• Assimilable carbon;
  • C/N ratio;
  • coprophagous;
  • food exploitation;
  • nitrogen;
  • selective feeding

Abstract 1. Most adult coprophagous beetles feed on fresh dung of mammalian herbivores, confining ingestion to small particles with measured maximum diameters from 2–5 to 130 μm, according to body size and kind of beetle. This study explores benefits and costs of selective feeding in a ‘typical’ dung beetle with a maximum diameter of ingested particles (MDIP) of 20 μm.

2. Examined dung types (from Danish domestic sheep, cattle and horse, and African wild buffalo, white rhino and elephant) contained 76–89% water. Costs of a 20 μm MDIP were often low, since 69–87% of the total nitrogen in bulk dung other than that of elephant and rhino (40–58%) was available to selective feeders.

3. Nitrogen concentrations were high – and C/N ratios low – in most types of bulk dung compared with the average food of terrestrial detritivores or herbivores. Exceptions were elephant and rhino dung with low nitrogen concentrations and high C/N ratios.

4. Estimated C/N ratios of 13–39 in bulk dung (sheep–elephant) were decreased by selective feeding to 7.3–12.6 in the ingested material. In assimilated food, ratios are probably only 5–7, as most assimilable nitrogen and carbon may be of microbial origin. If so, the assimilable food contains a surplus of nitrogen relative to carbon.

5. The primary advantage of selective feeding, particularly in dung with a high C/N ratio, may be to concentrate assimilable carbon in the ingested food. Effects of changing the MDIP within 20–106 μm are modest, especially in dung with a low C/N ratio.