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Paying attention to our smaller neighbors

Dennis Minsky

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the whale watch a few days ago. Actually, I was nowhere near the boat; still at home, in my outdoor shower just after dawn. I was thinking about whales and some of the unknown aspects of their behavior, and wondering what I might be explaining to our passengers that day. But in the pale morning light I began to notice that the wooden wall of the shower was in motion: in fact, it was crawling! A closer look revealed dozens and dozens of pill bugs roaming about, exploring the surface, bumping into each other, and apparently having a fine old time.

It occurred to me then that I knew far more about giant animals out in the ocean than I did about this most familiar and abundant little creature that is everywhere about us. A day or two later, I did some research.

I found out that pill bugs are not bugs — they’re not even insects! In fact they are crustaceans, more closely related to crabs and shrimp and lobsters than they are to ants or beetles. I believe they are the only land crustacean. One source said that they “emerged from the sea to conquer the Earth.” I think “conquer” is the right term, since they are almost everywhere you look, given the right conditions. I know, too, that ants are even more abundant: apparently the combined mass of all the ants on Earth is equal to the mass of all humanity. Someone did the calculations on that, and probably not on the back of an envelope. But pillbugs must be a close second, judging by my house and yard.

Some people call pillbugs “roly polys” because of their ability to roll up into a ball. (They do this to escape predators or evaporation.) I love the scientific term for that rolling up: conglobation. I also love their scientific name, which is Armadillium vulgare, because of the obvious comparison of their little plated bodies to armadillos. But the real connection to their cousins in the ocean is demonstrated by the fact that they breathe using two pairs of gills- not lungs; consequently they must always have a thin film of water over them, and therefore are more active at night or early morning and out of the direct sun.

What else did I learn? That females carry their eggs and young in a brood pouch and nourish them with what is called “marsupial fluid.” Pill bugs live for up to five years. They have blue blood. They don’t urinate, but release ammonia through pores in their shells. They drink from both ends of their bodies, which means via the mouth and anus. They eat their own feces — a process called coprophagy — not an endearing behavior. And how about this: they are not even native, having been imported from Europe long ago, probably in lumber. But they do have positive effects on our environment. By eating fungi they reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and recycle nutrients. They consume heavy metal ions, like cadmium, lead, and arsenic. And they neither bite nor sting.

So much for facts. But here is another thing: the longer I look at pillbugs the cuter they get. They are like little armored tanks plugging along, with their cute little antennae out in front, switching back and forth. Now I seek them out, watch them, and wonder about their ways.

The whales have much to teach us, I am sure, but we would do well to pay attention to our smaller neighbors as they go about their lives. “All truths wait in all things,” said Walt Whitman.