Nature’s Little Seismographs

By: Kurt Luchs

I have here in my hand an article that would cause everyone a great deal of worry if there weren’t already so many things to worry about. It seems a group of scientists at UCLA have discovered a new method of predicting earthquakes based on the reactions of the common cockroach (Blatta orientalis). Regardless of what we may think of them (cockroaches, I mean), they are highly sensitive creatures. They’ve been around a lot longer than us and it doesn’t surprise me one bit to learn that they can spot an earthquake coming up to twelve hours away. After that, though, they simply make fools of themselves. They go all to pieces.

According to this article the average cockroach, when he feels an earthquake coming on, “may run in circles for hours and hours until he’s completely exhausted, then collapse on his back in a death-like coma.” What it doesn’t say is that the little fellow is probably screaming “Earthquake! Earthquake!” at the top of his tiny lungs, hoping that some responsible citizen will alert the authorities.

But no one hears him because, after all, no one listens to a cockroach except another cockroach, and even they don’t really listen — they just nod their heads and murmur “I know, I know.” So he passes out on the floor and usually has to be brought around with smelling salts. That’s when the full realization hits him. Many roaches will sit down right then and have themselves a good cry. Others turn to drink, and it’s no use trying to talk them out of it. They know.

Another sign of impending doom is that the roach “loses all interest in the opposite sex.” As soon as he feels the slightest tremor, apparently, the male drops everything and says “Not tonight, I have an earthquake.” There’s nothing for the female to do but smoke a cigarette until he gets over it. The female isn’t annoyed by earthquakes. She is only annoyed by the male.

What’s frightening about all this is that the scientists are willing to pin their future — and ours — on so chronically high-strung an insect as the cockroach. Sure, he gets the jitters whenever he hears an earthquake, but maybe he falls out of bed when a train whistle blows in the middle of the night, too. Maybe any little noise sets him off. He’s continually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

How do we know other, more trustworthy household pests can’t be trained to do the same job? I’ll bet sow bugs can predict earthquakes just as accurately as cockroaches, yet because they don’t go pulling their own legs off and sobbing into their handkerchiefs they never make the news. Instead, they hide under the nearest rock until it’s safe outside. Then when they crawl back into the sunlight, dusting off their antennae, they can always say “I told you so.”

I say let’s give the sow bugs a chance. It’s either that or climb under the rock with them.


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