Nature Nearby: Denizens of a dark, damp domain

By FRED SEITZ — Early in June, I was doing a bit of work in my yard. I got an interesting reception when I moved some flat boards that had been lying there since last fall. Three of Mom Nature’s small offspring — a millipede, some pill bugs and a single skink — wiggled out with a modicum of haste.

The pill bugs are little landbound crustaceans who use gills to breathe. They dwell in moist, dark locations not only to breathe but to keep from drying out. They eat decomposing material, including their own scat, and they can also eat toxic metals in the soil, such as arsenic and cadmium. I have read that sometimes children will collect them as pets. When the pill bug is frightened it curls up into a ball for protection, earning it the nickname “roly poly.”

One of the pill bug’s roommates, the millipede, suffers from a serious misnomer. While “millipede” comes from Latin and means “a thousand feet,” most have 22 to 750 legs, with two pairs on each segment of its long, dark-colored body. (In contrast, the similar-looking centipede has one pair of legs on each segment.) The one who greeted me in my yard was about 3 inches long (he didn’t hang around long enough for me to get a tape measure), while the largest living millipedes, which are found in the tropics, range from 10 to 15 inches. The millipede’s ancestors were some of the first land animals and grew to 6 or 7 feet long. While most of the current millipedes eat detritus, some suck plant fluids and a few are carnivorous. Like centipedes, they will curl into a ball when threatened. They’re not considered dangerous to humans, but a few have detachable bristles which may cause some skin irritation. Like his pill bug roommate, the millipede prefers damp places and is sometimes collected as a pet; unlike pill bugs, millipedes do not have gills.

The third roomie, the skink, is a common lizard in Maryland. There are two common skink species in our state which are somewhat difficult to distinguish from one another: the broad-headed skink and the common five-lined skink. I was not skilled or quick enough to differentiate the skink in my garden, as he, like his roommates, didn’t hang around long enough for a detailed inspection. Skinks prefer damp areas, but I suspect that the one I found may have also chosen my garden as a good place to dine on his roommates, as both the pill bug and millipede are likely consumables for him. Ranging from 4 to 8 inches, the skink is a good friend of gardeners because of its taste for insects and the speed at which they hunts. Skinks have enemies, including cats, raccoons and some birds. They may lose their tail if grabbed by it, but the tail will regenerate. Ms. Skink will lay several eggs and does some protection and rearing of her progeny. People often keep skinks as pets, though Maryland has some restrictions on collecting reptiles as part of an effort to protect and preserve them.

Although turning over boards and rocks may reveal ecosystems of creepy crawlies and yield a sudden “Ugh!” from the turner, most natural history classes and books emphasize replacing the moved board, log or rock to preserve the ecosystems and residents that live underneath. I would be disturbed if someone raised my roof, so even if I may still give an “Ugh!” to unexpected finds of these denizens of the dark and dank, I will try to return the roofs of my neighbors.

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