The Super Powers of Dung Beetles

June 20, 2017

Dung beetles are the super heroes of the bush. They’re little creatures with superhuman strength and more character than most.

Africa is a land filled with valuable resources and no creature understands this better than the dung beetle. Dung beetles are not afraid of doing the dirty work, but there is more to these fascinating beetles than just being the clean-up crew of the wilderness.

The four categories of dung beetles

 1. The Rollers
The favourite and most iconic group is definitely the “rollers”. These dung beetles will roll dung into round balls for use as a food source or as a safe place for the females to lay their eggs.

 2. The Tunnelers:
The “tunnellers” will bury their dung right where they find it. They dig tunnels under the ground and fill the tunnels with the dung at different sections. They will then lay their eggs in these tunnels ensuring their offspring have enough nutritious food to enjoy as they make their way out.

 3. The Dwellers
“Dwellers”, are the lazy bunch in the family. They do not roll or burrow dung, they will simply eat and live in the dung, exactly where they found it.

 4. The Stealers
Yes, even in nature we can’t get away from this type of character. They will simply steal dung balls from the hard working “rollers”, and they don’t even feel guilty about it.

They might be small, but they are strong

If you have ever stopped to watch one of these fascinating creatures rolling a huge ball of dung backwards, you won’t need to be convinced that dung beetles are surprisingly strong. According to researchers the average dung beetle can roll a ball of dung 50 times its own weight. The strongest dung beetle is the Onthophagus tauruscan. It can pull 1,141 times its own body weight. This is equivalent to a human pulling six double-decker buses full of people!

dung-beatles

A lot of effort and expertise goes into rolling a perfectly formed and huge dung ball, which only a dug beetle can achieve.

The art of rolling a dung ball

It’s a weird thought but, the fresher the dung the better the roll. The process starts when the dung beetle collects the fresh dung and rolls it so that it forms a movable ball. The beetle’s front legs are armed with serrations to grip the ground easily assisting with more stability and control, leaving the back feet free to roll the ball. The male dung beetle will “call” his female by releasing a pheromone when the ball reaches a suitable size. She will cling to the ball as the male continues to roll in search of the perfect soft soiled spot where they can set up their home and dine there.

The ‘brood ball’

Once the appropriate soft soil is located, the pair will dig a hole, using their shovel shaped heads until it is big enough to cover the dung ball. The female then sculpts it into a pear-shape with a hollow hole in the narrow part. In that hole, she then lays her eggs, seals it up and departs to repeat this process somewhere else.  Once the egg hatches, the new born larva will be surrounded by the delicious smell and promise of nutrition from the dung, indulging in this meal before emerging from under the ground, ready to continue its legacy.

6-legged Astrologers

A dung beetle climbs to the top of its ball of dung and performs a “dance”, taking a snapshot of the stars. It’s then able to move in a straight line by matching the internally stored image of the sky with its current environment. Picture credit: Ernie Geyser

A dung beetle climbs to the top of its ball of dung and performs a “dance”.
Picture credit: Ernie Geyser

We know that the shortest distance between 2 points is in a straight line. Remarkably, so does the dung beetle. Dung beetles relocate their precious balls of poop by rolling them in straight lines. How do they do this? By following the stars. In a recent study in Sweden researchers found that the dung beetle climbs to the top of its ball of dung and performs a “dance” whereby it rotates about its vertical axis. It’s during this dance that a beetle takes its snapshot, which it stores in its brain for future reference. When the beetle starts to roll its ball of poop, it’s able to move in a straight line by matching the internally stored image of the sky with its current environment. This makes them the only known animal to use the Milky Way for navigation.

The vital role of dung beetles

It might be a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. They are small, but dung beetles play a very important role in their environments. Dung beetles assist the eco system by spreading dung to where it can be “fruitful”. When they bury their dung balls, the dung gets absorbed into the ground, acting as valuable compost. They also prevent the earth from being covered, knee-deep, in a pile of manure. Countries like Australia imported several species of dung beetle from various parts of the world to get rid of their cattle dung problem.

Dung beetles assist the eco system by spreading dung to where it can be “fruitful”. Picture credit: Ernie Geyser

Dung beetles assist the eco system by spreading dung to where it can be “fruitful”.
Picture credit: Ernie Geyser

So, next time you are on safari, look out for these amazing creatures doing what they do best. And remember that dung beetles have right of way across any road.

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Posted by tfhadmin


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