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The Great Cockroach Escape: How Those Dirty Bugs Make Tricky Tracks

If cockroaches completely gross you out, then look away.

But if you've admired, even a tiny bit, the adaptations that help them thrive among us, I've got a video for you. It will help you develop a whole new appreciation for how these critters stay a step ahead of humans wielding brooms, rolled-up newspapers and anything else that's handy and can be used for swatting.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have uncovered a previously overlooked way cockroaches evade us. The bugs have an amazing ability to run fill-tilt to the edge of a countertop, table or bookshelf, flip to the other side and keep going without missing a beat.

First, though, let's get the health angle out of the way. Cockroaches can trigger allergies and asthma in some people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cockroaches can also raise quite a repulsive stink.

Happily, there's not much evidence cockroaches are responsible for very many disease outbreaks, the CDC concedes, though the bugs have been shown to be capable of carrying salmonella, a diarrhea-causing amoeba and poliovirus.

So, for a lot reasons, you probably don't want them around.

But as the CDC notes, the bugs' "hardiness is legendary." And, controlling cockroach populations once they're happily ensconced in your house or apartment "may become a homeowner's most difficult task because of the time and special knowledge it often involves," the CDC writes dryly.

No kidding. So back to the Berkeley researchers who have figured out another reason why it's so flippin' hard.

Roaches use hook-like claws on their hind legs to grab at the edge of the surface, such as a shelf, as they run away. Then, in a blink of an eye, the bugs swing over the edge and land upside down on the bottom of the surface, skittering away out of sight.

The biomechanical details of the gymnastic maneuver are explained in a paper published in the online journal PLoSONE. But the embedded video, with slow-motion footage, tells the tale.

You can watch the roaches making what look almost like swimmers' flip turns. After the researchers removed the hooks on the roaches' back legs, the bugs fell flat on their backs when they tried the flip stunt. You can watch that, too.

Finally, there's some cool footage of geckos doing the same thing. And you can watch a robot built to emulate the roaches. A robot!

The robots and geckos are welcome in my home anytime. The roaches? Not so much.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.