Our second cohort of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program is taking part in a conservation summer immersion program on the Colorado Plateau, and they are guest blogging here at L-C-Ideas to keep us up to speed on what they’re doing. Please check back for more!
Kyra’s Internship blog
We woke up on the first Friday of our internship with a strange task before us: sorting through bison and cow poop. Not exactly your typical day at the office. Our job was to pilot a study for the refuge with a professor who specializes in insects and dung beetles.
Bugs. Insects. Whatever you want to call them, they usually cause cringes or elicit screams. But insects are actually incredibly important species for all of us. Dung beetles in particular do an incredible service: they break down dung so we don’t have to be shoulder-deep in it everyday. This is helpful on many levels including a public health standpoint. The beetles break down waste, stopping bacteria and viruses from ending up in our water supply. They also return vital nutrients to the soil, giving plants the conditions they need to grow. Researchers at the refuge began noticing that the bison dung was decomposing very slowly, prompting the desire for a study on the types and diversity of dung beetles.
My group was looking into the difference between bison and cattle dung beetles. To do this, we first collected samples of bison dung. There is a four-step protocol to collecting the dung. First, you pick any ants or beetles off the top of the dung and place them in a vial of ethanol. This quickly euthanizes them so they can be identified later. The next step is to flip the patty over and grab any ants or beetles underneath it. Then the whole thing is placed in a large ziplock along with a sample of the soil underneath. We did this with both bison and cow dung.
Then came the fun part of sorting through all the samples for additional beetles. It might sound grotesque but was actually similar to sorting through dirt. After laboring through all 15 samples, my group moved onto to creating a key of all the different insects we’d found. We found significantly more species of beetles in the cattle dung and a greater diversity by a measure of almost double compared to the bison dung. We hypothesized that this may be because the bison were introduced to the area in 2007 versus cattle being here for over a hundred years.
This day was just one of many at Rio Mora, but it gives a good snapshot of the intent of the refuge. The refuge’s three main goals are research, restoration, and education. This project is mainly focused on the research side, but it can also be incorporated into restoration and education. For example, the public can be engaged in this project by learning about dung beetles and even helping test water quality. Seeing how these three goals can be combined and build off each other was an enriching experience.
While days like this one might seem “gross” at first, I found that having a positive attitude helped open my eyes to the many directions research can take. This is reflective of the entire internship experience. Other days spent pulling invasive plants in the intense Southwestern sun might not have been my favorite, but with an open mind and a smile, I found that we could all still learn something valuable. It also gives me a deep appreciation for all of those who work in the field on restoration every day. The field of conservation isn’t always an easy one, but at the end of the day it is truly inspiring and fills me with optimism.