I ran into a number of these interesting beetles flitting among the flowers and going about their business at Welder Wildlife Refuge. I have also encountered their relatives taking care of the dog poop at the local park. Though a bit stinky from their work, these beetles provide a valuable service to the ecosystem, cleaning up the dung dropped by large mammals. Many dung beetles build nest directly under the dung pad, grabbing pieces and burrowing down beneath to feed in shelter. Species like the beetles above (also called ‘tumblebugs’) secure this precious resource from competition by building a large dung ball and rolling it off to a safe burrow elsewhere. The dung provides food for the adults and the young, which grow up safely ensconced in the burrow, feeding on the hard work of their parents.
My favorite bit of dung beetle lore is the Australian Dung Beetle project. When cattle were introduced to Australia they had a problem. The native dung beetles, adapted to marsupials and the like, wouldn’t eat the cow patties. Cow poop was piling up in the fields, and flies and worms were piling up in the cow poop. There are more than 30 million cattle in Australia, producing more than 10 million cow pats an hour. It was a serious, stinky problem. Luckily, entomologist Dr. George Bornemissza, came up with a solution, and organized the import and introduction of more than 20 species of foreign dung beetles to handle the clean up. As another example, we have the species below, the brown dung beetle or gazelle scarab, a native of Africa and Asia. This beetle was introduced to the south eastern United States in the 1970s by the USDA to suppress harmful dung-breeding flies such as horn flies.
Dung beetles belong to the the beetle family Scarabaeidae, the scarab beetles. Lamellate antennae (branched somewhat like antlers as seen above) are diagnostic of the scarab beetles, and shovel like faces and strong burrowing forelegs help to distinguish them as dung beetles.
*Edit: Thanks to Paul Lenhart for beetle IDs and additional information about the gazelle scarabs!