Setae and Scales

Her ancestors emerged in the mid Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Her cousin, the pill woodlouse, is a roller (she can fold herself into a ball), while other relatives are runners (large eyes, long legs) and creepers (cave dwellers). She herself is a clinger; her particular trick is that under attack she will flatten her body and clamp to a surface, camouflaged, immovable, easy to overlook.

Her exoskeleton is made of setae and scales, scalloped at the edge, and mottled with stores of calcium. It conceals her soft underbelly where she cradles her eggs in a pouch until they hatch. When she moults, she will eat her coat, absorbing the calcium back into herself to speed up the hardening of her new suit. Her babies, meanwhile, bright white like little mites, scatter across the fenestrated wood to try to hide their soft, wet bodies. Once concealed in the tunnels, they wait in the dark until their shells have dried and ossified.

Her simple eyes detect light and shade and movement, and she’s gregarious. An expert in the discourse of pheromones, she exudes ammonia and uses it to track, and be tracked by, the colony. As a herd of tiny herbivores, they map their way across the cracks and interstices of humus and decay.

She goes by many names: in the north she is a Damper, in the south a Billy Button, in the east a Tick Tock, and in the west a Granny Grey. In Shropshire she’s a Cudworm, a memory of the days when she was fed to cattle. Further back, the Anglo Saxons called her Gaers-swyn – a soil pig, a little sow of the earth, truffling around with her sisters among the mushrooms and worms. In those days, when times were hard, she was thrown in a pot with the nettles, giving the starving landlocked a taste of the sea.

Today, she’s a keyworker in decomposition, along with the fungi and bacteria, and all the other silent staff of the undergrowth.