10 Unique Species of Cockroaches

Roaches are more diverse, more complex, and less pestilent than we tend to think.

Cockroach on a white wooden pole
kievith / Getty Images

Cockroaches have plagued humans for thousands of years, and many of us are all too familiar with at least one of the roughly 30 cockroach species that can make their homes in our habitats. 

However, more than 4,000 living cockroach species are known to science, maintaining a surprisingly diverse lineage that may pre-date dinosaurs. They are ancient and complex creatures, largely undeserving of the stigma associated with their name. Pest cockroaches represent less than 1% of all cockroach species, and while our disgust may not be unwarranted, they are also less monolithic and monstrous than we tend to think. In some cases, we might even be able to learn something useful from them. 

Here is a closer look at several noteworthy species, from cosmopolitan pests like the American and German cockroach to several of their less famous — and less infestive — relatives.

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American Cockroach

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)
Andrew Waugh / Getty Images

The American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) is the largest pest roach species, averaging 1.5 inches long. It’s also one of the fastest land animals relative to its size, capable of running 50 body lengths per second. Despite its name, the species originated in tropical Africa and was brought to North America by European settlers and enslavers. It now lives all over the world. 

The American cockroach is peridomestic, meaning it lives near people both indoors and out. Popular habitats include dark, damp places adjacent to buildings, from cellars and sewers to trash cans and woodpiles. It’s a common pest in restaurants and grocery stores, but less so inside homes. Research on cockroach behavior suggests these roaches have individual personalities, and their speed, agility, and toughness can inspire better rescue robots.

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Australian Cockroach

Australian Cockroach (Periplaneta australasiae)
Andrew Waugh / Getty Images

The Australian cockroach (Periplaneta australasiae) is another big, peridomestic pest with a confusing name. It’s thought to have evolved in Africa and then spread globally with human help in recent centuries. Australia is among the places it has invaded, but it’s also widespread in parts of the Southeastern U.S., as well as tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. 

This species is often mistaken for the American cockroach, which is similar in appearance and behavior. Australian cockroaches are slightly smaller, though, with light yellow bands at the upper edge of their forewings. They typically live outside, in habitats ranging from tree bark and woodpiles to porches and greenhouses. Indoors, their refuges may include water pipes, sinks, toilets, and other places with enough heat, moisture, and darkness.

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Brown-Banded Cockroach

Brown-banded cockroach

nonrev / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The brown-banded cockroach (Supella longipalpa) is a small domestic cockroach, which means it spends its entire life indoors. It’s a cosmopolitan pest that may have evolved in Africa, but its global expansion seems more recent than many roaches: It was first reported in the U.S. in 1903, and may not have reached Europe until World War II. 

Unlike the American cockroach, this species is more common in residences than restaurants. It disperses throughout the home more than other roaches do, often living surprisingly far from food and water. It’s sometimes called the “furniture cockroach,” since people find it in foodless areas like bedrooms, bookshelves, or behind pictures on walls. Along with more traditional methods of roach control, brown-banded cockroaches are susceptible to a parasitic wasp, Comperia merceti, that can parasitize their eggs heavily enough to crash a population.

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Brown-Hooded Cockroach

Brown-hooded cockroach Cryptocercus punctulatus

Matt Muir / iNaturalist / CC BY-SA 4.0

The brown-hooded cockroach (Cryptocercus punctulatus) is a wild forest dweller from North America, where separate populations exist in the Appalachians and the Pacific Northwest. It’s the only wingless roach in its range, according to the University of Virginia Mountain Lake Biological Station, which describes it as “impossible to mistake” for another species.

Cryptocercus may be the basal lineage for modern roaches, and these wood eaters are seen as models for early termites, too, which evolved from cockroaches about 170 million years ago. Brown-hooded cockroaches are more closely related to termites than to some other roaches, and could shed light on the evolution of nesting behavior in termites. A mated pair will spend three years or longer raising a single brood of nymphs, who are able to eat rotten wood thanks to cellulose-digesting microbes passed down from their parents.

