University of Pretoria (2013)

South African Dung Beetle Atlas

Project Details

Grantee Organization: University of Pretoria
Grant Amount: $145,000
Contact: Clarke Scholtz
Contact Email: chscholtz 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 12/15/13 - 12/14/15
Project Links:

For the predecessor grant made in 2011, please click here.


Dung beetles are an ecologically-vital group of insects, burying thousands of tons of livestock and wild animal dung annually, improving soil quality and reducing the numbers of pest insects in dung. South Africa has one of the richest dung beetle faunas of any world region and the Scarab Research Group at the University of Pretoria has conducted diverse research on dung beetles over the past 30 years. This work has shown that each species has very specific environmental and habitat requirements. However, large tracts of land in South Africa are being transformed by development of commercial farms, including those for livestock production. Animals on these farms are typically treated with various drugs to prevent and control parasites, which has negative effects on the organisms that feed off excreted dung, thus presenting a conservation challenge. Tracking dung beetles therefore represents an opportunity to monitor habitat transformation and this group can further stand as a model for different forms of conservation threat. However, baseline data on taxonomy and distribution are necessary for any conservation effort, and museum collections often hold the richest historical record of what species have existed and where. These data need to be compiled from multiple sources, including museum collections and the published literature, and be made available for use in an internationally-accessible format. Consequently, the project goal is the production and dissemination of a comprehensive extensive digital data-base and published atlas of geographical occurrence (including printed maps), ecological abundance and rarity indices, and identification photographs for all species of dung beetle in South Africa. These resources will enable biodiversity scientists and statutory biodiversity practitioners to apply the data to conservation goals, incorporating the crucially important role dung beetles play in provisioning ecosystem services in the consideration of biodiversity management.

In JRS’ first grant to the group in 2011, the team compiled the digital data base of the three largest South African museum dung beetle collections. This includes a total of about 100,000 specimen locality records from across the country of which about 35,000 are unique. Furthermore, digital photographs of the 500-odd South African dung beetle species are already linked to the database.

Key Objectives and Activities

In this, the second phase of the project, the database compiled during phase 1 (outlined here), including locality data, will be disseminated to project collaborators and to the public via the South African Biodiversity Information Facility (SABIF) portal and Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town. For the atlas, which will be made available in printed and electronic form, this project will supplement information from the existing database with ecological data gathered from the literature including species abundance and richness. Locality data will be used to generate point-occurrance maps for each species. Further data sharing will occur at a special session proposed for the 2015 Biodiversity Planning Forum hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and a workshop on South African insect databases at the 2015 South African Entomological Congress.

Planned Outputs

  • Existing comprehensive dung beetle database will be made available online via SABIF and/or ADU, and shared with collaborators.
  • Ecological data and maps will be combined with information of databased specimen records to produce a printed and electronic atlas of South African dung beetles, including a photo of each species, a map of its distribution, references to its taxonomy, and an assessment of its rarity or conservation status, and will be available to the public.
  • Two statutory planning national conservation planning initiatives.
  • A special session, “Insects in Systematic Biodiversity Planning”, specifically for conservation practitioners, at the 2015 Biodiversity Planning Forum
  • A workshop at the South African Entomological Society at its biennial congress entitled “South African Insect Databases – processes and applications”

Planned Outcomes

Awareness of details of the biology of the organisms involved in biodiversity conservation issues is paramount for conservation planning. The first step in this process is to provide baseline data on distribution, and indications of abundance or rarity of the species in a selected group of organisms. If the species group has wide distribution, but individual species are habitat and environmental specialists, they are candidates for identification as biodiversity models – dung beetles are such a group.

The digitization of a large number of distribution records of the major South African dung beetle collections, to which additional data such as species images and richness indices are added, will provide one of the most comprehensive data sets of any South African invertebrate group. As such, it will be ideal for raising the profile of insects in conservation planning initiatives in South Africa, and also to inform conservation planners of the availability and quality of insect distributional datasets for inclusion in best practices for biodiversity planning and environmental impact assessments. These will obviously only have medium- to long-term effects on conservation of biodiversity but South African environmental law now dictates that all organisms be considered in conservation priorities. This effort therefore endeavors to contribute critical species data necessary to implement that directive.

Primary Software Platforms

Datasets have been accumulated through the MS Access Relational Database model, which is based on the university Sequel Server program, and the datasets will be provided to SABIF in MS Excel spreadsheets using the international standard of Darwin Core data transfer protocols.

Results to Date

As of the end of the project period, the group had completed the pages for approximately 400 of the ~530 species of dung beetle to be included in the atlas, with the remainder projected to be completed mid 2016. For many species, the group has taken new high-resolution photographs to improve the quality of information in the atlas. The updated imagery was facilitated by collaboration with another JRS-funded project led by Dr. Mervyn Mansel at the University of Pretoria, through sharing of new microscopy equipment purchased with grant funds. Upon completion, the atlas will be published by SANBI and hosted online by University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit (ADU). Even while assembling species data for the atlas, the group has been adding to the digital collections (which currently totals nearly 162,000 records) which has the added benefit of improving the accuracy and precision of distribution records and ecological indices such as estimates of local species diversity. Of these, more than 15,000 and 25,000 batch records have been sent to SABIF and ADU, respectively, for inclusion in their online databases.

As the database nears completion, and the team is entering primarily remnant unsorted collections and new field-collected data, the focus can also shift to promoting the visibility of the data. Team members have presented the data, highlighting the importance of including invertebrate biodiversity data in conservation, at the Symposium on Contemporary Conservation Practice, in November 2014 in Kwazulu-Natal province, and at the Conference of the Entomological Society of South Africa in July 2015. At the latter conference, the group organized a database symposium, featuring work from the project, which will be developed into a peer-reviewed publication. They also initiated conversations with managers to discuss conservation of beetles in regions of high endemicity. Further utility of the data is also being explored in testing hypotheses about the use of environmental diversity as a surrogate for species diversity in biodiversity assessments.

Lessons Learned

The production of such a comprehensive atlas of a highly diverse group proved to be more time-consuming than predicted, the more so because much of the ecological data associated with the species, for instance, species abundances, were only partially described in the published literature. For the majority of the species, this information was obtained by analyzing raw data from previous field observations by Scholtz and his group. However, ecological information, along with updated, high-resolution photographs, greatly improved the utility of the atlas, providing a complete baseline of information on as many species as possible.

Related Publications

  • Deschodt, CM; ALV Davis; CH Scholtz (2015) Status changes, new synonymies, key and descriptions of seven new species in the subgenus Scarabus (Scarabaeolus) Balthasar 1965 (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae). Zootaxa. 3931(4): 505 – 527. (Abstract) (link)
  • Deschodt, CM; ALV Davis; CH Scholtz (2015) A new synonymy in the fidius group of Copris Muller 1764 (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) and a new species from the highland grasslands of South Africa. Zootaxa. 3949(3): 431 – 438. (Abstract) (link)
  • Davis, ALV; R Stals; CM Deschodt (2015) New replacement name for the species Scarabaeus (Scarabaeolus) nitidus Davis & Deschodt, 2015 (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) — not an American pest. Zootaxa 4057(4): 582. (Abstract) (link)
  • Davis, ALV; CH Scholtz; CM Deschodt, WP Strumpher (2016) Edaphic and climatic history has driven current dung beetle species pool and assemblage structure across a transition zone in central South Africa. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. (Online first)

Project Director Biography

Clark Scholtz is an insect systematist at the University of Pretoria (UP), and Chair of Entomology in the UP Department of Zoology and Entomology. He has published nearly 200 research papers and three books on systematics, ecology, and conservation of insects, primarily dung beetles and their relatives which he uses as models for his studies of evolutionary and biological patterns and processes. His research unit, the “Scarab Research Group” currently consists of 11 members, including graduate students, post-doctoral research fellows, senior research fellows, and research assistants.

Notes from JRS

Dung beetles ecological role and astonishing diversity make this a compelling organism with the potential to be an indicator of ecosystem and soil health in both undisturbed ecosystems and in agricultural landscapes. The grant is one of several in the JRS portfolio that endeavors to make a very significant portion of global collections available online and in fully digital form – an exacting process that entails, taxonomic clarifications, geo-referencing from old place names and records, imaging and curation. The strategic question for JRS is whether such a resource – if built – becomes a tool for scientific research and for conservation? What connections must be made among people, institutions and sectors to ensure success and value of a dataset?  The answers to these questions will emerge over time and the Scarab group has been actively reaching out to land-users to use dung beetle biodiversity as an indicator of soil ecosystem status and to other research groups who are beginning to digitize their collections.


Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

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