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Walking with woodlice

Budding zoologists and would be David Attenboroughs can help make scientific history by recording the movements of that most creepy of creatures, the woodlouse.
Creating Sparks - Walking with Woodlice
September's creating SPARKS, the spectacular arts and science festival organised by the British Association, will feature the findings of thousands of zoologists and enthusiasts following the first online national woodlice survey, Walking With Woodlice, launched during National Science Week.

Starting in May, the project will use the internet to link schools and clubs so that children and families can help scientists build a dataset of woodlouse populations throughout the UK.

During late spring and summer, children around the country will gleefully forage under stones and demolish rotten wood in their garden to help identify 38 species of UK woodlice, using identification guides from the website.

The 'famous five' common species they are most likely to come across, include: Porcellio scaber, (Common rough woodlouse), Armadillidium vulgare (Common pill woodlice), Philoscia muscorum (Common striped woodlouse), Oniscus asellus (Common shiny woodlouse) and Trichoniscus pusillus (Common pygmy woodlouse).

Science detective, eight-year-old Owen Thomas from Oxfordshire, summed up his own passion. "Some people are scared of insects and spiders but I think they are great and I really love woodlice. I've already set up my own Bug Club and I want to get my friends to help with the woodlice survey."

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The experiment is being run in partnership with the Natural History Museum. Linked to Key stages 2 and 3 of the National Curriculum (science students aged seven to 13), it is endorsed by the Association for Science Education. A total of 22,000 primary and secondary school teachers will receive Walking With Woodlice posters, highlighting the event.

Miranda Lowe, curator in the department of zoology at the museum, added: "Woodlice are indicator species and if their populations are in good shape, so are most of the organisms around them. The new data on their distribution and seasonal appearances will add up to a huge database on UK biodiversity for scientists."

creating SPARKS is a collaboration of Imperial College, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers).

It comprises the British Association Festival of Science, creating SPARKS Experiments, Star Gazers' programme of daily talks, Visitors Voices video wall and the BIG Bazaar with interactive events and street performance.

Sir Richard Sykes, Chairman of Glaxo Wellcome which is sponsoring the internet-based investigation, said: "It is incredibly important that children become switched on to science at an early age and this is why Glaxo Wellcome are involved in supporting the Experiments strand of creating SPARKS.

"It is an ingenious UK-wide experiment and what's more, children love bugs and creepy-crawlies."

The wonderful world of woodlice - factfile

Woodlice are relatives of lobsters, shrimps and crabs and "smell" with their antennae. They have 14 feet (seven pairs of legs) and one variety once took 16 steps per second, for each foot.

They have various body types: 'Runners' are narrow, smooth and very mobile. 'Clingers' are broad, flat and slow. 'Rollers' can roll into perfectly round balls and another form are 'Creepers'. One variety is blind, white in colour and spends its life in ant nests eating ant larvae.

'Tiggy-hog', 'roly-polies', 'pill bugs', 'sow bugs', 'cheeselogs', 'chiggypigs', 'gammerzows' and 'pissebed' (Dutch) are just some of their nicknames. Historically, they were thought to have been a cure for stomach aches and such aliments, possibly because their exoskeletons contain calcium carbonate and might neutralise stomach acids.

*** © Imperial College 2000. This article originally appeared in IC Reporter, the staff newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. Please contact the editor Tanya Reed(Email:, Telephone: +44 20 7594 6697) for permission to re-use any or all parts of this article. ***