Dave Bakke: Peculiar creatures surface in tank

Dave Bakke

Strange and weird creatures from another era are invading Springfield — and the legislature isn’t due to arrive until next week.

Instead, what Paul Ellenburg has in his water are sow bugs. They are formally known as isopods, tiny shrimp-like animals with roots in prehistoric times. He may also have amphipods. Whatever he has, Paul was quite surprised to see them wiggling around in a water tank.

“I never saw anything like them before in my life,” says Paul. “When I first looked down into the tank, I wondered, ‘What in God’s earth are those things?’”

Like everyone else in central Illinois who finds bugs and insects they cannot identify, Paul took his creepy-crawlies to Tim Cashatt, an entomologist at the Illinois State Museum’s research and collection center.

“You never know what’s going to come through the door here,” Tim says. “Mondays are especially bad, because everyone has been out exploring nature all weekend.”

Sow bugs are unusual looking things, but Tim knew what they were. Isopods are with us all the time, he says, it’s just that usually nobody sees them. They lie underground, in water. They might be found in the damp places under rocks.

Nobody would have seen the bugs this time if Paul’s neighbor hadn’t complained about Paul’s sump pump discharging onto his lawn. That started the whole thing.

If you haven’t been paying much attention, you might be surprised to know that Springfield has had one of its rainiest years. We are almost 16 inches over our normal rainfall. That means sump pumps have been working overtime.

Paul’s neighbor said his yard was being flooded by all the water Paul’s sump pump was spouting.

So Paul put in a 100-gallon holding tank and directed his sump water into that. He uses the water for his flowers and yard, and apparently to hold weird little bugs, so it’s good that he doesn’t drink it.

“A guy came by,” Paul says, “he looked at one of these bugs. I gave him a magnifying glass and he said, ‘Oh my goodness.’

“I got a sample and took it to the research center. When I took it in there, nobody knew what they were. They’re pure white with little legs and antlers.

“Tim Cashatt came out and gave me a special syringe and jar containing alcohol. He showed me how to retrieve them and put them in the specimen jar. I got about 20-25 for him.”

Some of the bugs are white, and some are colorless. They look like shrimp. They don’t have eyes. They are maybe 3/4 of an inch to an inch long. It would certainly be disconcerting to find them in your water.

“They are actually common,” says Tim, “but most people don’t see them. They stay in underground streams or passages. My guess is that most people would not have them in their sump (well) or under their house. But we’ve had an awful lot of rain this year. That has probably increased the water flow in those underground streams. He’s got an aquifer under his house somewhere.”

Though you wouldn’t want to inadvertently drink a glass of water with them in there, sow bugs are harmless. In fact, when Tim sees them, he regards them as a sign of clean water. Sow bugs eat the bad stuff in water, purifying it.

They also are very good when sprinkled on a salad. (No, don’t do that.)

Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541 ordave.bakke@sj-r.com.