Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Backyard Creature Feature – Pill Bugs November 12, 2010



This is the second post in our Backyard Creature Feature series. You can find the first post here.  The last Creature Feature was inspired by a giant bug I saw scurrying up my wall in the middle of the night. This one is inspired by a talk I saw last night about Integrated Pest Management. The pill bug was mentioned in this talk because sometimes they come in to people’s homes. This usually occurs when people leave fallen leaves and other plant debris in basement stairwells, gutters, or other places near their houses. The pill bugs love moist habitats with lots of vegetable matter, so those are perfect habitats for them! If you don’t want pill bugs around (although are not in any way harmful to humans!), getting rid of those areas would be the first step.

When I was a child my grandparents had a bird feeder in their backyard. Around the base of the bird feeder in a circle there were little red bricks, and on most visits my brother and I would pry these up to hunt for the pill bugs underneath. We would pick the isopods up and watch them roll up into little balls in our hands. We always put the bricks back, but in retrospect I imagine what my grandparents were thinking as they watched from the kitchen window as we pulled apart their backyard. So I want to take a moment to send many thank yous to my grandparents (who are Backyard Safari readers 🙂 ) for letting us explore at the expense of their nice landscaping. They were always very supportive of us in these pursuits, so I also need to thank them for letting us stick their maple seeds to our noses, helping us take care of tadpoles, and for letting us throw our stuffed animals up into their trees and then try to knock them out again, which was an extremely entertaining game to us for a long time. Thanks Grandma and Grandpa!

Okay, back to the creature at hand! I have heard this little isopod called everything from a pill bug, to a sow bug, roly-poly, wood lice, and doodle bug. The big scientific name of the family it belongs to, though, is the Armadillidiidae. I absolutely love that this group is named after an armadillo, because take a look at the similarities:






One of the most interesting things I learned about the pill bug while writing this is that it is actually a “terrestrial crustacean.” The crustaceans we usually hear about are sea-dwelling ones like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. Not only that–according to, they are the only crustacean that has been able to live completely on land. How amazing is that?? There are giant isopods in the ocean that are very similar to pill bugs but, well, giant and live on the ocean floor. If you ever get bothered by the isopods on land, just watch the video here to feel safe again.

Once again I am just blown away by the details of this big world we live in. To think I’ve spent my whole life knowing about pill bugs without really knowing them. That I held their little rolled up bodies in my hands without thinking about how they are the only crustacean to have made that long arduous journey onto land. That I’ve never really thought about the convergent evolution (when unrelated animals have the same biological traits) between this tiny little creature, armadillos, and girdled lizards.



I know I’ve said it before and that I will say it many more times in the future, but what an unbelievable world we live in! Even the smallest and most common creatures are extraordinary in their adaptations and survival methods. Your backyard is an exciting place to be! Have you or your children spent any time playing with pill bugs? Do you have any other special names for them? If so I would love to hear about it in the comments!


Note for Parents and Educators:  There is a neat research project for K – 4 graders here, which teaches children how to use the scientific method by studying pill bugs, which are ideal because do not bite or carry any diseases harmful to humans, and can live up to 3 years if cared for properly.


2 Responses to “Backyard Creature Feature – Pill Bugs”

  1. Melissa Says:

    Great education post!

    We call them rolly polly’s. : )

  2. Beggy G Says:

    I quickly read it once and thought, ‘that’s an interesting post’.

    I read it a second time and suddenly the bit about how amazing living things are hit me. Even knowing how they come to be how they are (the bit about Mr D’s convergence) only increases the wonder – for me anyway.

    The difference between knowing and KNOWING something is really interesting, especially to someone like myself who considers themselves a rationalist. That sudden dawning of a deeper understanding of something, beyond being able to recite the facts. I suppose it’s just an emotional response but it certainly makes the purely intellectual stuff more enjoyable.

    I digress.

    We called them woodlice when I were a lad.

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