The cockroach poll

1 minute read

It's minor election day here in Wisconsin, and I see this story ( about how cockroaches "make group decisions":

Cockroaches govern themselves in a very simple democracy where each insect has equal standing and group consultations precede decisions that affect the entire group, indicates a new study.
The research determined that cockroach decision-making follows a predictable pattern that could explain group dynamics of other insects and animals, such as ants, spiders, fish and even cows.

Now, what kind of decision are we talking about?

Halloy tested cockroach group behavior by placing the insects in a dish that contained three shelters. The test was to see how the cockroaches would divide themselves into the shelters.
After much "consultation," through antenna probing, touching and more, the cockroaches divided themselves up perfectly within the shelters. For example, if 50 insects were placed in a dish with three shelters, each with a capacity for 40 bugs, 25 roaches huddled together in the first shelter, 25 gathered in the second shelter, and the third was left vacant.
When the researchers altered this setup so that it had three shelters with a capacity for more than 50 insects, all of the cockroaches moved into the first "house."

This isn't really a roach democracy. But it is sort of analogous to much simpler human decisions, like the snap judgment about which bathroom stall to use, for example. It's based on observing what someone else is going to do, and making a quick assessment of the best option, and often leads to that quick hesitation. It's a bit more complex than working out who goes at a four-way stop, since there is the issue of optimizing the individual outcome.

I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything that humans do culturally that some insect didn't also evolve to do. Now, that's not to say that any insect has the full set of things, just that they seem to have explored a wide swath of the possibilities of social interactions, and have come to many of the same solutions that people do.

And what's the deal with the roach "house"? Shouldn't that be "hotel"?