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Other segments from the episode on May 4, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 4, 2009: Interview with Douglas J. Emlen; Commentary on “Westbound Records.”


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Fascinating World of the Dung Beetle


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Underneath the cow patties in the pasture and the monkey dung in the jungle,
there’s a miniature world of sex and violence. Dung beetles with fierce-looking
horns are battling over female beetles, and my guest, Douglas Emlen, is
studying them.

He’s an expert on the evolution and development of bizarre or extreme shapes in
insects. He’s particularly interested in insect weaponry. Dung beetles have
what he’s looking for.

Lots of Emlen’s work is in the lab, but he’s also had some wild adventures
collecting different families of dung beetles from around the world. Emlen is a
professor of biology at the University of Montana. If you want to follow along,
on our Web site there’s a dung-beetle slide show and a video of two beetles
battling. That’s at

Doug Emlen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I think it’s fair to say that dung
beetles wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of an animal to study. So what
is unique about the dung beetle’s armor that makes you so interested in
studying them?

Mr. DOUGLAS EMLEN (Professor of Biology, University of Montana): There are a
variety of things, and I guess I should first of all qualify that by saying
they weren’t my first choice of an organism, either. It’s a hard thing to wake
up in the morning and decide you’re suddenly go out there and study dung

I started out trying to study some of the big rhinoceros beetles as a graduate
student, and the project failed pretty spectacularly, and it was a biologist
named Bill Eberhardt(ph) that took me under his wing after that failed project
and said no, no, no. You’re looking at the wrong beetles.

And he opened up this box, and it was full of all these little, tiny beetles
that are the size of your pinky or even the size of an eraser on a new pencil.
And he opens up the box, and it smells like horse manure, and I looked him, and
I said those are dung beetles. There’s no way I’m going to work on those

And he laughed at me at the time and told me I was a fool, and basically
explained that for all the kinds of biology that I wanted to understand,
genetics and behavior and diversity, these things were perfect. And since that
time, to come back full circle to your question, the dung beetles have turned
out to be an amazing system to study, and they’ve taught us so much about
biology in many ways.

But you mentioned the weapons. The thing that first drew me to them is the
spectacular diversity in their morphology. They have these incredible shapes,
and most of the diversity in those shapes involves these weapons. And so for
lack of a better analogy, these tiny, little insects - that again, as I said,
are often the size of an eraser on a pencil, on a new pencil - these things are
the insect equivalent of a bull elk or a male deer, and they have incredible
weapons coming off of their bodies.

And you look across the species, and there’s variation among the species.
Sometimes the horns comes from the back of the head, sometimes from the front
of the head, sometimes from the thorax, which is equivalent to sort of between
your shoulder blades. Sometimes they’re branched, forked, curved, straight.
There’s just an incredible variety of forms.

And I was interested as a biologist in how a little, tiny animal like that
could strut around with these enormous weapons sticking off the side of their
body and survive.

GROSS: You know what? It’s kind of amazing, and I mean, not only do they have
these weapons, like, some of them are like antlers. Some of them are like a
rhinoceros horn. Some of them are like lobster pincers. But they also have,
like, hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: Many of the horns – you mean the beetles or the horns?

GROSS: Well, the beetles, and yeah.

Mr. EMLEN: They do, and some of the horns in some of the species tend to have
hair. We see that more often in the rhinoceros beetles than in the dung
beetles, per se, but very often the sides of these horns are adorned with thick
rows of hairs, and it’s really sort of embarrassingly unknown what those things

There’s a good chance that they are sensory structures so that when a male
locks with another male, fighting, they can tell where the horns of the
opponent male are because they’re distending or pushing down all these fine
hairs on the surface of the horn.

But some people think that the hairs might actually have chemo-detectors. They
may be good for smell or for releasing signals. We don’t know.

GROSS: I can tell you one thing for sure. They’re not fashionable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They are really creepy looking.

Mr. EMLEN: That’s a matter of opinion. I disagree. I think they’re fantastic.

GROSS: Well, they are fantastic in a creepy kind of way. Let me ask you to
describe one or two of the types of dung beetles that you find most fascinating
in terms of their form and shape.

Mr. EMLEN: Sure. So one of the species of dung beetle that we spent quite a bit
of time studying is – has the species name Taurus, as in the bull, and it
actually has a pair of long, curved horns that extend upwards and backwards
from the head of male beetles.

So it’s a big, curled set of horns, and when the head is tucked back against
the rest of the body, the horns sort of wrap in snugly around the equivalent of
the shoulders or the thorax. But when these males are fighting, they pull their
heads forward, and they’ve got quite an impressive pair of horns.

And we’ve looked at these beetles in a variety of ways and looked at what they
do with the horns and who has the horns and who doesn’t have the horns and how
the horns develop, and all kinds of questions coming from that basic oddity of
their morphology - the fact that they’ve got these huge weapons.

GROSS: You want to describe another one?

Mr. EMLEN: Sure. So one of my favorite species, unfortunately it’s not one that
we’ve been able to study in numbers, but it’s one of the most spectacular of
these beetles, is a species that actually was illustrated in Darwin’s book, his
treatise in which he initially described the whole theoretical concept of
sexual selection, the process of biology that myself and so many other
biologists study.

