Very common in post-apocalyptic fiction or in events happening in the distant future, when no more humans are around and a new species has taken over the world. This species generally is or has evolved from a small, humble life form, often (though not necessarily) the cockroach.
This trope was frequent during the Cold War, when people feared that The End of the World as We Know It was near, and it was also discovered that cockroaches have much higher radiation resistance than human beings. Unfortunately for popular culture, it turns out that while cockroaches have higher resistance to a sudden lethal burst, they are just as subject to harm from long-term fallout as most life. Further, as pointed out in Life After People, cockroaches (the species which are notable pests) are tropical to semi-tropical insects: their current extensive range is a consequence of humans heating their homes and businesses. With no humans — and more to the point, no artificial heating — around, cockroach populations would plummet fairly swiftly in temperate and colder areas once winter sets in. Worth noting here is that a nuclear war severe enough to wipe out humanity would also result in severe worldwide nuclear winter, making it a particularly devastating apocalypse for any heat-loving creature.
- Played with in Arachnid, as an organization of human assassins obsessed with the traits of bugs deliberately nukes Japan during WWII and later sets up a Zombie Apocalypse so that they could depopulate the country and rule over its remains. In the sequel Blattodea, named after the order cockroaches belong to, Chiyuri is an American-cockroach themed homeless girl who tries to thrive in the apocalypse and Megumi the house-roach rules over a prison that gathers the survivors.
- TerraforMARS cockroaches hyper-evolved after an experiment to terraform Mars developing humanoid shape and intelligence.
- Adam Ferrara joked about how his wife was so strict and controlling that he came home one day to find his household cockroaches running the vacuum cleaner and yelling "Wipe your feet!" at him:
Adam: "Look, buddy, after the bombs drop it's just gonna be her and us, and we don't want no trouble!"
- On pondering this trope, Irish comedian Jimeoin wondered if cockroaches had the same terror of sandals (often used to squash cockroaches) that people have of nuclear war, and imagined that cockroaches might write protest songs about them.
- According to Robin Williams, after humanity is gone, Keith Richards will be the only thing living aside from cockroaches.
Robin: (impersonating Keith) "You know, I smoked your uncle? Did you know that? Fucking crazy..."
- Marvel Comics: Cable has a storyline in Earth-80521 with a race of humanoid roaches, the Roach Soldiers, who have their own president.
- The Extremist Vector: Everyone on their world died in the nuclear war they started so, there is no more human race for the Extremists to enslave. The only mammals to survive in any notable numbers were rats.
- Kamandi takes place in an alternate future where humans are all but extinct and animals have become more anthropomorphic and sapient.
- Peace on Earth: Made in 1939 (just before World War II would be set off), and is set after a fatal global war in which humans have gone extinct, as told by a kindly old squirrel to his grandchildren in which the animals of the earth build a new civilization following this self-inflicted omnicide. This was also remade in 1955 as Good Will to Men and modified with an anti-nuclear warfare message.
- Rock and Rule has an intro narration that, After the End, the dogs, cats and rats ascended to mastery of the ravaged Earth, and have rebuilt their new civilization atop the debris of the old, making it a World of Funny Animals.
- In WALL•E, the only sign of animal life on the garbage-covered Earth is a seemingly indestructible cockroach.
- Damnation Alley: The survival team makes a brief stop in what's left of Salt Lake City. Of course, everyone's dead, and most of the taller buildings were leveled. The first clue that something hungry is afoot is a pair of human skeletons seated in a car, where even the upholstery is gone, leaving only the springs and frames. The team becomes target of multiple swarms of huge cockroaches, about 10 inches (25 cm) long. The protagonists bug out of there, minus Keegan, who was last seen about to be nibbled to death.
- Godzilla: The M Space Hunter Nebula Aliens from Godzilla vs. Gigan are man-sized humanoid cockroaches, the only surviving life form on a planet wasted by pollution caused by its previous civilization.
- The Hellstrom Chronicle is a mockumentary about how insects will eventually win the fight for survival over humans and, thus, rule the Earth in the future.
- Joe's Apartment: Played for Laughs; apparently, cockroaches have a prophecy that some day the big war will happen and the world will be theirs.
