Hello friends! Keetah here, to bring you a comprehensive basic guide on one of my FAVORITE invertebrate species, the humble little Isopod! Keep in mind that every species may have different needs than others, so it’s important to do you own research into the type of isopod you are looking to get. I have done my best to write this guide as a jumping off point in your quest to acquire some of the cutest little dudes in the world! Enjoy, and thanks for giving this guide a chance :3
Table of Contents
- Why Isopods?
- What the Heck IS an Isopod?
- What You will Need
- Choosing an Enclosure
- Getting your Substrate
- Supplemental Feeding
- Assembling the Enclosure
- Tank Buddies
- Humidity, Heat, and Lighting
- Now you have too many Isopods, now what?
- Isopod Fun Facts
- Helpful Websites
Short answer: Because they are cool!
Long answer: Because out of all the invertebrates you could ever get as a pet, you can’t get anymore simple and cheap as an isopod colony. They are super fun to watch as they go about their little buggy lives and colonies have a surprising amount of drama going down in them. They are great practice in preparing for something more intensive, like tarantulas or even something like a beetle. They breed like crazy and are super useful if you have pet reptiles, amphibians, and other invertebrates. They act as clean up crews for other enclosures AND offer food to small owners of said enclosures. They can come in a dazzling array of colors and types so that anyone can find something that’s right for them. I find them to be sweet, darling little critters, and I’m very happy with my colonies!
What the Heck IS an Isopod?
Isopods are a type of crustacean that can be found on land and water. We will be talking about terrestrial isopods, also known as pillbugs, rollie pollies, wood lice, and other endearing names. Isopods still have their gills from their aquatic ancestors (over 300 million years ago!) and use them to help them breathe air.
They are harmless little guys that are important recyclers of the ecosystem. They break down decaying organic matter and in turn, helps new growth. The common pillbug, Armadillidium vulgare, is actually native to Europe and was introduced to the Americas. Isopods live on every continent except for the Artic circle/Antarctica. There is a fascinating, wide array of isopods you can find, and here is a chart of the larger groups you may come across.
( Katja Schulz )
( Manel Llarch )
( Jesse Christopherson)
( budak )
( Ryszard )
|Examples of Morphs||Examples of Morphs||Examples of Morphs||Examples of Morphs||Examples of Morphs|
|Rolls in a ball?: Yes||Rolls in a ball?: No||Rolls in a ball?: No||Rolls in a ball?: Yes||Rolls in a ball?: No|
The difference between a pillbug and a sowbug is that a sowbug cannot roll into a ball to defend themselves.
They are harmless to humans, and only cause minor damage here and there by nibbling on new plant growth. You can often find them in gardens because of that, but for the most part they’d rather have their rotten wood and leaves!
They are cool, funky little dudes, and they are worth having around!
What You will Need
Keeping Isopods is rather easy. What you need is a little bit of space and the willingness to get a little dirty once in a while. For basics you need-
- An Enclosure
- Brown Leaves
- Hides (Such as a piece of cork bark)
- Spring water (NEVER distilled!!!)
- A small space to put the enclosure on
- The isopods themselves
Literally, that’s it. As long as you have a house with basic climate control with AC in hot summers and heaters in cold winters, you are fine. You don’t even need to BUY isopods, you can go outside, turn over a log, and BAM. You got yourself a starter colony. Do not completely wipe out a native colony! You only need about 5-10 individual adults to ‘seed’ a new colony. If you wish to buy some of the color morphs and exotic species, you can find them online or at any reptile expo. Prices can range from as little as 10 usd to over 100 usd depending on species and color morph.
Choosing an Enclosure
There are pros and cons for any type of enclosure. There’s commercial glass, acrylic, plastic, and all sorts of places you can put an isopod. You can even put them in a clean yogurt container as long as you have ventilation holes in it. Here are four main types of enclosures you can usually find, and the pros and cons of each.
Glass fish tanks
PROS: Easy to find. Lets you watch your isopods. Comes in many sizes. Can look really nice. You can do nuts with decorating it. Can go out and just buy it at any pet store.
CONS: Gets SUPER heavy. Glass is easy to break. Gets pricey depending on size and type. Needs special care to keep humid.
Needs a lot of dedicated space and strong foundation to sit on.