And in this beetle, the beetle is a brilliant, iridescent green color, turning
sort of shimmering from a green to a yellow to a blue and in some angles even
purple. So it has this beautiful sheen to it. And the males have a long, curved
pair of horns that come up from the head that are much longer than the ones in
the species I just described to you. And they have a branch in the middle of
them with a tine that comes off and points inwards. And then at the very tips
of the horns, it swells outwards into almost a little plate, so beautiful
branched, curved horns coming off of this species.

GROSS: So the purpose of these weapons, the horns and the pincers, are
basically to fight off other guys for girls.

Mr. EMLEN: Yup.

GROSS: So, like, the male dung beetles fight each other over the available
female beetles.

Mr. EMLEN: They do, they do.

GROSS: So does that mean – have you watched them fight?

Mr. EMLEN: Oh yes, yes, many times.

GROSS: Oh, describe what a fight looks like.

Mr. EMLEN: It actually looks like pandemonium. It was not what we expected at
all. So these are dung beetles, the ones that we’re talking about right now,
and so what happens in these cases are these beetles are very good at smelling
their food source, and they follow these odor cues into the food. And when they
find dung of the particular species that they feed on, they often have to deal
with hundreds, and in some cases thousands of other individuals that are coming
in and piling into that same place and competing to carve up and use that food

So what happens is the beetles go instantly underground. They go right beneath
the food source, the dung pile, so to speak, and the females actually excavate
these burrows in the ground, and the males guard the entrances to these
burrows. And they have big teeth-like spines on their legs, and they lock
themselves, they brace themselves against the tunnel walls and try to prevent
rival males from getting into the tunnels where the females are.

The females - these are amazing insects because they have elaborate parental-
care behaviors. The females will take pieces of the dung down into the burrows
and chew them up with their mouth parts and process them and pack them together
into these sort of balls, these little sausages of buried dung underground. And
then she’ll excavate a chamber at the end of that and place an egg in there.
And that’s essentially the full food resource, like an allocate of food for
each one of her offspring. And she’ll do that, lay an egg and then close in the
tunnel and then build another one of these balls and then close the tunnel. And
we’ve watched these beetles do this.

The females will make 50, 100 different trips down into the ground for every
single one of these eggs that she lays. And during this time, the male is
guarding that tunnel, keeping everybody else away and mating with the female
absolutely as often as he possibly can. And other males come and challenge.

And the fights take place inside these tunnels. And they scramble, and they
push, and they pry, and they twist. And we tried forever to figure out how it
is, exactly, that they use these horns because we wanted to know why would one
species have a straight horn and another species have a curved horn and another
species have a branched horn.

And we were assuming that we’d be able to pick up intricacies in the nature of
these fights that would tell us why one species had one shape or another, and
we failed. The fights are just chaos. We filmed hundreds of them, and they’re
amazing things to watch, but there’s nothing predictable or repeatable about
them except the outcome.

Somehow or other, bracing and twisting and prying and pushing and pulling and
trying to get the other beetle out of the tunnel, somehow, at the end of the
day, the male that has the longest horns and/or the largest body sizes
typically is the one who wins. And the smaller males get pushed out of the
tunnels and leave and go find another tunnel and try to push their way into

GROSS: So they just use these horns to bash away at their competition?

Mr. EMLEN: Yeah, I wouldn’t call it bash. I would say they more use the horns
to block the tunnel. You’ve got essentially a round or an egg-shaped animal
blocking a tunnel, and they’re very strong. So you have a rival pushing itself
past, and it seems that the horns, regardless of what precise shape they take,
seem to function like bars of a jail cell. They sort of block – they make it
easier for a male inside the tunnel to block it so that another male can’t push

But it’s not as simple as that because they don’t sit still. They twist and
push and pry. But they don’t stab with them. They aren’t able to puncture the
armor of the rival males. So they don’t actually get injured in this process,
and they don’t really bash each other either, but they definitely spar and
twist, sort of strength contests, I suppose.

But there’s a twist to this story, too.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. EMLEN: Which is that the biggest males have the biggest weapons, and these
are the ones that are usually the most successful at guarding that tunnel and
at mating with the female inside the tunnel, but there are small males in these
populations, too, and they don’t produce the horns.

And so these small males look much more similar to a female. They don’t have
the big antlers or the big weapons, and they don’t fight over the tunnels,
either. They have a sneak tactic, a satellite tactic. What’ll happen is they’ll
work their way into a tunnel and try to stay there, but they get kicked out
right away by bigger males. And instead of going from tunnel to tunnel to
tunnel to keep trying, they stay after they get kicked out, and they dig their
own tunnel right next to the main tunnel. And after they get sort of a
centimeter or so down below the ground, they cut horizontally, and they can
intercept the guarded tunnel beneath the guarding male. And sometimes they’re
able to sneak in, zoom down to the female, mate with the female and get out
again before the guarding male has essentially figured out what’s going on.

So you’ve got big males with weapons fighting, and little, tiny sneak males
without the weapons sneaking into these tunnels on the sly.

GROSS: So the less macho dung beetles still find a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: They try. I don’t think that they’re as successful as the larger,
dominant males, but yes, they definitely find a way.

GROSS: Can you see the armor and the weapons with your naked eye?

