Cloud forest dung beetles in India point to 'fossil ecosystem'

Jeremy Hance
March 28, 2011

In the cloud forests and grasslands of India's Western Ghats, known as sholas, researchers have for the first time comprehensively studied the inhabiting dung beetle populations. The resulting study in mongabay.com's open access journal Tropical Conservation Science, has led scientists to hypothesize that the beetles in concordance with the sheep-like mammal, the nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), may be a sign of a 'fossil ecosystem'.

Sampling dung beetles in Eravikulam National Park researchers studied five species, including one flightless dung beetle that is found no-where else in the world: the Ochicanthon devagiriensis.

 Forest remnant in Eravikulam National Park. Photo by: Sabu K Thomas.
Forest remnant in Eravikulam National Park. Photo by: Sabu K Thomas.
"Although flightlessness [in insects] is a common feature in high-altitude montane habitats with environmental stability, isolation, and limitation of habitat area, such flightlessness is unusual among dung beetles, who depend on flight capacity to reach dung resources," the authors write.

The authors hypothesize that Ochicanthon devagiriensis evolved its flightlessness along with the arrival of the nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius). The nilgiri tahr may have provided the beetle with consistent and easy food sources in the form of its dung pellets. If so, this relationship could go back tens of millions of years, preserving a 'fossil ecosystem', and the dung beetle would have roamed these highlands before the arrival of the Asian elephant and the wild cattle, known as gaur.

Given their dependence on forest patches and the nilgiri tahr, researchers believe any ecosystem shifts could push the endemic beetles to extinction.

CITATION: Sabu, T. K., Vinod, K. V., Latha, M., Nithya, S. and Boby, J. 2011. Cloud forest dung beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeinae) in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot in southwestern India. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 4 (1) :12-24.

Related articles

India government: forest target 'unrealistic'

(03/20/2011) Not long ago much of India was covered in vast and varied forests. Today just over one-fifth (21%) of the nation remains under forest cover, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) but an ambitious plan hopes to bring the forest cover percentage to 33%, or one third of the country. However that goal has been dubbed 'unrealistic' by India's influential Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, as reported by The Hindu.

India commits $10 billion to expand forests

(02/25/2011) The Indian government has approved a bold plan to expand and improve the quality of its forests as a part of the nation's National Action Plan on Climate Change. The reforestation plan, dubbed the National Mission for a Green India (NMGI), will expand forests by five million hectares (over 12 million acres), while improving forests quality on another five million hectares for $10.14 billion (460 billion rupees).

Forest loss in India likely worse than conventionally believed

(07/06/2010) Researchers have questioned 2009 findings by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) that found that India's forests were, unlike many tropical Asian nations', on the rebound. According to the FSI, Indian forests had grown by almost five percent from the 1990s. Yet, were these finding too good to be true?

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (March 28, 2011).

Cloud forest dung beetles in India point to 'fossil ecosystem' .