I love roly polies. So tranquil, so cute… and such devious little liars.
Okay, so it’s not their fault, but I always thought roly polies were bugs. They’ve got the antennae, the jointed legs, and they’re smaller than a lot of common insects. However, they’re actually crustaceans. I know – what other lies have we so naively believed without a second thought?
Roly polies are also known as pill bugs and woodlice, but I don’t like those names very much and I know some people who don’t like calling them roly polies. So, I have a solution: we shall henceforth refer to our little garden crustaceans only as “mulch lobsters.” You’re welcome, world.
Mulch lobsters (yes I’m seriously sticking with this) have been a favorite
bug animal of mine for a long time. When I was little, I would spend hours in my backyard searching for and playing with these little guys: I would let them climb on my hands, I would poke them to make them to roll into balls, and I would tote them around in bug catchers filled with sticks and leaves that my seven-year-old self was certain they were enthralled with. Apparently I was a bit too rough with the mulch lobsters sometimes, because I can remember a few unfortunate arthropods whose balls got bent funny or somehow split in half. If I noticed that one of my little buddies was injured, I would put them in a big seashell that I dubbed the “roly poly hospital.” If I had been enlightened to the crustaceans’ true nature, I most definitely would have called it the “mulch lobster hospital.” Probably. Young me was kind of unpredictable.
Anyway, my roly poly hospital shell turned out to be magical, because every time I brought new mulch lobsters to it, the previous patients had disappeared. I assumed they had gotten better and crawled away, so I continued to put more mutilated mulch lobsters into the shell to heal them. What I didn’t realize, however, was that my parents were simply dumping the poor animals out whenever my back was turned. I guess they didn’t want me to know that I had actually killed a bunch of the little crustaceans I loved so much.
You see, my mom’s first experience with me and mulch lobsters was when I was playing with one on our front porch in my preschool days. The little guy ended up falling between the slats in the wood, and I was devastated. I wailed as if I had cut off my finger or something, and that’s when Mom “knew I was an animal lover” (her words). Sweet moment, if it weren’t for my ear-piercing toddler screams and the fact that a mulch lobster had just plummeted into the unknown.
I have only ever studied mulch lobsters twice in my life. The first time was in second grade, when my wonderful teacher took our class outside to catch as many mulch lobsters as we could so they could be our temporary class pets. A few days after the crustaceans had been captured, we realized that one of our mulch lobsters was pregnant, as she had a white egg sac glued to her underbelly. The promise of baby mulch lobsters instantly made her a class favorite. I don’t really remember what all we did with the mulch lobsters except stare at them in awe and play with them on our desks, so while the lessons we were supposed to learn from them may not have been long-lasting, the crustaceans themselves were certainly memorable.
The second time I studied mulch lobsters was last semester in my college biology class, during our unit on arthropods. Apparently, mulch lobsters are isopods in the class Malacostraca alongside crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans… and that’s it. That’s all I learned about mulch lobsters. To be fair, the class had to get through everything from paramecia to mammals in a single semester, so really I was lucky to learn anything about mulch lobsters at all.
Fortunately for y’all, I did a bit of my own research to compensate for my lack of mulch lobster knowledge, and I found some pretty interesting stuff. For example, these guys have even more nicknames than I thought: doodle bugs, armadillo bugs and potato bugs are just a few, all of which I must admit are superior to “mulch lobsters” (I think we can all agree that mulch lobster is better than woodlouse, though). They need to live in moist habitats, which would explain why my second-grade classroom lost a few brave arthropods during those fateful few weeks. Don’t try to keep mulch lobsters as pets, kids, your bedroom isn’t dark or damp enough to keep them happy. Unless you have an oddly saturated room and never turn on the lights.
Apparently, mulch lobsters are easily confused with their close relative the sowbugs, who look to me like flatter, lighter-colored mulch lobsters with two little tails. Sowbugs, however, don’t possess the amazing mulch lobster super-power of rolling into a ball. I guess that would be a better test to see if you’ve found a mulch lobster or a sowbug than checking for tails – if you poke it and it rolls up, it’s a mulch lobster. If you poke it and it runs, it’s a sowbug. You’re welcome again, world.
Mulch lobsters are detritivores, meaning they eat decaying organic material like our other garden friends, the earthworms. So, if you see mulch lobsters amongst your tomatoes, don’t chase them away – let them crawl around on your hand and thank them for improving your soil quality. Mulch lobsters are also known for eating fungus that grows underground, which lowers the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. What heroes the mulch lobsters are – first they were saving your tomatoes, now they’re saving the planet.
Next time you’re in your backyard, pick up a steppingstone or scoot a rotting log over with your foot – you might spot some of my favorite crustaceans. Just be gentle; the roly poly hospital won’t actually work if you pull a Lennie on them.