Can Cockroaches Survive Nuclear Explosions? – Letricia’s Student Essay

There is a popular myth that cockroaches will outlive everything on earth even a nuclear explosion. Some say that cockroaches are more resistant to radiation than humans and nearly all other animals. 

There was a movie in 2008 called Wall-E which depicted as a post-apocalyptic wasteland with nothing on it but the abandoned remnants of human society and a forlorn, trash-compacting robot. The titular robot’s only living company is a surprisingly adorable pet cockroach named Hal. This film helps supports the popular myth that cockroaches will outlive us all. So, when did we myth about cockroaches being the last surviving organism take place?

The cockroach survival myth seems to have originated with the development of the atom bomb. In The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore, journalist Richard Schweid notes that roaches were reported to have survived the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading some to believe that they would inherit the Earth after a nuclear war. 

This idea spread during the 1960s, in part due to its dissemination by anti-nuclear activists. For example, a famous advertisement sponsored by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and referenced in a 1968 New York Times article read, in part, “A nuclear war, if it comes, will not be won by the Americans … the Russians … the Chinese. The winner of World War III will be the cockroach.””

The cockroach myth also has developed from rumors that insects thrived in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “But School of Population and Global Health Professor Tilman Ruff, a Nobel Laureate who studies the health and environmental consequences of nuclear explosions, says he has yet to see any documented evidence that there were cockroaches scuttling through the rubble.

“There are 4,600 species of cockroaches – and only a small percentage of them – around 30 species – exhibit pest-like behavior, but it’s safe to say that any species of cockroach would not be able to survive a direct nuclear bomb blast; if the radiation doesn’t get them, the heat and impact will.

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In any case, time and research has shown that the cockroach is a proven survivor. Most researchers believe the roach’s fossil record dates back to approximately 300 million B.C., a period predating dinosaurs by nearly 70 million years. 

This research alone shows the cockroach has survived decades of destruction. Additionally, the roach knows how to get by during tough times: It can survive on dead or decaying organic matter and can even live without its head for more than a month. There’s obviously considerable exaggeration on the widespread belief that cockroaches would survive a nuclear explosion.

Of course any exposed cockroach wouldn’t survive being hit by a missile, nor the massive forthcoming shock wave, not even the sky-high radiation levels. What is true is that insects are generally more resistant to radiation than vertebrates because of their smaller size and filtering exoskeleton, and that some pest cockroaches are well-known for being able to survive on limited nutrition and reproduce astoundingly quickly for their size. 

Cockroaches seem pretty indestructible, at least compared to us puny humans. They can live for a month without food and even appear unaffected inside an operating microwave oven. While it’s true the insects can survive harsh environments, can they really live through the detonation of a nuclear bomb? The answer seems to be yes and no.

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Although in the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, living cockroaches were found in the rubble, there were also human survivors of these nuclear attacks. 

There is hard evidence both cockroaches and people can survive a nuclear bomb, at least at first. MythBusters and the Discovery Channel set up an experiment. They wanted to see just how much radiation a cockroach can withstand

The species selected for the small study was the German cockroach. They exposed the cockroaches to three radiation doses from cobalt-60 for a month: 1000 rads, 10,000 rads, and 100,00 rads. To put this in perspective, the gamma rays released by the Hiroshima bomb were about 10,000 rads.

“After 30 days, half of the roaches exposed to 1000 rads remained alive, 10% of the roaches in the 10,000 rad group were alive, but none of the insects in the 100,000 rad group survived. The results showed some cockroaches can survive the radiation from a nuclear explosion, but that they eventually succumb if the radiation lasts too long or the dose is too high.”

While humans, cockroaches, and other creatures may survive the initial detonation of an atomic bomb, they don’t survive at Ground Zero and they might not live for long. At ground zero, cockroaches and humans get blasted by heat to the tune of 10 million degrees Celsius. Even 50 meters away, temperatures hit 10,000 degrees. Only creatures far enough away from the blast have a chance of survival. The survivors face genetic damage from the initial exposure and ongoing harm from radioactive fallout. Once again, roaches fare better than people because they produce so many offspring. If their fertility is impaired, fewer roaches might hatch, but there’s a good chance some will make it.

Author: Letricia Wixson ​- Shasta College ​

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