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Some people call them wood lice or roly-polies; others use the terms sow bugs or pill bugs. Whatever you call them, they're all isopods: land-dwelling crustaceans that are relatives of lobsters, shrimp and crabs. They breathe through gills, and because of those gills, isopods need extra moisture to live. They are invariably found under rocks, rotting leaves, bricks, in a basement—wherever there is a damp environment. Isopods are completely harmless to people. In your backyard function earth­worms do—chewing up rotting or injured plant material and enriching the soil with their excretions. Some isopods are carnivorous; they feed on other isopods or minute creatures. One variety spends its entire life in an ant nest, eating ant larvae.


When an isopod eats, it holds its food with two of its seven pairs of legs, usually the front pair. When it walks, it can cover ground surprisingly fast. A scientist once clocked one variety of isopod at 16 steps per second-for each foot. With all 14 feet going at once, a single isopod may plant 224 footsteps a second! Isopods see poorly and "smell" with their antennae. Because of their need for moisture, they have sensitive humidity-seeking bodies.


Several varieties of the creatures have uropods, two tail-like projections. Some isopods form a tube with their uropods to pick up water and distribute it to their gills. They also have rear-end glands that, like skunks' glands, can spray noxious chemicals at predators. Next time you're in your yard digging around or cleaning up take time to check out the isopods. They've been around for millions of years and perhaps it's time you made friends with them. Creating a rockpile habitat for these and other tiny creatures may prove just as satisfying as providing a nest box for birds.


Note: Sow bugs are excellent baby turtle food, especially the small, soft-bodied young sowbugs. They’re a soft grey compared to the adults’ black and shiny bodies. Their movement triggers the turtles’ feeding response, are a nutritious whole food, and easy to catch since they don’t move quickly and don’t dig into the soil like small worms and grubs do. Look under your flowerpots for these potential turtle-meals.


Craig Tufts, Manager of National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program
For information about NWF's Backyard Habitat Program, call 1-800-822-9919.


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