Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about these charming little crustaceans - woodlice. They are reputed to have at least 65 colloquial names - more than any other animal in the UK fauna - and are locally known as bibble-bugs, coffin cutters, sow-bugs, tiggy-hogs, sow bugs, sink-lice and slaters.
I disturbed these while I was moving a pile of bricks under our hedge. Well over 100 were packed into the recessed face of one brick and once they were exposed to sunlight there was panic, as they fell over each other in their hurry to escape.
Eventually only this one remained - a fine specimen of Oniscus asellus, the common shiny woodlouse. I particularly like the elegant curves of its articulated armour plating and their saw-tooth outline.
Woodlouse senses are centred around the jointed antennae and these simple eyes that have only about 25 individual ocelli – probably enough to detect light and shade and largish moving objects, but incapable of forming images with a very high degree of resolution.
The tail segment of a woodlouse is called the telson, flanked by two appendages called uropods , and its shape is often an important species identification feature.
All woodlice have only six pairs of legs in their infancy (when they’re known as mancas) and the full complement of seven pairs, visible here, only appears after their first moult, a day after they’re released from the brood pouch of their mother who carries them around.
From below you can see the mouth at the head end, between the antennae .
Woodlice are omnivores but will eat other small animals if they can catch them, so have two pairs of jaws – crushers at the front and lethal-looking pointed ones behind.
The armour is an obvious defensive adaptation to surviving terrestrial predators like spiders but the woodlouse’s main problem is keeping moist, because it obtains oxygen by diffusion over these plates at the tail end.
Generations of schoolchildren have conducted simple experiments offering woodlice a choice of moist or dry environments but the outcome is never in doubt – in a dry environment a woodlouse will suffocate, for lack of dissolved and diffused oxygen.
Mother and child
Woodlice face a regular crisis when they need to moult in order to grow. They do this in two stages, shedding the old carapace from the hind segments first and then easing themselves out of the cladding on their front segments. You can see in this photograph that the exposed outer covering on this animal's newly exposed front segments has yet to harden.