Plastic Totes and Containers
PROS: Incredibly cheap. Easy to find. Comes in many sizes. Takes up very little space. Can be stacked. Is lightweight. Less likely to break or shatter. Tough. Easy to keep humid. Can be bought at most stores.
CONS: Difficult to watch isopods through plastic. Needs some DIY before ready to use. Not as attractive as glass enclosures. Hard to decorate when you can barely see inside.
Front Opening Enclosures
PROS: Has built in ventilation. Lets you watch your isopods. Comes in many sizes. Can look really nice. You can do nuts with decorating it. Opens from the front to stress the isopods less.
CONS: Gets very pricey the higher in size you go. Glass can break and shatter. Gets very heavy. Needs a lot of dedicated space and a strong foundation. Smaller isopods might escape through the front ventilation. Some sizes can only be found online or at expos.
PROS: Can be found and commissioned with any realistic size and shape in mind. Can choose to have it top or side opening. Acrylic less likely to break than glass while still being transparent to see through. Can be made custom order.
CONS: Can get pricey as most are custom made to order. Takes up space depending on size. Mostly only found online through independent sellers or through expos.
What you choose is up to you depending on what you want with your isopods. Do you want to watch them all day? Do you want to collect them? How much space do you have? Do you have tables strong enough to hold up heavy glass? How much money are you willing to spend? All these are important factors in deciding just what enclosure to use and why. There is no wrong answer here, it depends on what you want the most out of your colony!
Isopods need to breathe like any other living being, so you need to have some way to get fresh air in and stale air out. The easiest way is to simply poke holes in your container if it’s made of plastic. You can do this by heating up the sharp end of a nail or the end of a metal coat hanger, and just melting holes in the sides. Be sure you hold this piece of metal with pliers as it will get hot! You can also drill in holes if the plastic is flexible enough. The more stiffer plastic can crack, but you don’t have to worry about that as long as you are careful.
It’s better to have too much ventilation than too little, as CO2 can build up and wipe out your isopod colony. You can also fill in holes or tape the up if you poked in too many. Put your vents on the sides and not the lids, because this will encourage natural air flow and help prevent CO2 buildup.
You can also cut windows into the lids or sides of the enclosure and hot glue screen mesh (the kind rated for insect prevention). If you have a circular drill, you can purchase round screen vents and install them. Here is a good video tutorial on how to install said vents.
Getting your Substrate
Of course you can buy substrate if you don’t have the means or time to make your own. Several websites like Josh’s Frogs and NE HERP do sell both premade substrate as well as clean brown leaves, both which are needed for a healthy culture. Isopods primarily eat both their substrate and their leaf litter, which they need to be nutritionally balanced.
To make your own substrate, mix these ingredients together.
1. 1 part organic compost. You can find these in hardware/garden stores. Be sure it’s free of pestiside or other chemicals.
2. 1 part wood. What I mean by that is that you can find rotten wood out in the wild, sterilize it, and crumble up the pieces into your substrate. You can also soak clean hardwood sawdust and add it in. You can even get wood pellets they use for BBQ (I recommend oak) and soak them in water until they break apart into sawdust and use them as well. The point is that rotten wood is a major part of an isopod’s diet and they need it. If neither are available, you can buy rotten wood online.
3. 1 part dead crumbled up non-toxic hardwood leaves. Again, you can buy these online or go to any reptile expo and they will have this in abundance. You can collect your own, though you must be sure that the area has no pesticides and you sterilize them. You can sterilize leaves by boiling them or baking them at 200F for about 30 minutes. But put dead leaves in your oven at your own risk! Never leave baking leaves alone!!! You can find a list of toxic and non-toxic leaves here.
Next, you calcium source. You can either add powdered calcium, a teaspoon or two, and mix it in. You can also take eggshells that have been cleaned and boiled (or they will smell!) and roughly crush them up to add to the substrate. Isopods need calcium to build strong exoskeletons!
Mix these all together and add water until everything is moist, but not wet enough that you can squeeze water out of it. Then you will have a great substrate for your isopods to munch on! Periodically add new substrate every other month or so as they will keep munching!
