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Dung beetles in an avian-dominated island ecosystem: feeding and trophic ecology

Abstract

Globally, dung beetles (Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) are linked to many critical ecosystem processes involving the consumption and breakdown of mammal dung. Endemic New Zealand dung beetles (Canthonini) are an anomaly, occurring at high abundance and low diversity on an island archipelago historically lacking terrestrial mammals, except bats, and instead dominated by birds. Have New Zealand’s dung beetles evolved to specialise on bird dung or carrion, or have they become broad generalist feeders? We test dietary preferences by analysing nitrogen isotope ratios of wild dung beetles and by performing feeding behaviour observations of captive specimens. We also use nitrogen and carbon stable isotopes to determine if the dung beetle Saphobius edwardsi will consume marine-derived carrion. Nitrogen isotope ratios indicated trophic generalism in Saphobius dung beetles and this was supported by behavioural observations where a broad range of food resources were utilised. Alternative food resource use was further illustrated experimentally by nitrogen and carbon stable isotope signatures of S. edwardsi, where individuals provided with decomposed squid had δ15N and δ13C values that had shifted toward values associated with marine diet. Our findings suggest that, in the absence of native mammal dung resources, New Zealand dung beetles have evolved a generalist diet of dung and carrion. This may include marine-derived resources, as provided by the seabird colonies present in New Zealand forests before the arrival of humans. This has probably enabled New Zealand dung beetles to persist in indigenous ecosystems despite the decline of native birds and the introduction of many mammal species.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Anjana Rajendram and the Waikato Stable Isotope team for analysis of stable isotope samples and Mauren Jaudal for help preparing samples. We thank Sandra Anderson, Joanne Peace, Bill Lee and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the earlier manuscript. Lastly we thank John Allpress and Jill Brooking for access to dung beetle collection sites and The University of Auckland for financial support. Research was conducted under Department of Conservation research permit numbers AK-33027-RES, AK-33078-RES, AK-33217-RES and AK-32514-RES and Auckland Council research permit number WS478.

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Correspondence to J. R. Stavert.

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Communicated by Nina Farwig.

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Stavert, J.R., Gaskett, A.C., Scott, D.J. et al. Dung beetles in an avian-dominated island ecosystem: feeding and trophic ecology. Oecologia 176, 259–271 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3001-z

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Keywords

  • Stable isotope
  • Decomposition
  • Allochthonous input
  • Ecosystem function
  • Island restoration
  • Feeding behaviour