Cockroaches are disgusting, dirty and can make even the hardiest people squeamish. These ‘pests’ live in your walls, your cupboards, pantries, and they reproduce like mad. It is often said cockroaches are so robust that they can even survive a nuclear war and resulting “nuclear winter”. Is there any truth to this?
Can Cockroaches Survive A Nuclear Winter?
Cockroaches have been around a long time, at least 300 million years which means they were thriving when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. It also said that cockroaches may very well outlive humans because of their heartiness.
The claim seems plausible because cockroaches are tough. They can go without eating for over a month, and they do have certain properties that would help them survive a nuclear war long after we humans have perished. Some of these benefits include quick reproduction in large amounts, and an incredibly high tolerance to radiation when compared to humans and most other animals. However, this tolerance has a limit.
They would be able to survive the long term radioactivity from a resulting nuclear explosion but they would not survive the explosion itself if they were near the blast. Roaches also have a very high adaptability rate and can survive in conditions many other animals couldn’t tolerate. They also have the capability to develop tolerance and even immunity to toxins and poisons which is why they’re notoriously hard for exterminators to kill.
So is it true that cockroaches would be the only things left standing after a nuclear world war? The Mythbusters show examined this widely-repeated claim in Episode 97.
The Mythbusters team did several tests using three different sets of insects; roaches, flour beetles and fruit flies. They wanted to determine which had a higher survival rate when exposed to different levels of radiation.
They found that while cockroaches can survive radiation doses 10x higher than what would kill a human, the flour beetles actually did far better than the cockroaches.
So What’s The Toughest Animal?
The toughest creatures we know of are called extremophiles. Extremophiles are aptly named because they can survive in the most extreme environments and are believed to be the toughest creatures on earth. They are microscopic organisms that can survive in boiling water, acid, inside nuclear reactors and even space.
Deinococcus radiodurans is one such extremophile. It is a bacteria that is considered one of the most radioresistant organisms known. It is able to survive dehydration, extreme cold, in a vacuum, acid, and has been found thriving in nuclear reactors. It’s currently listed as the world’s toughest bacteria in The Guinness Book Of World Records.
Another contender is the water bear (tardigrades). Scientists knew water bears, which are no larger than about a millimeter, could survive extraordinary temperatures up to 150 degrees and as low as minus 272 degrees and that they can live for 10 years without any water. What scientists didn’t know was how tough they were when exposed to solar radiation and the vacuum of space.
A European team from Sweden’s Kristianstad University came up with Project Tardis in 2007. A project with the goal of sending 3000 water bears into space aboard a Russian Foton-M3 spacecraft to orbit for 12 days.
While a few died, a majority survived and were able to produce eggs.