Insect Portrait: The Dung Beetle

By Olea Morris

The family of insects known as “dung beetle,” or escarabajos del estiercol, is a diverse one—even amongst those that make the same misty cloud forests of Mexico their home. Some, like Onthophagus corrosus, are jet black and no bigger than the fingernail of a pinky finger, while others, like Phanaeus endymion, have iridescent green exoskeletons and could conceal a large coin beneath their squarish, horned bodies. Alongside their many local names—vaqueros (cowboys) or toritos (little bulls)—their name in the indigenous Nahuatl language of Mexico hints at the family’s most prominent characteristic: cuitlalolos, or “those that move the dung.”

In shifting, tunneling through, and digesting the manure of other animals—including that of both native forest-dwelling species and domesticated farm animals alike—dung beetles perform ecological services that are valuable not just to their habitats but also to farmers; they do everything from controlling parasites to promoting pasture productivity. Though local ecologists have long seen dung beetles as indicators of forest health, Mexican dung beetles have complicated relationships with trees, light, and soil, which makes measuring their diversity and their role in promoting overall biodiversity in the forest difficult to interpret…

In our next installment, Olea Morris, a PhD candidate in the Environmental Sciences and Policy Department at Central European University, recounts how she came to develop a special interest in these charismatic invertebrates.

Olea is currently researching “ecovillage” communities in Mexico. Trained as an anthropologist, she is still learning how to navigate nonhuman worlds, particularly of the insect variety.

*Feature Image: Allison Mickel, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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