Delving into dung

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Each summer we host a variety of interns, working both in the collections and with the public. Oxford University student Maria Dance has now come to the end of her placement and reflects on the delights of dung beetles and what they can teach us about ecosystems.

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Over the past six weeks I have been working in the Hope Entomological collections, home to an estimated 5 million insect specimens. Coming fresh from my second year studying biology at Oxford University, I have been working on a project to sample-sort and identify dung beetles from the SAFE project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

A very short introduction to dung beetles
From the order Coleoptera, sub-family Scarabaeinae, most true dung beetles feed exclusively on dung. Some roll dung away from the main pile and bury it for food or as a brood site, some tunnel below the dung  and bury it that way, and others are “dwellers” and simply live in it. All are essential groups for ecosystem functioning and provide indispensable services from which humans benefit; dung beetles recycle nutrients, rework soils, and act as secondary seed dispersers.

Maria sorting through a dung beetle sample

Maria sorting through a dung beetle sample

Dung beetle research at Oxford

Researchers at Oxford are studying the link between dung beetle biodiversity and ecosystem functioning to predict the true environmental consequences of human-driven habitat loss and fragmentation in the tropics. So I have been identifying beetles to calculate diversity, which is then compared across sites with very different human disturbance levels. Dung beetle diversity and community composition are good proxies for ecosystem functions as we know the roles that different groups of dung beetles play.

More than an intern

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Working on tiny dung beetle specimens

The starting point is for me is material collected from (human) dung-baited pitfall traps, which I search through and extract all dung beetles from; it’s a smelly, tricky job that needs a sharp eye as some beetles can be as small as 2mm in length!

Next comes the hard part: identification. Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections at the Museum and dung beetle taxonomist extraordinaire has guided me through the process. It was particularly difficult to identify the Bornean species due to the lack of good primary literature. A microscope is essential, as many characters used to identify species are not visible with the naked eye.

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Students sampling for dung beetles at Magdalen College deer park

As my internship draws to a close, I have identified 6851beetle specimens to 56 species. I have also carried out some initial analyses: comparing diversity between habitats, and between data from 2015 and 2011.  I want to find out whether differences over time are more significant than differences between habitats.

In my last week I was fortunate enough help run a “Spotlight Specimens” session about silk worms and their fascinating, human-dependent existence. In the sessions, experts from the Museum collections show intriguing objects and specimens that are not usually on display. Visitors were able to interact with live silk worms and see them cocoon-building, while we answered questions.

In September I travel to Borneo for a field course, where I hope to put my newly-learnt identification skills to practice. Over the past six weeks I have become more enthused by taxonomy, tropical rainforest ecology but, most importantly of all, dung beetles!

Maria Dance, Intern in Life Collections

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