So, you’ve decided. You’ve got to have some of these dirt shrimp for yourself. Now begs the question: where to start? There are always those dang rubber duckies everyone is talking about, but then people say they can be challenging, and they are so dang EXPENSIVE. Researching isopods doesn’t help either because there seems to be an endless amount to read!
Never fear, we’ve got your back. With 6 years of research and experience keeping hundreds of cultivars of isopods, we’ve compiled a list of the most popular and beginner friendly isopods to reference. Whether looking for a pretty pod pet, a hardy cleanup crew, or expanding into more challenging species, this article should help point you in the right direction. We’ll break them down by genus and discuss usefulness in relation to cleaning crew or aesthetic purposes.
Our go-to recommendation for beginner friendly isopods is always Porcellio scaber. This species is extraordinarily hardy and has been naturalized and recorded on practically every continent (it’s not in Antarctica. What lives on Antarctica anyway? A bunch of penguins I guess?) Porcellio scaber is believed to originally come from Europe like many other successful isopod species. What puts this isopod above all the rest is the length of time that it has been kept in captivity; it is the original isopod marketed as a bioactive cleanup crew. It’s also the first isopod to have a documented morph isolation of “orange”, released to the market 15-20 years ago at the Hamm, Germany expo. Porcellio scaber so far has more available morphs than any other isopod; there are 23 mutations that we know of being traded and people are working on even more. Many of these mutations are a combination of other mutations (for example, orange dalmatian is a mix of dalmatian and orange genes), so there is a lot of opportunity to create and isolate even more mutations. Scaber have also proven to be extraordinarily hardy; they can withstand both very dry and very wet conditions. They have a voracious appetite, eating all offered leaves, vegetables, and protein sources, which lends to their high reproductive rate. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as opening up a tub of scaber and seeing hundreds of the little things scuttling about only a few short months after starting the culture. The one downside of scaber is that due to their appetite, it is not recommended to use them as a clean up crew for soft skinned animals such as amphibians and geckos. Scaber, due to their extraordinary reproduction and popularity in the hobby, are among the cheapest and most affordable isopods on the market.
Porcellio laevis is another member of the Porcellio genus that has proven to be beginner friendly. This species only currently has 8 mutations, but all the important ones: orange, white and spotted. A key difference from scaber and a big part of their appeal is their size: laevis have been documented reaching a length of 18mm or more, which is 50% larger than P. scaber. Laevis are similarly hardy when it comes to tolerating dry and wet conditions, eating well and producing large broods of offspring. Porcellio laevis are not recommended for housing with sensitive skinned reptiles, as these isopods are so voracious, they have even been documented cannibalizing each other in crowded situations, preying on young or molting individuals when the body is still soft. Laevis are affordable, but a bit more expensive than scaber.
For people that are attracted to isopods for their cleaning abilities and as a bioactive crew, Porcellionides pruinosus is the failsafe go-to species. While pruinosus only has 5 available morphs (grey, orange, orange pied, pied, and white), it is the friendliest roommate that can be placed with many other terrarium inhabitants. They serve as a stellar cleaning crew as they readily eat fecal material, decaying plants, and sheds, but do not harass living animals. Pruinosus are so friendly, that they can even happily cohabitate with sensitive invertebrates like millipedes and burrowing roaches! They are the most popular cleaner for small amphibians like dart frogs, because they function as both a custodian and a food source. Porcellionides pruinosus are native to the British Isles and thrive in a high humidity environment. However, this is another species that is very hardy and can withstand dry conditions. A common complaint is that they seem to establish themselves in nearly any neighboring environment. We had one rogue Pruinosus living in a gecko egg incubation box for a few months until we finally caught him and returned him home. These isopods are highly recommended for anyone building bioactive setups.
Dwarf isopods are also a highly recommended for those looking to establish a successful bioactive environment. The downside to dwarves is that they’re small and great at playing dead, so a lot of people have trouble finding them to begin with, and once they do, they get freaked out by the possum routine. All dwarves are relatively simple to care for, but the most popular (and notorious) dwarf is Trichorhina tomentosa or “dwarf white isopod”. This isopod caught on due to its astounding productivity; all members of this species are female and reproduce through a process called parthenogenesis, so theoretically only one animal is needed to establish a culture. Their small, but robust size make them ideal feeders for animals like micro geckos and froglets. They also do not predate on living animals, so they are a safe cleaning crew for any animal in a terrarium. The downside of dwarf whites is that their astounding reproductive rate can be a hassle when they establish themselves in another invertebrate’s terrarium. They will eat roach and millipede eggs and have even been documented on several occasions eating the live fertilized eggs of Mniarrogekko chahoua (mossy prehensile tailed gecko). When their population reaches high levels, gravid isopods and roaches often become so stressed they birth prematurely, and the offspring die. For this reason, it’s recommended to keep dwarves far, far away from any other isopod cultures and out of breeding terrariums with sensitive eggs. Dwarf whites are the cheapest isopods available, as over 30 animals can be harvested in a single teaspoon of dirt from a culture.
