Imagine the scenario: dung is thin on the ground (literally) - we find no monkey dung, no big cat dung, in fact no dung other than dog-poo with which to entice those most industrious of organic recyclers, the dung beetles (sub family Scarabaeinae) in to our collecting pots. There is nothing else for it but to 'make' our own. Now, amongst entomologists this is common practice - perfectly normal, honestly, it is! But to 'normal' folk, this might seem a bit strange, indeed, not a common topic of conversation. I recall back in the day when I was a mere novice, perusing the Museum's collection and coming across a label which read 'collecting method: human faeces'; I recoiled in horror, quickly looked over my shoulder to see if anyone had noticed my extreme reaction; but my secret was safe; I had to come to terms with it - this was 'normal'.
A less alarming data label: 'dung-baited pitfall trap'. Scarabaeinae; Oxysternon sp.
So there we were, over 30 keen entomologists, in fact to classify us correctly - Entomologists; Coleopterists; Scarabaeologists - coming together from all over the world, in darkest Peru, secondary forest, over 200km from Lima, having traversed the mid range peaks of the Andes at over 4000m altitude and arriving at a jungle lodge which would be our home for the next two weeks; only to discover very early on that there was a poo-deficit!
I might suggest that should you ever find yourself in the company of strangers and are looking for a conversational opener, poo will get you right in there - it breaks down barriers, it is the lowest common denominator (as it were) for most of the organisms on the planet - what better subject to make friends with than...poo?
A cross-section of scarab fieldworkers, Chanchamayo, Peru: Bethany Teeters, Ami Maile, Bruce Noll, Fernando Escobar Hernandez, Miryam Damborsky, Jhon Neita Moreno, Sayde Ridling, Beulah Garner, Andy Matz, Mario Ibarra Polesel, Dana Price, Nicole Gunter
Photo: Jhon Neita Moreno 2012
For more information Scarab beetles and the work of 'Team Scarab' follow this link
At first strangers (this collecting trip brought together scarab workers from all over the planet, mainly north & south America, and a small commonwealth contingent!) with a common purpose, to learn tropical fieldwork techniques, to meet fellow workers and form future collaborations, and most importantly to collect beetles; by day two, 'poo' was a common topic of conversation over breakfast!
Photo: Brett Ratcliffe 2012
It goes something like this:
'So how are you today?'
'Oh, a little 'backed-up' you know, I think it's all this rice.'
'Yes, me too, having a bit of difficulty 'making bait'. Perhaps if we drink more coffee that will help?'
'It's worth a go, but really, I think it's all this rice.'
So one by one, we would discreetly excuse ourselves and head off to our respective receptacles and 'make bait'. In fact we were doing the plumbing infrastructure of Peru quite a favour. The plumbing system is by no means able to cope with a 'heavy flow' and it is recommended not to flush paper or any other foreign object down the lavatory unless you are prepared for a reprisal! Anyway, collecting methods I'm sure varied, and I never did go as far to ask any of my colleagues exactly how they 'captured' their bait. I for one was armed with old pairs of 60 denier tights with various holes and ladders rendering them no longer fit for their original purpose, but, they make excellent 'bait' receptacles, being porous they effectively let out the enticing odour to lure the unsuspecting beetle to its scientific end. Other methods include wrapping the 'bait' in muslin / cheesecloth or simply placing the bait in a small plastic container such as those little mouthwash cup that dentists use!
A 'baited' pitfall trap, already some unsuspecting scarabs have been enticed!
Scarabs are not the only insects attracted to bait traps!
Then, one morning, I was woken by my housemate to the alarmed cry:
'SOMEBODY STOLE MY POO!'
Nicole gathering 'bait' of the canine variety - happy in the days before we discovered a poo-thief!
The four of us sharing our little lodge had a rude awakening. Surely not? Who or what could do such a thing?
As you can imagine, stock-piling poo for bait is not a particularly social occupation. I am happy to say that none of us were anti-social enough to keep it in our rooms or even the shared bathroom, but we did on one occasion try to keep it in the fridge (with temperatures on average of 28 degrees and high humidity, things 'go off' pretty quickly) along with the coke (for energy), water (for hydration) and rum (requires no explanation), oh, and a few overly excited insects that needed calming down a bit before a photo shoot. But we soon realised that this was in fact anti-social so we took to keeping our bait outside our front door in sealed pots in zip-lock bags.
On this particular occasion, we had managed to secure some dog poo which was kept in a separate clear vial, and our own bait which was in an opaque container, both in a zip lock bag. The human bait had been taken, and only the dog poo remained, with the bag perfectly sealed. We all stared on incredulously; my housemate hanged her head, crestfallen, and whimpered, '...but I worked really hard to make that bait...' We all reassured her, surely there was plenty more where that came from! But, to this day we shall never truly know who or what stole the bait; perhaps it is enough to say that this prized commodity had driven people to the extreme of their integrity; and the desire to collect beetles overcame any other reason...
The take home message is this: you're not an entomologist until you've got a s**t story...
The author is indebted to the organisers of this trip: 'Team Scarab' : Drs Brett Ratcliffe, Mary Liz Jameson, Ron Cave, Paul Skelley, Andrew Smith, Federico Ocampo & too to all the brilliant and enthusiastic participants!