As the Dung Ball Rolls…

Dung beetles are perhaps some of the most well known insects throughout the world. They have played a role in pop culture, in literature and they were the quintessential image of the sacred scarab beetle in Ancient Egypt. Now, we are the proud owners of two separate species of dung beetles! I have always thought dung beetles were neat, but it was not until i saw them in action that they completely stole my heart!

Many people don’t realize exactly how crucial dung beetles are to our environment. They are responsible for not only waste removal, but they enrich the soil by recycling the nutrients back into the earth. They also eliminate breeding sources for important pests such as flies, that can pester and even harm livestock.

We are very lucky to have several species of dung beetles native to the United States. They save the country around 380 million dollars a year by removing the waste themselves! Some countries are not as fortunate. Australia, for example introduced 23 species of dung beetles from South Africa and Europe between 1965 and 1985 to help improve the quality of their pastures. The beetles also cut the population of bush flies, a major pest there, by 90%! Many other developing countries have benefited from dung beetles which have improved standards of hygiene.

Most dung beetles feed exclusively on feces of herbivores and omnivores. They can be divided into 3 categories: roller, tunnelers, and dwellers. Rollers are the most charismatic of the three and are very fun to watch. They will construct a perfectly round ball of dung and roll it away from the pile. Usually a male and female can be seen together with a ball, although the male does most of the work while the female hitchhikes! Once they find a suitable spot, they bury the ball. The female lays an egg inside the ball and the larva feeds and develops inside. Tunnelers simply bury the dung they find, and dwellers live inside of the dung.

We have acquired a species that is a roller, Canthon pilularius, and one that is a tunneler, Phanaeus igneus. Canthon Pilularius are also known as tumblebugs. As soon as I gave them dung, they started to construct and roll balls around. They have kept me entertained for a long time as they are extremely comical to watch! Phanaeus igneus are also known as rainbow scarabs and are beautiful beetles with a metallic red head and thorax and a metallic green abdomen. The major males have a long horn extending back towards their abdomen. They do not roll, but they are very active and visible on the surface of the substrate and can be seen busily preparing their burrows in hopes for a mate. I was able to capture both species on video and it was so cute I just had to share!

Reebie Scarab - Kodachrome-esque

Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot
a depiction of Khepri, the sun god

Probably the most interesting thing about dung beetles is their role in Ancient Egyptian culture. Simply known as the scarab, it’s image represented transformation, renewal, and rebirth and can be found throughout Egyptian religious and funerary art. They were linked to the god of the rising sun, also known as Khepri. Khepri was said to, as the dung beetle rolls balls of dung, roll the sun across the sky and into the underworld at night, only to safely return it to the sky each day. The god was often depicted as a whole scarab or a man with a scarab for a head. Images of the scarab have been found all around Ancient Egypt. They are usually small beads carved from bone, ivory, stone, or even precious metals. Similar beads can still be found today in bead shops! These scarabs would often accompany the dead into the afterlife by being placed on the chest of the deceased during entombment. They were known as heart stones, the most famous of which was was found buried with Tutankhamen. They were to help protect the soul in the afterlife. Other images of the scarab were very large and sometimes contained long inscriptions. Some of these massive sculptures can be seen at the Luxor Temple and many other places in Egypt.

Scarab, back

Creative Commons License photo credit: marioanima
a Scarab Sculpture

The Ancient Egyptians were very smart to revere this little beetle, even though, at the time, they didn’t know exactly how important they were to the environment. Many insects play an important symbolic role in ancient cultures and for good reason. I don’t even want to imagine where we would be without beneficial insects such as these. Every little bug, down to the most annoying or insignificant (to us) plays a crucial role in the delicate balance of nature. We all should realize this as our ancestors did!

You can celebrate the legacy of the dung beetle by coming to see them on display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center along with many other fascinating creatures. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Nature’s Smaller Creatures

The bulk of our summer field season is over, which means the real work of dealing with the fossils we found begins. Part of that is making sense of the 1000 or so photographs on the computer- sorting by person, place, thing, animal, vegetable and mineral, as well as the good, the bad and the ugly.  This sorting process has also spawned other categories such as “NSG,” (“not so good”),”NSB,”(“not so bad”), not to be confused with the worrisome, “NBS,” ( “Nocturnal Bigfoot Shot”) folder, where you’re not sure what you photographed or why. A cool-ish artsy one in this category turned out to be the lettering on the inside of the lens cap. There is also the “SFB” (“Suitable for black mail”) or “PUF” (“Particularly unflattering”) category-  I keep those in a folder labeled “Machine Parts” so that no one will stumble across them. However, I will have to rename the folder now, since I just told you all.

Working the Craddock has many rewards and being close to nature is a big one. Baylor County has some great photo opportunities. As a paleontologist you spend most of your time with head bent and eyes focused on the ground, which gives you great opportunities to encounter the smaller creatures in nature. This post focuses on two of my favorites: the dung beetles and, for Rebecca, my lizard loving Alabama cousin, a uniquely American creature- and also the Texas State Reptile, Phrynosoma cornutum - the Texas Horned Lizard.
 
This lizard was once a common site all over the state of Texas (including Houston) but development, pesticides, and fire ants have it in retreat. During this field season at the Craddock we had nearly a dozen sightings in just two weeks.

The dung beetles are interesting because of their position in nature burying manure. They are remarkable in their skill and speed, quarrying out sizeable hunks and then rolling it to a suitable spot for burial. They are not above stealing the work of their fellows and in one case double dipping;  that is creating one ball, rolling it a distance from the mound, and then going back for another. Something few of us would be tempted to do. As a paleo guy I also like them because they are very ancient; their relatives were disposing of dinosaur poop, the family business has remained unchanged for millions of years- giving a deeper meaning to the phrase (put politely) same stuff, different day.
If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.