Dung Beetles

Insect herbivores

Thermal Performance

Ants are one of the most ubiquitous animals in terrestrial ecosystems and play crucial roles in ecosystem functioning on all continents except Antarctica. The crucial role that ants play—including predation, seed dispersal, herbivore ‘farming’ and as a food source for other invertebrates and vertebrates—will be modified by a changing climate. Therefore understanding how ants will respond to temperature and moisture changes is of fundamental importance in understanding, and sustaining, global biodiversity. Ants play a fundamental role in providing ecosystem services and habitat engineering, making them ideal taxa to start identifying responses to changing temperature and moisture regimes.

Potential ant projects

Current projects

The Future Keepers: Assessing effects of thermal stress and differential resource limitation on ecosystem function providers

ARC Discovery Project DP160101561

We will assess how species respond to climatic fluctuations and differential resource limitation when competing for resources in familiar and novel environments. This will allow us to increase our understanding of how key ecosystem function provider species (ants) will respond to a rapidly changing climate, and if any changes are predictable. We will test these interactions along five bioclimatic transects throughout Australia to integrate ecological, physiological and behavioural responses of ecosystem function providers to climatic fluctuations. Here we will be using field studies of competition, a transplant experiment to move ant nests into novel environments to assess their abilities to adapt and respond to climatic variation, a field experiment to assess what species are limited by salt (a key limiting resource), sugars, proteins, and extra ambient heat across the biogeographic transects. Find out more here.


School of Ants Australia is a citizen-scientist driven project based in the Insect Ecology Lab, inspired by the international recognized project developed in North Carolina in the USA (link to original school).

The aim of our project is to involve Australian students, teachers, parents, kids, and junior and senior enthusiasts of all stripes to uncover a world of ants at our feet, in our homes, schools and parks.

Where are the invasive species?

Are there some ant species that occur all across Australia?

And can we find them?

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Dung beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabeinae) are important ecosystem service providers. For example, in America, dung beetles constitute the equivalent of $0.38 billion/year to the economy for dung burial, and would have a similar, if not higher value in Australia due to our less seasonal climate. They are frequently studied as model species and provide significant ecosystem services critical to the maintenance of agricultural ecosystems in Australia, increasing soil carbon levels and soil health, whilst also reducing fly numbers.

Dung beetles are frequently studied as model species and they are providers of significant ecosystem services worldwide. They are critical to the maintenance of agricultural ecosystems in Australia. Yet little is currently known how they interact with one another when they are under competitive and thermal pressures, and how this may impact on their performance in reducing dung on the soil surface and population dynamics.

Potential dung beetle projects

Current Projects

Ecosystem Services in a changing climate; dung beetles and climate change

There are two main aims of this project: 1) to investigate the effect that dung beetles have on greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming and 2) to examine the effect that climate change will have on the dung burial service that dung beetles provide.

To investigate the first aim, we are currently comparing the greenhouse gases that are emitted from manure that is either colonised by dung beetles or that contains no beetles. To do this, we are using a closed, non-steady state chamber system to measure fluxes of CO2, CH4 and N2O from cattle dung pats. We have also measured NH3 fluxes to test the commonplace claim that dung beetles reduce nitrogen volatilization. The preliminary results suggest that dung beetles drastically reduce CH4 emissions but actually increase NH3 loss (and this may be related to whether the beetles are feeding on the surface or burying manure for brood production). Furthermore, beetles initially increase CO2 emissions but, over time, the trend is reversed with control pats (i.e. no beetles) releasing more CO2.

To investigate the second aim of this project, dung beetles will be exposed to temperature regimes that are expected under climate change and dung burial rates will be measured. Custom built climate controlled chambers will soon be built for these experiments. Not only will we assess dung burial by individual species under climate change scenarios, we will also look at the rate of burial by assemblages of beetles that vary in species richness to test if increasing species diversity makes beetle assemblages more robust to the effects of climate change.

Dung beetle responses to climate change

Assessing how dung beetles (populations, species and communities) respond to climatic fluctuations at different life stages, while competing for resources is critical for understanding how performance changes under different scenarios.