- In Men in Black, the Big Bad looks like a giant space cockroach who wants to ensure earth's destruction and start a war with the Arquillians by stealing the galaxy from the Arquillian prince. He considers his kind superior to and more evolved than humans, willing to kill them over swatting an Earth bug.
- Mimic: A race of insects evolves in record time and became not only huge, but also a real threat to humanity.
- Animorphs: The Ellimist finds the planet that will one day be called Earth, and sees the future not in the lumbering dinosaurs but the small hairy creatures. The planet's destiny is further changed when the Animorphs go back in time to discover two alien species warring over Earth, the Nesk and Mercora. After getting the Nesk to leave the planet, Tobias takes the responsibility of making sure the Mercora don't keep it either, as humans would likely not have evolved if a sentient species was already present on the planet.
- Classic Singapore Horror Stories has a short titled "Cockroach" where the protagonist finds an underground civilization of giant, talking roaches (ruled by their man-sized albino king) who awaits an impending nuclear war between humans, so they will rule over what's left of humanity once the war is over.
- Evolution by Stephen Baxter: In the 650 million year time span explored by the novel (from the age of dinosaurs to the far future), crocodiles are one of the few constants. They are so hardy that they still thrive Just Before the End of life on Earth — evolved to smaller sizes to consume fewer resources, but otherwise unchanged since the Mesozoic.
- The Figure, by Edward Grendon: Nuclear testing has lead to giant insects, and a scientist testing a time machine brings back a figure from the future which he's horrified to realise is a beetle-like creature portrayed in a religious fashion.
- The Future Is Wild: 500 million years in the future, the world is dominated by invertebrates such as termites, worms, and cephalopods. Land-going vertebrates are all extinct. In the seas, bony fishes have mostly been displaced by crustaceans, although sharks are still thriving.
- Referenced in The Last Continent: the God of Evolution has been designing an "ultimate life form," guaranteed to survive any disaster. Ponder Stibbons assumes it must be humanity and is revolted to learn that it is a cockroach.
- Red Dwarf: In Better Than Life, Earth turns out to have been reduced to the solar system's garbage dump, and when Lister makes his way back to it he encounters eight-foot cockroaches feasting on the mounds of trash. They make him their king.
- The Shadow Out of Time: A race of giant beetles will rule the Earth millions of years in the future once humans are extinguished.
- Sherlock Holmes: Part of Holmes' faux-delirium in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" is babbling about the world being overrun by oysters.
- The Time Machine: At the end of the book, the Time Traveller discovers that in the distant future Earth's dominant lifeform is going to be some sort of giant crab-like creatures.
- Andromeda: In one episode, Beka believes Dylan is dead after seeing an explosion in space equaling the fuel capacity of the ship he was on. Tyr, however, refuses to believe it, declaring that when the universe collapses and dies, there will be three survivors: himself, the cockroaches, and Dylan trying to save the cockroaches.
- Benson: Discussed in an episode with a nuclear war simulation.
Governor: Do you think it's possible to survive a nuclear war?
Benson: Sure, if you're a rat or a cockroach.
Clayton: Well, I intend to survive.
Benson: Like I said, rats and cockroaches.
- Cowboy Bebop. Faye Valentine likes a variation of Rock–Paper–Scissors called Foot-Cockroach-Atomic Bomb.
Faye: Foot kills cockroach, atomic bomb blows up foot, cockroach survives atomic bomb.
- CSI: NY: The killer of the week in the episode "A Daze of Wine and Roaches" was a Friend to Bugs sous-chef who impulsively murdered his restaurant's head chef to prevent the man from killing an exotic cockroach that had wandered into the kitchen. His Motive Rant includes this tidbit of trivia as an explanation of why roaches are awesome and worth protecting. Of course, Detective Danny Messer can only show disbelief about the man's priorities.
Danny: [in a "you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me" drawl] So you killed a man... over a cockroach?
- Doom Patrol has Ezekiel, the talking Christian zealot cockroach, who believes himself to be the destined ruler of the Earth once the apocalypse wipes out mankind.
