Plants and Animals
Plant and Animal Care

Students investigate the following animals in the Plants and Animals Module

Red Worms
Pill Bugs and Sow Bugs

Click on any animal to find out specific information about its care.

Introduction to Life in the Classroom

In several of the FOSS modules and courses, living organisms are brought into the classroom to be cared for and observed by K-5 students. Through the direct experience with organisms provided by these modules, we hope to engender in students a sense of respect for all life and to spark a desire to understand the complex systems that support life on Earth.

The FOSS program endorses the National Science Teachers Association Guidelines for Responsible Use of Animals in the Classroom as they apply to elementary and middle school classrooms.

The FOSS program provides detailed information on how to obtain organisms, how to prepare for their arrival, how to care for them in the classroom, and how to instruct students to properly handle each animal. The animals in the modules were selected because they are abundant, safe for students, easy to care for, and hardy and well-adapted to classroom environments. FOSS selected organisms that were nonexotic, commonly available from local and regional suppliers, and, in some cases, found in the natural environments in many regions. When investigations are carried out as described in the FOSS teacher guide, the insects, worms, crustaceans, snails, and fish are not harmed in any way.

To read more about the FOSS/Delta Policy Statement on Living Organisms in the Classroom, please click here.


Worms are a varied lot. You may have heard of roundworms, flatworms, tapeworms, earthworms, and who knows what other kinds of worms. None of them conjures up a particularly warm or pleasant feeling in most people. Worms have low reputations in human circles, often associated with some not-so-pleasant circumstances. But this activity may turn all that around as you dig into the subject of earthworms.

Earthworms are members of the phylum Annelida, or ringed animals. They are fairly simple life-forms, put together from a number of disklike segments stuck together like a long flexible roll of coins. Earthworms have no internal skeleton like a fish, no hard protective exoskeleton like an insect, and no shell into which they can withdraw. Worms are flexible, elongated bundles of muscle, uniquely suited for life underground.

The characteristic wriggling of earthworms is accomplished by the contraction of two kinds of muscles. When the short muscles that circle each segment (like lots of rings on a finger) contract, the worm gets thinner and longer. When the long muscles that connect all the segments contract, the head and tail are pulled toward each other, and the worm becomes short and fat. Depending on which end of the worm is anchored, the worm can move along the surface of the ground or through its burrow effectively in either direction, head first or tail first.

Earthworm organs are quite different from ours, making it possible for them to live their very different lifestyle efficiently. Earthworms have five pairs of simple hearts that pump blood throughout the body. They have no lungs. Instead the blood flowing close to the worm's surface absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide directly through the moist skin (called the cuticle). For this reason earthworms can live for some time in water if the oxygen supply is adequate. They don't drown per se, but they may suffocate if the oxygen content is low. This is why worms leave the soil and crawl out on the sidewalk during a heavy rain—they are seeking oxygen. Earthworms are not adapted to feed in water, however, so they would starve to death in due course.

Instead of a nose, ears, and eyes, earthworms have a nervous system throughout their bodies that controls actions in response to environmental stimuli, such as vibrations, heat, cold, moisture, light, and the presence of other worms. They have no brain, however, so worms do not ponder their lowly lot in life, nor do they plan a strategy for obtaining their next meal or crossing the sidewalk safely.

Reproduction. Like all animals earthworms have effective strategies for begetting their own kind. With earthworms it is not a matter of boy meets girl, but rather a simpler matter of worm meets worm. All worms carry two sets of sexual organs, but they cannot fertilize their own eggs—mating is still a necessary part of reproduction. Mature earthworms have an enlarged band some distance from the head. This enlarged clitellum plays an important role in reproduction.

In mating, two worms approach each other nose to nose. With their bodies touching, they slide past each other until their heads are a bit past the clitellum. Both worms pass sperm through an opening located between the head and the clitellum, into a temporary holding receptacle in the other worm. The two worms separate. The clitellum secretes a liquid that solidifies into a flexible tube. As the tube lengthens, the worm backs out of it. Soon the tube covers the front part of the worm. The worm lays a few eggs inside the tube, deposits some of the stored sperm, and withdraws from the tube, leaving the eggs and sperm inside the tube. The ends of the tube pinch off to form a cocoon, and the whole thing shrinks to a tidy package about the size of a fat grain of rice. The cocoon is left alone sitting on or just under the surface of the soil. The worm continues to produce cocoons until the sperm is used up. Cocoons are durable, can overwinter in cold climates, and can wait out hot dry spells in arid environments. After 3 weeks (ideal conditions) or longer the cocoon opens, and out sallies the next generation.

Food. Earthworms feed on decomposing organic material, mostly vegetation, from the surface of the soil and within the soil itself. In the process of burrowing and feeding they process tons of soil in a typical pasture or garden, improving the quality of soil for plants and other animals. There are some 1800 species of earthworms worldwide. Some are tiny, no more than 2 cm (1”) at maturity. At the other end of the scale are the Australian giants that average about 3 m (10’) in length, and the record holder, a South African gargantuan measuring 7 m (22’) in length. Not to worry—the largest earthworms in North America are the common night crawlers, which can reach a length of little more than 30 cm (12”).

