Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Contemplates Poop

This post is by Olivia Schouten, one of this year’s Hubbard Fellows.  In this post, she writes about the importance of bison and cattle dung in prairie ecosystems – a topic you might not think much about on a daily basis.

When walking through a prairie, or anywhere for that matter, I think most people tend to avoid piles of refuse left behind by critters. While not the most pleasant things to encounter, smell, or step in, scat is an essential part of any ecosystem that many creatures are more than happy to encounter, and in many cases specifically seek out.

While conducting flowering plant surveys at our Niobrara Valley Preserve, I walked through an area of the pasture recently visited by the bison herd and found a couple of organisms making use of the bison pies. First, I found an ornate box turtle square in my path, digging furiously into a half-dried bison pie. Its long, sharp claws efficiently broke away chunks of the pie, revealing to the turtle beetles and other invertebrates attracted to the scat for their own purposes. I think I even heard a crunch when the turtle found something tasty amongst the poo. Considering the number of piles left behind by the bison, I realized just how great a resource these bison pies are to animals like this turtle, as they attract a buffet for easy pickings.

This ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata) was busy digging in the bison poop when I found it, but once it noticed me hid away in its shell.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Not long after moving on from the turtle, I found some critters making use of the actual bison scat. Dung beetles are iconic coprophages (excrement eaters), rolling their balls of poop along to feed their larvae, and we have several of our own species right here in Nebraska! These common tumblebugs (Canthon pilularius) had excavated a nice round ball of bison pie, ready to be transported!

This tumble bug was one of three diligently working to make this ball of dung. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Tumblebugs are just one of several species of scarab we have here in Nebraska that make use of animal excrement in much the same way. This colorful rainbow scarab (Phanaeus vindex) visited a cow pie here at the Platte River Prairies.

I managed to get a few pictures of this rainbow scarab before it decided it’d had enough of me and flew away.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Here is a very short video clip of the box turtle and tumblebugs feeding.

So next time you come across a pile of poo, consider stopping for a look! You never know what interesting things you’ll find!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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8 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Contemplates Poop

  1. zwranch says:

    Very interested in learning how grazing animals enhance and support natural prairies as we are trying to mimic that in our horse pastures. Thanks for posting.

  2. Natalie Matz says:

    Great beetles! Love those rainbow scarabs!

  3. Cody Considine says:

    Great post!! Shout out to Olivia! Love seeing the ornate digging in bison dung. One of our justifications for reintroducing bison!!!!

  4. marknupen says:

    perfect!!!! It always pays to look down at the area around your feet. You never know what you may find and this story is ‘perfect’. You couldn’t even make this story up!?

    thanks

    mark

    On Wed, Jul 11, 2018 at 10:59 AM, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: “This post is by Olivia Schouten, one of this year’s > Hubbard Fellows. In this post, she writes about the importance of bison > and cattle dung in prairie ecosystems – a topic you might not think much > about on a daily basis. When walking through a prairie” >

  5. Thanks, Olivia. Not too cute, makes a great point. I have only seen dung beetles on tv and etc., maybe because I don’t look for them!

  6. Patrick says:

    I’m guessing there would be a fundamental difference between dung produced by grazing animals and scat produced by predators that would make certain dung beetles use one type of dung and not the other. So for example, do tumble bugs only use dung from herbivores?

  7. nigel64 says:

    Great Chris and Olivia, in New Zealand we have no dung beetles and there are a lot of ongoing experiments to see how they work with cow pats. So far it’s working great and beetles can’t be bred fast enough – https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/countrylife/audio/2018650483/could-dung-beetles-save-our-waterways

  8. Jasmine says:

    I just learned about burrowing owls and their use of poop! For your grassland critters + poop repertoire ;) https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/11/11/weird-nature-an-owl-that-uses-dung-tools/

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