You may have played with woodlice by some other name as a
child. They have many common names, among them Sow Bug, Pill
Bug, Slater, Roly Poly, Cud-worm, Monkey Peas, Penny Pigs,
Sink-lice, or Tiggyhogs. They are common around houses in
any dampish spot with cover, where they are very useful in
eating and so cleaning up decaying vegetation, which is the
diet of nearly all woodlice species.
Woodlice are the only true land dwelling crustaceans. They
are related to shrimps, lobsters and crabs, although most
people think that they are insects. There are over thirty-
five hundred species of Woodlice, and have native species in
most parts of the world. Many types are able to roll their
jointed bodies completely into a ball when frightened, hence
the common names such as Monkey Peas and Roly Polys.
Most Woodlice species are oval and flattish, and up to one
half inch long. Colors are normally grey to black, with a
thirteen-pieced segmented shell on their backs, a tiny head,
and two angled antennae. The shell has seven pairs of short
legs poking out around it.
When Woodlice are born they have only six pairs of legs and
live for a time in a special brood pouch that the pregnant
female grows on its underside. Once the baby reaches its
first molt, it then has seven pairs of legs and leaves its
mother and goes out on its own. It isn't likely to go far,
however, as woodlice often live in large colonies.
Woodlice molt their skins, but unlike insects, they molt
only half their skin at once. When molting time nears, the
woodlouse stops eating for a few days. Then its skin splits
around its middle and it sheds the back half of its shell. A
few days later it sheds the back half. Some species spin a
cocoon to hide in during this period, but they are rarer.
The Woodlice with which you are familiar likely simply hide
a bit during this time.
Something you may not know about Woodlice is that they have
been featured in a number of recipes, and have even been
carried in a small pouch around the neck to be eaten as a
cure for stomach ache. Since their shells are high in
calcium, they may actually help with indigestion, but we
haven't tried it.
Woodlice make interesting, quiet, and peaceable pets. They
don't bite or sting, and will usually crawl charmingly
around your hand if you carefully pick one up. If you decide
to keep them, you can probably find your initial group by
turning over rocks and fallen branches or leaves in your
yard or garden. A magnifying glass may help you spot them.
Once back home, put your woodlice into a clear plastic
sandwich box or small terrarium with a thin layer of soil
(Soil from the place you found them is excellent.), some
bark or other litter to provide hiding places. Feed them a
very small amount of shredded carrot every week and mist the
container at that time. Be sure not to wet them too much,
though, as too damp or too dry conditions are equally likely
to kill your pets. After a few months, you may find that
your collection is growing, and you can watch their life
cycle from birth to old age.
More about Invertebrates as Pets