They Won’t Bug You

Ugly sweater day is the one day where everyone appreciates the way you look. Therefore, it is only fitting to let some of what humans consider as “ugly” have the spotlight today. Remember not to judge this little guy with a big purpose – let’s meet the Madagascar hissing cockroach.


Different than what you find in your kitchen, Madagascar hissing cockroaches are one of 99 percent of cockroach species that are not considered pests, as they do not inhabit human spaces. This species is found on the forest floor among leaf litter, in rotten logs and near riverbanks on the island of Madagascar, which is located on the eastern coast of Africa. This habitat is the ideal location for the cockroaches, which live in colonies of up to thousands of individuals, to feed on decaying fallen fruit and dead animal matter. At the Zoo, the cockroaches are fed a diet of fresh vegetable and fruit scraps from the Diet Kitchen, as well as a specially formulated diet complete with vitamins and nutrients called Repashy Bug Burger.

Madagascar hissing cockroaches are wingless and have special pads and hooks on their feet that aid in climbing, even on smooth surfaces! These cockroaches are one of the largest species, growing up to three inches in length. They are black and brown in color, aiding in camouflaging from potential predators, such as birds. When these nocturnal cockroaches feel threatened, are defending their territory, fighting with a rival male or are interested in mating, they communicate using different types of hisses, hence the species name. The hisses are produced by air pushing through tiny holes on the sides of the cockroach’s body, called spiracles. Males also have small but prominent bumpy horns near their head, which are used in sparring for dominance.

Did you know that Madagascar hissing cockroaches have very tiny white dots on them, and that these dots move? That’s because these dots are actually mites that clean the cockroach! So despite being found near decomposing, potentially dirty things, cockroaches are actually very clean!

Madagascar hissing cockroaches are important for their ecosystem because they break down debris on the forest floor, which recycles nutrients. This species is considered a least concern for extinction by the due to their large population size, however forest habitats are some of the most threatened areas in Madagascar due to deforestation for mining and agricultural purposes, which could affect populations in the future.

At the Virginia Zoo, there are 50 Madagascar hissing cockroaches in a motel-themed exhibit in the World of Reptiles, while many others live off-exhibit. This exhibit was designed and crafted by hand by longtime Zoo Volunteer and artist Angie Van Dyke. Madagascar hissing cockroaches can also be found behind-the-scenes at the Program Animal Building, and these individuals are used for education programs and pop-up presentations as ambassadors for their species. In total, roughly 500 Madagascar hissing cockroaches reside at the Zoo.