Roaches prove to be hardy world travelers

In November of 1969, the United States launched the Apollo 12, the sixth manned space flight in the Apollo program and the second landing on the moon.

The command module carrying the space crew was called the Yankee Clipper. During a pre-flight check of the command module, a worker reported sighting a single cockroach inside the capsule. He noted the occurrence in the mission log. This report was noted as an “open item” on the flight readiness review. This meant it awaited further investigation.

However, no one seemed to remember the “open item” until after launch and the mission was well under way. During the flight the commander, “Pete” Conrad, drew a picture of a cockroach on a note card and held it up to the television camera in the module. He is said to have reported that “we have resolved that open item in the log.” However, no one knows exactly what that meant.

Whatever happened to the cockroach on the Yankee Clipper remains a mystery. It may have left the module before liftoff. It may have been sealed in with the crew and traveled to the moon and back, wedged into some tiny crevice.

Perhaps the crew discovered the item and disposed of it. Or, it may have sneaked aboard the landing craft and now exists, in some form, as the first man-deciminated insect on the moon.

Just as early explorers brought honey bees and earthworms to the new world, man may have taken an insect with him to the moon.

Speaking of ships and clippers, in 1587 Sir Francis Drake, aboard his vessel the Golden Hind, captured a Spanish galleon, the San Felipe, filled with spices from the new world.

But on such ships, with plenty of food, water, cracks to live in and few natural predators, cockroaches apparently flourished.

Drake found the Spanish ship equally loaded with what is now known as Periplanta americana, a name that means “the wandering star from America” because it has proven to be so adept at migration. When Drake returned to Plymouth, England, this cockroach quickly became part of the local invertebrate fauna.

Shipping was certainly a boon to mankind, opening new markets and providing cheaper goods from exotic markets.

But it was also a means of cockroaches spreading and exploring new worlds as well. An entomologist sailing from England to Australia observed that there wasn’t any portion of the cargo, from the bread they ate to the cheese they shipped, that wasn’t damaged.

Even as mankind graduated to steamships, cockroaches continued to thrive in them. In 1863, one passenger observed they “drive sleep away by their pestilent odour, and their continual crawling over the face and limbs of those who are vainly endeavoring to seek repose.”

If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, consider this account from the journal American Insects published in 1908.

“Ships come into San Francisco from their long half year voyages around the horn with the sailors wearing gloves on their hands when asleep in their bunks in a desperate effort to save their fingernails from being gnawed off by the hordes of roaches which infest the whole ship.”

I am going to omit the data on numbers of roaches in modern cruise ship staterooms and cabins to avoid lawsuits and death threats from the travel industry.

I will tell you that more than 20 species have been collected aboard aircraft, and they have been reported to cause problems by eating glue, electrical wiring and hull insulation.

Mankind has certainly impoverished the biological world in some ways. But it has provided habitat, world travel and more interesting life experiences for many other species.

I wonder if there are cockroaches on the space station ... yet.


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