Dung Beetle Diversity

Beetles often seem about as aimless and bumbling as a bug can be.  Yet often when I stop and pay attention to what they’re doing, I’m impressed with the degree of purpose and precision in their movements (as in the click beetle anecdote I mentioned at the end of this post).  So today, as I sat contemplating an unfamiliar wildflower, I took notice when a beetle came careening from nowhere and hit the ground right next to me.  I turned my attention to the spot where it had landed, and I saw only a small pile of deer droppings.  I gently brushed them aside, expecting to see something like this:

This is Aphodius rubripennis, one of the aphodiine dung beetles that specialize in deer droppings.  But what I found instead was a much fancier dung beetle that I had never seen before:

The lack of contrast with the brown background makes it a little hard to see, but this hairy beetle sports not only a rhinoceros horn but also a sort of awning over its head.  Using BugGuide’s brilliant “browse” function, I quickly navigated through the hundreds of species of scarab beetles to determine that this is a male “Scooped Scarab” (Onthophagus hecate), which the guide page suggests is something of a generalist in its food habits–it feeds on a variety of things that we wouldn’t consider food, like dung, carrion, and rotting fruit.

The rhino horn calls to mind another stylish dung beetle, the Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex).

This was one of a small gathering of rainbow scarabs I found in Florida.  I have since found these here in Massachusetts.  For a more impressive horn (and more impressive pictures), see these shots by David Almquist.

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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8 Responses to Dung Beetle Diversity

  1. kentiki says:

    Great observation. I once had a Phanaeus vindex land on my shirt. I couldn’t believe my luck. I lived for 7 years two miles north of my current location, and never saw one. I’ve since encountered 4 or 5 in my yard.

  2. Troy Bartlett says:

    I’ve had a few occasions where one came out of nowhere and zeroed in on some nearby dung I didn’t even know was there. One thing I’ve learned about dung beetles is that though they may appear somewhat clumsy in flight, they can take off in a flash. I’ve lost many photo opportunities when the beetle simply blasted off faster than you’d ever expect. These days when I see one, I’m much stealthier so as not to startle it.

  3. Those are some fine shots. Dung beetles are notoriously difficult to photograph due to their shine, propensity for ugly backgrounds, and tendency to be crusted with crap and other crud. Ironically, I find dung itself to be about the “cleanest” background to photograph them on.

    • Interesting. Reminds me of the time Noah and I found a Canthon sp. rolling a ball of human poop at a picnic area in Texas. Noah got down and documented it–one of his photos is on page 148 of our book–but I couldn’t bear to watch.

  4. Hi Charley: Thanks for your macro photos of dung beetles. Great to be able to see the hairs and horns on New England beetles…ones that I may hope to find in Vermont this summer. I’m filing your Bug Tracks for future reference (in case I find one this summer and it’s not described in my field guides.) Would you consider writing the individual Blog title in the subject line to help me relocate them? Like: “Dung Beetle Diversity 4-14-2012.” Thanks a lot. Laurie DiCesare :-)

    • Hi Laurie– I don’t think there’s any way for me to control what the subject line shows up as when you have an email subscription, but you can always just go to the blog and use the search box that’s in the sidebar, just under the image of my book.

  5. Hello Charlie

    My granddaughter, Marlo, and I fished one of these beetles out of my pool the other day. We put it in an empty spice jar with holes in the lid so we could research it to see if it was good or bad for the garden. I have a horse, and therefore, lots of dung, so we figured this is what the beetle is, according to your description. It has the iridescent colorings of a Japanese beetle, with a triangle on it’s back including the horn, and is bigger that Japanese beetle as well. Thanks for the info.

    Nancy Robinson, Springfield VT

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