Weird Gramma
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Underside of Bathynomus giganteus, the giant ocean pillbug
Photo courtesy of Tamara Frank, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
WeirdFins
Giant ocean pillbugs
Giant ocean pillbug in your face!
Photo by Flickr/CODA/Damien duToit

GIANT OCEAN PILLBUGS

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Well, hi! Weird Gramma here, and this is “WeirdFins,” all about strange stuff in the sea, and brought to you by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ginny in Biloxi, Mississippi, wants to know if there’s really a kind of ocean pillbug more than a foot long.

Yep, and it’s related to the pillbugs that live under flower pots in your garden, those half-inch-long gray thingies that roll into a ball when they’re scared. Pillbugs are also known as sowbugs, armadillo bugs, and roly-poly bugs, and in England, folks call ‘em cheesybugs and daddy gampfers. They’re in a scientific group named “isopods.” “Pod means foot,” and “isopod” means the feet are about the same length. Isopods are related to lobsters and crabs, but the one you’re asking about sure wouldn’t fit under a flower pot! It can grow to 3 pounds and 16 inches!

Can you see these giant pillbugs at the beach? Well, no, because they live in deep water off North America, in the Caribbean, and off Japan. How deep? Sometimes to more than a mile down, in ice-cold water that’s black as ink.

One thing that makes these isopods spooky is the way they feed, boogieing around on the lookout for dead whales and fish. But they also grab whatever live things they can. Food’s scarce that deep, so these bad boys sometimes go for weeks without finding anything. And when they do, they really pig out and can hardly move.

Do people eat these monsters? Well, not commonly, since fishermen don’t usually set their nets or traps that deep. But they’re sometimes caught and end up in Puerto Rican markets, or in Taiwan’s seaside restaurants where some say they’re as tasty as lobster. Creepy, but tasty.

You can see pictures of giant ocean pillbugs on the National Marine Fisheries Service WeirdFins link at www.nmfs.noaa.gov.

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