He saved Australia from dunghill

When Georg Francis Bornemissa was a teenager, he began studying beetles he found in the woods near his parents’ home in Baja, southern Hungary. World War II had just begun, and little would he have imagined that his passion would one day lead him to solve a very unique problem on the other side of the world: Australia, plagued by unprecedented dung accumulation in recent times. Cattle in its territory.

Completely surrounded by sea, Australia has long had a history of evolution and dispersal of species from the rest of the world. Today many animals are still common (endemic) to the Australian continent, such as koalas and kangaroos, but after the arrival of the first settlers starting in the 18th century, things changed significantly with the introduction of animals and plants from the countries of origin. Europeans..

For more than a century, dozens of species have been introduced to Australia: from cats to wild boars, via foxes and rabbits, sometimes with disastrous consequences for the animals of the area, often unable to resist competition from newcomers. These include cattle, domesticated by humans over a hundred thousand years ago, and introduced en masse to Australia from the 1880s for milk and meat production, in a country with almost unlimited territories devoted to grazing land. began to be more populous than in the past.

A cattle fair in the fall of 1934 in Perth, Australia (PNA Rota/Getty Images)

Unlike other species, cattle did not cause particular upheavals in ecosystems, or so it appeared in the first decades of their introduction. Leaving Hungary at the end of 1950, Bornemissa realized that something was not right. to escape For Soviet rule, settled in Australia.

Bornemissa was fresh out of a PhD in zoology and got a job there Department of Zoology of the University of Western Australia. After a few months of work, he began to notice large amounts of dung pellets produced by livestock, now drying and strewn across most of the pastures near Voorloo, a small town where there were a few farms. Dung beetles, who have a particular preference for the removal of cows and other animals, recalled that pieces of dung lasted a few days in Hungary due to the activity of the insects. It was as if the Australian squaws were not as interested in stripping away those advantages as their European counterparts were.

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The problem of dung accumulation in pastures has been known for some time and has been making life difficult for many farmers. Cattle like to keep some distance from what they leave, so they don’t eat grass near their dung piles. If these are abundant and cover a large part of the land for a long time, the productivity of the pastures decreases, and as a result it is very difficult to ensure that there is enough grass to feed the livestock. A cow produces up to twelve pieces of dung per day, so thousands of square kilometers of land are lost every year.

In some parts of Australia, large quantities of dung, both dry and fresh, have favored a marked increase in the number of worms, flies and midges, causing great inconvenience. Their presence in large numbers posed a threat to the environment and to maintaining a certain balance in ecosystems.

(Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Along with other experts, Bornemissa began studying Australian dung beetle species, which have evolved over thousands of years to adapt to dung produced by typical Australian animals such as marsupials. These animals produce very compact, dry and fibrous dung balls, unlike the large, soft and particularly moist dung cakes produced by cattle. With few rare exceptions, Australian squaws were unable to use the latter as a food source and reproduce, and as a result, unable to adequately dispose of the insects, they continued to accumulate, sometimes taking years to decay and disappear.

Bornemissa proposed Introduce new species of skuas from other parts of the world and adapted to livestock and other large herbivores to Australia, solve the dung problem, improve pasture yields and greatly reduce the number of pest species such as worms and flies. From that proposal, an actual project was born in the 1960sAustralian Dung Beetle ProjectTo test the introduction of skuas from overseas to a specific area of ​​Australian territory, study their effects and only if positive effects occur, continue their widespread distribution without other disasters to native species as has occurred in the past. ladder

Research teams took note of dozens of different species of skuas, typical of climates with characteristics comparable to those in Australia, and living near pastures and cattle ranches. The first studies led to the identification of beetles belonging to the genus Ontophagus KesellaCommon in Africa and later introduced to Hawaii in an attempt to control bloodsucking flies.

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Some samples oh Kesella were carried away In Australia, they are quarantined to ensure they are not disease carriers. It soon became clear that direct importation from Hawaii was not possible, as the beetles were infested with some particularly insidious insects.

The researchers did not give up: however, they took advantage of the new arrival to create new generations, cleaning the eggs in formalin, disinfecting them and inserting them into balls of dung where their maturation would occur. New mite-free generations were born, which were released in a field in Queensland in the first weeks of 1968, demonstrating the possibility of eliminating parasites before hatching.

First experiment with oh Kesella gave promising results: the squaws were able to dispose of pieces of dung in one day, and every year with the production of new generations extended their presence by several tens of kilometers. Within two years, the beetles covered an area of ​​about 400 square kilometers, although their ability to dispose of dung fragments varied considerably between regions and periods. Bornemissa’s idea worked, but it was necessary to expand the range of species involved in the great Australian dung ping.

Skiing in South Africa (Getty Images)

Bornemissa saw South Africa as an ideal place to conduct research on new candidate species to be introduced to Australia. Many parts of the country have a climate comparable to Australia, and in some areas there are hundreds of different species of beetles, and many of these have evolved near large ruminants. A was established Study hall Squash in Pretoria and later in other cities in the country.

Research teams have established certain criteria to identify the best beetle species. In order not to harm the Australian ecosystem, they must rely only on dung and no other food sources, and they must be exclusively interested in the excreta of cattle, not other animals, so as not to disturb the native species of skuas. Research also focused on insects and beetles with rapid reproductive cycles that are easy to manage even in isolation stages. Finally, they should be easy to identify so that distribution across the territory can be assessed.

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Candidate species brought to the laboratory in Pretoria were analyzed to assess their behavior and adaptability to various habitats. This element proved central to the successful introduction of new species into Australian territory. To reduce the risk that inbreeding between close relatives of squaws would lead to their progressive weakening, the research teams focused specifically on breeding methods that attempted to create large populations with good genetic variation.

In Australia, selected species were isolated to ensure they were not parasites and carriers of disease, which allowed us to check the resistance of different types of beetles and exclude some. The squaws were then transported and set free in the pastures, near the dung heaps, where they immediately showed great interest in their new arrangement. Growers were then tasked with monitoring the situation and reporting the progress of the effort.

In a study published in 1976, Bornemissa He wrote 23 different species of skuas were introduced the previous year. A decade later, the species grew to 43 from Africa and Europe, although at least twenty had problems establishing stable populations.

The Australian dung beetle program ended in the mid-1980s, following the reorganization of the Australian Meat Research Group, one of the initiative’s sponsors. The work of Bornemissa and his colleagues was evaluated in the following years by various reports. defined “Extraordinary success” with potential to control soil, water, pasture health and attack by various flying insects, “estimated to be worth several million dollars annually”.

The introduction of squash helped alleviate the problem of overpopulation of the species’ flies. A very old Muska, is attracted by our body fluids like sweat and tears and causes the spread of various bacteria that are harmful to humans. By the mid-twentieth century, their prevalence in parts of Australia had prompted authorities to draft laws prohibiting the provision of outdoor seating unless isolated from mosquito nets for health reasons.

George Francis shows a collection of Bornemissa dung beetles (CSIRO).

In 1979, Bornemissa meanwhile moved to Tasmania, where he continued to study beetles and spread their importance even after retirement. He devoted himself to collecting thousands of different specimens of these insects until his last days.

He died on April 10, 2014, a few weeks after turning 90. Today at least 20 species of beetles bear his name.

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