Terrestrial isopods are in Alberta and researchers are on a mission to learn more about them

Research is underway to find out what type of crustaceans we have in Alberta and learn about their habitats

By Halen Kooper | May 2, 2022 |5:00 am

Isopods could be found in Calgarians’ basements, backyards, city parks, and greenhouses.

Photo: Submitted

It’s enough to make your skin crawl if you’re not a fan of crustaceans.  

What might be mildly terrifying to some is fascinating to University of Alberta (U of A) researchers who are surveying terrestrial isopods in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. 

According to the Biological Survey of Canada, the survey’s purpose is to document the diversity and distribution of isopods in the prairie provinces and is the first survey of its kind.

One researcher, Hannah Stormer, says the purpose of the research is to find out what kinds of isopods we have in Alberta, where they are found in the province, and learn about their habitats.

Wait, what are isopods? 

According to Ocean Explorer, scientists estimate that there are around 10,000 species of isopods across the world coming in a variety of shapes and sizes ranging from micrometres to a half metre in length. 

They are also known to live in various types of habitats, from mountains and deserts to the deep ocean. 

Stormer started studying isopods in the fall of 2021 and has so far identified five species in Alberta, with four being native to Europe and one she says is likely native to Asia.

While isopods usually don’t look alike, they have common features, including two pairs of antennae, compound eyes, and four sets of jaws.

An isopod

Curiosity led to the research 

Stormer was fascinated after listening to a lecture on arthropods in Alberta and was surprised to learn that while they exist in the province, they hadn’t been studied.

“Growing up, I found lots of them. I figured that they were well known and had been studied,” she says. 

“But it turns out, there’s nothing published on terrestrial isopods in the province.”

One reason researchers are looking at the species is to find out how they got here, with several possibilities as to how they came to be in the prairies.

“People could be bringing them in when they move, with lawn furniture or outdoor pots. They could come in through building supplies like concrete slabs. It could also come in through shipments of mulch and soil,” she adds. 

How are they adapting to Calgary’s weather? 

Stormer says research like this is important because it helps to fill a knowledge gap, including how these crustaceans are adapting to the colder weather found in the city and the prairies. 

“That’s the first step to answering a lot of other research questions,” she says. 

One example would be looking at whether the same species present in both Europe and Alberta have started to adapt to our colder climate.

“If a species is coming from England, that’s a fairly nice mild climate compared to the winters we get in Edmonton or Calgary,” she says, adding it would be interesting to see how they’re adapting to the climate.  

Calling on Albertans

One way the U of A is conducting its survey is by asking Albertans to document any insects they might find in and around their house and to capture them in photos to send to researchers. 

Stormer outlined the process of how to document the bugs for anyone who is interested in participating. After the isopods have been photographed and documented, they can then be sent to isopods@ualberta.ca.

“Taking photos is most important,” she says. “Include the nearest town and city, the location, then also clear photos of both the top and bottom [of the isopod] since that allows precise identification of what kind of isopod it is.”


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Halen Kooper

Halen Kooper is a contributor at Calgary Citizen.

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