In recent years, isopods have exploded in popularity in the hobby, largely in part of a charismatic little animal discovered covering the walls of limestone caves in Thailand. “Rubber duckies” have taken the invertebrate hobby by storm with its glamor shots and charismatic closeups. The discovery of rubber ducky isopods on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and other social media outlets has led an increasingly larger crowd to the world of isopods.
Pretty rad, right? We love exposure and introducing more people to the hobby. The surging popularity of rubber duckies has encouraged more people in Southeast Asia to explore caves, mountains, and other places invertebrates can be tucked away in their country. Many, many previously unknown species of invertebrates are being discovered and collected for captive breeding. One would assume that this would lead to greater awareness to the natural fauna that Asia has to offer, but like with many other animals, it has only lead to increased smuggling and black market trade. Isopods are being harvested by the hundreds and exported to consumers. While ethical harvesting is encouraged with exotic animals, there are very few Cubaris that are being sold legally. Most ethical breeders suggest collecting a small amount- a couple dozen, maybe a hundred, keeping the animals for captive breeding and then releasing offspring to the public. The novel appearance of duckies has tugged on the hearts of the public so much that rubber duckies have a very high price point…which only further encourages the black market trade for isopods.
Rubber duckies have still not been assigned an official scientific classification. Some people incorrectly assume this is because vendors are all in it for the money – but we would like nothing more to put an official name to these little guys. The big problem is that we cannot find a taxonomist specializing in isopods to actually identify and classify them. There is a process to assign names to new organisms, but the scientific community has expressed little interest. The process of publishing papers and documenting physical characteristics takes expertise, money and time – something not a lot of us have. At the moment, rubber duckies (and species that are similar in appearance) have been hesitantly assigned to the genus Cubaris and a common name either describing their physical appearance or location of collection.
There are some vendors that legally import isopods to offer to the public, but how does someone tell the difference between animals that have been legally collected from the wild, produced in captivity, or smuggled? Companies that have obtained their stock legally have no problem verifying this with either import papers or citing the source of their stock. Ethical sellers are able to describe the environment that the isopods were collected, or the conditions that keep the animals thriving. If a seller cannot or will not describe their setup for their animals, we highly recommend not purchasing animals from them.
If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. There are many hidden downsides to purchasing illegally smuggled animals that most new keepers don’t know about. Animals are collected in large amounts, packed into small containers, and shipped over weeks to either Europe or America. This process is very stressful to the animals, and the ones who survive are typically in a weakened state. Weakened adults, now being resold to consumers, will die at a rate of as high as 80% even when kept in the appropriate conditions. Often, new keepers get a false sense of security because the animals will birth mancae within the first few weeks of keeping. These animals were imported already either fertilized or already gravid, and give birth prior to dying from stress. These mancae may establish a healthy colony, but mother Cubaris guard, feed, and nurture their young for the first few weeks of life. Without their mother to protect them, their survival rate is greatly reduced.
So, how does someone obtain ethical Cubaris? It isn’t as impossible of a task as it may seem. There are companies that legally import from Southeast Asia, and happily provide paperwork for doing so. The most risk-free way to be successful with Cubaris, however, is to obtain captive bred stock from breeders. Some vendors will falsely state that they have captive bred stock, but it is a relatively simple process to verify their claim. The time that they have kept the animals is one clue; Cubaris have a gestation of 6+ weeks, so it will take months to establish a healthy culture of multiple generations. Another clue is to look at the animals offered and the photos taken of the stock being offered, truly captive bred animals will have multiple generations and ages visible in the photos, while imported stock will typically display only adult animals and occasionally a fresh brood of mancae.
While Cubaris are certainly adorable and appeal to keepers of all tastes, it is in the best interest of both the animals and keepers to source the animals as ethically as possible. These adorable little animals are very rewarding to keep once established and have many unique behaviors to observe. Hopefully with time, they will be properly documented and produced ethically in captivity on a greater scale.