Would cockroaches survive a nuclear war?

Some enemies are implacable. Washington and Moscow might have thought they wielded the biggest stick of all during the cold war, but though nuclear weapons could dispatch communists and capitalists by the million, cockroaches were supposed to be invulnerable. Fortunately this claim wasn’t put to a practical test — not just for us, but for the cockroaches, too.

We don’t worry too much about nuclear holocaust these days, but when the cold war was raging (if a cold war can rage) the cockroach claim appeared frequently, often just before or after the rather gloomier prediction that the humans would all be toast when the bombs went off. Cockroaches would inherit the earth, scuttling away and slowly destroying our great works.

It works well as a rhetorical device, but not so well as a fact. Scientists have been studying the effects of radiation on all kinds of animals ever since the phenomenon was discovered. They say it’s to learn about genetics, help eradicate pests and other noble reasons but we all know that secretly they’re trying to create a half-human, half-animal superhero.

Anyway, they have paid special attention to insects of all kinds because radiation is one way of killing insect pests in harvested food. The results speak for themselves. At the top of the table, with the best resistance to radiation, we have the Lepidoptera, or moths and butterflies. At the bottom, the wimps of radiation tolerance, we have — drumroll, please — cockroaches. Tolerance differs between species but there is no evidence suggesting that cockroaches will still be scampering around in good health after a nuclear attack.

With the Soviet Union consigned to history the fate of the cockroach is no longer a pressing concern, but don’t forget that there are thousands of nuclear warheads out there. If the balloon does go up, and insects inherit the earth, it will be the butterflies and moths not the cockroaches. Mind you, with nearly 200,000 known species, they already have some clout. They’d better stay friendly, or we’ll be trading in the H bombs for mothballs and derris dust.

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