Parenting Woodlouse Style

Earlier this year I noticed a rough woodlouse demonstrating some rather odd behaviour and it all started in the empty shell of a garden snail. I picked up the shell thinking it looked rather nice, when suddenly out popped a rather flustered Rough Woodlouse, which began scampering all over my hand but never attempting to flee far from the shell.

I was enjoying watching the little fella run about when out of the shell popped a juvenile of the same species, almost as if I had come across a crustacean parent protecting its young. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what I had stumbled across. See video link below.

31st August 2021

A quick check on the internet and it became clear that Woodlice females are the kangaroos of the crustacean world. They have a brood pouch in which they keep their eggs and hatchlings safe until they are ready to venture into the outside world. And even then the mother sticks around to keep an eye on things for a few months and it must have been this period of their development I had stumbled upon. And what an amazing place to hide the kids.

I carefully replaced the not so empty shell back as it was found and decided to learn a little more about woodlice in general. This it turns out is hard to do from observation in the garden as the little blighters disappear at a furious rate upon being disturbed. Unless of course they are protecting their young it seems. However I wasn’t about to stress the poor mother any more so decided to hit the books.

So what’s the relevance to the garden?

My first reference for all things garden wildlife is Michael Chinerys must have ‘The Natural History of the Garden’, a book so useful as to make most of this website totally obsolete. The book dedicates nearly 8 pages to woodlice, eventually focusing in on the 6 species most likely to occur in a garden setting. It’s all interesting stuff but what surprised me most about Mr Chinery’s observations was his assumption (correct as it turned out) that many people really do not like woodlice at all. Gardeners dislike them for their supposed habit of nibbling young shoots, while ordinary folk seem hell bent on ensuring not one is allowed indoors.

I googled Woodlice UK and of the first 10 hits only 3 were from Nature related websites, one was of course Wikipedia, one was a famous gardening website and the other five were all websites detailing ways to kill the poor things. Unfortunately you see this sort of thing fairly often, especially when slugs, wasps or ants are involved. But woodlice, hardly public enemy number one!

It has to be acknowledged that the gardening website was very clear on the subject. Woodlice may rarely nibble the odd strawberry seedling, but much prefer to do what they do and help decompose leaf litter, a vital service they provide alongside numerous other species and without which fungi and bacteria would take considerably more time in completing the important task of recycling nutrients into the soil. The benefits woodlice bring to the garden far outweigh the draw backs (if indeed there are any), and this particular gardening website was very clear when it comes to woodlice, just leave them alone!

In our garden, probably like most peoples, you can find Rough Woodlice under nearly every stone, log or plant pot you upend. But I tend to find Rough Woodlice love the compost heap most. I gather they only feed at night, I’ve certainly not yet witnessed them eating.

As with most common species, especially ones people like to kill, there is a good amount of information online. Some general points are as follows;

  1. They are crustaceans. So think shrimp, lobsters and crabs. However woodlice are special in that they have left life in the oceans and fresh water systems behind and conquered the land.
  2. Like insects they have three parts. The head, the pereon (think Thorax) and the pleon (think Abdomen). However unlike insects they have seven pairs of legs.
  3. Their are around 30 species native to the UK, but at the time of writing this only three (four if you count water slaters) have been recorded in our garden.

One thing I did enjoy discovering made me recall an chap in school called Mark, who I once discovered referred to Woodlice as Penny Pigs. It turns out this is a spin on a much more common name Stinky Pigs. The ‘Stinky’ it turns out comes from the fact that these little guys never take a wee, instead they release ammonia gas, which if you collect a jar full of them and wait a while, you will understand why they are called Stinky (I haven’t tried it but if I do I’ll report back).

Anyway, I don’t think I will ever look at a woodlouse the same way again. I’m not making assertions regarding intelligence but I have to admire their parenting skills.

DC – 09/11/2021