Vengeful Taxonomy: Your Chance to Name a New Species of Cockroach
By Dominic Evangelista
We’ve recently discovered a new species of cockroach in the genus Xestoblatta. It’s dirty, it’s ugly, it’s smelly, and it needs a name.
As part of our campaign to fund a project about how tropical landscapes drive evolution, we are offering the opportunity for anyone with enough cash to name this new species. Why would you want to name a down-and-dirty insect like that? Because it’s the most low-down and dirty of them all!
A Pest and all the Rest
Only about one percent of all cockroach species come into contact with humans regularly. You might even say that those one percent are our friends. This is not one of those species. It’s a native to northern Guyana and lives mostly in rain forests with lots of leaf litter.
We don’t know much about how it spends most of its time, but we do know that it’s a beer drinker. Seriously. In fact, these cockroaches have such a serious drinking problem, they will drown themselves in the golden beverage en masse.
We also know that at night they climb up vegetation to engage in obscene acts. During sex, the males are believed to offer nutritional gifts for the females to eat (it’s unconfirmed as yet for this species, but is known among closely related species). “What kind of gift?” you may be wondering. Uric acid of course! He extrudes the urine through the segments on his back and deposits it on his genital region for the female to eat .
Despite this extremely vile behavior, it looks pretty much like your average cockroach. Its dark, drab shade of mahogany is almost reminiscent of the ubiquitous oriental cockroach. However, most cockroach taxonomists know that you can really differentiate between species when you see the male genitalia. The genitals of this species have extravagantly modified styles and a mind-boggling structure called the right phallomere. The exact role that these structures play in copulation is unknown, but it must be fun — more fun than chewing on urates anyway.
Very few people have studied the cockroaches of Guyana, which is a biodiversity hotspot. So maybe it’s no surprise that we found a new species there. Yet consider this: out of more than 700 cockroach individuals that we collected, this new species accounted for 25% of them. It was actually the most abundant species we had in our 2014 study .
How can such an abundant species go unnoticed for so long? It seems that special collection techniques are required to attract these blattellines. Other closely related species were rare in collections until the contributions of an entomologist using traps for fruit flies , which usually utilize aromatic baits. As I hinted at before, we collected most of our specimens in traps baited with beer. Without the olfactory exploitation of fermenting sugars, we may never have discovered this “Xesty” new species.
The Name Game
So why would you want to name a new species of cockroach? In our lab we love cockroaches, and if you’re like me you would jump at the opportunity to name a new one. Maybe cockroaches fit your personality and you identify with a misunderstood creature that is always on the wrong end of a bad joke. That sounds fine to me.
Let’s be honest, though — most people have negative feelings about cockroaches, so why not name one out of spite, scorn, or revenge? Got a cheating ex-boyfriend? Hate your boss? Maybe you’re just tired of hearing news about certain celebrities — Xestoblatta justinbieberii, perhaps? You get the idea.
There are, of course, a few rules — click here for a detailed account of them — but for the most part, you can name it whatever you want.
The conditions for winning the contest are 1) you must give the most generous (highest) donation to the project, and 2) the project must be fully funded (at least $4,000) before the end date of April 13, 2014.
Also, tweet me at @Roach_Brain with the hashtag #RoachName for your suggestions. I’ll retweet the best ones!
If you have reservations, this excerpt from a work by cockroach expert Louis Roth  shows that vengeful taxonomy does have a precedent:
“Dr. Thomas Eisner of Cornell University wrote [to me] concerning Blattella eisneri, ‘I was deeply moved by having such a close relative of the world’s greatest pest named after me … I’m deeply grateful and can only emphasize the motto, Never get mad, just get even. I want you to know that I am becoming deeply involved with the taxonomy of body lice and have just come across a new species.’”
1. Schal, C. 1983. Blaberus giganteus (Cucaracha, Giant Cockroach, Giant Drummer, Cockroach of the Divine Face) and Xestoblatta hamata (Cucaracha), pp. 693-696. In D. H. Janzen (ed.), Costa Rican Natural History. Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago.
2. Evangelista, D.A., G. Bourne, and J.L. Ware. 2014. Species richness estimates of Blattodea s.s. (Insecta: Dictyoptera) from northern Guyana vary depending upon methods of species delimitation. Systematic Entomology. 39: 150-158.
3. Gurney, A.B. 1939. A revision of the neotropical genus Xestoblatta Hebard (Orthoptera; Blattidae; Pseudomopinae). Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. 41.
4. Roth, L.M. 2003. Systematics and Phylogeny of Cockroaches (Dictyoptera: Blattaria). Oriental Insects. 37: 1-186.
Dominic Evangelista is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University studying under Dr. Jessica L. Ware. His research involves exploring cockroach biodiversity of the Guianas on the regional and local level. Currently, he is exploring the landscape level processes that contribute to promoting evolutionary diversification. Follow him on Twitter at @Roach_Brain and view his current research project on Experiment.com.