Meet the karate cockroach and other hard-kicking animals

From kangaroos to kiwis, animals have found that a swift kick is often the best defence.

IF YOU GET a kick out of American football, then you’re in your element right now. ’Tis the season for place kicks, punts and field goals that can make or break a game.

This week we’re looking at animals other than humans that get a leg up on their opponents. First, there’s one bug whose life may depend on its legs: the cockroach, which has just been discovered to have a strong defensive kick.

Cockroach’s Survival Kick

Cockroaches aren’t beloved by many, but you have to feel sorry for them once they get snagged by a jewel wasp.

Jewel wasps deliver two stings to the cockroach: one in the lower midsection, temporarily paralysing its front legs, and the other into the brain, injecting a venom that makes the roach essentially a zombie, docile enough to lead around by the antennae.

The wasp “has sensors on its stinger that help it find the brain,” says Kenneth Catania, a neurobiologist at Vanderbilt University, via email.

The wasp then leads a newly minted zombie into a hole and leaves it there with a single wasp egg. It seals the roach into this tomb where the roach will die, eaten alive by wasp larvae.

Now, Catania has revealed in a new study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Evolution that roaches do not go passively into passivity.

WATCH A REAL-LIFE "NINJA FROG" KICK AWAY PREDATORS
It's easy to see how the reticulated glass frog earned the nickname "ninja frog".

Their first move is called stilt-standing, in which the roach rises up and angles its body away from the wasp, positioning it to deliver the second move, a swift kick to the head of the wasp—or sometimes multiple kicks—with its spiky back legs.

You’d think the wasp could just fly away, but “the roach kicks are super-fast,” Catania says, noting that “it’s probably not possible for the wasp to get out of the line of fire once the kick starts.”

The next steps for the roach include escape responses, such as positioning its body away from the wasp, raking the wasp off its body with those spiky legs, holding the wasp at bay with a “stiff-arm” defence, and biting at the wasp’s abdomen.

This reticulated glass frog looks delicate perched on a frond in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica, but these frogs pack powerful kicks to defend their offspring.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL AND PATRICIA FOGDEN, MINDEN PICTURES/ NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

Out of 55 total battles that Catania’s team observed, adult cockroaches that defended themselves escaped the cruel jewel wasp 63 percent of the time, meaning that the roach had not been stung after three minutes in a chamber with a wasp. Roaches that put up no defence had only a 14 percent survival rate.

The takeaway: Never be afraid to kick up a fuss.

Kickline lineup

Many other animals get a leg up in life with a well-placed punt.

Ostriches can “disable a lion with a kick from their powerful feet,” says Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo.

And even little birds make an impact with their pedal power.

Not surprisingly, kangaroos like this grey kangaroo in Murramarang National Park, Australia, have some smashing kick-boxing matches.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANS LANTING, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

Kiwis, which are ostriches’ flightless, chicken-sized cousins, “can kick logs apart to find bugs to eat,” Moore says. They can also run off predators such as opossums who “could prey on kiwi chicks if kiwi dads weren’t so darned aggressive.”

Then there are secretary birds, which stomp and kick prey to death, delivering a force up to five times their body weight in just 15 milliseconds.

Camels get an award for flexibility, as they're able to kick to the front, back, and sideways. Kangaroo males deliver bone-crushing kicks during fights over females.

Frogs use their strong kick to jump away, Moore says, but some kick for defence, too. The reticulated glass frog, or ninja frog, can deliver a serious kick to would-be predators while guarding eggs.

Ain’t that a kick in the head?

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