In the woods of Eliza Howell Park in late December, the leaves are on the ground, the insects are mostly inactive, the number of bird species is lower than it has been in months. The quiet season has begun.
This is a good time to learn more about a quietly active member of the park fauna — the Woodlouse. On one walk this week I went looking for them.
From past experience, I know that I can usually find them by looking under rotting logs before the ground is solidly frozen. They are often on the underside of logs that are quite advanced in the decay process.
Woodlice are known by many other names; a common one in the U.S. midwest is “Roly-poly.” They are not in any way related to head lice. In fact, though usually referred to as “bugs,” they are crustaceans, not insects, the only crustaceans in North America that do not live in water.
Because their gills need moisture, they spend much time in damp locations, like under rotting logs. It is not unusual to find ten or more of them together.
Woodlice feed mostly on dead plant matter, including wood and leaves, contributing to the breakdown of dead organisms and returning nutrients to the soil. They have a significant decomposer role in nature’s recycling.
Their “segmented armor” allows them to roll into a ball to protect themselves or to preserve moisture (the basis for the “Roly-poly” name).
As is the case with other crustaceans, like shrimp, they are edible — though I do not know of anyone who has eaten them and I have never been asked about them as possible food.
Woodlice are not glamorous looking and the name reminds us of an insect that lives on human scalp, so it is not surprising that few people head out on nature walks in the woods looking for them. But such a nature walk might be a good idea.
I, for one, am excited to turn over a rotting log and find Woodlice, especially knowing their role in the bigger picture.
Reminder: Logs that are turned over in a search for Woodlice and other “critters” should be turned back when the looking is done, in oder to protect their habitat.