Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Cleanup Crew

About ten days ago, I went on a basic walkabout that ended up netting me a whole series of photos that I've had fun sharing.  This is the last of that series - and I apologize, in advance, for the indelicate subject matter.  I found it interesting, though, and it's certainly an important part of real life!

On my Sunday morning walkabout, I came across some indisputable evidence - once again - that we share our property with coyotes.  In the gateway between our Back 5 acres and the front area, I came across a significant pile of coyote scat.  (That's biological talk for poop.  It sounds much more professional to talk about scat, though.)

The scat seemed to be moving, which piqued my curiosity, so I looked at it a bit more closely.

In the center of the pile, almost completely hidden, was a large black beetle - a tumblebug, Canthon sp.  As I sat there waiting to get a good photo, I notice another area of the pile start to move and got glimpses of 2 more tumblebugs hard at work.  This was, unfortunately, the best photo I was able to get without disturbing them at their work.

Tumblebugs are dung beetles.  As their name (and locale) suggests, they get their nourishment from animal dung.  In the case of the tumblebugs, they form large balls of dung which they roll away from the original pile of scat and bury, laying an egg on each ball before sealing it into the ground.  The egg hatches and the tumblebug larva uses the dung as its food source to grow and mature.

Dung beetles are important decomposers.  Despite its "ick" factor, their lifestyle literally helps clean up the world and recycle "waste" nutrients.

As I tried to get photos of the tumblebugs, I couldn't help but notice that the coyote scat was full of grasshopper parts.  Note the grasshopper abdomen just above the tumblebug in the photo above, and the broken piece of grasshopper hind tibia to the right of the beetle.  One of the best ways to learn what a wild animal is eating is to examine their droppings.  This coyote was evidently gorging on grasshoppers, a fact that makes me particularly happy.  This coyote is welcome to come and eat as many grasshoppers as he or she wishes, every day, all day.

Also on this pile were several house-fly sized flies that, nonetheless, looked a little different from "normal" flies.

When I worked to identify them, I found out that they are flesh flies, Sarcophaga sp.  Many flesh flies are actually parasitic or predatory.  (The larvae of at least one species bores into grasshoppers and kills them as they eat.  Despite feeling rather bloodthirsty as I write this, I'm rather hoping that species of flesh fly is very active in my yard this year.)  The species I saw on this pile of coyote scat was evidently one of the flesh flies that, like the tumblebug, is a decomposer, propagating in animal droppings.

There was one other insect on this pile of scat, a very small, irridescent fly - or actually several of them.  I never could get a good enough photo to identify it at all.

The flesh fly is at the top of this photo, for scale.  The small, irridescent fly is on the underside of the...dropping.

This is as good a photo as I could get of the small fly, which isn't good enough for me to identify it without some good guess as to what I'm looking at.

As a final note, when I did another walkabout on Thursday morning, 4 days later, this is all that remained of the coyote scat.  If I hadn't know it was there from Sunday, I would have completely missed it.

Really, all that was left were a bunch of grasshopper parts, evidently pieces of exoskeleton that didn't have any nutritional value left, I guess.

Four days to go from a standard "dog pile" effect to a thin layer of grasshopper parts covering the ground.  That's a cleanup crew, in my mind!


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

Interesting and I learned a lot. Maybe not something to read right before supper. Ha!

Marilyn Kircus said...

A great reminder of the good done my a much maligned insect. Dung beetles can bury thousands of pounds of manure in a night and help keep cows free of hornworms and parasites by removing and burying the manure before the eggs can hatch. They also aerate the soil and allow for greater water absorption. And they give the rancher more land for grazing because animals don't like to eat where there is poop.

Skeeter said...

Well, I just learned that I am not so weird after all! I too examine poop, well, that found in my gardens. I want to know what is in the gardens and what they have eaten. We have had an issue lately with dogs, coyotes and whatever else knocking over our trash can as we set it on the street the night before pick up. I recently found poop with some type of paper in it. I could not ID the paper and did wonder what type animal I was dealing with. We have seen Fox, Coyote, Wandering Dogs (with collars) all of which may be the culprit to our trash and poop findings in the yard. We are talking about installing a wildlife camera to take a peek at what is going on during the night hours. Would love to solve some mysteries around here.

We find beetles often but mostly the wood decaying eating ones. We are surrounded by many acres of old woods. We never harm the beetles and just let them go on about their business. I hose spray the poop when I find it as I don't want that on my green lawn, which is where we mostly find the poop.

Thanks for this post as I am not alone in poop fascination. LOL...

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thank you all for being brave enough to both read and COMMENT on my post! I was rather nervous about putting it up - afraid I'd get even more of a reputation than I already have for being...different! To find out that others think this is interesting and important makes me smile.

Skeeter, I think your idea of a night cam is a great one. I bet you'll find that dogs are your culprits, maybe raccoons. I'd love to see some of the unusual beetles that you find.

Marilyn, I appreciate the further info on dung beetles. They are such an important part of the ecosystem.

GoSS, Now I know what warning I should have started with! LOL!

Janet, The Queen of Seaford said...

You do find the coolest stuff!