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

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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.

The Mighty Dragonfly

Of all insects there are few that capture our attention and interest the way dragonflies do.  They have, perhaps, the coolest, most evocative name of any group of insects: Dragonfly.  In English there are a great number of other common categorical names: Devil’s Darning Needle, Snake Doctor, and Ear Cutter among others.  Many of these names come from the mystifying apparent fear of nature that crops up over and over in European views of the world.  Many European cultures viewed dragonflies as sinister creatures, servants of the devil, in league with other evils such as snakes and bats.

Other cultures, often more agrarian ones, had a far more benign view of dragonflies, based, perhaps, on the recognition of their fundamental role in controlling populations of pest insects of all sorts.  An archaic name for the Japanese Islands is Akitsushima (秋津島), the Dragonfly Islands, where dragonflies symbolized courage, strength, and happiness.  For some native American tribes dragonflies symbolized clean, pure water, swiftness, and agility.  In the modern world dragonflies are good indicators of environmental heath, indicating a robustly functioning ecosystem.

Libellula quadrimaculata – Four Spotted Skimmer
The Alaskan State Insect

Dragonflies and their close relatives, Damselflies, come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns, ranging in size from less than  an inch long up to the South American Megaloprepus caerulatus with a wingspan of over 7 inches.  The largest dragonfly we know of is from the 300 million year old fossil Meganeura that had a wingspan of over 2 feet.

Dragonflies are powerful hunters, both in their nymph and adult stages.  Dragonfly nymphs are aquatic and prey on any animal or insect they can grab with their claws or their extendible jaws.  Insects, small fish, tadpoles, and small amphibians are all food for these voracious predators.  The nymphs are large, and, in turn, are prey for a wide range of other animals, insects, birds, and fish.  Elva Paulson has some wonderful watercolors of a dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage.  Humans are included as predators, many Asian cultures eating both dragonfly nymphs and adult dragonflies as delicacies.  One of the most tasty things I’ve eaten (from a long list of foods most people would consider to be unusual) was a plate of deep fried dragonfly larvae.  Absolutely delicious.  In Beijing I would sometimes find adult dragonflies candied in liquid sugar, their wings crispy with the hardened sugar.

Unknown green dragonfly – note the barbs on the forelegs for catching prey

The adult phase of a dragonfly’s life is short, in temperate climates only the length of the summer.  This is their mating stage and it takes them between 2 months and 6 years living under water to reach this stage.  Dragonflies are extremely active during this mating phase and must eat often.  They have enormous eyes giving nearly 360 vision, incredibly swift reactions, fast, powerful flight, and wicked barbs on their legs to assist capturing insects in flight.  The inset above shows these barbs.

Libellula exusta – White Corporal (I think)
eating its prey

The common names of dragonflies often reflect their speed or their abilities as hunters.  Meadow-hawk is one of my favorite names, and watching one dart away to catch an insect and return to its roost to devour it definitely brings hawks to mind.

Libellula quadrimaculata – Four Spotted Skimmer
note the different wing heights

Dragonflies are powerful fliers.  They have been clocked at over 35 miles an hour, fast enough to get a speeding ticket in a school zone, and, like hummingbirds, can fly forwards, backwards, sideways, up and down, and hover.  Their backs are sloped where their wings anchor, placing each pair at different heights, allowing for tremendous wing mobility.  Some species of dragonfly migrate, but the scale of some of those migrations has only recently been realized.  One dragonfly species in particular, the Globe Skimmer (Pantala flavescens) flies from India to Africa and back, island hopping cross the Indian Ocean, making open water crossings of nearly 1000km (620 miles) between island stops.  The only places they can breed are at the Indian and African ends of the migration, many of the islands they use as stopover points do not have sufficient freshwater for dragonflies to breed.  This is a stunning feat of flying for an insect and may be a behavior that evolved as a result of plate tectonics splitting India and Africa apart, eventually thrusting India into Asia.  If so, this migration could have begun 135 millions years ago.  Unfortunately, we have no reliable way of telling if this is the case.

Last year was a good year for dragonflies in Vermont, and this year looks like it is shaping up to be a good one as well.  The ecologist in me cannot help wondering why and one idea is that it may be linked to the calamitous drop in bat populations as a result of white-nose disease, a fungus that infects hibernating bats, weakening and eventually killing them.  It may be that adult dragonflies have more to eat with fewer bats and a greater percentage of them are surviving through the summer.  There is a historical precedent for this sort of boom in insect populations.  During the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao promoted a policy of killing off all things he thought were eating grain, birds amongst these.  With the crash in bird populations in China the insect population exploded.

