This giant isopod is a member of the genus Bathynomus. They are thought to be abundant in cold, deep waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Image courtesy of Expedition to the Deep Slope 2006 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program. Download high-resolution version (2.8 Mb).
Scientists estimate that there are around 10,000 species of isopods (all belonging to the order “Isopoda”). They are one of the most morphologically diverse of all the crustacean groups, coming in many different shapes and sizes, from micrometers to a half meter in length. They also live in many different types of habitat, from mountains and deserts to the deep sea, and they are distributed worldwide.
Isopods often do not look alike, but they do have common features. For example, all isopods have two pairs of antennae, compound eyes, and four sets of jaws. The body, or pereon, of all isopods consists of seven segments, each with its own pair of walking legs. Isopods have a short abdominal section composed of six segments, called “pleons;” one or more of these segments is fused into a tail section. Each pleon has a set of biramous (branching in two) limbs called “pleopods” that are used for swimming and respiration.
About half of the known species of isopods live in the ocean. Some are large and spiny and live in the deep sea, while others are very small and live as parasites on fish. Many more live in coastal and shelf waters, moving around on the seafloor or living in plants.
Those species of isopods that live in the oceans are able to do so by using their pleopods to ‘breathe’ by gas exchange. Those that live on land have developed their pleopods to include air sacs called “pseudotrachea” that function as gas exchange organs that don’t need to be fully submerged in water.
The most familiar isopod is probably the terrestrial pill bug (sow bug or wood louse), which can be found scurrying around any backyard in moist, dark conditions. The largest isopod species are those from the genus Bathynomus. These animals live in the deep sea, and (like many animals that live there) they are much larger than their shallow-water relatives.