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Dung beetles reveal heaps of research findings

Apr 25, 2016

Research continues year-round to constantly monitor and assess Syncrude’s reclamation and environmental initiatives, including the bison herd which resides on reclaimed land, 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. When a species of dung beetle was found on Syncrude’s North Bison Pasture, researchers took notice, including Canada’s leading expert in bison and bison habitats, Wes Olson.

“I searched the literature and could find no evidence that anyone else had ever seen that specific dung beetle, Aphodius fimetarius, in this part of the province,” says the 40-year conservation and wildlife management expert. “Their presence in bison dung indicates the reclaimed ecosystem is working at a very complex level.”

Wes has worked with bison throughout North America for more than three decades. During his time with Parks Canada, Wes provided expertise to Syncrude while still managing the herds at Elk Island National Park, where Syncrude’s bison originate.

“In the early 1990s Syncrude approached Elk Island to see if they could participate in the Wood Bison Recovery Program, run by the Canadian Wildlife Service,” he explains. “This led to the first shipment of wood bison to establish the Beaver Creek Wood Bison herd in 1993. We shipped wood bison to Syncrude several times after that and this allowed me to stay in touch with the herd managers.” 

As a result of the dung beetle findings, Wes and Brad Ramstead, Ranch Manager with Fort McKay Group of Companies, launched an insect biodiversity investigation in spring 2015 to learn more about the insects occupying Syncrude’s reclaimed areas with and without bison.

“The project has expanded from looking at dung beetles to include every insect species that we catch. It was incredible to see how many other species of insect life was present in the samples,” adds Brad. “Dung beetles are essential to a healthy ecosystem, and they contribute greatly to the health of the soils by recycling the nutrients found in bison dung. The volume and diversity from just one week of findings provided a diverse and abundant collection. It shows us the reclamation is maturing and there is a lot left to discover.”

There are many reasons to try and better understand the behaviour of insects on Syncrude’s bison pastures. In the spring 2015, large amounts of robins were seen hopping around hunting for insects on the ground – a time when insects are typically sparse.

“Areas like these pastures are referred to as stop-over sites; places that are rich in forage resources for insectivorous birds,” says Wes. “These sites are critical for many of these birds because they need to regain the weight they have lost during migration. As many as 80 per cent of the birds that breed in the boreal forest are insectivores and are entirely dependent upon being able to find enough insects to survive and reproduce.”

Known in the scientific world as a keystone species, the bison have a huge effect on the environment around them.  

“The research Wes leads helps us understand how bison interact on the reclaimed land, along with any relationships they form with animals and invertebrates,” says Sylvia Skinner, Syncrude Field Services Coordinator. “This documentation provides important benchmark data that will allow us to have better indicators for measuring biodiversity on our reclaimed lands.”

Although it is early in the dung beetle study, the evidence suggests larger environmental diversity than originally thought.

"As I begin to develop a clearer picture of which insects live in each habitat, a much richer and more complex story is going to evolve,” adds Wes. “My challenge now is to identify each of these species and how they relate to each other, the environment they live in, and the food webs around them.”