10 Fascinating Facts: Dung Beetles

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A game drive at a Wilderness Safaris camp is typically much more about seeing lion, wild dog and buffalo. However, it is also about the smaller creatures in the animal kingdom which all play a very important role in making sure that the ecosystem stays intact…

One such “smaller” contributor is the dung beetle, an insect that is not afraid of doing the dirty work…

Rollers, tunnellers, dwellers and stealers...
One can classify dung beetles into four broad categories. The first group – the rollers – will roll dung into round balls for use as food or a source in which the females can lay their eggs. The second group is known as tunnellers. This group buries their dung where they find it. The third group, called the dwellers, do not roll or burrow, they simply live in the manure. The final group, a bunch of lazy beetles, will steal dung balls from the rollers and are known as stealers.
Freshly rolled dung ball by Carel Loubser

An ancient Greek fable...
The storyteller, Aesop (believed to have lived in ancient Greece around 600 BCE) tells the story of “The Dung Beetle and the Eagle”. Despite the appeals of the beetle, the eagle killed a hare. To take revenge on the eagle, the beetle destroyed the eagle’s eggs. In despair, the eagle visited Olympus and asked Zeus to look after its latest eggs by placing them in Zeus’s lap. When the beetle realised what the eagle has done, he stuffed himself with dung and flew into the face of Zeus. This startled Zeus and in the process he jumped to his feet and dropped the eggs. After an explanation from the beetle, and realising that the eagle had ignored the pleas of the beetle, Zeus instructed the eagle and the beetle to stay away from each other. To ensure that the beetle would now leave the eagle’s eggs alone, Zeus changed the breeding season of the eagle to a period when beetles are not above ground.

Creatures with superhuman strength...
On average dung beetles can roll a ball of dung 50 times their own weight. One specific species can pull a dung ball 1,141 times their body weight. This is equivalent to a human pulling six double-decker buses full of people…

Dung beetles are very specific on what poop they eat...
Most dung beetles will only eat the dung of a particular animal, or types of animals. They will simply not touch the poo of other animals. Australian dung beetles refuse to process the dung of the introduced horses, sheep and cattle that “covered” the Australian Outback. These beetles from Down Under prefer kangaroo poo and refuse to clean up after the foreigners. To counter this, Australia had to introduce beetles that were adapted to eating cattle, sheep and horse dung before things finally went back to normal.
Photo by Dave Kennedy

Hitching a ride...
Two “rolling” beetles, a male and a female, will roll and bury a ball of dung for food storage or to make a brood ball. The male is normally tasked with rolling the ball with the female often hitching a ride on the ball. When they reach a soft spot in the soil they will bury the ball and mate underground. After preparing the ball, the female will lay eggs inside the ball. Some species will stay behind to safeguard their offspring; others will leave the eggs to hatch, with the larvae feeding on the dung.
Male and female dung beetles by Dave Kennedy

How to find poop...
Dung beetles prefer fresh dung which they find using their sensitive sense of smell. The fresher the dung, the easier it is to find and form their balls. Within minutes of a herbivore dropping their dung, the beetles will move in. 4,000 dung beetles have been observed arriving at a fresh pile of elephant dung within 15 minutes. Shortly after, they were joined by an additional 12,000 dung beetles.

Dung beetles will use the wind to pick up the smell of fresh dung by flying backwards and forwards across the moving air. As soon as they locate the scent they will follow it upwind until they find the source.
Various species of dung beetle fly in and start a free-for-all to make dung balls by Dave Kennedy

Environmentally friendly...
If it weren’t for beetles, dung would harden and cover the ground. Grass and other plants would find it very difficult to grow. Beetles also assist in fertilising the ground by breaking up and burying the dung.

Dung balls to cool off...
Studies show that dung beetles use their dung balls to cool off. During the hotter periods of the day it has been observed that they will climb on top of their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. When scientists put silicone “shoes” on the dung beetles, it was observed that they took fewer breaks and managed to push their ball for longer. Thermal imaging also shows that the dung balls are considerably cooler than the surrounding environment, most likely due to their moisture content.

Dung beetles and the Milky Way...
Scientists have known for some time that dung beetles move in straight lines away from dung piles. This they manage by detecting a symmetrical pattern of polarised light that appears around the sun. Humans are not able to see this pattern, but many insects can, due to the special photoreceptors in their eyes.

But it was not known how beetles use visual cues at night – like the moon and its much weaker polarised light patterns. During a study observing the nocturnal African dung beetle scientists realised that the beetle could still roll a ball in a straight line, even on moonless nights. They came to the conclusion that the beetles must be using the stars. Further studies have confirmed this theory.

Quick dung beetle numbers
- 800 species in South Africa
- 2,000 species in Africa
- 6,000 species in the world

During your next safari, take some time to observe these little creatures playing an important role in the ecosystem.

Photos by Dave Kennedy & Carel Loubser

You can clearly see the dung lining surrounded by a thick casing of soil and grit by Dave Kennedy

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By Carel Loubser

Carel is the digital manager at Wilderness Safaris. Even though he spends most of his time in the office he believes “a bad day in the bush is much better than a great day in the office”. With a B.Comm in Tourism Management and extensive experience working for a small tour operator in South Africa, his interest in website development and optimisation led him to his current venture within Wilderness Safaris. Over the years he has visited a number of destinations within southern Africa, allowing him to express his love for Africa’s natural beauty, bird- and wildlife through his interest in photography.

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