Picture this: You suspect nothing, go to the kitchen, flick the light on, get the coffee maker ready and out from under it scuttles one of nature’s many great wonders. A rare and beautiful sight. There, in all its glory, is the super elusive albino cockroach, making a break for the sink. If you’re quick enough, you might catch it under a glass to show off to the family when they wake up.
That’s a beautiful story, but the reality is a lot different. By the time you can show off your catch, that roach you trapped is as brown as any other in the colony. You’ve been robbed of you great display. What happened?
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The myth of the Albino Cockroach
Albinism or achromia is a congenital condition affecting enzymes that control pigmentation in the skin, hair and eye of affected animals. Albinism is caused by an inherited recessive gene and is present in all vertebrate species, including humans. The condition can present in different levels of severity, of which the absence of skin pigments is the most noticeable, but not necessarily the most troublesome. Animals afflicted with albinism suffer from other congenital defects, such as partial to full deafness, blindness, a heightened sensitivity to light and a propensity to develop rare forms of skin cancer in advanced years.
Scientists have extensively studied cockroaches for decades and have found zero evidence for the presence of the recessive gene that causes albinism. Cockroaches are perfect replicants of their parents and the colony is quite socially aware. Any individual with a congenital defect as severe as albinism would not survive.
Why are some roaches white?
Cockroaches are insects and as such, they have an exoskeleton. The outer hull of insects is made up of chitin, a proteinaceous substance akin to keratin which makes up our hair and fingernails. The exoskeleton is extremely sturdy and rigid by necessity. Unlike the bones in fish and mammals, exoskeletons do not grow with the animal. This is why all insects have to shed their skin at some point if they are to grow larger.
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From egg to adulthood cockroaches go through 4 – 5 molting stages. The number of molts depend on the species of cockroach you’re dealing with. At each stage they shed their skin and emerge as a white roach. The animals appear white because the pigment in the new skin has not developed yet. This is a chemical process that can take several hours. The skin takes a few minutes to harden enough for the roach to be able to move. This is because the outer shell is so soft that the muscles inside pull them out of shape instead of moving them as intended.
If you find a white roach, you may notice it less responsive or slower to run than its buddies. That’s because they might not be able to. For more information on a typical cockroach life cycle you can check out this article.
In order to get rid of the old exoskeleton, a new one has to grow under the skin. It needs to be larger than the previous version. It also has to be soft and flexible, to allow the animal and its new skin to be crammed into the increasingly tight space. After a certain period of time, the insect goes into molt, a process where the old skin splits open and the newly formed insect emerges. The roach swallows air to inflate its new skin into the right proportions.
This is when the roach is most vulnerable. The new skin is soft and the animal can’t move as well with a soft body, thus leaving it at the mercy of predators and other various dangers. Cockroaches tend to molt in their harbour areas, hidden away from danger and in the safety of numbers. It’s for this reason white cockroaches are a rare sight out in the open, not because they are actually rare.
If you do see a white roach, something has disturbed their haven and these animals have been prematurely stirred from their hiding place. If you’re seeing a white roach, you already made acquaintance with many of its brown friends. Where there is one, there are usually hundreds left in the walls and chances are good that a portion of them are in molt as well.
Call an expert
Pest control specialists encounter white cockroaches much more frequently than you normally would because the job entails delivering the pesticides right to the lair of the roaches. Cockroaches are a serious infestation that’s difficult to get rid of with over-the-counter insecticides. If you encounter any large quantity of roaches in all life stages, your home is overrun.
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This is especially true if some of the bugs you see are white or a lighter tan color than their buddies. Since cockroaches like to hide within walls and other difficult-to-access areas around the home, it is important to opt for an extermination method that addresses them right in their hiding places.
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Cockroaches – University of California – IPM Program
Cockroach Identification – Virginia Tech