Turn over a log or a boulder in the woods, or even a flowerpot in your garden, you are sure to find these creatures. Alternatively, known as the roly-poly, the cheesy-bug, chiggy pig, or the bibble bug, these creatures are none other than the humble woodlice.
The tiny creatures don’t like light and will melt away when revealed to light they equate to darkness. Woodlice are definitely not lice, neither are they what you would define as an insect. Instead, they are crustaceans, distant cousins of lobsters, shrimps, and crabs, but are land-based and prefer a damp and dark atmosphere.
Woodlice Family and Body
There are around 30 different species of woodlice in our gardens, woods, meadows, and deep caves. 15 more species have settled in greenhouses and have come along with imported plants.
The body of the creature is divided into 12 segments. While seven of the segments bear legs, the rest for a rear telson, that posterior-most division in an arthropod, which is similar to their marine cousins. The breathing organs in the woodlice are modified limbs situated under the telson.
As they are crustaceans, they need to first shed their stiff exoskeleton to grow. They do so in two parts. While the rear telson goes first, you see young woodlice with a pale half even as the fresh exoskeleton hardens.
All the segments of the woodlice are joined and in this, they are unlike lobsters and crabs. They can roll up to protect themselves and hence are also called the Pill Bug. There is even a Pill Millipede that is capable of doing the same, though they are not closely related and have many pairs of legs, 20 to be precise.
Some varieties of this crustacean are very flat and can manage to squeeze into tight crevices. The more rounded ones can roll into a tighter ball.
Woodlice thrive in temperate climate zones and damp surroundings. Hundreds of them can be found in a single square meter of soil. On the other hand, they die out quickly in loose sandy soils and are rarely found.
The Garbage Disposers: Woodlice Vital Part Of The Natural Recycling Process
While people consider them pests, they are a vital part of the natural recycling process and they are considered to be specialists in this field. They feed on dead creatures and plants and play a crucial role in the breakdown of fallen leaves and branches in our forests.
Woodlice are voracious eaters and feed on dead organic matter. They consume soft bark, fallen leaves, mushrooms, dead roots, and potatoes and other tubers left lying on the ground. They also feed on the bodies of cadavers and will even feed on dead woodlice.
They play the role of garbage collectors for the soil and serve multiple purposes. Without them, plants and trees would not have the same level of access to nutrients during spring. This would slow down their growth. It would also prevent leaves from decomposing quickly in gardens and forests.
The Kangaroos Of The Soil
As they are originally marine species, woodlice are not insects. Woodlice carry their babies between their legs inside a brood pouch. The babies are big enough t leave after 4 to 6 weeks inside the pouch. They wriggle and tear open the pouch, and drop out into the open.
The woodlice are already grown enough to look after themselves at this stage of their life. But to survive, they eat the feces of adult woodlice and boos the microbial activity level in their gut. Without these microbial enzymes, woodlice cannot digest the leaves that they eat.
Some species of woodlice appear to be only females. Their offspring are born through the process of parthenogenesis from unfertilized eggs.
Woodlice are friends of the soil and are ideal for gardening, remediating, and composting soil. The bodies contain several microbes, helping them nourish decaying organic matter. Thus, by releasing huge numbers of them inside a garden, you can ensure that dead and decaying vegetable matter will sufficiently break down and be recycled back to form healthy organic soil. Woodlice hasten the decomposition process. They upturn the soil and consume fungus and monocotyledonous leaves (narrow grass-like leaves).
Woodlice are vital for their role in the cycle of healthy plant life. They return the organic matter back to the soil where it is processed and absorbed further by protozoans, bacteria, and fungi. This natural process leads to a regular supply of phosphates, nitrates, and various essential nutrients that help plants to thrive.
Removing Heavy Metal From Soil
A very irreplaceable and unique quality of woodlice is the ability to safely and quickly eliminate heavy metals present in contaminated soil. And thus, they serve as a vital tool in the process of cleaning up contaminated soil that is filled with pollutants like arsenic, lead, and cadmium. This is especially vital on land close to factories.
In slag heaps and coal spoils, they are very useful. They ingest heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and crystallize such ions inside their guts. Thus, toxic heavy metals are then transformed into spherical matter inside the middle gut. With the aid of this special property for remediating, woodlice can survive in highly contaminated industrial sites, where most others would perish.
This magical property of these tiny creatures helps humans reclaim contaminated soil. They transform it into healthy and rich soil, thus eliminating toxic metal ions that may leach into the local groundwater. Thus, along with soil, woodlice also help protect groundwater from contamination even as they help in stabilizing the soil.
H/T: Click here