December 5, 2022

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The man who saved Australia from dung

George Francis Bournemisza was a teenager when he began studying beetles he found in the woods near his parents’ home in Baga, a town in southern Hungary. The Second World War had just begun and he could not have imagined that thanks to his passion he would one day solve a very unique problem on the other side of the world: the problem of Australia, which was plagued by an unprecedented accumulation of dung from the last crisis. Bringing livestock into their territory.

Australia, completely surrounded by ocean, has had a history far from the rest of the world, in terms of the evolution and spread of species. Even today, many animals are considered typical (endemic) on the Australian continent, such as koalas and kangaroos, but after the arrival of the first colonists starting in the 18th century, things changed dramatically with the introduction of animals and plants from the countries of origin. Europeans.

In just over a century, dozens of species have been introduced to Australia: from cats to wild boars, passing through foxes and rabbits, and in some cases have had disastrous effects on the region’s fauna, often unable to resist competition from newcomers. Also among these cattle are animals domesticated by humans more than a hundred thousand years ago, and which were introduced on a large scale to Australia since the 1880s, to produce milk and meat, in a country without borders of pasture land and whose population is now much greater than It was in the past.

A cow show in the fall of 1934 in Perth, Australia (PNA Rota/Getty Images)

Unlike other species, cattle did not cause particular disturbances to ecosystems, or so it seemed in the first decades after their introduction. Realizing that something wasn’t going right, Bournemisza had left Hungary at the end of 1950 for to flee For the Soviet regime, settled in Australia.

Bornemissza recently had a Ph.D. in zoology and landed a job at Department of Zoology from the University of Western Australia. After a few months of work, he began to notice a large quantity of dung cakes produced by cattle, now dry and scattered in most of the pastures near Wooroloo, a small town where there are some farms. He thought that it was strange that there was so much droppings, remembering that dung dumplings in Hungary lasted a few days thanks to the activity of dung beetles, insects that have a certain tendency to what cows and other animals scrape. It was as if Australian skuas weren’t interested in getting rid of all that goodness, as their European colleagues do.

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The problem of dung accumulation in pastures has been known for some time and has complicated the lives of many farmers. Understandably, cattle prefer to stay away from what they have left behind, so as not to eat the grass that is near the dung cakes. If they are many and cover a large part of the land for a long time, the yield of pasture decreases, and thus it becomes difficult to ensure that livestock have enough grass to feed. A cow produces up to twelve dung patties per day, so more of them can result in the loss of several thousand square kilometers of land each year.

In some areas of Australia, a large amount of dung, both dry and fresh, has led to a marked increase in the numbers of worms, flies and midges, causing great inconvenience. Its presence in excessive numbers also posed a threat to the environment and the maintenance of a certain balance in ecosystems.

(Ian Walde/Getty Images)

Together with other experts, Bornemissza began studying the Australian dung beetle species, noting that it had evolved over thousands of years by adapting to the dung produced by typical Australian animals such as marsupials. These animals produce dung balls that are compact, very dry and fibrous, in contrast to the large, soft and particularly moist dung cakes produced by cattle. With some rare exceptions, Australian skuas were not able to exploit the latter as a source of food and breeding, and thus without insects able to dispose of them adequately, they continued to accumulate, sometimes taking several years before decomposing and disappearing.

pornemisza Suggestion To introduce new species of skuas to Australia, coming from other parts of the world and adapted to livestock and other large herbivores, to solve the dung problem, improve pasture production and significantly reduce the numbers of pest species such as worms and flies. From this proposal, a real project was born in the 1960s, which isAustralian dung beetle projectto test the introduction of skuas from abroad in a limited part of Australian territory, study their effects and only in the case of positive results, without other disasters of endemic species such as those in the past, follow their widespread dissemination with a ladder.

The research groups took into account dozens of different species of skuas typical of climatic zones with characteristics similar to those of Australia, used to live near pastures and livestock farms. The first research led to the identification of beetles belonging to the species Esophageal deertypical of Africa and later introduced to Hawaii in an effort to control bloodsucking fly species.

