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!

Best of Prairie Ecologist Photos – 2013

As promised, here are some my favorite photos from 2013.  It was really tough to narrow these down to 22 (it was going to be 21, but see below) out of the roughly 1,800 images that were “keepers” from my various photography jaunts this year.

Of course, many of you joined in the winnowing process by helping me decide between two similar bison photos last week.  Or at least that’s what was supposed to happen.  Since the vote was nearly evenly split (and a lot of people voted “both”) I decided to include both photos.  You’ll see them displayed back to back below.

I hope you enjoy the photos.  If you let the slideshow run on its own, it’ll take a little under two minutes to cycle through.  You can speed up the process, if you like, by clicking on the arrows within the frame.

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If I had to choose a single favorite from the year, it would probably be the one below.  It tells a great story without having to use any words at all.

Ant and crab spider on an annual sunflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Ant and crab spider on an annual sunflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

I shot quite a few images of crab spider silhouettes that morning, trying to get one that was just right.  I got some pretty nice ones, but none that were as striking as I’d hoped – until I was photo bombed by this ant.  That’s often the way photography goes.  Equipment and technique are both important, but you really just have to be in the right place at the right time.

I’m looking forward to being in lots of right places in 2014.

Photo of the Week – August 15, 2013

I took my two sons up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve earlier this week for one last outing before school started.  It was fun to see the Preserve through their eyes.  While I was looking at impacts from last year’s fire and grazing and noting ecological interactions between sunflowers and insects, the boys were chasing toads and just having fun bouncing along through the sandhills.

The big selling point to get the kids to tag along was the promise of seeing bison.  After driving around the 10,000 acre pasture for more than two hours without a bison sighting, I was getting a little nervous about keeping that promise.  Just as I was about to give up, the radio crackled and Richard (our bison manager) called to say he’d spotted bison at the opposite end of the pasture while he was working on something else.  About half an hour later, we found them and the trip was officially a success.

Here are a few photos from the two days:

My son John, standing at the welcome sign for the Preserve.
My son John, standing at the welcome sign for the Preserve.  Did I mention there were some sunflowers blooming in the sandhills this year?

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John spotted this turtle along the road into the Preserve, so we stopped to have a closer look.
John spotted this turtle along the road into the Preserve, so we stopped to have a closer look.

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Here's Daniel, standing among the weedy regrowth under the burned out pines north of the river.
Here’s Daniel, standing among the weedy regrowth under the burned out pines north of the river.

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The Niobrara river from a high vantage point.
The Niobrara river from a high vantage point.

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It was a relief when we finally popped over a hill and saw bison spread out below us.
It was a relief when we finally popped over a hill and saw bison spread out below us.

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Bison
The bison seemed sleek and healthy, clearly thriving in the abundant regrowth after last year’s wildfire.