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Researchers welcome Moroccan natives who can change the face of agriculture

Researchers welcome Moroccan natives who can change the face of agriculture

Mass breeding and release of Onthophagus vacca (pictured above) has been a success so far, with more than 10,000 beetles bred at the research facility at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga in recent months. Photo: BDEE.

Australia’s newest immigrants are unlikely to be seen strolling around the city streets, but they are here to do a dirty little job that will hopefully change the nation.

More than 300 of the Onthophagus andalusicus beetles (yes, try to say so) arrived safely at Canberra’s CSIRO import facility last week after a journey that lasted more than a year.

The world-stumbling dung beetles left their homeland Morocco in 2019 and enjoyed a touch of strict cleaning in the south of France before heading down to Australia.

Their arrival in the nation’s capital has been hailed as an international COVID logistical triumph and perhaps trumps the efforts of many ex-clappers who are still waiting for the smell of eucalyptus.

The import of the new species also marks an important milestone in the Dung Beetle Ecosystem Engineers (DBEE) project – this is the fourth major national effort to introduce them to our coasts.

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For a number of reasons, the native beetle and its exotic representation in Australia have been slow to spread across the country with current populations not being effectively managed in areas where they can best influence change.

These introduced species are credited with the significant reduction in the number of fly and nematode pests in Australia, the improvement of pastures and the recycling of the earth’s carbon and nutrients.

O. andalusicus

O. andalusicus variety of manure beetle has arrived in Canberra from their native Morocco, via France. Photo: DBEE.

Arriving in Australia in safe packages, the offspring of O. andalusicus were delivered to Australian biosafety officials for review before arriving at the CSIRO beetle import facility in Canberra.

Even the beetles face rigorous screening procedures to ensure that no potentially harmful microbes or other pests are introduced into Australian ecosystems.

COVID-19 restrictions, international border closures, and nationwide roadblocks initially caused some logistical problems with imports, but O. andalusicus arrived safely at the CSIRO site on time and with a clean health bill.

DBEE’s management for the import of manure beetles, CSIRO’s Dr Valerie Caron said that the arrival of the beetles heralds a triumph for the project.

“The efforts of all those behind this project have been enormous in light of the challenges of COVID-19, including border closures, national roadblocks and fewer international cargo flights,” she said.

“Surprisingly, we’re still on schedule.”

O. andalusicus is the second species to be imported into Australia through the DBEE project, which aims to import three new species to fill the current seasonal and geographical gaps in fertilizer beetle activity in southern Australia.

Manure beetle

Research on dung beetles is conducted on CSU’s Wagga Wagga campus. Photo: DBEE.

Like their place of origin – northern Africa – it is estimated that the beetle will thrive under climatic conditions similar to those in central and southern Australia, south-eastern southern Australia, north-western Victoria and central and south-western NSW.

The species is active in late winter and spring, in both beef and sheep manure – a huge plus for mixed farmers.

DBEE’s Head of Education, Training and Information Delivery is Charles Sturt University Professor Leslie Weston.

She says an abundance of manure beetles can improve grass quality in southern Australia while reducing pest burdens and producing an estimated net profit for farmers of over $ 100 / ha in the more intensively grazed areas.

“These beetles will help fill the gap in beetle activity in South Australia and complement the first species of tick that the DBEE team has successfully imported, mass-bred and released, the Onthophagus vacca,” she said.

“It is important that Onthophagus andalusicus typically does not compete with native species that prefer kangaroos and native animal manure, meaning these beetles can safely live with existing natives,” Weston said.

But there is still work to be done.

Professor Weston said that understanding the ecological impact of releasing a new species was a long and complicated part of the assessment process.

“The beetles are made to have little or no impact on the native ecosystems,” she said.

“Previous experience has shown us that hundreds of thousands of beetles must be released in order to establish a new species successfully, therefore several generations grow under laboratory and protected field conditions to increase the number.

Professor Weston said the mass breeding and release of Onthophagus vacca had been very successful with more than 10,000 beetles bred at the research facility at Charles Sturt in Wagga Wagga in recent months and over 5,000 released on more than 30 farms in southern Australia.

“We expect that mass breeding of O. andalusicus will generate similar results over time,” she added.

Originally seen as a pest control mechanism, further research into the species has highlighted their significant impact on pastures, soil health and carbon sequestration.

The new imports bring hope to fill seasonal and geographical distribution gaps in southern Australia by introducing new fertilizer beetle species and expanding the distribution of existing species.

Original article published by Edwina Mason on About Regional.

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