Isopods will happily munch on their substrate as a main source of food. However, some species require a little more protein than others, which needs to be supplemented. For that you can use Repashy ‘bug burgers’, which have a lot of goodness in them that isopods love. A lot goes a long way, and it can mold quickly so only put in enough that can be eaten in a day. Repashy also makes ‘morning wood’, which has a lot of wood if you are afraid that your isopods are not getting enough wood or you have difficulty finding wood to feed them. Fluval Bug Bites is a fish flake that is made with bug protein, and my isopods go absolutely nuts for them. I go with the goldfish version! Just be sure to feed as much as they can eat in a day as it can mold.
Isopods also will eat various fruits and vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, bananas, apples, and squash. You can experiment and see what kind your culture likes the best! Small pieces are better as it’s easier for them to get to them and munch.
Supplementary feeding will help them breed and populate your enclosure, but be sure to only give them these twice to three times a week to prevent gnat and mold outbreaks.
Assembling the Enclosure
First I recommend putting down a light layer of leaves first. This helps trap humidity and gives the isopods a safe place to burrow down into if the top layer gets too dry. Then add your substrate, and put a layer of dead leaves on top. You may also put dried moss in there, just soak in water first and squeeze out excess water. Then, you can add a little piece of cuttlefish bone (you can find them in the bird section of pet stores) for an immediate source of calcium.
For hides, I’d recommend some cork bark, as it is non toxic. You can stick them in water for a little bit to hydrate it, as it’s usually quite dry. Isopods will not eat the cork bark, so you don’t have to worry about them making it vanish. You can also collect tree bark from oak and maple trees and use them after sterilizing them. They will eat these hides so don’t be surprised if they munch it down to nothing.
Hides are important to me, as they offer a place of safety for your isopods and will naturally gather there. So if you need to check on your isopods, you can just turn over the hide and most likely the majority will be hanging out there. It also helps trap humidity under said hide and it will keep them comfortable. It also keeps them from being stressed if they have a safe place to run and hide if need be. Here’s a handy dandy video on the process…by me!
In order to keep down mold outbreaks, I recommend adding springtails to your isopod enclosures. Springtails are teeny tiny hexapods that are really good at cleaning up after other critters. Having these in the tank help keep things tidy and neat. They will not hurt your isopods or their babies, so no worries! You can find springtails for sale online or at reptile expos, and they are quite common as it’s a usual practice to include them in any type of bio-active enclosure.
Do not keep more than one species in a single container! One will eventually out compete the other so it’s not worth it.
Humidity, Heat, and Lighting
Some like warmer temperatures than other, but for the most part, if you you are comfortable then they are comfortable. They tend to like room temperature and humid conditions. If you are cold enough that you have to bundle up to stay warm, they are cold too. Just keep your home at room temp and you’ll be fine. They are tough enough to survive a little below freezing as long as they burrow down deep to stay warm.
Isopods do NOT like direct light. They get spooked and run away when in strong light. You need to keep their enclosure out of direct sunlight to ensure that they are comfortable. They get used to normal room lights but will run away if you aim a flashlight at them.
Now you have too many Isopods, now what?
First off, CONGRATS! You have made them comfortable and stress free enough that they reproduced! But…they keep reproducing, and suddenly you have your hands full of isopods! Isopods eventually reach a population maximum and then stop breeding, but afterwards the colony will crash and you will need to start again. Never fear though, as you have several options to deal with them before this happens!
#1: Start other colonies! You can take individuals out and use them to seed new enclosures.
#2: Use them! Isopods are great janitors for reptile, amphibian, and other invertebrate tanks. They won’t hurt your other animals and will spend time keeping mold and other nastiness in check. If your animals are small enough, they could also dine on said isopods. Not only to help with hunger, but also as a form of enrichment.
#3: Trade! If you have enough isopods, you may decide that you want more! Sometimes you’ll find people willing to trade species between each other, which is a great way to be rid of excess as well as getting other species you want. Reddit and Facebook tend to have groups dedicated to swapping isopods!
#4: Sell! If you’d rather have money, you can always sell your excess on sites like Ebay or Etsy. You can get booths at local expos if you REALLY have a lot of isopods you need rid of.
