Cow Patty Critters: A new guide on Canada's faecal friends

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

There is more to a cow pat than meets the eye. In Canada, an estimated 110 million dung pats (the weight of over 13,000 combines!) are deposited by cows every day. But what do we know about the community of insects, bacteria and other organisms that inhabit them? These critters are essential to a healthy pasture ecosystem, but information is scattered and difficult for producers and researchers to find.

Dr. Kevin Floate, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, is on the case and has developed the first comprehensive guide to discover and understand the faecal friends that provide big bug benefits.

The making of Cow Patty Critters

Over 300 insect species are found in cow dung on Canadian pastures; mating, eating dung, laying eggs, eating each other – all while providing valuable ecosystem services.

When Dr. Floate first started looking at this unique community of insects some 30 years ago, he was amazed by the abundance of life and activity that he was witnessing. He quickly learned, however, that information on these critters was scattered across different scientific books and articles that were often hard to access, written in complex language and focused on only one or two insects.

Cattle producers are in close contact with their pastures and see the impact that dung insects have on the land and their animals, but they haven't had easy access to reference material until now. Given the number of questions Dr. Floate has received from folks over the years, he was inspired to write a comprehensive guide.

With ranchers, students and anyone interested in learning more about our faecal friends in mind, Dr. Floate started to pull together information for a comprehensive but easy to understand guide to dung insects in Canada. Loaded with over 200 painstakingly sourced images, Cow patty critters: An introduction to the ecology, biology and identification of insects in cattle dung on Canadian pastures is a resource to understand the diversity of insects and the variety of activities they carry out in dung.

"The critters found in cow patties provide valuable ecosystem services and are an unexpected ally to ranchers and farmers. This is the guide I wish I had when I started my career as a researcher. If I have done my job right, readers from all backgrounds will find it informative, interesting and enjoyable."

- Dr. Kevin Floate, Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Bug Benefits

The study of insects and other organisms in dung pats is not just about cataloguing their diversity. In his guide, Dr. Floate introduces the significance of these critters that hop, fly, squirm and dig. For example, through their tunnelling and feeding activities, these insects scatter dung to remove breeding sites for pestiferous flies that affect cattle and speed up the return of nutrients to the soil. They can also aerate the soil and improve water drainage through their burying behaviours, disperse seeds and pollinate plants. Lastly, these insects consume and are consumed, feeding birds and small mammals higher up the food chain that rely on them for sustenance. For the rancher, land manager, naturalist or conservationist – dung insects are a surprising but valuable ally.

Detective Cow Patty

The Cow Patty Critters guide is a dung detective's handbook for studying cow dung communities on pastures across Canada.  Dr. Floate says the best way to investigate dung insects is to start by observing them. As such, the second part of the Cow Patty Critters guide provides tools and instructions on how to identify dung insects and other critters. The guide includes coprophilous (dung-loving) organisms in four broad groupings: flies, beetles, wasps and mites. Profiles describe the biology for different members of each group in plain language, with high-resolution photographs and detailed references for further research.

Ultimately, Dr. Floate's hope is that having this reference freely available to the public will spur further research and interest from farmers, ranchers and students on this important and practical topic. Although specific to Canada, the guide can be used throughout North America and in Europe, where many of the dung insects now in North America originated.

Cow Patty Critters highlights the valuable pasture ecosystem services and insights into animal health that this often unsung community provides and a foundation for future studies of our faecal friends.

Key benefits

  • Cow dung insects and organisms provide valuable pasture ecosystem services and insights into animal health.
  • Cow patty critters: An introduction to the ecology, biology and identification of insects in cattle dung on Canadian pastures helps farmers, ranchers and researchers understand more about the faecal friends that live, procreate and support our ecosystem.
  • Cow Patty Critters is a free, accessible and comprehensive guide about dung insects in Canada.

Photo gallery

Dr. Kevin Floate crouches in a pasture with students grouped around him

Dr. Kevin Floate speaking to students (Dr. Cameron Goater, University of Lethbridge)

A close-up photo of a dung beetle specime

The dung beetle Onthophagus nuchicornis

A close-up photo of a yellow dung fly specimen

Yellow dung fly, Scathophaga furcate (Janet Graham – CC-BY-2.0, resized)

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