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- Introducing the Tiger Team
- The big picture of tiger conservation
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- Black Rhino Expedition in Zambia Part 2 (Elephants at lunch!)
- Black Rhino Expedition in Zambia Part 1 (Hyenas in the kitchen!)
- A Farewell from the Tobago Expedition 2013 Team
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- NGALAGOU Charles: fauna conservation in our country has a long way ...
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- Jo: Mangroves are also important fish nurseries....
- Darshan Patel: Exciting stuff! All the best in saving the okapi -...
Every beetle has a story to tell…
Posted on February 11, 2013
The recent news story of dung beetles using the milky way for orientation has shed a whole new (star)light on this amazing group of species (Dung Beetles guided by Milky Way – BBC News). More than fitting then that last week ZSL hosted a workshop of international experts to assess the extinction risk of 272 species of South American dung beetle for the IUCN Red List. As of yet, the extinction risk of this species group, which provides a vital component of our ecosystems, has never been quantified, which is why ZSL in conjunction with members from ScarabNet have embarked on the mission to rectify the situation. So why do we bother with dung beetles? Essentially, without dung beetles, many areas of the world would be piling up with waste much faster that it could decompose. This function is so important that in some parts of the world these beetles contribute significantly to the economy (for example, in the USA, it has been estimated that dung beetles prevent the loss of $380 million annually by processing waste from domestic animals, and preventing pest species from breeding in this waste).
But dung beetles are not only fascinating because of their celestial navigation and dung removal capability. In fact, as one of our experts expressed last week, “every beetle has a story to tell (… only some are more interesting than others)”. So have you ever wondered whether dung beetles are attracted to smelly cheese? Or whether there are species living in obligate associations with giant land snails, feeding on their mucus? Admittedly, before embarking on this workshop adventure, we never did. Over the last week, “Team Dung Beetle” of ZSL’s Indicators and Assessments Unit has learned more about dung beetles than we ever thought possible. Sulcophanaeus columbi is clearly the party animal of South American dung beetles, occurring on the beaches of Brazil. The genus name Uroxys means “sharp ‘behind’” (though we were given a much cruder translation) and refers to the body shape of species in this particular genus. There are some really tiny beetles, which are only around 1 mm in size and run risk of being discarded as specks of dirt during surveys, and some real giants of around 5 cm – the charismatic megabeetles, so to speak.
But fun facts aside – how are our South American dung beetles faring? In our sample of 272 species, 23 have been categorised into Near Threatened or threatened Red List categories (though this may still be subject to revisions). Main worries are habitat loss affecting species with very specific habitat needs, and climatic warming for high altitude species which are already occurring at the limit of their climatic niche and are simply running out of habitat upslope because of warming conditions (leading to so-called mountaintop extinctions). Another worry is that for many species which appear range restricted, we simply do not have enough data to support Red List assessments other than Data Deficient. Clearly, it is high time to highlight the importance and potential plight of these dung loving critters, and to catalyse further research into threatened and potentially threatened species. With the first pieces of the global jigsaw of dung beetle status complete (Australian and African assessments have also been ongoing over the last months), we have finally placed these amazing and charismatic species on the conservation radar.