As I sit down to write this, my son is turning the ripe age of 4. Save the “He’s an old dad” comments. I’ve heard them. In fact, an older gentleman in the line at the grocery store asked my son if he called me grandpa. I replied that, no, he calls me dad. The gentleman was embarrassed, but I swiftly told him that it wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last, either. No harm done.
What having a toddler has taught me is that they ask some pretty deep questions sometimes. My son, the budding entomologist/astronaut, is well versed in things like arthropods, exoskeletons, true bugs, insects and arachnids and will happily correct people who use the terms incorrectly. His favorite arthropod is the isopod.
WHAT ARE ISOPODS? The term “isopods” is derived from the order name Isopoda. This group of crustaceans lives all over the planet, from both salt and fresh water to the land. Females of the order have a pouch (marsupium) under their thorax, akin to the pouch of a kangaroo, koala or opossum. They use these to brood their young. They feed on a diverse buffet of foods depending on the species, from dead or decaying plant or animal matter, to ones that are grazers, filter feeders, predators and even feed on internal or external parasites. I can see why my son loves them so!
Unfortunately, he doesn’t know all the specifics of the isopods. What he really loves is the ability for some to roll into a ball. This is specific to the family Armadillidiidae. These terrestrial isopods have many names depending on where you grew up, or maybe even where your parents grew up. We call them roly-polys or pillbugs. These are not to be confused with the pill millipedes of the order Glomerida, another terrestrial segmented arthropod that can roll into a ball. If you want to dig into it, pill millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment, and pillbugs only have one pair per segment. There are other differences, but this is the easiest for young entomophiles. This superficial appearance is an example of convergent evolution.
HABITAT. Terrestrial isopods live in dark, damp areas like under rocks and logs. They rapidly lose moisture through their cuticle. This is where the conversation with my toddler got me thinking. He was asking where they live and if we could go find some. I started considering these places around my yard.
While doing that, my brain wandered, as it often does, to other pests that might be in those same areas. I was amazed at both the quantity of pests that need cool, damp, dark places to survive. It’s a simple concept, but looking for these places around a property, home, business or anywhere else can lead you to many pest problems.
The idea of managing the pest habitat is not new, but sometimes, it takes the question of a child to remind us about pest biology and not just going out to apply something to manage a pest.
FOOD. As mentioned earlier, isopods are crustaceans. This would lump them in with all the delicious aquatic things like crab, shrimp and lobster. However, isopods are said to have an unpleasant taste similar to “strong urine.” Thank you, author of another article, for saving me from that experience!
Most of the pillbugs or related isopods need food as well. They are primarily feeding on decaying plant matter, so ensuring that this is not around homes and businesses can be beneficial, not only for the pesky pillbug invasion (said no one ever), but also for the multitude of flies, earwigs and millipedes that really do invade homes from nearby feeding areas.
FINAL THOUGHTS. Alas, we come to the end of our time together. What I hope you gained from this article is twofold: first, a much more expansive knowledge of isopods, their habitats and maybe even a tidbit of advice to not eat them, and secondly, an appreciation for a child’s desire to learn more about insects and related arthropods. As you go about your day, revert to a little of that childlike curiosity to explore and ask questions. You may just find the source of your pest problem.