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Linking functional group richness and ecosystem functions of dung beetles: an experimental quantification


Dung beetles form an insect group that fulfils important functions in terrestrial ecosystems throughout the world. These include nutrient cycling through dung removal, soil bioturbation, plant growth, secondary seed dispersal and parasite control. We conducted field experiments at two sites in the northern hemisphere temperate region in which dung removal and secondary seed dispersal were assessed. Dung beetles were classified in three functional groups, depending on their size and dung manipulation method: dwellers, large and small tunnelers. Other soil inhabiting fauna were included as a fourth functional group. Dung removal and seed dispersal by each individual functional group and combinations thereof were estimated in exclusion experiments using different dung types. Dwellers were the most diverse and abundant group, but tunnelers were dominant in terms of biomass. All dung beetle functional groups had a clear preference for fresh dung. The ecosystem services in dung removal and secondary seed dispersal provided by dung beetles were significant and differed between functional groups. Although in absolute numbers more dwellers were found, large tunnelers were disproportionally important for dung burial and seed removal. In the absence of dung beetles, other soil inhabiting fauna, such as earthworms, partly took over the dung decomposing role of dung beetles while most dung was processed when all native functional groups were present. Our results, therefore, emphasize the need to conserve functionally complete dung ecosystems to maintain full ecosystem functioning.

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This study is part of a larger pan-European multisite project supported by the ALTER-Net consortium, Europe’s Ecosystem Research Network; it is co-financed within their multisite experiment programme. We thank the Flemish government and the Agency for Nature and Forest (ANB) for access to their nature reserves, the allowance to sample the dung fauna, and their foresters Koen Marechal and Karel Molenberghs for logistical help. We would like to express our gratitude to the taxonomist Geoffrey Miessen for his help in the identification of many of our dung beetle samples, and the laboratory technicians at INBO for soil texture analysis. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments to improve the first version of this manuscript.

Author contribution statement

TM and MH conceived and designed the experiment and developed the methodology. SQ and TVL conducted fieldwork and identified specimens. TM, SQ and TVL analysed the data. TM, SQ, TVL and MH wrote the manuscript. SQ and TVL equally contributed to the manuscript and are listed in an alphabetical order.

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Correspondence to Tanja Milotić.

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Communicated by Roland A. Brandl.

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Milotić, T., Quidé, S., Van Loo, T. et al. Linking functional group richness and ecosystem functions of dung beetles: an experimental quantification. Oecologia 183, 177–190 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3756-5

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  • Dung beetles
  • Dung removal
  • Secondary seed dispersal
  • Functional groups