Isopods, being detrivores, need some unique food items that aren’t necessarily readily available to most keepers. After all, you can’t just pop into the grocery store and snag a couple of gallons of dead leaves off the shelves. While things like leaves, wood, and bark are available online, they come with a price tag that is hard to stomach for something that can often be collected outside.
So, what is the safest way to collect materials for our little isopod bodies, while not harming the pocket book? First we’ll knock out the places to NOT look: any place that is treated with pesticides or chemicals. This means staying away from any vegetation near public highways – while not directly treated, the exhaust and fumes of building highways can be very harmful to invertebrates. While most domestic areas are actually pretty safe, always verify with surrounding properties if they have treated the area with pesticides. When in doubt, it’s best to not collect from an area, because a poisoned batch can easily take down an entire culture. Also, if while rummaging around in the dirt, no other invertebrates are noticed – whether it is flies, slugs, beetles, centipedes – or the existing invertebrates act abnormal or sluggish – do NOT collect from the area as it is likely poisoned. While it is important to note that isopods are crustaceans, not insects, we have found that even pesticides directed for spiders, flies, or other unrelated invertebrates, are still alarmingly effective on closely related animals.
Sometimes people collect from parks in their local area. This is largely not recommended, as parks are often protected to prevent people from stripping trees bare for projects. Parks do need cleanup here and there, and there is usually a sign noting the appropriate park authority to contact. So while the person on the receiving end of a phone call may be concerned why someone wants to haul away fallen materials, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Please do not collect from parks without permission from the assigned authority over the area.
So, you’ve got your bark, wood, leaves. What now? The next step people take is cleaning, sterilizing, and otherwise making it safe for their isopods. Throwing outside materials straight into a setup brings some risk in introducing predators or isopods that may contaminate the culture. There are a few methods that people may use to do this, which require varying levels of work.
The easiest method is to just set it and forget it. This is easiest for leaves, leaves can be placed in an aerated bag (like burlap) in an area that is dry to dessicate (dry out) in a few days to a week if packed tightly. Burlap will smell slightly, but is not harmful to the isopods. Invertebrates that are in the leaves also have an opportunity to leave and slither away between the spaces of the bag as the leaves dry. Rotten wood and bark can also be dried, but rather than a week may take as long as a year to dessicate properly and for invertebrates to leave the heart of the wood, so it isn’t efficient or recommended.
Another method of removing unwanted visitors from leaves is allowing them to freeze outdoors. This is a perfect method if you’re like us and live in the frigid north – just bag them up, toss them behind the house, and revisit in a few days. This is our preferred method and we haven’t had issues with sourcing leaves like this, and it doesn’t cost us additional materials or effort. We bag our leaves in the fall, let them freeze over winter, and use as needed. Leaves can also be placed in an actual freezer (if your environment doesn’t do it for you) but family members won’t be too pleased with that, most likely. Freezing will not work for bark or wood because many species of invertebrates have adapted to burrowing to the heart of wood to survive cold temperatures.
The next option is baking the materials. This is the option we recommend for items like wood and bark, because it can penetrate to the heart and kill invaders. The ignition point of rotten wood is 300F – so for safety, do not exceed 250F. Wood must be baked for 2 hours between 200F and 250F in order to get the heat to penetrate to the heart of it – the goal is to evaporate any water sources, killing off any pest invertebrates that may have hitched a ride. Leaves can also be baked, but since they are much thinner leaves only need to be baked for 15-20 minutes. Leaves should be placed on a flat cookie sheet, and not stacked too thick, because while the outer leaves may get crispy it can insulate the inner leaves so they are not baked properly. It’s not a good idea to bake longer so the inner leaves are baked (like what would be done with wood), because the outer leaves may catch fire.
Some keepers boil their materials. This is a method we recommend completely avoiding. It’s messy, pretty gross, and honestly takes away a nutritional component from the materials. The water leftover from leaves that have been boiled is typically a reddish brown – keepers will boast on the internet that the leaves are “so clean now!”, but this is a lot of what the isopods will eat. People will argue that boiling food for ourselves doesn’t take away nutrition, so why would it for isopods? However, this disregards the fact that food we eat is fresh, not partially decayed. Vegetables have an outer layer to the skin that largely holds them together, and the water leftover from say, boiling potatoes, is thicker and whitish from the starch that has left them during the boiling process. People will even insist on baking the leaves after boiling, which honestly doesn’t make sense. These animals live in dirt and don’t need a sterile environment to thrive (and do much better in an arguably dirty one).
When sourcing living materials, like moss, dessication and baking aren’t valid options because it will kill the moss. Instead, submerging the moss in water for 24 hours is a method people employ to remove pests but keep the moss intact. All terrestrial invertebrates need to breathe sooner or later, and most mosses can survive being under water for this period of time. If, on the off chance there is an invertebrate that likes water (snails, I guess?) they won’t last long in an isopod setup anyway.
The one material we recommend avoid sourcing from the great outdoors is substrate. Dirt scooped up from the back yard is great in theory, because it’s cheap and isopods live there already, right? However dirt like this compacts quickly, doesn’t retain moisture, and isn’t very useful in captive settings. When 15 pounds of potting soil is only around $10 at the local plant nursery, an inferior source of substrate should only be used in an absolute pinch.
There are many ways to clean items for your animals, and hopefully one of these is doable for most keepers. Always avoid doubtful sources, as caution pays off in the long run for both the keeper and their animals. Isopods are not picky creatures, so finding a source for them should not be too difficult. If no materials can be sourced, there is always online vendors that can provide anything isopods may need!