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Ghostly Guests

Turning over stones at the river mouth the other day, I came across this little critter. This is the woodlouse Platyarthrus hoffmannseggii, often called by the slightly less tongue-twisting name of ant woodlouse, or ghost woodlouse. The first of these names gives a clue to it's lifestyle, as this little fella lives in the nests of various ant species where it feeds on ant droppings and mildew. As it spends all of it's life in the dark (except when some inconsiderate naturalist turns over the stone it was under) its has no need for colouration or eyes, being completely blind.

I must have found about twenty individuals all together, either in the nests of yellow meadow ant or black garden ant (below). The ants seemed completely unaware of their presence and certainly showed no aggression towards them, perhaps due to some chemical trickery (much of ant communication is based on 'smell'). It may be that the activities of the woodlouse assist in keeping the ant nest clean, while the woodlouse itself undoubtedly gains from the protection of it's numerous and aggressive housemates. Many  invertebrates have a similar association with ants nests, such species being know as myrmecophilous (literally 'ant-loving').

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