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.
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!
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.
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!