Check back weekly, to see what the next installment of SSS will be!
This is a series we've started to highlight less-known species which are still relatively simple in care, in an effort to help educate newer keepers, that may otherwise not know said species existed. Follow along and watch it grow! I will embed the current week's post here, and catalog the previous ones along the bottom of the page.
If you have ideas for the series or suggested species, don't hesitate to reach out and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Today's feature isn't a herp species, but is a group of species that many herp keepers eventually find themselves also keeping.
Isopods are vastly diverse (in both appearance and needs), and are native to nearly every corner of the planet. To get a better appreciation for the diversity of species common in captivity, check out the compilation poster put togther by ZTH Photography.
So, what are isopods? And why do people like them?
Isopods are small crustaceans, though often referred to as insects. Growing up, you likely called them rolly-pollies, woodlice, or one of many other common names. There are species of isopods that inhabit nearly any ecosystem. There are freshwater aquatic species, saltwater species, and terrestrial species that fill a tremendously broad range of niches. From being found in the depths of the ocean, to dark caves, to simply being under rotting wood, it often seems there's an isopod for every occasion.
As mentioned above, isopods are tremendously diverse in their needs. However, most species that are commonly kept in captivity have a few shared things to get them off to a good start. Many do well simply at typical room temperatures. However, some will need it slightly cooler, or slightly warmer. So be sure to research the specific species you find yourself interested in. There is a facebook group with a lot of dedicated keepers, along with a comprehensive care sheet in their files, written by Laura of Smug Bug (care sheet is also available on her website.)
Generally, for species you'll commonly find available, and you'll get started with, they'll eat decaying/rotting plant matter (though, they are opportunistic feeders, which we'll touch on later.) Some species tend to prefer specific species of plants, so again, research the species of interest! Beyond the plant matter, most will eat vegetable scraps, as well as commercial foods, such as Repahsy Bug Burger or the various crested gecko diets, along with the crested gecko diets from Pangea. They don't require much space, and often are cultured in plastic totes that offer adequate surface area. One of the primary concerns is to make sure the totes offer enough ventilation, but not too much so the isopods avoid drying out, since they require the moisture to be able to breathe. A general overview of a culture tub will be the substrate mix (which the thickness will vary, depending on how much the species burrows), something to keep one area more moist (leaf litter, sphagnum moss, live moss, etc), and decor to hide in/under (common items are seed pods, cork pieces, and egg flats.)
Now onto why many herp keepers, specifically, like isopods. They help tremendously with offsetting the need for cleaning vivariums for our animals. They are commonly used to make a vivarium 'bioactive.' Essentially, this means that the vivarium itself is alive. Some people tend to think simply adding isopods and springtails (commonly referred to together as 'clean up crew') makes a vivarium bioactive. However, here, we tend to not consider something genuinely bioactive unless all components are alive. Meaning, also including live plants, and when possible, enriching the soil with beneficial microbes. All of these factors together help turn the enclosure into it's own ecosystem, which if maintained properly, will need minimal cleaning throughout the lifespan of the animal. The 'clean up crew' will not only eat plant and fungal matter, but also eat the feces and shed of the animal. There have also been cases of keepers even having eggs destroyed by isopods. Typically leaving a source of calcium in the vivarium (such as cuttlebone) will avoid that issue.
Additionally, with some species being so small in size, they make great choices to diversify the food menu for our animals. Various isopods are commonly used as feeders for amphibians, and smaller reptile species.