If it looks like an armadillo, smells like an armadillo, but is tiny and has too many legs, is it still an armadillo? Probably not, but these cute little critters are likely as close as I’m going to get to an armadillo living in Michigan. And they do have Armadillo in their name… So that counts, right?
I grew up calling these many-legged armored critters “Roly Polies” because if you disturb them, they’d roll into scared little balls. Even if you didn’t mean them any harm. This is how they protect themselves. While their bellies and legs are soft and fragile, their armored back plates are pretty tough. Just like an armadillo. I’d find roly polies everywhere: in the garden, under a pile of leaves or logs, on the front porch steps, and frequently as spider food in the basement when they’d mistakenly wander inside. I really enjoyed playing with these cute armadillo-want-to-bees lol. I don’t find quite as many these days as when I was a kid, but they do still frequently wander accidentally into the basement- and then sadly end up as spider food.
Roly polies go by many names and are commonly also called potato bugs, doodle bugs, leg pebbles, or armadillo bugs. Or pillbugs if you don’t want to sound as child-like when talking about them lol. The roly polies I have are a type isopod, Armadillidium sp., in the family Armadillidiidae (told you they have armadillo in their name- minus the “o” anyway!). Unlike insects that have six legs, or arachnids that (usually) have eight, isopods like my roly poly, have a whopping 14 legs (seven on each side)! At least when they are fully-grown. Baby isopods are usually missing a set of legs and have to go through a molt (shedding of outgrown skin) first…
Pillbugs (so I sound slightly more professional ☺) are somewhat unusual critters. While most isopods are actually aquatic organisms, pillbugs, as you may have noticed, are terrestrial. Pillbugs (as well as very similar looking sow bug) are one of the only groups of isopods that have adapted to be able to live on land. Despite being terrestrial critters though, they still have gills (=aquatic breathing apparatus). And get this, they carry their eggs, and sometimes newly hatched babies, around on their tummies! Like a shrimp. Actually, more like a marsupial, since they have a special pouch to do the carrying called a “marsupium”. So now the pillbug is mimicking both armadillos and marsupials… It must really want to be a mammal lol.
Although there are a several other families of pillbug with additional species, there are only two species of Armadillidium pillbug (the one in my images) commonly found in North America. The Nosey Pillbug, Armadillidium nasatum, and the Common Pillbug, Armadillidium vulgare. Despite both these pillbug species being introduced from Europe, they are important scavengers and ecosystem decomposers. As the name “woodlouse” implies (yet another name pillbugs often go by), pillbugs feed on decaying wood, leaves, and other organic matter. This helps increase the amount of nutrients available in the soil. Unlike human lice (which are parasitic insects), woodlice (pillbugs) do not bite, sting, or harm humans. Although large populations of pillbugs can occasionally cause some agricultural damage to some crops or seedlings, the benefits generally greatly outweigh any minor negative agricultural impacts. I’ve occasionally found pillbugs feeding on tomatoes in my garden before, but only after the fruit has fallen or otherwise been damaged by something else first. Never on undamaged healthy fruits…
Believe it or not, adult pillbugs can live up to five years! Maybe I should consider keeping a few as pets in an indoor compost pile? Nah, I’ll just keep moving them back outside. An indoor compost pile would probably just bring back the fruit flies I had not that long ago…
To read more about pillbugs, check out:
Here’s a video of my cute little friend crawling around my living room floor:
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Printed Calendar and Newsletters
Want Bug News in print? We’ve got you covered :) Check out the Bug News 2022 wall calendar:
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There will be a cumulative 2021 newsletter compilation published soon as well. Stay tuned!
Gifts & Swag Galore
Now you can get prints of some of our favorite critters on Red Bubble! Everything from tote bags and pillows, to greeting cards and note books, to t-shirts and mugs!
Check out it out HERE. The store is organized by design, so pick a critter picture to see all the gift options :)
Just a few examples from this story:
And so much more! All Roly Poly swag HERE.