When people ask about using cleaners for semi-arid animals, they usually have a vision in their mind of a setup baking under a heat lamp composed entirely of sand. No isopods can survive in this environment, because even the most dry-loving isopods need some access to moisture to prevent desiccation. Cleaners for true desert animals are animals like beetles, but this is an isopod blog so we’re not going to talk about that.
Just short of a 100% dry desert setup, there are suitable isopods. Bearded dragons, for example, actually do very well in a semi-moist setup with several inches of potting soil. Animals like this shouldn’t be kept as moist as dart frogs, but this actually opens the door for even more isopods to use. An added bonus is that most of these animals are larger, thick skinned reptiles such as tortoises, skinks, and snakes. Animals like this don’t have anything to fear from larger isopods like soft skinned reptiles and amphibians do, so the only apprehension in selecting an isopod is one that can survive the environment.
Larger animals also have a larger amount of waste, both by shedding and pooping. Snakes don’t poop as often as other reptiles, but when they finally do, it is substantial. To have this waste processed as quickly as possible, the notorious Porcellio genus are the best fit. Porcellio laevis, scaber, and dilatatus are commonly available isopods that do an excellent job cleaning due to their voracious appetites. Dilatatus and laevis are particularly adept at burrowing, and escape predation relatively well. It is good practice to add the isopods and allow them to settle in for a day or two before insectivorous (insect eating) reptiles or added to avoid all of the isopods being eaten prior to being established.
Other isopod species can be used (Trichorhina tomentosa is a popular addition to bio setups) but the previously mentioned Porcellio may eat them. Porcellionides pruinosus is an amicable roommate that can thrive in a variety of bio environments, while still surviving their more aggressive roommates. Many Armadillidium species are resistant to dessication, are found in drier environments, and do better in setups with good airflow. A downside of Armadillidium species is that they are not as efficient cleaners as the Porcellio genus. The fastest breeding Armadilliidum are vulgare and nasatum. Vulgare are available in a large variety of colors and mutations and are quite popular. Larger, rare species of Armadillidium may do well as cleaners too, but are not very efficient due to their slow reproduction rate.
Giant Porcellio such as expansus and magnificus aren’t suitable as cleaners for a couple of reasons. The first issue is their large, colorful appearance makes them easy targets for dinner. Giant Porcellio also spend a large amount of their time meandering out in the open, exposed. The giant Porcellio also breed very slowly, and typically only produce offspring in either the fall or spring. They could theoretically serve as cleaners for a small species of reptile that can’t eat them, but this scenario would still need a large amount of airflow and large dry area.
As a safety precaution, keep an additional small culture just for the isopods to reproduce. This is a great safeguard in case an issue occurs that kills the isopods. While hardy, isopods will succumb to dehydration, overwatering, and predation much more easily than their large reptile roommates will. Most keepers will split the initial culture, putting half in the setup and the other half in the backup isopod container.