Field of Science

Opening Dors

My current dayjob mostly revolves around identifying and counting dung beetles. When Europeans settled Australia, they brought their farm animals with them. Unfortunately, the large piles of dung produced by cattle and horses proved rather daunting to native scavengers used to the more compact droppings of kangaroos and possums. And if you've ever experienced an Australian summer, you'll know that flies are definitely a thing. To help with this situation, Australia has had a long-running programme introducing exotic dung beetles that are better able to clean up after livestock. Most of these are members of the typical dung beetle family Scarabaeidae but one species, Geotrupes spiniger, represents a different subgroup of the superfamily Scarabaeoidea. These are the earth-boring dung beetles or dor beetles of the Geotrupidae.

Dor beetle Geotrupes spiniger, copyright Udo Schmidt.

The geotrupids are medium-sized to very large beetles, ranging in size from half a centimetre to 4.5 cm in length (Jameson 2002). Like many other members of the Scarabaeoidea, they have broad fore legs used for digging. Their short, eleven-segmented antennae end in the asymmetrical club typical of scarabaeoids but they may be distinguished from other families in that the basal segment of the three-segmented club is expanded to form a 'cup' against which the other segments may be tightly closed. The body of geotrupids is strongly convex, and is smooth and shiny dorsally but hairy underneath. In many species, the males may bear elaborate horns and/or processes on the head and pronotum.

Male Taurocerastes patagonicus, copyright Nicolás Lavandero.

Despite their size, geotrupids are secretive animals, spending most of their time in burrows underground (which may be up to three metres in depth) and usually only emerging at night. Various species feed on animal dung or decaying matter; some feed on subterranean fungi. In at least some species, eggs are laid in brood chambers within the parent's home burrow and multiple life stages may share a single burrow. Burrows may also be shared between multiple adults when conditions demand. Though adults do not directly tend to larvae, they may stock brood chambers with food supplies. In some Australian species of the subfamily Bolboceratinae, females lay a single gigantic egg at a time that may be up to 56% the size of its layer (Houston 2011). Larvae hatching from such an egg are able to develop right through to maturity without feeding.

Adult geotrupids produce a stridulating noise when disturbed which is the origin of the alternate vernacular name of "dor beetle" ("dor" being an old word for a buzzing insect). Larvae may or may not be capable of stridulation, depending on the species.

Male Blackburnium rhinoceros, copyright Edward Bell.

The classification of geotrupids is the subject of ongoing investigation. A recent classification divides the family between three subfamilies, the widespread Geotrupinae and Bolboceratinae and the South American Taurocerastinae. Morphological differences between these subfamilies, particularly at the larval stage, have lead some researchers to question whether the Geotrupidae in the broad sense represents a monophyletic group. Molecular analyses thus far seem ambiguous; an analysis by McKenna et al. (2015) placed geotrupids as part of a polytomy near the base of the scarabaeoids. As an aside, my supervisor recently asked myself and a retired colleague whether Geotrupes spiniger was the only species of geotrupid found in Australia. I replied "yes", our colleague responded "no". Our conflict, of course, was based on whether Australia's wide diversity of Bolboceratinae contributed to the count.


Houston, T. F. 2011. Egg gigantism in some Australian earth-borer beetles (Coleoptera: Geotrupidae: Bolboceratinae) and its apparent association with reduction or elimination of larval feeding. Australian Journal of Entomology 50: 164–173.

Jameson, M. L. 2002. Geotrupidae Latreille 1802. In: Arnett, R. H., Jr, M. C. Thomas, P. E. Skelley & J. H. Frank (eds) American Beetles vol. 2. Polyphaga: Scarabaeoidea through Curculionoidea pp. 23–27. CRC Press.

McKenna, D. D., B. D. Farrell, M. S. Caterino, C. W. Farnum, D. C. Hawks, D. R. Maddison, A. E. Seago, A. E. Z. Short, A. F. Newton & M. K. Thayer. 2015. Phylogeny and evolution of Staphyliniformia and Scarabaeiformia: forest litter as a stepping stone for diversification of nonphytophagous beetles. Systematic Entomology 40: 35–60.

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