Unidentified dragonfly – maybe a Darner of some sort

I am happy to see the dragonflies here.  Their presence means that the water is clean, we will have fewer mosquitoes, midges, and black-flies, and they are extraordinarily beautiful creatures.

Three-hundred twenty-five millions years old and going strong.  They have it figured out!

The Short-Tailed Shrew, an evolutionary superstar

He [Raven] looked about and thought there was nothing on the land as lively as the fish in the water, so he made the shrew-mice, for he said, “They will skip about and enliven the ground and prevent it from looking dead and barren, even if they are not good for food.”                                                                                     – from Clara Bayliss’s 1909 collection A Treasury of Eskimo Tales.

Northern Short-Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) sniffing the air for prey

Creation myths aside, our early mammalian ancestors were little omnivorous insectivores very much like modern shrews.  Mammals evolved some 200 million or so years ago and lived alongside the dinosaurs, but did not grow to large size until millions of years after the dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago.

Today we are a diverse group of flying, swimming, and running creatures ranging in size from the blue whale 120 feet long with a heart the size of a small car down to shrews no more than a few inches long, weighing less than an ounce.  We don’t know much about our early ancestors, small terrestrial creatures rarely leave fossil remains, but from what we can tell it seems that the shrew body design and hunting strategy is extremely successful and has remained a persistent mammalian body plan.

Shrew-like creatures live all over the world and are renowned for their ferocity, appetite, boldness, and their unusual (at least in mammals) venomous bite.  Here in Vermont the shrew you are most likely to encounter is the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda).  As near as I can make out, Blarina roughly translates to “nose-necked” and brevicauda actually does mean “short-tailed”, making this one of the few animals that has a matching common and scientific name.  Shrews are in the Soricidae family, which just means, “the shrew family.”

Short-Tailed Shrew running over freshly cut grass

Shrews move rapidly, driven by their rapid metabolism and resulting need to eat constantly.  They move with a peculiar blend of short, jerky twitches and weasel-like fluidity.  The shrew in the photos was hunting for insects and earthworms in freshly cut grass.  I followed it for perhaps 200 feet, and during that time it only stopped to sniff out prey, to eat it, and to hide from the dog that wanted to know what I was watching so avidly.

Like many predators, shrews are curious, engaging in high risk, high reward activities.  Their eyesight is poor, but their sense of smell is excellent.  How good their hearing is seems to be uncertain, some people thinking it is good, others poor.  I suspect that it is pretty good and that they are sensitive to vibrations via their whiskers and feet.

Searching for food

Unlike many animals the shrew had no fear of me what-so-ever, not even flinching when I stroked its back as it ate one of the 4 earthworms it caught while I was watching.  Every small animal nearby, on the other hand, was terrified of the shrew.  Insects froze into immobility, antennae twitching and heads slowly tracking as the shrew passed by.  Well should these creatures be wary of the shrew.  If a shrew goes more than a few hours without eating it will starve to death.

Short-Tailed shrews are tiny, massing between 2 and 5 US quarters (about .5 to 1 ounce), but they are perfectly capable of killing and eating prey several times their size.  There is a 3 minute National Geographic TV video of a shrew exploring a garden, then killing and eating a garter snake much larger than itself.  Most of the time shrews will content themselves with insects, worms, and seeds.

The dense fur of a shrew

Shrew fur is thick and dense, like the fur of an otter, but lacking the oily guard hairs.  The fur is so dense that it is waterproof, allowing some species of shrew to hunt underwater.  Shrews need this dense fur to keep warm through the winter.  Their small size means they lose heat quickly, necessitating both a rapid metabolism and good insulation.  In winter they remain beneath the snow as much as possible, eating cached food, keeping activity to a minimum, and burning brown adipose tissue (what we commonly call “brown fat”) to keep warm without resorting to shivering.

They have as many predators as they have prey, but their venom and unpleasant musk helps to keep some mammalian predators at bay.

Shrews are tremendously strong for their size.  I could see the back and neck muscles bulging as this shrew pulled earthworms from the soil.  It pulled a short section of the worm from the ground and ate it, pulled another short bit, ate that, and continued, as though it was eating Twizzlers at the movies.

Pulling an earthworm from the ground

We humans are proud of our accomplishments, but perhaps we should be more humble before the little shrew.  This tiny creature, so easily killed by a careless foot is upholding 200 million years of successful mammalian tradition, wearing a body design that gave rise to all other mammals from humans to whales, bats to elephants, beavers to monkeys.