Mr. EMLEN: Yes, but I’ve had some practice. I think the first thing – if
somebody were to go out and look for this in their backyard, which is the other
fun thing about this system is that these beetles live in so many different
habitats and so many places that you’d be pretty hard-pressed to live anywhere
where you couldn’t go into a pasture or into the backyard and turn over a cow-
manure pile and look underneath it and find some of these beetles. They’re that
abundant and that widespread.

So if you were to go out and look for these things yourself and tip over a cow
pile and look at the dirt, maybe dig with a trowel into the first couple inches
of the soil and turn it around, you’d find these beetles. They’re often, in
most habitats, certainly around most places in the U.S. - they would be on the
order of half-a-centimeter to a centimeter long, and they’re squat.

The beetles that I’m talking about with the weapons walk like little tortoises.
They sort of jerk their way along. And you can pick them up and see the horns
with the naked eye.

We often look at them under microscopes to take more precise measurements of
these things, and we photograph them either using really good camera lenses, or
sometimes scanning electron microscopes will take really good pictures of these
things, as well. But you can definitely, for a lot of these beetles, pick them
up out of the ground and look at them with a hand lens or with your naked eye
and see these really cool weapons.

GROSS: My guest is Doug Emlen, a biology professor at the University of
Montana. We’ll talk more about his work studying dung beetles after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is biologist Doug Emlen, and we’re
talking about his work studying dung beetles. And he studies them because he’s
interesting in insects who have armor, and a lot of dung beetles have really
fascinating armor, horns and antlers and so on.

Now you’ve described these, like, you know, antler-like and branch-like weapons
and armor and weapons that the dung beetles have, and they sound, like, really
big compared to the size of the actual beetles. Aren’t they kind of cumbersome
to tote around? I mean, I know they need them to fight and to bar off the
tunnels and prevent other males from getting in, but they also must really get
in the way.

Mr. EMLEN: They do, and so to try to give you a sense for how much they get in
the way, the analogy I like to use is that for some of these beetles, it would
equivalent to you producing another leg and wearing it around on your head for
your entire adult life.


Mr. EMLEN: That’s the best analogy I can give you because when you – if you try
to estimate how big these things are, in some of these cases the horn, the
weapons, can be 10, 15, 20 percent of the body weight of the animal. That’s a
fifth of the total weight of the animal is allocated to this one thing.

And so it really is analogous to an extra leg on your head for your entire
adult life, and it has to be costly. So we’ve used a variety of types of
experiments to try to measure how costly it is, and we found, for example, if a
male beetle puts a ton of resources into making a horn, it means that he has to
stunt something else.

There’s not enough resources left, in a sense, and so in some of these beetles,
if they have really big horns, they have really small eyes. We found that in
beetles that have horns on the back of their head, their eyes were 30-percent
smaller as a result of having allocated everything to the weapons.

In another species, they actually trade off with the testes or with the wings.
So there are costs associated with producing these big, bulky things.

GROSS: So what do these dung beetles say about evolution? What do you feel like
you’ve learned about evolution from studying them?

Mr. EMLEN: Honestly I’d have to turn that on its head and say what haven’t I
learned about evolution from them. These beetles have taught us, and me in
particular, an amazing amount of lessons, some good and some more frustrating.
But the biggest question that I have been focusing on and that I think I’ve
learned a ton from these beetles on has to do with the backdrop of animal

It’s very hard to be an evolutionary biologist and not look around you and
become sort of increasingly aware of the differences among animals that are out
there. There’s so much variation in the ways things act, the way they look, and
it is sort of amplified, in a way, in these beetles.

The variation in shape, especially connected with these weapons, is truly
stunning in this group of beetles. And so as a biologist, I’m obsessed with
understanding where this diversity in form comes from. How did these big, gaudy
structures arise, meaning what do the beetles use these for? How – you know,
once we know how they’re used in natural populations, we can ask questions like
how did they evolve? Under what types of ecological or environmental
circumstances are these weapons likely to evolve?

And then that leads us to the next question of why don’t all these beetles have
the same weapons? What is it about them or about their history or the ecologies
and behaviors of these animals in the past that has caused weapon evolution to
go one way in some populations and a different way in other populations - and
for it to go in enough different ways in enough different species that we end
up with the truly thousands of types of shapes and forms and locations for
these weapons on their bodies.

And so there’s sort of fundamental biological questions connected with animal
diversity that we are tackling with these beetles.

GROSS: Although we’ve been talking about dung beetles and the kind of weapons
that they have, you also study the rhino beetle, which is a much larger beetle.
Let me read something from Wikipedia, and you can tell me if this is all true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: Okay.

GROSS: Yeah, we looked it up.

Mr. EMLEN: Good for you.

GROSS: And it says that rhino beetles are among the largest of beetles. They
are popular pets in Asia. They are clean, easy to maintain and safe to handle.
Male beetles are used for gambling fights since they naturally compete for
female beetles, with the winner knocking the other off a log. And they’re also
the strongest animals on the planet in relation to their own size. They can
lift up to 850 times their own weight. All true?

Mr. EMLEN: I believe so. The last statistic I don’t have personal experience
with, and I might argue that the dung beetles are actually stronger than the
rhino beetles, but the rest of that is definitely true, and I’m actually
holding a giant rhinoceros beetle in my hand right now.

GROSS: Yikes. I wish I could see it.

