How the dung beetle is helping fight global warming

Yes, even the dung bettle is doing its part to reduce greenhouse emissions. Time to step up!

flickr cc Andi Gentsch

flickr cc Andi Gentsch

This little known beetle is the Dung Beetle, and it derives its name from its liking to animal ‘dung’. Because of their exceptional dung disposable capabilities, dung beetles play a small but remarkable role, both ecologically and economically, in pasture ecosystems around the world. Their actions have been credited in: reducing pasture fouling; aerating soil; adding nutrients to soil and by breaking down dung they help prevent flies from breeding in it.

Dung beetles belong to the zoological order Coleoptera and family Scarabaeidae, there are about 7,000 known species of dung beetles in the world. There are several species of dung beetles in India too. They are very tiny creatures, whose size varies between 5 to 30 mm, weigh on an average 20 grams and live up to about 3 years. Most dung beetles search for dung using their sensitive sense of smell.

Dung beetles fall into three basic categories: Rollers, Tunnelers and Dwellers. Rollers get their name because they form a bit of dung into a ball, roll it away and bury it. The rolled balls are then used by the female to lay her eggs in them (called a brood ball) or as food for the adults to eat. Tunnelers as the name suggests, land on a dung pat, tunnel through it eventually burying a portion of it. While, Dwellers just stay on top of the dung, lay their eggs and raise their young. Eventually what matters is that the beetles succeed in decomposing the dung heap.

Life cycle of a dung beetle. Image credits: UNLcms

Life cycle of a dung beetle. Image credits: UNLCms

How dung beetles benefit the pasture ecosystem

One of the main macronutrients in cattle dung is Nitrogen (N); this is precisely why it is used as organic manure by farmers around the world. When dung is left unused on the soil surface, some of the nitrogen is converted to ammonia and nitrogen gas which eventually goes up into the atmosphere by a process called volatilization. Some of this nitrogen is thus lost to the pasture system.

This is where these amazingly tiny creatures contribute their might. By rapidly burying dung in the soil, dung beetles help to preserve and recycle nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients. It is because of this action that most of the nitrogen is retained below ground where it is converted into nitrates, that are then absorbed by plant roots and used as building blocks for plant growth.

So too is the case with the other non-volatile nutrients, that is, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium and a few trace elements. These buried nutrients are then taken up by plant roots and passed on to the plant tissue. As the plants (in this case mostly grass) grow, they are eaten by livestock and after digestion, excreted as dung. Here is where the dung beetles come in, their burrowing/tunneling capabilities help in recycling nutrients from the dung which are again available to plants, thus completing the cycle.

Besides helping in the recycling of soil nutrients, dung beetles play several other important roles. By eating, shredding and burrowing dung, they effectively prevent flies from breeding in the dung. By decomposing dung, these tiny creatures also help in soil aeration and prevent soil nutrient run off.

Dung Beetles and Global Warming

National Geographic reports that, “the flatulence and dung droppings, by the billions of ruminating animal’s around the world, results in the release of the harmful greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming”. The report concludes that the dung decomposing capabilities by these tiny creatures has helped reduce greenhouse effect by as much as 40%, a significant decrease indeed.

The dung beetle, with its voracious appetite for dung, is an unlikely environmental hero playing an incredibly important role in revitalizing our soil and most importantly helping mankind in its battle against global warming.

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5

Sharath Ahuja is a Technical Officer at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He is a freelancer who writes on science related subjects, loves to travel, and is an amateur photographer. more


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Sharath Ahuja is a Technical Officer at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He is a freelancer who writes on science related subjects, loves to travel, and is an amateur photographer. more

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