Q&A with Darby Proctor - Will Roaches Survive the Apocalypse?

Jul 10 2019

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work with cockroaches? Well, comparative psychologist, Dr. Darby Proctor, has all of the info. Formally trained in comparative psychology by the famous primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal, Darby Proctor is pushing boundaries by exploring a new animal model: cockroaches.

Within the last week, Proctor and her colleague, Marshall Jones, published a new website called Roach Lab showcasing the work that they are doing to introduce experimental psychology into the classroom. Their goal is to make animal models more accessible because "rats labs are getting harder and harder to come by, and so we had this crazy idea to see if we could do the same thing with cockroaches. You can just go and download an experimental protocol and try it out.”

She mentions that there is still a lot to be learned about cockroaches when she says, “we’re still figuring out a lot of things about working with cockroaches because, as you can imagine, the cockroach cognition literature is rather small. So we tried a lot of things that haven’t worked, and we’ve tried some things that have worked.” She dives into more details about her research journey in the following interview.

CC: How did you get involved with cockroaches?

DP: I'm an assistant professor at Florida Tech. It's a small private University and I was teaching our neuroscience class for undergrads, but we didn’t have a ton of neuroscience equipment. It's a very jargon-filled class and the students were kind of bored, so I was trying to figure out what I could do to make it more interesting. I'm of course a comparative psychologist, so animals always make things more interesting to me. I found a company called Backyard Brains, and they make neuroscience equipment that you can use with cockroaches so I ordered some roaches and some equipment for my class. But then after that class, I had a colony of cockroaches! I was also teaching our animal behavior classes as well as our comparative animal cognition classes so I thought, “Well, we've got to figure out a way to use these in our classes." My collaborator and I were talking about the roaches in my office one day and we said, "Oh, what if we could turn this into a grant to help other universities to have access to these types of resources?" We're well aware that we're not the only university without a dedicated animal facility. And of course, we want to give our undergrads experience with animal models in research, especially in psychology because animal research is so important across the history of psychology. The cockroaches are cheap. We get a species that doesn't fly, they’re pretty slow so we can handle that, and we wanted to see if we could at least give students hands-on experience doing things like classical and operant conditioning with a real live animal.

CC: Can you elaborate on that? What types of tests you do [with the cockroaches]?

DP: Well, one of our first problems was, “what do you do to motivate the cockroach?” In one of our early projects, and this is one that's on the website, it was just a simple preference test, which was designed by one of my students. We used a LEGO enclosure with different food options in each corner of the arena. We could track where the cockroaches were spending their time and which food source they preferred. For those types of things, this is where the students have been able to use BehaviorCloud really well because they all have phones, so they're recording the video on their phone then analyzing it, so that they can get better measurements of things like the time the animal spends in these different areas. It's a bit easier for them to quantify than sitting there with a stop-watch and coding the video. The software is quite a bit more accurate than if they were trying to do something like that and it's also pretty intuitive for them. So it doesn't take me much time to help them figure out how to use this software.

CC: That's great. I'm glad we were able to help with that, too.

DP: Yeah, it’s been awesome because I thought, “Oh man, a classroom full of stopwatches isn’t going to go down well.” But once I figured out they were all filming on their phone anyway, that's when I started looking for some sort of automated solution, and of course, the accounts that BehaviorCloud offers are perfect for these types of small scale projects in the classroom, so that each student or at least each different group can get their own accounts. They usually don't even have more than an hour of video. But at least now they're getting a more realistic research experience. You know they're using software that real scientists use and so they're getting more of a realistic scientific experience by doing hands-on research with pretty fancy software that scientists use.

“I wasn't sure if it was going to work with a roach, since it’s not a rodent, but I decided to give it a shot and BehaviorCloud worked beautifully. The tracking stays perfectly on the back the roach.”

Although Proctor is now an expert on cockroach behavior – they aren’t actually her main line of research. Proctor says, “I also study decision-making in nonhuman primates with the local zoo.” She mentions that her post-doc mentor, Dr. Frans de Waal, is “very amused by the roaches. There’s been a joke about whether my career has taken a really big nose dive going from chimpanzees to cockroaches. But one of my friends made me feel better when she said, ‘Well, cockroaches are going to outlive all of the primates, so maybe you’ve actually gone up.’”

CC: So that leads me to your non-human primate research, what does that involve?

