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 cockroaches have higher resistance to a sudden lethal burst, but are as subject to long-term fallout as most life. Further, as pointed out in Life After People, cockroaches 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.
- TerraforMARS cockroaches hyper-evolved after an experiment to terraform Mars developing humanoid shape and intelligence.
- Rock & 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. The denizens of this world are mostly Petting Zoo People.
- In WALLE the only sign of animal life on the garbage-covered Earth is a seemingly indestructible cockroach.
- The M Space Hunter Nebula Aliens from the Godzilla film Godzilla vs. Gigan are man-sized humanoid cockroaches, the only surviving life form on a planet wasted by pollution caused by the previous civilization.
- Famous mockumentary The Hellstrom Chronicle is about how insects will eventually win the fight for survival over humans and, thus, rule the Earth in the future. It won an Oscar and a BAFTA for best documentary in 1971.
- Played for Laughs in Joe's Apartment, apparently cockroaches have a prophecy that some day the big war will happen and the world will be theirs.
- A similar concept used in Mimic, a race of insects evolve in record time and became not only huge, but also a real treat for 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.
- In The Shadow Out of Time, H. P. Lovecraft mentions a race of giant beetles that will rule the Earth millions of years in the future once humans are extinguished.
After man there would be the mighty beetle civilisation, the bodies of whose members the cream of the Great Race would seize when the monstrous doom overtook the elder world. Perhaps these entities had come to prefer earth's inner abysses to the variable, storm-ravaged surface, since light meant nothing to them. Perhaps, too, they were slowly weakening with the aeons. Indeed, it was known that they would be quite dead in the time of the post-human beetle race which the fleeing minds would tenant.
- Probably the Ur-Example is H. G. Wells's 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.
- In the Red Dwarf novel 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.
- Various invertebrates, including termites, worms, and cephalopods, are able to dominate the land 500 million years from now in The Future Is Wild. Land-going vertebrates are all extinct. In the seas, bony fishes have mostly been displaced by crustaceans, although sharks are still thriving.
- 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.
- Discussed in the Benson episode with the 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.
- In the miniseries adaptation of The Stand, 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.
- In the last verse of Mark Graham's "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.
- 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.
- In Stellaris "Tomb Worlds", planets whose native sapient life wiped themselves out in a nuclear war, often host pre-sentient insectoids that can be uplifted, enabling easier colonization of other Tomb Worlds. Earth randomly generates as a Tomb World disturbingly often.
- In the backstory of Splatoon, humans rendered themselves and most other land animals extinct via global warming, and so eventually various sea creatures like squids, octopuses, jellyfish, etc. crawled their way onto land and went through a new process of evolution into more humanoid forms, becoming the Inklings, Octarians, etc. and eventually starting their own civilizations.
- Mentioned in Best Fiends, where Lapoleon the cockroach is mentioned as being prepped to being the "Emperor of Everything", thanks to being able to withstand atomic blasts.
- One of the unique creatures surviving on After the End Earth in Ark Survival Evolved: 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.
- 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 wheelie bins) will inherit the Earth after pollution has killed off the human race: Planet Bin Chicken.
- 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, until Wanda comes back and un-wishes the whole mess.
- In one episode of Justice League, Superman finds himself on Earth After the End 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.
- Peace on Earth: Made in 1939 (just before World War II would be set off), and is set after a fatal global war war in which humans have gone extinct, as told by a kindly old squirrel (voiced by Mel Blanc) 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.
- One of the episodes of Pinky and the Brain has them travel in time to the far future when anthropomorphic cockroaches rule the world under a cockroach queen.
- 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.
- Most major extinction events end up as this; the smallest life forms tend to survive easier and in some cases became dominant later. This is what happened to mammals after the extinction of dinosaurs, for example.