University of Pretoria (2011)

Dung Beetle Diversity

Project Details

Grant Amount: $197,568
Contact: Clarke H Scholtz
Contact Email: chscholtz 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 7/15/11-7/15/13
Project Links:

UPDATE: JRS awarded follow-up grant to continue the work of the project. Please click here to view. 


This project aims at documenting South Africa’s dung beetle diversity (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae; Scarabaeinae). No major South African insect groups have been completely databased. In view of the population size and environmental importance of dung beetles, a database of this large and diverse group would not only be a South African first but would provide a rich data resource for an already established need. No other South African insect group has been subjected to the breadth of research exposure as have dung beetles. This insect group – argues the project team – has the broadest biodiversity importance and interest. Dung beetles are being used as bio-indicators of land-use practices on farms, considered major elements providing essential ecosystem services, and serve as models for graduate training in biodiversity science, evolution, ecology, physiology and conservation.

Key Objectives and Activities

The goal of this project is to produce an updated taxonomic list of all South African dung beetle species, which functions as the taxonomic spine for the collections data (70 genera and 500 species). This will be submitted to the South African Tree of Life (SATOL) project of the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for incorporation into the global Catalogue of Life (CoL) initiative which also serves as the basis for IUCN-criteria rating of threatened species. This project is also training several students in value and uses of data-bases.

Planned Outputs

  • Construct a database of South African dung beetle species.
  • Clean and sort the three major collections at Pretoria University, Transvaal Museum and the National Insect Collection.
  • Train graduate students in database design and use.
  • Collaborate with Botswana’s National Museum on making data available and conduct training on digitization and curation.

Planned Outcomes

An extension of the research that uses dung beetle distribution and abundance data is the project on using dung beetles as indicators of farm management. Because dung beetles are very sensitive to habitat disturbance or transformation, a comparison of dung beetle populations on farms (surveys) with dung beetles from undisturbed areas (database) is made. An index of disturbance is then calculated statistically. The farm assessment is part of an “audit” that members of the meat marketing organization “Certified Natural” must periodically undergo to qualify to have their meat sold as “being from an ecologically assessed farm”. As far as the Scarab Research Group can establish this is the only project of its nature in the world.

Primary Software Platforms

  • Microsoft Access is used for the relational database for the project.
  • Data will be uploaded to SABIF and the taxonomic component will contribute a dataset to the SA Tree of Life (SATOL) project of the SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for incorporation into the global Catalogue of Life (CoL) initiative.

Results to Date

The project ended in the Summer of 2013 and achieved the following results:

  • The relational database was constructed for all taxonomic data, specimen data, literature, geographical information and images.
  • Completion of the taxonomic spine of South African dung beetles (70 genera and 500 species)
  • Complete UP collection sorted and data captured (11989 specimens; 4117 unique entries; 49 genera; 471 species; 1039 localities).
  • Imaging of a total of 332 species completed.
  • A 3-day course was held on data management and scientific value of collections, database design and recording for 10 graduate students.
  • Digitization of the Transvaal Museum collection: Data entered for 41,779 specimens, 10,960 unique records, 55 genera, 480 species, and 1,794 unique localities
  • Digitization of the National Collection of Insects (NCI) collection: Data entered 6,852 specimens, 2,879 unique records, 23 genera, 185 species, and 2,486 unique localities.

There are some indications of the value of the data set by project end:

  1. The information is being used by conservation authorities in Gauteng Province (the smallest but most industrialized and densely inhabited) in assessments of sampling methods in large scale biodiversity surveys; and for defining and mapping species communities at large spatial scale.
  2. The data-base has been/ is being consulted during independent insect distribution studies for environmental impact assessments prior to development (a legal requirement).
  3. Ecological assessment of farms producing “Certified Natural” (basically “organic”) red meat, using dung beetles as bio-indicators of farming practices.
  4. The data-base is being used as the source of information on SA dung beetle species’ distribution and “rarity” fr IUCN assessments.

Lessons Learned

The project team learned to accept the numbers of specimens in the collections accessed for the project, many of which were far higher than initially anticipated.  The much higher actual numbers of specimens in the NCI and in the Transvaal Museum meant that data-basing of the collections would not be completed in this phase of work.  In addition, the partnership with the Botswana National Museum did not fully materialize so while a reference collection of Botswana beetles was donated to the Museum, training and digitization activities did not occur as planned. Partnerships require long-term cultivation and confirmation of buy-in to ensure success.

Other Funders

  • The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) provided partial support

Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

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