Crustaceans in your garden?
The Earth is absolutely crawling with bugs, but at least we can take one thing for granted: if you stay out of the sea, and away from the beach, you can avoid those pesky crustaceans. Right?
Of course, evolution’s “try anything, several times” approach to life means there is at least one group of fully terrestrial crustaceans, who have adapted to almost every possible habitat on the planet. Traditionally called “woodlice”, most Australians would call them “slaters”... unless you’re from Melbourne where you might call them “butchy boys” for some reason.
Slaters are isopods, and look pretty much the same as their marine cousins. With a flat, segmented body and seven pairs of legs, the slater has proven its mastery of our planet, with 3710 confirmed species living pretty much anywhere there’s a decent pile of rotting plant matter to munch on.
Some slaters have the ability to roll up into a defensive ball - these usually get called “pill bugs” or “roly-polys” - while others have decided terrestrial life isn’t for them, and have gone back to being amphibious.
To breathe air instead of water, slaters evolved their paddle-shaped pleopods (hind limbs) into structures called pleopodal lungs. They’re also not all that crash hot at retaining water - their cuticle, or exoskeleton, doesn’t hold moisture very well, and they wee a lot.
This means most slater species must live in moist conditions, which for your garden means under rotting logs or forgotten flowerpots.
Despite their somewhat hacky adaptations for terrestrial living, slaters are among the minority of arthropods who care for their young after hatching.
The female lays her eggs into chamber formed from specialised appendages, called a marsupium. The babies hatch and moult several times before they emerge, looking like tiny pale versions of the adults. Many species of slaters then fuss over and defend these babies, or at least try to shield them from predators.
If you have an especially damp or shaded garden, it’s possible to end up with hundreds or even thousands of slaters scurrying around under every loose object. But woodlice - despite the name - are rarely regarded as serious pests, because they mostly just churn through dead organic material.
Of course, sometimes they’ll develop a taste for your strawberries, and any rising damp inside your house.
SPECIES: Woodlouse/Slater SCIENTIFIC NAME: suborder Oniscidea, 5000+ species DISTRIBUTION: Global, from deserts to lakes to mountains and more. ICUN CONSERVATION STATUS: Not assessed (common)
Slaters carry their young in a sort of pouch called a marsupium.