Cockroaches take advantage of our messy hospitality, skulking around in the cracks and holes of our houses and devouring the scraps we leave behind. Soon, though, maybe we’ll be the ones taking advantage of their fondness for filth.
The brains of these insects carry some serious antibiotics—strong enough to slaughter bacteria that have evolved resistance to the hospital antibiotics we use. The researchers presented their work at the Society for General Microbiology meeting this week in England, and say that while the finding is terrific, it’s no surprise given the roaches’ living circumstances:
“Some of these insects live in the filthiest places ever known to man,” says Naveed Khan, coauthor of the new study. “These insects crawl on dead tissue, in sewage, in drainage areas. We thought, ‘How do they cope with all the bacteria and parasites?’” [Science News]
The single-mindedness that drives a swarm of locusts to rampage through the countryside and devour everything in its path might not seem like it would require a great deal of brainpower. However, biologists in Britain have found that the brain of a swarming locust swells up to 30 percent larger than the brain of its solitary counterparts.
These crazed grasshoppers aren’t geniuses, says lead researcher Swidbert Ott. According to his study forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, swarming locusts simply need enlarged brains to cope with the assault on their senses that comes with being caught up in an insect mob:
Locust brains are quite simple: on each side of the head is an optic lobe taking in information from the eyes and performing basic processing, and these lobes feed into the central midbrain, which carries out higher-level processing.
In swarming locusts, the midbrain grew more than the optic lobes. This, and other subtle changes, suggest that because swarming locusts are constantly surrounded by wild activity, they do not need to worry about having particularly sensitive vision. However, they do need extra high-level processing power to cope with the extremely complex patterns of motion that they see [New Scientist].
Locusts are prompted to band together in enormous, destructive swarms by the same brain chemical that is linked to happiness in humans. A fascinating new study has found that locusts that are about to swarm experience a sudden surge of serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that’s targeted by antidepressant drugs. “Here we have a solitary and lonely creature, the desert locust. But just give them a little serotonin, and they go and join a gang,” observed Malcolm Burrows [AP], one of the study’s authors.
Researchers say the findings may lead to methods to block the formation of locust swarms. These infestations, which can cover hundreds of square miles and involve billions of vegetation-munching insects, can devastate agriculture and cost tens of millions of dollars to control [The New York Times].
Because locusts usually avoid each other, it’s only dire circumstances that bring them together in buzzing hordes. For instance, unpredictable desert rains cause vegetation blooms, which in turn makes locust populations skyrocket. But as the rains abate and fertile land shrivels up, locusts crowd together in the remaining green patches. Eventually, the swarm trigger goes off and the locusts take to the skies—”a strategy of desperation driven by hunger,” [National Geographic News], says coauthor Stephen Rogers. When they make that behavior shift they also change appearance dramatically, going from light green to dark brown.