More research on dung beetles

Professor of Plant Biology at The Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga Leslie A. Weston, PhD with a winter active dung beetle 'Bubas bison'.
Professor of Plant Biology at The Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga Leslie A. Weston, PhD with a winter active dung beetle 'Bubas bison'.

Dung beetles are only anonymous in that their work is mostly done underground, in the dark or in the centre of recently dropped dung.

That is not to say their work is undervalued; on the contrary their existence is critical to soil and animal health and ultimately to human health.

Recognising the value of indigenous and introduced species is the focus of a study being conducted across southern Australia through The Charles Sturt University, (Charles Sturt) Wagga Wagga.

Funded through the Research and Development for Profit initiative of the federal government with Meat and Livestock Australia, Charles Sturt have the lead for this national program for five years.

They are collaborating with various farming groups across southern Australia and through the Riverina and southwest slopes are engaged with Temora-based not for profit agricultural research and extension organisation Farmlink.

Project coordinator Professor Leslie Weston said the project is building on the work done by CSIRO and other research into the history of dung beetle imports and distribution.

Part of the program is surveying the existing populations of dung beetles with a view to identifying the most beneficial of the current mix and being able to grow populations of acclimatised species along with recent imports.

"We will be looking at where existing populations have become established and how we can develop monitoring techniques to assess their distribution and seasonal activities," Professor Weston said.

"We will be monitoring 120 sites with replicated trapping on each of those sites over a two year period."

At the conclusion of the project, Professor Weston intends to be able project participants will to identify areas which need new populations, either of existing species or those which are currently in quarantine or are being populated by specialised growers.

"The distribution and monitoring is really the first step and that is where our collaboration with Farmlink is most valuable," she said.

Farmlink CEO Cindy Cassidy is excited about the possibilities engendered through this project and the ultimate value for livestock producers in southern regions.

"The upshot for us is that it is a great opportunity to work with cattle producers in this region," she said.

"And there is lots of upside from a production as well as environmental perspective in having a really vibrant population of dung beetles in the system."

Knowing more about the impact of dung beetles on ecosystems and how it will ultimately deliver benefits to livestock producers is another facet of this project.

Professor Weston noted the project is focused on the dung of beef cattle but it also will offer assistance for sheep, horse and goat producers.

"The actual removal of dung in terms of its ability to be incorporated and its incorporation in the soil has a lot of benefits for pasture producers increasing organic matter, making available nutrients in the dung and improving the porosity of the soil," she said.

"The ecosystem benefits through all of those actions plus the ability to sequester carbon.

"We are trying to assess economically by experiment what the actual figure is in terms of improving pasture quality."

The other issue around the enormous amount of livestock dung produced each and every day is it's its physical removal from the surface of the land.

Ms Cassidy pointed out residue dung not processed becomes a harbour for disease and pests.

"Really good populations of dung beetles gives us better environmental and productive outcomes," she said.

"This is an opportunity to go back and see which species are really working.

"Then scan the horizon to see what else is out there which could work better."

One of the dung beetle species the project is propagating is Bubas bison (pictured above).

It is an introduced winter-active dung beetle from southern Europe and is established in pockets in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.

They can a one- or a two-year life cycle.

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