Dung Beetle Brilliance.
These small, but powerful insects are true wonders in the remarkable forces and abilities of nature. They are found on all continents except for Antarctica. These insects play a key role in shaping and fertilizing the environment that they live in. When comparing their small size to their enormous capabilities it is a shock for most to learn that they are not only the worlds strongest insect, but also the worlds strongest animal! When moving balls of dung, a certain species of dung beetle can push 1141 times its own body weight. To put that into perspective for you, that is the equivalent of a human pushing almost 72,000kg or 12 adult elephants in weight.
Dung beetles fall under the family, Scarabaeidae and they are classified as insects. There are four distinct groups of dung beetles which are classified according to how they dispose and use the dung.
Endocoprids or Dwellers– These beetles lay eggs in a pile of dung, they neither roll or burrow they simply live in the manor.
Paracoprids or Tunnellers– These beetles dig down below a pile of dung
Telecoprids or Rollers– These beetles roll balls of dung that they then bury in soft soil.
Kleptocoprids or Stealers– These beetles steal the balls which are already made by Telecoprids or parasite by laying their eggs on the balls of their hosts.
Some of the key benefits to an environment with dung beetles are their contribution to the improvement of nutrient recycling and soil structure. It is well-known that animal dung is a brilliant fertilizer, the beetles quite literally dig this fertilizer back into the soil. They play a crucial part in waste removal and keeping an environment healthy and hygienic. The more animal waste that they remove and dispose, the less flies are in the area. Studies have also confirmed that they improve the soil conditions, plant growth and the dispersal of seeds. In the case of the iconic marula tree which produces its delicious fruit in late summer, the dung beetle is an ally. The fruit is eaten by a huge variety of animals but on the greatest scale by its best distributor, the elephant. The large seeds are undamaged by the elephants weak stomach process and end up strewn all over the wilderness in enormous piles of elephant fertilizer. Now, paracoprid dung beetles access the dung pile from below by creating vertical tunnels under the dung. Inevitably many seeds fall into these dung beetle tunnels and with the arrival of summer rains, they are planted and the cycle is complete. Dung beetles need elephants, elephants need marula trees and marula trees need both the beetles and the elephants, just one example of the fragile and interconnected web that makes up the natural order. In an area of Lowveld bush, it is estimated that dung beetles bury up to one metric ton of animal droppings per hectare in one year.
In the Telecoprid species the male beetle will roll a ball until it is an appropriate size and then release a pheromone that will attract a female. The two beetles will then roll the dung ball away as to avoid it being stolen by Kleptocoprids. The male will push the ball with his back feet while gripping onto the soil with his front legs while the female sits on the top of the ball clinging on- for what appears to be a very bumpy ride. The male will push the ball until it reaches a suitable place with soft soil to bury it in. Once a location has been found the female will lay her eggs in the dung ball- which then gives it the proper term of a ‘Brood Ball’. The Larvae in the center of the Brood Ball is left to develop using the dung as its food source during metamorphic process.
Studies where dung beetles were viewed with thermal imaging cameras have shown that dung balls rolled by the Telecoprids are far cooler than the environment in which the beetles live. This could be because of the moisture contained in the dung. A study showed that dung beetles could use their balls to cool off. It can also be observed that during the hottest parts of the day, some dung beetles will climb onto their balls to give their feet a break.
Scientists have known for a long time that dung beetles will move in straight lines away from the dung pile they collect from. They achieve this by detecting a symmetrical pattern of polarized light that appears around the sun. This pattern can not be seen with the human eye, however many insects can see it using the special photoreceptors in their tiny little eyes.
After another study on the African nocturnal Dung Beetle, scientists were able to confirm that dung beetles could still roll a ball along a straight line on moonless nights. They came to the conclusion that the beetles must be using the stars as a form of navigation. They were the first animal known to do so. Using the Milky way or clusters of stars, dung beetles navigate through the night.
Folklore around the dung beetle:
The scarab beetle, also known as the dung beetle in ancient Egyptian religion was a symbol of immortality, reserection, transformation and protection. It was seen as an incarnation of the sun God, Khepri.