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Six-Legged Freak

A new cockroach has landed on our shores, a stowaway from Asia with impressive staying power. For one thing: Its babies have been known to scurry around on ice.

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Japanese cockroach Periplaneta japonica  

In July 2012, a pest-control technician from Bell Environmental Services found a parking spot near the High Line, got out of his car, and headed upstairs. He had arrived early in the day to beat the heat on his rounds, which today involved checking rat-poison dispensers on the High Line. When he opened one of them, he found several live cockroaches nibbling at the bait, and they looked odd. Most New York roaches are from just a couple of species, and these were something else. They set off a small alarm in his head, enough for him to gather the samples and take them back to his office in New Jersey.

There they landed on the desk of Ken Schumann, an entomologist at Bell. The tech had thought these might be a species known as the Oriental cockroach, a bit player in New York’s insect world. (Schumann says he’s seen “a couple of dozen” cases of them in 30 years.) As Schumann started looking, however, his own antennae began to flick. Both males and females had wings; Oriental-cockroach females don’t. The bodies were thinner. The morphology was a little off.

He had to keep this quiet. The High Line (like a lot of Bell’s clients) has a nondisclosure agreement with its exterminator, and Schumann couldn’t reveal publicly where his guy had found the insect. But his curiosity was more than piqued. For one thing, it was entomologically interesting; for another, invasive species are a big deal. Schumann’s mentor, Austin Frishman, was in town shortly thereafter, and Schumann eagerly showed the samples to him. Frishman is one of the most prominent pest-control experts in America, but he was puzzled too, and he and Schumann sent a sample to a researcher at the University of Florida, who then called someone at the Smithsonian, whose entomology department has drawers full of insects mounted on pins. No luck. A half-dozen scientists at the top of their field had been stumped.

Although plenty of people have studied roaches over the years, there are thousands of species, and the protocol for making a definitive I.D. is surprisingly fuzzy. Even among scientists, it often involves simply getting your bug to an expert who has seen one like it. When the insect finally made its way to the Rutgers University lab bench of a grad student named Dominic Evangelista, he was that expert. He has looked at a lot of cockroaches in his life—he’ll refer to a rack of roaches preserved in vials of alcohol as “my collection” the way you might point out a shelf of signed baseballs, and he and his doctoral adviser, Jessica Ware, have hiked into the Guyanese jungle to spot new species. Evangelista could narrow down the identity of this new find by sight, based on a few things: A distinctive plate on the bottom of its abdomen made it clear that this was a member of the family Blattidae, from which descend two large branches of the roach family tree. From that detail and a few others, he guessed that it might be Periplaneta japonica, the Japanese cockroach.




If so, it was real-world, not just entomological-journal, news: Nobody had ever identified a Japanese cockroach in America outside a research lab. And P. japonica is especially well suited to New York, because it is one of relatively few cockroaches that can handle winter weather. Most urban roaches spend the cold months indoors, or deep in a trash dump where decomposition keeps things cozy, or in a barely warm-enough nook of the subway system. In Asia, baby Japanese cockroaches have survived long stretches on ice.

A few days later, DNA barcode analysis confirmed it: New York had a new immigrant. Schumann was excited enough about the findings to immediately write a story for a trade journal—which sat on it for a few months before publishing. “I got scooped!” he says. “I was like, Dude! This is pretty important stuff! Why are you holding?” Ware and Evangelista, with their Florida colleague Lyle Buss, got a paper into print first, and it identified the High Line as the source of the find, blowing Bell Environmental’s cover and causing some consternation at the park. “They didn’t want to be associated with this thing,” Schumann says. “If they found an exotic plant on the High Line, they would’ve released it. But when you find an insect …”

Most of us say “cockroaches” as if they were one creepy-crawly entity, but in fact there are many kinds, two of which dominate the dark corners of New York. Blattella germanica, the German cockroach, is the small, slim-bodied one. Periplaneta americana, the American cockroach, is the big oval one that squishes when you step on it, the kind that’s often called a water bug. Five other species—the Oriental cockroach, the Surinam cockroach, the brown-banded cockroach, and the Australian cockroach, plus the new one spotted on the High Line—have a minor presence in New York, encountered rarely in certain favored settings. (The Surinam roach, for example, likes to burrow into the soil of planters in office lobbies.)


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