Back in August I saw a post with the intriguing title: ‘If you had 5 minutes to talk to a Dung Beetle, what would you say?’.
I don’t know what your response would be – but I suggested that anyone living in Australia might want to take the opportunity to say a simple ‘Thank you’.
Apparently eating outdoors (including the great Aussie barbecue) was a nightmare in places like Canberra until a few decades ago when the dung beetle was progressively introduced across Australia (unless you loved flies).
When the Queen visited in the early 1960s, the flies were so bad that the monarch was doused with a revolutionary new insect repellent while the Royal party undertook its official duties outdoors. The lack of flies on them was noted by the press and helped to launch what would soon become a great Aussie icon – Aerogard.*
One of the problems was that manure from the herds of large domestic grazing animals introduced into Australia was taking ages to decompose (as our native dung beetles were adapted to the excrement of kangaroos and other marsupials). In the meantime, cattle dung fouled pastureland, reduced carrying capacities, and provided breeding grounds for the bushfly and a range of bloodsucking livestock flies that spread disease and parasites.
In the mid 1960s, a major research project began to investigate the potential for dung beetles from places like Africa and India (that were adapted to buffalo, zebras, cattle and horses) to help dispense with the waste and recycle its nutrients into the depleted soil.
A number of species was selected and released from the late 1960s and work continues even today with ongoing dissemination programs and trials of new species.
These clever beetles roll balls of dung and lay an egg inside before burying the ball or build nests for their eggs within or below cow pads and stock them with chunks of dung. The larvae eats the manure after it hatches until it is large enough to break free and start the process all over again. They can dispense with a cow pad in a matter of hours, but generally take a few days or weeks.
As the dung provides both food and shelter for this species and the fact that they were physiologically unable to consume other food sources, the risk of them becoming a pest was believed to be low.
This has been one of the more successful biological pest control programs run in this country – especially compared to ecological disasters like the cane toad.
The cane toad was introduced in 1935 to control sugar cane beetles but has turned out to be more partial to native insects and now competes with endemic species, is poisonous to goannas, dogs, snakes, freshwater crocodiles and other potential predators, breeds like flies, and is rapidly spreading south and west from the cane fields of Queensland.**
In a bizarre twist, those cunning cane toads have now worked out that they can sit on or near fresh cow pads at night and wait for dinner to come to them.
* I currently work for the organisation that did much of the research into dung beetles in this country and invented Aerogard (but had no involvement in either project and take no credit whatsoever). For more information, visit here and here.
A paper by a CSIRO scientist was my main source for this post: http://www.dungbeetle.com.au/project.pdf.
There are lots of great videos and films on dung beetles, including ‘Dung down under‘ – CSIRO documentary (1972).
** Cane toad control programs have been established but many community members are taking the matter into their own hands. Check out this video to see what the Kimberley Toad Busters are doing to reduce the impact of cane toads on our native species in the north west.
The KTB group has also teamed up with an American singer to promote a new Australian sport called the ‘Cane Toad Muster’ (to complement the already established sports of cane toad golf and cricket in northern Australia). Check out this song released in May 2013 & the interview about how it came about.
In the interests of balance and presenting the case for protecting cane toad rights – see this blog about speciesism: ‘The people who would spare the cane toad’ by Sara Phillips (ABC, 17 Jan 2011). However, there is little doubt that cane toads fail the ‘cute and cuddly‘ test.
My favourite film about cane toads is ‘Cane toads: An unnatural history‘ (1988). The producer has since produced another film ‘Cane toads: The Conquest’ (2010) but I have not yet watched it.
Photo credit: Gilles San Martin (Wikimedia Commons). This is an Italian dung beetle – I have no idea if this species was ever released here.