Mr. EMLEN: Crawling up my arm.

GROSS: Oh gosh. You’re in a studio in Montana, and I’m in a studio in
Philadelphia. So we’re not seeing each other, but I wish I could see that rhino
beetle. Tell me what it looks like.

Mr. EMLEN: I will describe it to you. This male is about, almost four inches
long, and he’s a rich…

GROSS: Wow, it’s big.

Mr. EMLEN: …brown, almost a purplish to brown to almost black color with a nice
sheen to it and sort of golden hairs along the margins of his body, and the
most striking feature of him, surprise, surprise, given what we’ve been talking
about, is that on his head, he has an enormous horn.

This is a big branch structure that actually looks surprisingly like a
pitchfork that extends upwards from his head, and in the biggest of these
males, that pitchfork, that weapon, can be almost as long as the rest of the
body of these males.

He also has another horn that’s on the shoulder blades, the thorax, that comes
up and curls a little bit forward and splits into two tips. But the horn that
we’re most excited about is this huge projection from the male’s head that, you
know, if I’m sitting here looking at the head and the eyes, the horn is
probably 10 times the length of the male’s head, and it comes up and splits
into a Y, and then each of the tips of the Y split again so that you have these
four points or tines at the T to this horn.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I just wish…

Mr. EMLEN: That’s the horn. The beetles are four inches long.

GROSS: I just wish I were seeing it, wow. So…

Mr. EMLEN: They prickle as they climb up your hands, same idea as with the dung
beetles. They’ve got teeth or points on their legs that they use to brace
themselves in contests, and spines on the legs that they do the same thing
with, and when they grab you, they can prick you a little bit with the spines,
but otherwise they’re completely harmless. They feed, as adults, on rotting
fruit. We keep them on apples, and basically sliced applies is what they’ll
quite happily feed on as adults. And they wouldn’t be capable of biting you,
even if you tried to get them to.

And they are kept as pets, not here. This is a species that we import with
permits from the United States Department of Agriculture and we have to keep
contained. But in Asia, where these things are native, they’re very common
pets. In fact, I’m told that you can buy the larvae in vending machines, and
you can get the diet for these things in grocery stores. And kids really do
keep them as pets. They’re fantastic pets, and they do fight.

They put them on bamboo sticks and battle the males and, I believe, gamble on
which of the males will win. I haven’t actually done that firsthand, but I’ve
seen plenty of photographs of kids doing that.

GROSS: It sounds like the cockfighting of the insect world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: I think it is.

GROSS: Doug Emlen will be back in the second half of the show. He’s a biology
professor at the University of Montana. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Who knew that dung beetles living
beneath animal manure could be so fascinating? Let’s get back to our interview
with Doug Emlen, a biology professor at the University of Montana, who’s an
expert on the evolution and development of bizarre or extreme shapes in
insects. He’s particularly interested in insect weaponry and dung beetles have
what he’s looking for. The males are armed with bizarre looking horns, which
they use to fight over female beetles.

If you want to see what we’re talking about, go to our Web site where you’ll find a dung beetle fight show and a video of two
beetles fighting. One of the things that amaze me, I guess, particularly about
the smaller dung beetles, is that there’s just like invisible world of – this
world, that - that you don’t know – that at least I don’t know - is out there
in which, you know, insects are like waging war with weapons and armor and

Dr. EMLEN: And sneak tactics.

GROSS: And sneak tactics, yeah - all like, you know, for the love of a good

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, to mate with a female. So there’s this whole world of like sex
and violence, you know that’s kind of invisible to us and is even happening
underneath like cow manure.

Dr. EMLEN: I love that fact about these beetles actually. That’s one of my
favorite things about them is that this whole story is unfolding in most
people’s backyard. So just to give you a feel that one genus of the dung
beetles that we work on, so one sort of taxonomic grouping of these beetles,
there are two thousands species already described.


Dr. EMLEN: Probably another thousand species waiting to be described. The
center of diversity for that group of beetles is Africa. But they occur in all
continents accept Antarctica. And they feed on just about any kind of dung you
can imagine. I mean, pretty much if you can think of an animal that produces a
decent respectable quantity of manure there almost certainly is a beetle in
this particular genus somewhere that is specialized on feeding on it. So these
battles really do happen everywhere, in every habitat I’ve ever seen.

On every continent or country that I’ve ever been to. And it’s the same basic
story - the weapons are different. Sometimes they’re on one part of the body,
sometimes on another, sometimes they’re branched, sometimes they’re curved. But
the story is basically the same. They dig these tunnels under the ground. It
could be rabbit dung or deer dung, or elephant dung, or giraffe dung or cow
manure but the beetles are still going to fly into the food source. They’re
still going to dig a tunnel into the ground underneath.

The males are probably still going to fight over the entrance to that tunnel.
I’ll be willing to bet you there are small sneak males that are still going to
try to get into that tunnel on the fly. And you have this whole interesting
dynamic, rich, behavioral system, taking place underground in every one of
these habitats, on every one of these types of food sources.

GROSS: Tell us about one of your greatest adventures searching for dung beetles
around the world.

