Monday, October 15, 2012

Eat Poo or Die

Today I took a trip to La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie. I hadn't been there for a couple of weeks, so I thought it would be nice to go and get some bird photos. I put the telephoto lens on the camera and set off down the trail. At the trailhead, I met up with some very nice people who were photographing and filming insects for  their educational books and videos. They told me that they'd heard the gators were out on the trail. I visited with the nice folks for a while, exchanging cool nature sightings and good stories. Then I headed off again in search of birds. With all the rain this summer, the water is still pretty high in the Alachua Sink (a basin in the Prairie that drains into the Floridan Aquifer), and there weren't many birds near the boardwalk. I did see a Pied Billed Grebe diving for fish, and a Marsh Wren, which were both cool, but I'm on the hunt for a good Belted Kingfisher photo, so I kept going. I finished the boardwalk and rounded the bend, just at the beginning of the trail into the prairie, and there was a Great Big Bull Gator blocking the path. He was probably 12-13 feet long.
Party Pooper
He was really too big to pass. There was no way to get more than 10 feet away from him, and that's just too close. I stood for a while, hoping I could make him uncomfortable by staring and make him leave. No luck. I whistled and kicked my feet, not too aggressively, but just enough to let him know I was there. No luck. Just down the path I could see a wild horse colt jumping around in the bushes. Great, missed photo ops! But the old gator didn't want to budge. There would be no water bird photos today. Time for a change of plans. I turned to plan B, and so changed lenses. Now I had the macro lens on and switched gears to search for insects and other tiny things on the plants close to the boardwalk and away from the big gator.

As always happens, there were plenty of neat things on the trail to keep me happy. I saw a bunch of Gulf Fritillary chrysalides. Several were empty, several were developing, and one had started to crack open. If I'd stuck around for a few hours I may have been able to watch the butterfly emerge. But I kept moving.
Gulf Fritillary Chrysalis just cracking open
Then I hit pay dirt! Truly! Up ahead I could see that there were several piles of horse manure and as I got closer, I could see that one of them was fairly well disintegrated.

Pay Dirt!
I knew I should look for dung beetles! Sure enough, they were all over. I didn't know much about them before I moved to Florida. Somehow I'd managed to live my life in ignorance of the magic of Dung Beetles. The first time I saw them I was working in our back yard and noticed a pile of our dog's poo churning and heaving on the ground. I was horrified, thinking that she had some disgusting intestinal parasites that were erupting. But as I watched, suddenly this amazingly gorgeous green and blue metallic beetle poked out of the pile. Soon I saw several more and I was hooked. Dung beetles are so cool! They are members of the Scarab Beetle family, the same Scarabs that the ancient Egyptians portrayed in their jewelry, sculpture and hieroglyphics. There are many species in the family and about 250 in Florida. I've since learned that Dung Beetles come in many shapes, sizes and colors. The ones I saw today were smaller, less metallic colored, and blackish green than the ones in my dog's poo. The ones we have in Florida are much smaller than the ones in Africa and the Middle East, but they all do the same basic thing--eat poo. And it's a good thing they do. If they did not consume animal waste, we would be drowning in the stuff. Dung Beetles are rather particular--some species eat only elephant dung, some only eat turtle dung. They hunt for fresh manure and grab enough to pack into a tight ball.
Dung Beetles Packing
Then they roll the ball to a special location, using their hind legs to push.
Rolling the Dung Ball
When they find the right spot, they burrow into the ground below the poo ball.
Settling into Place. The Beetle is in the sand under the dung ball, digging furiously.
They churn the soil until the ball is sucked into the ground. Then they lay an egg or two in the poo and leave it in the ground, safe and secure until it hatches underground. The hatched larva eat the dung ball. By spreading, burying and digesting animal waste, Dung Beetles break up and fertilize soil, remove millions billions uncountable amounts of animal waste. Less waste saves money for farmers and ranchers in manure removal and disposal, and cuts down on flies. I was told the other day that cattle ranchers in Australia had to import dung beetles in order to raise cattle there, because cow poo eating dung beetles do not occur naturally Down Under.  I guess you could argue that cattle probably have no business being there at all in that case, but that's beside the point. The point is that Dung Beetles eat poo and this is a good thing.


  1. Thank you so much Katherine for writing such an informative article,and such lovely writing also. Really enjoyed it. Now you be careful of those gators and be very watchful for snakes. I grew up down here and have lived in whole life and not in the cities, have seen my share and especially Paynes Prairie! Good luck with your bird photos! Evelyn

    1. Thanks, Evelyn! I'm glad you enjoy reading. I sure enjoy writing and exploring. If you haven't been out to Paynes Prairie lately, you should take a trip there soon. There is always something interesting happening out there. And I'll be sure to watch out for the snakes and gators when I go!