Why the world needs Dung Beetles

To celebrate National Insect Week 2016 we thought we would introduce you to the custodians of the Hope Entomology Collection here at the Museum. Our insect collection is made up of a whopping 6 million specimens, so our resident entomologists definitely have their work cut out. However, they have taken a little time out to tell us all about their specialisms and why their favourite insects are the best.

Darren Mann – Head of Life Collections

Darren out in the field collecting Dung Beetles

Dung beetles have been my passion since my late teens. I started with British species and then gradually broadened my interests to encompass the world fauna. But why dung beetles?

Well, they are beautiful insects, exhibiting an array of shapes and colours; they have been around since the dinosaurs, and have interesting biologies and behaviours, from nest-building and parental care, to stargazing. As a group, dung beetles are also very important in the ecosystem, removing dung and recycling nutrients.

Not only that, but dung removal and relocation offers additional ‘ecosystem services’ of fly control, livestock parasite suppression, plant growth enhancement, improved soil structure, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, seed dispersal, and pollination. Inevitably, they are a source of food for other animals too.

Darren takes a closer look at a collected specimen

Dung beetles are found in all regions of the world, and consist of three main groups: the dor or earth-boring beetles (Family Geotrupidae) of around 600 species; the ‘lesser’ dung beetles (Family Scarabaeidae, subfamily Aphodiinae) of around 3,500 species; and the ‘true’ dung beetles (Family Scarabaeidae, Subfamily Scarabaeinae) of around 6,000 species.

With just over 10,000 species in total you’d think we have found all the dung beetles out there, but not so: it’s estimated that 40 per cent of species new to science are still to be discovered. In the UK we have just 60 species and over half of these are in decline due to agricultural intensification, pollution, use of veterinary drugs, and changes in livestock farming practises. The Dung Beetle Mapping UK Project (DUMP) aims to highlight the importance of this group and promote research and conservation in this area.

Despite their name, not all dung beetles eat dung, with some species preferring fallen fruit, fungi, or even dead animals. The South American roller (Deltochilum valgum) is an avid predator of millipedes and another South American species (Zonocopris gibbicollis) feeds on snail mucus!

So with their high diversity, fascinating ecology, and great economic benefit, perhaps the question really should be ‘why not study dung beetles?’.

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