#5: Donate! Bug zoos, scientific research, and classrooms are all good places to unload any excess isopods. Bug Zoos use them for the same reason as an average keeper, as tank janitors or even for display. Some classrooms, especially for elementary schools, will often have class pets that children can observe and interact with. Sometimes you’ll find colleges with entomology classes more than happy to take some isopods off your hands for research and study. Just call around or shoot some emails and you might end up making someone very happy!
#6: Introduce a predator! If you have a great big display tank and are not interested in any of the above, you can introduce a predator into the ecosystem to keep numbers in check. Woodlouse spiders (Dysdera crocata) are specifically adapted to preying on isopods! Other critters that you may look into are small centipedes, spiders, or even a little dwarf toad! Toads are better for those afraid of spiders and centipedes and like the same conditions as isopods do!
#7: Gift! Do you have a friend that is looking into keeping isopods? Why not gift them a little seed colony to get them started! Only give them away when given permission. It’s not wise to spring an animal, even isopods, on someone who is not expecting or prepared to care for them.
LAST RESORTS ONLY! These two options should ONLY BE USED if none of the above is effective!
#8: Release: ONLY RELEASE ISOPODS YOU YOURSELF CAPTURED BACK WHERE YOU FIRST FOUND THEM. If you went into you back yard, gathered up a few isopods, and then decide you don’t want them anymore? You can release them in your backyard again. You CANNOT release non-native species! One, because they will die, and two, invasive species are a BIG PROBLEM in several parts of the world! Be responsible and decide beforehand a plan to be rid of excess individuals BEFORE you get them!
#9 Euthanize: This is the ultimate last resort. If you cannot find anyone to take them and you yourself can no longer care for them…sometimes it’s better to give them a swift and merciful death than a slow lingering one. Scientist need to do this at the end of their study, and the best method seems to be wrapping them all in a bag and freezing for 48 hours. They go into a hibernation mode and thus, don’t feel a thing (that we know of). The bag can then be put in the trash. Don’t dump it outside, as it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to ecological balance.
Isopod Fun Facts
Most isopods have, when oxygenated, blue blood!
Female isopods are technically marsupials. They keep their eggs in a pouch (a marsupium) on their underbelly. They eggs stay for about 2-3 months before they hatch! The babies hang around before leaving the pouch and going off on their own! The babies may hang around their mother still and try to get back into the pouch because they can’t be cute enough already!
Male isopods have two penises because every animal fun fact sheet needs a fact about their dongs.
They eat heavy metal ions help clean up polluted areas. They much down on copper, lead, arsenic, and other various toxins and seem to be right as rain! They are really, really tough!
Some individual isopods can live up to 3 years in captivity, but the average is about 1.5 years.
Dwarf white isopods reproduce via pathogenesis. Every individual is female!
Isopods don’t urinate and they need to eat their own feces in order to get back nutrients they lose, like copper, that they need to survive. It’s a process called self-coprophagy and other animals do the same, such as rabbits!
When an isopod gets sick from a viral infection, they turn blue or purple (they get brighter if they are already those colors).
Terrestrial isopods are the only crustaceans completely adapted to land. They are related more to shrimp and lobsters than to true bugs and insects.
Isopods can drink through their anus because they aren’t weird enough already.
They are so numerous that in some places there can be up to isopods pill bugs per square foot. (That’s 900 friends!)
Isopods molt in two parts, so if one part of them is lighter than the other, they are in the middle of molting! That means sometimes you can catch them ‘wearing’ little pants. At least, that’s what I say when I see some!
DID YOU KNOW that isopods are HECKIN’ CUTE? Of course you did!
R/Isopods and their Facebook group: A great place to chat with people, get advice, and trade isopods!
Arachnoboards : A forum mostly dedicated to arachnids, but has a section for other invertebrates!
Josh’s Frogs: A place where you can get general supplies like substrate and brown leaves!
Bugs in Cyberspace: A place to buy both isopods and the supplies needed for them!
Smug Bug: So many Isopods!
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation: Help save the bugs!
Morph Market: A listing site where people can put various color morphs up for sale and you can inquire about buying them! A great place too to just browse and look at all the various species! You can also find other sites to buy from as some folks list their store names in the ads.
A Historical survey on Isopods: A scientific paper about scientists arguing with each other about pillbugs and how our monkey brains love the little ones!
My Tiktok and My Tumblr: Hi I talk about bugs and is usually available to answer questions! I upload isopod videos ;3