemonomimi embeded from the article mentioned. Artwork by user 长得像人的割草机 on Weibo (see originals in the comment below)

Generally speaking, I find that a lot of people respond differently to white blattodeans compared to dark-colored ones. It is almost as if it is a completely different animal. What is it that makes us so susceptible to visual cues in the form of flat dark insects? There must be a reason for this sensitivity.

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

We used to joke at the museum that when it comes to human reaction, insects can be divided into two subgroups. The first subgroup contains “green” insects: these are insects that are perceived as friendly just by their appearance. They do not necessarily have to be green, but it helps if they are. This group contains ladybugs, grasshoppers, stick and leaf insects, smooth caterpillars, stout and furry moths, mantids, and katydids to some extent. The other subgroup contains all the other insects. Again, this division is merely a joke, but it is amazing to see just how many people follow this arbitrary division. To those who welcome ladybugs but put blattodeans in the “other” subgroup, I always remind that there are blattodeans out there that look exactly like ladybugs.

Male horned roach (Hormetica strumosa). Not as cuddly as the white "neko-chan", but pretty close.

Male horned roach (Hormetica strumosa). Not as cuddly as the white “neko-chan”, but pretty close.

Since photographing “neko-chan”, I have been working with other species of blattodeans, hoping to achieve the same result, however, I was not able to replicate that look. Maybe it was more than just timing the photo with the molting process. Maybe I also captured some of the hisser’s essence and unique personality. After all, he almost looks like he is trying to tell us something. Well, he does, all blattodeans do – but we never stop to listen.

10 thoughts on “A Moment of Creativity: Reconsidering blattodeans

  1. Amazing post man, love it! 😀 Always nice when people cast these creatures in a better light, they are so underappreciated!

    LOVE the roach gallery BTW, so many amazing species and photos in there! Too bad identifying a lot of those will prove very difficult, (for the various Ectobiids especially, jeez are there a lot of species!).

  2. I always was a nature lover, including roaches when they weren’t being pesky (which usually they were not of course, so I didn’t need this selling job; however I did greatly enjoy the photos and text. Well done, and all the best!

  3. Why do people like teneral insects, you ask?

    Well, in our culture, white is used to symbolize purity, and darkness is associated with evil. This was one of my very first thoughts when I saw a newly-emerged Zophobas morio adult for the first time in person.

    I’ve also noticed that the eyes of many dark insects are nearly invisible. Even Wikipedia suggests that features of human juveniles (big eyes, big heads) have some influence upon perception of “cuteness”. The white color of your hisser makes its eyes stand out, and the shape of the eyes resembles a goofy human expression, even though hissers do not have the same body language as humans.

    I suspect that this is a form of instinctive, unavoidable anthropomorphism. Some insects naturally have mean-looking faces, but they obviously can’t change their facial shapes like humans can.

    Of course, I think it is sad that we have to resort to practices like photographing teneral or otherwise “lovable” roaches in order to get the public’s attention. People tend to appreciate what they have a good opinion about. If Periplaneta was as well-liked as the butterflies, I’m sure people would comment on how majestic the long-winged adults are, freshly molted or not.

    • Photographing freshly molted arthropods is not a “last resort” but simply a means of communication. There is a lot of personal interpretation going on here as well. For example, I wholeheartedly disagree with your statement “some insects naturally have mean-looking faces”, a very personal point of view, but not something I can change. In the end it is all about people’s exposure to these animals, and what kind of exposure. I have had insect-loathing people telling me that Panacanthus cuspidatus looks cute, even when it is in defensive display. Everyone responds differently.

      • Apparently, my previous two attempts at commenting vanished due to web glitches

        Yes, I agree that teneral insect photos are a great strategy and mean faces are subjective, but for some reason I cannot shake the perception that the local paper wasps have perpetually angry-looking faces, even though they are nice and I like them. This is why I suspected instincts and other psychological doodads were at work.

        Speaking of insect coloration and psychology…

        You might find this an interesting read.

        Good luck dealing with your blattodean-related matters

        • There is no evidence that fear of animals is an innate trait. No one is born scared of wasps, spiders, or snakes. It is a cultural thing, perpetuated by older members of society (usually parents and peers).
          That was a good read by the way, thank you!

  4. I am not an entomologist. Your article helped me see these creatures differently. Thank you and good luck with your efforts.

  5. Excellent article this is …. have always been a fan of your work .
    Thank you and keep posting great stuff like this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *