Rare European Dung Beetle Found Living in Cow Poop

A dung beetle is easy enough to picture: a squat, shiny little bug determinedly pushing its smelly treasure homeward. We picture them rolling their balls of dung across burning Egyptian sands, or under a hedge in the grasslands of Kenya. But a European dung beetle? That’s a little harder to imagine. 

It shouldn’t be. Dung beetles live on every continent except Antarctica. They’re literally all over the place, tidying up after larger animals from China to Peru. There are more than 100 species of dung beetle in the UK alone. 

Sally-Ann Spence hopes to find them all. Spence is a researcher with the Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project, or DUMP (probably not an accident). The goal of DUMP is to create an enormous database of information on UK dung beetles. The beetles have enormous value, and not just to scientists; dung beetles save UK cattle ranchers an estimated £367 million ($550 million USD) each year. All their burrowing into the ground aerates the soil, which lets rainwater and nutrients seep in. 

Spence and her colleagues volunteer their own time to conduct the research—research that often involves combing through cow pies. “We have become connoisseurs of fine dung,” Spence told the BBC. “[We’re] not adverse [sic] to feeling the texture or giving it a good sniff—you can tell a lot about an animal’s health by its dung—we will examine it meticulously for beetles." 

It was during one of these examinations that Spence found Aphodius affinis. Spence was on the island of Jersey for another research project and decided to do a little poking around. The reward for her curiosity was a single specimen of A. affinis, a beetle so small it could fit on the tip of a pinky. 

The beetle is the first of its kind ever spotted on the island, a fact that excited local entomologists. Roger Long is chairman of the Société Jersiaise’s entomology section. “Dung beetles are very important to the health of cattle herds and the meadows they feed in,” he told the Jersey Evening Post. “If we had no dung beetles, fields would be knee-deep in cattle dung.” 

Want to learn more? Follow #dungathon on Twitter. 

Watch How a Bioluminescence Expert Catches a Giant Squid

Giant squid have been the object of fascination for millennia; they may have even provided the origin for the legendary Nordic sea monsters known as the Kraken. But no one had captured them in their natural environment on video until 2012, when marine biologist and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder snagged the first-ever images off Japan's Ogasawara Islands [PDF]. Widder figured out that previous dives—which tended to bring down a ton of gear and bright lights—were scaring all the creatures away. (Slate compares it to "the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience.")

In this clip from BBC Earth Unplugged, Widder explains how the innovative camera-and-lure combo she devised, known as the Eye-in-the-Sea, finally accomplished the job by using red lights (which most deep-sea creatures can't see) and an electronic jellyfish (called the e-jelly) with a flashy light show just right to lure in predators like Architeuthis dux. "I've tried a bunch of different things over the years to try to be able to talk to the animals," Widder says in the video, "and with the e-jelly, I feel like I'm finally making some progress."

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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