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Biodiversity Blog


Sprinting for Dung Beetles

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Photo by Alex Wild.

February 2nd was an unusually warm Saturday for winter, even in Central Texas. Many took the opportunity to work in the yard, exercise, lounge in the sun, but in Welsh Hall on campus, about 20 UT undergraduates were instead hovering over 3000 dung beetles.

This was for an event called “Science Sprints,” one-day intensives that bring teams of 10-25 undergraduates together to work on meaningful and interesting problems. The Entomology Collection in the Biodiversity Center and Dr. Jo-anne Holley with FRI (Freshman Research Initiative) ran the February 2nd event entitled “Texas Dung Beetle Diversity.”

According to Alex Wild, curator for the Entomology Collection, dung beetles are a major reason why the world is not covered in mammal feces, as the beetles disperse and bury dung, returning the resources to the ecosystem. The diversity of the group is large; there are roughly as many species of dung beetles in the world (5000) as there are of mammals. About 60 species are known from Texas. Many species are big, ornamented, colorful, and valued by insect collectors.

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Onthophagus taurus dung beetles showing
horn size and variation among males.

Dung beetle health is of special concern for ranchers. Beetles improve pasture by mixing and aerating the 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, and removes a major food source for flies, resulting in lower fly populations.

Over the course over a few hours, students harvested information from preserved dung beetle specimens archived in the Entomology Collection and online data from TAMU (Texas A&M University) to answer questions on dung beetle biology and diversity across Texas. Specifically, they looked at issues and questions like:

  1. The number of species found in Texas
  2. The geography and seasonality of each species within Texas
  3. Aspects of species biology (e.g. native/introduced; host animal species; sexual dimorphism, body size)
  4. How does UT collection data compare to that of the Texas A&M collection and published literature.

Science Sprints are great experiences for students. They allow students to build resumes, develop professional experience, jumpstart research, and make connections with faculty and/or industry sponsors. And not to be overlooked, they are also fun!

The next Science Sprint is February 16th. Check out this link to learn more and become part of the sprint. https://cns.utexas.edu/tides/undergraduate/events-workshops/science-sprints-and-inventors-sprints#science-sprints-topics-february-2

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Photos by Alex Wild.  
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