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If you ask Dr. Ruth Conley's mother, she'll tell you that her daughter was a scientist from the start. At nine months old, Conley began her first research project by knocking over an anthill and watching the tiny insects rebuild. Today the associate professor of biology is still studying insects, only now she's researching the sensory systems of the Madagascar hissing cockroach.

For four years Dr. Conley has been exploring how these cockroaches use their hisses to communicate. According to the professor, the insects are similar to birds with courtship songs and territorial calls. Along with her student research assistants, Dr. Conley has been breeding the roaches, creating several small colonies of social individuals. The colonies are then recorded by a video camera with their hisses being recorded using computer data acquisitions to avoid unwanted hisses. The researchers are trying to determine what each sound and behavior is for so that they can then categorize the calls, cross-referencing them with social cues. Some of the insects also have been isolated in order to see what hisses are learned and what calls the cockroaches are born with.

Dr. Conley's research thus far has shown that Madagascar hissing cockroaches have different frequencies that show their social structure. She also has discovered that the roaches incorporate some whistles into their calls, something that had not been found in the species before. Dr. Conley said that it's not surprising that the cockroaches have these calls, but what is both surprising and amazing is the variety of calls.

At the West Virginia Academy of Science in April 2006, Dr. Conley and her research assistant Emma Bowers presented a poster showing their current findings. The poster, titled "Signal diversity of acoustic communication in Madagascar hissing cockroach, Gromphadorhina portentosa," won the most outstanding poster award. A poster is a way to summarize current research and present it to colleagues in the scientific community. These posters are eventually written up in scientific journals. Two other posters were presented at this event as well. Dr. Conley presented "Photoreceptor density, visual acuity, and visual streak in parr of rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykss" with Sharon Mason and "Behavioral modulation by octopamine in Gromphadorhina portentosa, the Madagascar hissing cockroach" with Alexandra Mertz-Myers.

Dr. Conley, who came to Shepherd in 2002, believes that her research on the roaches' communication system could possibly have military applications by allowing people to differentiate between what sounds are actually being heard and what is noise. Her studies on hormonal influences and behavior can provide valuable information on the effects of drug abuse and its effects on social systems. By looking into how the nervous system codes and discriminates between the hormones, Dr. Conley's work with the Madagascar hissing cockroach could become a model for autistic children.

While Dr. Conley, a sensory systems specialist, has researched other life forms, right now she's sticking with the cockroaches. "We're just getting started," she said. "Which way we go next depends on the research."

Bethany Davidson

Dr. Ruth Conley

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