Tar Pits, Dung Beetles, and Megafauna

Today Los Angeles is a city with a reputation for excess, dominated by cars and actors, and there is a reason for this.  Money.  Money in the form of oil.  The combination of oil and money led to the nascent fossil fuel industry teaming up with the budding car industry in the early 20th century to sabotage the successful street and rail car industry in the Los Angeles basin.  Money led to loose laws which led to crime, gambling, and guerrilla movie studios moving into the LA area, searching for places that were outside the influence of the film establishment of the times.  All of these things are interesting, but without the oil it is unlikely Los Angeles would have taken the trajectory it did.

Oil Fields, Signal Hill, Los Angeles 1914

Oil Fields, Signal Hill, Los Angeles 1914 – source: National Geographic archives

Oil is usually found deep under ground, but the greater Los Angeles area up through the Santa Barbara area is one of a few places in the world where oil is not just close to the surface, it is on the surface, bubbling in cold pits of bitumen, also known as asphalt and tar.  This asphaltum has been important to humans for as long as they have lived in the region.  In the past it was primarily used to waterproof boats, water carriers, and cooking vessels or as an adhesive.  Now, of course we use it to make a whole range of products from gasoline to Vaseline, rubber, plastics, pantyhose, parachutes, paint, detergents, antifreeze, golf balls, and more.

Bitumen occurs where vast amounts of living material (plankton, diatoms, or plant material usually) were deposited in a quiet anaerobic environment, such as a lake or sea floor, and left alone for a long, long time.  In essence, it is liquid coal.  Coal beds are sometimes repositories for incredible collections of fossils.  These ancient remains and offer a window into the deep past, but for a window into the more recent past we need something a little different from coal.  Bitumen provides one of the best preserving agents for more recent remains.

Near Hollywood there is a famous bitumen pit redundantly named the La Brea Tar Pits (literally “The Tar Tar Pits”).  Between approximately 38,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago the La Brea Tar Pits were very active.  An enormous variety of animals and insects were lured to the waters of what appeared to be a rich wetland and were trapped by the sticky tar that lay beneath the shallow layer of water.  A few posts back I brought up the fact that condors are representatives of an extinct assemblage of fauna.  The La Brea tar Pits provide a window into that now extinct assemblage.  Los Angeles was a land of giant bears and jaguars, pygmy pronghorn antelope, camels, mammoths, dire-wolves, great birds of prey, giant ground sloths, and numerous other animals.  

Mural of the La Brea Tar Pits during the Quaternary

Mural of the La Brea Tar Pits during the Quaternary

Animals trapped by the sticky tar aroused the interest of predators and scavengers which were themselves trapped by the tar.  Herbivores, carnivores, mammals, birds, and insects all fell prey to the tar pits and many of them have been preserved in astoundingly good condition.

Pygmy Pronghorn (Capromeryx minor)

Pygmy Pronghorn (Capromeryx minor)

Along with the large animals is one of the best collections of preserved insects in the world.  Most people know that insects are important in a sort of general way.  In recent years honeybees have been in the news quite a bit and their importance in maintaining our food supply has reached the mainstream audience.  I’ve mentioned the importance of both ladybugs and dragonflies, but these are iconic and popular insects, very much in the public eye.  There are many other insects that have an importance far beyond what their diminutive size would indicate.  One of these is the dung beetle (Scarabaeinae).

Until recently much of the planet was home to a wide range of large animals, grouped into the catch-all term “megafauna”.  This is a generic term for any animal massing more than 45-100 kg (100-220lbs).  Most of the recent megafauna of each continent (with the exception of Africa) went extinct shortly after humans reached the respective region.  Here in North America we had great mammoths, elephant relatives, standing 4 meters (13 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighing 9 metric tons (10 short tons).  You can walk under the tusks of the mammoth skeleton in the La Brea Tar Pits, reach your hand up as high as you can, and the tusks are still out of reach.

Colombian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)

Colombian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)

Numerous types of ground sloth roamed the area, including both the Shasta and Harlan’s Sloths.  Harlan’s Ground Sloth was not the largest and even it stood 3 meters (10 feet) tall and weighed more than a ton.

Harlan's Ground Sloth (Paramylodon)

Harlan’s Ground Sloth (Paramylodon)

The Antique Bison, some 15-25% larger than modern bison roamed the region,

Antique Bison (Bison antiquus)

Antique Bison (Bison antiquus)

And there were, or course predators of all sorts.  Dire Wolves are particularly well represented in the La Brea Tar Pit fossils.

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) skulls.  One panel of a 3-panel display.

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) skulls. One panel of a 3-panel display.

There were large numbers of these animals and, like all animals, they had to eat.  The larger the animal, the more it eats.  Modern African elephants eat 100-300kg (220-660lbs) of food per day, so it is reasonable to expect that the Colombian mammoth would eat at least that much per day, if not more.  Then, just on the herbivore side of things, there were the giant ground sloths, horses, camelids, bison, elk, antelope, peccaries, deer, and numerous other species.  Additionally there all the predators; giant jaguars, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves, American cheetahs, bears of all sorts, including the giant short-faced bear, and more besides them.

