On a dung beetle’s trail


Thanks to the work of our Head of Life Collections Darren Mann, and the Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project team, the conservation status of the UK’s dung beetles, chafers, and stag beetles (Scarabaeoidea) is currently undergoing a comprehensive review.

Contributing to this effort, Jack Davies, one of our summer interns, has been on the trail of a species that has proven to be particularly rare in the UK…

Aphodius lividus
Aphodius lividus

I am on the hunt for Aphodius lividus, a dung beetle with a truly cosmopolitan distribution, being found across most of the globe, but which is rather rare in Britain. Since 1990 it has been recorded at only six sites, though historical accounts suggest it was more common in the past.

Most of these historic records are from the south east of England, particularly Kent and the London area, but there are several geographically isolated records from across England and Wales too. So might A. lividus, whilst being extremely local, actually be widespread across the UK?

During my time at the Museum I have been contributing to a comprehensive review of this species’ distribution by helping to verify these records. This has involved a thorough search of collections, journals and the Museum archives, a process which revealed that many of the recordings of A. lividus were almost certainly erroneous.

We were able to discount the only two Welsh records, as well as single records from Cheshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. Our reasons for doing so included a lack of supporting evidence, the unreliability of certain collectors, and the confirmed misidentifications of some specimens.

Jack Davies working on a collection of Aphodius lividus

The number of known localities for A. lividus decreased further when we realised that three of the reported sites in Kent most probably all refer to the same location. This is a common problem in this type of research, due to the very broad locality names found on Victorian specimen labels.

So it has become clear that this incredibly scarce beetle is even rarer than we first thought. But it’s not all bad news for A. lividus; our research has uncovered reports from localities in Devon and Northumberland in the old literature, which we found to be trustworthy records.

Aphodius lividus
Map showing the distribution of the dung beetle Aphodius lividus in the UK

All the verified data from the project has been collated to produce this map of the distribution of A. lividus in the UK. Its very local distribution, and the very low number of recent records, confirm that this species should be classified as Vulnerable to Extinction in the UK.

Although it would be a shame to lose this species in Britain, we don’t believe it should be a priority for conservation efforts. Since Aphodius lividus has a strong preference for high temperatures, it’s likely that the UK is simply at the very edge of its range.  It is also a very abundant species in many areas around the world, and it contributes little in terms of ecosystem services in Britain compared to many of our other dung beetles.

So conservation should instead aim to preserve the dung beetle ecosystem as whole, which supports a huge number of species and also brings many benefits to agriculture.

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