What could be so interesting about this bug?
On the ground below there is a hive of activity. Dung beetles climbing over emerald beetles, shifting the soil, slowly working their way through piles of droppings. Yes, just like your flatmates, no one cleans up after themselves in the bush. Luckily, the trusted dung beetle works its magic to keep nature clean and pristine. So, what do they do with all this poo?
There are four general categories of dung beetles across all species: rollers, tunnelers, dwellers and stealers.
These guys love to roll up droppings into Ferrero Rocher balls of tasty dung which they bury to feast on for later or use as a cosy spot for females to lay their eggs. Most dung beetles are pedantic about which dung they eat and only will eat dung from certain animals, such as large herbivores.
These guys are pretty lazy and will just bury the dung where they find it.
These fellows don’t bury or burrow they use these moist piles as a place to settle down.
These cheeky guys will let rollers do all the work and then steal the smooth ball right out from underneath them!
This behavior is incredibly important in ecosystems, as through the shifting of dung the beetles ensure that the over 2 ton amount of droppings (a day) gets distributed evenly across the bush and doesn’t smother the plant life.
What else do they do?
- increase nutrient cycling,
- mix manure into the soil
- plant growth enhancement (fertiliser from the manure)
- secondary seed dispersal
- control pesky dung-breeding flies: these flies only lay their eggs in fresh dung
How do they find the dung?
Dung beetles use olfactory cues to sniff out the dung. They will flying backwards and forwards in the wind until they catch scent of the dung and then will pursue the odour. They use the odour coming off of the droppings to differentiate between animals. Dung beetles prefer fresh dung and will appear within minutes of a herbivore dropping their dung.
Dung beetles primarily rely on celestial cues (sun, moon, sunlight, even the milky way!) to navigate their way around the bush. Once arriving at a dung pile and shaping the dung into a ball they will perform whats called an orientation dance. This dance involves the dung beetle climbing on top of the rolled piece of dung and they will then spin around. As they dance, the dung beetle is taking snapshots of its environment, including the stars. Due to competition at the dung pile, they will roll the ball away in a straight line (the most direct route) to avoid it being stolen by other beetles, using these cues to guide them. Once they find a suitable place they will bury the dung underground to be consumed.
Look at those muscles!
In order to roll the dung, the dung beetle will orientate itself head down and bum in the air, using it’s powerful back legs to propel the ball in a particular direction. Dung beetles have super strength and can push up to 1,141 times their body weight!
The dung beetle used to be called the ‘scarab’. These guys were incredibly important to Ancient Egyptians who believed they were responsible for rolling the sun in the sun rise and sunset.
A lone young male elephant passes the stationary vehicle, drawing our attention off the ground and back to the surrounding bush. This is worrying because he is too young to be separated from the herd.
When the path is clear we continue to drive but we are confronted by more elephants: a Mother and two calves.
We quickly reverse and turn off the vehicle as not to upset the elephants. As we sit in the vehicle we look around and discover there are other elephants behind us, to the right and the left! We realise now that the young male was not alone and we have driven into the middle of the herd.
We are surrounded!
What do you do when you are surrounded in the bush?
All will be revealed on Friday!
Relive the journey: The Journey Begins
- Knell, R. (2011) Male Contest Competition and the Evolution of Weapons, in Ecology and Evolution of Dung Beetles (eds L. W. Simmons and T. J. Ridsdill-Smith), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781444342000.ch3
- National Geographic: African Dung Beetle