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I was talking to an antique dealer in Kolkata a few months ago about restoring a grand old four poster bed made of finest Burma teak. It had probably been the resting place of British Officers recuperating after long hard days of governing my country in the way you might stir a nest of insects. The bed had been clumsily painted at some point so he said he would sand it back down to the wood and stain it. Presenting various options to me over the phone, the one he could highly recommended as the most rich and lustrous he described as the colour of a cockroach. So that ‘s what I got.

Cockroach wing fossil SEM

by Muriel Rukeyser
(from The Gates, 1976)

For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
to eat your food
or know your poems
or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.

Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color, that was
neither good nor bad.

I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.

Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

Cockroach fossil

Here is the perfect organism. It attained perfection 300 million years ago. Since then almost nothing about it has needed to change for it fit into its environment here on earth. It is an example of beauty. An ideal marriage of form and function.
This particular fossil also happens to be a holotype. That is to say it is stored here at the museum as a reference for researchers. It is the three dimensional dictionary definition of ‘cockroach’.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    27/07/2009 1:15 pm

    This cockroach fossil is an extremely important specimen.

    As the Hermit mentioned, it is a holotype. This means that it was the first of it’s kind to be described. Whenever another scientist wants to describe another cockroach which they think might be the same species, they have to refer to this specimen.

    I regularly use this specimen when I give tours of the stores. It is really beautiful and I find it incredible that modern day cockroaches are almost identicle to this 300 million year old one!

    David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology

    • 30/07/2009 12:59 pm

      I met a researcher in the Imperial College who got
      numerous live cockroaches from all over the world.
      Some are almost 10cm big ! —– and I admit, they
      are beautiful.—–yet still, I can’t forgive them, even
      though I admire cicada (that noisy insect and looks
      more or less same to the cockroach).
      ——–Why ? ? ? Give a thought,—- it might, because
      cockroach and human are competing the same space,
      not only a kitchen but even inside of a warm computer.
      Cicada never invade human space other than its noise.
      (Some says, its noise made him mad)

  2. Tom Stephenson permalink
    30/07/2009 10:47 pm

    ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’, and the meeker they are, the more successful it seems. That old adage is just as believable when applied to the virus. When they warned of pestilence arriving with the comets, how could they have known that the ice core contained star-traveling virus’s, capable of transmuting in near vacuum before jumping off as they brushed through our atmosphere?

    I say there are not enough fruit-flies in the world.

  3. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    22/09/2009 3:09 pm

    The Collections Development Panel, along with the director and the artist, discussed the fossil cockroach at a meeting on 3rd September.

    The blog responses and discussion were summarised as:
    “There was not much debate about disposal of this holotype specimen.”

    The decision was that the fossil will be retained by the museum as it is an internationally scientifically important specimen

    David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology

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