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July 22, 2005

Friday terrestrial crustacean blogging!

I'm still having fun with depth of field with the new camera: a close macro shot like this and a moving subject, and I can't quite increase the exposure the way I'd need to to get the whole thing in focus.

But I like this shot, with its close attention to the texture of the pillbug's exoskeletal plates. Another, fuzzier photo is here.

As near as I can figure, this is Armadillidium vulgare, a rather cosmopolitan species of pillbug. Stupid person that I am, I reached absently for my copy of Powell and Houge's California Insects to ID it, forgetting briefly that pillbugs aren't insects. In fact, isopods (the grooup to which pillbugs belong) are the second largest order of crustaceans after decapods, which include crabs, shrimp, and lobsters.

Hm. I could go for a large order of decapoda myself about now.

Where was I? In California they're pillbugs if they roll up into a little ball, sowbugs if they don't. This defensive maneuver also saves water. Isopods are the only truly terrestrial crustaceans, and even with however many million years of tenancy, they still haven't evolved adaptations to truly arid regions. After putting away Powell and Houge I went for the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum's massive Natural History of the Sonoran Desert: pillbugs don't show up anywhere it it.

But soil air in the California coastal chaparral averages about 75 percent humidity a couple inches down, and that's enough for Armadillidium to survive. And I water the back yard once a week or so to keep Zeke's lawn and my vegetables alive, and I compost significant amounts of rabbit manure, so we have a healthy crop of isopods around here.

Pillbugs and their kin are, generally, an ally to gardeners, in that they eat tender weed seedlings and they help break down plant material into fertilizer. Unfortunately, this also means they can eat tender non-weed seedlings, and the distinction between ripe fruit and decaying plant material is too tenuous for a pillbug to grasp. They get about a third of our strawberries. I mean a third of each one: I rinse off the chewed end and eat the rest.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 22, 2005 12:44 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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This post makes me nostalgic for the country garden. "Eating around" the already visited portions of fruits and vegetables seems something few people are tolerant of these days. Good for you.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at July 22, 2005 02:10 PM
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Potato bugs! They used to fascinate me as a child. I would poke at them (gently, of course-I was the kind of kid who would rescue earthworms from puddles after it rained-both because I saw no reason they should drown when I could do something about it, and because it was fun to gross out the other girls by touching! bugs!) to make them curl up. Now when I run into them in the garden I just smile at them. I've never noticed them doing any harm.

Hungy Hyaena, I grew up watching my mom trim the bad/nibbled spots off fruit and vegetables before she served them, and I see no reason not to do the same. I don't mind sharing. I figure it to be the gardener's tithe.

Posted by: Equinox at July 22, 2005 03:05 PM
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Love pillbugs, not only as decomposers for our compost but as what I'd swear are the critters who inspired Escher's Curl-Ups:

Posted by: Elissa Malcohn at July 22, 2005 08:37 PM
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I've seen at least related species in the east, though I'd no idea they were crustaceans, thank you. Now the ecology of stinkbugs still fascinates me, especially why the ones around Atlantic City (where, as Props Boss of a circus, I was living in a trailer beset by the paragons of stinkbuggery).

Posted by: dave McIrvine at July 23, 2005 10:09 AM
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I very distincly remember my first encounter with a pill bug. When I was little (5 or 6 maybe?) visiting family in California. The little guys would show up around their pool. So much fun to just brush them and see them curl into that tight little ball! (Equinox, I was a worm rescuer too, and I'm sure a source of endless exasperation for my mother when I brought said worms home!)

Posted by: Sunidesus at July 23, 2005 10:11 PM
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I guess I'm just too urban. I laughed aloud at Chris's "a third of our strawberries" line, thinking it a joke. But I now see it wasn't.

When a bug so much as walks on one of my tomatoes, I chuck it in the woods. Yes, this cuts down on crop yield. Yes, I know they walk all over the place when I'm not looking.

I didn't say it was rational.

Posted by: carpundit at July 25, 2005 06:45 AM
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My son's been collecting those since he was 3. They do very well in captivity, and do seem to enjoy strawberries :-)

When my son was 5 or 6, we ran across this lovely book:

It's nice because it shows not just the pillbug's life cycle, but their interactions with people, their ecology, etc. with the most gorgeous illustrations.

Posted by: Sandy at July 26, 2005 01:53 PM
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