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Cape Mountain Cockroach

Table Mountain Cockroach (Aptera fusca)

Bernard DUPONT / Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden / Flickr /CC BY-SA 2.0

The Cape Mountain cockroach (Aptera fusca), also known as the Table Mountain cockroach, is a large, non-pest species native to the fynbos biome in South Africa’s Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces. 

Rather than laying eggs as most insects do, A. fusca is ovoviviparous, which means its eggs develop and hatch inside the mother, who then gives birth to live young. The species makes a loud squeaking noise when alarmed, and for additional protection, can secrete a foul-smelling fluid that reportedly stains the skin for days.

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Death’s Head Cockroach

Death's Head Cockroach Or Blaberus Craniifer Is A Cockroach, Similar To The Discoid Cockroach.
bruev / Getty Images

The death’s head cockroach (Blaberus craniifer) is the largest cockroach in North America, growing up to 3 inches long. Its name refers to a distinctive face-like marking on the pronotum (a dorsal plate on the upper thorax), resembling a black skull with reddish features on an amber background. The species is native to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and has been introduced to Florida. 

Death’s head cockroaches inhabit forest floors in the wild, feeding on leaf litter and other organic material. They are not common household pests, but some people do keep them as pets.

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Domino Cockroach

Seven spotted Roach Therea petiveriana

Shyamal / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The domino cockroach (Therea petiveriana) is an unusual-looking roach native to scrub forests in southern India. Its small, roundish body is black with white spots, a pattern that’s believed to be an example of defensive mimicry. Aside from resembling a domino, the pattern may protect the roach by disguising it as a different local insect: the six-spot ground beetle, an aggressive carnivore with defensive secretions that can make it intimidating to predators. 

The domino cockroach also produces defensive secretions of its own, but research suggests they’re more about communication than deterrence, likely serving as an alarm pheromone to help adult roaches warn each other about impending danger.

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Florida Woods Cockroach

Acid spraying cockroach, Eurycotis floridana, Satara, Maharashtra, India
ePhotocorp / Getty Images

The Florida woods cockroach (Eurycotis floridana) is a large species native to the Southeastern U.S., where it’s sometimes called a “palmetto bug” (a term also used for the American cockroach). It’s peridomestic, generally living outdoors in habitats ranging from stumps and shrubs to woodpiles and greenhouses. It occasionally comes indoors, but has little incentive to stay: The species feeds on plant matter, lichens, mosses, and soil microbes, showing no preference for eating human garbage, and faces little threat from the region’s mild winters. 

Adults can grow to 1.6 inches long and 1 inch wide. They lack developed wings and are relatively slow-moving, even when disturbed. When alarmed, adults can spray a foul-smelling irritant up to 3 feet away, with some degree of directional control.

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German Cockroach

Close-up of German cockroach (Blattella germanica)

Erik Karits / Getty Images

The German cockroach (Blattella germanica) is “the species that gives all other cockroaches a bad name,” according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida (IFAS). It may have evolved in Asia, despite its name, but it’s now found worldwide in association with humans, and may be the most widespread of all pest cockroaches. It’s omnivorous and breeds continuously, with many overlapping generations often living together, and can complete an entire life cycle in about 100 days. 

The German cockroach is a social insect, but unlike the royal colonies of some ants and bees, it forms looser, more egalitarian coalitions with democratic tendencies. Instead of catering to a queen, all the adults can reproduce and contribute to group decisions. Unfortunately for us, German cockroaches are also rapidly evolving resistance to multiple types of pesticides, and some have even evolved an aversion to the glucose used in poisoned sugar baits.

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Madagascar Hissing Cockroach

Single Madagascar Hissing Cockroach known also as Hisser in an zoological garden terrarium
Bernard Bialorucki / Getty Images

The Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) is a large, wingless cockroach native to Madagascar, where it inhabits tropical lowland rainforests. It can grow to 3 inches long and 1 inch wide, and famously produces a hissing sound with breathing spiracles on its abdomen. Researchers have identified at least four distinct hisses with different amplitude patterns and purposes: a male combat hiss, two courting and mating hisses, and a loud alarm hiss to startle predators. Males establish territories and defend them from other males.

This species is popular as a pet and appears at some zoos and aquariums. Like many other cockroaches, it’s also a detritivore that plays an important part in the nutrient-cycling process of its native forests.

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