Isopods are most commonly known as “roly-polies”, so of course we have to talk about the genus Armadillidium. The two species most commonly collected in kept in this genus are Armadillidium vulgare and Armadillidium nasatum. Both of these animals have a similar care and reproductive rate, but vulgare has a much larger assortment of morphs available on the market. Armadillidium isopods are more sensitive to humidity that the Porcellio we previously discussed and will die if an area is too moist. They are still quite tolerant of heat and dry periods, as vulgare have been documented and collected in hot areas such as Texas and Arizona on days over 100F. Armadillidium vulgare and nasatum are both friendly roommates and won’t harm other inhabitants, but they do have a slower reproduction rate in comparison to previously discussed isopods. The more common morphs of vulgare and nasatum are very affordable, although not as cheap as the animals previously discussed.
For those looking to branch out into the larger, more complicated species, we’ll also discuss some of the “easier” of these to start out with. When it comes to the giant Spanish Porcellio, the most beginner friendly of these is the culture Porcellio sp. “Sevilla”. This variety of isopods doesn’t have an official scientific name, and so is noted by the location it was initially collected from. Many giant Porcellio require softened wood and specific airflow to survive, but “Sevilla” does well in conditions similar to the more common isopods. The downside of this variety is that they do breed more slowly, with smaller broods in larger intervals. At first, they can be a bit nerve wracking because these isopods also grow more slowly and don’t have as large of an appetite and leave a lot of uneaten food. The juveniles and gravid females do consume the majority of food and so as the population grows, so does the overall appetite of the culture. “Sevilla” isopods don’t make a great clean up crew because they are easily predated on due to their large size and have a low replacement rate due to their slow breeding. “Sevilla” are more expensive than any of the common species but are the cheapest giant variety available.
Now, the isopod that has drawn increasingly larger amounts of people to the hobby: the increasingly large amount of Cubaris isopods collected from southeast Asia. Cubaris is a bit of a misleading name as very few of these animals have been given a positive scientific ID and likely aren’t members of the Cubaris genus at all. For example, a species traded under the name of “Cubaris sp. silver ghost” was recently assigned the scientific name of Nesodillo archengellii. Still, as there is not much information available, we will work with what we got and treat the southeast Asian species as a unit.
The most keeper friendly and original Cubaris in the hobby is the species Cubaris murina, or “little sea roly-poly”. Most Cubaris murina are descendants of cultures initially collected in Florida. They tolerate a wide range of temperatures and dryness but do best in warm settings of 75F+ with heavy moisture. We have allowed our cultures of murina to drop to as low as 60F in the winter, and although the reproduction rate slowed, the culture did just fine after about 5 months at this temperature. Unlike the roly polies of the Armadillidium genus, murina thrive in wet conditions and won’t crash due to excess moisture. They are an excellent cleaning crew and reproduce quickly in setups, without causing harm to other inhabitants, making them safe to place with amphibians and geckos. Once downside of murina is they adore organic matter, and will devour living moss and soft bodied plants, so shouldn’t be placed in a terrarium with favored foliage. Murina also only has one morph of the species available, the “papaya” morph we isolated, which presents as an adorable pink color. Wild type murina are brown or grey and are very affordable.
Of the new isopods collected in southeast Asia, Cubaris sp. “Panda King” has been the most keeper friendly. Pandas reproduce at a faster rate than all other southeast Asian isopods (although much more slowly than Cubaris murina) and acclimate to a range of conditions. They don’t seem to need the high ventilation and deep substrate most other new southeast Asian species do. Panda Kings thrive well with highly nutritional substrate, leaf litter, and cork hides. We do recommend adding additional nutritional components to the substrate to encourage a healthy establishment of isopod cultures. We personally have used shrimp meal, bat guano, bone meal, powdered calcium, and decaying wood to feed a culture. Pandas aren’t as tolerate of varying temperatures as other isopods and should be kept at a minimum of 72F but breed best at closer to 80F. A heat mat is a great option for anyone not interested in keeping a toasty room – but a thermostat should be attached as a failsafe to prevent overheating and fires. Pandas are currently the most affordable southeast Asian isopods on the market due to their high reproduction rate.
That’s all for what we recommend for starters of isopods. It’s easy to branch out from those mentioned in this list once keepers get a hold on keeping these isopods alive. There are more isopods being collected and isolated every day, so have fun, and get jazzed about it!