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Dung Beetles May Be Key to Improving Rangeland

April 23, 2012

Source: University of Nebraska

Dung beetles haven't gotten much attention for the service they perform. Rolling and burying balls of dung isn't everybody's idea of a glamorous job.

But a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher says the insects are a key component in the health of Nebraska's rangelands, which cover the majority of the state. And healthy rangeland is a foundation of beef production, the largest segment of Nebraska's No. 1 industry, agriculture.

Sean Whipple, post-doctorate research associate based at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff, is starting a project aimed at increasing our understanding of how dung beetles carry out their humble role. More specifically, he hopes to determine whether dung beetles prefer the taste of certain cow patties over others, based on the quality of forage that the cattle ingest.

Whipple said this knowledge could point the way to better range management.

The research project

The project is being conducted by Whipple with a pair of specialists at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center: Jeff Bradshaw, extension entomology specialist, and Karla Jenkins, cow-calf/range management specialist. Jeanna Jenkins, an undergrad animal science major, also will be assisting this summer. She is partially supported through UNL's UCARE (Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience) Program.

It will involve an array of pitfall traps (5-gallon buckets) buried into some of the 1,600 acres of range at UNL's High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney. Cow dung produced from several diets of varying forage quality will be compared in their ability to attract the beetles.

For such a humble subject, Whipple's dung beetle research has gotten a lot of attention in the past several weeks, going viral on the Web and attracting notice from some top scientific web sites.

It started with a publication written by Whipple in the journal Environmental Entomology, which was posted on the Entomological Society of America's web site. Science Daily, a web site with a readership of 2 million in North America alone, soon picked it up, and within a day or two it had shown up on more than 50 websites, Whipple said. He's been contacted for interviews by National Geographic News and GEO, a German magazine.

Dung beetles

The article that's getting the attention actually describes research performed earlier by Whipple and W. Wyatt Hoback into the beetles' preference for dung from exotic species (in zoos or game farms, for example) compared to native species.

There are thousands of species of dung beetles, most of them scarab beetles. Not only do dung beetles directly benefit livestock production, but they also play a valuable role in nutrient cycling and rangeland health, Whipple explains.

"Most people associate dung beetles with the ones that roll the ball that you see on TV," he said, and they also associate them with Africa more than North America. But he said Nebraska has more than 50 species of dung beetles. In the Panhandle, where this project will take place, there are upwards of 20 fairly common species.

Each cow in a herd will produce up to 20 dung pats per day. Dung beetles break them down faster and more efficiently than other agents, such as weathering or other types of small critters such as ants, termites or earthworms, Whipple said.

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