Montana Public Radio

Bug Bytes: Dung Beetles To The Rescue

Jun 12, 2020

Insects play critical roles in our lives. Pollination, decomposition and soil aeration are just a few. And they do this behind the scenes, without much recognition or thanks.

So this episode is dedicated to a large group of unsung insect heroes…the dung beetles.

An introduced dung beetle in Australia. While the species is native to Africa, they are now widespread in northern Australia.
Credit CSIRO / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CSIRO_ScienceImage_11207_Dung_beetle_Onthophagus_gazella_side_view.jpg

As the name implies, dung beetles like poop. They eat it, use it as a food source for their young, and basically live their entire lives in and around poop. Sounds pretty gross. But without them, we’d be knee-deep in trouble.

Australia is a great example. Most of Australia’s native dung beetles evolved with marsupials, eating dung produced by animals like kangaroos, wombats, and wallabies.

So what happened when Europeans introduced cattle to Australia?

Let’s just say things got a little messy. And it was not just the enormous amounts of cow poop. The patties were a perfect nursery for non-native bush and buffalo flies. Up to 3,000 flies could come from a single cow pie. Billions of flies swarmed across Australia’s open country, making being outdoors miserable.

Dung beetles to the rescue. Since 1967, over 50 different species have been introduced specifically to consume cowpats. By burying and consuming the dung, the beetles not only remove it from sight, they also aid in fertilizing and aerating the soils.

As for the flies? Without as much poop, their numbers dropped dramatically — by more than 80%.

So the next time you pass by cattle in a pasture or out on the range, give a little thanks to the unseen champions working to clean things up, because without these invaluable beetles on the job, we’d be in a heap of a mess.