Dr. EMLEN: Sure. There actually are a number, you wouldn’t think that
collecting dung beetles would be that adventurous but the truth might surprise
you. So we have taken dug out canoes into the lowland forests of Ecuador
searching for beetles. And we’ve sloshed through flooded pastures with leeches
and wallabies in Australia. But the most common source of sort of danger or
adventure collecting beetles is actually bulls. And if you can imagine we spend
a lot of time in cow pastures. Well there’s a lot of bulls in these pastures.
And I think I can say that I have been charged full out by bulls on five
different continents now and treed by them on three.

So we even had one time where I was charged by a cape buffalo in Africa. We had
permits to collect beetles in the Serengeti. And they don’t normally like you
to get out of your vehicles in the Serengeti but in this case they were willing
to help us to try to get the beetles. And we had armed guards standing on the
roofs of the vehicles spotting for us to make sure that the cape buffalo didn’t
get too close. And we were out there diligently poking away and trying to find
the beetles in the Serengeti and they were calling out the distances - 100
meters, 90 meters, 80 meters, 70, 50 run. And they would – and we would grab
everything and leap back into the vehicle and get past there without getting
charged by the cape buffalo, too close for comfort. But yeah, that was probably
the most hair-raising opportunity to collect beetles.

GROSS: Do the guards think you’re kind of crazy risking - taking risks like
this to collect dung beetles?

Dr. EMLEN: They do. I have to say that’s one of the pleasant side effects of
this type of an occupation is that I often have to go out into places and
introduce myself to complete strangers, to ask permission to collect on their
land or in this case to ask the guards if they’d be willing to help us collect
in the Serengeti. And they always want to sit down and talk to you about where
you’re from and what you do. And you meet some wonderful people that way but I
think – I think more than a few of them thought we are a little bit nuts.

GROSS: So you have traveled around the world collecting dung beetles. Have you
ever been surrounded by more dung beetles than you cared to?

Dr. EMLEN: Yes. And that would definitely have been in Africa. There is no
place quite like Africa for dung beetles. And we’d heard about the numbers of
beetles that you can encounter but I until I actually saw it first hand it was
pretty hard to imagine. So it was actually the same trip in the Serengeti where
we had the armed guards and we were trying not to get charged by the cape

We happened across elephant dung in the road, and I realize normal people don’t
do this, but we hopped out of the car and collected the elephant dung in a
Tupperware bin and brought it back to the campground where we were staying that
evening. And I remember with the bunch of the students we all had headlights on
and we set out to the edge of camp and placed the elephant dung out on the
ground to see what we could find. And I sat there with my clipboard, trying to
take notes on the beetles that came in and the beetles started coming in faster
and faster and faster.

And pretty quickly it was impossible to see anything because there were all
buzzing and circling around our headlights and then a couple of minutes later
they were starting to pour out of the sky so fast that I couldn’t even take
notes on my clipboard because my clipboard was covered with literally an inch
of solid beetles. They were going down our necks. They were in our hair. They
were in our faces and finally by the end, this sounds like an exaggeration, but
it’s not, it was as if somebody stood over us with a bucket full of beetles and
poured it steadily out on top.

The beetles absolutely covered absolutely covered the elephant dung – tens,
probably hundreds of thousands of them came within minutes and we were utterly

GROSS: So different dung beetles feed on different kinds of dung. Now I
understand in Australia they actually had to import a certain kind of dung
beetle because they needed it and there weren’t any anymore or weren’t enough.

Dr. EMLEN: That’s true. So Australia has an interesting and rich native fauna
of dung beetles. So there’s a number of native species that are there, many of
which have really cool horns incidentally. But the problem that Australia had
was that when they clear cut a lot of the forests to create space for cattle,
which was an important part of the economic development in Australia, it turned
out that all of the native dung beetle species were specialists of forests.

And none of their native species would cross that barrier and sort of move from
the woods out into the open. And from a beetle’s perspective out in the open in
the sun and a pasture is a very, very different environment then in the shade
of a forest and so they had this problem of tons and tons of cattle and just
obscene amounts of cow manure and no native beetles that were bearing it. And
so the cow - I’ve seen photographs of pastures in Australia that are literally
cow pat, to cow pat, to cow pat as far as the eye can see - just nonstop.

And what happened was they started getting flies that were sort of pest flies
that went ballistic in this food source and were driving everybody crazy. And
so Australia did a really good job of researching this problem. They went to
Africa and to Europe, and they researched dung beetle species and found species
that only lived in pastures. And they had this test, I mean, they basically
tried to only find species that would not go into the woods. They would stay
only in the pastures. And they picked these species and they bred them in
captivity and then they had to do all these sort of quarantine procedures to
bring them into Australia.

And then they bred them in captivity in Australia and they did controlled
releases of these beetles. And it’s taken – it’s been a success. They now have
a number of species that are very well established that bury the dung in
pasture habitats. And because they went for that extra step of incorporating
the biology of these beetles and finding species that didn’t go into the woods
that the introduced species have not, as far as I know, replaced or driven
extinct any of the native species.

GROSS: Now you have described how dung beetles live, you know, largely
underneath dung patties but don’t some dung beetles actually live on the butts
of animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EMLEN: Yes. So, again the dung beetles have diversified incredibly and part
of that diversity has to do with specializing on different types of dung or
different types of food. And there are beetles in the same genus - the same
group that we talked about, the 2,000 species worldwide - there are species
that have been described that are specialists for either koala dung or sloth
dung. And in these cases, these are animals that move very slowly and they bury
their dung. They’ll climb down to the bottom of a tree and dig a horn and bury
their dung underground.

