Don’t mention the unmentionable

There was a time when talk of excrement was more or less unacceptable in polite society. This could have been a handicap for anyone interested in dung beetles. Luckily, there was a way out — by reverting to the Latin of scholarly discourse.

When Thomas Vernon Wollaston (1822–1878) wrote “On certain coleopterous insects from the Cape de Verde Islands” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1857, new series, volume 20, pages 503–506) he used the stock phrase to describe just where the beetle had come from — stercore.

Screen shot 2015-02-11 at 11.54.57

Phaleria clarkii is not one of the usual dung beetles, it is a scavenger, and while I have found the British species Phaleria cadaverina under a discarded half orange from someone’s picnic (not a cadaver as its name might suggest), probably almost any decaying organic matter could support it.

There is something more than a little taboo about delving into human excrement. Squeamish associations with dirt and disease, thrown out of the window when examining a cow pat or sheep droppings, can be a barrier, even to the hardened entomologist.

There is a tale, less than apocryphal, but clouded by the fact that different versions have been told to different  listeners. My old friend Roger Dumbrell told of a beetling trip where he and A.N. Other, went to Camber sands, back in the early 1970s. Walking onto the dunes from the car park they passed a large dropping and paused to consider whether or not to examine it. The used tissue close by gave no doubt that this was a human discharge. One of them walked on, unwilling to cross that taboo but the other gingerly turned the dung over with a stick. The beetles underneath were the very rare Onthophagus nuchicornis, and as the cry went up the unwilling coleopterist shelved disgust and dismay and came back to join in the exploration. Who walked on, and who dived in, is now lost in the debate fogs of hazy memory, but the specimens remain in the collection.

Nowadays, entomologists are brashly cavalier about recording their finds. This from a recent report on an insect survey from Hampshire:

Screen shot 2015-02-11 at 11.59.16

The knowledge that this was human dung is incontrovertible. The tissue nearby was a dead give-away, and anyway, it was deposited earlier in the day by the surveyor himself.

So now I’m left wondering, who of Gray and Clark actually found the beetle, and how did they know it was stercore humano?

Advertisements

If something is bugging you, leave a reply here

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s