Science-- there's something for everyone

Monday, May 21, 2012

The discriminating palates of dung beetles

Dung beetles are essential groundskeepers in many ecosystems.  While many of them stereotypically roll dung into balls and cartwheel away with their plunder, others bury the dung where it lies. The feces may serve as food and shelter for the adults or as nurseries and larders for their offspring. You might think that an animal that eats poo isn't going to be particularly picky, but science is all about testing ideas. To that end, Sean Whipple and Wyatt Hoback of the University of Nebraska decided to find out if the beetles displayed any particular preference for the dung of specific types of 'donors'.

To answer this question, the researchers baited pitfall traps in the Nebraskan plains with dung from a variety of native and exotic animals. Herbivores, carnivores and omnivores were all well represented. Over the next two years, over 9000 dung beetles from 15 different species were captured in the traps. I really want to say that the researchers doo-doo-fully checked their traps, but I believe they’ve suffered enough for science.

They found a few interesting things. For one thing, these Nebraskan beetles did not prefer native Nebraskan species such as bison, but were perfectly content to munch on zebra or donkey manure. Closely related beetle species did not necessarily prefer the same kind of feces. Overall, the beetles showed a marked preference for omnivore dung, probably because it was the smelliest. Among the most highly coveted types of feces were those deposited by humans.

Don’t you feel flattered?

Now for your viewing pleasure, a short clip about dung beetles: