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Scientists Rediscover Cockroach Thought to Be Extinct Since the 1930s

The island-dwelling roach managed to survive a scourge of invasive rats.

A dark, compact cockroach sits on a human palm.
A Lord Howe Island wood-feeding cockroach chills out on a human hand.
Justin Gilligan/NSW DPE

Here's a reason to be happy about cockroaches, even if you're not a fan of the insects. Researchers recently rediscovered the Panesthia lata species of wood-munching roaches long thought to be extinct. You won't find these critters invading your home and your pantry. They only live on Australia's Lord Howe Island.

University of Sydney biology student Maxim Adams spotted families of the cockroaches under a single banyan tree earlier this year. Scientists had thought the wingless cockroaches were extinct since the 1930s after invasive rats spread across the island.

University of Sydney biology student Maxim Adam poses under the banyan tree where the cockroaches were found.

Nicholas Carlile/NSW DPE

"The survival is great news, as it has been more than 80 years since it was last seen," said Lord Howe Island board chair Atticus Fleming in a University of Sydney statement on Friday. "These cockroaches are almost like our very own version of Darwin's finches, separated on little islands over thousands or millions of years developing their own unique genetics."

According to Fleming, Lord Howe is home to 1,600 native invertebrate species, half of which are unique to the island.

The cockroaches perform an important function in the ecosystem. They have specialized microorganisms in their guts that allow them to eat decaying wood. The university describes them as "nutrient recyclers" that aid in the breakdown of logs. 

Australia's Invasive Species Council traces the extinction of five bird species and at least a dozen invertebrates to the impact of mice and rats on Lord Howe Island. An eradication program has nearly cleared the invading rodents from the island.

The researchers intend to study the resilient roaches to learn more about their habitat and activities and how they managed to survive. I can't believe I'm saying this, but "Yay, cockroaches!"