Early in my academic career, I aspired to pursue a career in counseling. With time this seemed to be a less viable option and I shifted my focus from helping people through mental health counseling to being motivated to help people by means of research and science education. With this in mind, I chose a research project that might in the future facilitate education in the area of behavioral science
Animal research has a long history in the field of psychology and especially in the realm of comparative animal behavior and cognition. Historically, the importance of animal models in research was underscored by utilization live animals as part of the curriculum, typically lab Pigeons (Columba livia) or lab rats (Rattus norvegicus) (Proctor & Jones, 2021).
Unfortunately, hands on experience with lab animals has been on the decline with only 20% of American psychology undergraduates having opportunities to work with live animals. The cost of care, ethics of research, and concerns about euthanasia are all cited as challenges to the utilization of animals in the classroom. This is unfortunate as researchers have stated that active learning experiences with live animals provide substantial benefits for students (Proctor & Jones 2020, 2021).
In response to this decline, a variety of sources have highlighted the classroom benefits and underutilization of giant tropical cockroaches in education at both the k-12 level and the undergraduate level (Proctor & Jones, 2020, 2021; Wagler & Wagler, 2005). If you’re thinking, “Ick, Roaches?!” this is understandable. For many, the only experience with roaches they’ve had includes infestations, dirty conditions, or food contamination. It may also be that humans possess some biological preparedness to be squeamish around small invertebrates such as cockroaches. There has been some work that exploring the acceptance of cockroaches in academic settings that has found that squeamish educators maybe more willing to explore cockroaches as a model after academic exposure and education (Wagler & Wagler, 2021)
Historically, in terms of invertebrates, the fruit fly (Drosphila melanogaster) and the honeybee (Apis mellifera) have been used for laboratory studies in a wide range of areas including learning and memory. While the use of these models has less ethical concerns compared to vertebrates, they have short lifespans or are difficult to rear in the laboratory (Varnon, Barrera, & Wilkes, 2022).
Although they have been given little attention, it has been suggested that cockroaches make excellent models for laboratory research. Reasons for this include their long-life span with some species living for several years. Another reason is that cockroaches only undergo partial metamorphosis, unlike bees or flies which undergo complete metamorphosis. For this reason, juvenile roaches resemble their adult counterparts and this allows them to be used for similar research across their entire lifespan. A third reason is that they are a generalist with a wide range of social behaviors, unlike bees or ants which are eusocial and live in a colony system. This allows for better comparison to rodent models which are also generalists (Varnon, Barrera, & Wilkes, 2022).
To date cockroaches have been used to investigate a variety of topics including classical conditioning, operant condition, memory, spatial learning, learned helplessness, the effects of social context on learning, and individual differences (Varnon, Barrera, & Wilkes, 2022). Historically species like the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) and German cockroach (Blattella germanica) have been used in these kinds of behavioral research (Bell, 1981). However, their propensity to infest homes and buildings has made some laboratories and instructors reluctant to utilize them as animal models (Varnon, Barrera, & Wilkes, 2022).
Thankfully, there are cockroach species that pose no risk of infestation. These species typically belong to a related genera of cockroaches called Blaberus or Eublaberus. These are sometimes collectively known as “Giant Roaches”. Among these are the Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa), the Discoid Roach (Blaberus discoidalis), and the Orange Headed Roach (Eublaberus posticus) all of which have been proposed as alternative laboratory animal models (Proctor & Jones, 2021; Varnon, Barrera, & Wilkes, 2022).
As relatively little is known about the species-specific detail of the giant roach species, I am proposing a dissertation project that would involve conducting a battery of cognitive behavioral tests using several common giant roach models that include testing food preferences, learning, and memory. This would include special exploration in the area of invertebrate episodic memory using methods outlined by Crystal (2021).
Bell, W. (1981). The Labratory Cockroach: Experiments in Cockroach Anatomy, Physiology, and Behavior. Chapman and Hall.
Crystal, J. D. (2021). Evaluating Evidence From Animal Models of Episodic Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 47(3), 337–356. https://doi.org/10.1037/xan0000294
Proctor, D., & Jones, M. (2020). Roach Lab: Using Cockroaches to Increase Learning Outcomes at a Discount. Association for Psychological Science, 33(10), 34.
Proctor, D., & Jones, M. (2021). Cockroaches to the rescue: a new approach to reintroduce animal labs to the psychology undergraduate curriculum. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 7(3), 237–242. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000235
Varnon, C. A., Barrera, E. I., & Wilkes, I. N. (2022). Learning and memory in the orange head cockroach (Eublaberus posticus). PLoS ONE, 17(8 August), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0272598
Wagler, R., & Wagler, A. (2005). Madagascar Hissing Cockroach in the Class Room. Science Scope, 34–37. http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Version-16975/L-278 Hissing Cockroachespod.pdf
Wagler, R., & Wagler, A. (2021). Fear and Loathing of Cockroaches. American Entomologist, 34–38.