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Amazing woodlice

Posted by Miranda Hodgson on 13 Feb 2010 at 05:19 PM

What better way to recuperate after minor surgery than a spot of light gardening and wildlife watching. Fresh air, sunshine and gentle exercise certainly take your mind off things; you end up feeling incredibly virtuous and may even pick up new knowledge along the way. So it was that, after a day’s garden pottering, I discovered on returning home that, according to the Natural History Museum, the UK has some 37 species of woodlouse. In all, there are over 3,000 species and some of them even live in the sea. Bet you didn’t know that.

Anyway, it was after helping someone to remove a clump of pampas grass (actually, all I did was cut back the foliage) that I looked down into the hole left after rolling the root ball out of the way and saw an especially large and fine looking woodlouse. It was one of the biggest I’d ever seen and, unlike many other woodlice I’ve come across, this one had a pale fringe around its shell and spots of the same colour along the length of its body. It was beautiful, a tiny living work of art.

The ground here was damp and shady – not a good place for a pampas grass and the plant wasn’t thriving; in fact, half of it was rotting and quite smelly, so it wasn’t surprising that woodlice had set up house there.

They breathe through gills, so a soggy, rotting plant would be ideal. I thought back to other woodlice I’ve seen and dug out a picture taken a few years before of a smaller, brown one that I’d seen in a compost bin, which had appeared to be in discussion with a slug. They were quite different.

Back at the house, I started searching and discovered that the larger woodlouse is likely to be a well developed example of Oniscus asellus, the common woodlouse, while the little brown one was more likely to be Porcellio scaber, the rough woodlouse. Both of them are quite common, but if anyone is sure of an identification, then I'd be pleased to hear more.

Woodlice often cause worry to gardeners and whilst they will nibble at young vegetation, they generally prefer that their food has already started to decay. That’s why they’re found in rotting wood and piles of old leaves. I think of them as planetary cleaners, hoovering up the debris that would otherwise build up and returning nutrients to the soil. They also provide food for many creatures, including small mammals such as shrews, birds, toads, centipedes and spiders. Some people even keep woodlice as pets. Tempted? At least they wouldn't bark at the neighbours!


David Benson said:

I for one have never had a problem with woodlice. They keep themselves to themselves, don't bite and are not frightening in anyway. The revelation that they are scavengers only endears them to me the more. I won't keep them as pets though it wouldn't surprise me if there weren't a few already under the bed.

on 13 Feb 2010 at 07:00 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

Thank, David! Have you checked under your bed? We had a lot of woodlice indoors when we lived in an old cottage, but get very few in this place.

on 14 Feb 2010 at 11:46 AM

pushkin said:

You have the happy gift of making what appears to be the mundane very interesting.  

on 15 Feb 2010 at 06:47 PM

richardpeeej said:

Glad you felt better after going out in the garden Miranda. It is still cold out there though. The woodlouse wanted to know if he could borrow your slanket to keep him warm until the summer!

on 15 Feb 2010 at 10:56 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

Thank you, pushkin! I am one of those happy people who is perpetually astonished at the world. And, hey, it's cheap!

Thanks, Richard. No way is that woodlouse having my slanket, Richard. It has a nice bed of pampas debris to snuggle into and will have to like it :-)

on 16 Feb 2010 at 02:29 PM

EvaInNL said:

Happy to see you back Miranda! Did you know that the Dutch colloquial name for them is 'pissebed', an yes, the translation you just did in your head is quite accurate. I never thought to find out why till I read this and looked it up. Apparently it was thought that sprinkling dried, crushed woodlice in your bed would stop bedwetting. Imagine the mind that came up with that one! :o)

on 16 Feb 2010 at 07:44 PM

hydropiper said:

That's disgusting Eva! I live in Penarth, a seaside town just outside Cardiff. On the sea wall at night during summer we get mega woodlice called Sea Slaters, I believe they eat algae from the foreshore. They have huge compound eyes - presumably to better see in the dark. Check out the link.

on 18 Feb 2010 at 08:51 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

What a bizarre idea, Eva! I wonder how that came about? I imagine that it would keep you awake, so maybe that's how it works - you don't wet the bed because you don't go to sleep.

The biggest isopods live in the sea, though having always lived inland, I haven't seen a Sea Slater. How about this one, though:

on 19 Feb 2010 at 10:43 AM

EvaInNL said:

LOL - it wasn't my idea! I haven't the foggiest idea how they imagined that would help. All I know is that because of that name a lot of kids here in NL are disgusted by them...

on 19 Feb 2010 at 01:29 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

If you can find out any more about it, Eva, I'd be very interested to know!

on 19 Feb 2010 at 04:39 PM

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on 24 Feb 2010 at 06:19 PM

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on 24 Feb 2010 at 06:56 PM

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