- A variation of the "cockroaches and X" joke surfaced on EastEnders: at one point tough-skinned survivor Pat Butcher observed that after the apocalypse it would be just her and the scorpions. Cue Harry Hill musing that if that were the case they would eventually have to mate, leading to that week's mid-episode Curb-Stomp Battle featuring a hybrid half-scorpion, half-Pat Butcher creature known as a ScorpiPat.
- I Am Not Okay With This has a variation. Stanley believes that jellyfish will rule the Earth after humanity destroys itself, which is why he, in one of his drugged-out hazes, wishes he could be a jellyfish after the apocalypse so he could lead them to victory over the roaches.
- Mythbusters tested this in episode 97, by exposing them, along with flour beetles and fruit flies, to various levels of cobalt-60 radiation over thirty days. They found that, while cockroaches survived radiation levels far beyond what humans could tolerate, both fruit flies and flour beetles were actually more durable than the roaches (in particular, 10% of the beetles survived a month of exposure to a hundred-thousand rads, a hundred times the lethal dose for a human, while none of the roaches did), resulting in the myth being busted.
- The Stand (1994) : Glen Bateman talks to a roach while in a jail cell musing on the mistakes humanity has made that led to them being nearly wiped out by the superflu and siding with Randall Flagg. He remarks that humans could learn a thing or two from the roaches, and that the roach will likely be around long after Bateman' own impending death. Then Randall Flagg crushes it underfoot. Both mocking Bateman and underscoring that not even roaches are safe from Flagg.
- It's not clear who originally said (back in the Nineties, apparently) that after the apocalypse it would be just cockroaches and Cher, but at one point Cher herself supposedly repeated the joke and commented: "Someone once said, 'The only thing that will be left after a nuclear holocaust is Cher and cockroaches.' I think that's funny, because, you know, I am a survivor. If I am anything, that's what I am."
- Mark Graham: In the last verse of "Their Brains Were Small and They Died", a future cockroach paleontologist declares that the title applies to long-extinct humanity, just as humans long besmirched dinosaurs with the same allegation.
- This parody of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" (with a video made up of clips from Joe's Apartment) has a cockroach assuring humanity that all our efforts to exterminate them are doomed to failure; they've been around far longer than we have, and will remain long after we're gone.
You can kill a couple of us off and then think it was goodbye?
But you never get us all, it's pointless to even try
Oh no not I! We will survive!
As long as there's not a nuclear war, we'll be here by your side
And if there ever is one, we won't be the ones to die
We will survive, we will survive!
- In one of the Dave Hollins: Space Cadet sketches, Dave finds that the only survivors of a nuclear war are fruit flies, beetles and P.E. teachers with fruit flies now being Earth's dominant species.
- Chrononauts: One of the character cards is an intelligent cockroach from a timeline like this. In order to get "home", they have to make sure the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates into World War III.
- While Paranoia mostly just uses Giant Radioactive Mutant Cockroaches as a Running Gag during missions to Outdoors Sector, one series of missions includes Friend Computer cloning sapient cockroaches because Earth is too heavily irradiated for humans to survive.
- ARK: Survival Evolved: One of the unique creatures surviving on After the End Earth in Extinction is a highly-advanced tardigrade, the Gasbag. Tardigrades, also known as waterbears, are microscopic creatures almost as renowned as cockroaches for their resilience... except Gasbags are the size of a Volkswagen and can fly. Even the Dino Dossier entry seems puzzled.
- Best Fiends: Lapoleon the cockroach is mentioned as being prepped to being the "Emperor of Everything", thanks to being able to withstand atomic blasts.
- In Bug Fables, insects and several other invertebrates developed human-level intelligence and created their own civilization ever since what they call "the Day of Awakening", with roaches being the first to do so. Humans are completely absent from the game, and are only mentioned in the lore books, where it was stated that they "disappeared" from the world, and the last lore book hints at the possibility that they were driven to extinction by some sort of cataclysm. There is no definitive explanation, but given that the "Giants' Lair" is inhabited by vicious Lovecraft-esque monsters, the truth might not be pretty.
- Zig-Zagged with the fate of the roaches themselves, since they ultimately disappeared from Bugaria without a trace, leaving behind only ruins and evidence of their unethical experiments. This leads to the natural Fridge Horror of wondering what could have been so terrible that it wiped out both the humans and the roaches.
