Slater watching

By Dr Jean Holley

I have been doing a lot of garden watching of late, particularly in the cool Armidale mornings. I find it very soothing to sit at the edge of the vegie patch, with a cup of hot tea, watching and listening to the invertebrate critters as they scurry about in the mulch.

One ubiquitous feature of the invertebrate fauna of my vegie patch is the humble slater, or pill bug. As much as they frustrate me when they get into my tender vegie seedlings, they always make me smile. Even as an adult, it never ceases to amuse me that they can fit all of their appendages (like their legs and antennae) into one neat, little rolled-up ball. And I still find it fascinating to watch as they gently, and carefully unroll themselves, moving their antennae inquisitively to sense their surroundings before they completely unravel.

So, what is a slater or pillbug? Is it an insect? Well, no. Slaters are crustaceans and are related to marine crabs, prawns and shrimps, but have adapted to life on land. For those of you interested in some taxonomy, slaters, woodlice and pillbugs belong to a group of animals called Isopods. Not all Isopods can roll up into a ball; the ones that can are commonly called pillbugs. Isopods have seven pairs of legs on their underside, and antennae and eyes on their head allow them to collect information about their environment. Isopods feed on decaying organic matter such as dead vegetation, and as a result they recycle nutrients and help build soil.

I really do enjoy watching these tiny “armadillos” wander about in my garden. And this is an experience that I encourage everyone to have. Sit, watch and listen to the living things in your garden. Watch the snails meander around after the rain, waving their inquiring eyestalks. Listen to the dawn chorus of the birds. Be amazed at the strange, yet wonderful places that weeds manage to grow. I have previously written of the benefits of spending time and playing in nature, and recently I wrote about a wonderful project encouraging people to get into their gardens and observe what is around them.  So next time you are outside and have a spare moment, slow down, get comfortable and observe the truly beautiful and inspiring living things around you.