Predicting how dung beetles respond to climate change is critical as they are important ecosystem service providers.


We will be using ecological, physiological, and behavioural research, and incorporating crucial competitive interactions to carry out this research.


Dung Beetle Express

Dung Beetle Express is a collaboration between the Insect Ecology Lab and the Granite Borders Landcare Committee.

Originally, the Dung Beetle Express commenced in late 1998 and was funded by the Natural Heritage Trust, Australian Geographic Society and the North West Catchment Management Committee. The project aimed to increase dung beetle activity from The Summit in Queensland to Walcha in New South Wales. During that time a large amount of data has been collected, and good relationships have been developed to fulfil the aims of the project.

The collaboration involves the use of facilities at UNE and researchers in the Insect Ecology lab who have a long-term interest in continuing to give advice to local landholders, and carry out research on their properties. Landcare has the local contacts and would benefit from having information gathered at a regional level, and a central repository of data and expertise that would have a long-term home and support.







Insect species are the most diverse group of organisms on Earth and over 50% of them are herbivores. Herbivorous insects exert a global influence on terrestrial plant diversity and biomass, consuming approximately ten percent of net primary production, sometimes defoliating entire forests. Insect herbivore assemblages are complex, but currently we have little understanding of the interacting factors underpinning their structure. Some attempts have been made to assess the importance of climate, host plant phylogeny, and host plant traits in influencing insect assemblage structure; however, the influence of all three factors in relation to each other is not understood.



Potential insect herbivore projects



Current Projects


Ecology of insect herbivore communities: influence of climate, evolutionary history and plant traits


This project has two main aims:


AIM 1. To determine the relative importance of climate, host plant evolutionary history (phylogeny), and host plant traits on herbivore assemblages on Acacia. Each component will be addressed separately, and then their relative importance will be assessed using a unique conceptual framework. The following questions and associated hypotheses will be tested:


Q1. How does the structure of herbivore feeding guilds differ between climate zones?


Hypothesis 1: External foliage feeders (leaf chewers and sap-feeder guilds) and seed predators have the greatest diversity and abundance in the subtropical zone > temperate > grassland > desert. In contrast, leaf miners and plant-gallers do not show any consistent trends between climatic zones.


Q2. What effect does plant phylogeny have on herbivore feeding guilds?


Hypothesis 2: Different phylogenetic groups of plants will support different suites of herbivores within different feeding guilds. Plant species more closely related will have a herbivore community structure more similar to each other compared to more distantly related species.


Q3. How do plant species traits (wider distributions, higher abundance, different chemical and morphological traits) influence the diversity of herbivore communities?


Hypothesis 3: Herbivore diversity is highest on host plants with high local abundance and wide geographical ranges. Individual feeding guilds will be influenced in different ways by tougher leaves, variable C:N ratios and phenolic compounds.


AIM 2: To assess the impact of herbivores on their host plants. This aim will be addressed by testing the following question and hypothesis:


Q4. What impact do climate, host plant phylogeny, and host plant traits have on rates of herbivory by different feeding guilds?


Hypothesis 4: Rates of herbivory are consistent across all climate zones, host plant phylogeny, and plant traits.




Temperature and resource availability are of fundamental importance to animal physiology, behaviour and ecology. Among insects, responses may vary according to mean temperature variation, predictability, and/or extremes in the thermal environment. These factors can be easily quantified in insects due to the strong mechanistic links between metabolism, development, performance and the thermal environment. Understanding these processes is critical, as the body temperature of insects influences how they adapt to their environment, their capability to survive, grow, reproduce and disperse. In order to determine the influence of climate change on insects, an understanding of differences in their key performance traits (physiological, behavioural and ecological traits) is required at different life stages of populations, within species when put under different climatic pressures, and among species facing similar climatic pressures.


In the lab we measure metabolic rates at different body temperatures, and also measure traits such as Warming Tolerance and Thermal Safety Margins: these are important indices as they characterise the geographic covariances of thermal performance curves and climate.


Potential thermal performance projects

Insect Ecology Lab

Natural History Museum (W77)

University of New England

Armidale NSW 2031


61 (0)2 6773 2937