- Splatoon: In the backstory, humans rendered themselves and every other mammal extinct via global warming. A small contingency of humans fled the calamity on the surface by seeking refuge in a flooded, underground cavern full of squids, octopuses, jellyfish, and other sea creatures. The humans filled the roof of the cave with screens made of a special crystal that would reflect their hopes and dreams - in this case, to see the sky again - while they worked on a rocket they could use to escape; unfortunately, the launch ended in a failure so catastrophic it wiped out their pocket of civilization, making humans extinct for good. The crash destroyed some of the screens and caused the crystal shards to drop into the water below. Absorbing humanity's dreams through the crystals, the sea creatures crawled their way onto land and began to evolve into more humanoid forms, eventually becoming Inklings, Octarians, etc. and starting their own civilizations.
- In Stellaris "Tomb Worlds", planets whose native sapient life wiped themselves out in a nuclear war, often host pre-sapient life that can be uplifted, enabling easier colonization of other Tomb Worlds. Earth is special: if it spawns as a Tomb World (it is one of the four possibilities for Earth in the 50% that Sol spawns in a game where it isn't the seat of one of the starting empires), it will never host pre-sapient life at first look... because it will always have a unique anomaly that when surveyed reveals a species of pre-sapient insectsnote .
- In Hatoful Boyfriend, the story takes place in a world where humans were nearly wiped out by a mutation of the bird flu virus. In an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, the remaining humans created a new virus which was designed to kill the birds carrying the bird flu. However, instead of killing the birds, the new virus made the birds much more intelligent, and able to wage war on the humans. Though some humans still survived, the war resulted in birds becoming the new dominant life forms on earth.
- The December 8, 2019 edition of Breaking Cat News recommends that cat owners should buy Christmas cacti instead of poinsettia, since they have attractive red flowers but are harmless to cats. They are also "virtually indestructible — when the world ends, this will all be Christmas cacti and cockroaches." A graphic depicts the familiar mushroom cloud and cockroaches dancing happily among the cacti.
- In El Goonish Shive, Grace comes across a giant roach and notes that it's a staple of the post-apocalypse.
- Australian filmmaker David Johns and his friend Matt Eastwood posted this parody of Planet Earth on Youtube in which David Attenborough predicts the "bin chicken" (actually the Australian white ibis, which has a tendency to forage in rubbish bins) will inherit the Earth after pollution has killed off the human race: Planet Bin Chicken.
- TierZoo: Subverted in the video discussing what would happen if humans were nerfed. Cockroaches would be quickly forced to retreat to the tropics, as they would no longer have access to the heated houses they depend on to survive the winter in higher latitudes. Likewise, rats would also experience a sharp decline without access to human food stores or the ability to retreat into houses to avoid predators.
- The Fairly OddParents!: In the episode "Wanda's Day Off!", Timmy wishes he knew what a cockroach was thinking about. When Cosmo grants the cockroach intelligence and the ability to speak, it immediately stands up on its hind legs and yells "WORLD DOMINATION!" Throughout the rest of the episode, the cockroaches organize, gather weapons, and proceed to Take Over the World. Cosmo can't stop them since the roaches cannot be killed by magic. The situation is resolved when Wanda comes back and un-wishes the whole mess by sending the roaches to Fairy World (more specifically, the spa resort where she was poorly treated).
- In The Future Is Wild, it's squid that get this treatment, with the tree-dwelling ape-like squibbon implied to be the ancestor of a future sapient species.
- Justice League: In "Hereafter, Part II", Superman finds himself stranded on a future Earth, thousands of years after an apocalyptic event caused by Vandal Savage (the only other person alive) and with a race of intelligent giant cockroaches as their enemies.
- Pinky and the Brain: In "Brain of the Future", has them travel in time to the far future when anthropomorphic cockroaches rule the world under a cockroach queen who plans to conquer the universe.
- Discussed in The Powerpuff Girls (1998) when The Professor lectures the girls on the importance of respecting nature when they try to kill a roach that got indoors, and hypothesizes that their immunity to radiation would eventually lead to bug people inheriting the Earth. Soon after, Starter Villain Roach Coach attempts to make this a reality and Take Over the World.