Environment Magazine

Dung Beetles: Celestial Navigators

Posted on the 31 January 2013 by Earth First! Newswire @efjournal

by Russ McSpadden

In a world where magic is endangered, the starry-eyed dung beetle is a beacon of hope. 

According to new research, these charming excrement-obsessed scarabs, with brains no bigger than a grain of rice, observe the stars—and more specifically, the Milky Way—to navigate through the night. O yes, its with a map of the heavens, as though an ancient mariner on a vast ocean, that the dung beetle and its nourishing mierda make their way.

drawing by Rebecca Rankin

illustration by beck

“Dung is a precious resource for food,” says Eric Warrant, an Australian biologist who worked on the team that made the discovery, “and male beetles invest much energy and time in creating and rolling a ball that will be used by a female to lay her egg within.”

As you can imagine, its extremely important that male dung beetles roll that BM ball in the straightest possible path away from the pile—and other male beetles intent on pilfering their poo—to a secure burying location. After mating, that fecal booty will serve as breakfast, lunch and dinner for tiny and disgustingly adorable dung beetle babies. It’s a matter of sex, parenthood and survival.

Previous research has shown that dung beetles use other celestial cues, such as the moon and the polarized light of the sun, which human eyes cannot detect, to guide them. But the new landmark study, published in Current Biology, offers the first evidence of star mapping in insects and, astonishingly, the first evidence of Milky Way mapping in any animal.

And that “dance” that dung beetles are known to do atop their ball? They are checking celestial cues! It’s an orientation dance.


Beetle with cap by Marcus Byrne

So what does this mean to you, besides the pure joy of knowing that dung beetles dance on dung balls while watching the stars or, if you’re an entomologist, that the body of knowledge on dung beetle physiology and behavior has just expanded?

I can only offer these three insights. Take them as you will.

1. In a world of handheld GPS, Google maps and the star-stealing light pollution caused by urban sprawl, most humans have long lost the ability to get about by way of the night sky. A growing number of us, long lost descendents of a rather sophisticated star-mapping species, live in an environment where stars effectively cease to exist at all. It’s high time we figure a way to bring the stars back to the night in order that we might steer our selves, like the dung beetle, a little more righteously. I’m sure you can find a way.

2. The next time you look up at the vastness of the stars and ponder your place in the heavens, rest assured that you my friend are not alone, for the dung beetle is also pondering its place, and the place of its precious, precious dung ball, in this very wild and weird universe. Do take comfort in that.

3. When life gives you a load of crap, do as the dung beetle does, gather it up and roll with it.

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Beetle + Milky Way by Emily Baird (Text added)

Beetle + Milky Way by Emily Baird (Text added)

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