If you can be at the right place at the right time, that’s fantastic. It’s a
great way to have your food, have it buried on top of you and have all your
eggs develop without any competition because nobody else finds it. And so what
these beetles do is they actually ride around on the animals and they have
specialized hooks on their legs that help them cling to the fur and they cling
basically near the rear end of these animals. And they ride with the koala or
with the sloth and when these animals go to the bathroom they hop off, go lay
their eggs and climb back on again and wait for the next time. So it is true.
Dung beetles do some pretty amazing things.

GROSS: My guest is Doug Emlen. He is the biology professor at the University of
Montana. We’ll talk more about his work studying dung beetles after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Sounbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us my guest is Doug Emlen. And we’re talking
about his work as a biologist who studies dung beetles. And he studies dung
beetles because they have bizarre forms, because they have armor, they have
horns and antlers and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …all kinds of surprising things. But my impression of the beetles that
you study based on the enlarged photos that I have seen is that they look
really prehistoric because of the antlers and the armor and the pincers and
the, you know, the horns – all the assorted weaponry. Are they prehistoric? Do
they date back to the same era as the dinosaurs?

Dr. EMLEN: They do. There’s reasonably – well, so if you use the types of tools
that I alluded to a little while ago to reconstruct the history of these
beetles. There are a number of studies now that have come up with pretty solid
dates for how old these groups of animals are. So the dung beetles that we
talked about so far, we spent most of our time talking about the group of dung
beetles that I said are 2,000 species in it, that genus or that group of
beetles we think dates back about 40 million years.

But that group of dung beetles is related to other dung beetles that date back
further than that. And those beetles shared a common ancestor with the
rhinoceros beetles, maybe a 150 million years ago. And so we definitely are
talking about groups of these horned beetles that go back as far as the
dinosaurs. And there is fairly compelling evidence that they were dung beetles
back then in the sense that there are fossil coprolite, or scat, from dinosaurs
that have burrows in them that resemble the burrows that we see made by present
day dung beetles.

So it’s circumstantial evidence at the moment but the histories that we
reconstruct using molecular evidence, or using the sequences of DNA, also
suggests that these lineages of beetles go back that far. So yes, I’d be
willing to bet that there were beetles digging around underneath the dung of
Tyrannosaurus rex or many of the other dinosaurs, the ceratopsids is for
example, which also have really cool weapons like triceratops and
styracosaurus. I’ll bet you there were dung beetles crawling around under there
and I’ll bet you that beetles had horns too.

They probably did something not too different from what they do in people’s
backyards today – dug tunnels into the ground and fought over those tunnels
with their weapons.

GROSS: So you’ve studied these beetles and they’re really fascinating. How
tolerant are you of insects that we regard as pests? Like, if you have ants or
cockroaches that you find in your home, are you going to be fascinated by them
or do you – do you want to just get rid of them as soon as possible?

Dr. EMLEN: Here is where I’m going to get in trouble with the pesticide
industry. I actually would never spray for those things in my house because
teaching entomology has taught me a great deal about the neurological and
carcinogenic side effects of many of the things that we use to kill insects.
So, the answer is I love just about all kinds of insects although cockroaches
are an interesting one. Even most of the entomologists I knew don’t like
cockroaches, although they have amazing diversity in their parental care
behavior. There’s species where they carry the young around on their backs.

There’s species of cockroaches that have the equivalent of a pregnancy. They
actually will nurse their young, their eggs inside their bodies until they
hatch. So it’s a long developmental period inside their bodies and then when
they hatch they have glands on their body that they feed these young with,
which is just like nursing in humans. So cockroaches do some interesting
things. And no I don’t kill cockroaches.

There are a few types of spiders that I will squash with a paper towel and
that’s only because there’s a chance that they have a necrotic bite, a
dangerous bite, and we’ve got young kids and I don’t take that chance. So if it
looks like a hobo spider, I’ll squash it. Otherwise everything else in our
house lives.

GROSS: So, let me ask you, you said that, you know, entomologists who study
insects are more negative about cockroaches and other insects, so even
entomologists don’t like cockroaches. I certainly empathize…

Dr. EMLEN: I’m going to get in trouble for saying that…

GROSS: …they have my full support in this.

Dr. EMLEN: as I’m there are exceptions in everything.

GROSS: …but why do you think that even entomologists don’t like cockroaches?

Dr. EMLEN: I shouldn’t have said that. I’m already going to regret it. But I
knew – I know several entomologists that they have not liked cockroaches. For
one thing many, many people are allergic to cockroaches. They have – basically
cockroaches developing in your house or in a building, shed their cuticle,
their skeleton and their skin as the molt as they grow. And they also have
(unintelligible) or feces that they produce and these have chemical residues
on them that many, many people are allergic to. And, I mean, I hate to say this
on record but you’d be hard pressed to find any building probably in this
country that’s not infested with cockroaches at some level or another.
Certainly all public buildings, they’re - it’s impossible to keep these things
completely gone. And what happens is then the shed pieces of cuticles and frass
get picked up in the air duct systems of these buildings and dispersed around
the buildings.

