Bison Beetle Project
According to Dr. Frank Krell of the Denver Museum of Nature
& Science, "There is a lot of poop on the plains." And he would
know. Dr. Krell studies dung beetles, tiny critters that recycle
animal dung on the Great Plains.
"Dung is concentrated fertilizer on top of soil," Dr. Krell said,
"but the nutrients do not get into the soil without dung recyclers
-- mainly dung beetles."
Dung beetles especially like bison dung. Dung beetle populations
were likely abundant and diverse on the Great Plains when bison
flourished 200 years ago. But as bison began to disappear, so did
their tiny dung beetle partners. This could pose a huge
"If you have only a few species fulfilling a role in the ecosystem
and they can't survive, the whole system breaks down," Dr. Krell
Through the Bison Beetle Project, Dr. Krell studies whether or not
the reintroduction of bison will help reestablish native dung
beetle populations. "We want to find out if the poor dung beetle
fauna we have will regenerate with time," Dr. Krell said. "It could
be that we destroyed the dung beetle fauna so effectively that it
The project is a collaboration with the Plains Conservation Center
(PCC). Once a month from May to September, Dr. Krell collects bison
and cow dung from the PCC Bijou Creek site, about 40 miles east of
Denver, and nearby Keen Ranch.
"We want to find out whether it helps to have bison in the area or
not," Dr. Krell said.
Dung from both sites is transported to the Museum in buckets,
which are then filled with water to extract the beetles. Dr. Krell
identifies and evaluates the extracted beetles, looking especially
at the differences between fauna found on bison and cow dung. Dung
beetles generally prefer bison dung.
"Dung beetles like cattle dung if cattle are grass-fed and not
medicated," Dr. Krell said, "However, medicated, partially corn fed
cattle produced less suitable dung. It is often toxic to the dung
It is still unclear, however, whether or not the reintroduction of
bison will regenerate native dung beetle populations. Dr. Krell
will collect data for at least 10 years to find an answer.