February 23, 2019 | 37° F

Researchers find cockroach species

An insect research lab team led by Jessica Ware, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers-Newark, discovered a winter-resistant cockroach last December that was thought to be extinct.

Ware said the Japanese cockroach, which was found in New York, might have migrated from its native habitat in Japan to the United States via trade and human travel, as most insect species do.

Ware Lab, also known as the roach lab, is a natural history lab whose researchers are mostly Rutgers graduate students, Ware said.

Their research is dedicated to studying insect species — primarily roaches, dragonflies and damselflies — through their morphology, molecular data and evolutionary history. 

According to her graduate students, some of their current research thrusts include evolutionary diversity in the Neotropics, systematics of certain dragonfly families and flight behavior.

Dominic Evangelista, a graduate researcher in the roach lab, identified the Japanese cockroach by identifying unique features in its DNA, which can even show evolutionary history. 

He said the population found in New York is not a cause for concern, but it is beneficial for researchers to learn more of the natural ecosystem, which can be done by isolating and studying this case.

Will Kuhn, another graduate student working in the lab, is currently researching the differences in wing appearance between dragonfly species that have varying flight durations.

 “As one of the largest, oldest populations in our ecosystem, we’d do well to pay more attention to them — not just the ‘pests’ but also the insects who service the thriving ecosystem,” Ware said.

Manpreet Kaur Kohli, a graduate student in the roach lab, said insects have been around longer than mammals, and their fossils and molecular data can better trace evolutionary history. 

Kohli’s research looks at how insects have diversified after the mass extinction during the greenhouse effects in the past, similar to modern-day climate change. 

Her findings can help scientists understand what will happen in the future, and can help humans use the same solutions insects have used in the past to adapt to climate change, she said. 

The lab team explained that insects, such as the dragonflies and damselflies that they study, are used as bioindicators of clean water and disturbances due to climate change.  

Ware said that these insects also benefit humans by preying on other invasive species, such as mosquitos.

“Thus, the difference between having large swarms of dragonflies [and other insects] and having only a few is of grave importance to local community structures,” Ware said.

The team has since delved into a few conservation projects with the goal of making more people aware of what and how many populations of insects are out there. 

Melissa Sanchez-Herrera, a graduate student on the research team who is a part of a dragonfly preservation group in the tropics directed by The International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Ware work on conservation projects in South Africa. 

Both gather tallies on indigenous dragonfly populations in their work for local governments to use in conservation efforts.

Evangelista and Ware are hosting a crowdsourcing project to find what landscapes encourage evolutionary diversity and are thus more important to protect.

The project, called “How Do Tropical Landscapes Drive Insect Evolution,” devotes its efforts to insect collection, mapping of landscape and insect information and the genetic sequencing of species. 

 For those still concerned about invasive species after news of theJapanese cockroach, Ware’s advice is to hold on dialing for the exterminator.  

“I think that if you find something beautiful or interesting ... call your local etymologist. If it could be invasive, they can detect that and eradicate them more easily,” she said

The team hopes to further their research to expand knowledge on the planet’s ecosystem, climate change and the history of the world one insect species at a time.

Like her colleagues, Sanchez-Herrera wants to inspire people to pay closer attention to the millions of tiny species sharing the environment with humans.

“Just because you can’t see them as easily [as mammals], people can forget what beautiful problem-solvers they’ve been. Evolutionary biology is the root of everything,” Sanchez-Herrera said. 

Danica Sapit

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