Tag Archives: dung

Nature calls

Call of nature: the secret life of dung drops onto the literary landscape in February, and will be coming to a bookshop near you. Or, at least, it’s coming to a bookshop near me — Bookseller Crow on the Hill, at Crystal Palace.

A tasty menu to get the intellectual juices flowing.

A tasty menu to get the intellectual juices flowing.

The launch is set for Thursday 2nd February, 19:30 hours, and I’m in good company.

There have already been a couple of reviews, one in The London Naturalist, and this one from BBC Wildlife:

I'll go with

Yes, I’ll go with “friendly yet informative”. Thanks Jules.

 

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Dung — what could be more natural?

Dung — a natural history is almost there. The typescript has been delivered to the publishers. We have a cover concept. We have most of the illustrations. Finding pictures to illustrate the book has been fun. There will be an identification guide to dung users; mostly beetles and flies, but a fair few oddities in there too. And there will be a field guide to the dung parcels themselves. I’m not a very good artist, but after sketching quite a number of animals’ pellets and deposits, I now regard myself king of the stipple. Verity has come to the rescue on some of the more challenging pats — those with more subtle sheens and textures. She has also painted some of the more obscure dung beetles.

Most of the pictures I have been able to find in old books. These are often exquisite engravings, perfect for the job, but out of copyright — so free to use. And it was whilst I was leafing through Bewick’s A general history of quadrupeds (originally published 1790) that I came across these superb illustrations.

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A fine cow and obligatory pat.

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When was the last time you saw a picture of a defaecating dog in a children’s book?

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Yes, A general history of quadrupeds was intended as a book for children.

There can be no doubt what this chap’s up to. The smoke from the charcoal oven and from his pipe clearly indicates which way the wind is blowing. And the woman is not holding her hat on against the wind, she is quite clearly holding her nose.

And, in case you’re interested, that means the dung beetles will soon fly in from stage left too, flying up-wind into the plume of volatiles which include tasty signals like skatole, phenol and 2-butanone.

The curious incident of the dung beetle in the night-time

My father made eye contact and said something along the lines: “Can you hear that?” To start I wasn’t sure whether he meant Radio 4 droning away in the corner of the room, my brother careening down the stairs, or the kettle whistling on the gas in the kitchen. No, he was referring to an almost inaudible tick, tick, tick, coming from the window. He had the knowing look of someone who is about to show off something new.

As a 10-year-old, it was not unusual for me to be sitting in the lounge, as we called my father’s book-lined sitting room. Whilst he sat in the centre of the room behind the large polished wooden desk strewn with pens, papers and books, perhaps a microscope and a drawer of insects, I’d be perched at the smaller bureau-style table against the wall. Maybe I’d be doing homework. Actually, I’m not sure 10-year-olds had homework then. More likely I’d be writing up my own nature diary from whatever family trek we’d been out on that day. I might even have been pinning my own insect specimens, or doodling a sketch of a plant, or a map.

The tapping was definitely coming from outside the window. We drew back the curtains, but the brightly lit aura of the room barely penetrated the dark outside. There was nothing I could see. My Dad knew better. Slipping on shoes we tripped round to the front of the house to see what was going on.

The noise had stopped when we got to the window, but Dad pointed to the windowsill, probably just at or above the level of my eyeline. There, crawling across the yellow paintwork was a beetle.

Medium-sized (12 mm), elongate, parallel-sided, subcylindrical, dark brown nearly black, it had shortish stout legs and strongly clubbed antennae. Aphodius rufipes was my first dung beetle. It had flown in from the flood-plain grazing meadows that flanked the River Ouse hereabouts. Many hundreds of metres probably. Quite an achievement for a half-inch insect.

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Some handsome dung beetles. Aphodius rufipes is top right.

I strain now, but I can’t quite remember whether I thought this an odd thing for a beetle. Maybe the notion of dung recycling had already crossed my radar. I certainly understood about stag beetle larvae living in rotten wood. I probably knew about drone flies breeding in flooded tree holes. It’s all decaying organic matter.

It wouldn’t be long before Dad would also show me the huge dumbledors, Geotrupes spinipes, or maybe it was stercorarius, heaving its juggernaut way through the fingers of my clasped hand, then flying off, like a miniature helicopter. The power of the toothed legs amazed me, and the feeling of that downdraft as it buzzed away stays with me still.

Dissecting a cow pat came naturally to me. Other dung beetles followed. The great glossy Aphodius fossor, slightly shorter, but thicker and heavier than rufipes, was a favourite, so too was the small mottled and rather rare Aphodius paykulli. The chunky earthmover shape of Onthophagus coenobita appeared when I graduated to dog dung, and the mythically horned Minotaur beetle, Typhoeus typhaeus was eventually dug up from under rabbit crottels in Ashdown Forest.

I still find Aphodius rufipes occasionally. In cow or horse droppings. Never at my lighted window though. But whenever I hold its  smooth elegant shape in my fingers, I still think back to the warm summer Newhaven evenings, and the delicate head banging on the lounge glass.

Please, never say ‘poo’, unless you’re addressing a bunch of 3-year-olds

With writing of The natural history of dung well underway, I am obviously alert to every instance of excrement in the news. The trouble is that journalists seem not to be able to bring themselves to mention it without falling back on the infantile term ‘poo’. Here are some examples:

BA flight forced to land early because of smelly poo, BBC News, 16 March 2015

UK’s first poo bus goes into regular service, The Guardian, 15 March 2015

Posh village terrorised by poo bomber, Mirror, 16 March 2015

Campaign to stop pet owners leaving dog poo on the streets of Darlington, Northern Echo

Dog poo drops lead to blindness and £4K fines, Buckingham Advertiser

Let’s get this straight, ‘poo’ is in the same league as ‘plop-plops’, ‘number twos’ and ‘big jobs’ — zero gravitas, but maximum simpering coy nonsense.

The word is ‘dung’. And if this is no good, then faeces (feces even), excrement, sewage, stool, scat, droppings, or ordure are also available.

And don’t even think about turd, shit or crap; expletives are equally pathetic.

It’s dung.

Dung is not a four-letter word. Well, it is, but you know what I mean.

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.

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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:

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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?

Bricking it

It was a detailed knowledge of the bovine alimentary tract and thorough research of fermented grass digestion that made my Lego cow pat so realistic.

All it needed now was a couple of dung beetles.

It was all started by a visit to Legoland one Sunday a couple of weeks ago, with newly 7-year-old and friend. They were particularly keen on the ‘Miniland’ Lego models. The Sacre Couer, Houses of Parliament, Gerkin and Italian street cafés were favourites. The more rural scenes were also fun, but we all noticed that the Lego cows were lacking pats. Not very realistic at all.

I can see a new project emerging before me. The 7-year-old is slightly reticent, odd given his usual amused fascination with all things faecal; his argument is: “This isn’t what Lego was made for”. He may be right, it is rather low-brow, but I’m on a mission. First there was the cow dung, drying in the sunshine. Then…

Fox dung is smaller, smoother and more fragrant, with a little twist.

Water vole droppings. This one was easy.

An owl pellet. OK, strictly speaking not dung, but still 'waste'.

Civet coffee. Yum.

This one could run and run. I am only constrained by the limited number of brown bricks we own.