And a lot of people suspect now that may be a major trigger for asthma, one of
the causes of asthma because so many people are allergic to or sensitive to
cockroaches. I can tell you an anecdotal story about that if you’d like…

GROSS: Please.

Dr. EMLEN: …that is sort of - okay. It’s peripheral to what we’ve been talking
about but when I was an undergraduate, I was hugely influenced by a professor
of mine, a biologist and entomologist named George Ichor(ph), one of the
greatest entomologists I ever met. And I remember driving across the country
with him when I was a college undergraduate. He was an advisor to me. I was
doing research out at a place called The Rocky Mountain Lab in Colorado. And we
had to keep going way out our way - this was in the late ‘80s, this is before
there was a Starbucks on every corner and you can get really good coffee.

And he was fiercely addicted to caffeine - to coffee. And we’d have to drive
way off the interstate to go find good coffee in that day. I mean, we’d go 45
minutes off our route to go find a place that had whole bean fresh ground
coffee. And I remember giving him a really hard time because we were wasting a
lot of travel time trying to feed his addiction because he need a coffee every
couple of hours. And he finally explained to me he had to drink only sort of
whole bean fresh ground coffee. And it was because of cockroaches. There’s a
point to this story which is that he found out the hard way from teaching
entomology year after year after year, handling cockroaches - people used
cockroaches as the lab rat for entomology labs - he got really badly allergic
to them. So, he couldn’t even touch cockroaches without getting an allergic
reaction. And because of that he couldn’t drink pre-ground coffee. And it
turned out when he looked into it that pre-ground, you know, your big bulk
coffee that you buy in a tin, is all processed from these huge stock piles of
coffee. These piles of coffee, they get infested with cockroaches and there’s
really nothing they can do to filter that out. So, it all gets ground up in the


Dr. EMLEN: …and he was actually allergic to pre-ground coffee because of that
sort of spin off from having handled them teaching entomology for all those

GROSS: Oh I don’t know what to say, thank you for that marvelous insight.

Dr. EMLEN: You may not want to put that on the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EMLEN: For better or worse.

GROSS: Oh, that’s really upsetting.

Dr. EMLEN: That is a true story. That according to this professor and how he
related to me and we wasted many, many hours trying to find basically fresh
ground whole bean coffee so that he didn’t have to have an allergic reaction to
the pre-ground.

GROSS: Is there any other evidence besides this one person that there’s…

Dr. EMLEN: Oh, there is.

GROSS: Yeah.

Dr. EMLEN: This isn’t my forte but I looked into it a little bit because I tell
that story in my entomology classes. Technically speaking, if I’m not mistaken,
the FDA regulates the percent by dry weight of food stuffs like this that can
be ground insect parts and make sure that it doesn’t end up being too much of
the total.

GROSS: Thank you.

Dr. EMLEN: And it’s small, it’s a trace amount. Chocolate incidentally is the
other one that - if you think of these huge piles of beans, of cocoa beans, all
piled up that then gets ground up in to something we all love and eat.

GROSS: Glad I asked, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, Doug Emlen, thank you so much for talking with us about the
beetles that you’ve been studying.

Dr. EMLEN: Oh thank you. It’s been my pleasure too.

GROSS: Doug Emlen is a biology professor at the University of Montana. You can
find a slideshow of dung beetles and video of two beetles in combat on our Web
site where you can also download podcasts of our show. Coming
up, a Detroit label that got started in the ‘60s, recorded soul music and
wasn’t Motown. Ed Ward tells the story of Westbound Records. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Westbound Records: The Sounds Of Detroit


Detroit in the late 1960s was a hotbed of talent. From the rock groups playing
the Grande Ballroom to the soul talent vying for a deal with Motown, to
numerous jazz groups at lounges all over town. But when Motown moved to
California in 1971, all of this talent was left with nowhere to record. Today,
Ed Ward tells the story of Westbound Records which, in its eccentric way, did
its best to document black music as it changed in Detroit.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD: Armen Boladian was driving westbound on Eight Mile Road one day in
1968 when the name came to him. Ever since he’d been a high school student,
he’d been making records. But now he was going to get serious and keep a label
going, and Westbound just felt right. Now he could put a name on the records by
the group he was sure was going to turn things upside down.

Funkadelic was the band behind the Parliaments, a vocal group signed to
Revilot, a label that was in severe financial trouble. The Parliaments’ leader,
George Clinton, was restless. The songs he’d been selling to Motown didn’t get
cut, and he had ideas he wanted to record. So he signed Funkadelic to Boladian,
and sure enough, in time they had a hit.

(Soundbite of song, “I Bet You”)

Mr. GEORGE CLINTON (Lead Singer, Funkadelic): (Singing) Woo-ooh! Ice cubes on a
red hot stove will melt, and I bet you. A drowning man’s very first words is
help, I bet you. If you bet on a horse and the horse don’t win, you lose and I
bet you. If you try to sit on air, you’re gonna fall, and I bet you. If you
want a winning hand, if you want a perfect man.

