Endangered Bird Benefits from Discovery of Cockroach Love Call

The broad wood cockroach makes up more than half of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker's diet.  Photo: Michael McCloy, USFWS

Call it a grand romantic gesture: When a lady cockroach is in the mood, she broadcasts a far-reaching chemical signal to the interest of any and all available males. Sex pheromones—like the cockroach’s signal— are nature’s love potions, irresistible chemical signals that announce, “Come hither!” The male roach is by no means immune to this perfume, a fact that could help scientists support the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.


Sex pheromones are common in cockroaches, possibly because these amorous arthropods are nocturnal, making chemical cues particularly potent in the dark of the night. In the case of the broad wood cockroach, this system is especially useful because while Males are light and long-winged, females have less mobility, making it imperative that males go to them.


Now chemists and entomologists at North Carolina State University, SUNY Syracuse, and UC Davis have taken a closer look at the pheromones of the broad wood cockroach. Not only have they isolated the female’s pheromone signal, they’ve replicated it with chemicals in the lab. Their eau de broad wood roach is every bit as convincing as the real deal, earning intrigued antennae swivels from broad wood males as well as a few of their cousin species.


Pinpointing this roach’s pheromones has a special conservation value. The broad wood cockroach is endemic to southeastern pine forests of the US, an ecosystem that has been greatly diminished from its original range. The roach remains abundant, but not all residents are so lucky.


The red-cockaded woodpecker, a charismatic little insectivore, is among the endangered species that have suffered most with the loss of habitat. Part of the problem is real-estate. Unlike other woodpeckers who claim the hollows of dead trees for a season, the red-cockaded invests a lot of time preparing a home. They exclusively select mature, live pine trees and will spend up to six years excavating. Once set up, these woodpeckers happily spend two decades in their cavity, generally keeping house with the same mate and with help raising their young from older siblings.


Efforts to help these woodpeckers come down to ensuring appropriate nesting grounds, and that’s where the cockroach comes in. The broad wood cockroach makes up more than half of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s diet. That means that with the pheromone, a key signal for cockroach abundance, they can pick out areas that will be especially suitable for the red-cockaded woodpecker.


For those who still doubt the romantic allure of the cockroach, read Michele Wilson Berger’s post, “Nothing Says ‘I Love You’ Like Roach Chocolates,” and for more on the amazing world of pheromones, Alisa Opar covers the astounding ability of ants who navigate using chemical trails.

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