Diets and Foraging

Timid roach, why be so shy? We are brothers, thou and I. In the midnight, like yourself, I explore the pantry shelf!

— C.Morley, "Nursery Rhymes for the Tender-Hearted"

Cockroaches are typically described as omnivores, scavengers, or "classic generalists" (Dow, 1986), insects that feed on most anything they encounter. Indeed, the success of pest cockroaches in human habitations may be based largely on their ability to feed on soap, glue, wire insulation, and other materials that they certainly did not encounter during their evolution and do not encounter while living in more natural habitats. Our knowledge of cockroach diets stems largely from studies of these domestic pests, and it is assumed that their dietary habits are the norm (Bell, 1990). Some non-pest species (e.g., certain cave cockroaches) do appear omnivorous, but the term is not an adequate descriptor for the majority of Blattaria. Outside the man-made environment, the cockroach diet typically contains more refractory material than is generally appreciated (Mullins and Cochran, 1987). They can be selective eaters, and in some cases, specialized. There are several reasons for this rather biased image of cockroach diets. Some species will eat almost anything in urban or laboratory settings, but are highly selective in the wild. Few feeding observations or gut analyses from cockroaches in natural habitats have been conducted; in existing studies the picture is far from complete. We may have an indication of the menu at a particular point in time; however, we do not know if the food item in question is a small or large component of the diet. Further, the menu may vary with availability of certain foods, and with the age, sex, and reproductive or developmental status of the consumer.

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