WARD: “I Bet You” was only a top 20 soul hit, but it was so unlike the other
music coming out of Detroit that it attracted the right people, Funkadelic
wouldn’t be a hit-making machine for another ten years, but meanwhile their
albums on Westbound were staples in the dorm rooms of hip black college

One thing Boladian knew was that radio people could help you find a hit. And he
was lucky to have a good working relationship with Martha Jean “the Queen”
Steinberg, program director of CKLW, in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from
Detroit. Martha Jean was from a distinguished black Memphis music family – her
brother Lewis had been Booker T and the MGs’ first bassist – and in 1971 she
told Boladian that Willie Mitchell, a Memphis bandleader, was becoming a
producer and needed a label. One listen to the master Mitchell was trying to
sell convinced him, and Denise LaSalle gave Westbound its first number one

(Soundbite of song, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”)

Ms. DENISE LASALLE (Singer): (Singing) Somebody tell me what has this man got?
He makes me feel what I don’t wanna feel. Somebody tell me what has this man
got? He makes me give what I don’t wanna give. On solid ground. I feel myself
sinking fast, I grab a hold, but I don’t think it’s gonna last. I’m slowly
losin’ my ground, slowly sinkin’ down. Trapped by this thing called love. Ooh

WARD: The record made Willie Mitchell enough for him to get to work in the
studio with a young singer he’d discovered named Al Green. Westbound was smart
to look out of town for talent, it was something few regional labels did.
Dayton, Ohio isn’t far from Detroit, but far enough that the Ohio Untouchables,
a band based there, knew they were being overlooked. Changing their name to the
Ohio Players, they mixed blues, gospel, and a new kind of music being
championed by Sly Stone and James Brown called funk. Westbound knew about funk,
and signed them.

(Soundbite of song, “Pain”)

Mr. WALTER JUNIE MORRISON (Lead Singer, The Ohio Players): (Singing) Pain is in
my heart. (unintelligible). Baby tell me, tell me, tell me, how it feels.

WARD: “Pain” wasn’t a huge hit, and the Players biggest success would come
later on Mercury, but once again Westbound showed its experimental bent. The
biggest innovation for the label caught it by surprise. The Detroit Emeralds
were a standard three-piece vocal group with a decent track record for the
label, when they released this record in 1972.

(Soundbite of song, “Feel the Need”)

Mr. ABRIM TILMON (Lead Singer, Detroit Emeralds): (Singing) See how I’m
walkin’, see how I’m talkin’. Notice ev’rything in me. Feel the need, oh feel,
feel the need in me. I need you by my side…

WARD: It didn’t get a lot of airplay. But it suddenly started selling like
crazy, particularly in Boston, where it had caught fire in a new institution,
gay discotheques. A producer named Tom Moulton had done an unauthorized remix,
extending the song’s length. And now Westbound found itself in the disco
business, with hits by Dennis Coffey and CJ & Company following over the years.
One of the most remarkable records Westbound issued in the mid-‘70s was a
failure, but not because of its quality.

(Soundbite of song, “Alvin Stone: The Birth and Death of a Gangster”)

Mr. JAMES EPPS (Lead Singer, Fantastic Four): (Singing) Alvin wasn’t out of
knee pants good. Before he was running wild. As far as we could see back. He
was always a problem child. They said Alvin was born and raised. He was raised
from a bad, bad seed. One more? In this ghetto. Is the one thing that we don’t
need. Talking bout Alvin Stone…

WARD: “Alvin Stone” by the Fantastic Four was nothing more or less than a rock
opera crammed into six minutes and 46 seconds, telling of the rise and fall of
a black gangster. It was way ahead of its time and makes fascinating listening
today. Besides disco, another thing that had kept Westbound afloat was gospel
music. And that’s where it got its last national hit in 1983.

(Soundbite of music, “You Brought the Sunshine”)

Ms. ANN CLARK (Singer, The Clark Sisters): (Singing) You brought the sunshine.
You brought the sunshine. In my life. Threw out the lifeline. Threw out the
lifeline. You brought the sunshine. To save my life. Threw out the lifeline.
Since then I have known Christ. There has been such a change in my life. Uh-
huh. You made my day…

Ms. JEAN CLARK (Singer, The Clark Sisters): (Singing) You brought the sunshine.
You brought the sunshine. In my life. Threw out the lifeline. Threw out the
lifeline. You brought the sunshine. To save my life. Threw out the lifeline.
Since then I have known Christ. There has been such a change in my life. Uh-
huh. You made my day…

Ms. PEGGY CLARK (Singer, The Clark Sisters): (Singing) You brought the
sunshine. You brought the sunshine. In my life. Threw out the lifeline. Threw
out the lifeline. You brought the sunshine. To save my life. Threw out the
lifeline. Since then I have known Christ. There has been such a change in my
life. Uh-huh. You made my day…

Ms. MARY CLARK (Singer, The Clark Sisters): (Singing) You brought the sunshine.
You brought the sunshine. In my life. Threw out the lifeline. Threw out the
lifeline. You brought the sunshine. To save my life. Threw out the lifeline.
Since then I have known Christ. There has been such a change in my life. Uh-
huh. You made my day…

WARD: The Clark Sisters were part of a Detroit gospel family that went back to
the 1930s. And the danceable rhythm of “You Brought the Sunshine” made it a
huge club hit. Times had certainly changed since that drive down Eight Mile.
And Boladian pulled back from the national scene, content to record gospel and
license reissues of his back catalog, which he continues to do today.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. All the music he played is
collected on the CD “The Original Eight Mile: Westbound Records 40th
Anniversary” on Ace Records. I’m Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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