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Biodiversity Blog

 

A Rodeo of Insects

By Jen Schlauch, Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Senior

 Rodeo 1
 Freshman Research Initiative students

A large steel barn lay hidden from the February cold, framed in a banner of painted bluebonnets and the words, “Texas Wildlife Expo.” Within, javelinas, porcupines, and longhorn cattle shuffled in front of curious children and their families. But one burnt orange table nearby presented an entirely different world of wonder; one of hissing cockroaches, dung beetles and enthusiastic science students.

This merging was all part of the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo, occurring on February 10th, 17th, and 24th. UT Austin research students of the Bugs in Bugs FRI (Freshman Research Initiative) took part in three full days of outreach about insects. Undergraduate Leo Lin had received funding from the rodeo to study the gut microbiome of dung beetles in ranchlands and cow pastures.

The connection between rodeo and insects might not be apparent at first glance, but the connection is both deep and essential. Insects serve as pollinators of many crops, and thus provide a great economic service. Some parasitic wasps like a species of braconid wasp (Cotesia congregatus) are also used as biocontrol for crop pests like tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata). Dung beetles, the subject of Lin’s research, are of special interest for ranchers. These creatures improve pasture by mixing and aerating soil, returning organic matter to the earth, and clearing the surface for better forage. Dung removal by beetles also helps prevent the spread of gastrointestinal parasites in livestock, and removes a major food source for flies, resulting in lower fly populations. Lin will be studying how the microbiomes differ between dung beetle species, the dung, and the cows themselves.

The Bugs in Bugs lab stream studies the gut microbiomes -- the bacteria and viruses of the gut-- of common Texas insects. Effectively communicating the precise dynamics between gut bacteria and their hosts can be challenging, but outreach events like this one allow students to speak with children and parents alike. The weekends at the rodeo provided ideal opportunities to engage the public, invite them to see bee diversity, hear hissing cockroaches, and marvel at the iridescence of metallic sweat bees. While most of the animals in the expo --javelinas, porcupines -- are one-time treats to many Texans, the beauty of native pollinators and insects like dung beetles can be discovered right in the backyard. This can spark interest even in those who have never interacted with biology in a classroom setting, and open up a world of questions about the communities and symbionts of other insects.

Rodeo 2 Rodeo3
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