DP: I'm working with the local zoo, which is fantastic and they love having our students come in and do small scale stuff. But of course, working with exotic animals you're limited in what you can let undergraduates do, which again is why I wanted to figure out a way we could get some sort of animals on campus. Because the zoo is about 30 minutes away, not all students can get out there, even if they wanted to. But really what I'm interested in is behavioral economics using nonhuman primates. So trying to characterize human decision-making biases that may not make a whole lot of sense in our modern societal context and then looking to see if the same patterns of decision-making present in non-human primates. Because if they do, it might suggest there's actually a good evolutionary reason why we do things that look a bit silly - like gamble. Right? If you think about it rationally there's no reason you should gamble - the returns are terrible. If you get any at all. I'm doing things like looking at the risk preferences across a variety of non-human primate species to see where similarities and differences lie between how humans approach gambling problems and non-human primates approach them. So far chimps and humans are pretty much the same. Most of us don't like to gamble, but there's a subset that very much likes to gamble, so we think there's some emotional response going on there. And right now, I'm looking at Capuchin monkeys, which are a New-World monkey species, and they are perfectly rational. They only care about maximizing their own reward. So even if they had to lose a lot in a gambling-type game, they would still do whatever got them the most overall rewards. Going forward, I'm looking at spider monkeys in the same context because I don't know if Capuchin's are unique in that they’re perfect little economists. What I need to do is look at another closely related species like spider monkeys to see whether there's something special, special about Capuchins, or maybe if there is a linear difference between these 2 branches of the primates.

CC: So how do you conduct that test where you look at gambling behavior [in primates]?

DP: I actually adapted it from a human gambling game called the Iowa gambling task, and the basic premise is that you go into a room and have 2 decks of cards. On the cards there are different point values and what you don't know is that one deck has a sturdy payout structure and the other payout structure is a lot more variable so you might lose some money. You might win a jackpot, but a lot of the time it's not going to be great overall. We basically took this paradigm and instead of using decks of cards, we use stacks of cups, so it's still like they are sort of drawing from a deck, and of course, we have food rewards hidden inside. So we can't make them lose food because they've already eaten it. But we can use zero outcomes to represent a loss on that trial. What happens is across time, individuals develop a strategy of either not caring (i.e., they just select randomly), or they select from that safe deck, or they select from the more risky option and then the trick is that we change the overall payout structure, so sometimes the safe deck pays out the most overall, but sometimes the risky deck pays out the most overall and other times they are equal. Doing that allows us to distinguish between 3 different approaches to risk. So we can see if they are risk averse, (i.e., they don't want to gamble ever), if they’re risk prone (i.e., they really want to gamble even when it doesn't make sense because they're getting food rewards), or if they’re reward maximizing (e.g., they're doing what the Capuchins did and just trying to get the most overall food rewards).

CC: Your research is so amazing, such a large variety, obviously going from cockroaches to nonhuman primates.

DP: The cockroaches weren’t meant to happen, but you know, whatever works best in the classroom. And the students are surprisingly into it. They get way more onboard with the cockroaches than I thought they would.

CC: It’s probably a lot easier than dealing with rodents.

DP: Well, they don’t bite, and they’re not as dirty. They spend about 40% of their time grooming, even though some like to bury. They’re big and slow, and that’s also another advantage because I can let the undergrads work relatively unsupervised with the roaches because they’re not going to hurt themselves or the roach, so they can actually do their own independent projects. BehaviorCloud is awesome too, because they can set up their own parameters and get the data they need based on the arena or maze that they have designed.

CC: So one last question, will the cockroaches survive a nuclear apocalypse?

DP: Well, I don't know how reliable it is, but Mythbusters did an episode on this and cockroaches resisted a lot more radiation than a human would’ve.

CC: Oh, wow, I didn't know that.

DP: Yup, so it’s plausible.

Proctor’s new animal model seems very promising and affordable for small neuroscience and psychology labs across the globe. As mentioned, there are many advantages to using an inexpensive invertebrate animal to demonstrate basic principles of animal behavior and cognition. If you would like to learn more about how to start your own cockroach lab please visit Roach Lab and then head on over to BehaviorCloud for all of your tracking needs.

Dr. Darby Proctor

Dr. Proctor is an assistant professor of psychology at Florida Tech. Her research focuses on decision-making in nonhuman primates in order to understand the evolutionary roots of human decision-making biases. In addition to this line of research, she is interested in pedagogy and increasing student involvement in the classroom. Before coming to Florida Tech, she was an NIH-funded IRACDA Fellow in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) at Emory University and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from Georgia State University.

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