Terrestrial Isopods Oniscidea /Porcellio (pillbugs, woodlice, rollie pollie...)

  1. Terrestrial Isopods / Pillbugs are an excellent enrichment feeder. All my chameleons, young and old, LOVE these little creatures, and they are high in calcium content. However, as the pillbugs are somewhat slow to digest, and due to their small size, they are not a practical staple food item. But they will make a very much enjoyed treat! IMHO you can offer these as much as thrice weekly.

    A word of caution - isopods are heavy metal bioaccumulators. Therefore feeding wild caught pillbugs is less preferable to using those you have raised yourself, as you can easily make sure you are using a quality organic soil/sand mix for the base and feed them healthy foods. Culturing / breeding them instead of using wild caught ones also reduces or removes possible parasite issues.

    Its easy to breed your own isopods:

    1 - Get an old fish tank, a big plastic bucket or big glass jar.

    2 - Put a couple inches of moist sand mixed with organic soil on the bottom.

    3 - Decorate. Basically, they dont need or want things clean and tidy. Lots of debris makes them happy. They like plenty of stuff to crawl under and around in. I have chunks and strips of bark, an old broken clay plant pot half burried, twigs, a couple rough rocks, etc.

    4 - Add a bunch of isopods (either collected from the wild or ordered online). I've had better successs when I do Not mix different species of isopods (i.e. rolly pollies & flat sowbugs) in the same container.

    5 - Feed them. Give them Dead leaves (from most any tree), twigs and bark (not cedar, but any other wood, like maple or oak or apple), fruit and vegetable scraps (carrot peel, potatoe peel, bits of apple, bits of strawberry, bits of watermellon, pieces of squash), seaweed, moss, pansy flower petals, the skin that your chameleon sheds off, skin shed from mealworms, dead crickets (those that die from old age, not pesticides obviously), and occassionally some dog/cat food (moisten a few kibbles) or fish food flakes. Be mindful of vitamin A and animal protein and fat contents in dog/fish foods, and use only sparingly (or not at all).

    Essentially, they will eat anything you are likely to feed to your crickets or roaches, and most anything you are likely to feed yourself! But they prefer food that has begun to decay, yet is NOT moldy.

    If you dont want to attract fruit flies and dont want to worry about mold, put the fruit on a shallow plastic lid or dish and remove food when it gets a few days old.

    If you sprinkle a little calcium powder on their food now and then (maybe twice a week) it helps their shell grow - so do the leaves and bark (tanins).

    6 - Remember to keep it moist - they breath through gills. The soil needs to stay moist, but it should not be soggy wet. If the soil dries out the isopods will die. But they cant survive underwater long either! I lightly mist every day or two. How often you let it rain on your isopods will depend on the ventilation of your container. Aim for 50-70% humidity.

    7 - You will periodically need to change out the soil / debris. If there are many isopods in a small container, waste gases may become unpleasant and deadly (to the isopods). So the bigger your bucket, the less often you have to clean it out.
    (The waste makes for good soil to add to your flower garden!)

    Immature isopods are small and may be difficult to separate from the soil. Hopefully, most of the little ones will be clinging to the underside of a piece of wood. On the rare occasions that I clean out a tank, I take a few days to move them into a new clean tank. I let them collect under a piece of bark or the clay pot, shake them loose into the new cage, put the bark back and wait for more to gather, repeat.

    8 - To breed, just make sure you have a bunch to start with, keep them fed and warm (room temp up to maybe 90 max) and they'll happily go about making more. Female isopods have a marsupium, a pouch in which the eggs are incubated until they hatch. The young leave the brood pouch and typically molt soon after. They live in family groups until the young are grown. They molt (half the bug at a time) several times as they grow.

    9 - Treat time! When you are going to feed some off to your chameleons, best to NOT feed the isopods cat/dog/fish food in the weeks prior. I'm told escessive animal protein/fat can lead to gout in the chameleon.

    I've read that the Calcium:phosphorus ratio for isopods is 6:1 - which seems incredibly high on calcium. Im not at all sure this ratio is accurate, but nevertheless I dont bother to dust isopods. I do feed my isopods dark greens farily often, such as dandelion leaves, as a gut load.

    Pictures in this thread: http://www.chameleonforums.com/isopods-16457/#post218185


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  1. sandrachameleon
    I started with wild ones too - though likely from a safer area than Toronto. I kept them until I had babies, then picked out the adults and released them. I removed adults before they died - I didn't want dead wild caught adults in there, because then any heavy metals they carried would be left in the bin. I felt comfortable feeding off first generation captives. I also collect females full of babies each year (kept separately from the others until her babies are a few weeks old then the females are returned to the wild and her babies are added to my breeding bin, to supplement my stock).
  2. jamjam
    If i start off with ones from my yard what advice do you have to start feeding them off. Don't trust the ones I'll find living in toronto and would want to wait a few generations. How would I go about that. comment back or PM me :) Found a thread with this in it and further discusses this. So best way is to breed em and pick off the dead ones and once its safe to guess its all nwe generation bugs i can feed them off?
  3. sandrachameleon
    Glad the blog has been useful :)
    I clean my large bins out half-ways twice yearly. That leaves half the container always "dirty" so they have poop to eat if needs be. I also try to provide trace minerals so that they need to recycle less.
    Be cautious of cardboard - usually contains nasty stuff like formaldehyde
  4. Miss Lily
    Sandra, your blog has been hugely helpful to me! I keep my isopods in 2l ice cream tubs. How often do you suggest cleaning them out? I know you said to leave the poop covered cardboard in there as they also eat that.
  5. xanthoman
    another great post, i vote sticky
  6. sandrachameleon
    I've been asked several times what I mean by saying Terrestrial Isopods are heavy metal bioaccumulators.

    what I mean by this is that they are able to injest and tolerate some (what should be toxic) levels of heavy metals (mecury, boron, cadmium, lead etc) by accumulting them in vesicles in the hepatopancreas, (by "walling them off" and storing it inside their bodies). They have short lives, so this is a good short-term strategy (they arent concerned about long term). It allows them to eat decaying matter and such and live happily in even polluted areas. Their resistance to high levels of pollution, particularly heavy metals, in their environment means you'll often find them where no other detritivores exist (earthworms etc.) because the others cannt handle these high levels of toxins.

    Chameleons or anything else that eats them take in all the accumulated "walled off" heavy metals - the more injested, adding up over the years, the more toxic this becomes - biomagnification. That's why not too many things naturally prey on terrestrial isopods (starlings being a big exception)

    You might be thinking that the area you are collecting them from is relatively unpolluted, but you might be wrong. If people are around, pollution is around. Just think about the lead paint used on houses until not all that long ago, or the batteries people buired in the yard, lead from petrol combustion law mowers and cars and other air pollutants "washed" down to the soil by rain, asenic and preservatives in wood used in construction or for gardening bed retaining walls and fences, lead bb-gun pellets some kid played with in the 50s, urban runoff Leachate and other ground water contaminants, phosphate fertilizers, leaking furnace oil tanks, septic systems, etcetera.
  7. james L
    Thanks Sandra for the great info!
  8. draetish
    Ecellent article Sandra, very helpful.