What to do when they arrive. Worms may be kept in shipping container for short periods. Upon arrival, mist with water to moisten, but do not make soil wet. Worms can be kept in the refrigerator for short periods of time. To maintain worms for a longer period of time, keep at room temperature in diffused light, feeding crushed dead leaves or cornmeal sprinkled over the surface of the soil. Add rich soil (preferably humus) as needed, and remove any mold as it appears.

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Iso is Greek for "similar or equal." Pod means "foot." Put them together and you have the isopod, an organism that has an equal number of feet or legs on both sides with all legs similar to one another. Isopods have 14 legs that all function the same. This distinguishes them from closely related organisms that have legs that are modified to perform different functions, such as walking, feeding, feeling, grasping, and so on.

The many different species of isopods around the world share certain characteristics. Isopods are crustaceans, distant kin of shrimps, crabs, and crayfish. Like all crustaceans, isopods have a segmented outer shell (seven overlapping plates) that provides a measure of protection from the environment and predators. Like their aquatic relatives, isopods get the oxygen they need to survive through gill-like structures located at the bases of their legs, rather than through lungs like most terrestrial organisms. That is why isopods must keep moist at all times—if they dry, they die.

Two kinds of isopods are of interest as classroom organisms. The genus Armadillidium (arm•uh•duh•LID•e•um) is known casually as the pill bug or roly-poly. It gets these names from its habit of rolling into a tight sphere when threatened or stressed. The pill bug has a highly domed shape, short legs, and inconspicuous antennae. When in its defensive rolled posture, it is hard for a predator to grip, and it is also more resistant to drying out.

Pill bugs move slowly and have a difficult time righting themselves if they roll onto their backs on a smooth surface. They range from light brown to dark gray or black. Often they have white, cream, or yellowish spots on their backs. The largest individuals of this kind of isopod can be 1 cm long, but most are 7 or 8 mm.

The second isopod used extensively in classrooms, genus Porcellio (por•sel•E•oh), is commonly called the sow bug or wood louse. These names are potentially confusing because Porcellio don't show a particular affinity for swine, nor are they lice. They are relatively flat with legs that extend a little bit beyond the edge of the shell, and they have powerful antennae to sense their environment. They move rather quickly and will use their long antennae and little spikelike tail projections to right themselves if they happen to roll onto their backs. Sow bugs come in a surprising array of colors, including tan, orange, purple, and blue, as well as the usual battleship gray. Their size is similar to that of the pill bug.

In the wild, isopods are not usually seen out and about. They are members of that large category of animals known descriptively (not taxonomically) as cryptozoa, or hidden animals. They are most often found in layers of duff and leaf litter, under rocks or logs, or burrowed a short distance under the surface of the soil. The environment they seek is moist and dark, in or near dead and decomposing wood and other plant material. The former is their main source of food, accounting, perhaps, for their common name of wood lice. Isopods are not, however, above eating fresh strawberries and carrots, making them a minor pest in the garden.

Life cycle. There are both male and female isopods, but only another isopod can reliably tell them apart. After mating, the female lays several dozen eggs, which she carries in a compact white package on her underside between her legs. This package is a specialized brood pouch, the marsupium, in which the eggs develop for 3 or 4 weeks before hatching. A few days after hatching, a swarm of fully formed, minute isopods strike out into the world. They are nearly invisible at first but soon grow to a size that can be seen by the unaided eye. Like all crustaceans that carry a hard outer shell, isopods must shed their shells in order to grow. In the molting process the shell is cast off, and the new soft shell underneath expands before hardening. Interestingly, the whole shell is not shed at once; first the rear (posterior) shell segments are shed, and 2 or 3 days later the front (anterior) ones fall off.

What to do when they arrive. The shipping container contains damp paper to provide moisture. Upon arrival, mist paper slightly. Food should be removed if it shows any sign of mold and replaced with sliced carrot, potato, or apple. Pill bugs and sow bugs can be kept in the shipping container for a few days until ready to use in class. Moisten the paper towels as necessary.

If you are keeping them for a longer period of time, place them in a terrarium with rich, moist soil. Place moist paper towels in the container to provide humidity. Continue to add vegetables, replacing them as necessary to control mold. Keep container at room temperature in low light.

Classroom habitat. Isopods are excellent classroom animals—they exhibit interesting behaviors, they are small but not tiny, they don’t bite, smell, fly, or jump, and they are easy to care for. Isopods can live in just about any vessel, from a recycled margarine tub to a 50-liter aquarium. If the container is smooth-sided, it doesn’t even have to be covered, because isopods can’t climb smooth surfaces at all. A layer of soil covered with some dead leaves, twigs, and bark is great, but isopods will be comfortable with some paper towels or newspaper laid on the soil. They do like to have some structure to crawl under.

Food and water. The most important thing to remember is that the soil must be kept moist at all times—not wet, but moist—so that the isopods don’t dry out. A chunk of raw potato in the container with the isopods serves as a source of both food and moisture. Otherwise they will eat the decomposing leaves and twigs or the paper towels and newspaper.

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