Isopods are a very popular pet because of their minimalist lifestyle and requirements. Most isopods are kept is small, plastic containers because this not only meets their needs, but is convenient for their owners. They’ve often been described as a “hoarder’s dream pet”. So, what containers are suitable, and can they be too small?
The go-to container recommended is a plastic shoebox storage tote. There are a variety of sizes of shoeboxes available, but most commonly available one is a 6qt (5.6L) container that is 14”x8”x5”. (35x20x13cm). These containers are very cost effective, typically available at dollar stores for $1. Cheaper containers are made with a thinner plastic and a relatively loose lid, while the more expensive ones are a thick plastic with a snug lid. Some brands are air tight (which is great for isopods with wanderlust) and others even have latches that firmly hold the lids in place. The depth here is important- in a container like this, substrate should be ½”-1” (1.25-2.5cm) in depth. This will allow for burrowing and moisture regulation, but less substrate does increase the risk of desiccation. The entire substrate should be covered with leaf litter, usually adding up to another ½” (1.25cm) of space. The leaf litter covering the substrate is important, it adds hiding area for gravid mothers and babies, making them comfortable and encouraging growth. The leaf litter also insulates humidity in substrate, reducing the rate at which it dries. The remaining space should be used for a small hide and left empty to encourage air circulation. Common species like P. scaber, P. laevis, and A. vulgare can be cultured in small setups like this.
At an absolute minimum, isopods can be cultured in containers of 3” (8cm) in depth. This can be a bit dicey and is not recommended to new keepers. Small, common species can adapt to containers as small as 5”x3”x3” (13x8x8cm). Larger species, such as Spanish giants like Porcellio expansus, do best in a minimum setup with dimensions of at least 13”x10”x3” (32x25x8cm). The depth of these setups make little available room for substrate, so there is a higher risk of cultures drying out. We use small setups like this for isolating out new mutations because it is easier to find and observe animals and their offspring.
Ventilation for smaller setups can be a bit tricky. Even tubs that are 5” (13cm) in height are too short for 3” (8cm) vents. Vents should be as far away from the level of leaves and hides as possible to reduce incidents of mancae escaping. Vents that are 1” (2.5cm) are a great size for these smaller setups. For best results for airflow, place at least 6 vents (3 each on opposite sides) on the longer sides of the tub. This will allow for cross ventilation and prevent stagnant air. Vent holes can be drilled with a circular adaptor and premade vents clipped in, or a material glued over the hole.
Another option is to use a soldering iron to make holes. Soldering irons heat to about 450F (232C) and should be used cautiously. Melting and burning plastic can release toxic fumes, so this should only be done with proper face protection in a well ventilated area (ideally, outside). Holes from a soldering iron are 1-2mm in diameter, small but still large enough for mancae to escape. If using a soldering iron, poke holes at the highest part of the container to reduce risk of escapees. It’s best to not poke holes in the lid, as this does increase visitors from neighboring tubs because when baby mancae escape, they fall onto neighboring lids and crawl through the holes. If using a soldering iron for holes, make them 2-3mm apart around the entire circumference of the tub. Remember: too much ventilation is always better than not enough!
One item of caution to keep in mind when using small tubs for cultures: do not feed potatoes. Potato sprouts may come from any bit of potato flesh with an eye. Potato sprouts emit carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, which may suffocate the isopods. In a small tote, even with many holes installed for ventilation, this gas can suffocate an entire culture.
Can isopods be kept in glass tanks? Yes! There are a two main reasons why keepers tend to shy away from glass containers: glass is more expensive and takes up more space. No additional ventilation is needed when using a glass tank as long as it has a screen top. Baby isopods may climb the acrylic used to seal the corners of the tank, but with a good lid, escapees aren’t a major concern. If it’s preferred to not use a lid, the uppermost edge can be lined with a layer of Vaseline to prevent these explorers from seeing the world.
Can a setup be TOO big for isopods? No! We actually start our isopods in 25L tubs. The only downside of this is with a small starter culture (10 individuals or less) it can be difficult to find the animals. Even given a very large space, isopods will find each other and their food. Smaller setups are useful for those unsure of their husbandry until they understand the basics or if someone wants to observe the population closely for reasons such as isolation of a mutation.
Isopods are tolerant animals preferring crowded conditions, but do have some minimum requirements. Although they can tolerate small spaces, the isopods benefit from large enclosures. With these guidelines, cultures should thrive and grow.