The woodlouse has a shell-like exoskeleton, which it must progressively shed as it grows. The moult takes place in two stages; the back half is lost first, followed two or three days later by the front. This method of moulting is different from that of most arthropods, which shed their cuticle in a single process. Metabolic rate is temperature-dependent in woodlice. In contrast to mammals and birds, invertebrates are not “self heating”: the external environmental temperature relates directly to their rate of respiration.
A female woodlouse will keep fertilised eggs in a marsupium on the underside of her body until they hatch into small, white offspring. The mother then appears to “give birth” to her offspring.
Woodlice are not generally regarded as a serious household pest as they do not spread disease and do not damage wood or structures; however, their presence can indicate dampness problems.
Pillbugs and pill millipedes
Comparison of the pill bug Armadillidium vulgare and the pill millipede Glomeris marginata
Pillbugs (woodlice of the family Armadillidiidae) can be confused with pill millipedes. Both of these groups of terrestrial segmented arthropods are about the same size. They live in very similar habitats, and they can both roll up into a ball. Pill millipedes and pillbugs appear superficially similar to the naked eye. This is an example of convergent evolution.
Pill millipedes can be distinguished from woodlice on the basis of having two pairs of legs per body segment instead of one pair like all isopods. Pill millipedes also have thirteen body segments, whereas the woodlouse has eleven. In addition, pill millipedes are smoother, and resemble normal millipedes in overall colouring and the shape of the segments.
Living in a terrestrial environment, woodlice breathe through trachea-like lungs in their paddle-shaped hind legs (pleopods), called pleopodal lungs. Woodlice need moisture because they rapidly lose water by excretion and through their cuticle, and so are usually found in damp, dark places, such as under rocks and logs, although one species, Hemilepistus reaumuri, inhabits “the driest habitat conquered by any species of crustacean”. They are usually nocturnal and are detritivores, feeding mostly on dead plant matter, although they have been known to feed on cultivated plants, such as ripening strawberries and tender seedlings. Woodlice then recycle the nutrients back into the soil. In artificial environments such as greenhouses where it can be very moist, woodlice may become abundant and damage young plants.
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