All animals must eat, and everything they eat must come out eventually.  This is something we don’t really think much about: what happens to all the animal dung?  How much of it was there?

We don’t really have any good idea just what the animal numbers were like in the past, but we do have a very good idea of the numbers of another kind of modern megafauna.  Cows.  The numbers of cows in the US probably only represent a middling-small portion of the total amount of large megafauna in the US portion of North America, but they give some insight into the kinds of numbers we are talking about when it comes to dung quantities.

The 2006 article by Losey and Vaughan provides some insight to those numbers.  Each cow can produce approximately 21 cubic meters of waste per year, that’s a volume roughly equivalent to 1.3 VW buses worth of dung per year per cow.  In 2004 there were nearly 100 million head of cattle in the US, that means more than 2 billion cubic meters of poop per year, just from cows… I’ll let that image settle in.  For comparison that’s enough to cover  Manhattan to a depth of about 70 feet (21 meters) or Disney World to about 60 feet (18 meters) in cow manure every year (in other news: Disney World is larger than Manhattan).  That’s just from the cows and just the ones in the US.

What happens to all that crap?  Enter the humble dung beetle.  For the portion of cattle that are fortunate enough to be in fields, dung beetles take care of the waste.  According to Losey and Vaughan each year dung beetles save ranchers $380 million dollars in clean-up costs.  A 2001 article by Michelle Thomas indicates that without dung beetles each year we would find 5-10% of each cattle acre unusable due to dung pile-up.  Dung beetles are so important that foreign species of dung beetles have been imported to the US and elsewhere for use in areas that experience heavy livestock use.

Dung beetles range in size from just a few millimeters to several inches in length.  Their size is dependent on the size of the dung they have to deal with.  Currently Africa has the largest land animals and the largest dung beetles.  North America used to have an enormous range of very large animals with correspondingly large droppings.  As you might expect there were some very large dung beetles living here to take care of those droppings.  The large beetle on the left is an extinct giant water beetle similar in size the the large, extinct dung beetles.   This beetle is about 2 inches (5 cm) long.

Different species of dung beetles found in the tar pits.  The large one is extinct.

Different species of small dung beetles found in the tar pits and an extinct giant water beetle that is about the size of the large extinct dung beetles.

Ecosystems are delicate things, subject to trophic cascades, as I have previously mentioned, full of unexpected consequences and side effects.  Most of the great predators in North America died out when the large herbivorous megafauna became extinct.  Scavengers also suffered, amongst them the dung beetles.  All the large dung beetles in North America swiftly followed the rest of the megafauna into extinction.  Currently in North America the dung beetles are small, more like the insects to the right in the image above than the large tan one (you can check out photos of them here).

For many people the response to this is a shrug of the shoulders, but the effects of these beetles going missing had a tremendous effect on the ecosystem, in particular on plant growth and distribution.  We don’t know, and probably will never know how great an effect their absence had.  Dung beetles, the Scarabaeinae, are extremely important ecosystem engineers, gathering fresh dung and burying it as a food source for their developing young.  By doing so they fertilize and aerate the soil, speeding up the cycle of nutrient return by putting the nutrients in a safe place where the plant roots can get to them and where they are less likely to be washed away by rain or desiccated by the sun and blown away.  In addition, dung beetles are important in limiting the spread of diseases and parasites by removing fly and pest breeding sites.

Understanding the details of the world, the interactions, the interconnectedness, the causality of it is difficult.  When we look at the present we have the fine resolution, but lack a context.  When we look at the past we establish a context, but lack the fine scale resolution.  When we look to the future, as we must, we need to be able to combine the insights of the past and the present to predict the consequences of our actions.

Hopefully we are getting better at this, but I cannot help but look at connections like that between the mammoth, dung beetle, the dire wolf, the distribution of plants, and the radiating effects of that interleaving and wonder what vital link, or set of links, we are failing to see right now and what what will mean for our future.

The Archives at the La Brea Tar Pits

Archives at the La Brea Tar Pits

*     *   *  * * *  *   *     *

Apologies for the multiple posting.  I made an edit using the WordPress App on my iPad and it deleted the original post.  I had to restore it and repost.

3 comments on “Tar Pits, Dung Beetles, and Megafauna

  1. Maija M. says:

    Hi! I’m typing this as I look down at the tar pits from my office. Grew up going there and ruining lots of clothes by rolling down the hill. Love the pits and love this article.

  2. EDG says:

    Thank you for a fascinating post. The nuances of nature’s mysterious ways are many and mostly unknown…humbling even the most knowing of homo “sapiens.” Though nature is, as a whole, incredibly resilient, you’re quite right to point out how much is lost when species (and symbiotic inter-species relationships) go the way of the dinosaur. We will never be able to fully know the eons’ worth of R&D that has disappeared with untold numbers of species extinctions.

    On another note: Disney World is bigger than Manhattan?!

    • EarthKnight says:

      Too much is lost too quickly.

      Yes, oddly enough, Disney World is bigger than Manhattan. I think the area includes all the land Disney World owns, not just the amusement park specific portion.

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