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some samples oh deer they were Transfer In Australia, they have been isolated to ensure they are not carriers of the disease. It soon became apparent that direct import from Hawaii would not be possible, as the beetles were infested with some particularly pernicious moths.

He did not discourage the researchers: however, they used the new arrivals to make them produce new generations, taking care to sanitize the eggs in formalin to sterilize them, before introducing them into dung balls where they would ripen. New generations free of mites were born, which were released in a field in Queensland in the early weeks of 1968, also demonstrating the possibility of eradicating the parasites prior to incubation.

First experience with oh deer It gave promising results: the skuas managed to get rid of dung pies in one day and every year expanded their existence to several tens of kilometers, while producing new generations. In less than two years, the beetles inhabited an area of ​​about 400 square kilometers, although their ability to get rid of dung pies varied widely between regions and periods. Bornemissza’s idea was successful, but it was necessary to expand the range of species involved in the great Australian gluttony.

A skater in action in South Africa (Getty Images)

Bornemissza saw South Africa as the ideal place to conduct research on new candidate species to be introduced into Australia. Many regions of the country have a climate similar to that of Australia, and in some areas there are hundreds of different species of beetles and many of them have evolved close to large ruminants. Founded search center for skuas in Pretoria and later in other cities of the country.

Research groups have developed some criteria for determining the ideal species of beetles. They had to rely exclusively on dung and not other food sources, so as not to affect Australian ecosystems, and they had to take care exclusively of the faeces of cattle and not other animals, so as not to disturb the native species of skuas. Research has also focused on beetles with a fairly rapid reproductive cycle, which are easy to manage even in insect ponds and in quarantine stages. Finally, it should have been easy to identify them, in order to be able to assess their spread throughout the territory.

Candidate species brought to the laboratory in Pretoria were analyzed to assess their behavior and adaptability to different habitats. This element has proven to be essential for the successful introduction of a new species into Australian territory. The research groups then paid particular attention to breeding methods, in an effort to produce large populations with good genetic diversity, to reduce the risk that breeding among close relatives of skuas would lead to their progressive weakening.

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In Australia, the selected species were isolated to ensure that they were not carriers of parasites and diseases, a procedure that allowed checking the resistance of different species of beetles and possibly excluding some of them. The skuas were then moved and released into the pastures, near the dung pies, where they immediately showed that they were very interested in their new arrangement. Next, the breeders had the task of monitoring the situation and reporting on the progress of the initiative, both in terms of the number of heads visible and the dung patties shed over time.

In a study published in 1976, Bornemissza he wrote that in the previous year 23 different species of skuas had been introduced. A decade later, the species had grown to 43 species from Africa and Europe, although at least two dozen had problems producing stable populations.

The Australian Dung Beetle project ended in the mid-1980s, after the reorganization of the Australian Meat Research Commission, one of the initiative’s sponsors. Bornemissza and colleagues’ work was nonetheless evaluated by various reports in the following years e identifier “Extraordinary success” with benefits for soil, water, and pasture health and the potential to control infestations of various flying insects, capable of doing “millions of dollars a year” in damage.

The introduction of skuas helped alleviate the problem of the high prevalence of flies belonging to the species very old musk, are attracted to our bodily fluids such as sweat and tears, which are responsible for the spread of various bacteria harmful to humans. Until the mid-20th century, its prevalence in some areas of Australia was such as prompting the authorities to pass laws prohibiting restaurants from providing outdoor seating, if not isolated from mosquito nets, for health reasons.

George Francis Purnemisza displays a group of dung beetles (CSIRO)

In 1979, Bornemissza in the meantime moved to Tasmania, where he continued to study beetles and spread their importance even after retirement. He devoted himself to collecting thousands of different specimens of these insects until his last days.

He died on April 10, 2014, a few weeks after turning 90. At least 20 species of beetles today bear his name.